There was a large stone building next to our barracks during that tour. The walls were so thick that they never even bothered sandbagging it. It was better than the bunkers, actually. One half of the building was the base hospital, and the other was a computer center. I liked how close it was. It made it easy to just hop over every now and then and check my e-mail.
Within a few weeks, though, the local Iraqis that maintained the computers were murdered for their involvement with the US, and the machines quickly fell into disrepair. For a short time we’d go to the far side of base to use the other computers, but then the building was mortared and burned down – with all the computers in it.
About the same time, the medical personnel in the hospital decided they needed a morgue, and since the next-door room was filled with broken computers, they naturally just took it over.
I’m not really sure why they needed a morgue right then, but if I had to guess, I think there were two reasons. First, we were taking far more casualties than anybody had anticipated, and they didn’t want to just stack them in the corner while they worked on the survivors. It was disheartening to the men on the tables fighting for survival. My second assumption is that the medical flights that typically collected the dead were too busy elsewhere. Iraq, at that time, was a hellhole. I think the military, on average, was losing about three a day. The hearse choppers were busy, and they didn’t have time to pick up the dead promptly, I guess.
The consequence of having the hospital and morgue right next to us, though, was that we observed a steady parade of vehicles delivering the dead and dying. All you had to do was look at the speed of the vehicle and you could immediately tell what was going on. It was obvious.
The ambulance humvee would pick up the lightly wounded and take them back for treatment. They hustled, but never drove too quickly. If they drove like maniacs, you knew the wounded were bad off.
A humvee would come flying through the curves so quickly that if it was a narrower vehicle, it would have definitely flipped over. In the back, you could see Marines hunched over somebody, working on them. You sort of said a silent prayer and hoped they made it into the hospital and were stabilized. Once, an Iraqi army truck careened by us with a wounded Iraqi soldier in the back. His torso was covered in blood and his whole body was convulsing. I doubt he made it even to the door. He was in bad shape. None of us knew him, so while he was definitely on our side, it was a casualty to us, not a brother.
But the worst times were just after mortar attacks on base. We’d be huddled in the bunkers until somebody sounded the “all clear.” We’d emerge and sort of mill around, and eventually get back to whatever it was we were doing. It was always eerily quiet right after an attack, for some reason. And then more trucks would drive by.
They never drove quickly, and nobody in the back was working on anybody, but we knew. We read it in the faces of the Marines in the back of the humvee. They were mostly senior enlisted, staff sergeants and higher. Most hadn’t bothered to dress completely, so some would be wearing sweatshirts, or shorts and flip flops. A few had their flaks on, but most weren’t wearing their helmets. They looked old, and weary. The Marine Corps is small, too, so we knew them. They were platoon sergeants and section leaders. They just stared at us as they slowly drove by.
In that quiet, we knew. I remember thinking, “Oh God, another?” And there was nothing else to say.
We knew that on the floor of that truck lay at least one of their Marines, and he didn’t make it. We knew that they’d just lost a son. A man they’d vowed to protect, advocate, and bring home alive. We read it in their faces. They were forlorn as they stared, and we just stopped and stared back. We knew. And all we could do was wait for word to see which friends we’d lost. The enemy was slowly killing us.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved