Fourteen tons of sharply angled steel encases us like a suit of armor. My vision is restricted much like that of a horse with blinders on. Three small periscopes are my only portal to the world. The scene is like something from the movies. Thick black smoke billows up from vehicles contorted in fire, tongues of flame igniting fuel and oil as it drips to the ground. Burnt rubber and cordite waft upward on a breezeless trajectory. Windows shattered by concussions have showered jagged shards of glass in every direction. On each side of the obstructed road, victorious Marines are betrayed by their faces. Faces that days ago were filled with smiles and youthful arrogance are now stained with muddy tears and an ancient humility. Their eyes speak a warning I fail to understand, my only experience with combat coming from Hollywood films.
Ahead lay the bridge secured to allow the advancement of forces to Baghdad. Command issued new orders: armor would be the tip of the spear, an exciting prospect. Light Armored Reconnaissance would lead the assault toward Baghdad, Alpha Company would lead, followed by Bravo Company and then HeadQuarters. I pressed the accelerator and the engine groaned as we crested the battered bridge. Along the river’s edge, grass grows taller than men and basks in the afternoon sun. From my vantage point on the bridge, I get a brief glimpse of the lush countryside. The Iraqi natives have created irrigation trenches called “wadies” to water their fields of wheat and barley. Palm trees dot the landscape and adobe homes are spaced out by twisting roads and trails that lead to the river, a goat pen, the market, and beyond.
Northbound for Baghdad that’s the plan nevermind the pleasant view. Far ahead is smoke on the horizon. Helicopters buzz by the eastern side of the convoy like track stars in a relay race, constantly unloading their payloads and then returning for more fuel and ammunition. We pass buildings that have been reduced to smoldering rubble by barrages of helicopter rockets. Secondary explosions cause me to jerk my head in their direction, anticipating the worst. The sun, my only clue as to the time, suggests it’s late afternoon.
The radio crackles with news of Alpha Company engaging enemies only a mile ahead of us. My heart starts pounding like a war drum. With the constant attack of helicopters and heavy rain of artillery shells, it’s hard to make out the “thump, thump, thump” of the 25mm cannon. Approaching a “T” intersection, I see a huge, dull-colored tile picture of Saddam Hussein on the eastern side of the road. Riddled with bullet holes, the dictators’ picture paints a new story as the broken tiles lay in a pile on the ground. A smile crosses my lips, and I feel a sense of justice for the Iraqi people. I turn West playing a game of follow the leader with the rest of the battalion. Alpha Company’s guns are pointing North, the barrels of their cannons glowing red as they spit round after round of high explosive ammo into an enemy stronghold. The firing stops and Alpha Company continues West.
Upon arriving, the damage becomes apparent. Bombs, rockets, and artillery have terraformed the landscape. Small craters have changed the road into something like a pegboard. A large building a thousand meters North of the road is or was the enemy stronghold. From the road to the building is a plethora of craters, some small like a pop can and others large enough to swallow busses. The soil has been overturned every which way, trees turned to splinters, and twisted chunks of shrapnel lay like mulch over the expanse. The Southern wall of this five-story stronghold is at the bottom of the largest crater. I can see into every floor, the walls inside have been mangled by bullets and charred by fire. Chunks of wall breaking away under the pressure of the enormous weight. The convoy doesn’t stop, and the demolished site is left in our wake.
We turn North again; the sun is fleeting. Palm forest and palm rows break the shrub fields into sections that remind me of hedgerows, and fields back home. Just off the left side of the road, an enemy truck is stopped. The vehicle is angled slightly away from the road, the driver still at his post. Head leaning against his window, eyes forward and open, a single hole in his forehead. The crimson blood running down his nose and eyes, matting in his kempt beard and finally slowly dripping onto his fatigue blouse. I feel sorry for him. Was he a father? How will his family deal with his death? How would my family deal with my death should it be my turn? He is the first dead man I’ve ever seen. Will there be more? Just up the road is another enemy truck, this one on fire and erupting with secondary explosions. The munitions it carried are now cooking off and sending projectiles in every direction.
With darkness settling in, the bright flashes and deafening booms create a spectacle similar to a Fourth of July celebration. I white-knuckle the steering wheel, listening to projectiles “ping” off the side of the vehicle. After a couple “pings,” I relax my grip and breathe a sigh of relief. My slight sympathy for the dead man had washed away immediately.
Alpha Company has taken up its defensive position along the road, covering North, East, and South. Bravo Company fills in the North, West, and South. HeadQuarters and the mortar vehicles take the center. With the defensive coil established, I can finally leave my drivers’ hole and piss. I open my drivers’ hatch and stand up, stretching my sore legs for the first time since morning, and a cool breeze hits my cheek. The Iraqi sky filled with stars creates an automatic night light, allowing me to make out the shrubs and the shape of some buildings a few hundred yards away. I take off my communication helmet and replace it with my Kevlar. It’s heavy and I’m exhausted but it’s the rule. I climb down and check the tires on the left. Go around the front and check the right, all the tires are good. I relieve myself and go back around the front of the vehicle, climb up and reluctantly slide back down into the cramped driving compartment. I close the drivers’ hatch and to my surprise, a burst of enemy fire hits the ground where I just stood. Adrenaline surges through my whole body, I can feel the hairs on my neck rise. The entire perimeter erupts with machine gunfire, and the dreaded sound of mortars whistling in the air and thundering to the ground, spraying sand, rocks, and chunks of plant material flying. Our enemy has been waiting for us, preparing a trap. The gunners waste no time and respond to the threat in kind. The noise is deafening and concussions rock the vehicle.
As the battle outside rages on, I sit trying to collect my thoughts. The visual warning from the bridgemen finally materializing into something I can understand; this is war. A fragile line is being walked between life and death, and it feels oddly exuberating. I sit here waiting for someone to call my name into action, or will it be a mortar that calls to me? The steel casing of the vehicle reminds me of the “whole armor of God.” Is he here? Somewhere, walking among us? No. But Death, yeah, he has to be here? With his icy fingers outstretched, waiting to quickly snuff out whomever he can. “Ping,” I snap back to reality as the bullet bounces off the steel. “Fuck.” I smile. This is war, the most noble death a man can have. Just outside my portal.