24 September 2009

Fate, Chance, or Just Dumb Luck?

The littlest faces of Iraq. (Photo courtesy of Spc Jake Sere)

The Wolpack after completing 15 days on the road. Back Row L to R: PFC "Doc" Madden (our medic), Sgt Mike Frazer, Cpt Derek Imig, Spc Sean Canfield, Sgt Charles Clark, PFC Joel Martin, Sgt John Baum, Spc Jake Sere. Front Row kneeling L to R: SSG Jake Roberts, Me, Spc Tyler Miller-Cobb, Spc Humberto Gamboa.

Northern Iraq
23 Sept 2009
1737 hrs

As I climbed up into my turret, I had a great feeling about this mission. That feeling wasn't going to last very long. Tonight, we would be pushing farther north towards the last leg of what would turn out to be 15 days on the road. This push would take us past the outskirts of Baghdad, and the neighboring cities of Balad and Tikrit. Tikrit was the home of former Iraqi dictator Sadaam Hussein and loyalties to him still run strong there. Still, I was excited to see the cities of Iraq for the first time, instead of just featureless desert. Even if it was from my turret at 45 miles an hour.

Our troubles that night started when we left the staging yard. The mile long column of trucks snaked slowly out of the dusty yard towards the ECP (Entry Control Point). Ideally, the entire column of military and civilian transports should all leave together, with each individual convoy taking it’s turn falling into place. Somehow, though, our convoy became split when someone in the marshalling yard allowed several trucks from another convoy to leave at the same time, and intermixed with ours. Cpt Imig told Gamboa to turn back and we returned to the marshalling yard to try and find the tail end of our convoy…no easy task in the choking and blinding dust. By the time we found the last dozen or so of our trucks, the main column had already left to stage just inside the ECP. Playing catch-up, we now had to follow the last military HET (Heavy Equipment Transport) and dozen or so civilian tractor trailers as they tried to negotiate the unfamiliar roads of one of the largest Coalition FOBs in Iraq. What made this task even more difficult was that we were now just out of radio communication range from the rest of the gun trucks. In the confusion, the lead HET driver, Pvt Nardy, took a wrong turn and drove towards where he thought the rest of our column had headed. It wasn’t long before we realized that we were headed in the wrong direction. We halted the column as Imig studied the BFT (Blue Force Tracker navigation computer) trying to locate the GPS signatures for our gun trucks. If he could locate their signatures, we could at least navigate our way back to where they were waiting for us. What made matters even more frustrating, was that now, we also had to find away to turn a dozen 60 foot long, several thousand pound trucks around on a narrow gravel road. As our gun truck blocked traffic, Imig got out and began directing the trucks in the delicate task of changing direction. For a rookie traffic cop, I thought he did pretty well, and 30 minutes later, Imig had the entire column turned around and headed back in the right direction.

In less than an hour though, we would come to realize how much this delay just might have saved three lives. With the column re-united we made our way slowly out of the ECP towards the outlying neighborhoods of Baghdad and eventually onto the MSR. As we exited the ECP, I pushed my turret joystick forward and rotated my turret 180 degrees so that my .50 was facing the rear. The narrow two lane asphalt road was bordered on either side by dense reeds and palm tree groves, old mud and concrete buildings and an occasional house. I slowly swung my turret randomly from side to side, trying to cover both sides of the road and present a “hard target”. At the same time, I flipped the safety off my gun and turned on the flood lights on either side of my turret shield. As we pushed deeper into the neighborhood, the densely packed houses on either side were separated from the roadway by ten foot tall concrete “T-walls”. The T-wall prevented people from rushing coalition forces or planting IED’s on the side of the roadway. What they didn’t prevent was anyone with a little league grade throwing arm from hurling a grenade over the wall at passing convoys, and then running away unseen back into the neighborhoods.

