7 April 2004 1st Reconnaissance Battalion B. Co 2nd Plt
This was the second time in less than a mile that we halted our convoy. We were the lead
vehicle in the Company movement. We tried to move as if we were walking point whenever
possible. We were in column formation, same as if on foot. This was route Boston, a good place to get in a fight and something was up. It was startlingly obvious the Iraqi’s were anticipating our arrival. This suburb of Fallujah usually had a steady flow of vehicle traffic, and the local residents were always outside in small groups, milling about or working. It was around noon and the day was sunny, not too hot. The gas station usually had a congregation of serious looking men out front, jaw-jackin’ the day away. Today the place was eerily quiet, the gas station deserted. In the distance up ahead I saw a cluster of people dart behind a building. At the same time a lone car that was heading towards us suddenly busted a U-turn and took off in the opposite direction.
I relayed over the radio what I was observing. All I got for an answer was “Solid copy, pick up speed to 25kph.” I thought to myself, “Roger. Mother-fuckers.” Marines, Recon Marines especially, hated operating with officers who never trained with the men they lead. I silently swore at the 119 Foxtrot (radio). I assumed this was Captain Richardson’s call to disregard our observations. He was the Company Commander, normally nowhere near us when we worked but today he accompanied us. We all had opinions regarding his capabilities, I didn’t
think too highly of him. He was untested in combat and had yet to prove himself to us. Today
he would get his chance. Most of our battalion were combat veterans of the 2003 invasion and OIF I. Bravo Company 2nd Plt. Had busted our asses getting ready for this deployment. We spent nearly every waking hour training and rehearsing our Standard Operational Procedures (S.O.P’s). We were some bad mothers and we knew it. We had our shit together. We resented what we considered a POG (Person Other than a Grunt) calling the shot’s once the boots hit the deck. I thought to myself Capt. Richardson must have made that call. In two seconds our company commander was able to assess the situation and make a command decision from his perch, a quarter mile back in the formation. It pissed me off. Now years later I have moved the finger and pointed it at myself. I could have taken a few seconds to reiterate my sitrep to paint the battle-space in a way he could have conceptualized in his lofty warehouse of intelligence hidden under his “brain bucket.” Nevertheless, it was Aye Aye Sir! Off we went.
I could “what if” that following hour of my life a million times over, but it wouldn’t change a thing. We knew that we were heading into an ambush. I relayed the news to the team, and we started moving again. Everyone was silent, every weapon pointed outboard. “Well here we go,” I thought. I dismounted my SAW from its swing-arm mount and rested its folded bi-pod on the duct tape covered windowsill of my door, the barrel casually surveying our 3 O’clock.
When the shit went down I wanted to be mobile if needed. As we started picking up speed I
made the conscious decision to spit out my dip, just in case I got hit. I didn’t want to accidentally swallow it. After all, who wants to be puking their guts out while leaking all over the place from a gunshot? This was about the point I felt my mind go to a familiar place. As I
readied myself for battle, I turned off all of my emotions. I was used to combat. Fear could only hint at manifesting itself. I’d catch it and put it in check as soon as it started creeping in at the fringes of my mind. It was time for us to focus on work.
We were traveling at about 25kph when I heard the first shots. It was a short burst of machine gun fire from our right flank. Whoever initiated the ambush must have jumped the gun. Within a split second his buddies joined in on the action, as if they were late to the party. It was an incredible amount of gunfire, and it seemed to be concentrated entirely upon our vehicle. I hastily squeezed my radio handset and called out “Contact right!” I dropped the handset and brought my gun up as fast as I could. Immediately we executed our SOP for this type of ambush. We stopped our vehicle and started laying down a base of fire along with the rest of the Alpha element of our platoon. Meanwhile I trusted that the Bravo element, led by Gunny Griego, would be executing their Immediate Action Drills and maneuvering to flank the enemy.
We had stopped our vehicle right in the middle of the kill zone. There wasn’t much of a choice. The enemy had picked a good spot. They blocked the road ahead of us, confining our
vehicle to the narrow, one lane road. The rounds came in on us so thick they prevented us from dismounting from our vehicle. The only option for us was to assault through by fire and
maneuver. Any inaction or hesitation could and would have killed us. The rounds shredding
apart our vehicle were so many I knew it was only a matter of time before I got shot in the face.
I assumed our Radio Operator, Lcpl. Mazon was already dead, shot in the face by one of the
many rounds that snapped by so close it’s a wonder they didn’t pierce them. I didn’t have time to dwell on the issue. I had some work to do. In true Marine Corps fashion, I thought, “If I’m going out, I’m going out fighting.”
