1% of this is Bullshit

As I’ve said before, I try to be mathematically honest. And so, sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, a tiny portion of this account is fiction. (1%, to be accurate) Why have I done this? Simply because it seemed like a good idea when I started…

At the least, it will be a reminder to Everyone that someone’s account of the past, even of profound moments, often grows rather than shrinks. Hunters, Fishermen, Volcano Eruption survivors, to name a few, will typically add to the tale as time goes on. It was a 26 point buck! It was 220 inches long! The plume turns to crimson, etc…

This one percent of non-truth serves as a limit point for the facts to follow.

It’s around day 23 of mounted patrols throughout Baghdad proper. Mounted means in a HUMVee or other vehicle, not on a horse. My Section of TOW Platoon, Thunder, was tasked with running a mounted patrol once each day with 5 Baghdad Police officers.  Many sections of many platoons had the same duty, each day. Thing is though, the Marines rotated squads of the section, so every MARINE had one mounted patrol every three days. Me, being the only Corpsman in the section, had to go EVERY day. It sucked, but I didn’t miss ANY action in the city, and none of my Marines were casualties. Plus, I MUST add, I coincidentally was able to heal and save dozens of Iraqi lives.

The police officers of Baghdad were targets the day we entered Baghdad. The very next morning, we were at the abandoned main Police Station nearest our Battalion’s bivouac, to send out the call for them to return and help us start to police the city. (We never mentioned that only 10 minutes before meeting them, our Rules of Engagement included them as targets.)

Since the entire military and police of Iraq were marked for death, they both dissolved mostly anywhere we went. In Baghdad, as we entered, it looked like the entire city was “Going Out of Business.” Every road was filled with cars, trucks, or vans, which in turn were filled to the gunwales with every sort of random looted goods. From machine guns to high fructose corn syrup, the entire city of many millions, was out redistributing wealth in the absence of government or order.

Our bivouac, or base, was the Iran/Iraq Martyr’s Monument. The monument, a soaring blue flame structure hundreds of feet tall, with a museum and MANY war-related displays and pieces, was a perfect spot for a Tank Battalion to set up shop. It was several blocks square, had a tall black metal fence, a MOAT, and just a few entrances. Plus, one side was bounded a zoo, which is where I’ll take up with this LAST DAY on patrol in the city, back in late April of 2003.

I can’t remember if I did 23 or 24 mounted patrols. I didn’t find time to keep a diary. But, luckily, I DO remember it as the LAST day of action in Baghdad. It was 0600, and after one of the longest sleeps of the war, 3 solid hours. So I was crisp. I had eaten and was on my way to check out my favorite animals at the zoo that bordered our base. That zoo, if still around, can certainly claim The United States Marine Corps preserved it during that early chaos, simply by showing up next door.

As I approached the giant cats area, I saw several Marines there gathered and exchanging cash. “Hey Doc,” one chirped as I walked up. “You wanna get in on this? We’re fighting a jaguar and a cougar!” God help them, but combat troops behave badly sometimes.

“The FUCK you are, devil dogs!” I retorted a few seconds later, when I saw two Marines open the door to the Jaguar cage. I quickly ran the dozen meters to them, yelling and waving the whole time. Thankfully, I was the ranking serviceman on scene, and I immediately ordered the Marines back to their assigned place of rest, after checking all the cat cages and their doors.

So, I say, on a whim, I ended up saving at least one giant cat’s life, and probably most of the Marines who thought they could wrangle one from cage to cage. Can you imagine explaining to someone’s mother that their son was killed by an animal at the zoo? I took 20 or 25 minutes (it was a small zoo) and scourged the rest of the zoo of any other Marines. Marines next door equals assured protection. Marines not on duty, equals, for a zoo I guess, a small group of lower enlisted Marines touring and betting on animals in a fight. Imagine gambling on fights to the death during a war – pretty natural.

