When time stood still

Have you ever had a moment when it feels like time slowed down, as if you are living a scene out of “The Matrix”? My first “Matrix” moment happened in late 2006. I was at FOB Gabe, a nearly empty base with my photographer. This mission was different from the others, because it was with a military transition team (MiTT) which I’d never worked with before. Their mission was to train and prepare the Iraqi Army to take over securing their own country when we eventually pulled out of Iraq. They had a big job but they were committed and cared about accomplishing their mission.

Choices

That night we had our mission brief to cover every scenario that may happen and the current state of our province, which was always my least favorite part because it was always terrible news. Then it came down to the topic we’d been waiting for…which units had open seats for us.
There were two open seats:
Seat 1: Ride with the command element: relatively safe but would be on the move driving around the whole time
Seat 2: Ride with one of the units that were going in with the Iraqi Army

Leadership

I was promoted about 2 weeks after I arrived in Iraq and had only been a non-commissioned office (NCO) for a few months at that point. It was a new experience having to make these type of decisions and since I was the team lead for this mission, the decision was mine. I took these decisions very seriously, I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I made the wrong decision and my team mate ended up hurt or worse. The only option I was comfortable with was me taking the seat with the unit that was going in. I’d seen enough and I couldn’t in good conscience put an inexperienced soldier on the more dangerous mission.

Mufrek Circle aka “Circle of Death”

A few hours later at 0400, I dragged myself out of bed and into the freezing cold to set out for what would be a very long and eventful day. Our mission that day was to hang back at an outer cordon while the Iraqi Army took the lead and went in to do house-to-house searches in an area called Mufrek Circle or “Circle of Death.”

(Photo Credit: Air Force Master Sgt. Mike Buytas)

I was initially unaware that we weren’t physically going to go into the houses with the Iraqi Army. After talking to a couple of the MiTT guys it made perfect sense why we stayed on the outskirts of the neighborhood. No matter how the many times they taught the IA soldiers to clear a building properly, they continued to do it their way by shooting into the rooms first and then looking for a threat. I suppose it was an effective method if you weren’t concerned about shooting innocent people or getting shot by friendly fire. Staying out of buildings being cleared by the IA was my new protocol.

“The Matrix”

There was a lot of idle time just standing around and smoking cigarettes. It was all I had to keep the hunger and fatigue at bay. I was standing up against a cinder block wall smoking cigarettes with a U.S. soldier and interpreter watching the Iraqi Army “clear” houses from a safe distance. I was looking straight ahead at a couple of IA soldiers moving around when I noticed their Humvee windshield crack and spider out. I remember thinking to myself “That’s strange, their windshields aren’t bullet proof.“ The tire blew out on the U.S. Humvee a few feet from us. It starting raining dust on us, not a lot, but enough for me to think “what the f*** is going on?” The only sound I could hear was the sound of firecrackers, the small ones that make a snapping/cracking sound. All of this was happening around us and I felt like I’d just been standing there like an assh*le for 10 minutes slowly watching everything happen around me and doing nothing until the guy next to me screamed “Take Cover!” I felt like a robot, I didn’t think, I just ducked behind the closest Humvee.

It only took a matter of seconds for the gunner of the U.S. Humvee to unload down the street where the shots came from after a minute or so the incoming rounds stopped. I wish I could say I was scared but I remember feeling numb. No fear and no relief of being unharmed. Just business as usual.

“Pulp Fiction”

Notice the bullet holes behind them

When the chaos died down, we started assessing the damage. One of the MiTT guys pointed to the cinder block wall and the chunks missing from it. That’s when we realized that the dust coming down on us was from bullets hitting the cinder block above our heads. It makes me think of the scene in “Pulp Fiction” where the guy hiding in the bathroom bursts into the room and unloads his revolver on John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson. Somehow, magically, no one gets hit despite having six rounds blasted directly at them. The chunks missing from the wall were so close to our heads that it still amazes me I’m here today to write about it.

Thankfully the damage was minimal. We had a blown out tire, chunks taken out of the up armored doors, and a side mirror that had been blown off. It was fortunate that the only wounded we had that day was a gunner for one of the IA Humvees who’d unfortunately been shot in the face. The MiTT team had an amazing U.S. medic that day that saved his life. He was sent to base for medical care and the last I heard he’d survived.

Swapping Stories

It was near dark when we got back to base and I hadn’t eaten in over 24 hours so I went straight to the DFAC to eat before it closed. I sat down to eat with a couple Public Affairs soldiers that were on the same mission, but with a different unit in a different area. We started talking about our missions and I’ll be damned if they hadn’t shot imagery of hostages being rescued. I don’t remember exactly what I said in response, but it was something along the lines of, “What the f*k? Son of a B*tch! I didn’t get anything exciting like that and I almost got shot!

Pattern of destruction

(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez)

What happened in Mufrek Circle was only the beginning of what became a pattern during my tour. Bullets and IEDs followed me and it became a joke with the units I worked with. Without fail every time I showed up for a mission I was greeted with a slew of curse words followed by “something is definitely going to happen today because COMCAM is here!” We all laughed about it, but it turned out to be true nearly every time I went out.

My commander lovingly nicknamed me “bullet magnet” which she still calls me today. However I don’t think it fits me exactly. They loved to shoot at me but thankfully never hit me. I wish I could say is was my training and instincts that saved me, but I think what kept me alive was that I was a very small and skinny target.

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