A Momentary Descent Into Madness

Baghdad: 14 November, 2007.  I was walking to the chow hall to grab my morning English muffin and head into the tactical operations center (TOC) when I heard the low, resounding ‘ka-whoomph’- the unmistakable sound of a VBIED or large IED. A little bit in my head I was taken back to that day in Mosul in ’04 when the command post windows shuddered and the dust fell from the ceiling- the day a VBIED struck the 1-14 Cav patrol during RIP-TOA. Two men died that day; several lost limbs.

‘That’s a big one’ I mumbled to myself as I continued my walk. Fast forward twenty minuets and I am at work and the kid from intel asks me to help plot a grid; Pale Horse Troop’s Mortar Platoon had struck an IED just 75 meters outside of ECP2, just outside of the Green Zone. Report on casualties, 1 walking, 1 litter. My thoughts immediately went to the boys in Pale – for they are the old Charger Troop of yesteryear where I grew up, did all my platoon leader time, and flew the banner under which I fought in OIF III; My brethren, my kin. Most of my men are still there.  My men.  Well, someone else’s men now – but always in my heart and mind – my men.  At least their new platoon leader is a good kid.

Sergeant Major strolled into my office clad in all of his gear. He walked around the shop- only myself, my Lieutenant and the Navy attachment who loaded all of our counter-IED equipment were present. He closed the door. “Ya’ll hear about Pale Horse.” It was more of a statement than a question. We answered yes. He shook his head and turned to leave. I asked if there was any change to the status of casualties. He turned around, looked around one more time. “Ah, shit Sir you’ll you’ll hear. We had a KIA. The new Lieutenant got hit”.

The new Lieutenant.  His name was 2LT Pete Burks and I had dinner with him last night, and we talked about Iraq and the Iraqis.  See, he was down on the line now – when he arrived to the Squadron about a month ago he was attached to me (along with my other current Lieutenant, also new) to get a little air under his wings.  Try and ripen a bit in the sun.  I was now on what we call ‘special staff’ working civil-military operations.  I had two civil affairs teams attached to me, a Stryker, a Humvee, and the CBRN-Stryker platoon from our military intelligence company at my disposal (chemical, biological, radiogical and nuclear).  I was to groom these young men for the line.

I couldn’t concentrate right then. My hands were shaky, my eyes almost seem like they were having difficulty focusing. The air in there felt warmer. Shock.

He was assigned to Pale Horse two weeks ago; I hadn’t seen him since, and at dinner he came over and asked for a seat.  ‘Naturally,’ I said.  He had a platoon; he was going out in sector; he wanted some advice on how to perceive the local nationals.  He had a heartfelt sympathy towards them and the situation they were in.  “Pete” I said, “You remind me a lot of how I entered into this in 2004.  Let me save you the burden of some mistakes: these people will lie to you, they will steal from you, they will be your friend when it suits them and then they will turn around ans stab you in the back.”  Says the jaded disgruntled embittered Captain.

Now he was dead.  First mission, or some shit.  Literally had got the platoon from the other guy, handed off, and he was out being a leader.  And now he joins the ranks with the other guys I lost back when I was in Pale (then Charger).  Brothers in name, in service – and now in death.  Like some scene from a fucking movie.  I couldn’t help but think, the last advice I gave him seemed to dull his good and pure sense of servitude towards helping the Iraqi populous.  I shudder to think that he died with despair in his heart, perhaps not thinking exactly as fondly of being able to help them as he had, based on our conversation at dinner.  That ate at me (it still does).

At the 1000 Squadron Commander’s Sync, we sat down and listened to the commander gave the staff a small speech about Pete and it being OK to take an hour or so to talk a walk, and think about things – and that he didn’t mean to “be crass”, but “this is our job and this is what we deal with as a result of being soldiers”. Then he said it.  “Now the other Squadron’s will see that we’re in the fight, too.”  Boom.  Your beef with the infantry?? Prove scouts are just as good? Really, you are bringing this up now?? All in all his attitude, delivery and smug perceived sense of self-validation had me thinking to myself that deep down somewhere inside Pete’s death to him wasn’t just something that soldiers experience, nor was it a loss for him as a commander – it was more of a validation of him as a commander – that he is now on par with his peers across the Regiment in that he too was contributing to the fight.

You want that shirt? I’ll spare you the time, effort and more importantly the lives of the guy’s you’ll get killed – Here; have my shirt. Been there, done that.  Trust me, not worth the trip.

I have little recollection of what happened next.  But the meeting ended.  I left the meeting bitter over the speech to prepare my Humvee for the noontime patrol. It had been in bone-yard for several weeks now to have the power-assist on the gunners turret and an oil leak repaired.  We were going into a tight section of town, so we were leaving the larger Stryker’s behind and taking out the civil affairs teams in their Humvee’s. We were short-manned that day, so I decided to drive myself, and I was going to take my new Lieutenant, and poach a dismount from the civil affairs folks as a gunner.  Like a good Soldier, I got my Humvee, drew my M-240B machine gun, loaded up my radios and prepped my vehicle.

My Lieutenant rode passenger (technically the vehicle commander spot), and I got a young kid named “Shue” to gun.  We went out in sector.  All during the mission pre-briefing I was flippant.  I was irate, not directing my anger and hostilities at any one person in general but clearly vocalizing to anyone who knew me that something was wrong.  On any given day I myself can handle about ten crises. When you add in one more, and that being the straw that breaks the camel’s back, I go from calm to enraged instantaneously. There is no middle ground; there is nothing except Off, and Rage.

