A Soldier's Death on a Stunning Day in Iraq
Pentagon correspondent Anna Mulrine was traveling with soldiers of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division one recent afternoon north of Baghdad, in the hotly contested city of Baqubah, when a routine humanitarian mission turned deadly as their convoy was struck by a roadside bomb.
The critical moments before and after the explosion mirror the daily experience of soldiers throughout Iraq, who today are being killed in roadside bombs at a higher rate than at any other time during the war.
When you're riding in a convoy with U.S. soldiers as an embedded reporter here, without looking at an incident map you can generally tell when you're hitting particularly dangerous territory. That's because many of the soldiers will simply tell you that you're hitting particularly dangerous territory. Others just grow a little more silent and a lot more vigilant, helping the driver scan for possible signs of IEDs (improvised explosive devices), guiding him around suspicious stretches of curb, advising him to give the parked car ahead a wide berth.
Frequently punctuating the stretches of silence is the solid sense of humor that it takes to break the tension of braving some of the most dangerous roads in the world, often two and three and four times a day. Spend enough time in Iraq, for example, and you're bound to build up your repertoire of Chuck Norris jokes. One of the common denominators in bases all over the country is that these jokes are extremely popular with soldiers, and especially beloved by soldiers who head out on convoys every day. A few examples:
- Superman wears Chuck Norris pajamas. - When the boogeyman goes to sleep, he checks his closet for Chuck Norris. - There is no such thing as evolutiononly a tiny list of creatures that Chuck Norris decided to let live. - The dinosaurs angered Chuck Norris once. Only once. - When Chuck Norris does a push-up, he's not pushing himself up. He's pushing the Earth down.
I could go on for a while, as I have grown to love these jokes, but you get the point. Suffice it to say that they are a nod to crazy strength and invulnerabilitythe kind (along with a sizable dose of bravery and a solid sense of humor)that it takes to run these convoys.
The soldiers of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division introduced me to Chuck Norris jokes in Baqubah, one of the more dicey places in the country right now.
I was spending the day with their military transition team (MiTT), heading to a town outside the city that, some 24 hours earlier, had been the site of a raid targeting al Qaeda insurgents. We were about to embark on the carrots portion of the operation.
"We're going to try to develop some goodwill," says Lt. Col. Tim Karcher, the brigade's transition team commander, as the MiTT team is loading up the humvees, or trucks as the soldiers tend to call them, with blankets, kerosene, and water. The soldiers will be setting an example for some of their Iraqi Army counterpartssoldiers who, they note, haven't yet quite embraced the idea of carrots.
We stop by the Iraqi Army post nearby to pick up the Iraqi soldiers and their trucks, then head out toward the town. Our humvee also has a bag of a dozen or so stuffed animals. Sgt. Maj. Eddie Del Valle, riding shotgun, has a large teddy bear in mind for a particular young girl who comes out nearly every day to wave at the convoy as it passes. He points her out to Capt. Christopher Whitten, the gunner. He then makes gentle fun of Whitten's throwing skills as he attempts to hurl the bear in her direction.
We head past a place called Mufrek circle along a notorious stretch in Baqubah where every hundred yards or so, sections of the curb are blown out, one of Iraq's countless IED alleys. Ahead, a couple of packs of dogs trot by. We laugh about a soldier who has nicknamed the dog packs the sharks and the jetsand another who has spotted a couple of cats running with one of the dog gangs. Someone points out that if that ridiculous and unlikely group can get along, maybe anyone can.
We then enter one of the silent stretches, the soldiers quietly scanning.
That's when we hear an explosion ahead, very near the front of our convoy.
In times like these, for a few seconds, soldiers simply hold their breath and listen to their radios.
What everyone is hoping to hear is the "all clear, drive ahead," but what comes that late afternoonand what comes every day for soldiers across the country hereis another, more frantic call. It is after about 10 long seconds that this one comes through: "I need a medic! I need a medic!" Karcher is yelling.
The medic is in our humvee.
We speed up the road, all the while Sergeant Major Del Valle, riding shotgun, keeps a close eye out for possible secondary explosions that all too often come on the heels of a first detonation, targeting backup as it arrives.
We soon enter a dense cloud of smoke. Visibility is zero as the hit humvee continues its frantic call for a medic.
We have overshot the truck in the smoke, and so we cross the raised median, drive 50 yards down, then circle back across the median again, all the while looking for the hit humvee. Visibility is still next to nothing as we continue to barrel at top speed through the smoke.
We hear gunfire and more yelling. We drive another 20 yards, then cross the raised median again. As the smoke thins a bit, we spot it. The driver, a soldier from Louisiana, has been hit, and the humvee has veered off the far side of the road.
We pull up beside the hit humvee to give it cover in the midst of gunfire (mostly precautionary Iraqi Army fire, we later learn) and to let out the medic, Sgt. Chester Jones, as his fellow soldiers pull the injured soldier's slumped body out of the blasted driver's-side doora door that bears a perfect hole at head level.
The soldier has been hit by a deadly roadside bomb known as an EFP (explosively formed projectile), increasingly common here, fired with fuel or occasionally plasma that propels the bomb with deadly force and makes it easier to penetrate even armored vehicles. The EFPs are often aimed from the road at an angle, in order to hit their targets at head level.
Another young soldier is hobbling out of the seat behind the driver, his leg injured but intact as American and Iraqi soldiers help him to an Iraqi vehicle in our convoy, which then speeds toward Forward Operating Base Warhorse, the main U.S. military camp in Baqubah.
The young injured driver, on the other hand, is bleeding badly and semiconscious. The soldiers pull him into our humvee and lay him out in the back as I get out to make room. Medic Jones, whom everyone calls Doc, is cradling the young wounded soldier's head and keeping it tilted to the side as he convulses and vomits.
The convoy speeds off to the forward operating base. There is another explosion on the way back, but this time no one is hit.
The sky is streaked with redwhat we'd earlier in the drive agreed was a stunning sunsetas we make it back to Warhorse.
"You just never think something like that is going to happen on a day like this," says our driver, Pvt. Jonathan Glasscock. All of the soldiers in the team are pacing in front of the crisis care unit, some are crying, having just delivered the young driver to the doctor here, where the helicopter will soon arrive to medevac him out.
The doctor comes out to tell Jones, the medic, that he has done a good job, and that the soldier is stabilized. They have made it here in the "platinum 10 minutes," Jones explainswhich is even better than the "golden hour," he adds. The soldiers are exhausted, shaken up, but hopeful. He is stabilized. "For now," Jones says. "You always think you can do more." The rest of his team assures him that he has done everything he can do and more. It is the third head injury he has treated so far in the war.
We get back into the humvee to drive across town to the site of the explosion and pick up Lieutenant Colonel Karcher, who had been riding in the passenger seat of the hit humvee and had stayed behind at the scene with Iraqi Army soldiers to secure the area and guard the damaged humvee. After picking Karcher up, the plan is to drive on to the training team's forward operating base, just down the road from the base of their Iraqi counterparts, where we had begun our trip.
As we pile into the car, the soldiers are silent, thinking, one later says, about what it's like to hold life in your hands. Our gunner, Captain Whitten, recalls holding the soldier's head as he threw up, helping the medic change the soaked head dressings as they sped back to the base.
There is vomit and blood covering the seats and equipment in the back of the humvee as we drive across town. It also covers the one stuffed animal that the soldiers had not handed out to children that day, a yellow baby chick, now bloodstained.
After a few minutes on the road, we begin to talk, the soldiers of their relief that their friend has been stabilized, of their hope that the wounds are more superficial than the blood had initially led them to believe. They pat their driver Glasscock on the back, too, tell him what a good job he did today. "I didn't know a humvee could go that fast," Whitten says.
It is dark now as we approach the site of the detonation. It turns out that the investigations team is having trouble locating the EFP, and the probers need the convoy to point it out. The humvee is silent again as we drive past the site of the blast that happened some 20 minutes earlier. Del Valle, riding shotgun, mentions that the IED today was the third that he has experienced up close in his career. The first two, on a previous deployment, hit within 30 minutes of each other, he says. This fact is very much on his mind, he says later, as we pass the exploded EFP canister and radio the investigations team of the spot's coordinates, waiting for them to arrive before silently driving on.
