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Iraq Vet and NJ Native Tells His Story
18 Jul 2006
Another casualty of war speaks out about what he has witnessed.
By City Belt
Today at City Belt we feature a 3000+
word remembrance of the Iraq War and
its effect on one soldier, a NJ native
granted anonymity because he is still in
the military as he awaits medical discharge.
He describes multiple horrors of war,
including the lack of proper equipment,
shooting a group of civilians, and the
PTSD that continues to haunt him.
My parents married when they turned eighteen and ran off to join the Peace Corps. In their six-year marriage they had three children, myself being in the middle. I was raised in Monmouth County and graduated from a public high school there in 1996. My older brother enlisted in the Army in 1992 to pay for college; I knew a similar fate awaited me.
I joined the military in Sept. 1996 and served on active duty until 1999 when I signed up with the National Guard to finish my eight-year commitment. I extended my contract to get more money for school because I planned on graduate study.
As cliche as it has become to say this, my life took a 180 degree turn on 9/11. I was working as a paramedic that morning and happened to be in an ER when the news first hit the TV screens. I immediately thought about the members of my family that worked in the World Trade Center. After watching the news that day it was clear that two members of my family and their unborn child had been killed.
About ten days later I received a call alerting me that I needed to be at my armory in 48 hours with all of my equipment. All anyone was talking about were the rumors that we were on our way to Germany and then Afghanistan. We ended up staying stateside and we were put on buses to a large Army post in South Carolina. We pulled up to a movie theater on this base and went inside. As we were seated a slide show began to play of the World Trade Center on 9/11.
The slides clearly showed the buildings being hit, on fire, people jumping from the windows, and finally the buildings collapsing. As the slide show proceeded, a high ranking officer gave commentary about how "we're going to get these people", made crude jokes about Muslims and Arabs, and made a lot of other clearly inappropriate comments. I was so incensed and disgusted that I got up and walked outside. I remember wondering to myself who "these people" were. Did he mean Arabs, Muslims, or everyone in the Middle East?
Although this post was deemed a “high-risk” target, like thousands of other National Guardsmen, I was carrying an empty weapon and lacked other basic equipment that I would need to do my job if that the US was attacked. We could do little to actually prevent an attack and even less to respond to the aftermath. After repeatedly pointing out security concerns at this base we were told by those in command that we were there “to be seen and not heard.”
I was called up to go to Iraq in Nov. 2003. This became the most difficult decision I have made in my life: Whether or not to go to Iraq.
I knew that the invasion had been pre-ordained. I knew that the US was bombing Iraq during “diplomatic negotiations” to try to goad Saddam into an outright war. I knew the war was illegal, immoral, and had nothing to do with the defense of this country or its Constitution. But I also knew that refusing to go to Iraq would mean jail time, a dishonorable discharge, and quite possibly eliminate the career that I wanted.
In the end, I decided to go to Iraq. I reasoned that if my already depleted unit was short a medic it would only put soldiers lives at more risk. I think part of me still viewed war as something romantic like in Hollywood, but mostly I think I just wanted to see it for myself so I could know what was really happening. Looking back, I’m still deeply conflicted about my decision to go to Iraq. I regret going to the war and the baggage that comes with it, but I learned a lot as well.
‘No One Fails Here’
When I arrived at the base that I would leave the US from I stepped into a dysfunctional and reckless process that gets people “ready” for Iraq. Many events made it clear to me that the command was more concerned with finding bodies to fill rosters than they were with training individuals to prepare them for combat. The medical check up consisted of several immunizations (whether they were needed or not) and a single question: “Can you do your job?” People with disability ratings from the Veterans Administration and men in their 50s with well-documented heart conditions were among those deployed to Iraq with my unit. Two of these men had heart attacks while in Iraq -- one of them ended up dying on a medevac flight to Germany.
I was transferred into an under-manned unit that had already been training together for about 4 months. We were told that, as late arrivals, we’d only receive two days of training. At each step along the way we were reminded that, “No one fails here. We just need to get it down on paper that you did it.”
I never even set the sights on my rifle or test fired it. The gas mask issued to me was too small and had never been tested. I spent my entire time in Iraq with that same weapon and gas mask. Members of my unit spent thousands of their own dollars on protective equipment and basic things that weren’t provided, such as holsters for pistols. Unfortunately, almost three and a half years into this war many soldiers still spend their own money to purchase these necessities. It’s almost expected that service members will buy equipment to be better prepared to do their jobs in Iraq.
