Halloween in Zaganiya

Zaganiya was one of the only missions that I remember being really afraid beforehand. A few days before going this mission we lost half a dozen soldiers to IEDs all in one mission. Some were from the outgoing unit (4th ID) and the rest from the new/incoming unit (1st Cav) that just arrived days earlier. Losing guys always hurt, but what was so unfair, was that guys from the outgoing unit were 3 days away from going home. They were at the finish line and it was just over and now only their bodies would be going home.

October was when things really started to decline and we started losing guys. It feels like it was yesterday that I was jumping out of that Humvee and running on autopilot into the chaos.

Originally Posted: 3/11/13

I clearly remember sitting in the back of the Humvee and feeling so petrified I had stomach acid re-fluxing into my throat and mouth. The entire ride I kept telling to myself, “I’m not getting out of this truck…f*#k this I’m not getting out”. Of course from the outside I just looked tired, but on the inside I was fighting the urge to start rocking back and forth like a nut case. I don’t know what it was about this particular mission but I just felt like I was going to die.

As we got closer to our target the anxiety was so bad it was making me nauseous, and I was trying to convince myself to stay in the truck. I knew it wasn’t an option because there was no way that I was going to let these guys see me scared. When we pulled up just outside our target we were met with a high mud wall that we weren’t expecting. The driver of my Humvee was instructed to “ram the wall”. I’m sure at this point my eyes were bugging out of my head because I thought to myself, “Wait, what? What did he just say?” Before I realized what was happening we were going full speed ahead toward the mud wall and hit it head on. The impact felt like getting hit with a tuning fork and it had zero effect on the wall and only knocked some bricks loose.

I was in an adrenaline-induced haze, and before I had time to second think, I was in autopilot, out of the Humvee and on the heels of the soldiers running toward the target. There was only a sliver-sized patch of land between the mud wall and a slight cliff that sloped down to a river. We were hugging the wall and side stepping as quickly as we could. As we got closer to the end of the wall, everything literally exploded into chaos with the sound of flash bangs, screaming and gunshots. Once we hit the end of the wall we ran across a narrow alley and directly into the nearest house.

Stock image

When the dust settled and the area was “secure” I finally had the opportunity to walk around and document the aftermath. The first thing I saw was an enemy casualty. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen casualties, just a few weeks before I filmed the aftermath of a brutal ambush. By the end of that day, the body count was 22 Iraqi Police and 2 insurgents dead. However, this time I didn’t have a reaction, and it didn’t bother me to see it.  I felt nothing. The only thought that ran through my mind while I filmed was how bright red the blood was on the dirt alley. I grew up watching these cheesy horror movies with the bright red blood and I always thought it was completely unrealistic. It felt surreal seeing it in real life, he’d been shot through his open mouth and he was barefoot. He was elderly, but he’d been hiding in a homemade foxhole with an AK-47. When we showed up he tried to run.

After the houses were cleared, and the searches were complete, they found ID making materials, rocket propelled grenade launchers and other contraband. As brutal as some of the missions were, I never forgot that if it came down to them or us, we would be the ones going home alive no matter what. Of course that didn’t always happen, but it was always the top priority, to make it home alive. This was a turning point for me, because I realized that it didn’t bother me to see and be in the middle of the chaos and danger anymore. That mission was the last time I remember ever being scared. I felt nothing after that, just numbness.

This mission was in 2006, I wrote this post in 2013 and it’s now 2019, 13 years later and I still struggle with connecting my brain to my emotions. My brain knows how I should feel but the rest of me feels blank. Sometimes I feel like a robot that has to scroll through an internal list of appropriate reactions when something good, bad, happy or sad happens. I don’t know if that ever goes away. The only reaction I’m still connected to is anxiety and anger when I’m startled.

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