Roadside bombs, also known as IEDs (improvised explosive devices), were the biggest threat to the U.S. Military during Operation Iraq Freedom III. What follows is an account of what took place in April of 2005, during a sniper insertion leaving FOB Kalsu (Forward Operating Base Kalsu), when a four-vehicle convoy was hit with an IED. Each vehicle had a driver, truck commander, gunner, and possibly two dismounts. In the narrative, the IED explosion is the center of focus, as different soldiers provide their account of what happened, which, in one way or another, will not be forgotten.
IED (Part 1)
If you have ever driven to Vegas from Los Angeles, then you probably have been on Highway 15, also known as The Fifteen. The Fifteen is a long stretch of highway that travels across the Mojave Desert. The highway is made of black asphalt that has plenty of cracks that have been patched up. The sides are cracked, the black has faded into a grayish color, and the yellow lines are still bright. But it’s not the highway that evokes the memory, it’s the potholes.
The potholes remind me of the holes IEDs would leave behind. Some holes would be big enough to fit a van, not just any van, a twelve-passenger van. Picture a hole that takes up a whole lane, chunks of asphalt, with brown dirt sprinkled all around. The sight strikes fear and relief at the same time. Fear of knowing that there are more IEDs out there, just like the one that caused a crater in the earth. Relief, that the IED did not hit your vehicle. The combination of feelings still does not change your facial expression, because it’s not real until it happens to you.
You can hear the chatter around the FOB, the chatter from previous missions, chatter from those coming off of a convoy, chatter from the patrol that just came back, and the chatter during the mission brief: “IED’s are every where, we are seeing at least five to eight a day.” Even though you hear the warnings, and you have received the training, and you’ve been preparing for the hit, you drill and recite what you need to do when it actually happens. “Push through the kill zone, do not stop, keep moving.” You know what to do, you just hope you never have to actually do it. The thought of getting hit with an IED stays with you, but it’s still not real.
The Hit (Part 2)
Boom, bang, a spray of dirt is felt. Complete silence. Everything goes black. In your mind you see the words Game Over in red. Now it’s real!
Now the ringing in your ears. You can’t hear, you can see, but the ringing is constant. The vehicle is still moving forward. You can feel someone pulling on your leg. You’re still trying to get your composure. Your mind wants to know what just happened. You feel lost, and then you realized that someone just tried to kill you. Now you know how real the threat is. It’s not just chatter anymore.
The Fifteen looks like Main Supply Route Jackson. The potholes do not quite resemble the craters left behind by IEDs, but they sure evoke the memory of that day in April 2005. I remember getting ready for the mission. It was supposed to be a routine sniper insertion. Our mission consisted of a four-vehicle patrol. I was in the third vehicle that got hit. We heard from previous patrols that it was always the first vehicle that got hit. Not this time.
Vehicle Four Driver (Part 3)
I need to stop. What just happened? They were right in front of us. What am I seeing? There is a big cloud of smoke in front of me preceded by a fiery orange red flash. Are they gone? Who was in that vehicle? Those are my boys. What the hell?? I’m angry. What can I do? I am only the driver. Does anyone else in the vehicle see where the hit came from? What the fuck!!!!
“Break. Break. Break. Clear the net. We just got hit. Everyone is ok. Humvee is busted up. We stopped 500 meters from hit” (from the radio).
Wow. I thought they were gone. Thank God everyone is ok. This was a close call, too close.
Me (Part 4)
The third vehicle just got hit, this means that Hajji is starting to change their tactics. They improvise and adapt just like the Army does. It’s a constant battle, just like a football game; the plays are always changing.
I was in the third vehicle. I remember being hit so hard that it knocked me unconscious. I had no idea what was going on, I just knew that I could not hear. I did not have a target to shoot at, and I was still in one piece. I first checked my face with my hand. My night vision device was still on. I didn’t feel anything wet. I felt the rest of my body. Nothing hurt or missing. I had to check my package. It was still there; that brought a smile to face. I checked my legs; no damage. Wow! I just survived an IED. Why is my leg getting pulled on? I have no idea, but here you go; I’m going to just give him a thumbs up. Okay, he got it. He looks relieved. Damn Guts, he looked worried. Okay, now to focus. Where did that blast come from? I don’t see anything. What am I suppose to be shooting at? I don’t have any targets. Why are we stopped? Everyone is out of the vehicle; shit I have to stay on the gun, someone has to pull security.
