One Down, Two Remain

We are not in Kansas anymore.

(Warning: This blog entry is graphic and contains colorful “Army” language. If you have a light stomach, don’t read. But I’m alive to tell it, so I am telling it.)


There was a brilliant flash of light, and instantaneously, the loudest bang I’ve ever heard.

I was lying down in a cot underneath a tent which was set up next to the Humvee our Air Force joint tactical air controllers worked from. My back was turned as I rested on a towel I scrunched up between my head and arm. I was wearing the same clothes I’d been wearing for just over a week. (Fortunately, I did bring clean underwear with me!) I hadn’t bathed in three days; I could scrape the layers of dirt and grime off my arm and see the lighter skin underneath. My hair was matted and my stomach ached from eating nothing but parts of MREs for the past nine meals.

For the past three days, this place had been my team’s home, a very small patrol base, or PB, in a house once owned by Saddam Hussein located on a river bank. Army infantry took over the location just over a week before, so it was as bare as could be with only tall cement walls and barb wire separating us from “Indian country”, as one of the Army Soldiers told me. Four Airmen (the JTACs) were attached to the infantry unit, so we were there to cover them. We, along with another Air Force officer, Capt. E., were dropped off by helicopter three days before with the plan to leave later that same day via helicopter. But that evening, after we had conducted our interviews, our flight got canceled due to weather, a situation that would repeat several times. Even attempts to leave via convoy were useless, as they couldn’t accommodate all of us and our equipment.

We were stranded.
Before coming to this new location, we had extended our stay at the first forward operating base (F.O.B.) to a full week. The more Airmen we found, the more stories. Things were relatively quiet at the first forward operating base, except for that lunchtime evacuation. But then, the day before we left, a mortar hit again, this time within the walls.

I was in my room in the wooden hut at the time. I heard it before I felt the walls shake. That one was close, I thought to myself, so I grabbed my shirt, my weapon and ran outside to JV’s room.

“Was that incoming or outgoing?” he asked after I pounded on his door.

“Incoming and we better get to the bunker,” I answered, noticing others racing to the concrete barriers. He grabbed his weapon and we went together, wondering out loud where it could have hit. As we turned the corner into the barriers, that’s when I saw the smoke to our left.

I cursed and pointed it out, knowing that this time, it hit something. JV said he’d go and get JB, who was in the showers. I knelt down in the barrier as the sirens of the FOB’s fire truck began to scream. Another Airman was already in there, his shirt half-tucked into his pants.

“I was in the latrine,” he explained. “I felt it shake and thought, “F—! I don’t want to die in the f—– latrine!” He shook his head, embarrassed, as other people, including JV and a freshly-scrubbed JB, joined us. We chuckled, but then another person’s radio started blaring.

“It looks like the Internet cafe!!” someone called over the radio. I looked over at JV and mouthed, “Weren’t you there yesterday?”

He nodded. We listened some more.

“We need medics!” the radio blared again. “MEDICS!”

Pause.

“And chaplains assistance.”

My stomach dropped. I looked at the half-dressed Airman from the latrines and our eyes met. I cursed again. He cursed, too.

Chaplains are only really needed in the event of a death.

JV snapped this photo just as we heard the call for chaplains.

 

We sat there for another 20 minutes. I spent the time carving the dirt floor with random pebbles, shaking my head. I returned to my room after the all-clear was given and dropped to my knees on the side of the bed, exhausted and frustrated. I prayed for the people who were suffering just then, and for the families who would eventually feel the ripple of the mortar’s effect. I could hear the Medical Evacuation helicopters coming and going for hours afterward.

Later that night, as we walked to dinner, we saw flatbed trucks driving off with the charred remains of the impact site. Our Army PAO later confirmed the details: one female Soldier dead, 18 injured, most injuries extreme. The mortar hit three trailers where the Soldiers slept, destroying them and damaging others. Fortunately, the concrete barrier prevented further damage. As the body of the female Soldier was carried to the helicopter on its way home, it was done so with full military honors. I’ve since learned her name was Sgt. Trista L. Moretti, 27, ofSouth Plainfield, N.J.

The next day, JB, JV and I boarded another helicopter and flew to our second FOB.

Despite being stranded, our spirits were high. We stayed close to the JTAC Airmen, and because their job is to call in air support and air strikes, they work and live outside. So, we did, too, making the best out of the situation.

