First Contact

All in all, despite the journal entries I had made and the memories I still have, the first few days of life in Mosul are blurry to me. Specific incidents stick in my head more-so than others. I try my very best to see them clear but they are getting hazy at best. The below described incidents are taken almost word for word from my journal from the time.

The way the Army conducts itself in these situations (one unit coming to replace the other that is) is known as RIP/TOA- this simply meaning Relief In Place followed by Transfer Of Authority. Simple concept: Arrive in Theater, spend a week or so riding along with the guys currently on the ground and watching what they do. Then you usually have a big meeting to discuss how you watched these guys do what they do and then for about a week they ride along with you and watch how you do it, coaching if need be. Finally when everyone had a warm and fuzzy feeling that they’re doing it right (or about three weeks pass, whichever comes first) there is a TOA and your new unit is now officially in charge of the battle space. The guys you replaced go home and then there you are, doing your thing in Iraq for the next year. I spent a lot of time trying to learn from 1LT Mike “S.” who was my counterpart in 1-14 Cavalry. Our men talked to his men, and more importantly because we had no Stryker’s whatsoever we rode around on missions with them every day and watched what they did.

I recall the very first time that I left the wire in Mosul ever. Day 2: It was an afternoon patrol scheduled for a 1500 departure. FOB Marez sat on the South-west side of the Tigris river in Mosul. Coincidentally it was also on the South-western side of the city. So, what I am saying is that to the relative West of the FOB there wasn’t a whole lot else- a few outskirts and some roads leading out of town. There was a point due-west of the city called Destiny Range. It was some blocked-off area of the desert that at one point was an old range for the Iraqi Army under the Saddam regime. If you wanted to test-fire your rifles or the crew-served weapons on the Stryker you had to drive out there to do it. Destiny was only a fifteen minute drive out of the city, about sixteen kilometers or so, maybe twenty. The mission was to conduct a patrol to Destiny Range, test-fire our personal weapons and the crew-served weapons on the Stryker’s, and then to do a recon to and from a place called FOB Aggies. FOB Aggies was a small combat outpost South of Mosul on the West side of the river that overlooked a town called Hammam al-Alil. That was a nasty little town and the men of FOB Aggies can tell you all about life there (or lack there of) living in squalor and dealing with daily attacks.

We left Marez out of the Northern Entry Control Point (ECP) and made our way into the Baghdad Traffic Circle. As we rolled out of the gate we passed a destroyed mass of concrete that had at one point been some kind of archway or entrance to the Saddam-era FOB Marez. We wheeled around and headed West out of town. For our soldiers this was the first or second time leaving the wire. I had figured that from images on TV and in magazines Iraq would look to me like some town in India where there would be too many people and not enough accommodations. When I got my first real good look at Iraq I saw dilapidated buildings and squatter homes; hodge-podge mixes of brick and mortar coupled with tin roofs. Regular structures like apartment buildings and so forth seemed structurally sound but were pock-marked with bullets from battle. Windows were broken and shop signs shattered, cracked or worn and faded.

The curbs and the sidewalks were busted up and cracked. Trash was everywhere- I mean everywhere. Plastic bags, empty water bottles, food wrappers, food itself- piles of week old rice with bread- cardboard boxes and old rags and shoes- literally just trash everywhere. In back alleys between buildings water and sewage ran in gutters and stagnated in pools. The entire country smelled like burning plastic to me. I learned early on that the number one hobby for men in Iraq is to stand around and stare at you and look tough as you drive by. It was one-hundred and one degrees outside and yet the men wore long dish-dasha (‘man dress’) or sweat pants and t shirts. Some wore slacks and shirts. Most wore dirty rags. I remember particularly a thicker middle aged man walking from one building to the next, wearing an Orange jump suit that had a yellow band with blue trim stripe across the chest. He glared at our convoy as we rolled by, probably muttering under his breath. I knew these people had seen Stryker’s for over a year but by the look of it they’d have thought you just landed from the moon.

We continued on around passed an IP Checkpoint that led out of the city on Route Sante Fe. The checkpoint was surrounded on all sides by tall concrete T-walls that were painted blue and white. On my right side was a row of shops that lined the street, all of their metal shop gates closed. The top level above them were apartments who’s windows were mostly boarded up or broken out. On my left was the Northern-most perimeter of the FOB which contained a tall chain-link fence topped with razor wire. Beyond that was a concrete wall that had guard towers spaced out every hundred meters or so. Some looked manned, some didn’t. We drove on and out of town past an old Iraqi Barracks that now looked partially abandoned and uninhibited. That was pretty much it. Then it opened up to rolling dirt fields and mounds. The road was two lane with a dirt median separating outbound and inbound traffic. Cars pulled over to the side of the road as our convoy approached them.