So then it becomes 0630 – driver’s meeting. This is where EVERY Driver and A Driver, (not B driver,) has to collect with the patrols leader, either the Platoon Commander, or the Platoon Gunnery Sergeant, and meticulously trace out routes, rally points and an entire constellation of differing elements of a squad patrol through an urban environment. I was not only an A driver, but backup navigator for the entire section, (backup for my Sergeant, who never needed backing up) as my vehicle had a Blue Force Tracker rig. It’s basically a computer-linked navigation system of vehicles with transmitters attached to them. So I was absolutely at every drivers meeting.

“Fuck!” Cpl Schmuckateli from squad Alpha 1 remarked. “ This is our 8th fucking patrol! All the other squads only had to do 6 or 7.”

“It’s simple arithmetic, Corporal of Marines,” I replied with brevity. “Your squad did the first patrol, and the counting ended with you too.” I looked at him with a crooked face like – what ya gonna do?

“How do you think Doc feels?” the Gunnery Sergeant said to the Corporal, referring to me. “ This poor bastard’s been on EVERY patrol every day.”

“Fuck Doc,” Schmuckateli looked at me. “I forgot about that shit. Sucks to be you!”

“Actually, Teufelhunden, I wouldn’t trade jobs with one of you puke jarheads for a second,” I said with deadpan honesty. Healing and saving I was down with. Killing was never my thing.

“Doc,” he said as he put his hands to his crotch. “I got some bubble gum stuck on my pants, do you have any shit that will get this off?”  Like a fucking idiot I looked down at his crotch and noticed what looked to be gum stuck to his fly. Naturally, as I focused in, I realized he had pulled some of his scrotum through his buttons and was rolling the loose skin around in his fingers.

“Ha fucking Ha you leader of Marines,” I quietly responded as I shook my head and turned away to hide my smile. Those fucking Marines will find ANY time to make a joke, ESPECIALLY at the expense of their Corpsman. And hellfire strike me down, but it was a good one.

“Actually Doc,” the Gunnery Sergeant took me aside. “You really haven’t had a break any day. If you just leave your Medbag with me and my A Driver, we’ll handle anything that comes up.”

My eyes jumped twice as large and I gasped. I had a flash of 6 Straight hours of doing NOTHING but relaxing in a safe bivouac surrounded by a reinforced Tank Battalion in the most defensible four blocks in the entire city of many millions. Something I would trade a stack of platinum ingots for.

Then, almost faster than light itself, I had a premonition – of chases and firefights and duty, and I balked. In less than a second, I looked back at the Gunnery Sergeant and said, “Not a chance Gunney. I ain’t havin’ one of my fuckin’ grunts get hurt or killed when I take the day off.” Yes I know it sounds heroic, but don’t be stupid. I was just worried about having to face the other Corpsman in my Battalion after such a hypothetical fact. So spare me the patriotism shit.

0715 hours. Our four HUMVees roll into the main Baghdad police station to pick up our police liason patrol officers. We used the same five every day, since the first patrol more than 3 weeks before. I had learned several of their names, and unfortunately, they escape me now. But if any of them were to read or hear of this, they would remember me. Technically, they were supposed to be unarmed, which they dutifully were at the START of every patrol. But, bar none, every patrol the first or second vehicle or group we stopped was armed with weapons of every type. Thus, within 25 minutes of every patrol I went on, all five Baghdad police officers with us were as armed AT LEAST as well as us – sometimes BETTER. The first time it happened on day one, the officers each picked up a seized AK-47 and strapped up, while looking to us for “permission.” Our Lieutenant looked very worried, but made what turned out to be the right call and allowed it. It was an initial extension of trust to them, and they proved to be worthy.

The early and late morning went as usual. You know, chasing down groups of children looting banks. Arresting families for stealing 55 gallon drums of sugar.  Usual war things.