This was a textbook close ambush, and we were fighting our way through it. I squeezed out long bursts from my saw. I remember once being told by an instructor at SOI that 5-8 round bursts was the optimal rate of fire in a firefight, so as not to get a “hot barrel.” Well, not in this fight. Any grunt will tell you SAW’s could be finicky, prone to jams and miss-feeds. I took pride in keeping my weapon pristine. I knew just how to keep her rocking and rolling in this type of environment. I dumped rounds down range right back at them. I employed a few really longs bursts of grazing fire just inches over the top of the berm to our 3 O’clock the enemy was using for cover. The enemy was firing from behind until they got a taste of their own medicine.
It did the trick, they couldn’t peek over the top of their hiding places unless they wanted to catch one in the grape. They knew it too and kept their heads down. I paused in firing to move to suppress the fire that was coming from our 1 o’clock. Bullets were still raining down on us at the rapid rate. They were firing at us from behind the berms and from positions scattered out across the small fields. I could also see the muzzle flashes winking at us from the dark places in the nearby buildings. They were unloading on us with at least four belt fed machine guns, or PKM’s. One of the insurgents had a bead on us from our 1 o’clock. Luckily the angle of our vehicle related to his position gave us some protection as long as we didn’t lean too far out of the doors to return fire. I swung my barrel to the left and was about to start suppressing that machine gun at our 1 o’clock, but I changed my mind and went back to suppressing our right flank.
Sergeant Kocher was selectively engaging individual targets, and I didn’t want to shoot his M4 out of his hands. I wasn’t worried about my aim, but with my gun firing across the top of his barrel from a foot away all it would take was him lifting his barrel an inch. I knew Kocher would soon pick that guy off, and I didn’t want the enemy I had pinned behind the berm to get cocky and decide to join the party again either. Anyways, I assumed Talbert would bring the 50 cal up in the turret rocking and rolling. “What’s the hold up?” I wondered fleetingly. Making assumptions is a good way to get yourself killed. Try learning that lesson the hard way.
As the fighting had been going on I kept hearing explosions behind us. The enemy was “volley firing” RPG’s at us. I assumed that the enemy was firing at the vehicles behind us. I never saw the telltale smoke trailing bottle rocket whiz by like I had in earlier engagements. I’ve heard people say that you never see the one that gets you. Well, that saying held true in my case.
I felt a tremendous boom. I can’t adequately describe being hit by a Rocket Propelled
Grenade. Take my word when I say words fall short of truly conveying it. If you can imagine, it
was as if the greatest thunderclap you’ve ever felt in your lifetime was magnified a million times over and originated from inside your head. Everything went silent, but I was very aware. I knew I had finally been shot in the face or head. I was cognizant of everything. Time stopped. I remember screaming out at the top of my lungs, “Ahh, I’m hit!” But my voice as powerful as it is fell on deaf ears, including mine. I knew I had yelled out loud that I was hit, and I immediately felt stupid for doing it. It was so cliché, and I was irritated with myself for almost allowing myself to freak out. I shut up and told myself to relax. I knew that shock could set in and could kill me if I allowed myself to go down that road. It worked. As I took control of
myself it was as if I had flipped on a light switch to the world. My senses flooded back to me.
From the moment of impact to this point seemed like a good five minutes had passed. In real time I’d say 5 seconds would be a more correct estimation. So many different thoughts had crossed my mind. In those few seconds I remember thinking I had been shot in the face. I thought to myself, “I guess I’ll see what it’s like to die now,” and “I wonder if I’ll be retarded because of a gunshot to the brain?” I thought to myself “Well, how would I even know if I’m
brain damaged if I’m brain damaged?” It may sound surprising to say, but I felt peaceful. Even though I expected that I was dying, I wasn’t afraid. I knew that everything would be okay, better than okay. I remember thinking how much I wished I could somehow give that peace to those I would leave behind. They would be sad, but I knew they didn’t have to be. I remember seeing my time on earth as merely a fraction of my life, as if in death I was being awakened.
I opened my eyes. I knew I wasn’t dead, not yet anyway. The world came into view. For a second I thought the enemy had stopped firing at us. They hadn’t. We were all deaf from the RPG blast. It had detonated two feet from my face. My left arm was burning. I looked down and saw what was left of it. It was blown off about mid forearm. I could see my jagged, splintered bones jutting out from a bloody, scorched, flayed open stump. I knew I had lost my
left hand. My right hand was killing me. I raised it up in front of my face to get a good look at
it. It was blown off at the base of my hand. There were a few uneven bone fragments sticking
out where my palm used to be. It looked as if some of the skin that used to be my hand was
dangling, shredded to pieces like someone removed all the bone and flesh from inside. It hung like and empty glove that went a few rounds with a garbage disposal. I thought, “Fuck, both of them!” I wasn’t done assessing the situation though. I looked down and saw my left leg was blown wide open, my femur split in half like a jagged splintered water hose. It pumped out huge amounts of blood with every heartbeat. Imagine a coffee cup full of blood, hot blood. Now imagine that every time your heart beats, you tossed about that much blood out of your cup and down your thigh. The coffee cup would fill up again in between heart beats. I knew I only had so many cups of coffee left in me. My leg had almost been blown in half. I took one look at the gleaming white bone sticking out of a sea of red, and I knew I was dead if I didn’t stop that bleeding. How was I going to get a tourniquet on my leg and both arms when I didn’t have hands? The fight wasn’t over yet. I knew I needed to use my head.
