Anton Chekhov eloquently stated years ago a simple fact with respect to story construction. If you have a gun leaning against the wall during the first act of a play, you better use it in the second act. Otherwise, get rid of the gun. This is an important ideal, it helps a creator remove the needless elements of their work. In a more literal sense, if you are at war and have a gun, then you should use it when it is appropriate to do so. Otherwise, get rid of the gun.
It was an early morning in 2006. I can’t remember if it was summer or winter. Every day was the same. It starts out hot and ends hot. President Bush had recently stated on the news that Mosul was one of the safest cities in Iraq. He had never been to Mosul. It is a city 1/5th the size of Baghdad with almost the same amount of combat incidents, car bombs and insurgent attacks on a daily basis. Everyone in Mosul would have told you that it is the most dangerous city in Iraq, by at least a factor of five. I had been working up there for well over a year with Diplomatic Security Teams, and we would be attacked several times a week. Sometimes on the road, sometimes at a venue, sometimes with mortars and sometimes with sniper fire. Never a dull moment. We had lost several men outside the wire. It came as a great surprise to us when our President called Mosul ‘safe’.
Our mission on the crisp and already too warm morning was to drive across the city and pick up 20 American journalists. They were all arriving together on a big military transport plane. We had a list of places scheduled to visit. The arrival time and locations of all stops was shared with the local governance, so they could prepare for the visit. It should be known the local governance was heavily infiltrated with insurgency members and sympathizers. Everyone prepared equipment and kits knowing something bad was going to happen. It didn’t take long.
After prep was complete we mounted up and departed the heavily guarded gates of our forward operating base. I looked down at my rifle one last time to make sure everything was in its place. Your rifle was a very personal item. Everyone had their own private little ritual in making sure it was ready to go. Mine was simple. Pull the bolt catch back slightly to make sure a round was seated, then let it go and smack the forward assist a few times.
Instead of our usual 3 to 5 vehicle motorcade there were 12 vehicles. We weren’t able to accommodate all the journalists under one 15-man team, and because of the Presidential proclamation it was decided to send everyone to the same place at the same time. So, a big long single motorcade/suicide mission it was. All in the name of political posterity.
We left our base and headed south. The route took us through the heart of the city. It was mid-morning and traffic was especially bad. We stuck to main thoroughfares because we had U.S. Army rolling in big armored vehicles with us. They weren’t able to maneuver through back roads like we were. Since we had smaller and less armored vehicles, our teams became very good at using every available security asset. Speed is a big security asset. We moved fast through back roads. We never took the same way twice and predicting our routes was near impossible. Unpredictability was another big security asset. We took pride in it. This morning we rolled slow and steady down big streets in small vehicles that don’t take an explosive hit very well. There’s click bait on the internet, fish bait on a hook, and the lesser known bait to the combat un-anointed; attack bait. We were candy coated attack bait. Eventually, we hit a choke point. Someone just put chocolate sprinkles on us.
It was this little tiny bridge along the road we were on with no way around. Video footage later on would reveal no vehicle from the oncoming traffic side would stop on the bridge. They would wait until there was room enough for their vehicle on the far side and race across as fast as possible. The lead vehicle in our group was a military armored personnel carrier. We couldn’t see past it and damn sure would’ve called an all stop to the route if we did see traffic intentionally gapping. It’s what you would call an ‘indicator.’
Normally I sit in the front right seat of a vehicle, but I was going home for a break in a few days and allowing a newer person to take the leadership spotlight. I typically held the job of ‘HATE TRUCK Commander.’ My usual team consisted of two vehicles that ride at the front and tail of every motorcade to act as protectorate of the main body. Our vehicles were military Hummers modified to carry a gunner up top and a gunner in the trunk. If something bad ever happened, we responded with all the HATE possible. Since we typically ran point, most members of a HATE TRUCK were adept at spotting indicators. This way the leader in the front right seat could change the route and avoid potentially death inducing explosions. We didn’t have a HATE TRUCK this morning. We had a Chevy Suburban. I was sitting in a back seat facing out. One of my gunners was sitting in the trunk facing the rear. We weren’t in charge, and we weren’t running point. We were out of our element and relying on the eyes of others with whom we typically didn’t work.
