Thursday, January 01, 2004

Taking off in a Blackhawk as the Ball Drops over Times Square

January 1, 2004 1300 Baghdad International Airport

It’s New Year’s Day, and I flew into Baghdad International Airport in a Blackhawk at 0800 – right as the ball was dropping in Times Square in New York. The flight was amazing, with a stop at the former personal helipad of Saddam at his main palace along the Tigris. We had to drop some crewmen off at the 28th CAS main hospital. I never imagined I would be doing that on New Year’s. After stopping there, we continued on to BIAP. Now I am at the soldier support center relaxing a bit. I’ve got to pick up some items from division intelligence to take back to Rustimiya on a flight at 1630. I’ve done a lot already today – but the most important was calling you this morning to let you know I had a safe flight. Last night I went to bed early so I could call you at 2400 your time. At 0200 I was awoken suddenly by yelling and screaming. Sergeant Marshal got up out of bed just as I did to see what was causing all the commotion. Just then I looked at my clock and it was midnight – New Year’s in Baghdad. From our window, you can see the Baghdad skyline. “POP POP POP – THUD! POP!” Thousands of pops of AK-47 fire and larger caliber machine gun fire were suddenly erupting. Tracers were flying through the air, like red beads climbing skyward.
“Holy shit man,” Sergeant Marshal said, “you hear all that gunfire?”
‘Yeah, it’s unreal,’ I said.
“That’s a lot of firepower. They could have gotten rid of Saddam if they wanted to. Hopefully they’ll shoot off all their ammo. Man, makes me want to go upstairs on the roof and pop off a few rounds!”
I was even tempted to get my camcorder out and record it all, but it was dangerous to get on the roof when so many rounds were going off. I stared out the window at the sky lit up by tracers and flares and explosions and popping and cracking gunfire. I lay down and thought, ‘all is well as long as they keep those guns pointed skyward.’ Then I fell asleep.
A little while longer, I woke back up to call you at New Year’s, your time. I called and was so happy to hear your voice! So we got to spend New Years together in our own way. You were at Hans-Jurgen’s with the family. It was good to hear everyone say hello. I miss you so much. Yesterday I was walking and suddenly felt emotional about missing you. That happens, there is a sudden surge of sorrow and longing that you can’t repress, but it surfaces for a few unforeseen seconds and you hold back tears. I love you Nora. I love you Nora, and there remains only one holiday – Valentine’s Day – to go until I get home. It’s going by fast. I need to catch up on events of the 28th of December.
Sergeant Siegel and I were sitting in the kitchen eating breakfast when I heard a frantic voice on the radio scream, “WE’VE BEEN HIT! 15 CASUALTIES!!” I tore out of the kitchen into the radio room and looked at SPC Nixon.
‘GET SOME PAPER!’ The TOC was erupting in yells.
“GET THE COLONEL (LTC Jagger)!” CPT Smalls yelled. I confirmed the casualties. It was an IED.
“WE’VE GOT 1 KIA, 1KIA!” came screaming on the radio.
‘Shit,’ I thought.
“T, go get the colonel, I’ve got the radios!” Sergeant Siegel said. I took off. I looked for the colonel, but couldn’t find him. So I looked into Major Stanton’s room.
“Yes,” he said when I knocked on the door.
‘Sir,’ I said seriously, ‘Apache just got hit with an IED. 14 casualties.’ I didn’t mention the KIA. He got up from behind his desk and came into the TOC.
“Knight 6 (the LTC) is probably in the internet café.” Sergeant Siegel and I went (ran) over to the second floor of Apache’s HQs where the internet room is. I saw LTC Jagger sitting behind a computer and realized he had no idea about the bad news we were about to give him. We lost our first soldier. But we still didn’t tell him. The first report said the KIA was from the ICDC, but it was still unsure. I ran back into the TOC.
“We’ve got Valentino going into shock!” The screams on the radio were terrifying. The commander of Apache got on the radio,
“I know you’ve got one KIA, but calm down, we’re sending medivac!”
“We need a fucking helicopter, we need air medivac!! AIR MEDIVAC!” the soldier was screaming – begging for an air medivac. It was a foggy, eerie day, and no air evac was available. All was grey and visibility was only about 100 meters.
“There’s no air medivac available, it’s too cloudy,” the battle captain said. “We’ve got field ambulances on the way!”
“WE NEED AIR EVAC!” the soldier said again, in denial that he wouldn’t get help from aviation. He asked again for air evac, but we continued to say it wasn’t available. “I’ve got a damn soldier in shock!” There’s nothing more we could do but coordinate the ground evac. We started getting more info, and I was tracking units on the map and passing critical info to the colonel while he was trying to get a hold of Colonel Leroux (the regimental commander).
