Of course, like nearly every other time I’ve challenged worse, I was wrong.
August 23, 3:30 AM found me in the COC, going over routine last-minute preparations with Hes, the current watch officer. We had a straightforward mission to protect the Government Center. Just outside, my Marines were assembling for the normal pre-mission inspection, and I could hear the quiet but insistent voices of my three squad leaders chivying them along. Together, Staff Sergeant and I quickly reviewed the position of all friendly units outside the Outpost. A squad from fourth platoon had just left the base on foot, en route to relieve the snipers at the Hotel OP. Their little pin put them a short two hundred meters outside the gates, and their patrol overlay indicated that they would continue straight down Michigan—the fastest way to the OP—until they hit the Hotel. Yesterday, an IED had exploded along Michigan, so it wasn’t the route I would have chosen, but it was early enough in the morning to justify the decision. Other than that, no other units were out. Everything seemed normal. Hes gave me permission to leave, and Staff Sergeant and I hurried outside for the quick final inspection.
I was in a bit of a rush—we were running about twenty minutes behind schedule—so the inspection was somewhat perfunctory. Once it finished, the platoon mounted up, and sometime between 4:30 and 5:00, we roared out of the Outpost gates. Behind me, I heard Mahardy call it in.
“COC, be advised, Joker One has just left the Outpost en route to the Government Center in five Humvees.”
Just as planned, the vehicles cut across all four lanes of Michigan at the median break in front of the Outpost. In the lead Humvee, I turned around as soon as we straightened out on the southern side of the road. Behind me, the other four vehicles carefully negotiated the median break. As soon I saw that they had all made it through, we would gun the engines and accelerate from a dangerously slow ten miles per hour to a much greater IED-defying speed. We were going against traffic, because there wasn’t too much at that time of night, and anyway, I was more afraid of IEDs than collisions. In the driver’s seat, Lance Corporal Waters suddenly fidgeted with something. The movement was unusual, and I turned to look at him. He had taken off his night vision goggles and placed them in his lap. For a driver, that move was a strict no-no. My night vision gear, a monocular device, remained tightly clamped to my left eye.
“Waters,” I said, “what the hell are you doing? Why did you just put your goggles in your lap?”
“Look, sir. Streetlights’re working up ahead. Goggles’ll white out there and I won’t be able to see. Plus, sir, you see those lights on the horizon? It looks like one of those trucker convoys that the hajjis run sometimes at night is heading our way. If the streetlights don’t do it, those headlights’ll white out my goggles for sure. I’ve only got the Seven-Bravos [an older generation of goggles that cover both eyes instead of just one]. I can’t afford to be whited out. I’ll put ‘em back on once we’re in the backstreets and there’s no light and I don’t need to worry about it anymore.”
It made sense to me, and, anyway, Bowen had just called from the last vehicle to let me know that his Humvees were through the median and ready to roll. I gave the order.
“Waters, punch it. Let’s do this.”
“Roger that, sir.” He accelerated rapidly, and within a few seconds all five vehicles were speeding the wrong way down Michigan. We traveled for a few blocks and began approaching a bend, one that started at the exact site of the IED attack the day before. I clenched up. As Waters slowed a bit to negotiate the curve, bright pink halogen lights suddenly flared in our eyes. The oncoming trucker convoy was a scant hundred meters away and approaching fast.
Waters shouted at me. “Which side of the road do you want me on, sir?” It was a critical question—when playing chicken with a tractor-trailer, we had learned through earlier experience that the best way of getting them to swerve was to pick a lane early, stay in it tenaciously, and force the oncoming traffic to adjust to us. Through a few near misses, we had learned that if you failed to clearly telegraph your intent, then you wound up with the same problem that people on foot have when approaching someone in a crowd: You move to your right, they move to their left, which puts you on collision course again and you almost hit each other, so you both move back to your original courses and almost hit each other again—the little age-old dance that you do in crowds all the time. Now we were doing it at fifty miles an hour with a convoy of semis.
I shouted back—they were almost on us, and the roar was deafening. “Stick close to the median. Don’t pull up on the sidewalk—fourth’s got a squad somewhere around here.”
“Roger that!” Waters pulled our Humvee as far north as he could, almost scraping against the concrete lane divider. Then the trucks were on us. My night vision goggles whited out. My uncovered right eye went blind. I couldn’t hear anything, just the roar of the passing convoy.
However, I could feel, and sometime during the passage of the last few trucks I felt a gut-wrenching double thump.
Just like that, with a mere split second’s pause between the two. The Humvee jigged, then scraped up against the median. Waters slammed on the brakes.
I was irate. “Waters, what the hell? Did you just run over the median?”
I‘ll never forget a single word of the reply. Wide-eyed, Waters turned to look at me as our vehicle literally screeched to a halt. I could only barely see him out of my right eye—the goggles over my left weren’t working.
“No, sir!” he screamed at me. “I think we just hit a fucking Marine!”
My anger evaporated. Time slowed down. The vehicle behind, carrying the rest of first squad, slammed into our rear as Waters brought us to a complete stop, but I didn’t even notice. Somehow, I was out of the Humvee before it fully stopped, running back along the slowing convoy to where I had heard that horrible thump. I was so confused—I had no idea whom we had hit or even who could possibly be out in the middle of the highway at 5 AM. It didn’t dawn on me that fourth platoon might have been walking down the middle of Michigan rather than on the sidewalks, but it didn’t take me long to locate the sprawled body of a Marine lying on the north side of Michigan. Our impact had flung him across the median.
