Archive for September, 2014

A Story from Iraq (excerpted from “Finding Home” by Mathew Chase)

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

Four days after our guys in 3rd Platoon were killed – May 10, 2007 – we were on base but had gotten word that one of the vehicles from either 1st or 2nd Platoon had been hit with an IED. We were assigned to accompany the “wrecker,” which is like a tow-truck for disabled tankers, to the scene to assist in retrieving the vehicle and bringing it back to base. Luckily, no one had been seriously injured.

As soon as we got the report, we loaded up and moved out. There were three Strykers in our convoy. Leading the way was Attack 66, with Cpt. Johnson as Vehicle Commander and Sgt. Purcell operating the 50 cal. In the rear of this vehicle were SFC (Sergeant First Class) Barron, Lt. Sabados, Sgt. Dalton Heimlich, and RTO Musick. Jason Braun was the driver.

I was in the second vehicle, Attack 65, operating the 50 cal from the TC (tactical commander) hatch. Lt. Pierce was my vehicle commander, Sgt. Gallagher and 25 Uniform Cornejo were in the rear hatches, and Ronan was in the driver’s hole… The last vehicle was Attack 8, operated by our first sergeant, Sgt. Goodman. Goodman normally rolled with our company’s three snipers.

We’d gone a few blocks, trying to get to the site as quickly as possible. It turned out that 1st and 2nd Platoon were already there. Then, suddenly, we stopped. Apparently, there had been intelligence from one of the locals that there was a deeply buried IED on the street we were about to enter. EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) hadn’t detected it, but if it were deep in the ground, it may well have escaped their radar. In my position as 50 cal gunner, I could see all the routes on a display screen in front of me. They were color-coded to show if they’d been cleared, and when.

Later we heard that while we were stopped there, Sgt. Purcell had been arguing with Cpt. Johnson, repeatedly telling him we shouldn’t drive down that road. This day, as on all previous days, Sgt. Purcell was the gunner. He was an expert operator and I had always respected his leadership decisions. Apparently, though, Cpt. Johnson disagreed with him and finally pulled rank, ordering Braun to turn left down the street.

None of us wanted to drive on that street, fully aware of what could happen. I wondered if it would be our Stryker, or Attack 66, that would be hit with an IED. Were the insurgents planning to blow up one of our vehicles, and then attempt to ambush those remaining?

Braun made the left turn and drove cautiously down the road. Seconds later, there was a thunderous BOOM! Attack 66 had been hit by an IED! In an instant, all hell broke loose. There was dust everywhere, and pieces of earth rocketed upward by the blast rained down on our vehicle. Lt. Pierce told Ronan to move our vehicle forward a bit so I had a better three o’clock view. From the driver’s hole, Ronan reported that all he could see was smoke, dust, and a tire blasted off the vehicle, which had actually been thrown up into the air by the explosion’s force, and had landed upside down.

Fire seemed to be coming at us from every direction now, as we tried to establish communication with anyone on Attack 66.

Lt. Pierce took charge from the commander hatch. “Ricky, we’re taking fire from three o’clock. Get that 50 cal over there and fire into those buildings.” He paused, then added, “That three-story house over there…the tallest one. They’re firing at us from there.”

“Roger that, sir!” I replied. I checked our RWS (Remote Weapon System) and zoomed in on the window of the tallest house. I could see a gunman popping out every now and again, but I couldn’t get a good shot. I aimed a few inches below the bottom ledge of the window, where I’d take him out if he was crouching down or standing close by in the room. I fired a quick burst, and watched as the 50 cal rounds ate right through the flimsy clay walls of the house. If the shooter was still in there, it was unlikely he was alive.