On our way out of the Green Zone and into sector the radio call was to go red-direct and turn on our DUKES and Rhino systems. I was driving the Humvee – something I don’t really do as a matter of routine – but we needed to run the patrol light today (exactly what you want to do, right? Go out in sector undermanned). I reached right for my M4 to load it and lay it back down on the console when I was stricken with a very odd sense of panic and urgency: Where the hell is my M4? It wasn’t there;  did I leave it in the motor pool? No- you didn’t leave it there – think, think! Did I leave it on the hood? The back deck of the Humvee?  Fuck I probably drove over it when we pulled out. Did I somehow get confused and put it in the Stryker?  No…You did none of those things – because you left it handing on the wall in your office. Fucking Jackass.

My Lieutenant asked me if I was OK.  “I think so.”

I was mortified. I had just exited the wire into Baghdad on a combat patrol, driving my own Humvee – and I had neglected to bring my rifle. Basic-fucking tenets of soldiering! What scared me more was that I got calm, and then said to myself ‘Well you have your pistol…’ I was OK with it – I had committed the mortal sin of a soldier – left my weapon behind, and I was OK with it. I loaded my pistol and we rolled on. I was now in a cloudy fog.

Dammit man, how the hell did you get here? You’re slipping! Do you have it in you anymore?? I like to think that I do, but come on – I left my rifle in my office. That is basic fucking pre-combat check material there. But, I had slipped. What else do I slip on I wonder? What if we take fire, or take casualties and I need to fend back or repel an attack? With a Beretta 9mm and 15 rounds of 9-mil ball ammunition? But its ok, you’re just going to a few places in Khark, its safe there. Right?

Safe. That’s such a loose concept when you think about it. Safe. The perception of safety -that’s all we’re selling here. We’re paying in blood for perception. Pete thought that the entry-control point at the main fucking gate was safe – it’s controlled by the US Army and  the outer approach monitored by the Iraqi Police.

Safe.

And he paid for the perception of safety with his blood. His crew paid for it in their blood too as one sits in a medically induced coma in Landsthul, and another undergoes surgery on his arm and bicep. And we now know through these men’s blood that it is certainly not safe – that nothing is safe. It’s only as safe as it seems.  Look kids, the blast walls by the markets have nice Iraqi Flags painted on them – the walls near the schools have friendly images of children and doves and Iraqi Flags. The streets are clean, well sort of – there is less trash and shit all over the place but it is still a sty. The buildings are being freshly painted. Paint right up to the top floor where the rest is blown away from the fierce fight in the spring and summer.  And it all looks very nice, and very safe. Don’t paint that big pile of rubble that used to be a building, though.

But inside it isn’t.  And there I sat, in the parking lot of the Syrian Apartments, in my Humvee, (waiting the two hours for civil affairs to finish screening Iraqi security guard applicants – task one of the patrol) with my pistol, and an engine that is spurting oil out of the undercarriage AGAIN. But its OK, it will be safe, because I have turned the engine off (because the oil only shoots our when the engine is on I’ve found – but not soon enough to prevent me from rolling out of the wire in it, without my fucking rifle).

I decided we had to cut my part of the patrol short. I had specific atmospherics to take that I could hand off to civil affairs; I gave all two of my passengers away to the other civil affairs Humvee’s, and I did a battle hand-off with the Major that led the civil affairs teams (strange yes, I know – a Captain who is in charge of a Major and both his teams but he didn’t seem to mind, and I was respectful). I re-worked the route and had the patrol swing back toward the center of Baghdad and drop me off so they could continue on the rest of their patrol and finish their objectives. I went back home alone – stupid, against protocol, and without any other crew (and without a rifle). It was half mile or less, but I wasn’t thinking.  Or was I thinking?

What was I trying to do here? What was I looking for? I didn’t know, but I made my way to the gate – not before driving right by the spot where that EPF had been that killed Pete, and seeing the blast-seat myself, and seeing for myself how it sat directly next to the Iraqi Police building and watch tower. No fucking way you don’t know a part of your curb is replaced with an explosively formed penetrater array – no fucking way.  More anger.

By the time I had got back and parked the Humvee back in the boneyard (berating the civilian-contracted mechanics), post-trip checked the vehicle and shut it down and locked it up, I went to my office. No one manning the gate bothered to ask me why one Humvee with one person in it was rollin’ down the street and up to the gate.  I sat down in my chair, spent. Emotionally and physically spent. Crisis number eleven had set me off causing all of this had drained me.  Caused me to lose it – to momentarily descend into madness and neglect the basic duties a leader performs in himself as an example to his men.  My rifle was hanging there, right where I left it. I was second-guessing myself.

When leaders second-guess themselves, people die.  I second-guessed myself once, and one of my men paid the price with his life.  I made a decision right quick to snap the fuck out of it, right then and there.  I was losing enough people – I refuse to lose any more.  I’ve got thirteen more months in this tour and I can’t handle more crisis eleven’s…

About anotherwarriorpoet

Mathew Bocian served as a Captain in the United States Army with the Stryker Brigade and was deployed to Mosul and Tal'Afar in 2004 - 2005, and to Baghdad for The Surge in 2007 - 2008. He left the Army in 2012 and now uses his poetry as a way to heal from the traumas of war, while attempting to express to readers the realities of war. He is the recipient of the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, and holds a master's from the Graduate School for Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.
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