Monday morning started off with a battle training brief, preparing for war: what soldiers should know and do. The brief was specifically designed for Specialist and below. This brief was essential for soldiers preparing for the 12 month or more tour of duty. A Staff Sergeant asked the room of 80 soldiers, “who’s been downrange?” few of us combat veterans cautiously raised our hands.
The first topic discussed was the Nature of Combat. “The first job, regardless of your MOS, is to kill the enemy and always have your buddies back,” said Staff Sergeant with conviction. The men responded with a thunderous “Hooah-ah!” The Staff Sergeant Continued, with theme topic points, comprising the nature of deployments, development of battle mine, mental toughness, “STELL” Your Battle Mind, Listen To Your Leaders, Trust Your Training and Maintaining contact back home.
Surprisingly, the brief wrapped up 40 minutes. At first, I wasn’t impressed with the presentation; I considered it watered down. But after reflecting on my previous tour, I concluded that there was no reason for alarming men with the realities of war, because every man grasped individually.
Make it Digitized
It’s imperative that all men have their fighting kits squared and to the standard. “If it’s not digitized, make it digitized by the end of the week.” The First Sergeant, Chris Ward, said. The company supplied the spray paint, and men went to work. We have some real Michael Angelos in this company. While some soldiers prepared their kits, others did common areas, which included painting walls and stairs, scrubbing buggers off the toilet and fixing ceiling tiles. I always say there is no job, the infantry can’t do; we are mechanics, plumbers, painters, builders, and demolitionists.
During the week, my squad leader told us we would have a diagnostic PT test. I have never failed a PT test, but I’ve come close. This time I did 60 push-ups, 63 sit-ups, and 14:45 on the two-mile run, coming out to 245 on the Army PT standard chart. The official test is later in the month, so I will see if I can improve. The week ended with a 6:30 AM with a battalion run. Every time we do one of these, it’s like running in a big accordion. The last time I did this, my calves were on fire, but besides that. It was a good workout.
The days are getting shorter, and the weeks are flying by, drawing us closer to the inevitable-a date with 115 degree weather. Sounds enticing, huh? The next couple of weeks will comprise final preps and make adjustments for deployment. I can’t wait, we will see what all goes down.
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
At the tender age of eight years old, my brother Danny and I sat in the pews of my father’s church playing games to keep ourselves entertained while my dad preached the hell and brimstone sermons from the pulpit. Some games we would play ranged from staring at a certain person in the church until they looked; whoever could stare the longest would win.Something infatuated my brother with war, planes, guns, and anything tactical. One service, I noticed Danny had a paper, and on it, he had drawn some figures that looked like little soldiers and also on the paper were tanks, planes, and designated tree area, which represented cover and concealment.
He drew a line down the middle of the paper dividing both sides. Then, he folded the paper, and he took his pen and started putting dots everywhere. After about 30 seconds, he flipped the paper and did it to the other side. I looked at him puzzled and then asked, “What are you doing, Danny?”
He looked at me, squinted his beetle eyes, pushed his nerdy glasses up, and whispered so he wouldn’t bring attention to himself, “I am playing GI Joe.” I looked at him more confused.
He then opened the paper and just like magic, the dots showed through. The little soldiers, tanks, and planes that he placed on the paper were a hit or a miss. My brother made sound effects as if bullets were being shot and little rumbling noises resembling explosions going off. I was so young and pure in mind that the word “war” wasn’t even part of my vocabulary.
I was very interested in the game, so as the service went on, I learned how to play the game. Over the next weeks, my brother and I had a full-blown war on paper; it was like the popular game Battleship.
We would keep score at the bottom of the paper. The only way you won was if you killed everyone. In my mind, that was how war was won. I once asked my brother, “Danny, if you like war so much, why don’t you do something like you do on the paper.” My brother was older and had knowledge of the military structure, so he answered me. “I just like playing war, I don’t think I would be a good GI Joe,” he said. I answered back, “Yes, I don’t think shooting someone would be fun, the paper game is fun, what do we call the game?”
“War, we’ll call it war,” he replied.
When I turned ten, I became fascinated with playing war out in the woodlands and the open dirt fields alone but occasionally with my brother or even all the street kids.
I was into the civil war, so it was always the North versus the South. I would run in the woods with a stick in my hand or even a squirt gun and act like someone was shooting at me, even making sound effects like I was talking on the radio. I would lie on a dirt mound and peak over, looking for the enemy. Just to act like I was getting fired upon, I pounded the dirt and it would fly up, giving a grand effect. I often would try to creep up on the construction workers who worked laboriously on the highway that would later take my field away.
One day while sneaking around way out in the woodlands, I found out what a gunshot sounded like. I couldn’t believe I was out in the middle of the woods and somewhere out there in front of me was someone with a gun shooting.