I understood just how grave my situation was. I was losing blood very rapidly. Everyone in the team was wounded, some worse than others. I needed a tourniquet, and I needed it fast.
My leg was the main priority. My hands could wait. I turned and saw that Mazon was not dead. Surprisingly he had escaped major injury and sustained a good peppering of shrapnel. Talbert was laid out on the roof, his legs curled up along with himself behind the gun shield. He was unresponsive, maybe dead. Music, our driver, was dazed behind the wheel. He had caught a lot of shrapnel from head to shoulder, down his back and on his right side. You could tell his bell was rung. He had checked on Talbert our gunner and he kept telling us that Talbert wasn’t responding. As bad as it sounds, all I could think was, “If he’s dead, he’s dead. Let’s focus on saving the rest of our asses.” It’s just the nature of combat, now was not the time to slow down to mourn.
My attention moved to Sgt. Kocher who was quietly putting a tourniquet on his right arm with his left hand. His right arm flapped around useless from a hole the size of a silver dollar just above his elbow on his tricep, his bones shattered. I told Kocher I was hit. He responded, “I know brother. I can’t help you until I get this tourniquet on.” I knew that, but I guess in the moment it was something I felt I should tell my team leader. I wasn’t taking any chances. I wasn’t assuming anything, not anymore. My attention went back to Mazon. He was visibly shaken at the sight of me. He kept repeating, “Oh shit! Oh fuck! Oh shit! Oh fuck Corporal!” I’m sure I was quite a sight to see, but I knew I couldn’t afford to let him go down that road to
panic, fear and shock. I needed him to focus, slow down, take his time, and move with a purpose.
In boot camp our drill instructors would hammer that into us whenever they had us complete complicated tasks under extreme duress. The ditty they used is cemented into my mind and soul. “Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.” It works. I told Cpl. Mazon in the calmest, most authoritative voice I could muster, “Mazon, calm down. I’ll be all right. Get the blow-out kit.” The “blow-out” kit was our field expedient medical kit that we kept in the vehicle. The contents
would vary slightly from time to time based on what we could acquire. We wanted it all. If push came to shove and we couldn’t get medical support, we had to be prepared to help ourselves.
The one thing that is always in that medical kit is tourniquets. It was Cpl. Mazon’s job to load it into the vehicle before we stepped off anywhere. He had done that, but the kit wasn’t secured well enough to withstand the impact of an RPG. When the RPG hit us, it blew all kinds of shit all over the place. It looked like the six foot pile of footlocker guts that my drill instructors affectionately called Mt. Suribachi. “Where’s my mountain?” they would shout, and
ninety Charlie Company Platoon 1119 wannabe Marines would immediately and without hesitation dump our shit out of our footlockers into one single pile in the middle of the squad bay. Then the next step was for each and every one of us to retrieve a certain item, seemingly random like our “moonbeams” (flashlights) or our “go fasters” (running shoes) and get back “online” (at the position of attention) with our gear in under ten seconds. Except 10 seconds of DI time went something like “10, 9, 8, 3, 2, 1, ZERO! It was chaotic. Everyone would be knees and elbows akimbo as we converged on our foot locker guts as fast as we could. It was an exercise in futility, designed to teach us to slow down, focus and utilize economy of movement and time.
So here I was watching Mazon frantically sort through our Mt. Suribachi for the blow out
kit. I didn’t have time for this. None of us did. I was bleeding out, and the enemy was still
trying to kill us. I told him, “Fuck it, Mazon. Grab my tourniquet.” Our team had spent time
rehearsing our IA drills for self-aid/buddy-aid. Each of us had two tourniquets on us at all times, one in each of our Cammie blouse shoulder pockets. This was before there were enough actual tourniquets to issue, so we had come up with our own solution. We found that small six inch bungee cords worked fantastically on both legs and arms, and they were easy to apply to yourself one handed in just seconds. I still have one of 3 the blood stained tourniquets that were used on me that day. The docs at TQ thought so much of it they saved it, and sent it home with me. That bungee cord helped save my life, and it’s one of my most prized souvenirs from the war.