The Joy and Misery of Survival Took Root in My Soul. Neither Has Extinguished.
Even without my helmet and body armor, the district council chamber felt oppressive. The meager window units could not defeat the heat in southern Baghdad, at least not within the fading grandeur of this marble and columned space. I did my damnedest to stay awake, scribbling in a government-issue notebook while the local councilmen droned on in Arabic and our interpreter mumbled in English.
A desire to appear professional kept my eyes propped open, barely, and stayed my hand from scrawling obscene cartoons in the top margin of my notebook. I was new to Charlie Company, and a field artillery officer attached to an infantry unit to boot. I needed to represent my branch of the Army, to silently preach the gospel of indirect fires and effects among our heathen brethren of the crossed rifles. I couldn’t afford to appear unserious.
But after three hours, my powers of observation were flagging fast; the caffeine and sugar in the thick chai the Iraqis served us were not enough to reverse the course. When the meeting finally ended, I pulled on my 50 pounds of gear and armor, relieved for once by the extra weight.
I walked out into the 110-degree heat and blazing sunshine, now wide awake, and the gunner seated in the turret of Capt. Douglas Dicenzo’s Humvee called down. “Hey, L.T.,” Spc. Robert Blair said. “We going?”
Usually, I brought my own up-armored Humvee, but today I was riding along with the company commander. “Yup. Tell Owens to fire it up,” I called back.
I slid in behind Spc. Matt Owens in the Humvee, the only place the rear air conditioning worked. The vent put only a whisper of chilled air on my neck, but it was better than nothing. I carefully wrangled my M16 inside the cramped vehicle—I’d joined the unit during its final preparations for movement from Kuwait into Iraq, when there were no more M4 carbines in the arms room. The carrying handle was missing from the old, full-length M16 I was left with, replaced by a rail with a red-dot close combat optic.
Dicenzo slid into the shotgun spot and our six vehicles trundled out of the courtyard and onto the narrow streets of the mullholla, or neighborhood. We usually rolled four Humvees, or three Humvees and a Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle, but elements from “higher” were attached to us for this council meeting, requiring a larger patrol.
As we rolled along, I spotted a green-covered hardback novel in the driver’s unzipped assault bag. An obsessive reader my whole life, I craned my neck to see the title.
“Hey, Owens, is that the new Harry Potter?” I asked.
“Yes, sir,” he said. “It’s pretty good.”
“Yeah, I agree,” I said, “I read it back at Sill.”
“My wife reads that kind of stuff, too,” our commander said without rancor. “I just don’t see how any of you get into it. Why not read history? Something real, that matters?”
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“Sir, I read a ton of history,” I said. “I also read novels because they’re fun, often inspirational, and insightful to the human condition.”
“Insightful to the human condition,” Capt. Dicenzo quoted, then chuckled. “That doesn’t sound pretentious at all, Watson. And if you have that much time to read, remind me to find more shit for you to do.”
We shared a laugh. I was about to argue the value of imagination and creativity when I heard a CRACK. The world went blinding white, and then all I could hear was a high, persistent whine in my ears. I could not feel the heat, the atmosphere around me, or the ground underneath me. I was terrifyingly disembodied for several seconds.
Did I just … die?
My vision returned slowly, fading in from the edges, and I could feel again. I hurt everywhere, but the pain was somehow still detached. Shock and adrenaline blunted the reports from my nerve endings. I knew I was in bad shape, but all my limbs reported back as attached and responsive.
Having realized that I was not dead, and that we had just been caught in a bomb blast, I tried to lie still, listening for small arms fire. If it was a complex ambush, I didn’t want to stand up straight into the middle of a gunfight. After remaining motionless as long as my nerves could stand, I rolled over and tried to struggle to my feet. My right wrist flopped at an unnatural angle, and a spike of uncut pain pierced the numbness of my shock.
Using my left arm, I tried to lever myself up only to be rewarded with an even more intense flash of pain from my right leg as I tried to put weight on it.
“FUUUCK MEEEEE,” I groaned, collapsing back to the dirt, able to do little but gasp in pain for several seconds. Fortunately, my neck operated normally, and I looked around, trying to get a grasp on where I was. An embankment rose a few feet up to the side of the road. So, I’d been blown into a ditch? To my left—oh, shit, I wasn’t alone.