1045 hours. Our section and the Baghdad Police officers had set up a checkpoint to search EVERY vehicle traveling on the road, at a large 4-lane intersection. I was acutely aware of the situation and couldn’t get that damned earlier premonition out of my mind. I had unconsciously drawn my pistol and was brandishing it to direct vehicles and random pedestrians. “Hey Doc,” the Gunnery Sergeant said. “Holster that weapon, we don’t want to add to the chaos.” He was right, I thought, as I did as ordered. The pistol was an extension of my nervousness that I needed to keep cool. Mission Oriented Posture.

The next vehicle approaches and gets a smile from me and a few Marines. It’s an ambulance. A female Iraqi civilian was driving. That was the last smile concerning this ambulance incident that would and will ever cross my face.

The Ambulance stopped as directed. I noticed an uncannily peculiar look on the female driver’s face and it confused me. This confusion evaporated as I pulled open the passenger sliding door as a Marine, to go unnamed, opened the passenger door at the front. Inside the “cargo bay” of the ambulance was about 10 or 15 fifty-gallon bags of high fructose corn syrup. This I gathered simultaneously while noting an adult male in the back of the ambulance, and three young boys sitting on two stacks of corn syrup bags directly in front of me.

The Marine put one foot into the floorboard of the passenger seat and voiced the Arabic command for stop, or halt, or whatever – and reached across the cab towards the key in the ignition. That was when shit got interesting.

The female (henceforth known as the mother) made what proved to be a fatal mistake. Unfortunately for the rest of us, she wasn’t the fatality. Why I could never know, but she wrestled the Marines’s arm away from the key and slammed down on the accelerator. The clumsy neglected ambulance lurched forward and presented an instantaneous decision to my fight or flight response. Now as I reflect, I remember jumping into bay of the ambulance as it started away from my squad at the intersection, but no thought process comes to mind to explain my action. I’d like to claim boldly that I wasn’t letting one of my Marines going off without backup, but that’s a hindsight sentence, only coincidentally true. During real action, conscious thought rarely happens.

I started to make for to help the Marine up front bring the hijacked ambulance to a halt. This vague notion disappeared when the male (henceforth known as the father) produced a vicious bowie-type knife from his belt and made a half-assed stab into my chest. Starting then, he was thirty seconds from the end of his life.

1st Tank Battalion is a fighting force. We were not police. So please, for the benefit of my conscience and many others, keep this in mind.

I don’t remember what he looked like, just the look on his face. The father (of the three young boys, sitting quietly watching) was terrifed…and determined. He had stabbed me in my SAPI plate of my flak vest. This armor plate would stop a round from an AK-47. I don’t know what he was thinking, but my mental foundation instantly switched to myself verses enemy. At that point, only the Great Magnet above knew what was about to happen. I just acted.

I instinctively? jerked my helmet from my head and threw it at the father as hard as I could, and an instant later, charged him into the back  of the ambulance – my eyes intently focused on that blade in his right hand.

Somehow the first dice roll went my way, and I managed to pin the father into the back of the ambulance. He almost got another well-aimed stab with his weapon, but the commotion from the Marine and the mother wrestling for control of the wheel swerved the vehicle wildly, and the father and I were unbalanced – straight to the back corner of the ambulance.

My left hand magically found purchase around the father’s right wrist, gaining me some control over the path of that blade, as I used my weight to pin him against the inside body of the vehicle. I couldn’t, however, get his right armed trapped, too. It was my strength versus his.

Their oldest boy started screaming, and the two others joined. I didn’t hear it then, though. I was in a situation.

The ambulance turned the other way, crashed into a concrete divider, and continued scraping diagonally at a slow rate for about the next 45 seconds, I believe.

Mere seconds were passing, as I was locked in this struggle with an enemy. My intense gaze, focused on that blade’s point slowly advancing toward my body, conveyed an extra ordinate of panic to my survival centers. Next thing I notice, 3 or 4 inches behind that blade, is two I.V. tubes dangling down vertically from above.