When I arrived in Kuwait Feb. 2004, I met my unit for the first time. I was quickly told that I would be in the lead Humvee, about 200 yards ahead of the convoy through Iraq. We would drive that far ahead so if we were shot at or hit with IED detonations the others would know to stay back. I’d be doing this in a Humvee with fiberglass doors and four other soldiers.
Before we went to Iraq I repeatedly asked for basic medical supplies because I didn’t even have a Band-Aid. I was constantly put off and ignored until the day before we were supposed to cross into Iraq. I went to my immediate superior and he told me not to “worry about it” and that they’d “get to it”. This lack of respect for the lives and safety of subordinates permeated the leadership throughout my time in Iraq. Later that day we were given less than half of the ammunition that we should have had to cross the border into Iraq.
As we loaded our vehicles, I watched contractors from third-world countries nailing sheets of plywood onto canvas Humvee doors. We were told that this would be our “armor” on a several hundred-mile journey through Iraq to get to our base. They painted the plywood green or black so that it “would look like metal and that way they’ll shoot at a different Humvee.” The KBR employee supervising them even pointed out to us that the “paint is high gloss so it will really look like metal when the sun hits it.”
We crossed the border into Iraq and were on the outskirts of Baghdad when we saw the first soldier killed by an IED. We came to a dead stop. About a half-mile in front of us we could see thick black smoke that was gas or oil burning in the roadway. We received word that a humvee had been hit as we waited for about an hour for the wreckage to be cleared. We all wondered aloud where the helicopter was to evacuate this guy, and finally a soldier said flatly, “They don’t put dead people on medevacs.” As we drove by the blast site and saw what was left of the unarmored Humvee it was obvious this soldier never had a chance.
Breeding ‘Haji’ Hate
As soon as we arrived at our base we started doing joint patrols with the unit that we were replacing. Several members of the unit that we were replacing refused to enter the city with us. They told us that the “Iraqis” knew that the soldiers were about to go home and wanted to kill some of them before they left and even went so far as to put different prices on their heads. I asked them if it was over anything specific and they just laughed. The soldiers would only say that they did everything they could to intimidate the locals; raided homes with impunity; and responded with exponential force to any threat. Even on that first joint patrol it was clear that the Iraqis didn’t trust us and viewed us with an intense hatred.
Within the first week at my base my unit was involved in an incident in which civilians were shot. I can’t reveal all of the details because doing so could easily identify me. However, I want to say in the strongest way possible that it was unintentional and that it occurred while we were being attacked. Two adults and a child were in the car that was hit. The child was unharmed; the adults were both hit repeatedly but still alive.
The worst injured adult was brought in first, on a mesh mat they dragged down the hall. The patient was barely conscious and bleeding as (s)he came through the doorway. The soldier dragging the mat had a rifle across his body armor, his helmet still on, a cigarette in his mouth, and a big grin across his face. As he stood up from being hunched over, he dropped the mat about 2 feet to the floor and said: “I guess this fucking haji piece of shit is yours now.”
The child in the car was hysterically screaming and crying and it took a few minutes before we could get an interpreter. The child was saying over and over again, “Why did you do this?” We put both adults on helicopters to a field hospital and they both lived.
About two months later one of the injured adults returned and walked toward the Headquarters building at our base. I was standing with a group of soldiers and one of them said, “What the fuck is that haji doing back here?” I explained that he was getting money for his destroyed car and his injuries. Another soldier shook his head and said, “He should be paying us for the medical care that he received.”
One of the more disturbing incidents happened towards the end of my tour, when I was working the night shift in our clinic. Since the beginning of our time in Iraq we had been instructed that we were not to treat Iraqis unless they were about to die and we had done it. This was a huge source of contention for some of us and we ignored this rule. A call came over the radio that a wounded Iraqi had come to the gate asking for a doctor. I walked out and found an Iraqi man about 30 meters outside of the gate. The soldiers on guard told me that if I wanted to check on him I’d have to go out there. I waited for an interpreter and then asked this man to lift his shirt so I could see that he wasn’t hiding weapons or explosives.
As I approached him I could see that he had been badly beaten. He had two teeth knocked out, a laceration on his head, a fractured cheekbone, and an injury to his knee. He begged for us to help him and explained that people in the city were trying to kill him. As I began to assess his injuries the soldiers in the guard tower shouted, “Get that fucking haji out of here now. Tell him to go cry to the IP (Iraqi Police). He doesn’t look like he’s about to die to me.”
I tried to stall for time and began treating him when a doctor drove up in an ambulance. He looked out at the Iraqi from inside the wire and said, “He looks fine to me. Let’s go!” He then walked towards the passenger seat signaling me to drive him back to the clinic.
