Soldiers Tell True Stories of their War

November 14th, 2006 - by admin

Trish Wood / San Francisco Chronicle – 2006-11-14 08:33:42

“How did it come to this madness and chaos?”

(November 12, 2006) — The AAV (amphibious assault vehicle) belonged to Charley Company and was racing away from their fight at the northern bridge with casualties for medevac. They had been hit hard and had headed through Ambush Alley looking for help from us at our position. We all knew it was very, very serious when a young Marine fell out of the back of the vehicle and he was on fire.

The vehicle came to a rolling halt right in front of us, not more than 30 meters away, and I saw the crewmen who were on fire but still moving. They were hanging out of the hatches or maybe trying to climb out, and the men that were in the back were falling out, and they were on fire. There were seven to nine Marines in there. … Doc and I ran over, and I’ll never forget how dumb we were because we didn’t have our helmets or flak vests or anything — not even our weapons, just his medical pack.

The first thing I saw was the severed leg of a Marine lying on the ramp, so I picked that up, and I handed it to Doc. I said, “Lay this off to the side because we’re going to find who that belongs to.” I thought that if the Marine is still alive, the leg could be reattached.

There was black smoke billowing out, and we could barely see, but we started triage, and I went to pull a Marine out of the back, and as I was pulling him, his upper torso separated from his bottom torso, and all I had in my hands was his upper body. I handed Doc half of a Marine and said, “Put this in the back of the Humvee because Marines don’t leave our dead and wounded on the battlefield; everybody comes home.”

Even if it’s a piece of you, I have a responsibility to your mom and dad to bring everything back.” So, the Marine grabbed it, and his eyes were wide open, but he did exactly what he was told to do. … We went digging around and found a live Marine underneath two bodies. They were lying on top of him, so we pulled them off and looked down, and from the base of this guy’s neck, all the way up to the top of his forehead, it looked like somebody had just taken a saber and cut his head open. We got him up, and Doc pinched the skin of his head together, and we started to try to pull him out of this vehicle, but we couldn’t do it. We worked in there for what somebody said later was almost 45 minutes. Getting him out of the vehicle took about three or four of the Marines who had showed up. We yanked him out of there and put him into the back of my


— Justin LeHew, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment “Task Force Tarawa,” March-June 2003, Nasiriya, recipient of Navy Cross. LeHew served a second tour of Iraq from May 2004 to February 2005.

“It’s the cold, blunt truth. There was a little girl that died.”

There was a car bomb that — what happened was, there’s an Iraqi police station and right next to it was, like, a coffee shop, and a lot of the police officers would go there to get coffee in the mornings. There were a lot of civilians in that area. And a car bomb just drove up and just indiscriminately killed everybody there — cops and civilians. And these explosions that happen are just so enormous that body parts can fly up to a hundred meters away.

And so we got to the scene, we checked it out; we were trying to secure it. There was a lot of chaos, a lot of s — going on at the time. And I was in my truck scanning from my machine gun, and I’m scanning for anything that could happen because that’s part of the job, just sitting there scanning. And then looking over and on the side of the street there was — there was a little girl’s foot. Well, I think it was a girl because it looked like a little pink sandal, but there was a foot still in it. A little pink sandal with a little flower or something on it.

The shoe was so small I’m imagining the girl was no older than 6, and just the foot was still in it, smoldered, you know, burned and smoldered and just sitting there on the side of the road. The body parts … I don’t know. It’s not a video game. It’s very real. But you think about — this was a little girl. She was obviously innocent. No way you could accuse a child that young of being guilty. And her life was snuffed out in a second just from being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

There’s no way to get emotional about it. Like I said, you’re just numb to it, you know, and just, like, there’s no crying about it. A lot of soldiers joke about it. Look at that little foot and the bastard child that got blown up, but I guarantee that soldier thinks about it a little bit more deeper than that. I don’t really know how to explain it any other way. It’s just a great numbness that creeps over everybody. But you know, it did cross my mind later, like, well, that’s pretty disgusting, I should have been more grossed out. I hope I’m not f — up in the head. I mean, it’s just dealing with death every day.

— Jeff Englehart, 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, February 2004-February 2005, Diyala province

“It is gruesome to just beyond the realm of a horror film.”

We had a lot of pretty bad IEDs (improvised explosive devices), but for me the one that really marked it was an army unit that got hit by an IED in a drainage culvert.

It was right on the outside of Habbaniya. They had filled a drainage culvert with explosives and blew up an armored personnel carrier. We knew we were in the s — at that point because when we drove up to the scene, the hole in the road was so big that an Abrams tank on the scene couldn’t drive over the hole; it had to go around it. … There were the remains of four or five guys spread out over 600 square yards. We had to walk a grid. It was just like a police scene.

