When I started my original blog in 2013, there were a few stories that I didn’t write about right away. I was too embarrassed to publish it for the whole world to read. It’s been long enough now and I’ve told this story enough times that it’s funny to me. So today I’ll tell the tale of my first time outside the wire. I will never forget the date because it was my 28th birthday. Feel free to laugh your ass off as you read this.
It being my first mission, naturally I was nervous and anxious but I was fortunate that I had a female partner who was experienced and took no shit from the guys in the units we worked with.
As we were prepping to leave on the mission my teammate, Jackey gave me a few pointers on how to handle myself.
Tip 1: Don’t tell anyone it’s your birthday
I’m not sure why Jackey didn’t want me to mention it was my birthday, and to be honest, I hadn’t planned to even speak on the mission unless I was asked something. I didn’t have the first clue of what I was supposed to be doing other than shooting video and staying out of their way.
For some reason, Jackey ended up spilling the beans and the guys in my truck told me it was good luck to hit an IED on your birthday. The Lieutenant I was riding with kept saying “I hope we hit an IED, it’s your birthday and it’s good luck!” I just thought he was f**king nuts. It’s hilarious to me now, because if you don’t make jokes and laugh, you will lose your mind. This is especially important when you have no control over what happens to you.
Tip 2: BE ADAMANT about getting out of the Humvee to shoot the mission NO MATTER WHAT
As a female, whose job was outside the wire, there was one big hurdle in my path, which was…well…I was a female. A majority of the infantry units I was tasked to work with did not want a woman with them. It was an ongoing battle with some units and each and every time I went out with a new unit I had to prove myself all over again. I had to prove that I could be trusted to do my job and not get in the way or get myself killed.
Fortunately, times have changed and combat arms jobs are now open to women and they are kicking ass in the infantry and in ranger school. However, in 2006 you rarely saw women out running around with scout or infantry units. For that time period I could understand their apprehensiveness about having me with them, although I could not and would not let it keep me from doing my job.
Ready to go
We met up long before the sun came up, loaded into the Humvees, rolled to the gate, and did what would become second nature for me over the coming months. We loaded our weapons and chambered a round. That was how it was supposed to be done officially, but I can only remember doing it that way a handful of times. When things really started popping off in the province, we loaded and chambered a round as we were driving out of the gate.
Afterward, I got back in to the Humvee and tried to wedge myself into the seat with my gear. I remember sitting in the back seat staring straight ahead at the back of the Lieutenant’s (LT’s) helmet. Internally I was a nervous wreck. The second we rolled through the gate, I thought we were going to get blown up. I was sitting up straight looking out the window WAITING for it to happen, but praying that it didn’t. I said very little during that mission.
Reaching the objective
When we hit our objective, I got out and followed the guys without resistance. We ran into a palm groves after spotting a guy fleeing from a nearby house. It was pitch black out (no moon light) and I wasn’t lucky enough to have night vision (see my air assault post for the night vision saga). I was running blind in the pitch black following a small beam of light from a flashlight that one of the guys ahead of me carried.
All of the sudden everyone was stopped. There was an irrigation ditch in our path. It wasn’t terribly deep, but it was full of dirty murky water and it was steep enough that we would need to jump over it and not into it. I stood there watching soldier after soldier jump over the ditch with only the illumination from the flashlight to see. I knew this was going to be hard for me. I was much shorter than everyone else was and I would need a fair amount of momentum to make it over the ditch and not land in it or hurt myself.
Of course in my mind I am building this little jump up like I’m Evel Knievel getting ready to jump the Grand Canyon. I kept telling myself, “Don’t do this you’re going to bust your ass and embarrass yourself” I could hear Jackey in my head telling me, “Don’t embarrass me and don’t let these guys baby you!” After a little bit of hesitation, the guy standing next to me said, “You don’t have to jump, you can go back to the truck”. As soon as the words left his mouth I found my motivation and I thought was hell f*king no! I handed my camera to another guy and said, “Fck it”. I took a running leap and I almost made it, but not quite. Thankfully there were a couple of guys on the other side that helped pull me up and out so I didn’t completely fall into the ditch. It was messy but I made it (mostly).
