Saturday, May 28, 2005

I'm Not Gonna Make It, Go On Without Me

I got my first combat wound and had minor surgery yesterday. Before you get too concerned read this entire blog and then decide if you should be concerned or not. There are two versions to this story. The first is “The War version” that I’ll probably tell for the rest of my life, and the second is a much less interesting version I like to call “The actual truth”. Here goes.

So there I was, hanging off a rope from a Blackhawk thirty feet off the deck M-16 in one hand and a bowie knife in the other. A grenade dangling from my teeth. Explosions to the south and sniper fire from the north. We were in too far to turn back now. It was all or nothing.

Intell had pinpointed the location of an enemy weapons cache filled with anti aircraft guns and munitions. The infantry needed an Intell assessment of the cache so Major M and I were asked to tag along. The mission was expected to be low profile and go off without any resistance. The cache was an underground bunker from the Saddam days and was thought to be forgotten by the regime. The plan was to go in, get whatever worked and blow the rest in place. We just wanted to get to the weapons before they fell into the wrong hands. We knew there was enemy activity in the area but figured they hadn’t found the cache yet. The action was too hot to go in on the ground so air insertion was the only option. We would go in on two Blackhawks and repel from 30 feet to the drop zone. Blackhawks can’t defend themselves on the ground so they wouldn’t be landing for the insertion, only the extraction. We knew that would be the most critical point in the mission. Enemy resistance was expected to be minimal.

“2 minutes to target”, our headsets crackled to life. “Do your final checks.” The pilot gave us periodic updates in the monotone character of a seasoned war pilot. We’d done our pre combat inspections and were ready to go. We patted each other down right before climbing onto the cargo deck of the helicopter. Helmet, ear plugs, and eye protection were all good. 210 rounds of 5.56 mm ammo strapped to our body armor vests in 30 round magazines. Two Israeli bandages, one 4 inch and one 6 inch were each in our cargo pockets along with a new addition to our personal first aid kits, the one handed tourniquet. Medical research had recently change it’s mind about tourniquets. Before, they were a last ditch effort used only when there was no way to save the arm or leg they were tied to. Now the thinking is to stop the bleeding and just loosen it every once in a while and let the blood flow so you don’t kill all the tissue. I kept my 4 inch bandage and my tourniquet in my left cargo pocket and my 6 inch bandage in my right cargo pocket along with my shot record and extra dog tags.

“On Target.” We tossed our headsets aside and knelt by the door. Slinging our rifles over our backs we tossed the rappel ropes over the side. Adrenaline surging through our veins, we cinched our black leather gloves tight around our wrists and peeked over the edge of the helicopter to see what the ground was like below. Dead palm branches and trash covered most of the ground, a perfect hiding spot for booby traps. The last few feet of the ropes coiled in a pile on the ground. Drawing from the practice of hundreds of drops the pilot held the helicopter perfectly still as we grabbed our ropes and prepared for the quick slide down. Major M was already down his rope and running 20 meters out to get out of the prop blast and take up his spot on the perimeter. I was down the rope next. Half way down the slide I heard small arms fire to the north. The infantry guys from the other Blackhawk were already on the ground returning fire and suppressing the enemy when we heard a huge blast from the north. For a second the helicopter shook but the pilot made a few adjustments and it was rock solid. Less than a second later I was on the ground taking my place on the perimeter. The lead Blackhawk did a strafing run across the enemy position spitting spent casings and chain links all around us as they unloaded a reign of fire. Then, just as if someone flicked a switch, there was silence, just the sound of your own breathing and your heart pounding blood and adrenaline through every vein in your body. The Blackhaws flew off to a safe area and maintained a constant flight path until they were to return for the extraction. We scanned our sectors of fire searching for the slightest movement, staying low for a few minutes as we assessed the situation. The bunker was shielded by a small berm situated between us and the enemy, but we knew we didn’t have much time to mess around. We made our way to the small opening of the underground bunker using tactical movements we’d practiced dozens of times. One team would leapfrog the other while they provided cover in case the insurgents showed themselves. Our training kicked in and we didn’t even have to think about the movements, they came as naturally as breathing or walking. A well orchestrated symphony of military power. We got to the opening without incident.

