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t happened partway through the first year of Operation Iraqi Freedom: October 17, 2003. Brian remembers only flashes of the day itself, and has had to piece the rest of it together based on what others have told him. What’s firm in his head is that he had not wanted to go home, even though he was due for a break. “Sergeant J,” he said to Jacubiak, his platoon sergeant, “I do not want to go on mid -tour leave. Send one of the Joes.” “Sergeant McGough, this is not your call. Soldiers who were in Afghanistan and guys with children are first on the list. You’re in both categories.” “I don’t want to go. I need to be here to lead my soldiers. Send one of the guys who is married and has kids.” “McGough, you have been deployed three times in four years—Kosovo in 2002, Afghanistan in 2003, now you’re here in Iraq. Go see your little girl.” “But my ex is barely talking to me!” Brian considered how depressing it would be to go home to a house that echoed with memories and broken dreams. His ex-wife had been Army too; they’d split up after his first deployment, and she’d taken their daughter Sonja with her when she moved away. “Now she’s in Washington State,” Brian told his platoon sergeant. “I don’t even know if I’ll get a chance to see my daughter.” Jacubiak was having none of it. “You can’t refuse! You are going. That is a direct order.” “Sergeant J,” Brian was nearly begging now. He knew he had a reputation for being difficult, for struggling with authority—early in his military career he’d been denied promotions for disciplinary problems—but this was different. “I have a bad feeling about this. It’s not a good idea. I don’t need to leave—send someone else.” “Relax, Mac.” Jacubiak couldn’t believe this guy. “Go drink some beers and get a piece of ass. Get your mind off this shithole for a couple weeks.” Impossible, Brian knew. An Army lifer, he was closing in on ten years of active duty, and with his wife and daughter gone, it was his troops who counted most. Despite his early rebellion in the rank s, he’d risen to become a leader, earning a Bronze Star in one of Afghanistan’s roughest battles, Operation Anaconda. Like many fellow Rakkasans (the nickname of our brigade in the 101st Airborne Division), he was confused about why they’d been pulled out of Afghanistan and sent to Iraq. Brian was particularly disillusioned about the shift in focus—he’d lost family in the 9/11 attacks and felt a personal stake in tracking down Osama bin Laden. Who cared about Iraq, a country with no connection to al-Qa’ida? But orders were orders. Brian had gone to Iraq, and now, reluctantly, was going on mid-tour leave. Just as he’d suspected, he was unable to see his daughter. He spent his fifteen days home doing what he’d been told—drinking beer, getting some ass. And impulsively trading his pickup (he owed more on it than it was worth) for a new red sports car. “Why not?” he asked himself. Debt was meaningless. Sure, he’d get fat paychecks while in Iraq—being
exempt from paying taxes while overseas and getting hazardous duty pay in a combat zone bumped up our pay—and there wasn’t anything to spend money on during a deployment. But that wasn’t the reason. It was more his nebulous future. Would you be thrifty if you weren’t sure you’d be coming back alive? Being in a war gives soldiers a sense of a foreshortened life. Why quit smoking when you might get shot tomorrow? And this was his third deployment in four years—it seemed impossible to even imagine a normal life anymore. Brian returned to Mosul still hungover. Crammed like a sardine in the military plane’s belly, he and the other troops dozed off in webbed seating arranged in double rows facing each other. Suddenly the C-130 did a combat landing, coming in steep and fast. The men jolted awake, looking at one another with raised eyebrows: Iraq was supposed to be in SASO (stability and support operations), and Bush had landed on an aircraft carrier and declared “Mission Accomplished” months ago. What was going on? Brian’s internal alarm flared. After the plane landed, the ramp eased down, letting in a blast of astonishingly hot dry air, redolent of acrid jet fuel and the smell of burning trash and shit. “Mmm, smells like Iraq all right! Good to be back in the shit,” someone joked. Most Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) lacked plumbing, and modern portajohns were just being rolled out. The norm was a makeshift “shitter,” a plywood structure with a toilet seat affixed to a platform, beneath which was a half-barrel. When it got full, a soldier would add jet fuel and set it alight, stirring the foul mess until it all burned up.1 At the Division-Rear airfield, he and his friend Bobby were in for a shock. No one from their unit was there with their gear. They’d been told that when they got back, they’d get their weapons and PPE (personal protective equipment) back, but nothing was there for them—it was uncoordinated as hell. Without body armor or weapons, they would be unprotected on the trip back to Tal ‘Afar, where our brigade’s FOB was located. Another alarm tripped in Brian’s head: if he hadn’t gone on leave, he wouldn’t be in this mess. He, Bobby, and other guys from their unit managed to link up with the brigade convoy headed back to Tal ‘Afar and borrow flak vests and Kevlar helmets from the guys heading out on leave. But it all fel t wrong. There wasn’t enough gear to go around, and what there was didn’t fit properly. The worst thing, though, was to be without a weapon. He felt naked and helpless. You were never able to control when or if the enemy attacked, but you could control your response if you had a weapon. Now even the ability to return fire had been taken from him. His anxiety intensified when he was ordered into a bus instead of a Humvee. Bad enough he wouldn’t be driving and be in control, but at least in a Humvee he could monitor his sector of fire and watch for threats and IEDs (improvised explosive devices). The Humvees hadn’t been up -armored yet,2 but that meant the doors had been taken off and you could maneuver easily. Stuck in a bus, with windows that
this disposed of the solid and liquid mess, who knows what it left in the lungs of everyone who breathed the disgusting
was the Rumsfeld era of “You go to war with the Army you have”—lots of the Humvees had canvas doors that offered no protection whatsoever. (Hell, I didn’t even have plates for my flak vest for the f irst few months!) Our unit started having the locals build metal plates to reinforce them. It would be a few more years before Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs) showed up.
