Before today, I never saw so many grown men crying. A week after my friend Chevy was killed, a memorial service was held for him. Every day after his death we’ve been going out on missions, not having any time to reflect on what had happened. Bottled emotions poured out from each and every one of us as I watched everyone including myself sob at the sight of the pictures of him and his daughter, and the words of those closest to him.
We came to Baqubah a day earlier, to quell the insurgent uprising taking place here. New security measures taking place in Baghdad forced them out of the capital and into rural areas like Daliya Province, where Baqubah resides. On the whole, the city is the smallest we’ve worked thus far. Mosul and Baghdad have residents numbering in the millions; Baqubah has a little under 300,000. Despite its size, we were told beforehand that this was going to be a fierce fight. The unit working here has lost a man a week to attacks, and they were incredibly undermanned for this task. Al Qaeda said they chose this area to stay and fight. On March 14, a fight is what we got.
The first few hours of our opening mission were spent driving from street to street, clearing and searching abandoned houses. Since the Cavalry unit here has far less men than us, they rarely conducted searches and clears like we’ve been accustomed to. Almost immediately out of the gate, the 25mm guns on their Bradleys were rocking anyone under suspicion. The rules of engagement are a little more relaxed than they were in Baghdad. Anyone burning a tire in the road to soften it up for emplacing a bomb is shot. Anyone laying cable to hook up to a bomb is shot. Shot is an understatement in this situation. A 25mm shell entering a human being’s body leaves a hole the size of a grapefruit. Dudes poking their heads over gates to watch our convoys roll by are left more aerodynamic than they were before. In this city, the term ghost town is defined by its empty streets and closed shops. People living here were threatened with death to leave, and to hand over their weapons for militants to use against us. That doesn’t leave the best and brightest to greet us on our first day in the streets.
We loaded up after awhile to drive down the road to show our presence to anyone left in town. Passing by a school, a little kid covered his ears. Within seconds, a boom filled the ears and brains of everyone in the convoy. Out of the hatch, my team leader shouted “Oh my God” and started shooting . Over the radio, our fears were realized: “Catastrophic kill, with casualties,” meaning a vehicle was damaged so badly that it couldn’t drive out of there under its own power. RPGs and machine guns started to blaze seemingly from all directions. We immediately got out to take hold of a rooftop position across the street. I never looked back at the carnage but I heard the distinct sound of a 25mm gun tearing into concrete. In the house, I encountered a man saying “no, no” over and over holding his hands up. Instead of putting my fists into his head like I envisioned I would (did he have anything to do with it?), I grabbed his 120lb frame and threw him across the room and ran up the stairs leading to the roof. Up there I saw the most unholy sight: a Stryker lying on its side in a hole and the damaged bodies of my friends coming out of the back. The Bradley gun turned with a mechanical growl to face the gunmen near the school, putting rounds through the wall and sparking a fire on the next building. I loaded a grenade to launch in the direction everyone was shooting, but power lines compromised the overhead arc I needed to shoot it. Instead I watched down the road which would most likely be used in a counter attack. I couldn’t help but look back at the gruesome sights and sounds, of the screams of those inside. Someone was unfolding a body bag next to the wall of the school when we got the word to come back down, run across the street and secure the school to house the casualties. Smoke was thrown to conceal our movement and we sprinted across under the cover of Bradley fire. My friend Steve was on top of the vehicle, standing up to shoot the 50 cal, mowing down three or four dudes on a rooftop. We held in the courtyard of the school for a moment, searching some of the rooms covered in blood. A small child had his brains dangling from his head like spaghetti. Another was paralyzed, yet another crawling in a crimson pool. We headed back to the courtyard with the shrieks of the teachers and stray civilians behind us. The survivors of the blast stumbled in, dusty, banged up and coughing. One of them loaded a grenade into his tube, ready to fire. He was warned it could’ve been damaged and to not fire it. A guy in my team, his very best friend, embraced him and kissed his dirtied cheek. I asked the dude standing in the hatch about everyone’s condition. He looked at me with the most regretful of eyes and said “Chevy was killed on impact.” I was shot out of my terrestrial existence. In seconds it was back to business. We moved to the rear of the school to bring in the civilians on the other side of the wall to protect them from the fire of our guns and theirs. I covered my team leader as he escorted several crying women through the gate. A dude kept poking his head over a wall across the road. I put my rifle on fire, waiting for the next time. It never came. Once we put the people into a classroom, we moved out to begin clearing houses in the area. The firing still has not ceased. House after house, room after room. Set up on a roof, RPGS come whizzing over our heads, exploding somewhere in the distance. Movement behind gates brings fire from our guns. A jet roars overhead so low we can see the pilot’s helmet, and there’s talk of it dropping a bomb on a distant house holding gunmen. After a bit we continue our clear down the street. Men running across the street are met with whizzing bullets, a warning to stay in their houses. The bloodlust we all felt began to simmer a bit, and we were a little nicer to the few residents we encountered throughout the day. What had happened began to sink in, but it wasn’t fully realized. We loaded up in the evening without one of our own. Twenty five families were missing their fathers and sons. Several mourned innocent children’s lives lost. And somewhere in Georgia, a little girl is missing her daddy.