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Terror in a Cloud of Dust

New America Media, Commentary, Chase Weston Posted: Dec 10, 2009

Editors Note: A soldiers growing unease turns to horror when his convoy makes a calamitous detour. Chase Weston wrote this for the Veterans Workshop, a New America Media writing project for combat veterans.

Over the faint clamoring of gunners mounting their .50-cal and 240 machine guns, a truck door creaks shut and I hear the gravel under a soldiers boots displace. He walks half-asleep toward the front of the trucks to hear what a newly promoted captain has to put out on his first mission as a convoy commander.

I walk around my truck to check the tires. I make my way to the front, pausing to take the last drag from my cigarette and toss it to the ground. The convoy commander is finishing his mission brief and explaining how we are supposed to box up if we get hit by an IED. I step up onto the grill guard of our 1029 Humvee, climb onto the hood and up to the roof, then slip into the gunners turret.

As the support element, we are pulling security for trucks carrying water, food, parts, mail, etc. I do a quick check to make sure Ive got my can of Skoal and my smokes as I set in for a nasty ride to our other forward operation base, on the east side of Samara, FOB Wilson.

Our mission was fragged from the get-go this morning. I woke up with that nasty gut feeling, and the new commander is running late, so we will have to take a shortcut to the FOB. The shortcut is one of my least favorite rides to pull convoy security on, because this route takes us 40 miles or so off-road into some very fine sand. The dust stirred up in that section is so bad you cant see but six or eight inches in front of your face. Because I am the rear gunner for the security team, this makes my job the worst. I have to eat the dust of every truck in the convoy.

Leaving FOB McKenzie, we stop at the firing pit to squeeze off a few rounds and check our weapons to make sure the .50-cal guns on the trucks are set right. If they were to jam, we would be completely combat ineffective and shit out of luck.

Finally, we are on the move. When we come to the only town on this route, something doesnt seem right. It is morning, 0930 or so, and the local women are nowhere in sight. They are usually out washing clothes in the creek or trying to keep their children from running into the road or playing in the creek, but I see no one. This does not help my gut feeling in the least bit. To be honest, it makes me quite nervous.

As we pass through the town, I cannot help but notice the palm trees and shrubs planted in the median. I never knew Iraq could be this pretty. Coming to the middle of town I see two elderly men sitting in front of a small sandal shop. This puts my nerves at bay for now. People in town are a good thing -- we most likely will not get blown up here.

We roll through the town and continue north. The turnoff to the shortcut is next to an old poultry farm that looks like a chickens Auschwitz. Taking a right, we pass the farm and were off-road.

The dust starts billowing; it looks like the worst sand storm I have ever seen. I tie my bandana on to cover my nose and mouth. It doesnt help much, but it gives me the feeling that Im not eating dust. The sand cakes everything a light shade of tan, and its as sticky as the Georgia mud. Its as if youd just got a new paint job on everything.

We drive off-road for an hour or so before we come to the road that leads us to FOB Wilson. The Iraqi police checkpoint is empty. Um did I miss a memo? There is supposed to be someone here. This is considered a danger area; any unscheduled change without notification is considered a hostile act. And to make the situation even worse, there is a concrete T-barrier blocking our route through the checkpoint.

The commander gets the bright idea that hes going to drive on the shoulder of the road to the right of the checkpoint. This is unusual. For safety reasons, we never just blaze our own trail when we are pulling security. If a truck we are escorting were to be hit, we would look like complete assholes.

The commander leads the way around the T-barrier, and the convoy begins to follow. Trucks bunch up at the bottleneck. My driver necks up so close to the PLS transport truck in front of us that I can read the bar code on one of the pallets.

Suddenly, there is a blast. I can taste it, smell it, and feel it. I think I am fucking hit. Im in a daze.

My first sergeant is riding in my truck. After we pull back to set up a defensive position, he gets out and approaches the bombed vehicle. We will have to wait for an Explosive Ordinance Division team to clear the scene of other IEDs before we can remove the hit vehicle. But the first sergeant has to get the driver and passenger to safety now.

