Long have they pass'd, faces and trenches and fields,
Where through the carnage I moved with a callous composure, or away
from the fallen,
Onward I sped at the time--but now of their forms at night,
I dream, I dream, I dream.
From "Old War Dreams"
It was one of those days when hell opens up and spills forth into the desert, the sun baking the last trace of water from the parched dust and fueling the devils that whirl across the ground, throwing up columns of ocher talc. The sky was hazy with brown and tan- the breeze felt like a hair drier infused with gritty dust. I sat outside the tent, enjoying an afternoon smoke with one of my friends and trying to ignore the dust mingling with my quickly drying sweat. We were interrupted by my squad leader: running from another tent, he stopped long enough to tell me “Grab your shit and run to the truck. We just picked up a mission.” before he ran on to gather others.
We routinely tolerate mission changes in the hours leading up to our departures- usually simple additions or deletions of roads, or corrections on times. This time, the change was a rare one, full of foreboding. Our instructions were to “spin up” as fast as possible, link up with our security team, and find the vehicle and personnel recovery team that would accompany us. We started hearing words and phrases like “multiple IEDs”, “multiple KIA”, and “too hot for MEDIVAC”. Today’s mission change meant that someone, somewhere, was in deep trouble, and we were the ones going out to bring them home.
It was a kind of change that we have only had once before; the last time, the change led to the worst day of our lives.
The patrol departed from a dusty patrol base near Falluja called OP Vikings. Their destination was a small village to the northeast. To get there, they planned to take a 25km+ circuitous route along relatively quite roads through the open desert rather than the 10km straight shot along Route Angels, a narrow, dangerous canal road.
The American unit that owned the area was Apache Troop of the 5/7 Cav- men we had worked with extensively to both south and west of Falluja. We knew the area well, and had spent a fair bit of time on both Angels and the surrounding roads. IEDs were extremely common and unusually large on Angels, a fact which had prompted the decision to use a more secure northern route.
Every patrol that rolls outside the wire in Iraq takes a chance against the reaper. No matter how calm a road has been, no matter how quiet the area, there is always the chance that someone is waiting just out of sight- waiting to kill you. Every trip is a roll of the dice; every mission is another chance to die. On the 26th of July, those dice were rolled once more. This time, they came up snakes eyes. Game over.
The first bomb lay buried beneath the powdery soil- over one hundred pounds of high explosive. The bomb was hooked to a strand of thin, lacquered copper wire, the sort Americans would find wrapped around the spindle of any household electric motor. The Bradley crew never saw the wire running into the distance towards the insurgent hovered over the trigger. The first hint of trouble on this previously quiet road was a clap of thunder and a flash through the cloud of rapidly enveloping dust. The 30-ton Bradley lurched as though punched, and jerked to the side, suddenly still.
The patrol cheated fate around the next bend- dismounted soldiers walking alongside the road found command wire and disabled another bomb just before the vehicles passed over it. Following the road around and across a canal bridge, they came within sight of their objective: that dangerous straight-shot of a road, and the village that spread around the intersection.
The third bomb exploded with thunderous force. Over two hundred pounds of explosive power burst out of the dusty ground, directly beneath a Humvee. By comparison, the Haditha blast that tore a Humvee in half, killing a Marine and allegedly sparking a massacre was accomplished by a bomb containing only sixty pounds of explosive. The Humvee, and the soldiers inside, never stood a chance. Superheated, expanding gases and hundreds of pounds of rock and soil rushed just behind the tearing shock wave, straight through the flat, vulnerable bottom of the Humvee and out into a billowing cloud of dust and smoke.
The shock wave flattened out across the ground, kicking dust into the air. Out of the cloud came the stuff of nightmare for every man who goes to war: scraps of vehicle and worse- the crew. Soldiers consider such massive bombs to be mercifully quick- the general consensus is that your mind wouldn’t even have a chance to register the event before the world went black. That thought doesn’t make the aftermath any easier for the survivors. Troops from different units share stories about such events in clipped, clinical phrases that divorce the conversation from the harsh reality. We call them “catastrophic”- the nature of the destruction in a “CAT-kill” is such that it is a miracle for anyone to survive. Amazingly enough, sometimes people do survive. That day, though, there was no miracle. The Humvee was completely destroyed, and the crew died instantly. Their tragic deaths would spark one of the largest firefights of the summer in Falluja.
The insurgents had set the stage for a major battle- they had clearly meant for events to proceed roughly as they had on the northern road, and they knew that we would have no choice but to come to the aid of our fallen companions. The shorter, southern road was heavily mined as well- a fact that the first recovery effort would soon discover. Firefights began to kick up around the sites of the IED strikes- the enemy was obviously itching for a fight.
