It was dark inside the armored seven-ton vehicle, but I knew exactly where we were. The smell of dust and decay filled my nostrils and at once I realized I was back.
I was in the Iraqi city of my nightmares for the second time in my life. The realization made my heart sink to my feet.
“Fuck me,” I whispered under my breath.
“What was that Corporal?”
I could feel PFC Simmons’ warm breath as he turned to me. It was fast, panicked and had a tinge of vomit. The 18-year-old from Searcy, Ark., was on his first deployment overseas and he was scared.
“Did you say something Corporal?” he asked again.
“Aye aye Corporal.”
It hadn’t even been a year since I had waved goodbye to Fallujah with my middle finger, and sworn I would never come back. This place had taken so much from me, and now it seemed to want what was left. The damn city wouldn’t give up until I was dead.
“You think we’ll get in a fight tonight Corporal?” Simmons continued as I stared into the green canvas.
“Simmons,” I mumbled.
“Shut the fuck up.”
“Aye aye Corporal.”
The convoy continued down the main military supply route that ran through the middle of the city. I could feel Simmons hold his breath after every pothole. I’m sure he thought he would die that night. His drill instructors at boot camp probably filled his head with all kinds of stories, and now he was bracing himself for the explosion that would end his life and send him home in pieces.
Poor Bastard, he had no idea.
It didn’t matter if we got in a fight that night or the next. It didn’t matter if we were blown up the next day or the last day of the deployment. The simple, and true, fact of war was that he would never be the same again, no matter what he did.
I was dealing with my visions and memories. He would deal with his someday.
I had just graduated from the School of Infantry the month before and already I was clearing houses and fighting street to street with my squad. Fallujah had fallen to insurgents early in 2004, and now 3rd Battalion 5th Marines had been tasked with taking over the city along with five other battalions.
We had gone through the heaviest fighting during the month of November with minimal casualties and while other platoons in the company had taken KIA’s, we had not.
Now, as the sun crept up over the city and what was left of our mission I grew anxious. How much longer would this go on for?
I turned around and saw Corporal Hawley’s bald head sticking out from the balcony door.
Hawley was short in both stature and speech. He didn’t hate me but he didn’t have patience for me either. The Seattle native took his job as team leader seriously and he wasn’t going to let me get away with anything.
“Get down here and get some chow. We’re moving out.”
I went downstairs and looked through the ravaged boxes of MRE’s. One left, and it was arguably the worst MRE of the possible twenty-four kinds. It could only be compared to dog food, and of course the one I would get stuck with.
“Meatloaf and Gravy,” I mumbled.
“What’s wrong boot? You wanted a fucking steak?” Hawley laughed. He loved calling me a “boot.” I could hear it in the way he said it. He always pronounced the ‘T’ with emphasis.
“No,” I said.
It seems like such a trivial thing now, but when few comforts are afforded, a “good tasting” meal is so important. I hadn’t even gotten to the god-awful mashed potatoes before it was time to go.
We started clearing the houses on our assigned street and it was business as usual. Kick in door. Clear every room on bottom floor. Hold your breath as you clear the stairway. Ransack all the rooms on the second floor. Clear the rooftop. Try not to get anyone killed.
Try not to get yourself killed.
After a while it was hard not to get complacent.
“Clear,” Corporal Stewart yelled out from an empty room. “I think all the Mouj left Sergeant.”
“They’re around,” Sergeant Kirk replied as he turned the corner into the living room.
Every house we cleared only led to another. It was never ending and mostly uneventful. Mostly.
Occasionally we would patrol past a building that had been completely pulverized by mortar and artillery fire. We would soon learn why when the stink of decomposing bodies seeped through the rubble.
“Hey Leal?” Stewart asked.
“You know why I love that smell?”
“Because it means someone already did our job for us,” he laughed.
Stewart was tall, slender and smiled when he talked on the count of his big teeth. He only had a few months left as a Marine and spent most of the day letting us know exactly what he would do when he got out of the Corps.
The day went on exactly the same way as the day before.