Truck Commander (Part 5)
Before I left on the mission I remember saying that I was going to put a sandbag on top of the floor plates for good luck. It sounded like a silly thing to do, but I did it anyways. We had been on the road for about ten to fifteen minutes; I still had not put on my night vision device. I don’t know what I was thinking; maybe I felt like the rest of us were feeling — complacent. We had been in Iraq for a few months; nothing major had really happened to us. We were so wrong in thinking this deployment was going to be easy. I decided to put on my night vision device, so I pulled it out of the green bag, ducked down between my legs so that I could put it on; that’s when the IED went off. Boom! The blast blew right over my head, my window exploded. I was riding passenger, which the TC, also known as the truck commander, rides. The IED could have easily taken off my head. How is it that it did not hit me? Some questions will never be answered. Oh, by the way, the sandbag that was placed on the floor for good luck stopped a piece of shrapnel from hitting me in the face while I was putting on my night vision device. We looked at the sandbag; the piece of shrapnel was protruding through the bag. Talk about luck.
My Driver (Part 6)
I hope this mission does not take to long, I hate looking through these damn night vision device; all I see is green. Fuck it, I have a mission to do. We need to drop these snipers off. This seems to be another routine drop. I might have enough time to get back and make it to the gym, possibly get some late night chow. I need to make sure I keep my distance from the vehicle in front of me, at least 25 to 50 meters. Boom! What the fuck was that?! The vehicle just got hit. I need to keep pushing forward, can’t stop, have to make it out of the kill zone. I’m just going to slam my foot on the gas, keep driving till we are all out of danger. The vehicle is wobbling, glass is everywhere. Oh shit! Sgt. O is knocked out. Did it take him out? He is not responding. Ok, the TC is all right. He is shaking Sgt. O trying to get a response. Yes, there it is; he gave a thumbs up. I am just going to drive 50 more meters; then I am stopping. I need to see what damage was done to our vehicle and make sure no one was hurt. What happened to my windshield? There is a huge hole were the shrapnel flew through. If my face had been three inches to the right, I would have been gone.
My Thoughts (Part 7)
Hajji just tried to kill me, He didn’t succeed. I am still here! This is real. How am I supposed to feel? I can’t let my family know, they will just worry more. It’s all a part of combat. I need to take it for what its worth and just shake it off. At least I know that the training has paid off.
This experience has opened my eyes to the reality of combat. The enemy is real, and I must do what ever it takes to stop him. My enemy is a coward. He hides amongst the people. He will not reveal his face. He is a faceless enemy. This has made the fight much more harder. Everyone is a suspect in my eyes. I was able to see the good in the people that we are helping, but now I know I cannot trust them; it’s my life on the line and those around me. I don’t trust my interpreter or the people that work around our FOB. My vigilance has heightened. I am completely aware of my surroundings. I know the first part of this deployment felt surreal. I saw a few dead bodies, heard some IEDs, but I could not grasp the reality of it. It was as if I was just observing what was going on around me; I still had not taken part of the actual experience. Being hit with the IED was the first of many incidents that I would be a part of.
The IED pulled me into combat; it made me a part of the big picture. I became a part of something that was much bigger than me. I was part of a war that the world was talking about and will continue to talk about for the rest of my life and for generations to come. I was in War, caught in the balance of life and death. Every decision that I make and don’t make can be the difference associated with survival. Whenever I leave the FOB I know that I might not come back– these thoughts cross my mind when I get in the vehicle. My life is not safe inside the FOB either. We get incoming mortar rounds all the time. Granted, they don’t get close half of the time, but they do get close. The best way to deal with this is to believe that you’re already dead. Every time I go on mission, I say to myself that it doesn’t matter how long I have been here, if I am suppose to die its going to happen. It doesn’t matter where you are at; it’s going to happen. I am not going to know the difference if it happened day one or on the last day of deployment, if death is coming for you, it will find you. However, we are equipped to fight death.
I kept my weapon close at all times. My weapon was a part of me; it kept me safe; it gave me a sense of security; I was in a relationship with my weapon. My weapon required a lot of attention and maintenance just like the rest of my equipment. I miss my weapon sometime. It feels like a piece of me was left behind when I got out of the Army. At the same time I carry my whole Army experience with me at all times.
Victor Orta is a Federal Employee who graduated in 2010 with a degree in Sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He served for six years in the United States Army as a Cavalry Scout from 2000 to 2006. His first duty station was Schweinfurt, Germany, followed by his second duty station Fort Irwin, CA, where he deployed to Iraq in 2005 to serve as part of OIF III. Highest rank attained was Sergeant.