When Shadows Danced
Under a Fading Red Star

A Marine veteran relives a moment when war and surrealism converged in Iraq.

When I open my eyes, I wonder if I'm dreaming. This entire operation has seemed unreal from the start.

It is pitch black and silent. I loosen the top of my sleeping bag, and my fingers reach out to feel the icy metallic floor. I move my body and bump into full ammo boxes. I remember now, I fell asleep in a Humvee.

Mikko Carranza, author of this personal story about the Iraq war, slumped in a chair with his rifle by his side.

The author in Iraq.

Everyone else wanted to bed down on a floor, not in a vehicle seat. But enemy mortar fire has been constant, and I refused to sleep in the abandoned three-story building we parked next to. I feel safer with four inches of steel over my head.

We have lost four Marines since this assault started on Halloween. Twelve more have been seriously injured. Back home, a civilian might live from paycheck to paycheck; I try to stay alive from holiday to holiday. I'm just trying to make it to Thanksgiving, only one week away.

I have all the gear that makes a warrior. My Humvee is my warhorse. My Kevlar is my helmet, and my flak is the armor that protects my heart. I have boots to march me into battle. My M16 is my “thunder maker,” so called for the thunderous cracks it makes when fired. My sole luxury item is an oversized sweater that bears the Marine Corps crescent of an eagle guarding the world. At night, my sweater doubles as my pillow.

Why am I up? The sun hasn't risen. Ohhhhhhh... Nature calls, even when you're in war. I slip on my sweater; the sleeves are baggy and the elastic seams hug my wrists and hips. I crawl out of my sleeping bag. The cold chills my legs while I fumble around for my boots.

The Humvee's steel doors are heavy, especially for a feather weight. But I know how to use my 120-pound frame. I give a grunt and slowly push.

With my final shove, the door opens and I fall over. I quickly recover and raise my arms before it swings back and crushes me.

I am still not completely awake. I start to walk toward the latrine area, but get only eight or nine steps when the night lights up. My shadow appears before me, three stories high against the building wall. I look behind me and see four Humvees illuminated by bright white flashes. Multiple blasts stun me. It's mortar fire. I know that sound anywhere.