Wednesday, September 16, 2009

It's Normal

The mission today was routine for this area of operations: drive out to a nearby Iraqi Army compound and facilitate a key leader engagement (KLE) between the Soldier’s troop commander and a senior Iraqi Army commander. For US personnel, these missions, while potentially lengthy, are often relaxed. Soldiers sit with Iraqis, drink chai (the Iraqi Arabic word for “tea”), chat with the Iraqi soldiers, and go home. But when the IED went off, the mission changed completely.

As the front vehicle rolled over the crush wire or pressure plate initiator, the device detonated under the front right tire, sending it outwards and airborne perhaps 50 feet. The associated suspension was sheared off, as the blast pressure ripped off the forward skirt armor and swung it back around to hit the vehicle again. The engine, fully eviscerated, lost all its oil and coolant onto the ground in a 30 foot slick before all forward momentum ceased. Inside, communications were down and alarms were sounding. This, believe it or not, is largely irrelevant.

Two things, however, are quite relevant. Foremost, save for a few rung bells and bruises, no Soldier inside the vehicles sustained any serious injuries. Of nearly equal import is what happened after the blast itself.

Inside the vehicle, a few gear items were dislodged and tossed about, alarms screamed into headsets, radios didn’t work, and a heavy layer of dust stirred up by the concussive wave, added to the confusion. Nobody spoke at first. But, as all three “topside” Soldiers lowered themselves back inside, the yelling began.

Each Soldier turned to the man next to him and, hollering above the din of the alarms, asked if he was okay. From the front of the vehicle, the driver scuttled back and checked on the vehicle commander, who in turn checked on him. The coaxial .50 gunner scrunched himself down around his periscopes and electronics and yelled to confirm that the vehicle commander was alright. In the back, the rear gunner demanded the condition of the rear sentry beside him, who more quietly posed the same question back to the gunner. He was still reeling from being struck in the back by two loose ammo cans.

Everybody, it seemed, was fine. Within moments, signals were sent to nearby vehicles, Soldiers snatched up weapons and serialized gear, and then retreated to cover behind another vehicle. Never were the words “I” or “me” uttered. Instead, only “you.”

While being assessed by the on-scene medic, the most common phrase was “I’m fine.” Seven hours later, while watching uninvolved troops take their own photos in front of his totaled vehicle, one involved Soldier had something very memorable to say:

“This isn’t funny, assholes. I could have lost a lot of friends in there.” Neither he, or any other, mentioned anything about himself.

In chaotic situations, it is a natural inclination to panic. “I’m scared” or “I’m going to die” are perhaps the most common statements, but not here. After determining that his eyes and mouth both apparently worked, every Soldier concerned himself with somebody else. How amazing, and how rare.

Later tonight, these same Soldiers will scour every obscure corner inside their totaled vehicle and pull out sensitive items, weapons, and gear. The vehicle itself will be shipped out of theater for total overhaul. In short order, the Soldiers will be issued another vehicle, into which they will transfer all their equipment. Tomorrow morning, they will head back outside the wire once again. Things will quickly return to normal, or at least to what’s normal out here. What might that be? Concern for somebody else, not oneself.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved


  1. This is what it is all about! This is combat. Situations like this gives each combatant a chance to test himself in fire. If he comes through, he will be stronger the next time. It sounds like this may have been the first time for the new guys. They performed well and I am proud of them.

  2. Just another adrenalin rush for the reporter.

  3. Just another adrenalin rush, eh?

    Let's see you go out there...

  4. TM Ben! were there...I was adrenaline rush....juust business...TM! Blue 4