We had different-color flags that marked personal belongings, whether it was a wallet or a picture or anything like that. We had to take photos of the scene so that if it ever had to be reconstructed, they could reconstruct it. It was so huge that when I stood up on the Humvee with the camera to take a picture, there are thousands of these flags in the field, and it’s just surreal knowing that all those flags represent something.

We had done some recoveries, and this was our biggest one the whole time we were there. It became the landmark event for us. Everything got treated as reverently as if it were a whole body. Even if it was just a leg or an arm or, God forbid, a hand or, you know, a torso … everything got treated the same. If you put four Marines to work on a body, then you had four Marines doing the paperwork on a leg, and it got its own body bag and its own tag, and it got carried onto the plane on its own stretcher just as a full body would be.

So if you got … you know, nine arms and 10 legs and parts of another one, those would all go in separate bags home. We’d get them all in the same plane so that they all would get home together at the same time, but every part got its own bag. The chaplain said prayers over the body parts. I don’t think he saw the s — in Vietnam that he got to see in our unit, but he was an awesome old man. He came over no matter what time it was.

If it wasn’t ashes blowing in the wind, we grabbed it. I mean, we recovered bodies out of a burnt helicopter that literally were just cremated. I mean, they were vertebrae and ribs, and the only reason we knew we had two was because we counted the vertebrae and there were too many vertebrae to be one. Our chaplain prayed over that. The sad part is it’s someone’s son and that’s all you’ve got left. … We were at one recovery scene and there was a piece of paper blowing around in the breeze, so we picked it up. It was a sonogram of a baby.

It was dated and that poor guy never saw his kid. He had it with him, but it was blowing around in the field, so we picked it up. I remember the chief warrant officer looking at me and he just couldn’t say anything at the time; I think we would’ve both lost it. He had the thing in his hand and we’re looking at it and we just looked at each other, put it in a box, and … decided to deal with it when we get back to base.

— Daniel B. Cotnoir, Mortuary Affairs, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, February-September 2004, Sunni Triangle, Marine Corps Times “Marine of the Year.”

“In war, the best of you shines.”

There was actually one dog that we almost had to shoot because he was standing next to a body, eating it, and as we went to go pick it up he stood there growling at us and he wouldn’t let us come near it. I think someone threw a rock or something and shooed him away. But then there were other dogs that would run through the city with human feet in their mouths and other things.

I was pretty desensitized at the time. It actually didn’t register as it should have. … I mean, a dog running through the city with a femur in its mouth. It should have registered as something a lot more than it actually did. It just seemed reasonable at the time that a dog would try to chew on the bodies.

— Dominick King, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, August 2004-March 2005, Fallujah. King served an earlier tour in Iraq from March to June 2003.

“There’s going to be an uprising here soon.”

We knew there was going to be a civil war in November ’03. We said, “It’s coming. There’s going to be an uprising here soon.” And you could feel it in the streets. Muqtada al Sadr’s militia started these protests. … These guys were wearing masks all the time.

November ’03 was about the six-month period for us, and we hadn’t yet provided adequate water, sewage and electricity to the Iraqis. So, all of a sudden, we were no longer “America the liberator.” Now, we’re the invaders who can’t supply what we’re supposed to be giving them.

Their attitudes toward us changed. It’s hard to explain. It was more of a feeling. Examples: On a patrol in June of ’03, we drive on the streets, and you’d get around to neighborhoods where people would be out there clapping and cheering and giving you thumbs-up and saying, “Go, Bush,” and thanking you for what you’re doing. You could stop by, you could walk into a tea shop, and people would be more interested in what can you provide us than hating you.

By that November, we wouldn’t go into a tea shop without a force because we didn’t know what to expect. That first summer, I would walk around the schools, myself and my sergeant, while my guys were outside, having no fear at all and no worry that we were putting the kids at the school in danger just by being there. That changed. Once the Iraqis realized that we weren’t providing what we were supposed to be providing, and we started to be seen as the enemy, then going to the schools would put the children in danger.

It was weird, because the Iraqis weren’t hostile toward us one-on-one.

They never did that. Sometimes there was anger, but we were the guys with the guns. They weren’t the guys with guns, at least when we had them one-on-one.

— Jonathan Powers, “The Gunners,” 1st Armored Division, May 2003-July 2004, “Gunner Palace,” Baghdad.

“We just killed a bunch of dudes who were on our side.”

We were firing at them with small arms, and the Iraqis’ truck got shot up. I noticed in the corner of my eye a civilian vehicle, a white kind of like Cadillac-looking vehicle, driving directly into the firefight, and before they must have realized it they were just in the center of the firefight and they thought that the easiest way through it was to just floor it and get by.