The squad waited in the last house to see what orders we would get from higher. Everyone was tired, sweaty and hungry. As we sat on some Iraqi family’s coaches we couldn’t help but see the light at the end of the tunnel. The squad had already been through the hardest part and we hadn’t seen any action for at least two weeks.
Our brains were on going home.
Pioske was from Vermont and wanted to go to school when he got out. It didn’t matter to him which school. He just knew he was done with the Corps and college sounded like a great change of pace. His father had been in the Army Special Forces. I think he was trying to live up to his legacy while getting as far away from it as possible. Being a Marine grunt was his way of making his own legacy.
Woodbury was a terminal Lance Corporal who had a wife and 2-year-old waiting for him at home. He was the first real Atheist I had ever met. I remember thinking that was weird, but his reasoning made more and more sense as the deployment went on. It’s hard to see god in war.
“Ok everyone, gather round,” Kirk said. “Company CP says we’re done for the day, but we’re all moving to a school house in the middle of the AO. We’ll be operating out of there for the remainder.”
“Are we done clearing?” asked Hawley.
“Looks that way,” Kirk said. “We’re going to start patrolling tomorrow.”
We left the building, linked up with 2nd Squad and began to move to the schoolhouse.
The schoolhouse had been occupied by the Iraqi Army for about a week when we got there. It was a large, rectangular building made of concrete that looked more like an asylum than a school. They had already constructed barriers around it and sandbagged all the windows. It wasn’t the best firm-base, but it was better than an unfortified house.
As we got closer to the building we could see the other platoons already inside the compound.
Lieutenant Browning ran out to greet us before we could even get inside the building.
“3rd Squad,” he yelped. “Hold up!”
“You got to be kidding,” Woodbury said as he turned back to me. “Here comes the green weenie.”
Browning’s breath was heavy.
“C.O. wants you and 2nd squad to clear the buildings around the perimeter.”
While the rest of the squad fumed Kirk remained calm. It was his nature to not complain. We was doing what he always wanted to do, and giving his Lieutenant lip never factored into his equation. He simply turned around, huddled us up, and laid out the orders.
“We’ll get this done before you know it,” he said. “Kill?”
“Kill,” we responded.
We began clearing the buildings on the north side of the compound first. We broke up into our fire teams to get done faster. Everything was running smoothly, almost like we had caught our fourth wind, and before we knew it we were on the south end of the block. My team had just finished up the building we were in when we heard a pop.
“What was that?” Hawley asked.
We knew what it was but there was no way. Not now.
“What the fuck was that?” he yelled.
Another pop, then another, until we could hear the unmistakable sound of an AK-47 burst.
“Where’s it coming from?”
“Next door Corporal!”
We ran from our building into the next where 2nd Team was. There was a panic in the air, a kind of disbelief at first, then anger. Sergeant Kirk came running in after us.
“What’s going on?” he yelled.
“Stewart’s stuck upstairs! They got him!”
I could hear Corporal Stewart scream in between machine gun bursts. He sounded like a child as he pleaded for help.
“Get up there and get him God-damn-it!”
I had barely begun to shuffle my feet toward the stairway when I heard a yell in Arabic, followed by a ping. It was a grenade. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as it slowly bounced toward us down the stairs. I could see it, round and green with a yellow line running down the middle.
And with that trigger-word we all turned and ran for the living room door.
3 – I couldn’t get through.
2 – I was screwed.
1 – I somehow found a small room and jumped in.
“Is everyone ok?” Kirk yelled.
Stewart stopped screaming. Now all I could hear was a ringing in my ear and my team leader gasping for air.
“Hawley’s hit,” Woodbury yelled back.
“Get him outside,” Kirk screamed back. “Where’s Leal? LEAL?”
“I’m here Sergeant!”
“Where are you?”
I looked around.
“I’m in the shitter Sergeant!”
“Well get your ass over to us, now!”
I put my head down and I ran out of that restroom faster than I had ever run before in my entire life. I hadn’t taken two steps into the living room before another grenade exploded.
“Ok, this is what’s going to happen!”