Even with the help of 1st and 2nd Platoon, we were still taking massive amounts of lead. By this time, all of our vehicles were firing their 50 cal’s. In the rear of our vehicle were 240 Bravos mounted to the hatches, and once opened, these guns fired 7.62 grade ammo from belts, machine-gun-style. Bartolo was back there, and he had opened fire also. I could no longer zero in, so I saturated the entire house with rounds. I was nearly done firing 500 rounds. The rounds were stored up top in an ammo can that feeds them straight to the 50 cal. I had to climb up and expose myself in order to reload an additional 500 rounds. Adrenaline pushed away my apprehension, allowing fight to win out over flight…

I could hear Lt. Pierce coordinating with the guys on the ground to find out the condition of Attack 66. The front of Attack 66 had taken the majority of the IED’s impact. SFC Barron was thrown from the rear of the hatch, and Ryder Musick managed to escape, as did Lt. Sabados and Sgt. Heimlich. Sgt. Purcell ended up crawling out of one of the side hatches; he had been deeper inside the overturned vehicle, so it had been a struggle, but he made it. Cpt. Johnson made it out alive as well, although his legs were twisted in three different directions. All the while, the ammunition in the vehicle was cooking from the heat, and the Stryker became engulfed in flames. It was someone’s idea of hell become real.

But what about Braun? I kept thinking. I started asking the question to Lt. Price every few seconds. “Is Braun okay, sir? Is he alive?”

Lt. Price told me, “Ricky, we don’t know yet, but they don’t think he made it out.”

Sweat poured down my face as I heard about the Stryker’s fate. It wasn’t long before someone said that Braun had been trapped inside the driver’s hole, unable to escape with the hatch flat against the ground.

One more time, I said to Lt. Pierce, “Sir! Is Braun dead?”

“Ricky, it sounds like he’s gone.”

And then I remember hearing Sgt. Gallagher scream, “FUUCCKK!! FUUCCKK!”

On hearing this, I stared at my RWS screen without really seeing it. All I could think about was that I was never going to see him again, never talk to him again. The questions I constantly pushed back sprang into my head…I had no defense against them now. What the hell was going on in this world? Were we here just to endure constant pain and loss? And what kind of fucking hero did Cpt. Perkins think he was? None of this had to happen! I sat there bathed in my sweat, thirsty as hell, but telling myself I didn’t deserve water because I was still alive.

My eyes were glassy as I struggled to hold back tears. Nonetheless, a few escaped and I brushed them away. I felt angry that we hadn’t had better resources for a situation like this or the one just four days before – Blackhawk or Apache attack helicopters, maybe even a JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munitions). We had so many restrictions on us, but the past few days should send a message. We were in a combat zone, not on some peacekeeping mission!

The day wore on. Cpt. Johnson was evacuated, and eventually they extracted Braun’s body from the wreckage of Attack 66. It was after dark when we finally made it back to base. We had stepped out of our vehicle, and Sgt. Purcell, Musick, and SFC Barron were getting checked out by Drs. Walters and Mueller.

It was time to move Braun’s body to the med station, and Doc Walters approached us. “You want to help us carry him in?”

I quickly said, “No. Are you going to look him over?” I didn’t want to feel the weight of his body in my arms…

While the others carried Braun’s body to the med station, I crept away. My chest felt like it was caving in, and I couldn’t focus my thoughts on anything. I knew I was about to lose it. Among the motor-pool, I picked my way to a dark, little space where I could be alone. There I paced back and forth, a distance not much more than five feet, as I felt myself beginning to hyperventilate. I clenched my fists until they ached, but I couldn’t take it any longer. I had to let it out! Otherwise, I knew, I’d become destructive and hurt either myself or something (or someone) around me. Then came a torrent of tears. I gasped for air as the knot in my throat pushed back against the scream that wanted to escape my chest. I hadn’t cried like that since I was five years old.

My mind tried to calculate everything, as usual – war, religion, God – but my thoughts were scattered and chaotic. I was conscious of one thing, though. It wasn’t right…it wasn’t right…it wasn’t right. I was alive and Braun was dead.

Instead of answers, or even a slight glimmer of rationality or calmness, more agonizing questions popped into my head. Like, why was I falling apart this way over Braun, whom I hadn’t even known for more than two years? I’d seen the passing of family members, for heaven’s sake, and didn’t react this way! And how long would it be before I would be over this? Only time can heal this kind of hurt, I thought. But how much time?

Order your copy of “Finding Home” at  http://www.amazon.com/Finding-Home-Mathew-Chase/dp/1499085109