We pulled into a small IP base in the middle of the city and got out of our Humvees. I thought I was finally getting a second to just to breathe when I was waved over to a nearby courtyard. As soon as I entered the courtyard, I was hit with the overwhelming smell of blood. I just stood frozen for a few seconds trying to process what I was seeing. My head felt like it was buzzing and I couldn’t hear anything around me. I was just blank. It felt like I was in a nightmare that I couldn’t wake up from.
There was a dump truck to my right where bodies were being unloaded. I remember seeing a man in the bed of the truck using a push broom to sweep out what looked like gallons of blood from the casualties. I felt like I was on autopilot. So I did the only thing I knew to do and began documenting the scene. On my left there was row upon row of bodies lined up side by side. I approached the first row of bodies and began to shoot all of it. I went down the row, documented each body, and continued for what felt like forever. While I was shooting I had an interpreter with me, telling me who some of the men were. I know this will sound callous, but I wish he hadn’t personalized them. He made them people and not just casualties, and with personalization comes sympathy and sadness and I didn’t have room for it.
Personalizing the Dead
When I reached the final row, we stopped at the body of a heavyset man and the interpreter explained that the man on the ground was a good man. He said he really wanted to make things better for his people. It was sad to hear that one of the good guys was taken.
When we reached one of the last bodies, a cell phone began to ring. I didn’t think much of it until the interpreter bent down to pull the cell phone out of one of the men’s pockets and answered it. I understood little to no Arabic but all I could think was, “What if it’s the man’s wife wanting to know when he’ll be home?”
I finished up shooting and told Washington I needed to get the fuck out of there. I couldn’t take it anymore. For weeks everytime I closed my eyes I could see their blank eyes and bruised and bloodied faces.
As I was walking out of the courtyard, family members of the casualties began to arrive. The amount and volume of wailing and crying was overwhelming. It was one of the worst sounds I’ve ever heard, it was the sound of pure grief. I made a beeline for the Humvee to get my cigarettes (Don’t worry, I quit many years ago). Most of the guys were milling around or bullshitting for the moment and I guess they must have noticed me when I walked back. I was trying unsuccessfully to light a cigarette but my hands were shaking so badly that I couldn’t get it lit. I didn’t feel jittery or shaky. I didn’t feel really anything. It was like my hands had a mind of their own. I was trying to hide it because I didn’t want to appear emotional. One of the guys noticed my shaking hands and came up and offered me hand sanitizer. He said “It helps.” It didn’t help, but the kind gesture made me feel a little less self-conscious.
You’re Air Force?
Due to the severity of the attack and the high body count, we were ordered to return to main base immediately. Our leadership wanted our imagery sent to Baghdad as soon as possible. As I was gearing up to leave, my original truck commander (the one who originally wouldn’t acknowledge me) said, “You’re in the Air Force?” to which I replied, “yep.” He laughed and said, “You’re the craziest Air Force chick I’ve ever met, you can ride with us anytime.” Despite it being a horrific day, that statement was the best thing anyone could have said to me. From that day on, I never had a hard time getting on a mission. It was a small victory because for once, they weren’t looking at me like a liability. All I wanted was the opportunity to do my job.
The Long Ride Home
As it turned out ASR Vanessa “The Gauntlet” wasn’t done screwing with us, 15 minutes into our drive back, an IED went off in front of our Humvee. No damage that we could see (although we didn’t slow down or stop to check) with the exception of the poor gunner who dropped down from the turret screaming, “Fuck my head hurts.” Another 30 minutes later I was staring out the window, when I saw something drop from sky to the ground leaving a big dust cloud. Instantaneously everyone started yelling and then cheering because….it was a mortar, a DUD mortar. It easily could’ve kill us. I’ve never felt so lucky as I did that day. Just writing this reminds me that it really is a minor miracle that I’m here to tell the story. So many from that deployment didn’t make it back and it just isn’t fair that I’m here and they’re not.