“Well, tell Colonel Leroux I’ve got something important that just happened he needs to know about,” LTC Jagger said and then paused. “Well, I’ve got something more important than a training meeting going on…” he said after being told COL Leroux was busy.
I got confirmation from the Apache first sergeant on the casualties. 1 dead, PFC Santos, 2 critical. One with a tore up leg and one with a punctured lung. One with a torn up shoulder. All U.S. soldiers. 8 ICDC wounded, but no Iraqis critically. 2 dead Iraqi boys, torn to bits by the explosion while waiting for a ride to school.
We needed to get these casualties to our field hospital – but traffic was completely backed up on the bridge. The bridge was the one I talked about earlier that the bolts had been taken off of. The bridge was blown by the Saddam Fedayeen during the war and a temporary span was emplaced by the Seabees. The two lane, low flow temporary bridge was heavily used and a point of congestion. We needed to get casualties across the bridge – but it would prove difficult during rush hour. The scouts were dispatched, along with several other vehicles to assist the casualties and clear traffic on the bridge. Sergeant Major Sanders was on the way.
I went over to Knight 6 and told him quietly, ‘Sir, one KIA – U.S., 2 critical – possible punctured lung, one bleeding heavily from wounds. 1 torn shoulder, 8 ICDC wounded.’ He nodded and wrote down the numbers. One interpreter was wounded too, and he seemed to be going into shock. I didn’t know it at the time, but the translator was my friend Emgin. I just congratulated him too on his new job as a translator (he’d been a fighter pilot in the Iraqi Air Force before the war – then a general laborer for us, and an Iraqi police candidate). He opted out of IP training to work with our civil affairs for $15 a day. For some reason, he went out on a mission with Apache this morning. He doesn’t even work for them.
“We told him not to go out with Apache this morning,” Murphy said to me later that day. He works with civil affairs. Emgin was doing really well, climbing the ladder of success again, and always appreciative and proud when I congratulated him on his new jobs. Now he had glass in his eyes and several lacerations.
On our television, CNN and FOX news were already reporting the attack before we’d even had our casualties all back to camp. The ambulances weren’t on site yet, and it had been some time. Later I found out what happened.
“We were sitting at the camp gate, and the ambulances pulled up. Before I could tell them to follow us out the gate to the attack site, they started driving off following some truck! They were following the wrong truck!” Sergeant Lilly said from the scouts. So the three ambulances went off following this random truck they thought was their escort. “I tried to stop the trucks, I was flashing my lights, honking my horn – but they wouldn’t stop. I had to drive around camp until they finally stopped!” So, Sergeant Lilly got the ambulances organized again and then went out of the gate.
Meanwhile, another scout section was on the bridge doing everything to clear the bridge of traffic. Some Hummers had to push and ram cars out of the way. Guns were pointed, placed on “fire” at times because the Iraqis wouldn’t move (even when there was enough room). Scouts were on the bridge banging cars and pointing barrels into windows for the extra fear effect. After a lot of frustration and chaos, the bridge was cleared. CSM Sanders carried Santos’ body and placed him in a Hummer. Later, SSG Lawson recalled:
“I didn’t think he would make it. It looked like he was about to lose it… the…well, the look on his face…I can’t even describe.” Sergeant Lawson arrived at the attack scene a little time after it occurred. “We pulled up, and I thought, ‘This is bad.’ One of the sergeants was walking around dazed, starring ahead, like a zombie. It was horrible, lots of blood. There were two boys’ dead bodies in a ditch next to the explosion site. The translator got glass in his eyes, he was going into shock when I got there.”
