Even though I know exactly how many dogs I killed in Iraq, the number would muffle their now-silent voices, so let’s start with the very first one, the only one I didn’t have to.
It’s the first night of The War. My section of TOW HUMVees was proceeding slowly in convoy down a concrete road towards a highway with a bridge into the city of Basra. The bridge, of course, was over the river Basra. An intersection 2 klicks (kilometers) south of the bridge next to the city, was Delta Company, 1st Tank Battalion’s objective to assault through, em-place, then defend all four routes to the intersection. My section would never make it to the intersection with the rest of the company.
A little over two klicks short of the intersection, “Movietone 2,” one of two HUMVees there to film the war, with a reserve Major and two enlisted Marine Journalists, drifted onto the right shoulder to let two American Abrams tanks pass. Well, due to whatever, the Major failed to notice the shoulder end abruptly and turn into a 20-foot-deep irrigation ditch, filled with water. (March 21st, planting time) The whatever, I imagine was the Major’s inexperience at driving a HUMVee at night under light discipline with Night Vision Goggles on. It’s very difficult, actually.
Anyways, our section’s lead vehicle, Alpha 1 radios back: “We got wet Marines on the road telling us their Major’s dead, Sgt. “
“Thunder section,” Sergeant Miller imperatively spoke though the handset in the pitch dark, “…halt movement, herringbone, and my vehicle is coming up to those Marines in the road!” Herringbone is a command to pull over to the left or right to halt convoy movement. If the vehicle in front of you pulls over to the left, yours thusly pulls over to the right. Moving forward…
Long story short – the Major had flipped the HUMVee into the ditch upside-down. The two enlisted Marines got out first and pulled themselves onto the road just in time to flag down our section, which was the LAST element of the column.
As we arrived up front, they were helping the Major onto the road. He complained of chest pain and shortness of breath; because of his age, I radioed back a cas-evac request, and 5 minutes later he was in the rear with the gear and the beer. The two Marines he left behind weren’t so lucky. I immediately treated them for hypothermia, which I diagnosed instantly from their chattering teeth and the vapor from their breathing. (cold air, cold clothes, bad sum) The Marines, devoid of gear or even dry clothes borrowed the Major’s pistol as he was taken back, (after I suggested it to him) and promptly were fit into the watch schedule and quickly given a lesson in scanning their field of fire with the thermal scopes in the TOW missile system mounted on eight of the nine vehicles in our section. At least for one night, a combat journalist and a combat illustrator were no POGs (Personnel Other than Grunt.) I can vouch for that!
And there we stayed, that first night, 29 Marines and one Navy Corpsman, next to a HUMVee upside-down in 20 feet of water until sunrise. Why: because that particular HUMVee had about three-hundred-thousand-dollars worth of gear aboard it. Again, the almighty dollar will determine some dog’s destiny. It’s a small world after all…
So here Thunder Section of TOW Platoon has halted movement. The rest of the active company, on point, (mostly tanks,) arrives at the intersection minutes later and tactically em-places. They are two thousand meters at least away from us. Close enough to come deliver support. But just far enough away that we could be on our own for many seconds or minutes should something happen. This sort of duality made this sailor nervous. Remember I didn’t join the fucking Marine Corps. I was assigned to them.
The radio lights up. It’s the X/O of the Delta Company. “Reinforced Delta Company em-placed. Observe COMPLETE noise and light discipline and zero %” Zero percent refers to the amount of each vehicles crew allowed to sleep at one time. First night? No one was thinking about sleep, I promise. No one slept the night before, by the way.
Umm, I thought. . . weren’t we supposed to have completed Battalion Objective One today? Now its tonight, the first night, and I can see progression goes not by time line, but by objective line. And no plan survives contact with the enemy.
