Monday, November 12, 2012

Bad Days of Death (from Fobbit)

As many of you already know, Fobbit was substantially trimmed during the final editing process (excisions which, I believe, ultimately made it a better book).  Today, in observance of Veterans Day, I thought I'd share one of those passages which ended up on the cutting-room floor.  If I recall, these paragraphs were chopped from the final manuscript because the descriptions of suicide bombing and the resulting gruesome deaths were redundant.  The novel was already overloaded with the kind of sad-but-true gore we see in this scene with Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding Jr. and his boss, Lieutenant Colonel Eustace Harkleroad, the public affairs officer for the Coalition task force headquarters where they both work.  Much of this material was lifted straight from incidents which happened while I was working in a similar task force headquarters in 2005.  Like Chance Gooding, I spent a lot of my days in Baghdad in a stew of anger and sorrow, mixed with nausea.

*     *     *
The next morning, a soldier on foot patrol—a private first class from Wellsboro, Pennsylvania—kicked what looked like a piece of corrugated tin as his unit moved through a construction site. It had been hard-wired to a blasting cap and two pounds of C-4, just waiting for someone like this kid from Pennsylvania to come along with his curiosity and frustration. The PFC didn’t die right away, but Gooding later read the hospital report and it wasn’t pretty.
Diagnosis: Soldier is stable and in good condition. Soldier remains on a ventilator because his abdominal cavity is still open from his previous ex-lap. No spontaneous movement has been noted at this time.  Soldier's EKGs all returned normal and lungs are clear. Soldier had a fever of 101.2 earlier but was given Tylenol to lower his temperature. Soldier's right flank was drained and covered with a dressing. Additional Remarks: Soldier's right upper extremity has a soft cast and was elevated on a blanket. Soldier is scheduled to go to the OR this morning for washout and possible closure to his abdominal wall. Soldier will continue to be monitored for progress.  Soldier is pending air evacuation to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.

Because the soldier didn’t die (at least not in the Iraq Theater of Operations), there was no need for Gooding to go to the effort of writing and issuing a press release.  At this point, the guy was just another anecdote.  If Gooding worried about all the wounded, he’d do nothing but peck away at his keyboard all day.

Soldiers stand around a VBIED crater, 2005

On Tuesday, however, there came a bad one.  Badder than bad.  Harkleroad, nose already starting to bleed, ran into Gooding’s cubicle, calling, “Sergeant!  Check out Sig Acts right away.  Pretty big VBIED attack.  Lots of civilian casualties.”

Gooding swiveled his chair, rolled across the floor to the Secure Military Operations Grid computer and pulled up the latest Significant Activities reports.

Three Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices had been set off, one right after another, in a coordinated attack.  Dozens of people were killed in the flash-bang of an instant.  All car bombs and suicide attacks were bad, but this was a particularly heinous crime, Gooding thought, one which stood out from the run-of-the-mill attacks to which the cubicle droids in the palace had numbed themselves.  On this day, the terrorists set off the first bomb at a bus station, ripping through a crowd returning home from work.  Already-wearied workers who were being paid less in a month what most Americans made in a week didn’t even have time to flinch and recoil before they were scattered in separate ways through the flaming air.

Then, after the Iraqi Police arrived and local medics were rushing to and fro with stretchers, another bomb went off, timed to kill first responders in “a second wave.”  The explosives were concealed in a garbage can at the bus station, remotely triggered by a pair of zealous Sunnis who were watching from half a block away, waiting for the perfect surge of responders to converge on the station.

Then, as a bloody finale to their trilogy, the terrorists set off another explosion just outside the hospital’s emergency room, in another pre-planned, pre-concealed kill zone—this time buried in loose soil around a potted plant at the ambulance unloading bay.  This fireball killed three doctors, two nurses and five already broken and bleeding victims from the earlier attacks.

Never let it be said the enemy wasn’t smart, coordinated, and as detail-oriented as a wedding planner.

Two hours later, Gooding received an e-mail from one of the Combat Camera photographers who’d been on the scene, subject line: “Aftermath photos, Diyala Province.”  There were the usual pictures of Iraqis in long white robes and red-and-white-checked shumagh standing around the flaming wreckage, the barely-recognizable metal chunks of what used to be cars.  Then there was a photo that stopped Gooding short:  a pile of about twenty sandals, which no longer had owners, next to a puddle of purple-black blood.  In the e-mail, the Combat Camera soldier had written:  Final score:  Coalition Forces—0, Terrorists—43.

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