08 December 2009


Sgt Justin Haws, and just some of the small arms and shrapnel damage to his HET. Note the baseball size hole in the fuel tank at the lower right, and the exploded armored window in the upper right. (Photo courtesy of Justin Haws)

Taji, Iraq
30 November 2009
0500 hrs

Twenty six year old Army Sgt Justin Haws mission this night began like any other. After 8 months in theatre, the routine had become dull and repetitive. Like any soldier here, Haws thought about the possibility of getting hit, but quickly dismissed the idea as an event that happened to somebody else...if at all. So far, Haws, from Las Vegas, Nevada, and the rest of the soldiers of the 1864th Transportation Company had been lucky.

Up until this night, the 1864th had so far dodged a few minor scrapes with danger, but definitley nothing to worry or write home about. It's safe to say, we had become bored. Some of us hoped and even longed for contact. If for no other reason than to prove to ourselves and our buddies that we could be more dangerous than the insurgents when we had to be. No major League ballplayer wants to play in the World Series and never get to bat. It's the same in war. Not everyone will admit it, but most here hope to go home with the C.A.B, or Combat Action Badge. That little black, wreathe-wrapped bayonet badge, worn over the left chest, that signifies involvement in some sort of combat action. It means that we stood up, faced death and walked away...Hopefully.

Haws was the truck commander of a HET. A giant, multi-wheeled transport that hauls the heaviest of armor. These lumbering beasts, weighing in at nearly 100,000 lbs, are lucky to hit 45 miles an hour top speed when loaded. Haws' and his driver were in the lead HET in a 50-odd vehicle convoy headed north from Baghdad. The column was making its way slowly over a sweeping freeway overpass that spans Baghdad's largest municipal open air garbage dump. Fires burn almost continuously and sporadically throughout the dump, blanketing most of the area in choking, burning smoke that smells like death itself. The smoke-shrouded darkness of night, made visibility a challenge at best. The convoy slowed to avoid bunching up and keep a safe distance in the limited visibility. Haws sat quietly staring out the 2 inch thick armored window until it was nearly impossible to see. Then, without warning, his world exploded.

The IED detonated just a few feet from Haws side of the HET, throwing him from one side of his seat to the other. His head slammed against the armored glass and the air was sucked form his lungs by the concussion and pressure change of the explosion as he was simultaneously kicked in the chest by a Budweiser Clydesdale. Haws barely heard himself yell "SHIT!", over the screaming in his ears. Shrapnel and pulverized concrete tore into the side skirts of the trucks armor, the fiberglass hood and engine block, and shredded the 500 pound right front tire. Shrapnel punctured the passenger side tool boxes and storage compartments, and tore into Haws rucksack which was strapped on the rear deck. Several small pieces struck the Bradley Fighting Vehicle which was chained to the HET trailer. Like pissed off hornets, shrapnel zinged past and ricocheted off the truck's armor plate, leaving gleaming, silver dents the size of quarters and as deep as a marble. Two large pieces of shrapnel, both as large as a baseball punched into the 2 inch thick armored glass of the passenger door. The glass shattered and exploded into an opaque, milky white sheet, but held, saving Haws and his driver from most likely being killed.

Just as we had been trained, nearly a lifetime ago at Camp Atterbury, the rest of the column pulled around Haws bleeding, dying truck, and pushed ahead and out of the kill zone to re-group. Just then, a second HET, trailing Haws several truck lengths back, was suddenly struck by a second more powerful IED just as it was attempting to reach the rally point. This IED, more powerful than the first, drove a softball size chunk of shrapnel through a space between the drivers side front fender and the hood, punched through the thick steel truck frame just behind the front tire, and tore through the engine block itself, stopping the HET dead in it's tracks. The drivers side of the truck was punctured by large, burning chunks of shrapnel, tearing into fuel and oil lines, the drivers armored window and front tire. The truck, lurched and smoked, bled to death with an oily groan, and stopped. Several rounds of glowing green tracers fired from behind nearby concrete walls by an unknown number of insurgents, tore through the night, slamming into the front windshield and hood. As quickly as it had begun it was over. Both Arizona Guardsmen in the second HET, drivers from the 1404th Transportation Company, miraculously survived unscathed, despite the hell they had just been through. The HET's, large, armored, Jurassic trucks that they are, gave their lives for the mission and in the process saved all four crew members.

With the attack over, and the insurgents now beating feet for the nearest neighboring Baghdad zip code, Haws dizzily shouldered open the 250 pound armored door and spilled out of the truck. Haws world fell silent, his right ear deafened by the explosion. Luckily for Haws and the other HET crewmembers, a nearby STRYKER Brigade Combat Team had heard the explosions and rushed immediately to the scene. Haws and his driver were tended to by the Combat Team medics and loaded onto the heavily armed and armored STRYKER's, where they were transported to the nearest FOB.

I ran into Haws at the FOB the next morning when our convoy caught up with his just outside of Taji, Iraq. Up until that point, the rumor mill had it that Haws had been helicoptered out with unknown injuries. When I saw him walking towards me as I made my way to the shower, he had his typical ear-to-ear goofy smile splashed across his face. I clasped his outstretched hand and wrapped him in a bear hug. "What the fuck, Bro?", I yelled in disbelief. "I thought you got hit!" Haws then regaled me with his tale, like a kid who had just hit his very first little league home run. I swear he never took a breath between sentences.

Haws had been offered the chance to climb aboard our convoy, instead of continuing his mission, and head back south towards Kuwait with us the following day. Haws, despite the ringing in his ears, declined, saying, "I started this mission, and I want to finish it."

THAT's why I love these guys!

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