Nightmare at a Bend in the Road

(Page 2 of 3)

Marines prepare to go patrol a village in Iraq.
Photos: Chris Clark

After a breakfast of stale MREs and warm water, we begin a day of patrols and “knock-and-talks” to gain a feel for the locals.

Recon Marines patrol a village in Iraq.

Irrigation canals and patches of reeds and bushes pass by on either side of the road. Over the roar of the engine, I can hear the muffle of radio traffic and the broken a/c spinning. The constant rattle of grenades, bullets and weapons is almost comforting. We have enough suppressive fire to withstand any attack.

Around 2:00 a.m., we dismount at a house on the outskirts of a village. We sleep in shifts until dawn, six men pulling security and 20 men on the packed dirt floor. After a breakfast of stale MREs and warm water, we begin a day of patrols and “knock-and-talks” to gain a feel for the locals.

This place is like the countless other villages I’ve been to. Many of the 30 or so flat-topped, brick houses look as if they’re in mid-construction, with holes punched through walls and unfinished stairways. Children run and play in the streets, some kicking a beaten-up soccer ball, others holding out their hands to us, “Mister, mister, chokoolat.” Men squat outside their homes, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea, while veiled women return from the river in twos and threes, heavy baskets of water on their heads.

We observe custom and speak only with the men. They’re polite, but hardly forthcoming. They don’t want us here any more than we want to be. By the end of the day, we pack up to leave with no new intel on insurgent activity in the area.

I cram into the fourth vehicle with five other Marines. We are hot and tired, and the Humvee is like an oven. No one looks forward to another night-long drive through the desert. But we are in unusually high spirits. We joke with one another and try to make light of having eight months still ahead of us until we’re home, safe, with our loved ones.

As my eyes adjust to the night-vision goggles, Iraq again turns an eerie green. I feel as if I’m entering some sort of dream, a hazy consciousness that can be sparked to clarity at any moment.

Leaving the village, we round a small bend that wasn’t entirely visible from our vantage point the night before.

First there’s a blinding flash, then a deafening sound as my Humvee lurches into the air. My heart jumps to my throat, and in that split-second I know: A roadside bomb. A pressure-plated IED that, somehow, four vehicles passed without detonating. Vehicle Five, about 15 feet behind us, is hit hard, its entire front end gone.

I scramble out of my Humvee, and enter a nightmare. Gunny, our platoon sergeant, lies in a crater the size of a Volkswagen, his legs blown apart.