As the first sergeant approaches the left side of the truck, I can see the fear in his walk. He is hesitant, on guard. When he calls out to the guys inside the hit PLS, it is so quiet that I can make out even the faintest of fuzz on the radio. Then we hear, Were OK, first sergeant, and a simultaneous sigh of relief is heard throughout the convoy.

The first sergeant talks the rattled men out of the truck and onto safe ground, and then walks them to our truck so they can calm down. I am surprised when I see the first sergeant, one of the most emotionless men Ive ever known, hug the PLS driver.

I can see the quick reaction force from FOB Wilson coming up the road a half mile or so. I watch as the Bradley fighting vehicles sup up in their defensive positions and take over security from us. The back ramps drop down and dismounts set off to check the surrounding buildings for the IEDs trigger man.

Waiting for EOD bomb disposal to arrive, I look down to the seat below me on my right. Its the driver of the truck that just got hit. Hes sitting as still as a man lying in a casket. All but his hands. They are shaking so violently that he cannot even remove the cap from a water bottle. I nudge him with my foot as if to say, Youre OK, its cool. Youre safe now.

You good, bro? I ask.

When he looks up he cannot speak. He just nods yes, and appears to look right through me. I want to tell him to snap out of it, to put his weapon to his shoulder and pull some security. I dont know why, but I cant. I dont really feel bad for him; its a war and shit happens. Ive had worse days and still did my job. But he is so scared. It is the weirdest feeling I have ever felt: The feeling of compassion, when I need to be as solid as a rock.

Just as I start to self-analyze, two bomb technicians arrive to clear the blast sight. They put on their bomb suits and send out their little remote-controlled mine sweeper, like characters out of the movie E.T. The robot sweeps the scene and detects no secondary IED. I am relieved.

The EOD team is putting away their robot and taking off their bomb suits while a ten-ton wrecker backs into position to hook up the bombed truck. EOD starts walking over to check out the vehicle and snap some photos for records. Then out of nowhere, there is a second blast.

This one is bigger, louder. It pushes me against the back of my turret and pins me there for what feels like minutes, but is actually fractions of a second. My first sergeant, who was walking toward the EOD team, is almost knocked over. His knees buckle, and he tries to keep his balance.

I am dazed for just a moment, and then something in me kicks into high gear. Call it adrenalin or combat reaction, but it is something I have only felt in the worst of situations. I immediately flip the switch and call in to the convoy commander.

Two KIA, two KIA! Fucking EOD just stepped on the secondary! I shout.

Before I can completely finish, I see one of the EOD guys crawling under a black cloud of dust to the T-barrier. I still have my mic on.

Hold on, one KIA, one WIA! As I finish that sentence, I am floored when I see the other EOD guy crawling to the T-barrier as well.

Words cannot explain what is going through my head. Two men who I thought were dead and in pieces are alive and, barely, still moving. My mic still on, I cry over the net at the top of my lungs, They are both alive! Two WIA -- I repeat, two WIA! Medic! We need to get a medic in there to assist those men!

At the Bradley fighting vehicle to my north, two infantry soldiers about to go in after the wounded give each other a bone-chilling glance. Without words, this glance says it all. It says, I love you, brother. It says, I am scared, brother. It says, I dont want to, brother. It says, Tell my family I love them, brother. It says, Always remember me.

The soldiers go in for the wounded. I can hear the medevac chopper coming. The soldiers grab the EOD men by the handles on the backs of their bulletproof vests and drag them out of the danger zone to the Bradley.

The doc starts to assist the wounded, and puts them on stretchers as the chopper approaches. The Bradley deploys green smoke to mark the landing area. The chopper sets down, the EOD men are loaded into the bird, and theyre gone.

The author survived an IED attack in 2005 with a broken back and a traumatic brain injury. He is a recent graduate of the Pathway Home, a residential treatment center for combat veterans with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, and now does volunteer outreach for the Veterans Administration and a veterans support group in Missoula, Montana.

Related Articles:

Conduct Unbecoming of the U.S. Army

When Shadows Danced Under a Fading Red Star

The Anger Behind My Blood-Red Sand Goggles

Iraq War Veteran Finds that the Highly Qualified Need Not Apply

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