For Christmas 1998 my best friend gave me a pewter flask with my nickname engraved on it – “ASE” [pronounced ‘ace’ but we were both products of public school so who’s to say we could spell]. That was back in the old days pre-9/11 when we both thought we would get out of high school, do a little more time in the reserves, maybe get into the active side of the regular Army, and eventually be shipped off to serve time in Korea on the DMZ (we still lived under the impression it was an imminent danger zone, and a year on the line would earn you the coveted combat infantry badge, CIB – this was all a misinformed pipe dream aside from the fact neither of us were in the infantry but somewhere in the process we would re-up and become infantry). The card read “to keep you warm on those cold nights in Korea”.
I never went to Korea (nor did he). And I never became infantry (he did though). But I did go to college on a green-to-gold ROTC scholarship and I did go into the active Army in 2003. And I took a scout platoon [the bastard step-children of the infantry, by the way] and we got our orders for deployment in 2004. The night before deployment while sitting in a friend’s apartment, I took that flask and filled it with whiskey, and tucked it inside the front of my Kevlar vest (individual body army, or IBA) behind the protective ballistic chest-plate that would stop bullets from hitting the important bits there. A little ‘extra protection’ I figured; something to keep and carry, and eventually take a pull from on really, really bad days. Against regulations? Yes. Violation of General Order #1 (among the clauses, no alcohol whatsoever), hell yes. Did I care? Fuck no! I was going to war, are you crazy? That flask was the last thing on my mind.
I had almost forgotten it was there, actually. Until the 19th of October. We hadn’t moved to Tal’Afar yet, so we were in Mosul still; we were in the motor pool prepping the Stryker’s for an afternoon patrol. Our 2nd Platoon was in sector already, and we were due to head out for a four-hour patrol block to continue familiarizing ourselves with the area as part of the relief-in-place process with the outgoing unit, 3rd Brigade 2nd Infantry, our fellow Stryker Brigade from Fort. Lewis. I was sitting on the bench beneath my hatch, our ramp down as men were coming and going – cleaning weapons, checking ammo, reviewing maps – that sort of shit. Then came the tell-tale Mosul ‘Thump’ of what we would always say was “something big” as it echoed in from somewhere out in the city. I turned on our radios in time to learn that our 2nd Platoon had been hit by an IED in sector, and was returning to the base with one casualty.
I stood up in my hatch and my gunner was calling over to the Stryker’s on the line, to say that 2nd had hit an IED and was inbound with a casualty – as everyone was curious as to what that tell-tale thump was – when mid sentence the motor pool erupted in a flash of billowing black and gray smoke just fifty meters away, smack dab in the center of the motor pool; a little concession wave disturbed the air as the ‘crack’ of the mortar filled our ears. “Shit! Mortars!” my gunner screamed as everyone began to turn the engines over and start the truck to raise their ramps, the sound of little bits and pieces pinging various parts of the Strykers. I was scrambling to pull my rifle and helmet in off the top of the Stryker where they were laying so that I could close the hatch. I saw / heard / felt another crack as a mortar hit the trees that were across the street where our command post and living area was, shattering branches and sending bits to and fro. Then I heard another. Then another.
It was all very quick. I was trying to get the hatch closed and get the ramp up, and the mortars were coming in staggered by about three seconds or so, slowly walking over the motor pool and into the into the living area. Everyone sought cover in their trucks. The guys not close to a Stryker dove for cover anywhere they could find it. A pair hit the dirt and crawled under a 5-ton truck; a few guys who were on the side of the motor pool lined with shipping containers who had been unloading supplies and parts scrambled for some sort of cover – one kid jumped into a cardboard shipping insert (a cardboard box). I think that shows you the sort of desperation you can feel when there is imminent danger, the threat of injury or death is literally right in front of you, yet you have absolutely no control whatsoever. Unless you lived in a concrete bunker 24/7, you had no control over mortars at all. That feeling is shitty. We hated mortars. But right then and there, crawling into that cardboard box was what made that kid feel safe. And after five minuets, it was all done. The actual impacts all probably hit in a minute or less, but everyone sits and waits, because you never know when its done, or when that last one or two is coming in.
All in all six mortars came in; three guys were wounded by shrapnel from the air-burst I saw that hit the trees (they were running to the bunker outside of the command post). One mortar hit the roof of one of the CHU’s (container-housing units) in the living area, literally peeling the corners apart and caving in the roof where it struck, destroying everything inside (thank God its occupant was on patrol at the time). The rest hit in and around the motor pool. 2nd Platoon arrived not too long after, their platoon leader’s Stryker charred black near the front with two flat tires. His gunner took shrapnel to the face. Four total wounded that day, all would return to duty after a few days, our supply sergeant needing a little extra time because he caught his shrapnel in the elbow, so they had to do a little operating.
Our patrol went out, we did our time in sector and we returned well after the sun had gone down. The rest of that day and night went uneventful. When I got back to my CHU, having walked past the impact area, windows still shattered and little holes and dings across various CHU’s from shrapnel, it began to sink in. I sat down in my room, contemplated the reality of life in Iraq; so many ways for the enemy to get us. There is no safe place here – none. Thinking of the scene at the command post immediately after, as we all ran over there to see folks from our Troop bandaging the wounded, I realized that death and injury are very, very real possibilities. You know that going into it, but when you actually see it and are confronted with it, what you knew was a possibility becomes really real. You push those thoughts back in your mind and concentrate on your men and the mission. But when you’re alone at night with your thoughts, they creep back in.
It was then that I remembered I had a little extra protection for bad days like this. I undid the plate pouch on my IBA and pulled out that little flask, taking a conservative swig and letting the warmth and numbing feeling in my mouth roll down my throat and into my chest. I put the cap on and tucked it back away.
Little did I know I would drain that flask in less than three-months time. I thought that was a bad day. Little did I know…