From my view, I watched three men climb up from under the bridge we were about to cross. They got to the sidewalk and walked close together. The part that was comical and scary was that they all wore black jackets, black pants and black shirts with black beanie caps covering their jet-black hair. It’s like they watched a crappy 80’s movie with a stereotypical cat-burglar in it and decided to steal the look. All of them also wore mean scowls on their face. I was used to it. Being hated was a normal affair. White skin and a beard meant bad things for you in many places. Intel reports showed there was a belief in the city that our motorcades were the Israeli Mossad. We weren’t, but to be dubbed Jewish Special Intelligence in an Arab country is not good. These men took the time to give me especially dirty looks as they walked past. They looked at me, sneering their evil, murderous sneers. Chills went down my spine. I knew then and there we were headed for something.
“Did you see those dudes?” I question to everyone in the vehicle.
My usual up-gunner, Stalker sounded off from the trunk. “Yeah, fuck them.”
He knew, I knew, and it didn’t matter.
We begin to cross the bridge. I look around for the three men and they are gone. There was a berm and open field on my side of the road. My best guess is they ducked behind the berm. My gut sinks. I look to my right and see the back of Stalker’s helmet and have the premonition of death. I feel like his goofy ass helmet is the last thing I will ever see.
My ears ring. Everything is black.
My head is foggy. I can’t think.
The pungent smell of explosives burns the nostrils.
I feel pressure everywhere. My left arm is pinned.
When my vision begins to return, the clear unmistakable shape of a gas pedal comes into view. A boot is pressing against my chin. I wonder if my foot is in the boot. Someone is on my back pushing off me. My guess is it’s Stalker. The Tactical Commander in the front right seat is yelling something, and the driver is pinned against his door by my body. It’s not my boot on my face. Thank goodness for that.
We just got blown up. I hate getting blown up. Later investigation and more of that video footage will show there was a little over 200 pounds of C4 disguised as part of the sidewalk. It exploded about 2 feet from the right rear quarter panel of our lightly armored Chevy Suburban.
When Stalker is done pushing himself off me, he continues to climb back into the trunk. I un-pin myself from having my head shoved down into the driver’s floorboard with my legs stuffed in between the two front seats. I manage my way back into my seat and continue to take stock of my situation.
“Are you okay Stalker?” I yell way too loud.
Our vehicle is moving slowly… maybe five miles an hour and doing it with a pronounced wobble and limp. The back right window (heavily armored window) is completely gone. Shrapnel from the explosion riddles the entire rear compartment of the vehicle. My weapon is still attached to me via a single point sling, and while moving my hand across my kit, my glove catches. A three-inch piece of shrapnel juts out of the center of my chest sticking through three rifle magazines tucked away there.
“Yeah bro, are you okay?” Stalker responds while trying to orient himself. His goofy ass helmet has a big scratch on the side of it.
The three men in black. The three men with ugly sneers and murder in their eyes. Those three men are now running across the open field pumping their hands in the air. They pulled the trigger. It’s obvious, and I want to pull my trigger on them. Time for payback.
“Shoot them. They’re running through the field!” I yell and raise my rifle, pointing out the now non-existent right rear window. It’ll be a hard shot, but I’m focused. Three dudes running right to left diagonally away from me about a hundred meters off. I’ll be taking the shot while in a bouncing and slow-moving platform. I’ve had worse and done better. No problem.
I line up my sights, drop my weapon off safe, and Stalker’s head flops in front of my muzzle. “I got’em,” he says. I’m pissed he unintentionally blocked my shot but okay with it because he has a machine gun. He’s got two hundred rounds packed tight in his baby war machine’s nut sack to dump on three targets. He’s damn right he’s got’em. He takes aim and KA-CHUNK. The open bolt slides forward to smack a round down range, and nothing happens.
“Fuck,” Stalker says and throws the feed tray up to correct the malfunction. Getting blown up does a number on your guns.
I throw my rifle on top of Stalker’s shoulder. My muzzle is right by his head, but he won’t care.
“Don’t shoot, don’t shoot!” The new Tactical Commander from the front seat yells.
