I was about a month into my tour and I thought to myself, “I can do this, no problem! All I need to do is stay out of the way, keep my head low and not fall in any more holes” Diyala province was still relatively calm and the only shots I’d heard came from the test fire pit where convoys passed through on their way out. I never felt safe outside the wire, but I wasn’t scared shitless the entire time like in the beginning. I started to feel like I had my bearings and knew what to expect. The calm in Diyala province was ending and I had no idea how bad it was about to get.
In early October, two new team members arrived and I said goodbye to my female partner and mentor Jackey. I might have cried a little bit when she boarded her Blackhawk. She showed me the ropes and always had my back and now I had two male teammates, which made travelling to other FOBs a pain in the ass.
Humor and Sarcasm are a must
SSG Washington was tall, goofy and sarcastic and I had a feeling he’d be a good shooting partner because humor is key when you’re miserable, sleep deprived and hungry, which I was 90% of the time. The best part of working with the infantry was the plethora of gross jokes and insults they threw at each other. It never ended, even in the midst of slogging through mud and dodging fire, they were still shit talking to each other. It’s one of the things I enjoyed most during both my tours, I loved the camaraderie, even if I just was an outsider.
Left Seat Right Seat
A few weeks later, I went out on my first mission with my new partner SSG Washington and it was supposed to be standard cordon and search mission. I’d done several of these type of missions. Most of what I did was either a cordon and search or a raid. This mission was slightly different because it was a merged mission with both the incoming brigade and the outgoing brigade, which they referred to as “left seat right seat”.
The pre-mission brief was typical and covered the significant activities (SIGACTS) from the last twenty-four hours in our area. We hopped into our assigned Humvee and it was clear immediately that our truck commander (TC) was not happy to have attachments and particularly attachments with cameras riding with him. This was usually how it went, they weren’t rude to my face and by the end of the mission it was less awkward. We took off with Washington on the driver side back seat and myself on the other. I remember staring out the smudged window watching for trash or anything weird (IEDs) while we drove down the center of the highway as fast as a 5,200 lb uparmored Humvee could go. I didn’t normally focus my attention on the radio chatter since I didn’t understand most of the vernacular and it was like a foreign language to me. However, on this day I heard two words that made my blood run cold, “dead bodies.”
I’d hoped it was in another area and that we weren’t going to go rolling right into the middle of a battle. However, our jobs (combat camera) weren’t to run away from the action, and the infantry doesn’t run when someone needs help, so we rolled right into the fray to help. Through the thick bulletproof windows, I could see two bodies lying face down on the ground just outside the doorway of a small roadside mud hut. It was clear from the uniforms that the bodies were Iraqi Police (IP) officers. Just inside the doorway, there was a wounded yet alive IP huddled in the doorway screaming for help and sobbing. Due to the chaos and firing around us, the only thing we could do was pull up as close to the doorway as possible while the gunner gave cover fire for the TC and Washington to safely get out of the Humvee. They were out against the wall of the mud hut before I could even get my damn door open.
Out and back in
Let me preface this by saying, that an up-armored Humvee door is estimated to weigh 600 lbs. and for me it was almost always a bitch for me to get one open. After throwing my entire body (all 109 lbs of me) against the door 20 times, I was finally able to get it open. As soon as I got out, I turned around and got right back in because in my haste to follow my partner, I’d stumbled out in front all of our crew serve weapons and they aimed in my direction. That was the fastest I’d ever hauled my bulky armored ass into a Humvee and I was lucky the firing had stopped for the moment. It was a very stupid move and I’m grateful I didn’t get hit.
I got back in the Humvee in time to see our TC run out of the mud hut with the wounded IP slung over his shoulders in a fireman’s carry. It was one of the most powerful, selfless acts I’d seen up to that point, and doing it wasn’t a second thought to him. I can remember the strain in his voice when he said, “Fuck, we’ve gotta help these guys” before getting out into the chaos.
Over the years, there have been a lot of negative stories on the war in Iraq and I guess it’s a more compelling and sexier story to focus on the bloodshed. I had the unique opportunity to be on the ground in the middle of it to see the good, the bad and the ugly. That selflessness and compassionate act was one of the few good moments I saw that day. The rest of the day was going to be a sh*tshow.