We sat and waited at the dusty patrol base that the ill-fated patrol had called home and waited for direction from the ground commander. The sun loomed lower in the dusty sky, and the radio continued to crackle with traffic- the harried reports of Marines under fire, and the cool replies of the helicopter pilots, mixing with IED reports and updates on the situation. An Explosives Ordnance Disposal bomb-hunting team was sweeping the short southern road towards the immobilized patrol. The EOD team lost one Humvee, then another: blown up and disabled by more IEDs. Miraculously, there were no casualties.
A second EOD team began a slow and methodical advance towards the first EOD team and the stricken patrol beyond- they too were hit by an IED, again without casualties.
Ground fire was a constant threat. Once, twice, and again and again the gunners marked houses with fire as targets for the machine guns and rockets of the circling helicopters. The entire area between the two roads was designated as a “Free Fire” zone, meaning that any military-aged male out and moving could be considered an enemy and fired upon.
Back out in the dusty fields to the north, the danger of a "Blackhawk Down" scenario grew. A black Opal pulled out into the field to the west: the occupants began shooting at the troops on the ground, and then fired an RPG at the responding helicopter. The grey warbirds riddled the car and its passengers with bullets. A crowd of civilians formed in the field, possibly hostile, possibly merely trying to help a moaning survivor of the helicopter attack. The helicopter gunners saw no weapons amongst the crowd, and so they held their fire despite their “Free Fire” order.
As EOD continued to struggle towards the ongoing fighting, the Apache Troop command back at Vikings sent out a vehicle recovery team to bring the damaged vehicles back in to base. The recovery team had traced the path of the ill-fated patrol to the location of the first attack, and had dragged the Bradley out of the road over next to a small mud hut.
The soldier in charge of the recovery effort had asked for a lowboy trailer to be sent out the Bradley, intending to load the damaged vehicle up on the trailer and send it back to base. Miles from the fighting, a staff officer decided that the lowboy was unnecessary and the vehicle onsite would suffice to tow the Bradley home. Normally, it would have been enough, but then again, a Bradley normally has tracks. The explosion had torn out the shock absorbers holding the heavy track and pushed the engine through the top of the vehicle: the Bradley could only be dragged or carried.
The sky had grown dusky around a sliver of moon before we turned onto the last road that would close the last few kilometers between us and the downed vehicles. We took the same circuitous route they had driven, trying to avoid the possibility of even more IEDs delaying the recovery further. We slowly wound along the dirt roads, and finally came upon the turn where the Bradley had been hit. We found it still sitting there beside the hut, drunkenly slewed to one side and beyond the ability of the recovery team to retrieve.
Pushed up against one wall of the ramshackle building were bound, blindfolded men; eleven or twelve in total. They had been picked up in sweeps through fields and houses after the attacks, and had been moved back to be guarded by the soldiers standing watch over the damaged Bradley. Only a few of the soldiers that guarded them were still battle-ready; more than half were sprawled on the ground in some stage of undress. Most were not wearing body armor, and they were all low on ammo. They were also out of water; which was the reason for their seemingly dangerous lapse in discipline. Some were dangerously dehydrated.
In the end, the heat caused more casualties that day that the enemy did- thirteen soldiers were treated as heat casualties. Several suffered from serious heat injuries such as heatstroke. Two soldiers nearly died from the heat. We did the best we could for the soldiers as we passed; we handed out one half-liter IV bag per man, and twenty or thirty warm water bottles from the back of a Marine Gator in the security element.
Just down the road, we spent a few moments longer eliminating the bomb that had been disabled much earlier that day. A few hundred meters further down the road, we reached the site of the deadly attack.
When the recovery team had found they were unable to recover the Bradley with the equipment on hand, they had proceeded down the road to the site of the second attack. We found them parked in the darkness next to a small pile of shredded Humvee parts, out of smokes and water, and almost out of ammo. The soldier in charge of the recovery team was at the verge of tears and asking for a cigarette. He had spent the evening gathering together the fragments of the Humvee and trying not to get shot for his trouble. He pointed out some of the head-high bullet pocks in the armor of his vehicle; we gave him cigarettes and sympathized with him over his grueling day. We parked near him in a field and waited for the vehicle and personnel recovery team attached to us to do their work.
It was growing close to dawn before our recovery team was ready to move with the remains of the Humvee and crew. We pulled out of the field we had parked in and began the slow trip home. One of the last things I saw before we cleared the area was the recovery operator still working on the Bradley, trying to find some way to drag it home before the dawn brought the chance of renewed assault from the dusty fields.