For those that really want to know “what’s it like in Iraq?” simply eavesdrop on a few snippets of conversations while a unit is conducting a mission. Very little of what is said requires explanation. It familiarizes the listener with what’s on their minds, what’s in their hearts, and their past experiences in a combat zone (These are all reminiscent of previous tours in Iraq. The security situation is now, thankfully, much improved.)
“After the IED blew, they discovered that the gunner had slammed his head against a brick wall and died. All they found of the other guy was a torso covered by a flak vest, and a head.”
“The EFP [explosively-formed penetrator] actually saved his life. When it went through his knees, it was hot enough to cauterize the wounds. If that hadn’t happened, he would have bled out.”
“Can he walk?”
“A buddy of mine ended up losing one of his legs, the lower half of the other, and one hand. He’s a triple amputee now.”
“The turret was about 150 meters down the road with the guy still in it – or what was left of him.”
“They didn’t find much of anything of the two guys inside. Just a hand, I think.”
“No, getting shot isn’t much fun. I certainly didn’t like it when it happened to me last tour.”
“This is my fifth tour out here.”
“The two hits that really screwed with my mind were the one that mutilated my gunner, and the one that went off right next to our truck but didn’t hurt any of us.”
“I’ve seen guys shit themselves when IEDs go off. It happens. Others get back to base, see all the shrapnel damage, and when they realize how they were only a fraction of an inch from dying, they finally break down.”
“After the IED where they found the guy against the brick wall, that was only the beginning. When EOD showed up, one of the guys ended up getting his legs mangled when they got caught under the mine plow. Then a sniper took out another Soldier.”
And to these stories I can add the Marine in my battalion whose remains were picked off the roadside by a first sergeant carrying a trash bag, or the guy they found in pieces on a nearby roof, or the Navy Corpsman whose legs were both traumatically amputated when an antitank mine went off under a tire and caused the vehicle’s armor to fold back over him. There are others. And although these incidents are certainly (and thankfully) on the decline, it’s still Iraq and these events have replayed countless times. It’s not normal.
But it is reality for the troops, and consequence of the fact that they are well acquainted with their own mortality and the fragility of human life. Most people, I submit, would be utterly immobilized with fear or horror, but there is no place for it here. These conversations take place on missions, while vehicles navigate known insurgent hotspots, weave around filled-in IED craters and some not so refilled. The possibility remains that it may happen again.
“I don’t worry about it, really. If it’s my time, it’s my time, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
It would be a lie to say there is no fear here, because it is a natural sentiment in the face of imminent danger. But paramount to any fear or apprehension is duty. And what it illustrates is that nearly every man in combat arms is well aware of what fate may await him, but nevertheless reenlists, redeploys, volunteers to man the turret, to dismount and inspect the roadsides repeatedly. They will run hundreds of missions per tour, and many will be back here or in Afghanistan in less than two years time.
“People might think we’re bloodthirsty warmongers, but we actually want to go home more than they want us home. Nobody hates war more than those fighting them.”
What’s it like in Iraq? Dangerous, and sometimes people die. They did so doing their jobs, though, because their nation called them. Is it illogical? Perhaps, yet nations aren’t purchased and preserved by logic, but by men with hearts for duty and selflessness. You will find no greater demonstration of this than here. So again, what is Iraq like? Again, it is dangerous. But you will find yourself in good company, for it is also where America has collected her finest citizens.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved