Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Arrival Outside of Najaf, Ambush in Diwaniyah, Iraqi Roadkill ?

20 April, 2004 (I think) 20 km North of Najaf 2140

A sandstorm is blowing hard across the desert here, and another storm is forming. Assad used to call the war a “storm” when he spoke of the Marines coming through Babylon last year. The storm I say is forming is the imminent attack on An-Najaf that is now in the planning stages. It is becoming chillingly clear 3-32 is going to be part of the main effort into one of the holiest cities in Shia Islam. It’s surreal to me, to be caught up in such a situation, but it’s real, and I trust in God. I remember receiving a blessing still so important to me at the Vatican. “May God make you and instrument of peace,” I was told, and found comfort in that blessing. It’s so incredible to find myself in this position, in the middle of a guerilla war that has exploded right when I should be going home, and watching men plot an attack in which so much is at stake. I am deeply worried, but I have faith I will make it back home, and never forget these events.
Our march from Al-Kut to An-Najaf was long, taking us across barren desert, through Babylon, across the Euphrates, and to a former Republican Guard base in the middle of a sandy desert 20 km north of Najaf. I can see Najaf on the horizon, and the space between is a desperate peace I feel all too soon with shatter.
Our road march lasted 6 hours, and we had no enemy contact, except for the lead scout vehicle that took a sniper’s bullet through the passenger’s-side windshield – we had only traveled 10 kilometers into the trip or so. I scanned all the palm groves along the way and fully expected to take enemy fire. Many parts of the route took us through urban areas, crowded markets, and traffic jams. People looked at us with arms crossed and blank stares.
After we crossed the Euphrates, we headed south towards Najaf. The southbound road was closed due to marching pilgrims going to Ali shrine. They walked carrying flags, young and old, men and women. Southbound traffic had to go cross over the median and travel south on the northbound road using one of its two lanes. So, we traveled south and encountered no problems, no ambush, no IEDs.
All of a sudden, I noticed Foley’s truck swerve in front of me and I pulled off to the side of the road to avoid hitting the object in the center of the road that he swerved to avoid. ‘Oh God,’ I said.
“What?” SGM Walker asked. Before I could answer, we were both getting out of the truck because we saw what it was. I grabbed my medical kit.
“Medic!” someone screamed. A man lay lifeless in the middle of a pool of blood. I ran up to the figure and felt a swell of sorrow in my heart and my eyes strained hard to hold back tears.
‘He’s dead,’ I thought. A medic ran up immediately and I turned around to secure my truck. Ali Laundry was riding in my truck, so he went over to help treat the man. He began to slap the bloody head of the man. The body began to show signs of life. I stood back and watched the man’s chest struggle to breathe. Pilgrims began to stand around and watch the drama. Traffic was rerouted so a big scene would be avoided.
SSG Siegel walked up smiling, finding some sick humor in finding a badly injured Iraqi lying on the asphalt in his own blood with a gashed skull. “Is he dead?” he asked happily.
‘He’s not dead yet,’ I responded carefully.
“Guess he shouldn’t have been walking in the street,” he joked. I was about to tell Siegel to get away from me and go back to his truck. I didn’t have to, he went on to busy himself raising his shotgun waist level at oncoming traffic and seemed quite content intimidating the oncoming, nervous drivers and passing pilgrims. Lots of the soldiers found it funny. I respect human life, and I saw a bashed pilgrim grimacing with a head ripped open. The scouts brought a stretcher over and set the man on it. He immediately vomited blood. An Army ambulance pulled up and began to treat him. He was like a terribly wounded animal. Ali stopped a van passing by and asked the occupants to take the man to the hospital in Najaf. They agreed. Two boys stood by with teary eyes. The man was their uncle. Ali gave them $1.
It turned out, our lead scout truck struck the man with their side view mirror at 40 miles per hour. He had his back to our convoy and didn’t see us coming. Johnson was driving and said the man stepped out in front of him. I couldn’t believe we hit a pilgrim. Having made a pilgrimage to Rome a year ago, I felt a faint bit of solidarity with the people walking so far in sandals. ‘I’ve got to get out of the Army,’ I told Ali as I poured water on his bloody hands so he could wash them.
“Don’t worry Thompson,” he said, “I know you don’t like this. It’s fucked up, but you and me can’t change it.” We continued to our camp.
We got to our camp and found nothing but desert and three toilets for about 2,000 soldiers. We set up camp and soon it became clear we weren’t there to hang out – we were there to prepare an attack on An-Najaf.
The convoy that came in later that night brought our tanks on HETT trucks. It came under heavy ambush in Diwaniyah. I couldn’t believe it. Two of our guys got killed. Both were hit with gunfire in the town center and bled to death. One HETT truck was totally destroyed. Everyone returned heavy machinegun fire. Some of the tanks started their engines and broke free of their HETT trailers and drove onto the road, breaking the tie-down chains, and then engaged the town. “All I know is a lot of civilians died,” Villarreal said to me. “A few main gun rounds were fired and everything was shot up. When we left, the town was burning, and ambulances were everywhere.” That is one of many stories. The convoy was hit heavy, but they laid waste to the area. Somehow, we’ve allowed the Sadr Mahadi Army to turn our soldiers into barbarians. It’s a difficult situation, because the Mahadi Army is using civilians as shields. CPT Powers lost his gunner.
Today, I stood behind COL Leroux, Brigadier General Morelli and the 1ID commanding general as they got their brief on the An-Najaf operation in our burnt-out TOC building. Some British press from Reuters stood by. I realized we were going to attack An-Najaf. I couldn’t believe it. Many would die, all because of Sadr. I’ll get more into this later.
I went out to our command center and found out some Apache scouts got hit on an unauthorized patrol near Sadr’s Kufa mosque. They abandoned a Hummer at the site they were attacked after pulling two wounded soldiers from the blown up truck. I watched the medivac chopper fly in. The field ambulances pulled up and then sped back to the medical clinic next to our command post.
I watched as medics pulled out one stretcher with a limp, bloody soldier laying on it. He didn’t look too good. His lower body was covered in deep maroon blood. The second ambulance pulled up and the medics pulled out a bloody, black soldier with pressure bandages on his torn legs. He cried loudly in pain. I couldn’t believe my eyes – but I knew this was only the beginning.
Nora, I need you, and all I want is to come home safely and into your arms. I’ve been thinking so much about life, and our life. I love you, and I love our life together. I pray to come home to you soon. I need you. I’m sitting in my truck now, and a sandstorm is raging outside in the blackness on the other side of the windshield glass. I’m going to walk to the phone to call you now. I love you always!

Seeing the wounded soldiers was a poignant reminder of how dangerous that hornet’s nest was. The patrol was not authorized to approach the Kufa Bridge in the first place. Attempts were made to locate the truck and blow it up with an Apache helicopter or F-16 fighter jet. The truck was lost though, only to be seen on television later. Items were later recovered from the truck during a shootout with a house that had a crude bunker system inside.
When we arrived in the Najaf desert (FOB Duke), there were only a few hard buildings on the site of the former Republican Guard ammo depot. It was nothing but desert. More and more vehicles began arriving at the dusty FOB as the day progressed. There were only two plastic portapotties for the few hundred men on the site. As time passed, more toilets came, and more piss tubes were planted. We erected a sleep tent later, but I preferred to sleep in my truck. God we were dirty.
I was more stressed as time went on. It had much to do with hearing some soldiers boast about their kills. I thought it was insane. I wrote in my journal, ‘The Army makes use of and channels what would otherwise be criminal behavior using people who would otherwise be no more than criminals.’ Of course, the exception is never the rule.


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