Have you ever been with a group and felt left out when someone tells a joke? Everyone else laughs, so you must have missed something, right? You hear it, but it doesn’t make sense because it sounds crazy.
That’s how I felt the first time I was assigned to an infantry squad on the front lines in Iraq. I didn’t get most of the jokes my other squad members said. I was always left asking, “What’s so funny?” Which in turn led them to more chuckling and laughing.
It didn’t take to long to catch on once we started fighting together.
Fighting to survive inside a cemetery filled with bombs makes you grow up fast. I had to catch on quickly in order to understand them so we could work better as a team. After a few gunfights I fell in sync with the team.
Eventually, after weeks of fighting, death and destruction became normal. So normal that being shot at warranted a laugh followed by an overwhelming blood lust.
“A military operation involves deception. Even though you are competent, appear to be incompetent. Though effective, appear to be ineffective.” Sun TzuThe Art of War
None of us wanted to keep going, but we had no choice. We took a quick break in a tomb to rehydrate. I squatted to the ground and finished drinking my third bottle of water for the day. My DCU’s were covered in salt crystals and dirt. It had been two weeks since I’d showered and shaved. I was so exhausted I could have passed out. I’ve never been worked this hard in my entire life and there was no end in sight. At times I felt like being dead would be a better option.
“Who’s up for a little target practice?” Martinez asked. Everyone chuckled except me; I must have missed the joke.
Martinez explained to me that we were going to try and lure people out with bait. Two people had to go out and start making commotion while the other guys watched for the enemy.
“Ok, pick a number between 1 and 20,” Martinez said.
I said 13; his number was 15.
“Damn,” Rodriguez and I both said; then we looked at each other. He smiled, “Gotta die someday, right?”
“Glad it’s not me,” B stated before walking through the doorway to outside.
Rodriguez and I stood on top of newer graves in front of the tomb, in clear view for anyone in the cemetery to see. My heart started pounding, filling me with a burst of adrenaline. I’ve survived crazy shit all day; I should already be dead. Rodriguez started yelling, “Woohoo! Yeah!”
I joined in, the whole time moving my head scanning the cemetery for people who might come out to look.
Rodriguez pointed to the top of a tomb in the distance, “You think I can hit the nipple on the top there? The blue one?”
“Bet you I can before you,” I said.
B and Martinez spread out, watching for weapons fire. Rodriguez took a frag out and popped it into his grenade launcher. After taking a couple seconds aiming, he fired. Thump! It sizzled downrange and exploded off to the side of it.
“Damn!” he yelled, I laughed while loading a round. I took aim and popped it off. Boom! The building next to it exploded.
“F*** man!” I yelled loud, trying to draw attention. Rodriguez shot again and hit it. I pointed to another one, “The blue and yellow dome there.”
There was a building in my way as I aimed, so I jumped on top of a taller grave and fired. The top of the dome caved in.
“F*** yeah!” I shouted.
As Rodriguez took aim to fire another one, bullets started flying around us; we jumped down as B yelled, “Three!” I stood up firing.
When I squatted down again, Rodriguez yelled at me, “Frag’em!” So I loaded a round, counted to three and stood up. I saw two people shooting; one in grey rags, another in black. I aimed and pulled the trigger, Thump!
The round launched out and hit the tree right behind them.
It split in half, sending smoke and debris everywhere; I saw the guys fall.
“F*** yeah! Yeah!” Everyone screamed.
“Yeah! Nice shot,” B yelled at me.
We started advancing towards them. Two of us laid down suppressive fire while the other two sprinted forward, leaping behind another grave. When I went to rush forward, there were a couple of graves knocked down in a pile blocking my way. I ran and jumped on top shooting; then jumped back down.
I looked over and saw that Rodriguez had to do the same, but when he jumped on a grave his foot went through. He fell headfirst trying to get it unstuck. I ran over and helped him get his foot unstuck. We both started laughing because he was on his head with his legs dangling in the air.
