November 03, 2006
I can not believe what I am hearing. The screaming over the radio is horrifying. Something, somewhere, is seriously wrong. At the first sound, all movement in our Command Post stops. My eyes are riveted on the green radios sitting on the top of the old wooden desk. A quick glance around the room tells me that every other soldier is frozen in place.
The radio static is heavy, the voice making the transmission frantic. I can barely make out a few words: "This is Titan 5...an RPG...ambush...casualties...grid coordinate...UX 2468 7531..." It is enough. Jumping to my feet I run over to the map against the wall. I quickly pinpoint the coordinates that I have just heard through the static and the gunshots. The location is a straight shot west, about six kilometers. Not far.
Turning around, I see that the other soldiers are all still frozen,waiting for the next transmission. I exchange glances with the other Platoon Leader, and announce to no one in particular: "I'm going out there." I turn and grab my gear. Shrugging on my body armor, I run into the hallway shouting: "Let's go! Get to the vehicles! There is a unit in contact that needs help! Move!"
The soldiers in my patrol tumble out of their cots, where they have been laying, exhausted. Grabbing their gear, they take up the shout:
As I run out of the building, still pulling my body armor on, the heat hits me like a blast furnace. Behind me, soldiers are flying down the steps and running to the vehicles. Climbing into my seat and fastening my helmet chinstrap, I can hear the guttural roar of the engines. We are loaded up and out of the gate within four minutes.
The HUMMWVs speed out past the concrete and concertina wire obstacles. My driver takes the turn around the barrier so sharply that for an instant I am certain that we are going to hit it. The front bumper clears by an inch, and we are through.
As we begin to speed down the broad paved main street I pick up the handset for the Platoon net and gather my thoughts. “Alright, this is what is going on. A unit was hit about six klicks west of here on ASR ‘Robins.’ It sounds like they have been hit with RPGs and small arms fire, and have several casualties.” There is silence in my vehicle as my crew listens in on the conversation. “One more thing, we may be targeted as we respond. Be on the lookout for an ambush, especially a VBIED.”
Insurgents have been known to hit units that move to assist a unit in contact. Overhead, I hear the metallic clacking of my gunner charging the M2 .50 caliber machine gun. He has racked a five-inch round into the chamber of the long-barreled, lethal weapon system. It is a reassuring sound. The M2 has a rate of fire of more than 10 rounds per second, and the rounds can easily punch through concrete walls.
Turning west we begin to pick up speed. "Thunderbold X-Ray this is Warrior 2/6, we are headed west on route 'Robins', moving to Titan 5's position. We should be there in about five Mikes. Do you have an update on Titan 5?"
In front of us, civilian traffic hastily pulls out of the way as the patrol runs screaming down the road. I can tell that my driver has his foot clamped all the way down on the accelerator. The clear, paved road stretches west into the distance, empty and desolate except for scrub brush and trash lining the sand berms on both sides of the road. It is a stretch of empty desert between two towns, and out here traffic is thin.
Over the Battalion net, I can hear Titan 5 calling for a Medivac to pick up his casualties. Someone has been seriously wounded. Above me, I hear my gunner swear an oath under his breath. Looking up, I can see a plume of thick black smoke in the sky. It can only mean one thing. Something is burning.
Adrenalin floods my system and my heart starts pounding rapidly as we round a bend in the road. A HUMMWV is completely engulfed in fire. Flames billow from the windows, and black, choking plumes of smoke rise high into the air. The smoke is thick and acrid from the burning tires. A chill runs down my back, and I realize that there are no soldiers anywhere to be seen. Nothing moves. It is terrifying, like something out of a nightmare. Where are all of the soldiers?
A hundred meters past the burning armored vehicle, I can see the charred,torn and twisted remains of a pickup truck. What used to be a gray Mazda is now scattered all over the road. I key the Battalion handset.
"Thunderbolt X-Ray this is Warrior 2/6! We have arrived onsite. There is a burning HUMMWV and what it looks like the remains of a VBIED. There are no soldiers anywhere! What is the current location of the Titan element? Where are the wounded soldiers?” My only thought is to get to the troops that need help, and secure their position. The only problem is, I can’t find them.