The crew behind me freaked out when he saw the vehicle just speeding and it was hauling ass toward us, and one of our guys opened fire and I saw the windshield kind of spider and turn white after it broke.

I saw a lot of blood and the vehicle shot off the edge of the road almost immediately, just jerked and went away from us off the side of the road.

We found out later there was a man cowering off the side of the road. The road kind of dipped down into a dirty embankment with a lot of brush.

And a man that was there when the firefight started must have been hiding down there because he had a bicycle right behind him. He must have been riding his bike and just dropped the bike and dove down into this ditch. The car ended up running him over and killing him, and the car stopped in the dirt. I think the driver died almost immediately, but I think there was another man in the vehicle that fell out the door facing away from us. I started firing my M60 because I saw movement on the ground there and they were yelling that there were shots coming from our left and I couldn’t see anybody else.

For an instant I thought that somebody from the car was firing back at us. I didn’t really think that they were any sort of insurgent or anything.

I was thinking that this guy just got shot up, you know, and now he must think that he has to fight to get out of this. My weapon wouldn’t fire a burst and I was basically sitting up here on this truck almost sniping at the movement that I see down near the tires. There’s a lot of smoke and wreckage and it’s hard to see, but the firefight had calmed down to a point where we were just sitting there.

There was a difficult moment where I’d stopped firing and the combat just died down. So the Iraqi army guys finally got a couple trucks together and they came up from behind us, and once they got on the scene and saw what was happening, they started freaking out. We didn’t know why exactly, at first. Then we learned that the guys we shot weren’t insurgents but the deputy governor’s bodyguards. The moment I heard it, I was just like — f — ! I mean, I was just — I was just floored — I was just — you know, I couldn’t believe it — I couldn’t believe that.

The guys we shot probably thought at first when we got there, “Great, the Americans are here, cool.” They look back and all of a sudden they’re getting shot to s — . I was like, what the f — did we just do? You know what I mean — we have three dead Iraqis that were the deputy governor’s bodyguards, two dead civilians and one injured civilian. I mean, everybody got shot that was there. There wasn’t a single person that didn’t get hit by either shrapnel from a grenade or shot multiple times. I think there were two guys that actually lived that were Iraqi bodyguards, I think — each of them was shot twice and they still lived.

I was so angry. When we got back, some of the guys were laughing about it. Some of the guys, it was their first time in combat and they were excited about it because they felt like they went through some rite of passage. I’m just thinking, You guys are f — idiots. You know what I mean? We just killed a bunch of f — dudes who were on our side! I asked one of them, “Would you be so happy if they were Americans?”

And he just looked at me like, “Why the f — are you s — on my parade?”

I saw one of the guys a few months later, one of the guys that we’d shot. A guy came up to us and he had a buddy and he was limping and he showed us a huge scar. His buddy who spoke better English said he was telling us, You did this, you guys did this. He was kind of proud of the scar — very bizarre people. I think they were just going up to the Americans and saying, like, “You’re the Americans; you did this to my friend.”

— Garett Reppenhagen, cavalry scout/snipe, 2-63 Armored Battalion, 1st Infantry Division, February 2004-February 2005, Baquba.

“If I died, I died.”

At the Marine Corps funerals here in Connecticut, I always volunteer to present the flag. Some of the guys hate presenting, but I like it.

Everything we do at the graveside is ceremonial slow. Instead of the normal salute and cut — that’s what we call it — we hold the salute and bring it back down slowly. Once they lower the casket into the ground, myself and the other Marine begin the flag folding. We each take a spot at the head or the foot of the casket. When I am the one who will present the flag, I stand at the head of the casket because that is where the stars are. The stars with the blue background are always over the heart of the deceased. The stars are always over the heart for love of country.

Once the religious service is over, myself and the other Marine grab the corners of the flag and hold it up in the air about chest height, stretch it out above the casket while taps plays. That’s usually when everybody gets really emotional. … The funerals are a reality check. They are a constant reminder that life is fragile. I have so many friends whom I’m so close to, and if they died I would be such a mess.

When a young Marine dies, I wonder if he had a girlfriend. When I do the funerals of young Marines who get killed in Iraq, I feel like I should be back over there. I should be with them. If I died, I died. That’s my job. That’s a big part of why I joined. If I died doing something that I liked to do, people should just be happy for me.

We’re protecting freedoms all over the world.

— Joseph Darling, flag presenter, Connecticut Marine Corps funerals. Darling did two tours of Iraq. His first was from March to July 2003. He returned in January to September 2005.

From the 2006 book What Was Asked of Us: An Oral History of the Iraq War by the Soldiers Who Fought It, by Trish Wood. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co., New York. All rights reserved.

©2006 San Francisco Chronicle

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