I couldn’t think and I could hardly hear anything. Again I was glad my Squad Leader was a stronger man than me.
“Pioske … Leal, you go back up to the next building and see if you can get these mother-fuckers through the roof. Rest of us stay here, we have to find a way to get Stewart down.”
That would be the last time I would ever see Kirk. He died in that house trying to get Stewart’s mangled body back from the insurgents. We would eventually succeed but not before we had lost more lives in the process. Five in total.
I ran to the next building with my other squad members, but before we could get in the door Marines from 2nd Squad streamed out.
“They’re in here too!” one yelled.
One of the Marines ran out and fell into my arms. He had been shot in the face. Blood was gushing out of what used to be his cheek and mouth. He tried to speak but only gurgles and bits of teeth spewed out. We had just been ambushed by large number of insurgents and the worst part of it was that we were now fighting on their terms.
I carried the Marine to a group of Corpsmen who were surrounded by the injured and trying to help them all. A radio operator ran behind another squad leader who was trying to relay what was going on to higher. Soon there were a dozen Humvees, filled with Marines, skidding to a halt in front the main kill house.
The earth felt like it was shaking.
I started running back to the firefight when I heard someone call my name. It was Vorhies, Staff Sergeant Blazer’s radio operator. He looked pale and scared.
“Staff Sergeant’s up-up-upstairs,” he stuttered.
“He’s not moving,” he cried.
“They shot him.”
We later found out that our platoon sergeant had run from the school house with just his radio operator and Sergeant Fisher. He was trying to get a good vantage point in order to call in support. Blazer was under the impression that the fighting was confined to two houses. He had no idea, and neither did we, that there were insurgents in every house on that block. The husband and father of two had gotten half way to the balcony door when he was shot in the head from behind.
I lost it.
I ran over to four Marines that had just gotten to the fight and told them to follow me. I felt possessed with rage. I wanted to kill all of them. Every single last one of them. As we ran into the house we could here footsteps on the second floor. I don’t remember how I got up the stairs but it seemed like I was at the bottom of the stairway, and then blinked, and like that I was at the top.
“Staff sergeant,” I cried.
And there he was, laying face down, a pool of blood forming around his head. The sight almost brought me to my knees. I could see his kids and wife.
“Allah Akbar,” they screamed. “Allah Akbar!”
Fisher hadn’t left Blazer and was fending off the insurgents from a foot-wide pillar with his M-16.
“Leal,” he yelled, “over here.”
I ran to my staff sergeant, turned towards the door the insurgents were screaming from and squeezed my trigger.
“Come get him” I yelled to Fisher. “Come get him!”
I could see their muzzles sticking out from the door and I could hear the blasts echoing in the small hallway. They were shooting at me.
“God-damn-it! Come get him!”
Fisher grabbed Blazer by his flak jacket and dragged him out from under me and my suppressive fire. If I stopped firing they would kill me and Fisher too.
I kept shooting bursts of rounds into the rooms. They were quiet now. I reloaded.
“Get down from there,” Someone yelled. “They’re calling in air!”
“Is Staff Sergeant out?”
“Yeah, get down here now!”
I walked backwards; still firing at the door, then turned and ran down the stairs.
I looked around to see where my squad was when I got out of the house. I had gotten separated and didn’t know what had happened to them.
They were down the street, behind a Humvee, trying to figure out where I had gone. There were only four of us left: Pioske, Norton, Woodbury, and me. Everyone else from my squad was either injured or dead. As I stood there, numb to everything around me, I could hear the F-16’s flying above. Soon that entire block would be leveled. The only evidence that anything happened there would be piles of ruble and decaying bodies.
The second time
There was nothing glorious about war, and it took a war for me to realize it. It wasn’t a game a person could just hit the reset button and redo if they got tired or died.
Everything about it was real. The pain, blood and sweat. Everything.
And as I sat there in the dark, trying to suppress my memories, I began to feel sick. It hurt me to think that I was once like Simmons. It hurt me to think that after it was all said and done, if we all made it back or not, there would always be some dumb PFC that thought this was cool.
That is until he learned the lesson the hard way for himself.