Once I got my camera back, we started hauling ass deeper into the palm groves when we hit another roadblock, a six-foot high wall. Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem for me if I wasn’t wearing all my gear. My gear at the beginning of my tour was 30lbs (later on it doubled in weight due to added gear) which obviously made me heavier and I had skinny weak arms. I tried to find divots or some type of footing to get over but it was futile, it was pitch black and what little light I had wasn’t enough. I couldn’t even get close to making it over, I was too short and had too much weight on me to make it over by myself.
That was when a couple Iraqi Army soldiers stepped in and pushed me over the wall. I made it two steps away from the wall before the guys ahead of me came back. It wasn’t safe to continue forward because there was a strong possibility that there were booby traps further into the palm groves. So I turned around and tried to get over the wall again. Once again the Iraqi Army was there to push me over the wall and then we were standing at the ditch again. Rather than building it up in my head like I did before, I handed off my camera. The second time was tougher because I had little room to gain momentum. I backed up as far as I could and jumped and slammed right into the side of the irrigation ditch.
Instantly I knew I’d done something to my ankle and knee. It felt like lightning bolts of pain and then a weird tingling in my foot. It wasn’t just my ankle, my left knee smashed into the side wall of the ditch too. Although I didn’t fall completely down into the ditch, I was up to my thighs in dirty water. I was dangling from the side of the ditch like a damn free climber and it took two guys to drag me out. Once I was out it was time to move on to where the other half of the unit was conducting a search.
For the rest of the mission I couldn’t feel my foot, and my ankle and knee were throbbing. I kept it to myself. I didn’t want anyone to know since I’d already thoroughly embarrassed myself with my clumsiness. I did my best to run back to the truck without limping. We made it to the next objective by the time the sun came up, and I did the remainder of my job without an issue.
Later that day we had another mission documenting a unit searching trucks coming in from the Iranian border. It was slow paced with a lot of standing around and that’s when my ankle and knee started to swell up. They throb so badly that I had to sit down after a while. The ride back was equally miserable, the vibration from the Humvee into my foot made the pain in my ankle unbearable I could even rest my foot on floor. When we got back to the FOB I went straight to the medical building to get it checked out. I was praying that it wasn’t broken. When I took off my boots my feet were pale and slightly blue. The medic looked like he was going to have a stroke until I told him I’d fallen in an irrigation ditch and had been walking around in wet boots all day.
Being a small FOB they didn’t have a way to take x-rays so we went old school and the medic pulled out a….tuning fork! He determined that it wasn’t broken but a bad sprain. I got an icepack and crutches. Which further added to my shame and embarrassment of injuring myself. Somewhere between arriving at the FOB and getting to our room, I lost my cover, gloves and eye protection which we all mandatory items. So because I didn’t have a hat (worn any time you’re outdoors for my non-military readers) I had to wear my helmet as a substitute. There I was, on crutches, wearing my helmet and I’d only been on two missions. The looks I got in the chow hall line made me cringe.
It was a rough start. I spent the rest of the day and night with my foot propped up on my helmet with an icepack on it. Thankfully, by the next morning the swelling was gone and it was only a little bit sore. I was able to move ahead and things went much smoother for the rest of my tour.
2 Years Later
In 2008, I set out for my first mission in Baghdad on my second tour. I had a meeting with a Captain to discuss seats for an upcoming mission. Low and behold, it was the Lieutenant (then Captain) from my first mission in Diyala province on my 28th birthday. He still remembered me as the Combat Camera girl that fell in the ditch. He thought it was the funniest thing ever…just laughing at my pain. But it’s nice to be remembered even if it’s for one of the most embarrassing moments of my life! I’m happy to say that I made a much better impression the second time around.