"Alright, stop here! Secure this location! White 1, move out about 300 meters and block off the west end. White 3, set up a blocking position 300 meters away on the east side. Tell your gunners to watch for follow-on VBIEDs, and do a good dismounted sweep for IEDs!"
My vehicle comes to a screeching halt, 75 meters from the burning armored vehicle. Dismounting, I hear a loud staccato popping sound. The ammunition stored in the vehicle is cooking off, the bullets exploding in the heat of the fire.
I key the handset again: "Thunderbolt X-Ray this is Warrior 2/6, I need the location of the Titan element! Where are they?"
There is a moment of silence, and then Thunder X-Ray replies: "Wait one."
Surveying the scene, I see that the ground is littered with spent brass and links. There has been a major firefight here, and it looks like hundreds if not thousands of rounds have been fired. The berm to the north is separated from the road by a 20-meter stretch of empty ground, and rises 15 feet in the air. It is the most likely place to set up an ambush.
I notice a half-filled, 30-round magazine lying in the road amidst the scattered brass and shell casings. Reaching down, I pick up the battered magazine and place it in my cargo pocket. With a flash of light reflected off of a canopy, the Apaches fly out of the sun. They are so quiet I do not even hear them until they are circling in a tight formation above my location. The circle is so tight that the lead Apache looks like it is standing on its side. I can see the pilot looking down over his right shoulder at the carnage below.
"Apache flight, this is Warrior 2/6, what is your call-sign?"
"Warrior 2/6 this is Blue Max 2."
"Blue Max 2, this is Warrior 2/6, I need you to sweep the area to the north and west! Look for insurgents and also check for American troops, I know that Titan is here somewhere and is set up for a Medivac, but I can’t find him."
The pilot immediately banks north, and I get his crisp and clean "Roger" over the net.
Looking east and west down the road, I can see that the other vehicles in my patrol have moved into position. To the east, another three-vehicle patrol has arrived, responding to the urgent calls over the radio.
With a tremendous blast, the burning armored HUMMWV explodes from the inside out and shreds itself into pieces of shattered and twisted steel. The armored glass shatters outwards, and large chunks of armor go catapulting thru the air, landing 20 or 30 meters away. The sound is almost deafening, and it takes me a second to realize that something inside the vehicle -- likely a Claymore or several grenades -- has exploded due to the heat of the fire.
My driver comes running up to me, his rifle held at the ready. "Sir, I don't know how to say this. I think I saw a body in the back passenger seat, before the vehicle exploded."
My heart stops. Looking up, I can see that the HUMMWV is just a mass of charred steel, flames and smoke. I force myself to speak. "Are you sure? Are you sure that is what you saw?"
My driver falters. "Sir, I...I don't know. It could have been the headrest or something else. I just thought I saw a body slumped over."
I clear my throat and key the handmike. "Thunder X-Ray, this is Warrior 2/6, the HUMMWV has just been destroyed by secondaries. Do we have a location for Titan 5 yet?"
This time Thunder X-Ray responds quickly. "Warrior 2/6, this is Thunder X-Ray, roger. Titan 5 has headed south along route 'Maples' and has linked up with an element from Avalanche. They are secure and are conducting air-evac of wounded personnel right now. Continue to secure the site, more units are enroute."
"Roger Thunder X-Ray, are all Titan 5 personnel accounted for?"
"Warrior 2/6 this is Thunder X-Ray, that's affirmative. All Titan 5 personnel are accounted for."
Closing my eyes, I breathe a sigh of relief. My driver must have seen something else. The hollow knot in my chest eases, and a weight lifts off my shoulders. Titan 5 is secure.
I hear my gunner calling out to me from the other side of the vehicle."Sir, Sir! There is an IED over here. I think that there are two of them!" He has done a sweep around my vehicle to check for IEDs, and seems to have found some.
"Roger, show me." Walking around the vehicle, I can see a burned and blackened 155mm artillery round lying out on the dirt, amidst the wreckage of the charred Mazda pickup truck. From this distance, I can easily see a long white cord running from the nose of the round, which has been packed with some type of plastic explosive. Lying as it is on the dirt, it seems less an IED than a kickout from a VBIED.