We all talk, too, just then, about how we could use a drink. The soldiers take turns describing their favorite cocktails, what they would have back at camp tonight if they could (here, alcohol is forbidden to American soldiers, except during the Super Bowl, when soldiers will each get two beers, which they must sign for and then drink on the premises before turning back in their empty bottles). Whitten mentions a good German beer. Del Valle describes a favorite drink that involves crème de cocoa. As we speak there is another blast, a few hundred yards away. No one is hit.
Del Valle and Whitten also talk about how they will need to clean out their friend's room when they get back. He is stable, but, still, they agree, it is going to take him a while to recover, and he might not be back to the war at all. They decide to box up his belongings in the morning, after they take a break tonight.
As we pull into camp, the soldiers get a tarp to cover the hit humvee that has been towed back to the camp by the Iraqi Army. It's not good, psychologically, for the team to have to look at it, one says.
Then everyone gathers in the radio room trailer. Karcher wants to speak with his soldiers.
He has just received news, he says, as the last of the soldiers file into the trailer. The doctors were not able to save the young soldier, their friend.
The wounded soldier has died.
As the team looks at each other, processing the news, Karcher tells them not to be bitter about what has happened. Not to hold it against the Iraqis. "There are good people in those villages," Karcher says.
He also warns them not to hold it against the Iraqi soldiers they are working so hard to train. "Our Iraqi brothers did everything they could today," he adds. The American soldiers agree that the Iraqi Army soldiers who had evacuated the U.S. soldier with the injured leg that day made it to the forward operating base in record time.
As everyone slowly streams out of the meeting trailer, the soldiers head for the dining hall, where everyone tonight sits on one side of the table, facing the large-screen television, eating mostly in silence, drinking mostly near-beers.
Whitten pats a napkin against his fat lip, which he smacked against the turret of the humvee during the frantic minutes after the explosion.
Later, Del Valle and Whitten head over to a little shop on their small basenicknamed the Haji shopwhere they play chess on a weather-worn white plastic lawn table. The shop's owner knows it has been a tough day for the team and makes them tea and brings warm bread. He also advises them against imprudent chess moves as the two play and talk about those first long seconds after the explosion.
"You know when you get the call that someone is hurt. You don't know who it was, but you know everyone in the group," says Del Valle, who has been in the Army for 22 years. "You hear over the radio, 'I need a medic! I need a medic!' And you think about your own family members, what they would do if you were hurt."
He had other thoughts, too. "A lot of the time there are multiple IEDs in one spot. I was thinking, 'Are we going to run over another one?' "
It's tough on the team, they say, in so many ways. "I'll tell you what," says Del Valle. "The more time we spend togetherit's so hard." He looks at Whitten, who has become his chess partner and friend. "I think sometimes," Del Valle continues, as he stretches out his arm toward Whitten, "that I need to keep him away."
The closeness, the two agree, is daunting when you know you could lose someone so quickly. "I assume, the more time we spend here ...," begins Del Valle, and his voice trails off. "As a leader, we have to hide those emotions. Our soldiers cannot see them," he adds.
They talk about the soldier whom they lost that night, Sgt. Jay R. Gauthreaux, 26, of Thibodaux, La.
"He was such a happy person," Whitten says. "It was a running jokehow he would stay up all night, learning these systems."
Gauthreaux was in communications and had a great sense of humor. He was also a diehard fan of the New Orleans Saints.
"You start having flashbacks of your relationship with the guy," says Del Valle. "That was a great American."
They think, too, about what a soldier's death in Iraq means to people back home, whether anyone notices the daily losses.
"Our soldiers here are giving 100 percent for every American guy back in the States," says Del Valle. "It makes you wonder, does anybody really appreciate what that guy gave up today?" adds Whitten.
For Whitten, who has been on active duty for 3½ years, it was the first time he had seen an injury.
"I was holding his head while the doc was working," he says.
Del Valle has been thinking about his family all night.
"You get in the humvee every day because that's the job that's feeding your family. I also believe in what we're doing here," he adds.
Today, Del Valle says, "I saw the Iraqi soldiers doing everything they could to help us." They are impressed that Karcher stayed back with the humvee and only the Iraqi soldiers, as the other Americans drove the injured back to the base. "We've been here two months and we've already got that trust," says Whitten.
"That's what's so beautiful about what we do," agrees Del Valle. He then pauses for a moment. "But, I think, when I get back, it's time for me to retire. If I get back."