Warning: May contain language and imagery that some may find objectionable. It is not my intent to offend Rather I hope to capture a small part of the flavor of the events of that day.
A single rifle round whizzed through the air somewhere nearby. Not at all an uncommon experience around the Taji market right outside Forward Operating Base (FOB) Taji. It could be a warning shot from an Iraqi Army check point or other action not directed toward us.
“Someone’s been hit!” A voice came over the I-com radio.
Four hours earlier…
Thump, Thump, Thump… “Dave, are you comin’?” The voice of CPT Keith Powell broke through the hiss of the overworked A/C unit. Keith, the battalion surgeon, and a good friend, stood at my door with a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
I stumbled to the door only half awake. “What time is it?” I asked, squinting my eyes to protect them from the bright morning.
“Time for you to get your lazy ass out of bed…6:10.” He stepped in my hooch. “Late night?”
“Not if you consider getting in at 02:00 early.” I stumbled around getting ready. “Why is it that people always seem to go into crisis around midnight?” I asked rhetorically. Keith understood. Many nights we would wake up each other when a Soldier came seeking help from one of us. We each shared half of a trailer. Some referred to it as the Body and Soul shack. It was nice to have my own room, but it was also nice to have a friend and colleague next door.
“Where are you headed off to today?” Keith inquired, as he saw me grabbing my battle rattle (body armor and helmet).
“On a mission with civil affairs. Some of them are having difficulties and need someone to smooth some edges. I won’t have time to come back here after chow.”
We stepped out into the cool, somewhat refreshing, 93ºF morning air with a slight breeze to take the edge off. The sky was blue and clear. All-in-all a nice morning, except for the fog of three hours of sleep and the 50 lbs of equipment squeezing my torso.
We chose a route to the DFAC (dining facility) that included shade. It may only be 6:20 in the morning, but the sun is blazing from the time it pokes the crown of its head over the horizon.
A long row of charcoal grills lined the path into the DFAC. What is this all about? Too bad I will be gone most of the day. As we entered we were greeted by red, white and blue banners and table coverings. It was the fourth of July, 2006. It looks like KBR planned a cookout. A nice break for those who would have the opportunity to enjoy it.
We quickly scarfed down some decent food, dropped our trays off and headed out. Keith was on his way to the clinic which is on the way to the civil affairs company area. About halfway to the clinic I stopped in my tracks.
“What is it?” Keith said.
“I just remembered. My brother died on the 4th of July two years ago at age 36 from a stroke.” I started walking again.
“I’m sorry. That is just too young.” Keith said as we continued walking toward the clinic.
“Yeah, thanks. What makes it more interesting is that I am 36 years old. It would just kill my mother if I died on the same day.”
Keith smacked me on the back of the head. “You’re not going to die today. You will go on your mission as you always do and you will be fine.”
Keith entered the clinic and I continued on to the link-up location. Today was a first, a special duty chaplain assistant would join me for the first time. My original assistant could not handle the pressures of combat or the Army.
As expected, we were delayed. The concept of “hurry up and wait” is familiar to anyone who has served in the military. This really did not bother me all that much. It provided an opportunity to spend time with my Soldiers, and usually conduct at least a few counseling sessions. This morning would be no different. These can be useful times to build relationships that can lead to quality ministry.
After some of the normal chit-chat and small talk, one of my soldiers, a young Specialist started to share about some of his concerns and problems he and his wife were having back home. We were able to spend a good forty minutes addressing his concerns before we were in hurry-up mode and listening to the pre-mission brief.
Off we went. First to the Taji market, then to the Taji counsel building and then to assess the progress on a project before heading back to the FOB. These meetings and encounters can be delicate and require a strong, firm and humble strength. This can be difficult for warriors, especially under the violent conditions of 2006. However, lives and progress are at stake.
The graphics we looked at during the brief did not do the area justice. As a result, I felt uncomfortable with how the vehicles were positioned to provide cover at our first stop, the Taji Market. We did not have adequate cover and we would have to walk a good distance from the vehicles. There were intel reports of a sniper, but he had been quiet for quite some time. This was supposed to be a short stop on our way to our main objective, so I let it go.
After a few minutes on the ground, we found the individual of interest, and began a conversation with him concerning the project that was being proposed to aid the farmers and people in the Taji area.
My new assistant, an MP by MOS, walked with me and stood watch near the entrance of the shop. After only a few moments of negotiations…
The rifle shot caught our attention, but at first it was not alarming. The radio call provided some meaning to the shot. My assistant started to head out to engage the enemy. PFC Warren was a competent and courageous MP (Military Police) but an inexperienced 56M—Chaplain Assistant. I grabbed the back of her IBAS (body armor) and pulled her back.
“Where are you going.” I said as she turned around.
“Some one has been shot! We need to go help.”
“I agree. But your priority is my protection. Don’t forget I am unarmed! This would be an easy place to kidnap an unarmed man. First we need to get confirmation and some situational awareness. We will be of no use if we become the next casualty.” I said trying to keep myself as calm as possible.
The CA (Civil Affairs) captain radioed for confirmation. “Affirmative, one of our guys has been shot!”
I edged around the corner of a wall to assess our possible course back to the trucks (M1114-up armored HUMVs). Why did we park so far away. I thought to my self. The shot appeared to come from the north. We needed to get to the south side of our trucks for cover.