When the vehicle bomb exploded and tore itself into shreds, some of the artillery rounds from the bomb were kicked out by the explosion, and failed to explode. This does not, however, make them any less lethal. I can see at least four, possibly five of these kickout rounds lying scattered on the pavement and on the dirt. Four or five battered and primed artillery rounds less than 100 meters from my position.
"Alright, stay back. Conduct another sweep up to the northern berm and I will call EOD."
"Thunder X-Ray this is Warrior 2/6, we need EOD at this location. We have either secondary IEDs or kick-out rounds from a VBIED scattered all over the place."
"Warrior 2/6, Thunderbolt X-Ray, that's a good copy. EOD will be enroute."
In the distance, to the southwest, I can see the Apaches circling something. To the east, I see a plume of dust rise as two M1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks arrive on scene. "Warrior 2/6 this is Reaper 3, where do you want us?"
"Reaper 3, this is Warrior 2/6, it is good to see you. I want one of your tanks to take up a blocking position on the eastern side, and one to circle south around the HUMMWV and take up a blocking position on the western side of the road. Watch out for follow-on VBIED attacks."
One of the 60-ton monsters drives past my position, slung low and squat with surprisingly sleek lines. The turbine engines grumble and the steel-padded treads squeal, sending up a hot cloud of dust and dirt high into the sky. Now I feel that the site is finally secured.
An hour later, EOD has detonated five 155mm shells in a controlled explosion, and so many units have arrived that the place is swarming with troops. The senior man on the ground far outranks me, and some of the soldiers have found bloodstained fighting positions dug into the berm in the north. With the amount of blood found in the positions, it is likely that at least some of the insurgents never made it out alive.
Another HUMMWV pulls up, and three soldiers dismount. I can see that their uniforms are stained with blood. One, a sergeant, has his hand and arm swathed in white bandages. They are from the Titan 5 patrol, escorted back to brief the Battalion command on what had happened during the ambush. They look around, as if reliving a dream. I can't help but notice that they seem to be in good spirits, as if relieved at being back at the scene of the ambush and still in one piece. One is standing quietly to the side, watching the flames continue to consume what is left of the HUMMWV. I walk up to him. “How are you doing Sergeant?”
He turns and smiles. "Hey Sir, we're okay. My Lieutenant is hurt pretty bad. He took some shrapnel in the leg, and we had to apply a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. A couple of the other guys were hit. My arm got scraped up pretty good, but all in all, everyone is still alive."
I turn my eyes back to the still smoldering HUMMWV. "What happened?"
"Well, we were traveling east along 'Robins' when our vehicles were hit by RPGs. This pickup truck was rigged as a VBIED, but for some reason it did not explode, so the insurgents hit it with an RPG to try to set it off. After it exploded we took some pretty heavy small arms fire. They must have had at least one RPK there up on the berm." He points. “We returned fire over here, and then some of our guys were hit by shrapnel. Basically, we fought until the ammunition ran out, and then we withdrew to evacuate the wounded. My SAW gunner opened up on a couple of them on the bridge, and I saw at least two bodies fall into the water. They took a pretty good beating. I think we killed five or six of them."
In my head I can picture the entire sequence of events as he describes it. I glance at my watch. It all occurred about two hours ago. "When did you leave? We got here about 15 minutes after your call went out, and we couldn't find you guys. I didn't know if you had all taken off, or if you were all lying somewhere in a ditch."
He shakes his head. "It was my LT that made that call before he was hit. We disengaged once our ammunition starting running low and headed out to evacuate the wounded. We probably left no more than a few minutes before you guys showed up." Turning away from me he stares again at the burning vehicle, then glances at the berm to the north, now crawling with soldiers.
Reaching into my cargo pocket, I pull out the battered half-full 30-round magazine and hand it to him. "Here, you guys dropped this."
He reaches out and takes the magazine, weighing it in his palm. Then he smiles as he looks back up at me. "Shit, Sir, if we had known you were coming so quickly, we would have just stayed here."