I learned there was one other female at the location as a medic, but I didn’t see her. A few times, I had to drop my drawers and pee in a bush, but finally, the Army erected a make-shift “shitter” which was really only supposed to be used for “number two” but nobody argued with me when I used it for all my needs. Later that first day, I learned that the barrels underneath the shitter are removed and the contents are burned. They do that twice a day out there.

We had brought a nice supply of baby wipes and body powder, which was how we kept sanitized, if not clean.

On the second day, after sitting at the unsecured landing zone in a stifling hot Bradley tank waiting for a helicopter that never arrived, our uniforms got soaked with sweat, so that night, we aired out our clothing on the Humvee.

… Waiting …
JB loaned me his physical training uniform, which was three sizes too big but I didn’t care. Just to have air on my legs felt great. Our clothes dried quickly, but not without hardening from the salt of our sweat, which left white streaks all throughout.
We kept ourselves entertained with books and cards. We spent a lot of time talking. Army guys wondered over to the tent every now and then, wondering why there were suddenly so many Air Force people around.

 

One guy noticed we had a satellite phone and asked if he could call home to check on his son, who was in a car wreck the day before the father deployed a month earlier. He hadn’t been able to check up on him. We also loaned the phone to a lieutenant who hadn’t talked to his wife in two months.

We watched the JTACs work. During the first night, they got word from an Iraqi that a large mortar attack was being planned for that night. So, the JTACs called in a ‘show of force.’ I watched as the 20-year-old Airman got over the airways and directed a Navy F-18 to buzz overhead. In a matter of minutes, we heard the rumble of it coming and soon it was sliding over our heads, its engines roaring. It must have worked and scared the would-be terrorists away, because only two mortars fell that night.

That was something else out there, too – the mortars. There was no incoming the first day – just the blasts from the outgoing artillery – but the second day, we heard some in the distance. That night, as we slept underneath the tent on our cots, we heard amazingly loud explosions nearby. One of the JTACs got up and on the radio to see if they were incoming or outgoing. He told us they were outgoing, but I suspected differently. But everyone else seemed to be sleeping soundly, so I dazed off, never really falling into a deep, restful sleep.

And that’s how it was for us: no real sleep, no showers, no baths, no plumbing, no change of clothes, and no real food. This was military life to the extreme. This was life on the combat front line, for this was the edge of the surge.

So, there I was on the third day, on the cot, trying to take a nap in the mid-day heat, which had spiked at 112 degrees with no breeze. JB was sitting on the cot next to me, playing solitaire with a deck of cards. JV sat across from him, either reading or playing cards, while Capt. E., laid on a cot diagonal from my feet, next to the Humvee. The JTACs were on the other side of the Humvee, having been gloriously defeated by Capt. E and JV in a game of rummy.

I was just drifting into sleep when there was a brilliant white flash and then a pop/boom that shook me to the core.

I knew immediately what had happened, but as I turned, it felt like someone shoved cotton down my ears. I heard Capt. E yell something, but it was muffled and I think I yelled out, “What?” only to realize I sounded like I was yelling into a box. My hearing was gone.

But then, crystal clear, I heard JB.

“Yeah. I’m hit. I’m hit.”

By this time, I had rolled off the cot, grabbing my helmet as I went, and immediately ran from the tent, screaming “MEDIC!!! MEDIC!!! WE NEED A MEDIC!”

I saw a bunch of Army guys race over to us – it was a matter of seconds. One guy pushed past me with a first aid kit. I stumbled over to the Humvee, realizing I didn’t have my glasses. I’m blind as a bat and useless without them, so I rushed over to my cot and grabbed them, putting them on.

That’s when I saw the blood.

In the split second it took for me to roll off the cot and yell for medic, JV and Capt. E were already at JB’s side, applying pressure to his wounds. Later, they would tell me that they didn’t see any wounds at first, but when JB lay down on the cot, there was suddenly blood everywhere.

I saw that it had splattered all over the side of the tent. Hands tending to JB were covered in it. I looked down and saw a huge pool of it underneath the cot where JB was laying. I saw flesh and blood as the medic applied a tourniquet. Shit, I thought. Did he lose his leg?I looked up at JB’s face. He was conscience, his face pale. His arms were stretched out, his hands open. I grabbed one and squeezed.

“JB, look at me,” I said. “You’re still here?”

His eyes rolled over to meet mine, but then he winced and groaned, looking away. I felt someone pull on my shoulder away from him.

