In 2004, I was assigned to be a Platoon Sergeant for 2nd Platoon, Headquarters Battery (Forward) 2nd Battalion, 197th Field Artillery Regiment (In Lieu of Military Police). We were a bunch of highly skilled cannon cockers, fire direction specialists, wrench turners, and clerks. Some of us had experience in law enforcement but none of us ever trained to be MPs or Infantrymen. It did not matter. The Army needed MPs, not artillery, to fight the insurgents in Iraq so we received 10 or 14 days of training and became MPs. The training was squad-centric, nothing for platoon or company leaders. As a result, none of the Platoon Leaders, Platoon Sergeants, the First Sergeant, nor the Company Commander received any training to be or lead MPs. With our little training, we boarded planes and headed to staging areas in Kuwait determined to do our jobs to the best of our humble abilities.
When we arrived in the Middle East, our company was split and served in three locations, Mosul, Tikrit, and Baqubah. The Baqubah mission was to provide 24/7 force protection to the provincial police headquarters building downtown and train Iraqi Police. Everyone knew Mosul and Tirkrit were dangerous. None of us had ever heard of Baqubah. It had to be relatively safe, right? I had the opportunity to visit the newly renovated police training facility in Mosul. It was nice, rivaling the academy police officers in New Hampshire attend. Given the quality of the Mosul police academy, the perceived safety of Baqubah, and the opportunity to complete a mission that would help the locals develop security forces to protect themselves, I volunteered my platoon to execute the Baqubah mission. When we arrived at the Diyala Police Provincial Police Headquarters we all realized that not only were we not in New Hampshire anymore Dorthy, this place looked nothing like the facility in Mosul!
One of the Soldiers in my platoon, Aaron Marshall, is writing a book, Baqubah; Bones and Blood, about his experiences during that deployment. He provided me an advanced copy of his manuscript. He expects it to be ready for publication in 2020. Marshall reminds me of Medal of Honor recipient Maynard Smith who demonstrated exceptional bravery under fire, but always found trouble when the bullets were not flying. Marshall is a very brave person but always had a knack for finding trouble. Still, he was someone I wanted by my side when the shooting started.
I have published a veteran based post each Memorial and Veterans Day since starting my blog. After reading Aaron’s manuscript, I thought he did an excellent job of describing many parts of the experiences of combat veterans. I asked permission to publish an excerpt of his book here for Veterans Day. He granted me that permission. What follows is a brief excerpt as written by him with a few edits for clarification. His writing is graphic and may be offensive to some readers. I decided to publish this post using his graphic words because war is both graphic and offensive. I will post when the book is published.
Please read and reflect on the words and experiences of PFC Aaron Marshall.
My call sign in Iraq was “Spoonman”. We were told to come up with our own call signs, and I loved the song by Soundgarden so I went with that. At that point I had never tried heroin and wouldn’t until my second divorce about 7 years later. But that’s a story for another time. An even darker tale of the human experience; loss, tragedy, insanity, and redemption. Now that I think about it, it was sort of a self-induced experience very similar to Iraq; to War. I relived the terror of death on a daily basis with that drug, but I was one of the lucky few who was able to kick it before it took me completely.
I had too many experiences with death. Too many. I’ve felt the breeze created by a snipers bullet gently flow by my face. I’ve been hit with anti-tank rockets so close it made me think the world had ended. I’ve had septic shock, pancreatitis, renal failure, and felt the peaceful calm that comes over you when you die. I’ve overdosed too many times and woken up to people standing over me crying.
And I’m still here. I’m still trudging forward, marching on. To what I haven’t the slightest idea. I have no idea why I’m still here. Dumb luck maybe? A purpose I don’t yet know? I would go with dumb luck over fate. Regardless, I give thanks to the people around me. If I gave thanks to a supposed god, I would be squandering an opportunity to make an actual difference in the world. That was one of the original ideas behind me joining the military in the first place. After September 11th 2001, most young men my age were jolted by a sense of duty to do something, anything. But still only a few signed up to voluntarily fight in a War that we all knew was coming. We all wanted it. There was that part of the collective unconscious of the country that needed war; vengeance, justice. The same type of situation occurred in Iraq in 2004 when a Sergeant (SGT) From the 3rd ID and a Lieutenant (LT) ended up both losing one of their arms during an RPG attack on a patrol. We all felt completely helpless immediately after.