Just then, right where our nine vehicles were left-shouldered/right-shouldered (herringbone) along a stretch of concrete road, this loud little DOG appears out of this white-colored house where my vehicle had happened to pull onto the shoulder next to. The dog was mangy, medium-sized, hair all matted, and barking like an invading army was passing by his front door. (smart dog)
Sgt. Miller grabbed the hooks and calmly issued orders: “I want 360° awareness out to 4250 meters. Yes I know the city and the river are 2000 away. Deal with it. Gunners remain at your weapons, but do NOT arm your missile until you confirm a target. Drivers and A drivers, dismount and make a short sweep around your vehicle.”
LCPL Howell and I without hesitation exited our vehicle and began to inspect the immediate area. Damn that fuckin’ dog was LOUD, running around ours and a couple other vehicles next to ours, barking like crazy. It split the consummate silence like the end of a glacier falling into the ocean. The enemy could be anywhere. The dog made it obvious where I was. I noticed a very raw feeling concerning the dog begin to develop.
Pitch Black. It was a new moon, and I could see almost nothing, but I scanned the junkyardesque backdrop around and behind the house where the dog had emerged from. In the darkness, I could detect an infinitely unmanageable number of unknowns, and I can’t lie, I was “concerned”. What I could see, was a small white-ish house and smaller structure next to the house by the driveway. That whoreson bastard dog was now nipping at my heels and I kicked at it, whispering at it to go away, and to be honest a bad thought started to form in my head about it.
The invisible sky was black and enemies could be anywhere. Even the horizon feigned indifference. The whole point of noise and light discipline is to protect the location of your position at night. And this dog was FUCKING cramping our style.
It was a sentence I wouldn’t forget, and it was whispered almost simultaneously by Sgt. Miller and myself, but not to each other: “Someone should kill that dog.”
My section leader, Sgt. Miller, was technically one year younger than me. But he was my first direct superior during combat, and his words during a mission would prove to become action. But again, this is that first night. Typical things like dog killin’ had yet to be established. No, it doesn’t feel good to quantify it as typical, but its combat typical. Plus I’m a mathematically honest person.
Almost as we were both saying that sentence, Sgt. Miller and I turned towards each other and were eye to eye by its end. There was a very brief pause. Sgt. Miller appeared to look away (it was dark) and said something to the key of: “Doc, you’re the Corpsman, seems best you could tactically euthanize that dog…you know, humanely or whatever?” It wasn’t an order. I don’t know if he was implying, joking, commenting, or etc… but this is what subsequently happened.
I briskly developed a bias towards action, took the Sgt. at his word, and pulled my K-BAR. Then I snatched up an unknowing victim, a spare pouch of M.R.E. meatloaf. K-BAR to pouch, meatloaf in hand.
As if to affirm my choosen path, that damn dog started barking louder and running back and forth from vehicle to vehicle. Another TOW gunner sounded off on the hooks from another HUMVee: “Doesn’t anyone else think that fucking dog should shut up? Over.” At that point, already equipped, I made up my mind. That FUCKING dog was dying unless somehow God himself sent down an angel and whisked it away. I couldn’t let ANYTHING endanger my Marines; otherwise, I might have had to do my job.
I calmly slipped back out of the passenger side of my HUMVee, meatloaf in left hand, K-BAR in right. Remember, I can’t just shoot this dog. Noise discipline means NO FUCKING NOISE. As I write now, I do believe this was the first time I really thought like a killer. It arose I think, from the necessity of killing silently; but I digress…
I noticed Howell at the vehicle’s passenger flank, scanning towards the left with night vision goggles. Though six feet away, the nebulosity of his silhouette made me doubtful I’d see an enemy right in front of me. I had just my eyes.
The dog ran by me yelping, and as it passed I observed its method of operation, gauging possibilities of a strike during a future run-by. When he was past and on his way to the vehicle ahead, my cognitive centers digested the appropriate telemetry, and thanked the left hand for remembering the meatloaf.
Sure as shit, that fucking dog screeched at Two Alpha’s vehicle, the one just west of our HUMVees center position in the halted section column, then turned directly back towards me. This moment, upon reflection, is when I began to hone the art of dog killin’. It started just as that dog started back my direction.
