We were on base in Habbaniyah one day getting some work done when, without warning, the ground shook with an enormous explosion. Of all the guys in my unit at that time, I had the most experience with explosives, and I estimated that the explosion was within a kilometer, and absolutely huge. After all, even over half a click away, the concussive wave had enough force to ruffle our clothing like a gale force wind. It may not have been on base, but it was close. I asked my staff sergeant if we could check it out, and to my surprise, he declined. I kept pestering him until he relented.
When we drove to the far side of the base we encountered utter chaos. Whether the explosion was on-base or not I still didn’t know, but all the Iraqi casualties were being evacuated to the Iraqi Army clinic adjacent to our compound. It was a bloodbath.
In a panic, the Iraqi soldiers would back up a truck full of casualties to the clinic steps and start unloading. Some climbed down on their own, but a number were carried on stretchers. Several more were wrapped in blankets and already dead. As they were unloaded, another truck would pull up with more injured. The drivers, in a panic to unload their casualties as quickly as they could, were unintentionally running over the line of bodies slowly accumulating at the edge of the lot. Almost everybody was yelling at everybody else, too. We had grabbed gloves and started picking up blood-soaked bandages from the front steps of the clinic. A lot of the patients had been treated, and died, before they had even made it inside the clinic.
My medic friend was working on a little girl that had taken some shrapnel in her ribcage and probably into lungs. Every time he bent over and tried to properly assess her injuries, the older Iraqi man behind him would start yelling and impatiently pushing Doc to look at him first. His only injury was a small cut to his hand. I guess as an old man in a society that respects its elders above all others, he figured he deserved to be treated first.
Doc kept trying to explain to him that the little girl needed treatment first because she had more serious injuries, but the older man either didn’t understand or didn’t care. The cut on his hand took precedence, at least in his mind. After yelling at him again to wait for treatment like everybody else, Doc turned back to the little girl and discovered she had died. In frustration, he moved on to another patient and left the older man there to complain to some other doc.
As they finished transporting all the casualties to the clinic, it started to become clear just how many Iraqis had died. The docs wrapped the rest of the bodies in old, green sleeping bags and stacked them outside the clinic with the rest of the run-over ones. You could always tell which bags had children in them since they looked mostly empty.
We didn’t know the exact number until later, but the final count was 41 killed, including 15 women and children. More than 140 were injured, mostly as they were praying in a nearby mosque, working at the police station right across the road, or shopping at any of the dozens of shops, grocers, or poultry stalls also close by. The bomb had been a large Mercedes truck filled with explosives and then covered with a layer of large quarry stones to hide the bomb. The stones, of course, just made for more projectiles.
Because it happened right outside the wire, the Iraqis evacuated all the casualties into the Iraqi Army clinic, and an “all hands” alert was issued to any US or Iraqi medical personnel on the entire base. The Marines even scrambled emergency convoys to another nearby US base with a better trauma hospital. The severest casualties were choppered out from over there. We did everything we could. It still didn’t seem like much, though.
Whenever people here in the States loudly insist that we should just leave Iraq and forget about it, I think about the car bomb in Habbaniyah. I think about my friends and I on the front steps of the clinic, using squeegees and buckets of water to remove the pools of blood. I remember the line of sleeping bags holding all the bodies and I think of Doc and the little girl that died while he was working on her. I remember all four branches of the US military aiding the Iraqi Army and all of us doing everything in our power to help the injured and dying.
I believe that no human being, regardless of race, creed or ethic, should live in fear of such an attack as that one in Habbaniyah. And those who sincerely endorse us leaving Iraq and thus leaving the Iraqis to endure this sort of violence need to seriously examine themselves … and hope they find a soul.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved