War (in) Pieces, Part 3

CHAPTER V. Owl Creek Bridge

Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: The deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and his rifle. It is your killer instinct which must be harnessed if you expect to survive in combat. Your rifle is only a tool. It is a hard heart that kills. If your killer instincts are not clean and strong you will hesitate at the moment of truth. You will not kill. You will become dead Marines and then you will be in a world of shit because Marines are not allowed to die without permission. Do you maggots understand? Full Metal Jacket- Stanley Kubrick

If it wasn’t cold outside I liked standing on the chow hall parade deck looking out on the Potomac at a big bend in the river and reading knowledge or being in my own head. It was very wide as it flowed past the chow hall and sometimes the wind would blow across the water and freeze your whole body. I just had to stand there at parade rest and nobody bothered me and I didn’t have to talk to anyone. When the company formed up we’d march to whatever was next on the plan of the day.

I remember the day I discovered that the schedule for the plan of the day was printed out and published on the DI hut bulkhead the night before. It was like finding a treasure map. I started writing the schedule down in my notebook every night and it was like I knew all the answers. I always had something to write on and write with at all times after that.

I remember that an Amtrac train used to roll though Quantico a few times a day. It passed in front of the parade field and under the overpass we marched across to get to the chow hall. I liked seeing that train because it reminded me that the real world was still out there and real people out in it were riding trains and not suffering thru the misery of candidate training.

I pulled or tore my quad muscle in my leg sometime in the last two weeks at OCS. I needed to limp to formation and when I ran I looked like one of the apes from the movie Planet of the Apes. Some people called me “the Gimp” from Pulp Fiction- other people called me Cornelius like the ape in the movie. The only thing that mattered was that I wouldn’t quit and everyone- the other candidates, my DI’s and my platoon commander knew it.

One night toward the end of OCS the DI’s separated the married guys from the single guys and sent us to separate classrooms. An officer told both groups that North Korea had invaded South Korea and declared war. The officer told us we would be graduating early from OCS and we’d all be commissioned as 2nd Lieutenants and command provisional infantry platoons in Korea. The DI’s wanted to watch how we reacted to the news. Some candidates were ra-ra and others were crying. I didn’t want to die in some shitty Korean ditch but I didn’t say a word. I just kept my mouth shut. A few hours later they told us it was a drill. A few months later they wouldn’t need to pretend there was a war.

I made it to the final inspection. It was freezing outside and while we stood in formation our hands froze while we waited for the OCS Commanding Officer. Colonel F. decided it was too cold to hold the inspection outdoors so we moved into the squad bay and stood at attention next to our racks. Colonel F. and his staff moved down the squad bay and when he stood in front of each candidate we had to greet him and perform inspection arms- a multi-step rifle drill movement that presents a cleared rifle to the inspecting officer.

The problem is when you are trying to execute inspection arms after you’ve stood outside for hours in the cold and your hands aren’t working you can’t do it. I guess I passed the inspection because Colonel F. moved down the line to the next candidate. What happened next I’ll never forget. The candidate next to me in line lifts his rifle up to carry arms to start inspection arms and he catches the colonel’s glasses with the muzzle of his rifle and launches them down the squad bay so the glasses went clattering across the floor. The sound shattered the silence in the squad bay and each sound the glasses made echoed across the room.

The colonel didn’t miss a beat. He right faced, moved down the line to the next candidate and another Marine picked up his glasses. During inspections you have to keep your body locked at the position of attention and your eyes front. Everyone wanted to look at where those glasses landed but we had to stay locked in the position of attention. When the inspection was over the DI’s exploded on us for the mistake but the candidate who messed up paid the most. I graduated a few days later and got my commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps.

The Basic School or The Big Suck started a week after OCS. We humped Application Trail everyday to the rifle range and I was getting back later than the rest of the company because I had to take remedial training. Looking back I should have made one of the range coaches test fire my rifle because the upper and lower rattled like an old truck. Probably the pins were garbage and it should have been repaired but I didn’t know any better. That probably explained the double feed I got on Qual day. But what happened happened and I always believed it what was meant to be.

Instead of letting us get back with everyone else at the end of the day it was always extra training. We had already snapped in all day and we didn’t get to shoot anymore, we just wasted time in at a gas operated rifle simulator and we shot at video games.