“Why?” I immediately question.
No answer. The three men are now out of view and disappeared into the web of sand colored buildings lining the clearing. We lost our chance to force penance.
Not sure of the guy’s assessment up front and wanting to know what he saw to stop us from killing the people who just tried to kill us, I press for an answer. “Why did you tell us not to shoot?”
“We don’t know if they were the ones who did it,” he says quietly. He had been a police officer in the United States for quite a while before coming to Iraq. He had a different standard of engagement than the men who operated on the HATE TRUCKS. He wasn’t used to killing people who tried killing you. Stalker was. I was. We had no problem with it. It wasn’t something we set out to do, but when the moment comes you better be quick on that trigger because it could very well pay you back in spades later if you weren’t.
“Jesus Christ,” I say dejected and irritated.
“Yeah man, what the hell?” Stalker chimes in over me.
Stalker and I look at each other with a comfortable mixture of confusion and irritation. Then we shift our view to the guy in the front seat. I mean who the hell uses due process in a war zone? Two kinds of people pump their arms in the air and slow jog away from an explosion. The kind who lived through it and the kind who believe they killed someone with it. I know which one I am. I don’t pump my fucking arms.
The vehicle continues its warbled slog a few hundred more meters. We do a quick stop. The team medic with the call sign Moon Dog is dying to check on us. There hasn’t been a ton of radio traffic and command and control wasn’t something my rattled brain was giving a ton of thought to. We stop once it is deemed we are outside of the ‘ambush zone.’ We weren’t outside of shit when we stopped. We just rolled down the road and stopped because Moon Dog needed to get his eyes on us. I get it. If that shrapnel didn’t get embedded in magazines, if just one of those tiny pieces of metal (and there were hundreds) went through Stalker or I then we’d be needing some immediate Moon Dog interventions. Hell, after watching the video, I guess he thought we were dead and he was coming up to confirm it. Both Stalker and I moved six to eight feet in the matter of a tenth of a second and began that movement seated and comfortable. We should have holes and broken bones and serious traumatic injuries. All we had was irritation that my tactical assessment and our appropriately lethal response was muted. We could care less about whether or not we were actually injured. Moon Dog runs up to the contact side of the vehicle and pokes his head through the broken glass.
“Hey, where are you injured? What do you need?” He questions. His eyes are huge. He looks ready to perform surgery and kill an insurgent while doing it.
“We’re fine. Go back to your truck,” I say to him.
“Yeah bro, we’re good. Don’t worry about us,” Stalker says agreeing.
“Did you see those guys running away? Why didn’t anyone shoot at them?” I question before he leaves. I know Moon Dog and some of the guys in his vehicle. I know they would have shot. I need answers. Nobody blows us up and gets to talk about it. That’s not the world I live and maybe die in.
“Someone told us not to shoot over the radio. We saw them running. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“We’re good. Let’s get moving. We’re sitting ducks,” I say.
Moon Dog nods, steps back and smacks the side of the vehicle twice signaling the driver to start moving. We drive another click or two down the road and turn a corner. Once we’re on an overpass, we run a downed vehicle drill and transfer out of the badly damaged rig.
I don’t remember which rig I got into. I don’t remember a lot of things from that day. I don’t remember who was driving the vehicle I was in. Whoever he was, he did a great job. He kicked ass, kept moving and never stopped being a driver. It shouldn’t matter if we’re dying, if he’s dying, or anything. His job was to drive, and he didn’t do shit-else other than that. I wish I could remember who it was. That driver was the hero of the day in my book. I don’t remember what we did when we got to the airfield. I think I went to the base hospital, but I’m not sure. I don’t remember what I did after the mission. I wish I did.
I do remember Stalker being bad ass. He took more of a hit than I did, and he didn’t flinch. I remember when I went home two or three days later my body hurt the entire time. I remember being around people who wanted to pat me on the back and thank me for my service. I remember thinking that I’d rather be running missions with Stalker and Moon Dog while keeping my eyes out for bad guys. I wanted to be at war with my brothers. I remember thinking war was more like home than home. I remember having a gun and not using it like I should have. Chekhov would have been pissed.