As we left the city I noticed a black BMW pull across the median and begin to drive down the opposite lane. The oncoming cars didn’t seem to mind as this car began to gun it. The rear vehicle immediately called it up on the net: “I got a Black BMW going counter-flow.” We kept our eye on it as it began to gain on us. I kept my eyes fixed on it. I didn’t want to focus solely on it in case I missed something else in my sector of vision but at the same time I kept thinking to myself ‘Ok this is it- this is a S-VBIED’ (or Suicide Vehicle-Bourne Improvised Explosive Device: car bomb). I looked away and quickly scanned the rest of my sector, only seeing more cars pulling over as we made our way down the road and nothing our of place on the side of the road. I went back to BMW as someone announced on the net that he was speeding up again. The last to vehicles in the convoy trained their .50 caliber’s on him as well as the M4’s from the guys riding in the hatch. He backed off but then sped up again. I was waiting for it just to careen over the dirt median and explode somewhere between my Stryker and the Stryker behind us.

Three quick shots rang out- ‘pop pop pop’. The unmistakable sound of an M4, SSG “Gutt” had trained his rifle and fired three warning shots on the road directly in front of the vehicle. This got the drivers attention and he backed off, and returned to the correct side of the road- a technique within the rules of engagement that practiced escalation of force. We perceived a threat and when pointing our weapons and throwing up hand signals failed to work waning shots were used. Luckily for this guy he realized he was making a mistake and cut back, or the next shots would have been into his engine block and then windshield. We had no idea that driving on the opposite side of the road was normal for these people when they wanted to get around traffic. (there are no real traffic rules).

My heart was still racing from the possibility. I went back to scanning my sector when the truck in the lead announced that we were going to miss the turn. All of this had happened so fast that we didn’t pay attention to the map and the turn off for Destiny was approaching. Fate was on our side that day because no sooner than I had passed the turn, out of the corner of my eye I caught a large plume of black/gray smoke. The vibrations in my chest caught me off guard as the boomph of the explosion rose three times the height of the Stryker that was behind me. I was second in the order of march and the truck behind me, third in line was our fire support vehicle, or FSV, callaign “Thunder 4-6.  The radio crackled to life. “Contact Left, IED, Out!” I quickly scanned my head right back to my sector and began to look for a secondary explosion, or perhaps somebody running away. Adrenaline surged through my body.

‘Oh my God’ – it hit me; I said to myself, ‘I can’t believe this is real- someone is trying to kill me right now. This is it, it’s real!’ I admit, when the blast first went off, I was scared. Terrified is more like it. I realized that yes, right now this is a war zone and I am in it. There are people out there I cannot see and cannot easily identify that are actively tryin to kill me right this very second. My eyes darted all over. My enemy wouldn’t emerge from the side of the road or from buildings, uniformed and say ‘hey I am the bad guy’. They looked no different from the entire civilian populous.  They would hide by broke down cars, in huts, or on hills a distance away waiting for the opportune moment to set off their roadside bomb. There was a small roadside stand with a vendor in it and two parked cars with the occupants buying pop- but by the time we had hit the IED they were well behind us. All I saw was sand dunes.

The radio chatter picked up. “We need to stop!” “No, roll outside of the kill box, it may be an ambush!” “What’s the grid? I need a grid!” So many voices.  I kept scanning and then looked back at the Stryker behind me. It kept rolling and didn’t seem to be damaged. “We have one wounded! Lacerations to the face.” We ground the convoy down to a halt and were about a good kilometer from where the IED went off. As soon as the convoy was stopped each Stryker kicked itself out in a ‘herringbone’ formation to stop traffic and maximize gun coverage. The ramps on the Stryker’s began to drop. Because our Stryker’s have a metal ‘bird cage’ around them (slat armor that looks like Venetian blinds to defeat Rocket-Propelled Grenades, or RPG’s) the hydraulic ramp makes a ‘ting’ sound as the little metal feet on the rear piece of slat armor hits the ground. We began to dismount and establish 360 degree security. The medic and I ran to the FSV. He jumped into the back of the Stryker and they quickly raised the ramp to protect the casualty. It was 1LT Ray, our Fire Support Officer. I caught a glimpse of what seemed like blood raining down his head and chest. Traffic had stopped in all directions and stayed far back- Iraqi’s had seen this many times and know what to do to avoid getting shot.