On its own accord, I hereby swear, my right hand grabbed the two loose I.V. tubes and swiftly wrapped 2 or 3 loops around the father’s neck. My own conscious didn’t get involved until I realized, very quickly, that I needed my mouth and teeth to grab hold of one side, as my left hand was slowly losing the battle to keep that blade out of my guts. My jaws locked onto a mouthful of tubing very near the father’s face.

It happened so fast, I didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late. If I didn’t know it ’til after the fact, I’m sure the father was surprised, too. I pulled my right hand, I.V. tubing wrapped once around it, all the way to the ambulance’s back window and pulled my face towards the front, leaning back to really put the finality to it. During combat, you don’t fight to injure.

Very next thing I notice is the high-pitched scraping sound of the ambulance grinding to a halt. For some reason, I realized the pitch was getting lower as the rickety vehicle grounded towards a halt. That’s the only thing I remember consciously – otherwise I was an animal, concerned only with removing a threat.

With my head straining backwards, I.V. tubing locked in my teeth, I couldn’t see the man and didn’t know where or what he’d done with that blade. My right hand was locked against the rear window; I had only my teeth and head to apply force to this improvised garrote. I must have been pulling hard – pretty quickly my right hand starting hurting from tubing being pulled tighter and tighter around it.

Maybe I felt the fathers body go limp, maybe I didn’t. I don’t remember. All I know is I couldn’t SEE what was happening, so I made the “decision” to keep lethal tension on that tubing until I physically ran out of strength.

The grinding sound stopped as the ambulance came to a halt. I vaguely heard the mother screaming something in Arabic as she was forcefully ejected from the vehicle. “Doc,” the unnamed Marine yelled into the back. “You good?” He must have finally been able to focus his attention to the rear. I think he made a proper diagnosis that I wasn’t good.

He rushed from the front of the ambulance into the bay area and past the mother, who was trying to get her three boys out.

The Marine, probably more aware of how much time had just elapsed, grabbed me by the shoulder and yelled, “Let go Doc, I’ve got him.” I let go and “he” dropped to the floor like true dead weight. Lips the color of blueberries. Face the color of beets. Dead.

Just then, a HUMVee, coming  from the intersection checkpoint, screeched to a halt right next to us, and the Platoon Gunnery Sergeant and 3 other Marines jumped out. “DOC!” the Gunney yelled, “Get back to the checkpoint! One of the Baghdad Officers got run over by the ambulance.” Without hesitation, I jumped into the HUMVee and was on my way back the 1000 or so meters to the intersection, with a Marine driving. I have no clue how the Marine in the ambulance explained things to the Gunney, all I know is I was never asked about it. It didn’t matter then; like usual, more work had presented itself.

The Baghdad officer’s injury was some sort of fracture of multiple tarsals in his foot. I remember shaking the feeling back into my right  hand while I was wrapping his foot and ankle for his trip to some hospital.

As I was finishing up with the Officer, the Gunnery Sergeant’s HUMVee pulled back up, after collecting the Marines back at the ambulance. When they got out, the Gunney shot me a strange look – that really said nothing. The unnamed Marine that had been caught in the unfortunate escapade with me walked over to me and looked me in the face. “Fuckin’ hard core, Doc,” he said. That’s the only feedback I ever heard concerning the ambulance incident.

We still had a little more than an hour for patrol. “Should we reset here Gunney?” One of the squad leaders asked.

“Fuck it,” the Gunnery Sergeant replied. “This is our last patrol. I think we’ve had enough of Baghdad. I’m calling it.” A few exhales went out audibly around the collected troops. We were done! …we thought.

“Alpha driver,” he motioned as he spread out a Baghdad map on a HUMVee hood. I want you to lead us down here,” motioning to a road where we were, “all the way to rally point Echo. Cut over across here,” again pointing, “to Patrol Route 1. We’ll drop off these police, and head back to bivouac.”

“Thank heavens.” I thought. None of us could have known that our chosen route would lead us straight to one last action.

