Monday, November 13, 2006

The Day that Haunts Me...

"Hellblazer" is an Iraq war veteran and served in the US army as a Specialist Scout. The following, is his account of a battle that took place in Ba'Quba, Iraq in November 2004.
I believe that a good portion of a person's character is forged in times of great hardship.
It is these times that all of our strengths and weaknesses, both mental and physical, come to light.
We either come out of the situation humbled by how it made a quick end to our greatest efforts or confident of our abilities as we overcome.
But sometimes it takes us to another place.
A place where we succeeded in overcoming adversity, but at a cost we couldn't come to bear.
This is the place I visited, and will never forget.

Two years ago, I was a scout stationed in Iraq on a small dusty camp in the city of Ba'Quba.
Troubled times

The city was the largest in the area, containing roughly 300,000 residents. It was also congested, not as spread out as an American city, which made it difficult to operate in it efficiently.

In the past months my job had evolved into riding in the turret of my Humvee, with my two machine guns, patrolling the streets, a task that always seemed to lead to some sort of trouble.
At the time, one half of my unit was in Fallujah, battling the build up of insurgents that had been accumulating for months. Another quarter was north protecting a vital bridge across the Tigris River that insurgents had targeted in the past.
These forces were almost entirely made up of tanks, leaving us with four.

With tanks being the biggest bargaining chip we had, this use of the forces weakened our area, to say the least.
For this reason, my scout platoon, were tasked with keeping Ba'Quba and its surrounding areas under control.
Upon the initial push into Fallujah, insurgents identified the origin of the tanks involved in the fight, which quickly translated into where they came from: Ba'Quba.
With the notion of causing us to withdraw our forces from the Fallujah theatre, the insurgents moved quietly into the city of Ba'Quba the night prior, in preparation for an attack.

Rude awakening

They would not make their presence known until morning.
A deafening explosion, followed by what felt like an earthquake, pulled me out of bed that morning.
Insurgents had begun attacking Iraqi police stations in Ba'Quba, and a patrol in the area called in an air strike to clear a mosque containing armed insurgents. That deafening sound was two, 500-pound bombs making sand of the mosque.

Reports were coming in ranging from 50 to 200 insurgents still alive, attacking the city.
Not knowing what was correct, command assumed the worst.
We responded, in order, with our remaining four tanks, half of my platoon with our four trucks, and another platoon which would follow a good distance behind us, all flowing into the city in one long column.

Upon exiting the walls of my camp, and starting the ¾ mile run into the city centre, I saw the peaceful population of Ba'Quba fleeing the city.
Thousands of people, carrying their most prized possessions, scurried down the side if the road, trying to stay as low as possible, as they thought at any moment they could be shot.
I remember one young man looking at me with a fear full eye, as if I myself contained all of the fury of hell within me and was about to unleash it on those remaining in the city.

This brought me to believe that this wasn't just some overzealous commander's response.
Behind the fleeing civilians rose the column of smoke from the bombs that had fallen not long ago. Judging by that, I figured any insurgent that was fighting had left, but either way, the city had to be secured. Once we passed the mass of people coming out of the city, we were left with what appeared to be a ghost town in front of us.

Seconds turned into hours as the first rocket ripped passed the tank in front of me, exploding across the street.

Many more followed in quick succession as the tank rotated it turret and shot its main gun into the building it came from, collapsing its entire front half which the tank quickly filled with machine gun fire.
Our turn...
Having trouble acquiring targets, and under a lot of fire, the tanks quickly pushed through, bringing us up to bat.
At the site of the exposed bodies of my fellow gunners and I standing out of the tops of our humvees, the insurgents quickly increased their efforts. The sides of the street were lined with one to three story buildings, divided by alleys. Every window seemed to have something being shot from it.
The gunfire sounded like popcorn. The tracer bullets still had a faint glow in the daylight.
I instinctively targeted each of these windows.
Much like trying to hit the gopher with the hammer at the arcade, trying to pick one window out of twenty is very difficult. In the confusion, the order came to "shoot anything the moved".
A logical enough order at the time, considering everything that was moving, was also shooting. With this, our four trucks erupted in a wave of hell that I wouldn't wish on anyone. Within seconds, multiple cars were exploding, balconies were collapsing, and buildings were catching ablaze. We moved from block to block.
Each volley of destruction was triggered by the sound of a bullet racing passed my ear, a rocket exploding nearby, or the vengeful eyes of my friends riding in the truck with me.
"Three O'clock, Second Floor! Five O'clock First Floor! Four O'clock Alley!"
I must have heard every combination.
Me or them

The insurgents would start to flee into other alleys only to be greeted by gunners to my front and rear. It was complete chaos, but we were staying alive.
It was me or them, and if I had anything to say about it, it was going to be them. I filled with a rage that I still cannot explain.
I felt my eyes swelling as my heart beat faster and faster, my arms burning from constantly wrenching the gun from target to target, my pores spewing sweat.
My nostrils grabbed the smell of gunpowder and car fires out of the air, my mouth tasted the gun oil coming off with every recoil, my ears ringing with a loudness almost equal to my surroundings.
All the intensity kept building at an almost exponential rate.
The skirmish lasted for nearly an hour, until it started to calm, resulting in only sporadic gunfire. We remained in place while other units in the area finished their objectives.
The muscles in my body had relaxed, but were still having spasms as the final traces of adrenaline left my blood. The sweat and gunpowder had stared to dry into a black dust all over my face and hands.

