My First Taste of War
It was April 14, 2004, when my perspective on the war on terror drastically changed. Arriving in the country two months after the unit had already deployed, I knew I would encounter social integration issues. At the end of Basic Training I was assigned to 3rd Squad, 1st Platoon, C Company, 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade. The squad was already battle hard, having fought in Operation Precision Sweep in Samarra, during the latter part of December. For the first time in my adult life, I wasn’t teaching young people, but being educated by young men on the essentials of conducting day-to-day combat operations.
On day 14, Sergeant Fitz, my team leader, told me to get my gear together; I was going on a mission that evening. It was 6 p.m. and the sun was setting. I had only been on one other night mission, so I wasn’t aware of how hostile the area could be at night. Our mission was to patrol down the road directly in front of our Forward Operating Base, cut down a small alley, and then take an over-watch position in one of the houses. From that over-watch position, we were to watch for a guy riding on a red motorcycle; he had been causing our unit some problems.
We made it to the house and secured it without incident. Sergeant Fitz instructed some more experienced squad members to go upstairs, while Specialist Jared Cate, who was the squad’s SAW gunner, and I did room security.
Before Sergeant Fitz went upstairs, his instructions were explicit. He bent down on his right knee and looked right at me, “If anyone comes through that door and it isn’t our guys, kill them, no questions.”
Seemed simple, but it was dark, and I was already nervous. I responded quietly back, “Roger, do we have a code word for quick entry?” He looked at me, then leaned in. “Kill anyone who doesn’t look like us, roger?” I replied, “Roger that, Sergeant”
Sergeant Fitz smiled at me and then quickly got up. He walked over to the door, looked both ways and then back at me and said, “Game time, Dead Meat.” I replied, “Roger that, Sergeant.”
Within five minutes of that conversation, I could hear a noise outside the door. I looked over at Specialist Cate and tried to get his attention, but he was transfixed on his coverage area. A million thoughts went through my head. “Why would they put a new guy at the door?” “What if I accidentally kill my own guys because I can’t make out who’s who?” “What if my gun jams and the terrorist kills everyone?” My heart started beating, and I felt a lot of anxiety. To make things worse, I wore the wrong undergarment that had me overheating and sweating profusely.
As I was changing my knees, I heard voices. I couldn’t make out if it was English or not. A quiet voice came through the darkness of the front door. “Rock, Rock, Rock”.
It was English, so I whispered back, “To the limit.” It only made sense because it was our company motto. Then they’re out of the dark came, four soldiers. As they came by me they tapped my right shoulder one soldier said. “Good job dead meat”
Two minutes later, Sergeant Fitz came downstairs and stood by me. He walked toward the door and again looks both ways. As he stepped back into the room, he turned around and looked directly at me.
“Well, I can trust you at the door now.” he smiled and hurried back upstairs.
I felt relieved but on edge. It was great that I earned some trust from my Sergeant Fitz, but I had a long way to go to be combat effective.
The silence of that moment stood out to me. It was only my third time outside the wire and my combat instincts hadn’t developed; I felt something was off deep in my bones, though.
As I scanned out the near window, I heard what sounded like a whistle.
Boom… Boom… Boom. As soon as those mortars fell, it was like a herd of cattle coming down the stairs. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I awaited instructions from my team leader. My mind was racing with terrible thoughts of what had happened outside.
Sweat poured down my face; my eye protection became fogged, and at that moment Sergeant Fitz gave me the order to move out. I gathered myself and shuffled to the door where I ran into a huffing and sweating specialist Cate. This moment at the door would affect the next minutes of my life. I looked at specialist Cate and said, “You can go first; I will follow you.” Specialist Cate responded sharp and convincing, “No, you go!” I took a deep breath, peeked out the door, looked both ways, and then made my way out into the night.
Sergeant Fitz was 5 meters in front of me. He was moving at a good pace, so I had to get a move on. I struggled to keep up with him, scanning the rooftops, looking for anything unusual. It was a clear summer night, and the moon was bright, casting a slight shadow on the flat rooftops. Sergeant Fitz turned around and barked out, “Dead Meat, make sure you scan the roofs and keep your interval.” My nickname was Dead Meat. Something about that name gave me the creeps. I finally managed the proper interval with Sergeant Fitz. I was carrying so much gear for the mission I could barely walk. This was something every new private went through, along with other Infantry hazing experiences.
I was strong being right out of basic training, but unfortunately, I was extremely fatigued from not eating well or getting rest during the afternoon. The nerves had me up as if I was getting ready for the enormous homecoming basketball game.
As I was scanning the roofs, I noticed what looked like someone moving in the corner of the roof across the street. I quickly relayed it to Sergeant Fitz. He looked up at the rooftops and replied. “I don’t see any movement. Just keep scanning the roofs”. I looked behind me to make sure everyone was there. When I turned back around, I noticed Sergeant Fitz in a complete sprint around a corner. I started the sprint.
BOOM… The heat and power of the explosion hit me with tremendous force, causing me to be thrown and twisted in the air like a rag doll. I landed on my back directly on my breach kit. My glasses were shattered, and my weapon was missing. The remains of the rifle sling lay beside me. It was sliced in two from the blast. After being stunned for what felt like 2 minutes, I quickly and painfully rolled over and looked for my weapon. I realized immediately without a weapon I was even more of a lame duck in the middle of the street.
Lying in the middle of the street was my rifle. If there was one thing I had picked up during basic training, it was low crawl in the dirt. My Night Vision goggles were jolted off and hanging on side of my helmet, sparing me from more of a traumatic experience. Thankfully Sergeant Fitz during pre-patrol inspections had me redo my night vision security cord.
I started to low crawl to my weapon. My heart raced, and the adrenaline coursed through my veins. Every inch I crawled closer, the anticipation of being hit was more immense. I could see tracers flying everywhere through my night vision goggles. As I crawled to my weapon, I noticed that the tracers were coming closer. It was obvious that I was a target. Because I was in the middle of the road, the soldier behind me couldn’t fire. I grabbed my rifle, and it was hot from the explosion. I didn’t have time to make sure everything was there I had to get to cover fast. I could hear the whizzing of rounds and see the impact of rounds sparking off the cement.
With my rifle in hand, I immediately slithered to a mound of dirt, then slumped behind an old, blown up car. Suddenly the sky lit up like the fourth of July. The gunfire back and forth was so deafening. Soon, specialist Cate joined me behind the same car. He looked at me and grinned “Welcome to Iraq,” I shook my head and look down at my rifle and it looked damaged, but I wasn’t certain.
After everything calmed down, I got up and tried to locate Sergeant Fitz, who had seemingly disappeared. While I was looking down the road, my squad leader, Staff Sergeant Eric Evans, got my attention.
“Are you OK, Hardt? Did you get any shrapnel or anything?” My heart was beating fast and my adrenaline was still racing so I couldn’t feel anything.
“I don’t think they hit me, but my finger hurts, and my elbow stings.”
“Pull security, I will check you out.” I looked down the road; it was eerily peaceful. As if time has suddenly paused.
Staff Sergeant Evans identified a hole in my uniform, and some blood spots beginning to form. I had been hit and the hot shrapnel had gone into my elbow and hands.
Over Staff Sergeant Evans’ radio, I could hear other platoons at Rock Base taking small arms fire and RPGS from every different direction. Rock base was now directly under attack.
Over the radio an urgent message came through from headquarters.
“Incoming mortar has hit the wall and Humvee, over” Sergeant Evans responded”
Roger, trying to locate position of outgoing.” My understanding of the chaos of war was now real.
As I leaned against the wall and looked up at the sky, I noticed what looked like a falling star.
Meanwhile, Sergeant Evans was completely engaged in an insurgent attack. He peeked around the wall, looking for more insurgent movements, but then looked up into the sky. He said calmly. “That’s a mortar round headed toward Rock Base, again.”
He radioed into headquarters to inform them of the direction the mortars were coming from. He asked permission to make a squad move on the position that was firing mortars.
He looked at me and said, “Can you walk or run?” I replied, “Roger, I am good.” I felt terrible, but in the infantry, if you are breathing, you are still in the fight.