were impossible to open and aim out of even if he had a weapon—he felt terribly insecure. Brian threw his duffel bag by a window on the right side of the bus a few rows back and sat down next to it. “Clusterfuck,” he thought. “Fucking typical.” Guys with PPE were in the w indow seats, while those without sat next to them, on the rationale that they’d be less at risk there. When Bobby got on, the bus was almost full. To make room for him, Brian grabbed his duffel bag, ran off the bus and threw it onto the LMTV (light medium tactical vehicle) in front of the bus, then got back on and sat back down by the window. Bobby sat down next to him and they talked about leave, their kids, and what they were going to do—this part was strictly theoretical—when, if, the deployment was over. The convoy drove through Mosul. In recent months the people there had become less and less friendly toward Americans. The kids used to wave at our convoys when they drove by, but they’d stopped. Now they flipped their middle fingers and spat as Americans passed. When the convoy neared a tall blue intricately painted arch on the outskirts of the city—the Gates of Mosul—Brian got even tenser. It was sunny and clear, locals milled around, kids and chickens picked through the trash that littered the roadside. Just ahead was what our unit called Ambush Alley—every area of operations had one, the place where the most attacks took place, where troops were most likely to get hit—this one was ours. It was on that stretch of road that everything went to shit. An IED went off on the right side of the bus, and the explosion blew out the front door and window. Pieces of glass flew everywhere. “We’re hit, we’re hit!” someone shouted. The bus kept rolling, and a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) fired from an alley on the right missed the back of it by inches. Other attackers were shooting small arms at the convoy. “We’re taking fire from the left!” The LMTV in front of them was towing a fuel pod of JP-8 (jet fuel). The fuel pod had been hit, setting the canopy above the LMTV on fire, and soldiers jumped off to get away from the flames as it slowly pulled to the side of the road. The outside of the bus was on fire, too. “Keep going! We have to get clear!” The driver of the bus, a young soldier who was the battalion mail clerk, kept his foot pressed on the gas, trying to get out of the attack zone as quickly as possible. Burning rubber disintegrated off the tires until they were down to steel scraping on pavement. Immediately, the troops who had escaped the burning LMTV confiscated a local pickup truck. The Iraqi driver tried to argue, but they dragged him out and shoved him aside, commandeering the vehicle. As many guys as could fit crammed into its bed and the cab; two more rode on the hood as it took off after the bus, trying to stay with the convoy. On the bus, troops were checking themselves and those around them for injuries. One guy sitting near the front had an injured arm. “I need a knife!” Bobby called; a Leatherman was quickly passed up from the back. Bobby cut away the sleeve to assess the injury. It was ugly, but didn’t look life-threatening. Brian said, “I think I hit my head,” and tried to stand up. There was metal sticking out of the back of his head. “Sit down, man,” Bobby said. “Give me a cigarette,” he mumbled. “Is there a CLS bag?” Bobby called. Any Humvee would have had a combat lifesaver bag on it with sterile dressings, IV fluids, scissors, and more. But there wasn’t one on the bus. Another NCO from their unit passed up a clean T-shirt from his assault pack. “Let me take a look,” Bobby said. The right side of Brian’s face was wounded, one gash several inches long near his temple
bleeding profusely. “Let me bandage this,” he said, using the shirt to craft a makeshift bandage, carefully avoiding the piece of shrapnel protruding about an inch from Brian’s skull behind his right ear, under his Kevlar. “Dude,” Bobby said, “you gotta see a medic.” “No, man, I’m cool.” Brian had no idea. “I just need a fucking cigarette! My head is killing me from this hangover and hitting it on the window.” Bobby pulled the left side of Brian’s head down to his shoulder and held him to ensure he didn’t accidentally drive it in deeper as he moved around, moaning. He didn’t tell Brian about the shrapnel, not wanting him to panic or try to touch it. The driver of the bus never took his foot off the gas, pushing forward until they got to the next American outpost. Everyone got off the bus. First the most severely wounded, who were clustered near the front of the bus. One of the last guys off turned to thank the driver, but the words froze in his mouth when he saw the blood dripping down the mail clerk’s head, forehead, face...despite his injuries, the driver had pushed through, getting them all to safety. Brian was walking and talking but disoriented. The MPs called for volunteers to go back and make sure no one was still out there. A staff sergeant from my unit, who had been riding on the LMTV and was bloodied and burned, stepped forward. They loaded up and headed back out—never leave a fallen comrade behind. Bobby called a medic over to Brian: “We got to get him on a bird, get him outta here.” Brian tugged at Bobby: “Where’s the cigarette?” The medic evaluated Brian briefly. He was walking, making eye contact, talking. “We’ll just bring hi m to the Battalion Aid Station. It’s not life-threatening.” “Are you out of your mind?!” Bobby said, trying to keep his cool. It was obvious to him that an injury as severe as Brian’s needed advanced medical treatment. “Get him on the bird. He needs to be evaced. He needs surgery!” “Who do you think you are, a doctor?” the medic sneered. “Look at him—he’s talking, asking for a cigarette. He’s ambulatory. He doesn’t need to be evaced.” Bobby wouldn’t give up, arguing until a medevac helicopter had landed and the medic relented. “Come on, man, let’s get you on the bird,” one of his friends said, leading Brian forward. Brian tried to climb into the pilot’s door. “No, dude! Wrong door,” his friend said, pulling him back. The crew helped him onto a stretcher in the back and got him strapped down. Bobby’s last glimpse of Brian was of him lying down, his head propped on a Kevlar. “Fuck!” he said. “What if he’s pushing shrapnel in deeper?!” The helicopter lurched upward. Brian was on his way to the Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad. He couldn’t know that his battle wasn’t ending; it was only beginning.