I asked that this man be allowed to stay at least until sunrise rather than being sent back into the city in the middle of the night. A soldier laughed and said, “Are you hearing this shit? I think Doc’s part fucking haji.” I was trying to hurriedly think of something that I could do. The doctor and the soldiers were adamant that the Iraqi leave immediately. The man was begging me for his life in broken English and our interpreter was insistent that I not let this happen.
Everyone on the scene outranked me, and I knew from previous incidents that my protests would accomplish nothing. It would only serve to draw more retaliation from my own command and to cause me to be sent on more dangerous missions. I turned to walk back inside the gate. The Iraqi grabbed my leg like a child would as I walked away. He was crying and screaming in English, “Please doctor. Help me. No.”
I shook my leg loose, picked up my equipment, and walked back inside the gate. Our interpreter helped the man to his feet and told him that he had to leave. The man stared at me in disbelief and again begged me for help. He turned and started to limp away back towards the city.
The soldiers on guard duty ordered the interpreter to tell him that, if he comes back here tonight he’s going to be shot. The man froze as the interpreter translated this threat into Arabic and looked back at us over his shoulder.
This kind of inhumanity got worse the longer that we were there. Guerilla wars breed atrocities. You begin to think differently when people are trying to kill you 24/7, you’re not really accomplishing anything, you’re constantly being sent on virtual suicide missions, you never have a second of privacy to relax, you have stress from your family at home, and you’re watching friends get killed and horrifically wounded. To top it all off, it becomes obvious very early on that the Iraqi people don’t want you there and don’t even care if you live or die.
I entered the war full of naïveté, believing that I was a kind of neutral observer and that I would never be faced with having to take someone’s life. But after several near-death experiences I was ready to do whatever I had to do to assure that I made it home alive. A person’s humanity is the first thing to go in combat and it is not something that is easily regained.
For several months of my tour I got up very early every morning to be on the highways at first light looking for IEDs. We were still doing this in unarmored Humvees and we “found” most of these IEDs when they detonated.
Here is how a typical morning would go: You look at the Humvees with plywood nailed to the doors and you wonder if you’ll still be alive in ten minutes. You look at one of the 18-year-old kids and you remember meeting his mother back in the states. You remember him telling his mom that he was safe because you were his medic and her being in tears, hugging you and begging you “to keep her baby safe.”
As you get in the Humvee this kid looks at you and says, “Doc, if I look bad just let me go. I don’t want to go home missing my legs or something and be a burden for the rest of my life.”
Another young kid driving your Humvee explains that he’s loaded an extra magazine with just one bullet that he keeps next to him on the seat. You ask him why, and he says that if we were to get hit badly the remaining survivors could get over run and captured. He’d use the Humvee as cover until he ran out of ammunition, and then he’d use that last bullet to kill himself because he doesn’t want his family to see him get beheaded on TV. You think to yourself that this is a really good idea and can’t believe you hadn’t thought of it sooner. You quickly get an empty magazine to put one bullet in.
You exit the base and begin driving down the roads at high speed so it’s harder for the “insurgents” to time the detonations of the IEDs. It’s a game where seconds and inches make the difference between life and death. Things are quiet, and then without warning, you watch the Humvee in front of you disappear in a mushroom cloud as an IED detonates. Everything is in slow motion as you hear the explosion and then feel the shock wave. As you reach for the radio you scream to the soldier driving, “Keep going. Hurry up. Get me the fuck up there.” You run to that Humvee, you pull those men out, and you live with those images for the rest of your life.
War means something different to those of us that have looked through the sights of a rifle at another human being’s face. Collateral damage means something different to those of us that have seen the lifeless body of a 9-year-old girl caught in the crossfire. Or for those of us that have struggled to save the life of a 7-year-old boy with parts of his face and neck blown off while his father screams in agony to just let him die and concentrate on saving his other son.
I’ve only mentioned a fraction of what still haunts me from Iraq. I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD and, for about a year, I’ve been going to therapy for two hours a week. I suffer from nightmares, insomnia, flashbacks, and panic attacks. I suffered ligament damage in my knee and ankle while on a mission in Iraq that will require two surgeries to repair. I also have hearing loss from explosions and gunfire. I’m currently using private health insurance to get care, because the treatment that I have received at the VA has been offensive. A huge strain has been placed on my marriage, and at times I don’t think that it will survive. Ultimately I’m left asking, for what?
I can never undo what has happened in Iraq but I will work for the rest of my life to make sure it never happens again and that its architects are held accountable.
nfo (at) citybelt.org
This work is in the public domain