Sunday, August 2, 2009

Dead Man Talking

*Retold with permission.

You won’t meet many people who have been killed in action, obviously. They’re not around to talk to. But, you’re talking to one right now. It’s a long story, and now that it’s all behind me, it’s pretty funny. It was not, however, very amusing or pleasant at the time.

During OIF II my unit was stationed just north of Sadr City near Haifa, and we’d take the Bradleys into the Sadr area to run patrols. The city, being more a slum than a real city, had only a few streets wide enough to drive Bradleys down, so we’d usually end up doing long, 10-12 kilometer foot patrols in the heat. They were exhausting – and dangerous.

The way we’d do it is walk for a distance, then hop into a more secure location (like a house with a courtyard), rest a bit, drink some water, and then keep on going. With the high walls around a place, they were usually easily defensible, and far safer than just lounging around on the streets. During this particular patrol, we stopped in an old, abandoned Iraqi Police station to halt for a bit.

As we were lounging around, a grenade comes sailing over the wall into the courtyard. Thankfully, somebody saw it immediately and we were all able to take cover. It didn’t do any damage. As we got back up to look for a source and peer over the wall, I feel something hit my leg right above my boot. It was another grenade. Diving wouldn’t save me, either. I was basically screwed.

I dove anyway (still too close), and the thing detonated on me, sending shrapnel into my torso from the left side. The initial piece was huge, but as soon as it hit my skin, it broke into several more pieces – eighteen, as a matter of fact. The pieces shredded my guts straight to the other side. I couldn’t stop the bleeding, either. I was too distracted.

More accurately, I was pissed. Right as the grenade detonated, we came under heavy fire from the second story of the building next to us. I have no idea how many were in there, but they were certainly making a coordinated effort to kill all nine of us. One of our other guys managed to get shot in the leg, too, so we were going down fast. For an hour, we fought with them.

I alternated between anger and absolute terror for that hour. I was bleeding profusely, but didn’t have time to try to stop it. If I didn’t add my weight to the firefight, it might be the end of all of us. During that hour, I fired over a thousand rounds through my SAW [M249 SAW – light machine gun]. We were basically pinned in there, too small a force to maneuver, and too vulnerable on foot to do a ground evac.

Eventually some help arrived to help us, and they immediately saw to getting me out of there and onto a medevac flight. That was the first time I felt any pain, believe it or not. I was too busy, high on adrenalin, and maybe scared to be aware of it before that.

I found out later that I apparently died during the surgery. Maybe it was blood loss or maybe it was something else, but evidently I flatlined for long enough that my command got the news I was dead and began the process of alerting my next of kin – in this case my dad.

Yes, they actually showed up at his door with the dreaded letter in hand that made the sad announcement that I had been killed in combat. I can’t begin to fathom what went through his mind when this happened, but I imagine that it was total devastation. Nor can I imagine what he felt when they came back and told him they had made a mistake. I’ll bet he didn’t even believe them. Who sends out the KIA letter and then takes it back, right?

Long story short, I’ve basically made a full recovery. While I was healing up, I spent time as a recruiter, and now all I have left is a bizarre pattern of scars across my torso. Well, and I can’t eat spicy foods or drink much hard liquor. My liver and kidneys are too damaged. Aside from that, though, I’m fine.

My dad framed the KIA letter and hung it right next to my purple heart award certificate. I guess even he’s able to see the humor in it now – or he’s just thankful that his son is alive. Either way, I certainly think it’s funny.

The base in Texas is preparing to set up a memorial wall for all the Soldiers wounded or killed in action, and they’ve told me that I have the option of having my name on the KIA or the WIA wall, which is sort of strange. And honestly, I haven’t decided. If I get it put on the KIA wall, I intend to get a picture where I’m standing right next to it. Maybe this is inappropriate. I haven’t reached a conclusion yet. But here’s my take: what’s MORE inappropriate is for the Army to deliver a letter to my family pronouncing me dead when I’m still very much alive. Now, years later, I think it’s sort of funny. I mean, how many guys do you get to talk to that were killed in action? Not many, I’d say.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

  1. I don't know where you find these guys, but it is good. Damn good. This is my friend Joe. He was killed in action.