Friday, October 03, 2003

I Finally Get Hit With a Grenade in Downtown Baghdad in a Tunnel

October 3, 2003

Today was a day I will never forget all of my life. It was the day I hoped would never come. I was in a five vehicle convoy with our operations major, Major Ramirez and CPT Russo (officer in charge of the Ministry of Oil). We were going to Saddam’s Palace for a meeting at CPA (Bremer’s office) about transferring authority for Ministry of Oil security to the Iraqis. We missed our meeting.
We were in the heart of Baghdad in dense traffic trying to get to CPA.
[1] We approached an overpass and got out of our vehicles to hold up traffic until traffic in the tunnel passed and we could get through without getting stuck in the tunnel. The method used is to hold up traffic, let it push through the tunnel until clear – then we gun our engines and rush in and out of the tunnel. The point is to avoid bombs in the tunnel or falling grenades. Well today, Major Ramirez (more about him later) decided he wanted to check the entrance of the tunnel for bombs – ON FOOT! We ended up boxing ourselves in, being looked down on from above. I remember walking alongside my truck (a Hummer) going towards the tunnel. Two busses were behind me, and I was signaling them to come forward – that they didn’t need to keep so far back. They wouldn’t move though. Just a few minutes before they were close on my bumper – but all of a sudden they stopped. I waved in a friendly way to them – but they just starred back at me with an indifferent look on their faces (the passengers too). It makes you frustrated. You try so hard sometimes to be nice to these people, and some just give you a dumb look or pout. Anyways, I guess someone ran down and told them (people were all over) an attack was about to happen, or someone on the bridge signaled them. I turned around and saw fist sized rocks being thrown from above on the overpass down on CPT Russo. I automatically got behind my truck’s rear right corner, got on one knee, put my rifle on fire (for the first time ever in my time in the Army other than on the firing range), and aimed at the area where the rocks were coming from. I couldn’t believe they were throwing rocks at us! I felt betrayed – but stayed calm and kept my sights on the crowd. Then, I heard what sounded like a glass bottle break right to my left over my truck. I can’t fully explain what happened next, but just thinking about it makes me want to vomit. So I know I am suppressing some trauma deep inside. Now, hours later, I feel somewhat normal – but all the time, it was true horror for a few moments. I went to the other side of the trucks to see what was going on, when a huge blast exploded only a few feet away – right before my eyes. The POP I remember so well, the grey dust, the ringing, the echo of the pop and explosion as it went in the tunnel, the debris, and the eerie silence. In reality – it was not quiet – but all I remember following that was silence and shock, ‘Please, no second explosion! Get in the tunnel – BUT what about a bomb in the tunnel? Leaving the tunnel? No, we stay there, inside until we can call for air cover, then leave.’ (This was all happening lighting fast.) Then I looked along the wall for bombs (I thought the blast was from a roadside bomb). You felt evil descending on you like a killer ghost – as if you entered its arena, as if a phantom was dancing about you. I felt angry, I felt boxed in, I felt violated, I felt fear, death – in such a genuine and pure form one can only know from such an experience – to be the one hunted. All these thoughts and emotions happened within about 10 seconds. I knew someone was trying to kill us – I just didn’t know how elaborate their plan was. Their motivation, the drive, the hate was around me like a ghost – like Satan – like a spirit, yet the person was unseen.
‘How many casualties?!’ I yelled.
“One man down – not severe!” CPT Russo yelled as he came towards me while picking up an M16 off the pavement (one of our guys was hit in the hand by the grenade shrapnel and dropped his rifle). By now the adrenaline was rushing. There was the sound of silence – like a fog with soldiers’ yelling voices reaching through.