“Come with me. We need to check you out. Are you okay?” It was another medic. In the amount of time it took for me to look back at him, they had lifted JB up onto a litter and ran off with him. Everything was happening so fast. I stood up, dazed.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m okay,” I said, realizing that I didn’t even know myself. Was I scratched? Was I bleeding anywhere? I clumsily looked over myself, finding nothing, feeling nothing. There were two holes in the back of my shirt, but nothing touched my skin. Nothing.

I noticed a female colonel standing to the side with her entourage, who had been delivered via helicopter earlier that day. They had been given a tour earlier that morning, coming around and taking pictures. JB, JV, Capt. E and I were playing cards as they walked by, ignoring us as they focused on the Soldiers. We had watched as her helicopters came and went, wondering why we couldn’t have caught a ride with them, and feeling bummed we weren’t deemed a high enough priority to do so. JB even made the joke that someone obviously needed to break their leg in order to get MedEvac-ed out of there because that was looking like the only way out of there.

Now, just hours later, she and her group were back here, staring at the scene. I overheard her say, “Oh, so this is where the mortar hit.” I suddenly felt the urge to snap off a comment, like “Have you seen enough?”

But I didn’t. I knew this attack wasn’t her fault.

Instead, I turned back to the tent. The cot where I was sitting had been tossed aside. JB’s cot remained, stained with a huge circle of blood. A clotting pool of it formed underneath. I saw that some of my gear and his gear, which had been piled together, had bloodstains all over it. A packet of cheese had exploded, so that was smeared all over the ground. My eyes fell onto his video camera, now splattered with blood. And then my eyes rested on JV’s digital camera.

I picked it up. And I started taking pictures. Having worked and lived so closely with JB for more than a month, I knew he would want to see this one day.

And it occurred to me, as I snapped the picture, that had JB’s legs not been where they were, my upper torso, neck and head would have taken the shrapnel instead.

The second medic on the site once again approached me and asked me to follow him, so I did. That’s when I saw all the people who were around. A bunch of guys were scouting the site of impact, just a few feet away from our tent. They were yelling for people not to touch anything until they were done. I was led to the clinic, which was set up in the house’s kitchen. It looked like a medic scene out of MASH. I could see JB on the litter, hooked up to IVs with a team of people tending to him. Another medic motioned for me to wait outside.

“We’ll need to ask you some things,” he said. I did as instructed, sitting down on the dusty walkway outside, wondering where JV and Capt. E were at this point. A few minutes later, an Army sergeant approached me.

“Hey, Airman,” he said. “Come inside and talk to your buddy.”

I jumped up and raced inside. By this time, the crowd around JB was much smaller. I noticed another pool of blood formed underneath the litter, along with his clothing they had cut away. He was wrapped and bound in a tarp like a mummy, so I couldn’t see his wounds. Only his shoulders were exposed. His eyes were open, blurry from the adrenaline and painkillers. An oxygen mask was strapped to his face.

I took a deep breath and put my hand on his head, which was rough with three-day stubble. (He’s usually bald.)

“JB,” I said, “Now, we were only joking about the whole breaking the leg thing.”

I could see him smile underneath the mask.

“Yeah, yeah,” he answered weakly. I began rubbing his shoulders, which were coated in sweat.

“Your girlfriend isn’t going to be too thrilled, uh?” I asked. But then I gasped. “Oh, man, but you just got a whole lot sexier, JB. You’re an injured war vet with scars!!”

I saw JB smile again. I looked up to see if anyone else thought that was cute. The Army sergeant, who was standing across from me, looked at me like I was nuts. But I just kept rambling.

“Are they hooking you up with good stuff?” I asked.

JB nodded, and as if on cue, the doctor injected another dose of morphine. JB began shaking his hands, saying he couldn’t feel them. The doctor checked his wrist bandages as I continued rubbing his shoulders.

“It’s probably your adrenalin,” I said. “Just take deep breaths, okay?”

I stood there for about two more minutes as they prepped him to be evacuated. I could hear the helicopter coming in, so I leaned over and kissed his sweaty head before they lifted him up and carried him to a waiting Humvee.

And just like that, he was gone. Our team of three, now down to two.

I still had the camera with me, so I took a picture of the clinic room, with his bloody clothes on the floor. A medic with a clipboard came up to me and began asking me questions.