So far there was only one shot. I decided that we needed to render whatever aid we could and that we could not do that from our present location. The only reasonable path to the victim included an open stretch of about 70 meters. No cover. Only open rocky ground.
I turned and made eye contact with PFC Warren. “Cover my back. Stay a couple of meters behind me.” I headed out at best possible pace. The terrain was fairly rough and I did not want to lose an ankle. I could hear Warren behind me so I kept going.
About halfway across the open space an overwhelming sense of vulnerability came over me. There is no cover. No protection. No getting out of the line of sight except continuing on. My heart was racing like it never had before. All it would take is one shot and there could easily be two or three victims. I hope I made the right choice in moving out. A wrong decision did not only affect my life, but that of others—a brief moment of terror!
These thoughts left as quickly as they came. We had a mission to accomplish. Someone was injured. How seriously? We did not know.
We arrived at the trucks and observed a gaggle of Soldiers. One Soldier was standing on the TC—passenger side of a M1114 with the door open and just staring. I got her attention.
“Did you call this in the battalion?” I said with urgency.
“Which battalion should I call?” She asked. This is a better question then you might suppose. The CA was part of our battalion, but we were in the battle space of another battalion doing a mission for them.
“It does not matter. Whichever one you get on the radio first. We may not need a medivac, but they need to prepare for it.” We were close enough to the FOB that it would be better to bring the wounded to the clinic and medivac from there. Besides, there were no good landing zones close enough to this location.
Four or five Soldiers were standing looking at the wounded Soldier. One dismounted Soldier was position to watch our backs. “You three, turn around and set a perimeter,” I said as we trotted to the wounded Soldiers position. We were very vulnerable to the south. An opportunistic attack from around the corner of one of the near by buildings or the tree line presented a significant risk.
I dropped to my knees—and action I would regret for the next three or four days, the ground was rocky. “Where is the CLS bag?” Just as I said it one of the NCOs came around the side of the truck with the bag and scissors. The wounded Soldier was conscious, talking and able to stand with assistance. These were good signs. But what would we find when we cut through his pants? From the blood on his pants the wound look very high on the leg.
My heart pounded as I considered the possibilities as the NCO cut through the pants. As the pants were being cut my assistant and I quickly donned gloves. A nick high on the femoral artery or vein would been difficult to control. I had a hemcom bandage, it contains a substance used to quickly clot blood, in my cargo pock and hoped that I would not have to use it. We had just received these bandages in the Combat Life Saver course we took a few weeks ago. Needing to use it would mean we could not control the bleeding by normal means. The image of the medic Black Hawk Down clamping the femoral artery of one of the wounded Soldiers very briefly flashed through my head.
“Good! The blood is a dark crimson color.” I said as I tried to find an entry or exit point. There was a copious amount of blood, but it did not appear to be flowing freely—another good sign. As I wiped the sticky dark fluid I noticed several lacerations, chucks of shredded flesh barely still connected to his leg and multiple 9mm shell casings.
“What happened? This looks more like chopped beef. And what are the spent shells and shell fragments doing here?” I showed one of the exploded 9mm casings to the NCO who helped cut the pants.
He looked at the pistol strapped to the left leg of the Soldier and took it from its holster.
“What is this?” The NCO asked as he pointed to a small hole on one side of the pistil grip and an exploded pistil grip on the other side. “It looks like the sniper shot the pistil with a small caliber round and it exploded the several of the rounds in the magazine.”
That would later prove to be the case. The original sniper round was found in his wallet and the damage to his leg and buttocks was mostly due to his 9mm rounds exploding and the metal of the pistil grip and magazine exploding into his leg.
“It really does not hurt that bad.” Said the specialist still in good spirits.
I handed the Israeli field dressing to my assistant to open and she handed me a freshly opened sterile gauze. There was too much blood and I could not see where it was coming from. I started to wipe some of the blood away to see where we should place the dressing. Several lesions fairly close together on the fleshy part of the upper leg and the buttocks were now distinguishable.
“Ow…damn! What are you doing chaplain? Now it hurts. No, it feels more like my ass is on fire.”
“Just a little direct pressure to where your leaking.” I answered as PFC Warren and I wrapped the dressing around his leg. We secured the dressing the best we could and handed him off to the others in his truck. The battalion had called the east gate of the FOB and informed them we would be coming in fast, skipping the regular clearing protocol.
I tore off the bloody gloves and observed that the blood had made its way to my sleeves. No time to worry about that now. We still had to get back to our truck and get to the clinic on FOB Taji.
The gate guard waved us through and we made our way as quickly as possible to the TMC. But FOB Taji is big and the seven minutes from the gate seemed longer today.
They were prepared for us as we drove up. In typical Soldier fashion, our wounded comrade did not want to be brought in on a stretcher. We helped him hobble inside and into the exam room.
The medical crew was ready and quickly went to work preparing him for transport to the Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad. A quick X-ray revealed several peaces of shrapnel that a surgical team would have to work on in an OR.
“He is going to be OK,” The doctor said taking off his surgical gloves and looking at the X-ray. “The helo is on its way and he should be back here in a day or two.”
“Great news!” The CA captain said. “Chaplain, are you ready? Unfortunately we do not have time to stop for lunch. Our day is just beginning… MREs anyone?”
Off we go again. The rest of the missions still awaited our attention. Only now some of our Soldiers were a little miffed. It would prove to be another long, long, hot and intense day. Day 206th of the deployment; only another 155 days until a day off.