The platoon leader from the infantry unit snapped a couple of chemlights, shook them to activate the green chemical light, and tossed them down the opening. All clear. The plan was for Major M and me to go in first, snap a few pictures and identify the weapons. We shimmied down the half collapsed entrance and fell onto a pile of old Russian 20mm anti aircraft guns. Cobwebs and mosquitoes thick as fog in every nook and cranny. We batted the dangling silk traps out of our way and coughed up a few lungfuls of dirt as we slid down the hole swatting the stinging intruders. Our eyes adjusted to the eerie green light of the chemical glow sticks as we unpacked our cameras and started our job. The guns were rusted and battered but at least one of them looked like it would still work, maybe two. We’d have to take them all just to be sure. There were hundreds of rounds laying haphazardly in the piles of tangled metal and discarded weapons. Most of the stuff was junk, but it only takes one to kill Americans. This was a good find. We crawled out of the hole as the infantry guys slid down and started passing weapons and ammo out of the hole. There was a clearing to the west where we set up a small perimeter watching and waiting as the infantry guys hauled the find into the circle of protection. We radioed the Blackhawks for a pickup in five minutes. So far we'd had no enemy contact since the air insertion. With two men per gun we could load all the weapons up in one trip and then one additional trip for the ammo. All said and done the Blackhawks would only need to be on the ground and vulnerable for a minute at the most.

The first chopper touched down as we were running the guns toward it. Major M and I had one of the 8 foot long 200 pound guns between us. He had the muzzle and was in the lead as I brought up the rear holding the firing assembly and feed mechanism. Someone flipped the switch again. Small arms fire everywhere. We could hear 50 cal sniper rifles echoing from across the banks of the Tigris and small explosions were walking their way toward us as they tried to get their mortars zeroed in. We had only a few seconds to get the stuff on the birds and get out. The Infantry guys started laying down suppressing fire as me and Major M took a squad and ran back for the ammo. One can a piece and we were in a dead sprint toward the screaming door gunner in the second Blackhawk. That’s when it happened. A small explosion shook the ground right at my feet. White hot pain shot up my leg as I stumbled but didn’t fall. I knew if I fell I’d be dead. I fought the pain and dove into the helicopter, ammo can and all. My feet still dangling out the door we were airborne. The door gunners were ripping holes into the terrain below with their big belt fed machine guns as I clawed my way into my seat and fastened the five point harness around my wounded body. Trees and body parts exploded in the trail of metal and fire as the door gunners hammered the insurgents relentlessly. We were away. I turned to Major M and told him I was hit. It was my left ankle. Shrapnel smoked through slashes in my desert tan boots. Slowly and carefully we peeled the boot back and saw the shrapnel lodged in my ankle near the Achilles tendon. I tried to pull it free with my fingers but it was lodged too tightly. I pulled out my trusty Gerber multiplier and gave the steaming chunk of metal a tug. Nothing, it must have been too jagged and was cutting into the soft tissue inside my foot. As we approached the FOB the pilot radioed the Medical center and told them we’d be landing there.

A few minutes later I was out of my body armor and helmet and laying face down on a gurney in the makeshift operating room on FOB Justice. The second of the two gurneys sat empty on a pair of sawhorses just waiting for the next wounded soldier. To the left was a stack of plywood cubby holes filled with neatly stacked medical supplies. A small desk in the corner with a few file folders stacked in the center. One lay open with a pen slowly rolling off the edge of the desk. The Doc must have been taking notes when we rushed in. A quick shot of lydacaine to deaden the pain and he was quick to work. He slowly and carefully started cutting the metal shards from my foot dropping them one by one as they pinged into the bottom of the metal pan. I was on my belly so I couldn’t look back to see what was happening but I could feel him working his way around my ankle and toward the bottom of my foot. The drugs had deadened the area enough that all I felt was the Doc’s fingers and instruments pushing and prodding with a few more pings in the metal pan. A few minutes later it was cleaned and bandaged. An antibiotic shot to my butt and it was all over. All said and done we had expended over two thousand rounds between the soldiers and the helicopter and captured three working anti aircraft guns, one RPG, and multiple cases of ammo.



Now for the actual truth.