So our mounted patrol of four HUMVees and one civilian car full of Baghdad Police proceeded towards rally point Echo. About four kilometers and we came to it. “It” was a giant bazaar at an even more giant intersection. There must have been 30000 people collected. “Gunney,” Alpha squawks back on the radio. “It looks like we got 4 guys up here on a corner with sacks of rifles or something…Yea, they’re AK-47s and they’re selling them, over”

“Fucking Great!” went through my head. I knew we couldn’t pass that by and just go home. I didn’t realize it would become a nightmare.

“Alpha, Alpha 1,” the Gunnery Sergeant replied. “See if you can creep up through this crowd and catch them off guard.” No way I thought. In a crowd of 30000 people, four Marine HUMVees, all topped with crew served weapons, are pretty hard to hide.

Sure as shit, the four “arms dealers” almost immediately saw the approaching patrol and quickly threw everything they had into these 3 huge burlap sacks. One of them looked around, with what surely must have been desperation in his eyes, and locked onto a semi rig stuck in the traffic, black smoke belching from its stacks. It was just the rig, no trailer thank God.

“MOVE! MOVE! My driver was screaming at the teeming crowds surrounding everything. Our vehicle was proceeding at a crawl, as to avoid running over any one of thousands of civilians surrounding us. Our .50 caliber gunner traversed the imposing barrel towards the front, pointed the barrel as skyward as it would go, and let loose with a short, but poignant burst. The crowd in front of us parted like the Red Sea, and we made for the corner, where the four men were “semi-jacking” the poor driver of the rig with their weapons. Seems the entire world’s fluent in machine gun.

Just as we were arriving at their position, one of the gunmen was pulling the semi’s driver from the driver seat and jumping into it, as the other 3 were throwing sacks of rifles into the passenger side and jumping in.

So we arrive just in time to start a chase. Perfect timing. Not.

So this old red Semi takes a right turn away from the bazaar and floors it. I’ve never seen so much black smoke billow from the stacks of a semi in my life. It was almost like a smoke screen from that old video game, Spy Hunter.

This is one time I was able to notice a weakness in the HUMVee, when forced into the paradigm of an urban environment. They are SLOW. Our patrol barely caught up to the semi as it slowly but surely kept going faster. At about 50 kph, our HUMVees maxed out. The fucking rickety old semi started to pull away!

I glanced out at the houses and yards and children and parked cars flashing by. Some of the kids were actually waving, smiling, and yelling “ALI BABA!” pointing to the semi ahead of us. Ali Baba is basically Arab slang for thief.

Luckily, the Baghdad Police were in a civilian car, which pulled out of the middle of our formation and leapt ahead, as soon as the driver realized our HUMVees couldn’t keep up.

This is one of the most movie-like scenes I ever witnessed in real life. Populated neighborhood bedamned, one of the Baghdad Officers, like an extra in a Micheal Bey movie, completely hangs his torso out of the rear passenger window of his vehicle, AK-47 in hand, and levels it at the driver side tires of the semi. Then UNLOADS an entire magazine left and right along the level of the tires – blowing EVERY one of them out of the semi’s driver-side.

Instantly, the semi went into a spin and off the road. Amazingly, it spiraled its way between two parked vehicles and into a very large yard, that just happened to be a makeshift pitch for some kids playing soccer at that instant. The four gun dealers each in turn jumped out armed and took cover around the semi, as the Baghdad Officers also fishtailed to a stop a short distance away, and started shooting immediately.

I was in the last vehicle to pull up, and could hear the firefight already. “FUCK!” I thought. (I always tended to think this any time I might have to end up saving some Marine’s life.) The Marines and I in our vehicle all dismounted tactically, and looked for some way to advance towards the enemy, without exposing ourselves to fire.