However I was fine in pistol and just needed to go back to the barracks when everybody else did and get some sleep. My pre Qual score was just a few points below passing. But instead of going back to the barracks we just went to more remedial.

On Qual day I was on the left side of the range and I was shooting well at 200 yards. Then at the 300yd rapid fire I got a double feed on the last round of the first magazine. I observed the stoppage and realized I can’t fix it with immediate action so I put up my hand as we’d been instructed to do. The line coach comes way over from center line and asks me what happened.

I explained that I conducted immediate action and he says he didn’t see me observe the cause of the malfunction…from more than 20 yards away. He won’t give me an alibi and no chance to re-shoot the six rounds on that stage of fire. Therefore it was mathematically impossible to qualify. Dick.

Since then every Qual I have to shoot my head gets all fucked up. However, because I unked and got rolled back I got out of my awful TBS platoon, into Delta Company and Capt Ski’s platoon. I found out later that guys from my OCS class could take leave and start TBS in Delta Company anyway.

Because I unk’d I met Bryan G. who had unk’d as well but he would go on to be the greatest warrior I have ever met. I also met Ale and Chris and Chris T. and wound up in 1st Battalion 8th Marines and in Fallujah. God makes everything happen for a reason.

I’d still like to tell that line coach to get fucked but he may have done me a favor. Also, now I always prepare like crazy for any range and take shooting very seriously. I am probably a better marksman than I ever would have been if I’d passed that first rifle range.

CHAPTER VI- A bullet for you…a bullet for me

We marched the ERU through the breech marked with chemlights on both sides of the lane. The ground in the breech had already turned into mud from the MCLC explosion and the company of Marines who had already passed through. The mud was grey from the cordite and smelled like burned smoke.

There was a huge D-9 bulldozer stuck in the mud in the lowest part of the breech. We moved passed it quickly and moved toward the traffic circle that indicated the start of Route Ethan. When we reached the traffic circle we ran right into a huge volume of machinegun fire coming from inside the city to our south and aimed right at us. Fortunately there were 2 AAV’s between us and the enemy fire and I think the AAV machineguns were returning fire. All that should have been really loud but I don’t remember any sounds except the rounds snapping over our heads.

We used the AAV’s for cover and moved our Iraqis into a building directly to the east of the traffic circle. Artillery and engineers had not left much standing so a rifle company and 100 Iraqis were packed into a small 2 story building that was mostly rubble with bricks and rebar everywhere. It made me think of WWII footage of the Allies occupying French villages after the Germans had bombed most of the buildings in them.

Two platoons from C Company had moved south and were engaging enemy on the next street. We brought the Iraqis in and had them stay put. The advisors and I met with the Charlie Company Weapons Platoon Commander. Rob M. had been my roommate on the ship, who was a combat vet from the Gulf War and eventual candidate for Congress. Rob gave us a sitrep and we cleared another building immediately to the east of the building everybody was stuck in and put the remaining Iraqis in there.

Very loud explosions all around us made me think that the enemy had established a mortar position nearby and they we landing mortars on top of us. I looked all over for it from every window and the roof. I learned later that the Forward Air Controllers- FAC’s-were calling fires from the AC-130 gunships flying above the city. The gunships’ call sign was “Basher.” They were targeting the adjacent buildings. Thank God for the infrared tape on our helmets so the gunships could hit the bad guys and not us with their 155’s. If we have the resources to call a flying howitzer on a radio and hit enemy targets accurately sometimes a few meters in front of us I can’t believe we ever lost a war.

While we waited for C Company to move south we established security and tried to move some of the rubble to clear walkways inside the building. For the next hour we had to move around on our bellies because an adjacent friendly unit was firing at our building. I never figured out if it what unit it was but it was coming from the west. Red tracers were flying about six inches over our heads so most of the time we were stuck in the foothold.

Eventually we got the call to move south and link up with C Company so we could assault a mosque the ERU had been tasked to secure. Of course I was just about to catch a nap when we the call to move out came. We moved 500 meters south down an unsecured route as the sun was coming up to find the C Company Commander We made the link up at sunrise and as soon as we found C Company the enemy machineguns found us from the east and began engaging some of the C Company Marines east of our position.

There were casualties from that machinegun attack including a sniper Nick Z. who was killed. We helped get the wounded Marines medevac’d and we called the Iraqis up to the assault position. Someone else called a fire mission on what they thought was the enemy machinegun position but they sent a bad grid and white phosphorus WP Willie Pete began exploding on top of us. Everybody ran for cover. The C Company Gunny Doug B. should have gotten burned really badly but only the sleeves of his uniform burned.

We brought the Iraqis up moved out to assault the mosque. B Company screened the enemy to our west and we were in contact with enemy on the east. We moved down an uncovered road fast and only had minimal contact from the east. We found a small house adjacent to the mosque and staged the ERU in a courtyard while we went on the roof to recon the mosque. When we got back to the courtyard an enemy sniper engaged us from the upper story of building across the street to the north. The ERU panicked and about 90 Iraqis started shooting in every direction in the courtyard.

Rounds from the ERU AK’s were exploding off the courtyard walls and I dove to the ground screaming, “Cease Fire! Cease Fire!” I was waiting to die. When I realized I wasn’t dead I got up to my knees and kept screaming “Cease Fire!” Most of the Iraqis stopped shooting. The Marines had killed the sniper with an AT-4 from outside the courtyard.

When the ERU stopped shooting they discovered that they had shot their own Sergeant Major and the advisor Wes that I had rode with in the AAV into Fallujah. Both were medevac’d and thankfully would return a few days later. I was so tired I fell asleep on the roof waiting for the tank support to come up for the mosque assault.

From the rooftop we directed tanks to blast a hole in the exterior wall of the mosque compound and tried not to get hit by another sniper who had us pinned down from a building to our east. The ERU assaulted the mosque and killed one insurgent, captured one more and secured the mosque. C Company moved in behind us and established a hasty firm base inside the mosque.

We discovered two more dead upstairs in a hasty field hospital they had set up upstairs. At least one haji body had been shot in the forehead-probably executed so that he couldn’t be captured. The mosque was our objective and now we were ordered to wait until A Company had seized the Mayor’s complex. Then we got the order to secure the next objective another mosque further south. I went to sleep. I had been awake and fighting for 2 full days and nights.

The mosque we were in was being rocketed and shot at regularly. The walls were tile and looked like a YMCA in a slasher horror movie. The second floor of the mosque had hallways leading off in all directions with little rooms hidden everywhere.

The next day A Company secured the Mayor’s complex and we were ready to move south and seize the next objective- another mosque. We stepped off at about 1200 and immediately took a casualty from a sniper to the east. We were stuck outside the first mosque and couldn’t get into the next mosque. Instead of moving out we had to wait for tanks to engage the sniper. It got dark before the sniper was killed. The advisors refused to move the ERU in the dark through the city at night. I agreed it was a bad idea to move them unless we had AAV’s to load them into. It would be the only way to keep them together in the dark.

I requested AAV’s after a long argument with the C Company Commander about moving the ERU. I agreed that we were better off waiting because it was more likely we would lose guys or get them killed trying to move on foot. The C Company Commander was my old boss and had sort of fucked me over in the past. He sent us on a shitty training mission that ended up with me on the battalion staff. I always believe that things happen for a reason. If I had been a Platoon Commander again or an XO I wouldn’t have had the chance to be the Liaison Officer. If I had stayed in B Company as the Weapons Platoon Commander maybe I would have been killed.

Also the C Company Commander couldn’t get battalion to send AAV’s when he asked for them but when I asked Major T. for the AAV’s he sent them to me and that pissed off Captain B. even more.

When the AAV’s showed up we took the advisors and the ERU in six AAVs south to another mosque. Our snipers had secured a perimeter and the ERU secured the mosque. This time I went in with the assault element. I remember the doors were huge and thick wood and nicer than I thought they would be. Ironically the doors reminded me of the Jewish temple in my hometown. There were so many IR fireflies on the friendly troops- hundreds of them- and when I was wearing my NVG’s they looked like real fireflies buzzing around. The second mosque was empty- no bodies and no enemy. It was a miracle the ERU didn’t kill any friendlies during the assault.

An element of C Company followed us into the mosque and took over security. I took the ERU back in the AAV’s and waited for new orders. The ERU had driven battalion crazy so we waited back at the first mosque and turned them over to another battalion. I went back to the Mayor’s complex where our battalion had set up a forward command post. I rode an AAV to get there. When I arrived another AAV was on fire after getting hit by an RPG. I didn’t have a job yet but I was still alive.