Iraqi Army soldiers inspect the eastbound span of the Ramadi Bridge after it was destroyed by a suicide bomber.
Al-Asad Air Base, Iraq
27 October, 2009
There is a monstrous 4 lane concrete and steel re-enforced bridge that spans the Euphrates River between the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in central Iraq. Two weeks ago, that bridge was intact, until a suicide bomber drove a truck loaded with 10,000 lbs of bulk explosives onto the eastbound span and detonated it. It blew a hole roughly the size of a football field in the eastbound span, and significantly damaged the westbound span, sending what was left of them both into the river, below.
Up until that point, the Ramadi Bridge, as it is called, was the only bridge over the river on the main highway that connects Syria and Iraq. This highway serves as a major commerce route between the two countries as well as a former escape route into Syria for refugees fleeing the violence here. For the U.S. military, this bridge also served as a crossing point over the river for convoys transporting troops and materials out of the country as part of the overall drawdown in Iraq. That all changed when an insurgent blew himself up.
This mission would be the first to have to bypass the bridge and find a new way around it since it had been destroyed. During our convoy brief in Kuwait, the gun truck squad leader, SSG Greg Sanchez, said that there was an alternate way around the bridge but that we would have to use a smaller and much narrower, one lane concrete bridge that parallels the main span, almost at water level. Intel on how to get to that smaller bridge was spotty at best, and it would be a learn-as-we-go process. To make matters worse, we would be crossing the bridge in the very early morning hours during a no moon period, with only headlights and spotlights to guide us.
On the night we crossed the bridge, I had been driving our gun truck northbound on the MSR from FOB Victory for almost 7 hours. Sanchez was the TC (truck commander) and PFC Mario Nikic was the gunner. I was exhausted and keeping my eyes open was a real chore. It was my first time as a driver, and up until this point, I had either been a TC or a gunner. I was completely unprepared for exactly how physically taxing it is to push a 15,000 lb truck for hours on end. At the end of this mission, I would have a whole new respect for our drivers.
Sanchez radioed ahead to Sgt Christopher Rosales in the MRAP to notify us when we were about 2 miles out from the bridge. There was supposed to be a 1 lane dirt road that broke off from the MSR that would take us under the destroyed east and westbound spans and to the smaller bypass span. Several minutes later, and just as instructed, Rosales radioed back that we were just about 2 miles out. All eyes began looking for the unmarked dirt road that should have been on our right. We missed it, and soon, the MRAP on point was halted at the destroyed span with no where to go but back…along with our gun truck, three 50 foot, almost 93,000 lb HET’s and eleven third country national tractor trailers. Sanchez told me to turn around so that we could back track and look for the dirt turnoff. I muscled our gun truck into a three point turn and got us headed back in the opposite direction while the column waited on the bridge approach. About 100 meters back from the approach, I saw the turnoff. It was not quite as described. It was a narrow, 1 lane dirt road that cut off at a sharp angle from the MSR and headed downhill into the dark and towards a village. We didn’t see it because the entrance was almost completely concealed behind a pile of rubble. Sanchez radioed to SSG Frank La Spina’s gun truck to follow us down the road so that we could conduct a quick recon before taking an entire column into the unknown. If I wasn’t awake before, I sure as hell was now! I cautiously pushed our tuck forward, looking from side to side for signs of hidden IED’s. I soon gave up, because there was nothing around us but large piles of dirt, rubble and trash. If there was an IED hidden there, we’d never see it until it hit us.
The road zigzagged down towards the village until we came to an intersection with an asphalt road. I was glad to be away from the piles of trash and dirt until I turned onto the hardball. There, I stopped the truck dead in it’s tracks. Directly in front of me, about 30 feet away, was an opening to an alley between two concrete and brick buildings at the entrance to the village. Lying in the opening to the alley was what looked like a 155 MM artillery shell. My heart stopped as I called out over the intercom, “I’ve got an artillery shell in the alley, 12 o’clock, 10 meters.” Nikic in the turret, Sanchez and I all grabbed our rifles and in the cramped confines of the truck cab, tried to look through our telescopic sights for a better view. Seconds passed like hours as we stared and scanned the surrounding area, looking for tell tale wires. My heart began beating again after we all three confirmed that it was just a large pipe that with the naked eye would have looked to anyone like a partially concealed artillery shell.