“DOC, SGT,” the Gunnery Sgt. from up front yelled, while motioning waving right.. “They’re splitting up! Move to the alley to cut them off!” The Sgt and I, without hesitation, weapons ready, ran across the open road, where all the fire from the one or two at the semi was streaming down, towards the row of houses and the alley behind. Although I doubt any of those rounds I could FEEL zipping by were actually AIMED at me, I remember the stress of that feeling making me feel as light on my toes as if I was running in PT gear, not a combat load. I swear I crossed that street and yard faster than Carl Lewis could have.

The SGT took the house to the left, and I took the last one, to our right.

Suddenly, one of the gunmen, carrying an AK and moving at full gallop appeared from behind the house I was running by. I had my Beretta .9 mm out and fired off one shot at him, intending to hit – kill hopefully. Yes that’s right, in his back. An enemy running away is the same enemy who was just shooting. I was running. He was running. I missed. And I mean – this guy was 10 yards away from me!

He had split left and continued running deeper into the neighborhood. I kept up the chase and yelled the Arab command to halt as I squeezed off another shot. Again, a miss! I swear, all you pistol experts out there, put on as much gear as you can carry and sprint around trying to shoot a moving target at 10 yards, surrounded by innocents – see how you do.

Just as the gunmen was reaching an egregiously dilapidated picket fence, I fired one last intentional shot and fucking missed again! But that third shot haunts me even today. You’ll find out why.

The runner threw his AK over the fence in front of him and used his hands to vault over it too. He landed on his hands and knees with his assault rifle next to his hands. That’s about the time I closed the distance to point blank, and staring down the barrel of my pistol, 5 feet from his face, I gave the command to halt again. I saw his focus on the business end of my Beretta shift down to the AK directly within his hand’s reach. There was about 5 seconds of nothingness. I was just hearing, or rather not hearing, the firefight around up front was over, as the other Marine dispatched with me ran up from my left and planted a vicious boot to the back of the gunmen’s head. Light’s out.

Next thing I hear is the worst thing a Field Medical Service Technician wants to hear in combat: “CORPSMAN!”  It was a Marine from back around front. His yell was so loud and intense, I couldn’t recognize it – and I knew my Marines by their coughs or the pauses between their snores.

I instantly switched to life saver mode from life taker, and silently started a stream of internal swearing (to a major extent from fear) as I ran back towards the street and our halted column. It seemed inconsequential at the time, but as I tried to reholster my .9mm, the spring-tab clasp of the holster seemed to be giving me trouble closing. I tried several times to secure it while running, but after a couple failed attempts, it got triaged to “figure out later.” Though I know now what it was (and you shall know too,) I still haven’t figured it out.

As I reached the front yard, I turned to run up the street. I had to pass four HUMVees. I remember giant rubber streaks behind each HUMVee from us all screeching to a halt. My gaze fixed on four or five Marines and 3 Baghdad Police gathered, a few kneeling, around some body in a corner yard about 100 or so meters at the front of our column. The semi had come to rest sideways in the yard behind the body, it’s rear bumper about a foot from the yard’s house. Though every house in sight had grass yards, the spinning and sliding semi had gouged that poor yard and half the one next to it into mostly mud. The yet unidentified wounded was hidden by the Servicemen around him there. Somehow, on that suburban street lined with parked cars, people, and houses left and right, that fuckin’ semi did AT LEAST two three-sixties while veering left through a random gap of parked cars – THROUGH two yards and missing several available children playing soccer. If I had had the time, I would have started to believe in God right then. By the way, the kid’s ball was COVERED by the signatures of many dozens of US servicemen, some with small messages – but don’t get all spiritual. I signed at least 500 soccer balls myself while in the city.

I took off at a dead sprint. Though loaded with…hmm, by that time only 30 or so pounds of gear (the medbag gets lighter as a patrol matures,) I have never ran faster. Funny thing about Baghdad – I never, ESPECIALLY on patrol, felt fatigued, or even lost one step.The reason it’s funny is because back in the day, during peacetime (at 29 Palms, CA,) it wasn’t uncommon for me to puke my way out of Battalion runs. A Marine who ran until he puked wasn’t allowed to fall out of formation, let alone stop – but devil dogs realize we’re not Marines, we’re technically Sailors – and some officers make small concessions for any Sailor that could run hard and far enough to make himself puke. I’d drink 2 quarts or more of water just before the run. I don’t know if you’ve ever ran 5 to 8 miles through open desert terrain in formation with 500 people before, but I’d usually lose it around mile 3.