‘Silence – keep the silence, hold it – hold fire – silence,’ I thought. I was about to fire warning shots at the concrete wall near the rock throwers so they would run away – but gunshots would have created chaos. Silence was the key. I looked back and saw the Iraqi busses, and the people inside were crouching down – I remember seeing the driver trying to hide on his side, and the women in veils with horrified expressions fumbling around for cover. After 10 seconds, my mind was clear, and I controlled my thoughts and went on the offense. I felt duped, suckered. Sergeant Albert ran back towards me looking confused.
‘Sergeant Albert, your sector of fire is from there to there!’ I yelled at him and gestured to a section of area I needed him to scan. I placed myself so my back was at the Hummer’s bumper. ‘My sector is from here left – scan your sector!’ I yelled and took a knee again and pointed my sights at anyone who looked over the wall at us – that was enough to frighten away onlookers and identify attackers. CPT Russo ran up to me, ‘Sir! I’ve got two sectors established, we’re secure!’
“Got it T! You ready to start moving?! We’re going to cover the rear! We’ve got to go on foot!”
‘Roger, Sir! I got it!’
“GET A GRID! Send a grid up to X-Ray!” someone was yelling saying to get a grid to our command center.
“WE’RE MOVING! MOVE, MOVE! MOUNT UP!” We jumped back into our hummer and drove through the tunnel and exited on the opposite side, then had to jump off the truck again because one of the four trucks in our convoy was hit by the grenade – blowing the tire and rupturing a transmission oil line – so we had to push the damaged truck back (drive it slowly). Several of us walking, running, sprinting, in over 40 pounds of equipment, in the middle of Baghdad in the afternoon heat. I had the strength to sprint and keep going.
“GET BACK, STAY BACK!” one soldier was screaming trying to keep curious Iraqis away, some were laughing, but I kept my rifle aimed at anyone who came onto the street until they retreated. My sunglasses were off, and I was fair, but did not hesitate to point that rifle. I communicated with my facial expressions with the people though, and they seemed to understand. I wasn’t even mad at the Iraqis, not at all. I was walking backwards through this huge traffic circle downtown FULL of people – and you felt like a sitting duck. A man with his family inside his car was driving along side me at my speed walking backwards. He asked me, “BOMB?” He looked scared. I needed to keep my eyes scanning, so I looked over and gave him and his family a concerned smile,
‘Yes, a bomb.’
“Sir! I’m so sorry! We love you! We love Americans, we want you here! So bad, these people. These people are not Iraq! They are crazy! They drink! Thank you mister! Thank you!” I accepted this and nodded to him to say I understood and appreciated that. We continued to run down the street then.
“GO! GO! GO! Cover left! Watch the back!” you heard.
CPT Smalls was going between CPT Russo and me helping security – staying pretty collected. We were going to have to go another kilometer on foot, across the Tigris River on the very bridge I saw tanks on on CNN during the war. It was surreal. We started crossing the river bridge on foot – keeping traffic blocked. CPT Russo, SGT Albert and I started bounding to the rear. One would face backwards, then say “GO!” and I would turn to replace him and face backwards so he could run forward. I was sweating so much, my eyes were burning, the heat was intense. I noticed on the bridge a man walking towards me who looked like Ayatollah Khomeini, a cleric of some sort. In the midst of all this craziness, I wanted to leave a good impression on him – especially when we were most stressed or under attack. I lowered my weapon, ‘Al-Salam’ and placed my right hand over my heart. His cold, condemning face immediately disappeared through a curious, but grateful smile. Respect is so important, so undervalued, overlooked.
We finally made it to the CPA HQs entrance, exhausted – but relieved to see the U.S. soldiers at the gate. They heard the grenade explode from 1.2 kilometers away.
“Was that you who got attacked?” one private asked.
I entered the gate walking backwards so CPT Smalls and CPT Russo could run inside the camp gate. I walked in, and everyone just looked at us like we were walking dead men.

Later that night, after the attack, Conroy came in to tell me something he overheard. He heard Sweeny on the morale phone telling someone that he was in a grenade attack, and barely escaped alive. This was an absolute lie. He was never there, was never close to it. I learned to distrust Sweeny, and despise his lack of character.

[1] Coalition Provisional Authority headquartered at the Green Zone


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