Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Another bad day of death

Leafing back through my Iraq journal when I served in the Army as a Public Affairs NCO, here's what I found for November 2, 2005 (and, yes, bits and pieces of this have found their way into Fobbit, the novel):

Today was another bad day of death.

Around 3 p.m., a personal security detachment driving along a road south of Baghdad hits an improvised explosive device—a big one.  Lately, the explosions have been getting larger, more powerful.  The terrorists are fashioning devices which detonate in two stages: one IED goes off and propels another IED into the vehicle, whereupon the second IED explodes.  In other words, they’re using an IED as a propellant for another IED, knowing the combined blast will be enough to penetrate the armored skin of our humvees and, occasionally, our Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Abrams tanks.  So, now our deaths come in clusters of twos and threes and fours, wiping out entire crews of humvees with a double-shot of fire and hot shrapnel.  In the last group of deaths, one soldier was burned so badly, they couldn’t even identify him at first.  All that remained in the passenger seat of the humvee were his boots with two charred stumps sticking out.

Today, we initially get a report of “four litter urgent.”  The medevac helicopters thump-thump-thump their way to the site south of the city.  They radio back: one of the L/Us is okay—he’s a walking wounded with a puncture wound in his calf and a hand injury; two of the others are already dead; there is no word on the fourth casualty.  Odd.  Why aren’t they accounting for him?  The Significant Activity report is vague and doesn’t get updated for quite some time.

The next thing I know, the Assistant Division Commander for Maneuver is scrambling his team to get ready to go down there and search for the body.  A few days ago, someone sent us these large, battery-powered spotlights.  They hadn’t even been broken out of the package yet.  Lieutenant Colonel W________ calls down and tells me to make sure the lights work, then get them up to the command group area ASAP.  I rip open the packages, do a quick test, then hustle the spotlights upstairs where I hand them off to Captain McK______, the ADC-M’s aide.  He’s got his flak vest on and is already panting with nervous excitement.  He and the rest of the team head out the door with urgent solemnity.

Half an hour later, we get the news: the body has been found (I don’t know what part, if any, our spotlights played in the whole affair).  It was trapped in the humvee which had overturned in a canal.

Meanwhile, I have already put out a release on the two deaths which had been confirmed by G-1 Casualty Ops.  I prepare a second release with this single death, hoping that Corps PAO won’t get confused by all these different “death releases.”

It takes a long time to extract the body from the humvee because the recovery team has come under small-arms fire during the operation.  Apache helicopters have been called in and now they hover over the site like black silhouettes of angels, firing bursts of rounds toward the ground to suppress the enemy fire.

The body isn’t recovered until about 8 p.m.  By 10 p.m., I’m still hanging around the office with the release, waiting for the official death certificate to arrive at G-1 Casualty.  Nothing can go out from our office until the soldier has been officially declared dead.  I make multiple trips down to G-1 cell, which is on the opposite end of the building, next to—appropriately enough—the chaplain’s cubicles.

Each time I go down there, the E-4 clerk at Casualty shakes his head.  “These morticians can be damned slow sometimes,” he says.

“Well, that’s okay,” I reply.  “I imagine they’ve got a set of procedures which they must follow pretty methodically.  You can’t be too careful with things like this, I’ll bet.  Wouldn’t want to pronounce the wrong person dead.”

“I suppose you’re right,” the clerk says.  “Still, they’re awfully slow at what they do.”

“I’ll be back,” I tell him.

I return another four times before I get his thumbs-up around 10:45 p.m.  Finally. I go back to my desk, punch the Send button on my email and push the death release out into the world.  I can go home now.

In all of this, there is one moment today when our spirits are temporarily lifted.

Soldiers from 6th Squadron, 8th Cavalry Regiment responded to an explosion in central Baghdad and discovered that two terrorists had blown themselves up while constructing a car bomb.  Unfortunately, they killed another civilian and set a house on fire in the process…but, still, we rejoice in the fact that the world has two fewer terrorists tonight.  I bang out a quick, almost giddy press release.  I want to use the headline “Two terrorists vie for Darwin Award.”  Lieutenant Colonel W_______ doubles over with laughter and slaps his knee, we eventually sober up and decide on “Two terrorists self-destruct while building car bomb.”

It’s wrong to take delight in death, but after all we’ve suffered this past week, can you blame us?

I imagine their last words were something like, “Abu, should I cut the blue wire or the red wire?”


  1. This is riveting stuff! Beautifully written, too. Are you going to publish your journal anytime soon?

  2. Oh, and I'm looking forward to Fobbit!

  3. Thanks, Alan. Coming from you, that means a lot.

    As for the journal, a while ago, I stood at the crossroads between fact and fiction--should I publish my war journal or take it in a more imaginative direction? The memoir road seemed pretty flat and barren ("See the public affairs NCO agonize over a paper cut! Read all about the night he clipped his toenails!"). My agent thought I should take the fiction highway, and I ultimately agreed with him. Thus, "Fobbit."