I wasn’t certain if it was at me, but I perceived it was close. Apprehensive, I rushed through the woodlands as quick as I could; I was so afraid that I was going to die and my parents would never find me. Cutting through an unfamiliar part in the woodlands, I went from running like the wind to crashing face-first into the mud, but this wasn’t just a typical mud, this was quicksand or something like that. As time passed, I appeared to drop further into the muck.
I tried not to cry; I tried to pull myself out of the mud, but I couldn’t. I grabbed the tree limb over my head, but go figure, it broke. In the distance, I could see something coming through the bush. With my luck, I thought it would be a bear. Just like out of the movies, a man came out of the bushes. He stood over me like some kind of odd-looking superhero.
In his hands, he held what looked like a big stick of sorts. The man had a big grin on his face and asked me, “Son, you know where you are?”
It scared me to answer, but I got an answer out. “I was just playing GI Joe,” I answered.
The man laughed and then replied, “Son, it’s hunting season, and real guns are being shot out here in the deep woodlands.” The quicksand that I was in had swallowed my leg and was up to my knees. Did he notice? I did not understand, but I had to get out and quickly. I could only imagine what my parents would say when they found out their second child died tragically in quicksand.
The man took what he was holding in his hand and stuck it out so I could grab on to it. I grabbed it but slipped back. A sense of urgency came over me, most likely because the man had a frustrated look on his face. I leaned in and finally got ahold of the stick and he pulled me out. I sat on the ground and looked at the quicksand and shook my head. The man laughed.
“These sinkholes are rare, but you found one, son.”
I shook my head in disgust. I mumbled back, “I sure did, sir, I sure did.”
I slowly got up and looked directly at the man who saved me from getting sucked into the earth. I observed he wasn’t carrying a stick; rather he was carrying a gun, a big one. The man wore a yellow vest that to me looked ridiculous, but I wasn’t about to say anything, he just saved me from dying in quicksand. I got out of the sand and sure enough; I had lost my shoes and socks and I was just a mess. The man asked me if I wanted to go back to his truck so he could give me a ride home. I was so lost, so confused, and embarrassed that I took the ride.
I know that wasn’t the brightest idea, to jump in the truck with someone I didn’t know, but it was Michigan. I found out later that everyone went to my dad’s church, and he was one of the members. As I got older my story of playing GI Joe and getting stuck in the quicksand became a novel story at church, well among the younger kids, especially the girls. Coincidently a few weeks later, I would stand in front of him again, but this time with my parents. With Dad being the preacher, I mean forgiveness, right?
While my dad was preaching I escaped from my mom’s watch and crawled underneath the pews, rendezvousing with his daughter Mary. There we had a strange kiss, it seemed more like a lick, and it was so confusing. After that life-changing experience, I scurried back under the seat. I popped up and my mom didn’t even notice I had left. Or did she?
Most likely she did, but played it off during the meet up with Mary’s parents. The question I had was what exactly did Mary tell her mom and dad. They asked me what happened, and I honestly couldn’t describe it, so I said, “We did what Moms and Dads do.” That was the end of that conversation. I mean, her last name was lips. It was going to happen. We grew into the experience, but weirdly enough after a while, both our parents relaxed and the excitement was over and we got bored. I moved on to the next church member’s daughter, Gretchen. Apparently, Mary had a thing for my best friend Steve, go figure. That’s a story, but I digress.
I didn’t go out into the woods again unless I was with my brother or friends. My brother and I would later spend endless hours out in the woods playing war against each other. I seemed to be sneakier and knew where to hide, were as he was more one that would spend a lot a time throwing things at me, like acorns, rocks, and sometimes eggs. I could never figure out where it was coming from. This was when I learned from my brother what a sniper was, I never understood, but I knew I didn’t like it. My brother didn’t mean to teach me about war, but he did, innocently. My brother gave me insight into something I would later reflect on when in Iraq on my 1st and 2nd tours. When my brother found out I was joining the military, he wasn’t thrilled, but the only thing he said was, “Dave, just keep your head down and remember they are not throwing eggs, it’s war.”
The year that sticks in my memories, from my younger years, was 1985. It was then I watched the news, well I tried, sometimes all of it just seemed like a bunch of old people telling stories, and started understanding what war and global conflict was and how these issues affected the world that I was in. President Ronald Reagan, whom people called “Jelly Bean,” was running the show and every time he was giving a speech on TV, I would sit and listen intently.
My mom told me I would sit in front of the TV in a silent trance when the president was on. On June 12, 1987, Reagan challenged Gorbachev, then the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, to tear the wall down as a symbol of his desire for increased freedom in the Eastern Bloc.
I was so excited; I remember jumping up and down right after Reagan said his famous words that I would later look back on for an example of a man who fought not just for those who he served, but those in other countries. The following words today still inspire me:
“We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Looking back at the early years when life to me was simple and rather uncomplicated, there was still war and conflict. My parents never had to explain to me what war was, I found out on my own, and from doing that I learned lessons that to this day follow me and give me insight on what we call war.