Staff Sergeant Evans radioed the rest of the squad leaders and gave the direction that we would move in. He got up, looked down at me, and put out his hand. “Let’s go, you want revenge?” Without hesitation, I grabbed his hand, and I popped up. I was dizzy, my vision was blurry, and I had a headache, but I had to push through it and continue. What happened next seemed like a war movie, but in slow motion and real.
As we made our way down the alley in formation, I was in the second position behind Sergeant Fitz. He had survived the ambush but had received wounds from the blast. My heart was beating and my adrenaline was pumping.
In front of the formation, I noticed people running across the streets. Was this another setup? Were we walking into an ambush? Sergeant Fitz, in full sprint, noticed some suspicious activity that was peeking around the corner of the wall at the four-way.
Bang.. Bang… Sergeant Fitz shot gun blast blew apart the side of the wall. Whoever was there was gone, but was hit and was bleeding. Behind me were more shots. It was like an old western fight, but the enemy was moving faster than we could return fire.
Unfortunately, I could barely raise my rifle because my arm hurt, not to mention I felt the heat and pain in my back starting to radiate through my body.
Dizzy and now feeling the warmth of the blood coming out of my arm and through my gloves, I had no choice; this was war, not a game you could call time out in.
As the pain got worse my anger and spite came forth, with grunts and vulgarity. It was like a demon breaking through and devouring my soul. I felt different and changed even at the moment.
Sergeant Fitz noticed the blood and instinctively followed it, leading us into the house in question. However, the blood seemed to stop before entering.
We made it to a big red gate and lined up accordingly. Sergeant Fitz gave us the instructions. “On me, roll in and secure the house.” I looked over my shoulder and noticed Specialist Cate with a big smile. The tap on the shoulder came, and we stormed into the courtyard and with so much energy I could feel the wind from those in front of me.
As I moved into the courtyard and made my way around the small wall, I heard a shuffling of feet. When I looked up, flying toward me was what looked like a grenade. I heard the others yelling “Frag out,” but it was too late for me.
The object hit my helmet and rolled off. I quickly and painfully raised my rifle and squeezed the trigger.
I expected the noise of the M4, but there was nothing. I heard someone yell, “Shoot him.”
The damage sustained from the ambush was very obvious. With my rifle up, pointing right at the person in the dark shadows, I turned on my tactical light and it flickered and went out.
Within 3 seconds Sergeant Fitz came up behind me, pushed me out of the way, and turned on his tactical light. Tucked in a corner on the ground was a young boy bent over and crying.
Oh my God, I almost shot him, I thought to myself. Sergeant Fitz grabbed him from the ground and dragged him to the courtyard, then came over to me and said, “You had the right to shoot because everyone thought it was a grenade.” I responded sheepishly, “Roger that.”
With a family of 6 sitting in the courtyard, scared and being interrogated, I felt mixed emotions, feelings that ranged from angry, sad, relieved and disappointed. It disappointed me I hadn’t checked my rifle more after it was blown off me. I was relieved because I could have been responsible for a young boy being dead after throwing a rock. Thankfully, it turned out the way it did, but it was that moment that stuck with me and helped me become a better soldier.
We cleared the house and made our way back to the base. That next day, Sergeant Fitz mentioned to me he had yelled out that there was a grenade dropped and RPG incoming. With all the noise of gunfire going on, I had missed it.
After getting looked at and taken off the line for a while, I made my way back into the fight. However, I was angry and changed forever.
Getting Ready for Combat
Preparing for this tour caused me to think about how I would perceive the enemy. Fortunately, I have been trained and equipped with knowledge over the past year and a half, so I feel confident I will do my job better.
This is the story of a long, hard 15-month tour in Iraq. For a very difficult 15 months, I wrote a journal on the events that took place while in combat and some training we went through before we deployed. This is the true story of my second deployment to Iraq. While writing this journal, I had a column in the local military paper. Being the first infantrymen to write for a newspaper would bring on intense scrutiny and lack of career progression. It was worth it. No Regrets