With my heart now pounding at what I was sure was an unhealthy rhythm, we pushed forward, skirting the edge of the village. Sanchez reminded Nikic to stay low in his turret in case of snipers. In a few minutes, a three and a half mile long column of trucks rumbling down the village road would not be hard to miss. Soon, I came upon an Iraqi Army outpost at the rivers edge manned by four very high-speed looking soldiers. Up to this point, I had been used to the rag-tag Iraqi Police, most of whom spent their off-duty time as insurgents. These four though, looked like they meant business. We pulled along side and two of the soldiers approached. I saw that one of them was armed with an AKM…A type of long barreled AK47 typically used as a sniper rifle, and not the usual fair for an Iraqi foot soldier. Sanchez asked if this was the way around the bridge and back onto the MSR. In surprisingly good English, a young soldier told us that if we followed the road, that it would take us under the main bridge and onto the bypass span. I got the truck turned around and we went back through the village to link back up with the column. La Spina and his crew had already proceeded back to the MSR and was attempting to oversee the arduous task of getting the column backed up enough so that we could lead them onto the dirt road and across the river. Getting those trucks turned around was like herding cats. The stress of it all, having to proceed through an unknown village and taking 93,000 lb trucks across a narrow,1 lane concrete bypass that we weren’t even sure would support the weight, was soon taking it’s toll. With two Staff Sergeants possessing two completely contradictory leadership styles trying to control the turnaround from two different locations, tempers flared and soon both Sanchez and La Spina were yelling back and forth over the radio and control of the situation quickly began to deteriorate.
Enough was enough, I thought. I told Nikic to turn off his headset intercom so he would not have to hear what I was about to say. I turned in my seat and looked back at Sanchez. “Greg,” I said. “Look. You need to relax. Let La Spina take care of it. He’s up there and you two yelling back and forth isn’t going to get us out of here any sooner. We have a whole village of unknowns right in front of us, and we need you to stay focused. The two of you losing it like this is only going to undermine everyone else’s confidence in your ability to get us out of here. I know it’s stressful, but we have to focus on staying calm right now.” I stared at him, making sure that he knew what I was saying. Twenty years on the street as a cop had taught me one thing, and that is to force yourself to stay calm when everyone else around you is falling apart. I waited for Sanchez to have an aneurysm over my correcting him the way I did. Instead, he took a deep breath and said “I know what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to get me to re-focus.” “Exactly. Now, are you good?” I said. Sanchez said nothing, but I could tell that what I had said had worked.
As La Spina finished getting the column backed up, I drove away from the village and back to where the dirt road exited out onto the MSR. There, I met the first of the trucks, and began slowly leading the column back down the dirt road and towards the village. We made the left turn onto the hardball road, and crept along at 5 miles an hour as the column slowly followed. I looked back and forth from the road ahead of me to the village on my right, scanning for moving shadows behind walls or on rooftops, or for signs of concealed IED’s along the roadway. We approached the Iraqi Army checkpoint and they waved us forward and towards the lower bridge bypass. As I looked at the destroyed spans slowly passing overhead, I was amazed at the extent of the destruction. four-foot thick sheets of concrete and asphalt, some the size of a small house, and held together by steel re-bar that was bent and twisted in surreal shapes, hung like torn Christmas wrapping. We passed under the main bridge and I saw the lower bypass ahead of us on the right. The bypass span was nothing like I had expected it to be. It was miniscule in size compared to what was left of the Ramadi Bridge, and looked like it was meant to handle nothing more than donkey carts, not large civilian traffic. It was a narrow 1 lane concrete bridge, that was secured with steel beams sunk into the river bottom, and smaller beams running perpendicular and attached to the main bridges concrete support columns. There were only 12 inch tubular metal rails-nothing more between the edge of our wheels, which seemed dangerously close to the side of the span, and the blackish-green water of the Euphrates River a mere few feet below us. I’m pretty sure I held my breath as we drove slowly across. It was like one of those deep-sleep nightmares, where you’re running towards something but your feet feel like they’re mired in mud and you just cant move. The closer we got to the end of the bypass, the farther away it seemed to get. I instinctively unlatched my seat belt, disengaged the combat lock on my armored door, and felt for the quick release on my vest. If we were about to go into the water, I wanted to make sure that I could get out before I drowned.
My mini waking nightmare finally came to an end as I felt the road beneath me turn to solid dirt again and the village disappeared from view. I followed the road as it paralleled the opposite approach end of the bridge and made it’s way back uphill towards the MSR. I wheeled the truck onto the highway and led the rest of the column away from the river and back down the highway again, where we came to a halt and got back into our regular convoy order.
As we sat blacked out on the MSR waiting for the rest of our column, I silently hoped that none of our company would have to cross that bridge again. I was sure that it was only a matter of time before the insurgents figured out that it was our only way across and took advantage of the situation. It was an ambush just waiting to happen. On the return trip we would come close to finding out just how right we were.