One of the other guys was face down a few meters away from me. I couldn’t tell who it was, and I stretched out my left arm but couldn’t reach him. I called out: no response. Shit. That changed the equation. I couldn’t see what was wrong with the other casualty, but if he was still alive, he might be bleeding out while I dicked around. I had to get someone’s attention. I tried again to stand but it was useless—I was severely fucked up.
I gritted my teeth, looking around for a crutch. No trees to speak of but—there, my rifle, with the buttstock snapped off. The barrel, upper receiver, and pistol grip were still one intact piece; I twisted and, using my left elbow, ass, and lower back, dragged myself a few inches to get a hand on it. Gripping the triangular front sight, I posted the other end into the ground and pulled myself up, keeping all the weight on my left leg and the broken remains of my M16. Wobbling on the uncertain crutch and my left knee, I didn’t manage to stand, but I did crouch high enough to get my hand above the embankment—which wasn’t a ditch but the crater from the EFP explosion, a particularly deadly type of IED.
A figure in ACUs and body armor loomed near. I stood and managed a ragged shout. His head turned toward me and he began sprinting, followed closely by others. It was Doc Taylor, the platoon medic, who reached me first. He grabbed me and pushed me back to the ground. Someone pulled my rifle away.
“Sir, here, lay back down, you’re good, sir,” he said. “We got you.”
“What the fuck happened?” I asked. “Are there more? Give me my fucking rifle—”
“Hold on there, sir, I’m going to hit you with some good stuff.” I felt a sharp prick, and then suddenly I was very calm.
“Oh, Doc, that feels pretty good…”
“I know it does, L.T., you just lie down while I work on you,” Taylor said.
The morphine had dampened the reports of my nerves so I wasn’t sure what I could and couldn’t feel anymore. Then a terrifying thought occurred to my drug-addled brain. Looking down, I couldn’t see what was going on below my waist between the blood and guts and Doc working on me. Glancing up at me, Doc must’ve seen my eyes go wide.
“Sir, don’t worry, you’re not going to lose your leg, it’s not that bad,” Doc said.
“Doc,” I said. “Fuck my leg, is my dick still attached?”
Doc laughed loudly. “Yeah, sir, you’re good,” he said, continuing to chuckle as he immobilized my right wrist. Thankfully, I couldn’t feel any of it anymore. “I’ve got to work on Owens. Hall’s got you, we got dustoff on the way, you’re going to be fine.”
Two of Charlie Company’s infantrymen took over for Doc, cutting away uniform here, bandaging lacerations and punctures there.
As adrenaline faded, unreasonable fear gripped me. Suddenly I was scared shitless. “Jesus, guys, don’t let me die,” I said. “God, I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.”
Hall’s face came into focus and he shoved something into my left hand. I looked down. It was the picture of my wife I kept in my wallet.
“You’re going home, sir,” Hall said, locking my gaze. “You’re going to see her again. You’re going to see her again.”
“Yeah, yeah, right.” I laid back on the hard-baked Iraqi dirt and stared into the painfully bright sky, my heart rate slowing.
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“Capt. Dicenzo?” I croaked, ashamed I hadn’t thought to ask until then. “The others?”
“We got Owens,” Hall said. “I don’t know about the others.”
After a moment, I heard a voice, my own voice, praying, and someone else—Doc? Hall? joining in—“… for yours is the power, and the glory, forever and ever, amen.”
The sound of a UH-60’s blades beating the desert air into submission drowned out all conversation. The men got me onto a stretcher and carried me through the rotor wash into the Blackhawk where the flight medic strapped me down and secured my IV bag. Someone slapped me on the shoulder and then they ran to clear the rotor cone. The Blackhawk rose into the air, matching reality with the levitating sensation of the morphine.
I was inside the golden hour—I was almost certainly going to live, and I knew it. I would see my wife again—soon. A sensation of profound relief washed over me, accompanied by debilitating shards of guilt. I didn’t deserve life any more than the guys who hadn’t made it. How the hell could I be celebrating at a time like this? I shouldn’t be happy. As I slipped off to dreamland, the joy and misery of survival took root in my soul. Neither has extinguished the other in all the intervening years.