By the fourth running step, I started to feel nauseous. I’m not ashamed to admit it. About 12 hours into the war, I stopped fearing for my life and started fearing having to do my job – which was in a roundabout way was to save lives. Many people mistakenly call a Navy Corpsman serving with the Fleet Marine Force a medic. But let me relate our mission statement: “…to keep as many men at as many guns for as long as possible.” So by default, it becomes a medical thing. Throughout the war my worst fear was having a Marine’s life in my hands. Honestly, the only other fear was running out of cigarettes.

This notion, at that point well developed, was why I started to feel sick. There was no panic though. That would have required thought. I was running so fast, I passed the first two parked HUMVees like they were standing still. A Baghdad Police officer was running towards me yelling – but at first I couldn’t listen because I was swallowing bile and one-third of a puking. In that first 3 seconds of running, I had envisioned four or five horrible images of a downed Marine ahead, and their sum had me sick. That didn’t stop me from realizing which zipper was opening first when I got there though.

“…BABA! ALI BABA! ALI BABA!” the Baghdad Officer was screaming at me with his right thumb up pointing back over his shoulder. I FINNALY heard him as we passed; I nearly ran through him.

It took another step or two before my consciousness caught up to what he meant. Remember, “Ali Baba” is slang in Arabic for a thief. Since most of the policing and intelligence gathering we did involved stopping looters, it became the label the Baghdad officers gave to any antagonist, as to communicate with us, since only 1 of the 5 spoke any English.

Though at maximum sprint, when I realized what this meant for me, I exhaled in relief. It meant that the body laid out was one of the upstart “arms dealers,” not one of my Marines. I didn’t slow down though. Shoot to kill isn’t some arbitrary inspirational ideal. When an enemy facing the Marines finally gets his, if by some miracle he is not outright killed, as an American force, we were and are duty, law, and most importantly honor-bound to provide aid if possible. So shooting people without killing them creates vast amounts of extra work and time that always interferes with a mission. Then though, while the last several running steps transpired, now without an emotional and behavioral connection to my destination, my personality disappeared as I slid to halt whilst slinging my medbag off my back.

I was moving with an intense sense of urgency opening my bag as I knelt down next to the man, but as I did, my right knee planted in a surging pool of blood pulsing out of the top and bottom of his right thigh. I immediately recognized the wound as a through and through – either piercing or severing his femoral artery.

I looked up at the nearest person with a belt, (a Marine,) and yelled at him to strip it and hand it over. I had a bad feeling, but the first rules of aid are ABC’s. Airway. Breathing. Circulation. When my attention quickly focused on the man’s face, he looked at me, and right then I was the second person there to realize that man was about to die.  Looking back – the size of the pool of blood already when I arrived should have clued me in. He’d lost two or three pints in under a minute, and was unable or unwilling to do anything but shallowly and silently breathe his last breaths. As I was lifting his leg to apply a tourniquet, he lost my gaze and his eyes drifted skyward – but I could tell he was still trying to see. A growing crowd was amazingly silent. My decision was internal and silent, but the Marines and the police officers understood when I dropped his leg and stood up backwards to keep some part of myself out of the oncoming blood pool, as I handed the Marine back his belt.