“Do you know what day it is today?” he asked. I did. “Do you know what happened?” I did. He asked me some more generic, simple questions before he got to the memory recall. “Can you repeat these five words in the order that I say them: carpet, bubble, apple, saddle, animal?”

Oh, crap. I couldn’t even do that BEFORE the mortar. I’m constantly asking people to repeat themselves.

I did the best I could, and passed. He checked my pupils. Good. He asked about my hearing. Good enough. He told me of some things I could expect post-blast and let me go. JV and Capt. E were outside the clinic, getting their own evaluations. We used our satellite phone to contact our unit back at home base, as well as our family in the states. I got a hold of my dad’s boss and Martin. I couldn’t talk much, but I hoped that my voice enough would work.

Later that afternoon, we visited the impact site.

One of the Army guys explained what type of mortar, the size (60 mm) and how it hit concrete. The barrier walls next to it were splattered with holes from the shrapnel. There was a large bush in front of it – its branches shredded, its leaves gone. Had that tree not been there to take the brunt of the shrapnel….

While smaller pieces of metal ripped through the cement barriers like butter, the thin skin of the tent stopped this chunk from going into Sgt. V’s head.

How the F*** do you explain that?

The Army guy handed over a chunk of shrapnel pulled from the skin of the tent and gave it to me. It was a piece of sharp, broken metal, a chunk about the size of a walnut. It was the same type of piece that penetrated JB’s leg.

The Army guy also explained how the mortar hit.

“It came down at an angle, and normally, when it hits, the shrapnel explodes up,” he said, using his hands to show us. “But this one couldn’t explode up, so it exploded out in a straight line.” He walked us down the path, showing how it missed Capt. E. and JV, but nailed JB’s legs directly. I pointed out where I was located, on the cot behind JV, my head and torso protected by his backside.

“Had he not been sitting there, you’d be in bad shape,” said the Army guy. “You were in the direct path.”

Literally, JB’s ass saved my ass. Had he gotten up for drink … had he shifted his weight a little differently….

The severity of the situation didn’t sink in until the sun set and it was just the three of us – me, JV and Capt. E. – sitting around, waiting to hear how we’d be evacuated. Obviously, our priority status went up a few notches and for awhile, it looked like a helicopter was coming in for us.

But alas, it got canceled – this time, due to security. As if perfectly timed, a huge offensive was going on and as we sat and waited for word of our departure, mortars were dropping all over. I was beyond jumpy. Every loud noise, every flash of light (either from mortars or from a guy’s flashlight) made me jump.

I stopped by the clinic for headache medicine and ended up interviewing the medics for a possible article. (It’s important to keep working, right?) No medicine helped. I couldn’t eat. Each time a round hit, I cursed and flattened on the ground. I just wanted to go home.

At one point, JV and I were standing around behind the barriers, talking with some Army guys, when a huge blast went off behind the barrier. Everyone started scrambling. I just stood there, holding my ear, which had gone deaf again temporarily, saying, “Owwww.” I then hurried for cover with JV, but by that point, we were just too tired and fed up to hurry.

It ended up being a “controlled detonation” but no warning was given, so everyone assumed the worst. One of the Army guys even said he would have to change his pants if they kept that up.

Word got back to us that we had a way out via convoy the next morning. I felt sick to my stomach when Capt. E relayed that message, but by this point, I would have taken a bicycle out into Indian country, I didn’t care. I just wanted to go.

I decided to call the states on the sat phone then, so I went outside where I could get a connection. I got in touch with my dad. We talked for a bit – he had gotten the message from his boss. A few minutes into the conversation, though, a mortar hit behind the wall where I was standing.

“Crap, Dad, I gotta go. I gotta go!” I said as I began running for cover. I saw JV, who was nearby, run in the opposite direction. I hoped my Dad hadn’t heard the blast, but I was pretty sure he did. At that point, though, there was nothing I could do but leap over wood and bushes toward the barriers while debris rained down on us. I bounded into the house into the command post. It was also the place were some of the Soldiers slept in their boxers. Many of them turned and stared at me.

“Hey,” I said, struggling to catch my breath. Most of them just glared at me and rolled back over. I tiptoed over to the work section, where an Army sergeant – a gentle giant of a man – came up to me.

“Do you need to sit down?” he asked. I couldn’t talk. I just wanted to catch my breath. He pushed a seat underneath me.

“What happened to your helmet?” he asked.