Searching within ourselves for the answer to the question why? Why did it happen? Why did the RPG enter the front of the Humvee like it did? Why that road? Why them? Why not me? And every single man and woman at the Police Station wanted vengeance, justice. We knew we would get it but we just didn’t know when. It was part of all our collective unconscious at the station. We would get it. At least that’s how I felt about it.
During one of our QRF (Quick Reaction Force) missions shortly after the SGT and LT were severely wounded, we would get our revenge. We needed to kill one of the enemy, a hundred if we could, to make us all feel like we were doing something good for our wounded family. My team got called out to pick up a soldier that had been wounded by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device, commonly called a roadside bomb) just down the road from us on what was called “RPG Alley”. When we went to pick him up, it was a dangerous feeling, a feeling like something bad was going to happen. I’d get that feeling from time to time, and I learned to trust it. Over time that feeling was correct more often than not, and at the very least that feeling would heighten your senses so you’d be even more ready for an ambush.
You never knew when and if another IED was going to be set off after the first one. But we had to get the wounded out. The soldier was in good spirits. Pretty bloodied but happy to be getting the hell out of there and onto a base with medical care.
Halfway to F.O.B. Warhorse we were ambushed by some AK-47 fire that pinged off the vehicle in front of me then skipped just over our vehicle. I got out of the kill zone by ducking down into the vehicle. When the gunfire stopped hitting our vehicle my SGT yelled, “shoot!” I popped up, unlatched the turret, swung it counterclockwise, locked the turret back in, and looked down the barrel of my M249 SAW. I didn’t even have to aim. I was looking directly at a man slightly crouched beside a wall, exactly where the gunfire was coming from, holding a weapon. I didn’t even think about it. I let loose as many rounds as I could and I’ll never forget how he instantly slumped to the ground when my first bullet hit, and stayed motionless (Marshall said that the gunner in the next Humvee behind him also engaged the insurgent. Karl rarely received credit for his role in that fight. Marshall remembers hearing the gun firing). I ducked back into the Humvee and said the SGT, “Holy shit I got him!”, and we called in the confirmed kill.
When I got back to the Police Station you could see the look of everyone had changed from a somber mood to a look of vindication. None of us ever had a conversation about these feelings. In fact, at least with those I associated with, we didn’t really talk about feelings at all, ever. The way I perceived, it was that we got our revenge for what happened to the SGT and LT. I think that helped us move past the incredible horror of being helpless for them. It helped me move past it and not dwell on the event so much. Of course there was nothing we could have done. But you still feel like, and always feel like, there is something you could have done to prevent it.
It’s still hard to piece everything together; the entire year. Where to start; how to finish telling it. It doesn’t help that I had multiple head traumas while I was there and multiple head traumas when I returned home. But I’m determined to tell my story, our story, the story of the 2/197th FA unit that went to Baqubahh, Iraq in 2004 as hastily trained MP’s. The Army owned us and we would all do our part to make sure every last one of us got home. We would do our best, and that’s exactly what we did, our best. I wasn’t trained to be a machine gunner in the turret of a Humvee but by the end of the tour, I guarantee I was one of the best. That’s not cockiness in the sense that I thought I was better than anyone else, but a sense of confidence in my abilities. A turret gunner needs that confidence to do his or her job. Without it, fear can creep in and take over, rendering you useless. No, I wasn’t better than any other gunner in the war, I was simply one of the best. I hope that now makes sense.
To paraphrase one of my favorite schools of Philosophy, the Stoics, and more specifically, Epictetus; there are things in our control like our opinions, desires, and inclinations. There are also things which are not in our control like our body, possessions, honor, and reputation. So why worry about the things that are not in our control? Well, that turret and anyone around it that wanted to do us harm was in my control for that year. I made it my mission to be the baddest motherfucker I could possibly be. It was out of my character. But like an actor that gets stuck in role after making a movie, I became a machine gunner. I became the turret. It was my home. That 2 inch wide strap for a seat was my bed, my home, my church, my religion, and baptism by fire is not an understatement. Some jobs you ask for in the Army, but for the most part you just do what you are told as an enlisted man. And I was told to get in the turret. I did my job and I did it well.