“Let’s move this crowd back Gunnery Sergeant,” I prompted my NCOIC, even matter of factly. He twice outranked me, but usually even Captains or Majors or even a full Colonel will defer to their Corpsman in a medical situation. I turned my back to the man bleeding out, unconsciously protecting me from watching him die, and calmly started directing various Marines to form a small perimeter around the huge yard. As the Gunnery Sergeant instantly took charge and started directing personnel, I motioned backwards with my head, towards the dying civilian, and explained to him my reasoning: “Unless someone builds an Emergency Room and an ICU across the street in the next two minutes, he’s gonna die in peace.” It was the first time in the war that I actually couldn’t do anything to help a wounded casualty, and to have that job of realizing that fact while he was still alive really sucks. But that’s what he got for shooting at some Marines. I had no pity for him – but perhaps he had been a good man every day of his life until then, and was caught in circumstance. I had made sure he wouldn’t be surrounded by a brooding crowd for his last vision and thoughts – that was all I could do for him.

I pulled a Sumer out its box (Iraqi cigarette brand) and snapped my lighter out of its assigned slot in my flak jacket. As I lit up, the Gunnery Sergeant queried me, “How long, Doc?” Without turning around, I remembered the growing pool of blood behind me and did some very simple arithmetic in my head.

“Half-a-cigarette.” I said as I exhaled smoky relief.

“Roger that.” He replied.

My role momentarily dissolved as I walked back to my vehicle, at the rear. Now – this is where shit gets scary.

As I lifted my friend, the cigarette, to my mouth, the filter caught on the loose, still-unclasped cover to my pistol holster, which was attached to the upper left of my flak jacket. The robotic nature of smoking caused the cigarette to crack loose from my fingers in a small shower of sparks as it fell to the ground. Oh yea! I thought as I robotically bent over to pick the cigarette up; that damn holster wouldn’t close, That’s what was going through my mind when my pistol fell out of the holster and clattered on the pavement. (I hadn’t remembered before I bent over.)

Non-chalantly, not realizing implications of what I was about to discover, I grabbed the precious cigarette FIRST and just stood up. My pistol was safety-tied to my flak jacket by a 3-foot lanyard, and I grabbed the length of cord and pulled my pistol the rest of the way back into my hands. That’s when I got hit.

No, not by a bullet. By knowledge. As I finally had spare seconds, I looked at the Beratta in my hands and realized the slide over the chamber was not completely closed, leaving an inch and a half or so left over the hammer. No wonder the holster wouldn’t close, I thought as I grimly turned the weapon over to inspect the chamber.

Truly, honestly – when I saw the chamber – that precious cigarette dropped limply from my gaping, thunderstruck mouth, and the entire world went blank and silent until a minute or so later. The sergeant slapped me on the back and said “We’re Oscar Mike, Doc!” That’s phonetic for on the move.

My pistol had a double-feed jam. That’s a simple sentence – but let me explain some things to anyone not familiar with magazine-fed pistols, war zones, or firefights. A double feed means the shell casing fired (in this case, shot number 3 from earlier) does not get pulled from the chamber of the weapon and ejected. Yet, the stupid pistol doesn’t realize this and it grabs the next round from the magazine and tries to ram it into what it assumes is an empty chamber.

Anyways, what this means is round 4 was smashed, useless, and stuck pretty hard to the casing it was rammed into. More and MOST importantly, it meant my pistol was useless and had been the entire 5 or so seconds I had it pointed at the head of the other gunmen back at the fence. If that man had went for his AK-47, you wouldn’t be reading this or anything before it, because dead men don’t write.

Back in the HUMVee and on the move, it took me a good two minutes to un-jam that goddamned pistol. Take it from me – if it matters and somebody absolutely must die, use a revolver.

So that’s it. We made it to Patrol Route 1, dropped off those brave Baghdad Police officers, and continued back to bivouac for the last time. I don’t even remember how long the drive was. It could have been 1000 hours – the only thing for sure is I spent the entire trip staring at my pistol in my lap and wondering how and why I was still alive.

I don’t think I’ll ever figure that out. But these journal entries are a good start. Don’t bother trying to figure out what 1% I made up, I had to read back through it twice to find how I did it myself.

Categories: Various Miscellany

About Matthew Clayton

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