Name: Brandon Lingle
Returned from: Iraq and Afghanistan
Redeploying to: Afghanistan
Hometown: Lompoc, CA
Spring always brings me to Mesopotamia.
The Gulf War ended a few weeks before I turned 14. I remember the fuzzy green night vision video from CNN’s 24-hour coverage, yellow ribbons, and a springtime welcome home parade. Recently returned Airmen from nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base sported their desert camouflage, floppy hats, and dark sunglasses as they smiled and waved their way down “H” Street.
Twelve years later, Operation Iraqi Freedom kicked off just two days before my 26th birthday, and I wanted to be part of it. I was a lieutenant, a husband, and a new father. I didn’t know what I wanted. When I asked my boss, a major, about the chances for an Iraq war deployment he said, “You understand people are dying there?” Then, the classic “Be careful what you ask for.”
And, three years ago right now, I was preparing for a deployment to Baghdad as Operation New Dawn wound down. By 2011, U.S. forces in Iraq were involved in a murky mix of diplomacy, advising, and weapons sales. And, as Americans worked to sell Iraq the F-16, people were still dying.
One story I heard, about an attack that occurred about 10 miles from where I was stationed, has stuck with me. Here it is:
Just before dawn on June 6, 2011, a Shiite militiaman drove a faded yellow bongo truck loaded with lob bombs outside a small U.S. outpost in Sadr City on Baghdad’s east side. Someone paid the man $200 U.S. to light the fuse and walk away. They’d kill him or worse if he refused.
The man pulled the tarp and connected the wires as they instructed. Seconds later, the jerry-rigged rockets, each carrying 50 pounds of extra explosives, flew over the base walls. The trajectory of black smoke recalled some sort of catapult battle at castle walls. The contracted Ugandan security guards in the towers didn’t notice the suspect vehicle until it was too late, and the explosions came before the alarm. They fired their rusted and duct-taped AK-47s at the man as he turned the corner.
About this time, the sergeants in the base command post focused the surveillance cameras hanging from the soft underbelly of the whale-like blimp looming over the base. The sergeants shifted the cameras’ gaze from the launch site to the first impact site. About this time, battle staffs across the country started eyeballing the destruction. One major on FOB Union III in Baghdad’s International Zone, said “What the fuck!” and “We’re getting hammered,” between sips of coffee. A general in Saddam’s old hunting palace on Victory Base Complex stared speechless.
The captain was reading Hemingway when the lob bombs roared. His trailer shook from the shockwaves. The photo of his wife and kids fell from his small wooden table. He noted the green digital numbers on his digital clock, 5:14. He ran from his room and pounded on his soldiers’ doors with a hammer-fist punch. “Get the fuck to the bunker!” he yelled over and over again.
The disembodied voice of the alarm yelled, “Incoming! Incoming! Incoming! Take cover! Incoming! Incoming! Incoming!” between bursts of a siren. Explosions and scraps of screams rode the air.
The soldiers had just woken up. They ran from their rooms and latrines, carrying toothbrushes and razors, wearing flip flops and shorts. The captain noticed his soldiers’ wide eyes as they scrambled by. Some were shirtless, some wore half faces of shaving cream, some dropped their towels, and none spoke. One boy sprinted wearing nothing other than the white shampoo on his head. The white shampoo stood out against the backdrop of black smoke. The captain felt proud he hadn’t pissed his pants or cowered on the ground. He breathed the oily smoke and thought of his grandpa’s Caterpillar. The haze stung his eyes and tears streaked his face. One of his sergeants tripped at his feet, and he grabbed the man’s strong arm with the skull tattoo, hoisted him up and heaved him in the direction of the bunker.
The captain knew that the concrete bunker — a six-by-six-foot “C” turned on its side and lined with sandbags — offered the only way out of this mess. He remembered when the engineers added the additional bunkers a few months ago. The engineers in yellow hard hats used a crane to place the concrete lifesavers. He saw his sergeant perched in the two-foot-wide bunker entry waving others in.
A year-long deployment and this bullshit takes us out with just two weeks to go?
The captain saw his last man disappear into the bunker, and he finally felt he could take a breath. He thought of his two-year-old daughter running across the grass at Fort Riley, Kansas. He saw the giant elm is his backyard lean in the breeze. He watched his wife plant wildflowers across the yard. He breathed the summer weeds, the dirt clumped from last-night’s thunderstorm, and a whisper of his wife’s shampoo. The captain ran faster toward his waving sergeant. The dusted gravel under his feet felt like grass. As he ran, he caught flashes of an overweight civilian woman in a scarf running toward the bunker; a Nepalese janitor in a blue-jump suit squatting with his head down and hands on his ears; a soldier running away from the bunker; and that damn white blimp hanging over the camp.
Just then, a rocket slammed the bunker entry gap. The captain was just twenty feet away when his world closed in. The waving sergeant and the concrete bunker with all his men faded as the concussion knocked him out.
He awoke seconds later and looked at himself, felt his arms, legs, and face — scanned for blood. The captain realized he was fine save for a small jagged tear on his uniform near his right shoulder. Then he looked to where the bunker was. So too, did the blimp cameras, and all the eyes of battle staffs throughout Iraq.
The captain couldn’t find his men, they were gone. He walked past the crater and continued walking straight. Twenty minutes after the attack, a first sergeant found the captain walking alone on the far side of the camp.
Five of the soldiers died instantly. Volunteers placed the bodies in bags and loaded them on the Blackhawk for the 10-minute ride to the Baghdad airport. The next day, crews laid the bodies in aluminum transfer cases. They checked the paperwork, loaded the transfer cases on the floor of a C-17, and covered them with American flags. An American flag hung limp from the plane’s ceiling. The pilot touched each case. His grey and green flight gloves contrasted with the red and white stripes. The pilot flew the giant grey plane to Dover AFB, Delaware. After a few days at the port mortuary, the cases made their way to airplanes bound for the soldiers’ hometowns.
One soldier barely survived the attack. Medics rushed him to the waiting helicopter. Dozens of nurses, doctors, and surgeons treated him at the hospital at the Baghdad. Soon, he was stable enough for the flight to Germany. At Landstuhl, dozens more nurses, doctors, and surgeons worked to save the young man, but it wasn’t to be. He struggled for two more weeks before he died in the hospital halfway between home and war.