I hated to hear that. I can’t imagine him going into shock! It was Emgin’s first day at work as a translator. It didn’t make sense. PFC Briant was also wounded. The TOC was stirring and after everything died down and the dead and wounded were evacuated (the sun came out and the wounded were taken from our field surgery hospital, where the people from the U.N. attack were taken on our camp, and flown to the main Army hospital at Saddam’s palace). Of course, the sun came out too late for that frantic voice on the radio – I’ll never forget. A voice of disbelief, of terror, of pain. I just couldn’t believe we’d lost a man. When the two vehicles that were hit were brought in, I went out to see them with LT Rivers. Two Army tow trucks just pulled in with the Hummers. I remember the first thing I noticed immediately – bloody water in the mud. The mechanics had started to wash out the bloody truck. It pooled in the mud, Santos’ blood, that was sustaining his life, was now running into a muddy field in Iraq. The commander, CPT Peters, was looking at golf ball size piece of jagged steel that had been lodged into a wooden crate behind the driver’s seat. It had passed through Santos’ body – through a ballistic vest, two ceramic plates, and through a metal seat – finally sticking into the wood behind him. The piece was sitting, now, in a cloth. I looked at it and couldn’t believe that had done such violence. Looking more at the truck, you noticed the windshields broken, tires flat, numerous holes punched in both vehicles. All lights were blown out, instruments thrown from the dashboard. I noticed one hole about 4 inches below a rear passenger seat that would have done some damage had it only been higher up. Mechanics were already assessing what could and couldn’t be repaired.
Across the field, I could hear Hariq (Donkey Boy) yelling repeatedly from across the wire, “THOMPSON! COME HERE! THOMPSON!” about 50 times. It was getting on my nerves because he was begging for money. He continued to yell after I motioned for him to go away. It just made me angry for some reason, I could hear him pestering me in the background, while evaluating the sight before me. I calmed down and went over to him later and explained what happened. He seemed to understand, and then asked, “Thompson, please give me one dollar. My father said, ‘Go to soldier and ask for dollar. If you don’t bring back a dollar, I’ll beat you.’” I didn’t know if I could believe him – but it didn’t matter, because I had no money.
‘Go ask the soldiers on the gate, they are letting the workers out now,’ I said. He left, and I left – and I thought about Iraq as I walked back to the command post. First CSM Francis, now the ICDC platoon.
Later that night, Sergeant Marshal and I were in our room talking about all the messed up things going on here. All of a sudden, there was a large “CRACK!” and I found myself on the floor. I looked over and Sergeant Marshal was down too.
“What the fuck was that?!” he yelled.
‘Are we getting shot at?’ I asked
“I dunno, look for holes in the glass.” We were standing next to our big window before the loud crack.
‘I don’t see any holes,’ I said.
“Yeah, me neither.” We stood up and looked carefully out of the window.
“HEY!” It was Sergeant Stockton down below. He tossed a rock (pebble) at our window to get our attention.
“Get your stuff on. Something’s going on!” Well, something was Apache getting hit by an IED HWY 5.
“We need you in the TOC,” Sergeant Siegel came to my room and said. It was just another IED. I couldn’t believe it. I came down (it was night) and the TOC was bustling. Luckily no one was seriously injured this time. What a day.
You are headed to Italy now, and I’m tired. It’s been a long day – and there’s more to tell. I love you Nora, goodnight.

I was happy to see 2003 pass. It was one of the most disturbing years of my life. When I was sitting in the Soldier Support Center, I noticed several soldiers staring at the television and talking to themselves. I wasn’t imagining things. I distinctly remember one soldier having a conversation with himself. He then got up from his seat and walked to the bathroom, keeping his finger on the trigger of his rifle the entire time. It may just be force of habit, I’m not sure, but if you looked around the room, you would see dirty, salt stained soldiers walking around with their fingers on their rifle triggers. If they had a pistol, they would be fingering the pistol trigger, sometimes mumbling to themselves. These guys were under a lot of stress.
I went to the PX, and noticed some of the soldiers and third party nationals were stealing batteries and other items, placing them in their uniforms and jackets. I couldn’t believe it. I watched one individual, a British foreign regimental soldier, walk past the foreign national security guard that was watching the door of the PX. They made eye contact and spoke a few short words and he left with his stolen batteries. I wasn’t sure who to report the thieves to, there were no American employees in sight, and the apparent guard seemed to know what was going on.

[1] Some Iraqis lured a patrol into an attack area using children to tell the soldiers that someone was in distress. When the soldiers when to investigate, they were hit.


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