In the view of this low-ranking reservist — take what I say with a grain of salt — I fully expect that we’ll see a leveling off, and as part of that leveling off, we’ll still see suicide bombings, IEDs, and firefights.
But in July 2008, in Diyala, we were still a long way from hitting that “baseline” level. Fighting still raged, and our missions never seemed to end. During these high-tempo operations, one of the signature command missions was the “battlefield circulation,” where a commander visited the guys in the field, talked to the locals, and generally got a firsthand look at the fight. On occasion, I would go with the commander. We had launched Operation Sabre Pursuit II, the latest attack south, and our executive officer, Major Cantlon, was in command while the squadron commander was on leave. I was deployed forward at a patrol base during the first few days of the operation, and on day two he asked me to come with him as we took a look around.
We drove down the roads to link up with Fox Troop, past villages we’d already secured and into the new sector. As we drove, the villages around us all showed signs of life. Children were playing outside, small markets were functioning, and there were Iraqi Army and police checkpoints everywhere. After a few kilometers, however, that all changed. The villages went from alive to dead — literally.
These areas had been held by al-Qaeda for a very long time. The people had slowly left or been killed, buildings were booby-trapped, and the countryside was littered with munitions. It was like crossing over a border from a functioning (though poor) society to the land of Mad Max, the post-apocalyptic dystopia of Mel Gibson’s Road Warrior.
It was against this background that we approached a small village that we called “Objective Rhode Island.” I don’t know what the locals called it. As we walked forward, we had already heard the intelligence reports. The place was deserted.
Apparently, al-Qaeda had killed every living person in the village many months ago, leaving behind only bullet-scarred walls and blood-covered floors.
From my vantage point, the place looked like any other, but with smoke curling up from small fires set in the underbrush to burn out any hidden weapons caches. I was near the back of the group, because I was one of the last out of the vehicles and because, frankly, I was struggling a bit in the heat. We’d been out all day, and the temperature was approaching 130 degrees.
We approached the village in silence, crossed through a burning canal (taking advantage of a small break in the flames) and around a corner. Most of the rest of our small group was already deep into the village.
Then . . .
The canal behind me exploded. Well, the whole canal didn’t explode, but a small, hidden weapons cache did. The sound was loud enough to cause my ears to ring, and I could literally feel the sound in my chest. I thought, If I’d only passed through the canal a few seconds later . . .
Then my mind immediately shifted to something else. The heat. The thought process went something like this: Wow, did I almost get blown up? Where’s some shade? In fact, the reaction of the entire group was almost casual. Guys’ heads jerked up, they glanced around quickly to make sure no one was hurt, then they continued the search for shade. For the guys out there every day, an explosion was just another day at the office. For me — at the time — it was just a startling interruption in my quest for shade and a place to sit.
In fact, the heat kept dominating my thoughts even as I moved back to the FOB and talked to Nancy via instant messenger. I signed on first.
She responded. “Hey! How r u?”
“So hot.” (She had no sense of perspective on this response.)
“I mean, you have no idea.”
“I know. I’m sorry. How was your day?”
“Kind of interesting. I think I almost got blown up today.”