Major M and I got into the little Nissan quad cab that we use to tool around on FOB Justice. We knew of an underground bunker on the FOB that had some old Russian anti aircraft guns. We wanted to take a look at them to see if it would be worth taking a few back to the states to put in a military museum. We flipped on the air and cranked the radio up to the Armed Forces Network while we retold exaggerated stories from our days in Mahmudiyah. A few minutes later we were parked in a mess of old dead palm branches and piles of garbage. About 20 meters away we could see the small opening of an underground bunker long abandoned. Under the watchful protection of the American guard towers we leisurely strolled toward the hole snapping pictures of the surroundings as we went. One of the guns was laying in plain view on the ground obviously discarded outside the bunker. We each took turns posing with it and set it aside. We slid down the half collapsed entrance onto a pile of discarded weapons and containers. Half of them were American garbage earlier units had thrown down there instead of having to deal with them as inventory. We hauled the three guns out of the hole and took some ammo cans and an RPG. One of the guns might have been operable if you knew what you were doing. The others were rusted and burned beyond saving. It looked like some of the rounds had been cooked off in the bunker years earlier and probably started a small fire. We grabbed our loot and carried it back to the truck one piece at a time. As we were carrying the second gun my right foot snagged on a dead palm branch and drove one of the tines into my left ankle. There was a momentary sting and I figured it had just poked through the nylon part of my desert boots. The uppers are just nylon and the lower part is actual leather. This makes the boot lighter and cooler in the desert atmosphere. I shrugged it off and kept working. About thirty minutes later we had the weapons loaded in a conex and were back in the office. My ankle was hurting a little bit so I took my boot off. Sure enough there was a splinter about the thickness of a small knitting needle sticking out of the skin just in front of my Achilles tendon. I tried to pull the sock off but the barbs of the spike were holding it to my skin. Major M was nice enough to just rip the sock off sending a momentary burning pain through my ankle. I tried to pull it out with my fingers thinking it was just a small splinter. I couldn’t get a good grip on it so I pulled out the Gerber. Even with the pliers I couldn’t pull it out. Each time I tugged on it the skin all around would lift up but the barbs on the inside wouldn’t let go. I figured this was now a job for a trained medical professional. I hobbled to the Nissan and Major M took me to the TMC (Troop Medical Center). I hopped up on the stretcher on my belly and the Doc took a look. “It’s in too far, I’m gonna have to cut it out.” “What, it’s just a splinter, pull it out.” “I can’t, the barbs on the thorn will rip the tissue in your foot.” Fortunately he numbed the area before he cut it out. The incision was too small for stitches so he put some antibiotic ointment on and wrapped it with gauze and a bandage. I asked if I could keep the offending thorn so he put it into a little Ziploc bag. One shot in the butt later I was on my merry way back to work. No worse for wear.

Of the two versions of the story I do think I prefer the War version.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was so proud when the President came to the door to tell us how brave you were and to deliver your purple heart in person. Our hearts burst with pride. Our Son, the hero!!! Anyway. . .glad it wasn't any more serious!! The first version certainly was exciting in a military sort of way, a way I am not familiar with-nor want to be. Your imagination could earn you lots of money I think. ZM

6:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad to hear you're okay. We saw the slide show at church yesterday and it made me a bit weepy. I had a friend with me whose dad is a retired army man. She enjoyed the slide show too. By the way, we used the credit we got from Get Away Today vacations from you saying that we referred you. We'll be at Sea World and Legoland this week. So I'll check back on your blog when we get back. I'll be praying for your ankle! And I'm so glad that the fiction version of your story is just that-fiction! M. Pads Coach

10:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read this to the Mr. and he had to lay down during the surgery description. Oh yeah, he was just fine during the war description. Splinters! Scary stuff. I know he enjoyed hearing from you this weekend, even if it was short. Sure can't wait to have you home so we can wait for him to go during whatever game we play while we're listening to your "war" stories. I sure hope you don't have to many real ones. You have been on my mind lately so I am praying more vigorously. I know you are enjoying your army days but. . . sure can be scary for those left behind. We love you and know that God is in control.

9:55 PM  
Blogger Rod said...

ROFLMAO!

I shouldn't laugh at the serious work you guys are doing, but the way you contrast the two versions of that story is friggin funny.

Please stay safe.

I'm guessing we will soon hear a story of how you were involved in an operation that uncovered a cache of chemical weapons, or another version of how you stumbled into one of their back yard septic tanks.

Again, stay safe.

9:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A Purple Heart worthy of John Kerry! Thank you for your service.
tj

7:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great writing--glad to hear that the first part wasn't true.

3:40 PM  

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