The silence was suddenly broken by Sgt Baum’s obviously alarmed voice over the radio from the MRAP at the head of our column, “Break, Break, Break…STANDBY!” Imig and I remarked almost simultaneously, “Oh, that’s not good,” as we waited for what seemed an eternity for Baum to return to the radio. Baum’s voice came back, and it was obvious that something was wrong. “Someone just threw a grenade over the wall at the Humvee in front of us. It bounced off the windshield and didn’t detonate. I’m talking to an E-6 (Staff Sergeant) now…standby.” “Shit,” I thought. Our column was now halted and it couldn’t be in a worse place. With T-walls on either side of us, we were stuck in the perfect choke point. We couldn’t go forward, couldn’t back up and couldn’t turn around. I scanned from side to side hoping that I would be able to see over the T-wall enough to see someone approaching before they could hurl a grenade over the wall for a three point shot directly into my turret ring. Imig reminded me to stay low in case there were snipers. I did so reluctantly. Lowering myself into my turret reduced my ability to look over the walls. “Oh well. Better to have a head to look over with,” I thought and stooped just low enough so that I could at least peer over my turret shield.

Baum’s voice returned to the radio, interrupting the agonizing silence. “Someone threw an RKG over the wall. It’s laying in the street and were waiting for EOD to show up and dispose of it.” The RKG3. A Russian hand-held anti-tank hand grenade that resembles the old WW2 era German stick grenade. We call them Giant Green Dildo’s of Death. When armed and thrown, a small parachute deploys from the stick end of the grenade, stabilizing it in flight, and ensures that it strikes it’s target explosive-head first. The grenade can penetrate several inches of armor with deadly results. No sooner did Baum end his transmission, then there was a flash and accompanying sound of an explosion from the head of our column. “Nevermind. It just blew up on it’s own,” Baum said, this time, matter-of-factly.

The coalition patrol ahead of us, who had been the target of the grenade attack, cleared the road and we were allowed to proceed. We rumbled slowly along into the neighborhood and past the site of the attack. Soldiers were everywhere, trying to clear the chaotic scene and make room for us to pass. I stood in my turret and looked over the walls. Everywhere were groups of Iraqi men and teenage boys who were staring menacingly at us as we passed by, and I wondered if one of them had been responsible for the attack. Just then, Wolfpack 3’s gunner, Jake Sere came over the radio. “Wolfpack 4 Golf, this is Wolfpack 3 Golf, over.” “Wolfpack 4 Golf, go ahead,” I replied. “Hey,” Jake said. “About a hundred meters ahead of you on the right side of the road, just on the other side of the T-wall, is a group of about 10 to15 Iraqi males acting suspiciously. Keep your eyes on them as you pass.” “Roger that,” I replied. I swung my turret to the right and began scanning over the walls until I saw them. There were a dozen or so Iraqi men who suddenly began approaching the wall as we passed. I swung my turret in their direction and dropped the elevation of my .50 to point the barrel just over their heads. They immediately turned, and staring over their shoulders at me, quick-stepped back to a courtyard and into the house. Whether they were just curious or getting ready to hurl another grenade, I don’t know. Either way, I wasn’t about to give them the chance.

Our column finally made it’s way through the neighborhood and onto the MSR. We pulled onto the freeway that makes it’s way through downtown Baghdad as we picked up speed. As we drove along I had time to think about a lot of things. For Imig, who is on his second tour here, and has survived numerous ambushes and IED attacks, I’m sure that what had just occurred was just a minor footnote for him. For me, it’s as close as I’ve come so far in my tour here to enemy contact, and the possibility of combat. I knew at that moment that when I returned home to the streets of Carson City that I would never again look at the potential dangers of police work the same.
Then, it struck me. Had such a minor event as our convoy getting separated leaving the staging lanes not occurred, or had Pvt Nardy not made a right when he should have turned left, and our convoy been delayed 45 minutes as a result, it would have been us that was attacked instead of the other army patrol. More specifically, it would have been Spc Miller-Cobb, Sgt Baum and PFC Martin in the MRAP who most likely would have been targeted. It would have been their windshield struck by a Russian anti-tank grenade, and maybe, just maybe, it might have detonated instead of bouncing off, and we might be mourning the loss of three brothers instead of laughing about it later that same night. Laugh about it we did, too. Hours later in the barracks, tired, hungry and unshaven, we made fun of Baum’s “Oh shit” voice on the radio and Martin joked that he didn’t think his butt hole could pucker any tighter.

Fate, chance, or just dumb luck?


  1. Great column. I hope that is as close as you will get to combat


  2. Too close for comfort, but a great read none the less. You're an inspiration Dad. I can't wait to hear more of your stories in person when you come home.