Pumpkin Head

I got a call from the Iraqi Army–in rapid Arabic. They said an IED had exploded in the area. I asked for the map coordinates, so I could spin up one of our platoons to assist. They said they didn’t need help; there were no casualties and they had captured one of the bomb makers. They had them on the base we shared. What? I thought. In two tours, I had never seen an IED triggerman after an explosion, much less a captured one. I walked over to see what happened.

Gus and officers of the 1/2 Stryker Cavalry Regiment outside a combat outpost in Sadr City in 2008. The outpost was later destroyed by rocket fire during the Siege of Sadr City. Courtesy Augusto Giacoman

I entered their command post and was met by my counterpart operations officer, Mohammed. We had worked alongside each other in Adhamiyah for a couple months. He was very slender, dark skinned with a pencil-thin mustache and a very high widow’s peak. Whenever I saw him, his effeminate style amused me. When he smoked, which was often, he had a habit of placing his right elbow in his left hand and holding the cigarette with a limp wrist near his face. He told me that two terrorists were transporting an IED in an orange and white taxi cab when the bomb accidentally exploded. It had killed the passenger holding the IED, but the driver had survived and he was being questioned at their combat support hospital. He told me the taxi had been hauled to a field behind the command post and he would take me there and to the surviving driver. We immediately left.

Patrolling Baghdad streets. Courtesy Augusto Giacoman

I approached the taxi with Mohammed. It looked like a metal carcass. All the windows and tires were blown out, and the frame was bent and pushed out from the IED.

“Somebody survived this?” I asked Mohammed. He replied yes but I struggled to believe it. Still, stranger things had happened. I recalled a story about a guy who had been shot under his right eye, the bullet entering under his eyeball in the fleshy part between bone and eye. The bullet missed, grazed his eye, and lodged on the inside of his left cheek. The soldier telling me this story said the guy sat down promptly, with just a touch of blood on his right cheek, and calmly said “I think I’ve been hit.”

The inside of the taxi was a horror show. Bits of flesh, bone, and blood were sprayed all over the interior. It covered the blackened upholstery and the exposed metal. Looking at those pieces of human meat it was impossible to tell the difference between a hunk of person and a hunk of cow.

The passenger seat was mostly gone; just a skeleton of seat remained. Mohammed and I looked at each other and chuckled to one another. What a couple of idiots.

I walked around the taxi a few more times, taking in the scene. Mohammed took me to the support hospital where the driver was being held. I entered the building and walked across tile that had been laid during Saddam’s rule. The floor’s intricate geometric crisscross design from the height of that era now looked cheap and dusty. I went into the room where the driver was held.

He was sitting up on the edge of a metal bed. His head was almost twice the size of a normal human head. It had the shape of a pumpkin and was wrapped in white gauze completely covering his swollen head, making me think of old Frankenstein movies. There was a small space left open around his eyes and mouth. The bit of exposed skin was bright red. His hands were swollen, like a surgeon’s glove filled with water, and were bright red too. Next to him was an Iraqi Army medic smoking a cigarette, as well as a couple of Iraqi soldiers splayed along the wall, relaxed and also smoking.

I asked the pumpkin a few questions, but he just stared at me. His eyes were glazed over and wouldn’t focus. I gave him a few more attempts, but he just gibbered some words. He seemed to have lost whatever traits made him human.

Mohammed and I left and walked back to his command post. I asked him what they were going to do with the guy. Mohammed told me they were getting ready to take him to a nearby hospital. I thanked him and asked him to share any intel they could find, although I was doubtful much else was going to be gleaned from pumpkin head or his blown-out cab.

I made my way back to our compound and reported my assessment to my commander and intelligence team. No decent intel at the moment; the car was blown to bits and the one survivor wasn’t coherent. I told them about how big his head was. As I was giving the report, Mohammed called me on my cell phone. On the way to the hospital, pumpkin head died. Um-hum, I grunted. I pulled out a tin of Copenhagen, put in a lip, and went back to work.

Gus and Emily, his wife of nearly 15 years, at a military ball after his second deployment in 2009. Courtesy Augusto Giacoman

Augusto Giacoman

Augusto Giacoman

Augusto Giacoman served as an infantry officer with 1/5 Infantry and 1/2 Stryker Cavalry, deploying twice to Iraq in 2005, and 2007-2008. He currently works at the management consultancy Strategy&, and is chairperson of the board at Service to School, a nonprofit helping veterans achieve their educational goals.

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