When I returned home from the first deployment, friends of mine asked curiously, “How do you get ready for combat?” “What does it feel like to be getting shot at, and what’s going through your head?” Two years ago, I answered those questions after my brief incident of lying in the street and havoc raining all around me with a simple, “You train for the worst and hope for the best.”
Two years later.
We started the first patrol of the day; this patrol was going to be rough. The previous evening’s patrol went into overtime, so by the time we all sunk into our beds, we were back up three hours later. Our first task of the morning was to hang out at the gas station and make sure things were copasetic. An Iraqi gas station is unlike any other you will come across in your lifetime. If you have ever gotten upset about waiting in line for gas, try waiting in line behind 800 other cars — no joke.
As the people waited in the 110-degree weather, cars started to run out of gas; that is when tempers flared, and things got ugly. The Iraqi police did an excellent job of handling the issue; there was no need for our help.
As we waited for our leadership to conclude with their meeting, the sound of AK-47 and BKC shots rang out. These shots seemed far away. Sergeant Murillo and I looked at each other while sitting in the air century and at the same time, said, “Oh great.” As soon as we said that Staff Sergeant Johnston came running out of the gas station, jumped in the truck, and prepped for x-fill.
As we made our way down the road, over the radio came the message that we had all been waiting. “Reaper elements, there is some trouble by the local mosque. There are reports of snipers shooting at the local nationals; be prepared for initial small arms contact.” In the past, we would get to the problem, and the cowards who had shot would be gone, so no one in the truck seemed worried at all.
As we started the drive down the road, we could hear what sounded like AK-47 gunfire. Staff Sergeant Johnston quickly dropped from the hole and turned around to brief us. “Guys, we are going into a firefight.” As soon as he finished, the truck came to a screeching halt. The ramp dropped, and everyone tactically made way to the nearest wall.
As we kneeled by the wall, the wisps of sniper fire could be heard flying overhead. “Holy crap, did you hear that, Murray?” I said in disbelief. Specialist Murray answered with a quick, “Holy crap, they’re still here.”
Sergeant Murillo turned around quickly, and with a stern, an unwavering voice said, “Keep your eyes peeled; there are pop shots and sniper fire coming from every direction.” In the middle of his saying that the 240, 249 and the 50 cal started rocking, giving the Alpha team, which were pinned down by sniper fire ahead of us, suppressive fire so they could get across the alley safely.”
As they ran across the street, Specialist Pitcher fell in a deep hole and head-planted into the ground. Sergeant Lawrence, the Alpha team leader who was leading the way, came back into the street, grabbed Wally, and pulled him along — all this while under fire. It was now our turn. Sergeant Murillo gave us the count. “Ready on three, two …” We started running.
We made it as far as the last team before the snipers began firing again. You could see the dirt in front of us popping up. Sergeant Murillo gave the order, “Murray, get on your stomach and aim at downrange and give us some suppressive fire.” With little or no hesitation, Murray lay on the ground, which was full of garbage and sewer water, put his finger on the trigger and put down 150 rounds.
Everything was going well, and then all of a sudden, Murray’s weapon jammed. “Oh shoot,” Murray said, clenching his teeth. He corrected the malfunction quickly while on the other side of the road, the Platoon Sergeant and the medic filled in, throwing down suppressive fire with bursts from the M-4.
In the middle of all of the shooting Staff, Sergeant Johnston yelled across the alley, “When we start shooting, make your way over here.”
Now it was our turn. For the first time, I had time to realize I was the last one in the stack. I took a quick peek around the dirt mound and thought, “I’ve seen this in the movies, and the guy in the back always gets shot by the sniper.”
The guns started blazing; the three of us made our way across the alley, running as if a killer dog was on our tail.
Our squad as well as the Platoon Sergeant, Sergeant First Class Evans and a medic Specialist Royal Balbag took cover in the same area. Staff Sergeant Johnston looked at us and made sure everyone was still in the fight. Sergeant First Class Evans stood almost in the middle of the road where we had just come across and got an excellent sit rep so we could make our next move. Everyone looked at him as if he was crazy. The Platoon Sergeant showed no emotion and seemed invincible to the sniper fire that was coming to his direction.
As he slowly walked back, his eyes seemed almost like when a kid receives a new toy. “All right, get in this house, third. The shooters are right of the mosque beside the tree; he is wearing all black and has a red bandanna on.”
As soon as he finished, we stormed the vacant house and made way to the top of the house so that we could eliminate the threats.
Once we reached the top of the building, we cleared the roof and then quickly went into attack mode. With utter disbelief, we locked on to the target. The sniper seemed unaware that he was just about to get wasted by two M-4s and a 240 aiming directly at center mass. BOOM. BOOM. We all unleashed. The snipers did not even see it coming.
After a while of laying waste to the snipers, we made some adjustments. We made our way downstairs. Everyone was now drenched in sweat. Our job now was to try to get closer to where the snipers were shooting. This part was the hardest, in my opinion, moving from housetop to housetop as the sun baked us. We came to a good position and set up security. As we cooked on the roof, I looked at my watch that tells the temperature. According to my watch, it was 120 degrees; it was hot.
As our team was pulling security, you could hear firefights going on all around. I looked over at Specialist Murray, and I noticed he wasn’t looking so good. As soon as I looked away, I heard what sounded like a bucket of water being thrown on the ground. I glanced over, and Murray began throwing up every ounce of water he had drunk throughout the firefight. I almost chucked, just watching.
After he was done, he looked over at me and said, “I feel a lot better now, Hardt.” I just smiled and continued to scan my sectors.
Just when we thought all of the snipers were either dead or gone, two shots rang out. Those two shots hit an Iraqi police officer on a roof, shooting off his finger and wounding him in his leg. We hustled downstairs to assist. At about this time, somehow, some way my middle finger started squirting blood everywhere. My team leader patched me up, and everything was okay.
Sergeant First Class Evans came over the radio, “Men, hard times don’t last; hard men do. We fight until the end, and it’s not over.”
We now were in the second-floor rooms trying to gather strength for the next move; the gunfire still was ringing from outside. Men have ways of hiding their weaknesses, but this time, there was no hiding.
Everyone was on their last leg. No more water, no more energy, men were barely able to walk, and we were gasping for air that seemed to be evading us every step of the way. At one point, as we climbed the stairs toward the roof again, the utter despair came upon our faces; we all knew it was not going to be long until we started to lose situational awareness due to the harsh conditions. That’s when our training and professionalism kicked in.
Some squad leaders can be good at encouraging and giving that extra
push, and that is precisely what Staff Sergeant Johnston did.
“Look, guys, you’re doing great. I know we are all tired. Some of us have thrown up; others are bleeding, and some are light-headed, but we need to stay focused and finish this job.”
The whole squad gave a big roger, and we made our push to the roof — no complaining, no whining, we just did it, but this time with a little more effort.
After almost five hours, things seemed to simmer down. The radio traffic was giving us the indication that we did the job. As the squad came down from the roof, the looks on everyone’s faces were priceless. We gave everything we had, even though we were sucking. Everyone pushed each other to their possible combat limit. I am sure there have been more stressful combat situations, but it did not matter. What mattered was that we had finished what the terrorist could not.
In this situation everyone was a hero in their own way — from picking a guy up from the middle of the street while sniper fire was occurring to letting a buddy have your last swig of water or, better yet, the Platoon Sergeant standing in the middle of a firefight so that he could see where the enemy position was.
Some of these stories will never be told because the humble men who bravely committed these heroic acts seek no mention, but they did their job because of the man next to them. That’s what it is all about.
The day was finally over.