So, it’s Baghdad, around 30 April, 2003. My unit, 1st Tank Battalion (Reinforced), had been in the city for some three weeks and some change. The night before, US Army units had begun to arrive at our bivouac, which was emplaced in the Iran/Iraq War Martyr’s Monument. The Marine Corps takes the shit. The Army holds the shit.
It was near 0500 when word came down that some elements of the Battalion would be leaving to convoy back to Kuwait immediately, to make room for Army vehicles soon to be re-emplacing us. TOW Platoon, the platoon I was in, was to be among the first elements of our Battalion to leave Baghdad. “No more patrols.” I thought. That was good news to my ears.
We had a driver’s meeting, where the Platoon Commander layed out a map, and traced our course south, out of the city of 14 million people, to a highway that went from Bahhdad to Southeast Iraq, and then into Kuwait.
Then the Lt. added: “Today is a religious holiday in Baghdad. On this holiday, 1000s of people walk south out of Baghdad, to a religious site some many kilometers away; so expect a heavy civilian presence for the first hour or so.” The L-T didn’t know it, but the people walking south out of Baghdad were all women and children. This would prove to be very important.
We packed up all our gear, and made ready to get Oscar Mike. (On the Move)
Sgt. Miller, and Lcpl. Howell, our ‘A’ Driver, both had lingering digestive issues from some sickness, illness, or disease most of the Marines in my section acquired or displayed in Baghdad. Very soon after our small convoy left Baghdad, they both had to shit. Howell chose at first to hold it. Sgt. Miller improvised a way to shit off the back of our HUMvee while we were driving. In about 10 more kilometers, Howell declared it was time to pull over — he didn’t want to shit his pants.
Now, remember, both sides of that highway were just a long, *long*, column of women and children. Howell chose for us to pull over while we were amongst a collection of structures — walls and buildings and shit, for some cover and concealment to shit out of sight from the civilians ambling southward. He disappeared behind a wall for some 60 seconds — I got very nervous, and so must of Sgt. Miller, not being able to technically see Howell for that minute.
Howell re-mounted the vehicle, and again, our small convoy was Oscar Mike.
As we all progressed southward, of course, on occasion we all had to remind each other to mind our dispersion.
I almost stopped paying attention to all the women and children.
Several few more kilometers passed, and suddenly, there was a “POP” sound. Our HUMvee blew a fuckin’ tire! “Oh fuck.” Sgt. Miller exclaimed. “I knew this was gonna happen. We finally got our flat.” (Every other vehicle in our section had at least one flat tire up til that point)
“I know.” Howell replied. “I never said anything, cuz I didn’t wanna jinx us.”
Sgt. Miller called a halt to movement, and we all pulled over to the right side — 8 or so vehicles, if I remember correctly. Then he radioed back to bivouac, for some Motor T Marines to come effect a repair. It would be two hours before they arrived.
I marveled at all the women and children, and how far they all had walked, then thus far. “How much further do they have to go?” I immediately thought when we pulled over.
Sgt. Miller swiftly ordered a defensive posture for us — two Marines on the front, him and myself at the rear, and the other 10 or so Marines alternating left and right faced along our line. About 20 minutes passed.
Then suddenly, “BOOM BOOM, BOOM BOOM BOOM, BOOM!” *sounded* from our left, some distance away, and shook all our souls. We all had a momentary freakout. I immediately recognized it was a Marine Battery of howitzers, and it was a Fire Mission. Instantly, about 50 women and girls of the “available” ~200 screamed, moaned, and fainted from fright — a fucking mass syncope that was under my purview to handle. Most of the boys, all young, began to cry. A person can die from fright, I knew right away. As I decided to run and check on all I could, Sgt. Miller asked “Those are *our* guys, right, Doc?”
“Affirmative.” I replied as I then ran towards the casualties.
Sgt. Miller held his position. He must of known I’d call for help if I needed it. Meanwhile, that monstrous, unfathomable Fire Mission continued — to an extent I’d find unbelievable — 50 or 75 or more rounds per gun. I had thought, via training experience, that a 20-round mission was furious.
It turned out, all the women and girls that fainted were just scared. As I tried to treat them all, I had to coax them back to the idea that they were safe, that their world was not ending or something. Finally, the battery went silent. All the former casualties came back to life, so to speak. And the column reformed, and continued south, as they were.
This is where it gets downright horrible. About 20 or so minutes afterwards, a “fresh” double column of women and children were now walking by us. They had never heard a Fire Mission before they got to that vicinity. Suddenly, the Battery opened up another barrage, and again, I had to repeat my mass casualty event treatments. All the time, by myself, as I was able to, the Marines held their posture.
This event repeated itself some 5 or 6 times. Each time, exposing me to more and more heartbreak. I felt great empathy for their souls. They might never have heard a pulse decibel boom in their entire lives. And I could hardly convince them each time, that they were safe; they weren’t about to die.
Finally, 22 clear minutes had elapsed, and I suddenly realized I hadn’t run a mass casualty event when I thought I would. I swiftly spun my head around to the see the gun position. The entire Battery had vanished like a ghost. I saw some stacks of powder canisters instead.
The columns of women and children continued for awhile. The Marines almost assumed a slight bit of relax, as the relative “safety” of our position seemed to might suggest.
I noticed a woman with a boy and a girl carrying an empty water jug. I pointed to the empty jug, and tried to tell her to let me fill it. Maybe she understood. She handed over the empty plastic jug.
I walked back to the rear of our vehicle, and made to grab and pull a jerrycan of water from it’s rack. Sgt. Miller, whom was watching his direction, instantly raised his voice to me, reacting like I’d just convinced him they’re was an Earthquake: “Doc, what you doing!?”
“Sgt. this lady is out of water.” I raised my voice: “I’m just filling her jug!” Then I screamed at maximum intensity: “I’M DOING MY FUCKING JOB!”
Sgt. Miller immediately ducked his head, and replied “Oh. Okay, Doc. Do your thing.” He even had raised his arm a bit, as if I might have struck him in the face!
I did my job, and handed the jug to the grateful woman.
The Motor T guys arrived, replaced our tire, and we were again Oscar Mike.
Years later, I realized I had disrespected my Sgt., egregiously, in the face of his refusal to defer to my judgement in a medical situation. It became in my head, my proudest moment of my tour in and of the war. That was a specific part of FMF Corpsmen training — that sometimes one had to deal with a superior concerning an impasse in treatment procedures. I had come through such in flying colors.