Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Jeff's Closure

We were coming back to base one day after some mission. Eight vehicles in our convoy. I think I was in the 6th that time, driving.

Less than a click (kilometer) from base, the humvee two in front of me suddenly disappears in a fireball. The first thing I’m thinking is, ‘is anybody alive? Who was in the gun this time?’ You get a real tight feeling in your gut when this happens – and this wasn’t the first time.

We all rolled to a stop, and as the flames died away we could see the truck still sitting there, no movement. God, they’re all dead, I’m thinking. I saw our corpsman (Navy medic) running back from truck two. It was in slow motion. By the time he got there, we had all dismounted and started looking for a triggerman, but I didn’t see anybody anywhere. It was freakin’ silent. Nothing. We’re just driving along and the car on the side of the road blows up. We should have noticed it, too. They’d set it up to look broken down, but they’d been too obvious. The back end was jacked up and a tire was off, but the hood was open, too. We didn’t catch it, but we should have.

By the time I looked back at the humvee that got hit, Doc had three guys lined up on the ground – they looked like they were napping or something. Or dead. I couldn’t tell. Then the first two trucks in our convoy took off onto a side road. I think they saw some strange movement across the field – maybe the triggerman. The lieutenant probably wouldn’t have let them go with just two trucks, but he was lying on the ground next to the vehicle that got hit.

The guys sat up next to the humvee, so I guess they were okay. I found out later that one got hit in the back of his head with a pea-sized piece of shrapnel – he still said it felt like somebody pitched a softball at his head. It went in right under his helmet. The rest of the turret armor was peppered with hits. He was lucky. The driver got a small piece in his cheek, and I think the doctors ended up just leaving it there for some reason. Maybe it would have made a larger scar to dig out of his face. He was okay though, too. Lieutenant wasn’t hit, and neither was the radio guy, which was good. I think the Lt was back on the radio getting EOD (explosive ordinance disposal) to come out and do a post-blast analysis. They’d also need a wrecker to tow that truck back, since both of the left tires were shredded. I’m not sure if it ran anymore either.

I heard an explosion somewhere off to the front and right – like a few kilometers away. Either another unit just got hit, or some IED-maker just blew up his basement. Probably us getting hit though. They only seemed to blow themselves up at night in our area.

Meanwhile the sergeant in my truck is trying to radio ahead to the front two trucks and see if they found anything – he tried repeatedly, but got nothing on the radio, which was strange.

Our sister unit finally brought out EOD and hung around for added security. Good thing we’d had them come out, since there was another IED buried in the dirt a little further in front of the fourth truck. I don’t know if it didn’t go off when it was supposed to, or maybe the triggerman was waiting for us to all climb out and see what’s going on – and then hit more of us. Either way, EOD found it and backed everybody up to do a controlled detonation.

Suddenly, I see a single TOW truck (TOW missile humvee) come flying up from the same side road that the first two vehicles had left to go down earlier. The gun is empty. I have no idea where the driver is. The front windshield is shattered on the driver’s side. They disappear onto base and that’s all we saw of them. A few moments later our sister unit peels off from our cordon and heads out in the direction that truck had come from. We didn’t see them for a long time.

After what seemed like forever, EOD detonated the IED that was still buried on the roadside, and the rest of us limped the 500 meters back to base – we were still missing the first two trucks, but I figured they’d already gotten back and parked – or maybe they had a detainee they were dropping off.

The Lt radioed to all of us to stage our vehicles right inside the gate, so we did, and circled up for whatever debriefing he wanted to do. There were only two people in his truck now – him and the radio guy. I guess somebody had evacuated the two guys with shrapnel already – it’s not like they had far to go anyway.

So, we’re down two personnel from truck four, and trucks one and two are still missing. We walked up to the Lieutenant. He looked miserable.

He told us that the two guys in his truck were going to be just fine, and that the first two humvees had driven off to the west a few kilometers to see if they could find anything. They were hit by a another daisy-chain (multiple IEDs rigged to detonate simultaneously). The first vehicle was completely disabled, the guy in the turret got knocked out, but he was going to be okay. The guy in the front passenger’s seat got some shrapnel in his shoulder, but he was going to be okay, too. He’d already been flown out. Then the Lt’s lip started trembling. The third guy, our squad leader, didn’t make it.

That TOW truck we’d seen tearing back onto base was ours – and they were trying to save our squad leader. But he was hit badly and died instantly – from what we later learned.

We all just walked back to our trucks, drove to the house, and parked. Nobody said anything.

When the IED had gone off, it detonated between the first and second vehicle, sending shrapnel into the front of the second, but through the rear fender of the first. There was no armor there, and it went through like butter. After it killed our squad leader, it kept going and grazed the guy in front of him. Since the first vehicle was completely disabled, the guys in the second left a few Marines with the first truck – which was now starting to burn, and drove the casualties back to base. They worked on my squad leader the whole way, but it hadn’t helped. My buddy told me that he died in his arms. 'He had his eyes open, but he looked really young all the sudden, like a child.'

Two hours later the entire company stood in formation when the brought in the choppers to return his body to the states. We all stood at attention as they took off. We didn’t have anything to do but fix up the trucks, so I went down to the motor pool to get a loaner humvee to replace the first one, and we swapped out a new windshield for the second.

We went out on another mission later that night, juggling people so we had enough to fill each truck.

I don’t even know where they buried my squad leader, actually. I think he was from California, but I’m not sure. I don’t even know where his wife is now, either, or their two kids. We wanted to be there for the funeral, but there was no way they’d let a whole unit go home for it. They allowed one man to go home – his cousin, who was also in the unit. I think we never get closure to these things if we don’t see the funeral, but I’m not sure if it would make it better or worse. At least we’d be able to keep in touch with his family, though. We’d been in-country for only about a month and a half when this happened, and we were already down three guys. One made a full recovery, one could never bend his arm again, and one was dead - all three from IEDs. By the time we left that tour, we only had two guys in some of the trucks. Two. I think we lost about 20 from our battalion that tour. And at least one company was combat ineffective by the time we went home. It was, by far, my hardest tour.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


  1. Don't stop now. You are on to something. If they don't like this one, something is wrong with them.

  2. Please tell me these blogs will be published in a book before too long. There are many people who would benefit from reading these stories.

  3. His hardest tour, but not his only tour. Charting morale, where do subsequent tours rank? Does it get worse and worse? Where is Jeff now?

  4. I wish your fallen squad leaders family could read your account of his last mission. I understand that it is important for the loved ones to know these kind of details. Did writing this help you with closure?