Holy Christ man – this is the real deal. I was trying to shadow my counterpart. It not really learning much because I was trying to recall our own training scenarios pre-deployment which were nothing like what was unfolding before us. There’s the way you’re taught before you go, and then there’s the way things get done in theater.

My boots beat the pavement as I made my rounds to all of the five Stryker’s in the convoy. Our Troop Commander had been with his counterpart in the 4th vehicle and he was in his hatch talking on the radio to Squadron giving them reports no doubt. We quickly loaded up and turned around and headed back to the FOB on the double. I hunkered down in my hatch behind the sandbags. The gunner sits in the front right of the Stryker in his turret. The rest of us have to stand in the back; there are two air-guard hatches. The vehicle commander stands in the left and his dismount stands in the right. Because you are relatively exposed, 1-14 had reinforced the air-guard hatches by making use of the Slat Armor- the top of which provided a good place to lay a two-by-four, or some metal pickets.

On top of those a ‘crows nest’ of sandbags was created to give the guys in the hatch a little more protection from roadside bombs. I admit, on the trip back past the exact same spot where the IED had gone off I could barely see over my sandbags. I was riding low in the hatch, just waiting for the next explosion or the machinegun fire to open up. It never did and we rolled back past the IP checkpoint, around the Baghdad traffic circle and into the North ECP of the FOB. And straight to the aid station. Everybody gathered around Thunder 4-6 as the ramp came down. The medics were standing by. 1LT Ray emerged shaken, looking very frightened and unaware of what really just happened. He had three small nicks on his left cheek around his mouth and below his eye. They looked like bad pimples I thought. He was quite ok. He took three small pieces of shrapnel to the face, one additional piece stopping when it his the throat-guard on his body armor (I wore my throat-guard on ever single mission after that, mind you). Blood stained his vest and his DCU top. The medics had stripped it to make sure he had no other holes anywhere. Ray was a pretty chunky guy so there was a lot of surface area the medics wanted to check. He didn’t and at the end of the day LT Ray had what amounted to three really bad shaving cuts that bled like the dickens at first but stopped. The medics took out two small slivers of metal from his cheek and he was left physically fine with only some little pimple-looking cuts, and paperwork for a Purple Heart to go with the memories. Ray subsequently found excuses never to leave the wire again after that (well… ok I think he went on 2 more missions but shook like a leaf each time; no discredit to him – just the facts).

In hindsight had we not missed the turn the IED would still have hit us, but it was placed in the dirt median at a proximity that if we were slowed down to make the turn the trigger-man would have had more time to time his shot and the explosion might have done more damage and caused more injuries to Ray or others on that truck. God helped us out a little bit on that one. Even though we were all Cav Scouts, no one made fun of the lead truck for missing that turn. On any other day we would have, but not today. That night I sat in my bed pondering the entire day. I had been scared, true- but this far being mortared (came our first night in Mosul) didn’t hold a candle to being IED’ed.

Of course, I hadn’t really experienced the full effect of ‘being mortared’ just yet- and that IED didn’t strike my vehicle. I was just there, perhaps an intended target but after it was said and done, I was just an observer. I kept getting that sinking feeling that with like two days down and 363 more to go I will find out just what that is like. Neil knew that feeling. He had told me in a letter his tank had struck 34 IED’s without a single person hurt. I guess 35 was his number. And don’t get me wrong, I was in no hurry to experience that but the pessimist in me was coming out. This was war; it was no landing on Normandy Beach, but for me I felt it was a pretty good introduction to Iraq and the reality of the deadly challenges associated with our task here.

Oh what those next 363 days would bring…

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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5 Responses to First Contact

  1. My pulse is racing just reading that. Your writing is incredible – I feel like I am seeing what you saw.

    Like

  2. Thank you very much for your service. I can sense the frustration and fear you guys feel when serving a tour of duty in Iraq.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Andrew Davis says:

    Jesus. So awesome you could keep a journal. What a visceral experience! Intense writing, as always.

    Like

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