My mouth was hoarse from yelling to the people in the truck, requesting ammo and water to cool my barrels. During the whole ordeal I never thought to put any water into my own body, and at this point water never tasted so good. I drank half and poured the rest of the bottle over my face.
I dropped the empty bottle down into the truck, which caused a small avalanche of spent shell casings to fall into the floorboards of the truck.
Over 700 of varying calibres covered my feet. I wiped my face with my sleeve, and then it happened.

An Iraqi with an AK-47 was running down across the street one block down the alley. I caught him out of the corner of my eye when he was already half way across the street, I quickly swung my gun over, started to fire just before he came into aim, walking the rounds into their intended target; but just as the rounds were about to fall upon him, he made it to the other corner.
I immediately keyed the headset to radio the gunner who was covering the alley he was headed towards.
Before I finished, I heard the gunner down the block fire a burst, followed by some soft chatter on the radio. I don't remember what was being said, because just as that gun cut loose, my attention was fixed on the terror in front of my face.
As the Iraqi had made it out of my field of fire, my gun strafed into a rickety trailer parked right at the corner.

Now falling out from behind this trailer was the body of a teenage boy. The void in his chest replaced what was once his heart and his body convulsed slightly as his nerve endings fired their last.
His body lay there in the filthy dirty street, muddy water surrounding him from the drainage of the nearby houses. A rolling pain stared at my eyes.
I felt it work its way through the optic nerve, and into my brain. It swirled around at the top of my spine, and then drained down.

Nausea filled my stomach and a cold feeling overtook my flesh. How long had he been behind that trailer? Had he been there through the whole mess? Not to long afterwards, an older man emerged from around a corner, immediately collapsing nest to the young man's body.
It wasn't long before an ambulance arrived. Then the silence took over again. We would remain in place for another hour so, and then return back to the base, but my mind remains there to this day.
I was told a million times after that day, that what happened was completely out of my control, a series of unfortunate events.
A patriot might say "You did it for you country", while others scream baby killer, and hindsight is always 20/20.
Father says he's proud, friends ask what happened to the person they used to know, and the families of those who died, friend and foe, greave endlessly. I've torn it apart a million times in my head, re-evaluated over and over again, each time with the same result. It was unavoidable, at that moment in time.
veryone has their own tragedy, which relative to themselves, is equally painful to them as this was to me.
It is these events that shape us in our many facets.
In the end, we're the ones that have to live with it, but even if I got off easy.
I'm alive.


  1. As a kid I watched my father beat my mother badly, once hinting at sneaking back into our home to kill us, after he'd moved out; he was facing divorce later mooted by his suicide, February 1968.

    I'd once watched him mop the floor with her head, using her hair like a handle on a scrub brush, running it through the mop water he'd dumped from her bucket; she'd been scrubbing the floor on her hands and knees before that moment.

    I made mistakes as a very young child, sometimes facilitating his flying into a rage. She would sometimes take the beating he'd intended for me.

    One day he was beating her, his hand holding her body off the floor from beaneath her jaw, holding her against the wall, while punching her squarely in her bloody face. I undid my elastic clip-buckle belt, the kind that little boys wore back then, and whipped him across the back with it. He threw me across the kitchen into the cupboards, like a small ball. I was stunned, but not undone. I got back up, a little bit wiser in my thinking.

    After his death, I was undone by the reality of loss; death became very real at a young age. The truth of our existence revealed, that persons can vanish without warning; when a person glances back, & walks out the door, may be their last moment.

    We never attended his funeral. I spent years looking in telephone books of towns we moved to, wondering if his death was a hoax, and he was living elsewhere. I actually looked for him, hoping to one day find him. I didn't conceptualize it as such, but I still loved him, and wanted him back, despite his ills.

    Years later, after his suicide, my mother drowing in unspoken guilt and addiction, I decided that there was nothing left for me to do for her; her alcohol and pills were insufficient to kill the pain she felt over his death, his reaction to the pending divorce.

    I left the house, moving out when I was 13, residing temporarily at a Jesus Commune; they had a bed I could use.

    As an adult I ended up working in mental health for a time, a number of years ago; not surprising, huh?

    One day I sat through a discussion panel at a conference; Vietnam vets who experienced PTSD in very acute ways. The theme was clear, as they recalled radio calls of their buddies taking fire, being shot up, needing support that couldn't be delivered, pinned down and unable to get to them. The significance of the helplessness as one listens to those they care about being harmed. Self-blame..

    Not only couldn't I change it, but to make it worse, I'm still alive, and they're not..

    I could've/should've/would've done more.

    Thoughts and experiences so long in the bloodstream and brain that I -know- they will never leave. How can such memory be erased? Believe me, I worked hard for 40 years to erase such memories of feelings and sensations.

    One night I had a nightmare involving shame. I'd tried to kill a bison on a hiking trail in a park, and there were hikers coming up the path. The bison was bleeding from all the ammo I'd poured into it, but it wouldn't die. It kept on bleeding, standing in front of me, staring at me through the blood pouring from its nostrils, voices approaching up the path, getting closer.. I was about to be caught in the act of not only poaching this thing, but of inflicting pain while it quietly stared back at me.

    At that time, I'd been seeking help for personal issues, not the least of which were the second and third suicides in my family of origin.

    The person I'd asked to help me said this about my bison; Maybe the task isn't to make the bison go away; that may never happen. Rather, try to turn the bison into a mouse.

    The memories that inflict such sensation of guilt, helplessness, and loss, will always be there. The task maybe isn't to get rid of them, as much as it is to work toward re-framing, acceptance of, and quieting them; forgiveness, making the gurgling sounds less audible.

    Life waits beyond that place.

    Take care,

    Another affected soul.

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