“I think the strap busted,” I said, holding it in my hands. By this time, he was pulling out his Swiss knife and finding the screwdriver. I immediately felt calm in his presence as he fixed my helmet. I explained who I was, and what happened earlier in the day. He nodded, having already known about it. He reminded me of a those wise craftsmen I see at fairs – big mountain men who can carve something beautiful out of a chunk of wood without saying a word. He worked on my helmet, gently explaining to me what he was doing. JV and Capt. E eventually came into the room, a look of relief on JV’s face.

“We couldn’t find you!” he said. I nodded.

“Yeah, I went opposite of you since it was closer,” I said. “I busted my helmet.”

The sergeant held up my helmet.

“It’s good as new now,” he said. I took it from him, my hands shaking.

“Thank you,” I said. Capt. E was looking around the room.

“Can we bunk here?” he asked. “We’re waiting for an early convoy.” The sergeant looked around. There was very little space available, but he pointed over to a clear area in the hallway.

“If you can find the space, you can have it,” he said. We thanked him again and went looking for cots. We ended up bedding down in the foyer of the house. JV slept on the outside, while Capt E and I slept on the inside. Neither of us really slept, though. Every so often, the loud explosion of artillery woke us. Capt. E said he could hear every flare that was fired.

Eventually, it was time to get up, so we did, gathering our bags, plus JB’s. I had to remove my web belt suspenders since they were saturated in JB’s blood. I felt like vomiting when the Humvees pulled up for the convoy. After JB’s injuries, the mortar attacks that night and a lack of sleep, food or good hygiene, I dreaded testing fate with a convoy. But there was no choice. This was our only way out.

So, I went on autopilot. I followed JV’s lead, throwing bags into the back. I watched as the security detail checked over everything. They were heavily armed, their bodies like thick marshmallows in all that armor. I had to trust they knew what they were doing.

It was still dark out as we rolled onto the roads. I purposely didn’t wear the headphones – I didn’t want to know what we faced. I held my breath as we rolled under bridges, passing abandoned cars and dark homes. I kept my eye on JV, who remained calm and cool on the other side of the vehicle. The gunner stood in the middle, the same position where I stood during combat training. He was constantly swiveling around, keeping a watch. The ride seemed to last forever, but in reality, it was probably 45 minutes. The crew dropped us off at another FOB (our third one in a week), shaking our hands and wishing us luck. I thanked them profusely, truly thankful that they got us there safely.

Capt. E was able to secure us a helicopter hop to Baghdad from there, so we only had to wait about 45 minutes. We sat at a picnic table near the landing pad, talking and recounting the events of the day before. All of us couldn’t wait to get a shower. It was like a delicious pot of gold … just the idea of taking a shower.

Finally, the helicopter arrived. I was the first one in, so I got the “hell seat” or the seat that gets the most wind. That was funny, because the wind was so strong; I couldn’t even raise my head up. Any time I tried to say something, spit I didn’t even know I had was whipped out of my mouth and onto the guy next to me. I also got nailed in the nose by a wayward seat belt strap. The hop was less than 10 minutes and finally – finally – we were back in Baghdad.

The JTAC colonel, who helped get us out to the FOBs in the first place, met us at the heliport as he was on his way over to the International Zone to visit JB at the field hospital there. We got a status update, too: JB was rushed into surgery and came through with flying colors. He was kept in intensive care, though, for observation. His injuries were intense, though. A piece of shrapnel, similar to the walnut-size piece I had – went through one of his thighs, severing an artery which had to be grafted shut. He also took extensive shrapnel wounds to his shins. He will walk again, but it will be several months before he’s on his feet again. Needless to say, he is out for the rest of the deployment.

JB will eventually get a Purple Heart. JV and I are convinced he’s going to milk this, too, and will probably be impossible to live with since he’ll be expecting royal treatment.

All joking aside, though, JB saved my life, whether intentional or not. It’s a crazy game we play over here. There are no rules and it’s only a matter of seconds or millimeters that determine your fate. Do you live? Do you die? Do you get hurt? Do you escape without a scratch? There is no explanation. There is no reasoning. It’s random. But I’m so glad JB was on my team. He was already a friend, but now, he’s a friend for life.

Within a few days, JV and I will be back at home base, where we will determine the next step for the team. Do we get a replacement? Do we just continue on, just photographer and writer? Those questions will be answered soon enough. For now, though, I’m just thankful I’m alive, that we’re ALL alive.

There are articles waiting to be written, images waiting to be produced. We pick up and carry on, because that’s just what we do.