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A soldier’s story
Explosive possibilities

Click here to see a complete listing of our soldier's adventures in Iraq.

Editor’s Note: These are the thoughts of a gay soldier — a North Carolina native — who has been deployed to Iraq. Because of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, he must remain anonymous.

I had a near encounter this past week of the wrong kind. For a brief moment, I saw my life flash before me.

It started like this. I was on the charter bus going to the dining facility. We saw a truck that looked like one of ours in an accident so I asked to get off the bus to investigate — I told them I would eat later. So they dropped me off with my gear. I suited up and went to see what had happened. This was not an accident at all. An Iraqi Army soldier had pulled off to the side of the road and discovered a land mine.

About three minutes back up the road, I had seen the Engineer Unit doing a training exercise, so in the back of my mind I thought it was possible that this, too, was another training exercise. When I get to the scene I see that there are no other Coalition members there and only one Iraqi who could speak good enough English to explain the situation.

There it was, an anti-personnel/tank mine, cleverly placed and concealed. When I saw it, I nearly had a heart attack. The blast zone on a mine like this is around 250 meters (about 275 yards) and with the ingenuity of the IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) of late, I knew this could be real and a very bad situation. I started what the army calls the five Cs (Clear, Cordon, Control, Call, keep Clear) in response to the situation and prepared a report to send to commanding officers. We cordoned the entire area and set up roadblocks. We did everything nearly perfect, I think, but I’ll get back to that later.

I radioed up the chain of command about the potential hazard — and all hell broke loose. Security for our base just went from a private for-hire firm to an all-Iraqi Military Police. While they are good, they’re not nearly as good as the private firm. Now the unthinkable has happened just 11 days after the Iraqi MPs had taken over security completely. In training missions using explosives, the devices in question are marked or painted in some way to indicate that they’re fakes. I could see this one clearly — and it was not marked training nor was it painted like a training aide.

Finally a U.S. Army Sergeant shows up to give some assistance. Although we think this situation is very dangerous — the Iraqis are just casually meandering back and forth looking at the thing as though it’s some kind of zoo attraction.
The entire time I’m thinking — how stable is this thing? What might set it off? The Iraqi Soldiers were so nonchalant about the whole deal. First driving nearly right on top of it and then walking all around it. Finally I had enough and cleared the area, weapon drawn to make the point, not pointed at anyone, but to show that force would be used if people came any closer.

We send word to the Iraqi Engineer school to see if this is indeed a training initiative. While we’re waiting, our base commander drives up. I brief him on the situation and he’s clearly not too happy. During our conversation an Iraqi Commander shows up out of the blue, with an American officer who works with them. While I’m briefing the American Army Sergeant from the Iraqi team, out of the corner of my eye I see the Iraqi officer start to walk towards the IED. I’m yelling at him to stop, in Arabic, but he ignores me. We’re now standing about 150 meters or so away from the IED — maybe a bit further but it’s still too close. We should have been 300 meters away or more. Then — as I mentioned — the unthinkable happens, the Iraqi officer leans down and just picks the damn thing up. We’re all standing around with our mouths gapping open as the entire world seemingly comes to a standstill. Nothing happens. The Iraqi Officer yells, “It’s not real!”

Then he explains that he wanted the training IED to represent the real thing and that’s why they used exact replicas — not marked or painted in anyway. Apparently he didn’t think about what might happen if anybody else might happen to stumble across them. I went ballistic! First I went off on the U.S. Sergeant working with this training exercise. Then the U.S. Army Colonel fired off on the Iraqi Commander. It’s not like me to get mad and throw a serious tantrum like this — but neither of these men seemed to be aware of how much anxiety they had caused all of us. We all thought we were about to be blown to bits.

“I wanted the experience to be as real as possible,” the Iraqi Commander explained. “Not if it causes this much anxiety with so many people,” I replied. “We had the entire half side of the base locked down and on alert.”

In hindsight it was a great training experience, but there was a moment when I thought I wouldn’t be home enjoying all those cocktails and friends I talked about in my last column. Now there’s a new policy for the Iraqis that will require all training explosives to be painted with the word inert on top and in a different color from the casing.

For the better part of an hour we thought the unthinkable had happened. For a brief moment I saw my life literally flash before my eyes, thank God it was a training incident, Despite my anger, congrats are in order to the soldier who found the explosive. And it’s true — I should have been farther back after cordoning off the area around the site. In the end many lessons were learned by the experience. Thank God I’m still here and writing to you in one piece.

— Reporting from Iraq,
your friend and soldier from Charlotte.

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