I hurdled the little wall at a sprint and ran up to the still form. He had no helmet and his head was swelling. I don’t want to describe it, so I won’t. Suffice to say, the injury looked bad, and the Marine wasn’t conscious. I immediately screamed into the PRR for my docs. Then I turned to Mahardy, faithfully behind me as always. I still wish that he hadn’t had to share that sight with me. I called in the medevac.
“COC, this is One-Actual. Be advised, we have just run over a Marine west of the Michigan-Racetrack traffic circle. Break.” Through the swelling, I could recognize the Marine, and what had happened suddenly struck me. “It’s Lance Corporal Aldrich. He has a severe head injury. Medevac is urgent surgical. He will need a helo to Baghdad ASAP.” As I spoke, Docs Smith and Camacho ran up. They were carrying a stretcher. “I’ve got the vehicles right here, so I’ll stabilize Aldrich and get him back to the Outpost ASAP. Over.”
Hes’s voice came back. “Roger, One, I copy all. I’ll arrange the medevac. Three out.” Unlike the Ox, Hes knew better than to ask clarifying questions in the middle of a crisis.
I put down the radio handset and turned to Staff Sergeant. He had overheard the whole thing, and as my eyes met his, he nodded and went into action, screaming at the Marines to turn the vehicles around immediately. Noriel got into the action shortly thereafter, and all five of my Humvees backed up, performing quick three-point turns in the middle of the highway.
Meanwhile, the fourth platoon squad leader, Sergeant Ford, made his way back to Aldrich’s position. We talked quickly for a bit, and he explained to me that he had moved the northern half of his squad off Michigan’s north sidewalk because of the IED that had just yesterday exploded at the traffic circle. Fearing another of the same sort, he had instead had his men walk on the southern side of Michigan, just inside the median. If another IED were to go off, at least the bottom halves of his men would be protected by the thick concrete. It made sense, but I had assumed that fourth would have been traveling down the sidewalks like almost every other squad. Now my assumption was lying unconscious in the street.
Ford also explained to me that, like us, his squad had been completely blinded and deafened by the convoy. Aldrich had been rear security for the squad, and even after our Humvee struck him, the front of the patrol, oblivious to what had happened, continued walking for a few minutes until somehow the command to stop was communicated up to them. I offered to take the entire squad back with us to the Outpost, but Ford shook his head.
“Sir, we’ve still got a mission. We’re going to continue it. You just get Aldrich back to the Outpost.” Then he stood up and turned around. The rest of the squad was dispersed along the two sidewalks, kneeling and waiting for direction. I don’t know how many of them fully grasped what had happened, but every man that I could see seemed relatively calm. Ford gave the signal to move out, and the squad picked up and resumed the patrol. I was stunned by the professionalism.
Just a few minutes later, the docs fitted a cervical collar around Aldrich, and, together with most of first squad, they loaded him into our second Humvee. We roared back into the Outpost, where the Navy doctor was waiting to take Aldrich from us. We unloaded him quickly. Back in the rear two vehicles of the convoy, third squad remained bewildered. The whole thing had taken place so quickly that they had no idea why we had inexplicably turned around mid-mission and headed back to base. Such is the fog of war.
Once Aldrich had been unloaded, I told the squad leaders to hold fast while I explained to the COC what had happened. There, I found the CO awake and clued in. I was terrified—we had just severely wounded one of our own men, and I had no idea what he would say to me. I was worried that he would start an interrogation rather than asking me for a detailed explanation, or, worse, that he would begin a lecture before I had a chance to explain myself.
I needn’t have been. Quietly, the CO pulled me aside and asked simply for my story. For at least ten minutes, I spoke and he listened. When my words were exhausted, the CO nodded and calmly answered my unspoken question.
“One, it looks like the perfect storm hit us. I know your prep was good and I know that fourth was doing the right thing. I don’t think this was the result of laziness or sloppiness. I don’t think this was anyone’s fault. I don’t think it was your fault. Like I said before, no matter how good you are, sometimes shit happens to us. Now, you need to get back out there and relieve second platoon. Let me worry about the stuff here—we’ll do an investigation and I know that it will show that all of us were doing the right thing. Like I said earlier, even when you’re good, bad things sometimes just happen. Now you go. I need you out in that city.”
At the time, I couldn’t properly express my gratitude for his calm leadership, so I left wordlessly and continued the mission. An hour later, we were at the Government Center, and I was trying to explain to Quist what had happened, but I couldn’t really get the words out, so I told him to ask the CO when he got back.
Halfway through the day, the Weapons Company XO showed up with a Weapons Company convoy, and he told me what the COC didn’t want to, despite my repeated inquiries.
Aldrich was dead.
Though multiple investigations went exactly as the CO predicted, to this day I still think about how it could have been different if I had told Waters to go left instead of right, if I had dragged our precombat inspection out only two minutes longer, if I had spent a little less time in the COC before the mission. On that day, up on the roof of the Government Center, I played these same mind games all night long, as did Waters. Neither of us slept for the entire thirty-hour mission, and, sometime during the night, it occurred to me that Bolding and Aldrich had been best friends. The two of them had planned to room together in college down in Houston when they got out of the Corps. I had failed them both.
By the time the platoon finally got back to the Outpost early the next morning, I was mentally broken. Soon after the vehicles entered the gates, the world started spinning around me, and I barely made it to the aid station before I collapsed on one of the green canvas cots. The sympathetic Navy doctors gave me a shot of Phenergan to stop the nausea, and then they sedated me through an IV drip. I remained unconscious for hours, and during that time, I missed my first, and only, mission day with Joker One.