We got a couple graves away when the firing got heavier. Rodriguez took a grenade out and tried throwing it, but it slipped from his hand, falling two feet in front of him.
“Grenade!” he yelled; we both jumped behind a grave as it went off. BOOM!
I tried throwing one, but as my arm came forward it felt like I was throwing a 40-pound weight and it just rolled out of my hand.
After it went off we laughed that none of us had enough strength to lodge grenades. I looked back at B, who gave us a go-ahead before firing off a bunch of rounds. We jumped up and made our final push forward. I was filled with a rush of adrenaline as we came up on their positions.
The only thing I saw was blood sprayed over the ground when got there.
F****** got the bastards, I thought. Rodriguez pointed to his eyes then to a blood trail on the ground. It looked like someone had been dragged into a tomb. He pointed to the building. I nodded.
I took lead, quietly creeping towards the building. When we got to the door I took out a grenade and threw it in. After it exploded, Rodriguez kicked the door in and we stormed in firing. No one was inside, but it was filled with rocket launchers, mortar shells, and bullets; a weapons cache.
“We hit gold,” Rodriguez said.
Before I could respond a hole in the ground came into my view.
“Hole!” I yelled pointing my weapon at it. Rodriguez grabbed two grenades out of his pocket and threw them in. We walked outside as they went off. BOOM!
Rodriguez called the lieutenant to let him know about the weapons.
“Blow the s***,” the lieutenant ordered us. “If you can’t, I’ll push the building over.”
“Roger that,” Rodriguez replied. “Keep watch while I blow this b****,” he said, walking past me into the doorway
“Got it,” I said.
I stood behind a large pillar next to a wall across from the door, a perfect position to take cover from the blast and still keep watch of the area. I waved to B who was with Martinez 30 yards away. He waved back and kept scanning the cemetery. Rodriguez took out a grenade, threw it in and ran out as it went off. BOOM!
“F***! They didn’t blow.” Rodriguez stated after walking back in. He came out and stood directly across from the door and shot a grenade in with his launcher. BOOM! The building exploded multiple times sending smoke and debris everywhere before it collapsed in.
I fell behind the pillar while rounds rattled the wall behind me. Neither of us could see where it was coming from so we called it in. After a couple seconds we heard the lieutenant start lighting someone up; the Bradley’s gun was distinguishable from any other weapon. It pulled up a couple graves away from us. We jumped up and fired downrange while we ran over to the Bradley and jumped in.
I fell into the bench exhausted and panting. Rodriguez and I looked at each other, then bumped fists. We both sat trying to catch our breath and drink water. I just happened to look down and see that he was bleeding from his left leg.
“Dude, you’re hit,” I said, pointing. “What happened?”
He grabbed his leg and looked at it. There was a blood soaked hole in his pants. I made him take off his boot and pull up his pants. He had taken a piece of shrapnel in the shin. I took a field bandage out of my pack, opened it, and held pressure on the leg.
“Dude, I might have to send you back.” I said.
“F*** no doc, I’m ok,” he said desperately.
I stared him in the eyes, not wanting him to get more injured by going out. “Are you sure?”
“I’m serious, it doesn’t even hurt,” he said. My leg started throbbing in pain; at that moment I knew how he felt. I should have said something about it but I didn’t want to leave; we still had a fight to win.
I held pressure on it for a couple minutes and saw the bleeding had gone down. Rodriguez begged me to not send him back; he stared me in the eyes.
“Please doc, those bastards are still out there. We’ve gotta kill them for Hunter.” I didn’t say anything; that’s been my driving factor since he got hit. I wrapped the bandage around his leg and told him to put his boot back on so I could see how he was with weight on it.
He stood up and walked around, “See, I don’t feel a thing. I’m good.” He wasn’t limping, so I told him, “Ok, but we have to get it looked at when we get back. Tell me if it gets worse.”
“Thank you bro,” he said. “I’ll tell you, promise.”