Like some cunning preternatural beast, my right hand, whilst holding the K-BAR, tore off one-third of the meatloaf and threw it straight at the dog’s face. If there had been a large bowl with “Fido” or the like stenciled on it in front of the dog, the meatloaf hunk woulda’ landed directly in it. As soon as it skidded onto the ground, the fucking dog stopped barking for the first time in 3 minutes. Seriously, right then I knew I had it. I was surprised to find out what “it” was though.
I’m sorry, but yes, that dog did give pause. It took a tiny moment to inspect the projectile, but wolfed it down nevertheless. When it looked back up at me, I could sense some sort of change. Apparently, it had reconsidered its opinion about the humans of Thunder Section, TOW PLT, 1st Tank Battalion. The noose was tightening, and so was my throat.
I, as calmly and as non-dog-killingly as I could, pulled another third from the meatloaf, and tossed it to half the distance to the dog. I couldn’t believe my luck! That dog trotted over to the meatloaf like I’d been the one who’d raised him. If you lie to a dog, he’ll trust you I guessed correctly.
“Four Alpha,” the radio sang to life “We’ve got a vehicle approaching from the rear. Two headlights on, looks like a civilian truck. 1000 meters.” I barely heard this warning from the radio in my HUMVee. I was invested in that dog. How could I know the two would intersect?
“Lock ‘em up, but don’t arm and fire unless you should, over.” Miller spoke into his handset. He was not normally a calm man, but he was firm and serious and fun.
“Four Alpha, that’s a negative target. They’ve got their interior lights on and are waving white flags, over.”
This brief exchange was lost to me in that moment; I was watching that dog eat the second piece of meatloaf with alacrity. I placed the K-BAR at pants level, and extended the meatloaf-laden left hand to that dog, who was less than ten feet from me. The dog looked up at my hand and started toward me.
SUDDENLY, Howell YELLS: “THERE’S SOMEONE THERE!” In blackness, “there” is not a very helpful orienteering tool. I instantly lost focus on the murder at hand, and rocked my attention to Lance Corporal Howell, six feet away on the other side of the HUMVee. He was holding his night vision goggles with one hand, and pointing with his other. He was staring to the vehicle’s RIGHT, technically my area to survey. But, like any typical United States Marine, he had my back.
I followed his point like it was a glowing red laserbeam – that’s when I saw HIM! He was a faint outline that had stepped out from beside the garage? next to the house, to our right. (the dog’s left.) He was fifteen feet from me. I metaphorically shit my pants and dropped both the meatloaf and the K-BAR like excess baggage, while pulling my Beretta .9mm pistol. I had this new outlined addition to the scene in my sights in no time, safety off, finger on the trigger; but something stopped me from firing. I’m glad I didn’t.
Just about that time, the white civilian pickup that had been approaching from behind actually passed five of our stopped anti-tank HUMVees, and turned right into the driveway I was standing at the edge of. His headlights illuminated the scene.
There I stood, pistol leveled at a ten?-year-old boy, calling and motioning for his dog. The dog, noticing the extent of the tension, broke for the boy and jumped into his arms. Before I could think or do anything else, the young boy slipped back behind the garage, dog in arms.
The three adult males in the pickup re-waived their white flags at me, to jolt me back to reality. I was terminally lost up ‘till that point, momentarily pondering what two things I had almost just done. I holstered my pistol, picked up my K-BAR, then as a parting motion, grabbed the hunk of meatloaf off the ground too and popped it into my mouth. No sense wasting food at a time like this.
So that was it. I call it the one that got away. “It” refers to the dog and the boy, both of whom I’d scarcely admit how ready I was to kill, right then.
Sorry if you thought this would be a tale of killing dogs or even children. (This is on the internet, so audience is noted) Those tales I’ll keep to myself for now. (No, no children! You heathens!)
This piece is dedicated to the certain untold thousands of canine casualties, both known of or not, that resulted from, or will result from, Operation Iraqi Freedom. May the universe return that balance sooner rather than later.