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.