A short time later Washington and I moved to an area down the road to document where the attack began. It was a long stretch of road with mostly desert landscape for miles with a few houses intermittently. The Army named the road ASR Vanessa (many of the routes had women’s names) and the units referred to it as “the gauntlet”. Route Vanessa had more than earned her nickname from the constant reports of IEDs and roadside attacks.
Note: Most of the images from this mission were not released for the general public I had to make do with stock photos from google.
I walked up to a shallow ditch on the roadside and it was evident that several men lost their lives there. I grew up watching horror movies like “Nightmare on Elm Street”, and “Friday the 13th” and the blood in those movies was dark and thick, but this blood was bright red and thinner. A trail of blood ran from one end of the ditch to the other. I started documenting everything; it was impossible to tell how many died, there was just so much blood everywhere. Mixed in with the blood were bits of brain matter, uniform berets, car keys, cell phones and wallets. It was an execution site. Then it was time to move on to the vehicles.
Lined up in the center of the road were the remnants of a couple of charred and smoking Trail Blazers (SUVs). Note: The Trail Blazers the IPs drove weren’t armored and were the same base models sold in the states. When they caught fire it burned so hot that it liquefied the paint. The paint ran down the body of the truck and pooled on the road underneath it. I didn’t think it was possible for paint to liquify. The vehicle behind it was intact, but had bullet holes down the side. The bullets went through the doors and windows, hitting the occupants inside. The interior, seats and doors were smeared with blood and there were bloody handprints on the outside door handles where the men tried to get out.
When I finished documenting the scene, I followed a group of soldiers as they kicked in doors in search of any lingering insurgents. I know I’ve mentioned the mud before, it was another glorious day trying to walk/run through it. On this day, it had the consistency of peanut butter and I was struggling to keep up while also keeping my boots on my feet.
My gear wasn’t doing me any favors that day. I made do with what I had and because I didn’t have a sling for my M16 (which everyone else had), I attached it to the shoulder of my armor with a carabiner and my camera to the other shoulder. I wanted to make sure I could drop my camera and get my weapon up quickly if I needed to. It wasn’t ideal, incredibly uncomfortable and my shoulders always ached, but it worked…kind of.
Let me explain something, infantry were all carrying M4s, which have a much shorter barrel. I still carried an M16 from the Vietnam era (which the guys constantly gave me shit and called it a “musket.” My barrel hung down to my shins and anytime I ducked the barrel almost went into the mud. I had to keep dropping my camera to keep my barrel out of the mud which kept me from doing my job. We continued going house-to-house until we’d checked every house within a half-mile radius. They were all empty.
I walked around afterward contemplating where I should go next when I rounded a corner where a tank was idling. Lying across the front of it were two broken bodies. They weren’t wearing uniforms and were obviously insurgents. They were hit by fire from an Apache (helicopter) while they were fleeing and it wasn’t a pretty sight. They looked young and were dressed poorly for the cold. One man was missing both of his legs from the knee down, his legs were just shredded strips of skin with meat hanging down. They looked like they’d been turned inside out.
The had blank dead eyes and their mouths were open wide almost like they died screaming. I didn’t feel pity or sympathy for them and it didn’t upset me to look at them. What they’d done to those IPs was horrendous. They brutally murdered over two dozen men. I continued documenting the scene for what felt like forever until I heard “Mount Up!”
The Last Casualty
It was a relief to open the door of the Humvee and to sit for a minute until someone yelled, “Got another body!” which was followed by a chorus of “FUCK” from everyone. We’d been running around in the mud for 5 or 6 hours and by then we were all tired. I followed the yelling over to a deep ravine and saw a young IP at the bottom in the water. The guys tried to get down to the bottom to pull him out but it was too steep.
Before I detail what happened I want to stress that the soldiers handling the IP’s body did their best to be careful and respectful.
After bickering about how to get him out they decided that one guy would climb down, attach a tow strap around him and slowly pull him out with the Humvee. It worked and when he was out I was able to get a good look at him. He was young and thin almost to the point of being malnourished. His eyes were open and vacant and I tried my best not to look into them.
We only had one way to get him to the CCP and that was by placing him on the hood of our Humvee. Which meant he needed to be lifted to the hood. It took two soldiers to lift him and once he was up a surge of bodily fluids flushed from his body. Out of shock, the soldiers dropped him. They were both visibly frustrated and upset and once they regained their composure they lifted him and put him on the hood of our Humvee.
When I got into the Humvee, I immediately, albeit, unintentionally locked eyes with the dead man. They placed him on the hood facing us. We drove about a mile with him staring us down through the windshield. For days every time I closed my eyes I would see his eyes blankly staring back. When we arrived at the CCP he was moved from our hood and placed with the other casualties.
To be continued…tomorrow is the final installment!