By J.E. McCollough “Thunderstruck” makes me remember the attack on Tikrit...
We Few, We Happy Few
By RU Contributor Johnathon
The day was January 1st of 2007, the beginning of a new year. The day had been like any other in Iraq: wake up, maybe get a quick bite to eat, sit in a planning meeting for a mission that just came down, and then off to “go play Army.” But this day was very different and it would change my thinking forever, I just didn’t know it yet. As a U.S. Army Ranger I get the important chance to knowing more about the operation tempo than the average person. In this case that knowledge helped a family and helped to solidify a country’s passion for the foreigners stationed there.
First off, let me describe how the area looked. The day was nice, a little cool, but with the sun shining brightly the cool breeze from the north coming off of the Euphrates River was softened. The Iraqi children were playing in the street doing what children do; all of the teenagers were coming and going as they pleased, the woman cooking, cleaning, and working in the yards, and the men…well they were just sitting around smoking cigarettes, drinking chai (their form of tea), and gossiping like old women in a hair salon.
I had just gotten finished with a mission and was taking a breather before the next one came down, because it might last all night. So I took the opportunity to rest and take my body armor off and that’s when it happened! Just as I dropped my gear and sat down in a little camping fold-out chair, three mortar rounds impacted in my Area of Operations. Two landed about 50 to 75 meters away and the third landed in a palm tree grove cutting one of the trees in half.
Let me take a second and give you some background and information about these mortar rounds. They were 60 millimeters mortar rounds, about as big around as a 40oz. of Old English. They have a maximum range of 3500 meters and a kill radius of 30 meters. Mortar rounds, rockets, and small arms fire from AK-47’s are a daily occurrence, wait- I take that back. One if not all three happen on an hourly basis and have a tendency for going on for hours. Knowing what the streets looked like since I had just walked in the door literally two seconds before
I had an extremely bad feeling about where those rounds landed and what they had done. Not even thinking about it I waited for a second to see if there were any more rounds incoming. Once I took that pause, listening and waiting for the next round to come through my roof, I put on my body armor, and helmet, and grabbed my aid bag. You might be asking yourself “Johnathan aren’t you forgetting something?” The answer is YES! I left my main weapon sitting on my cot and only had a 9mm pistol on my leg drop holster. It might not have been too bright to leave my stronghold and run out into a busy street with cars and people everywhere and have no weapon, in the worst city in Iraq, Ar Ramadi. Ar Ramadi has claimed more than a third of the lives of American soldiers since the beginning of the war.
You might ask yourself what was going through my head. I was thinking that someone somewhere was hurt, and I might be the only chance that they had. So for the first time in my life I put someone else’s life before my own, in such a dangerous situation. I forgot to mention that I had a plethora of Iraqi Army soldiers, our allies, loaded to the teeth surrounding my buddies Shawn, Chris and I. As we left the house and moved into the streets that’s when the chaos ensued. There were people running and crying everywhere. There were two billows of smoke rising into the air from holes not yet seen, yards not seen, and walls not climbed.
Iraqi Policeman met us in the street and we ran down the road in the direction of the smoke. We turned into an alley and people were running everywhere. As soon as I worked my loaded-down-ass-with-gear over an 8-foot-high-cinder block wall, it dawned on me that the yard was empty, and the family was nowhere to be seen. Just as I finished my thought I turned around to see a group of people carrying a weighted down blanket and that’s when I prepared myself for the worst.
Once they had dropped him I was relieved to find that he was still alive. So begins the fun. I looked him over from head to toe and took a quick assessment and found that he had a four inch laceration on the right side of his head, a completely shattered right arm, with shrapnel, flying pieces of metal, rock or anything that will fly from the explosion, to the right arm, right side of the rib cage, both thighs, and a nice chunk out of his right foot.
As I was making my first move toward my aid bag for supplies that’s when people came out of the woodwork, I ripped open my bag, grabbed a pair of surgical gloves – for some reason this was the first time that I had a tough time getting gloves on my hands – then went for the gauze and bandages. I could see the skull of this gentleman and was afraid that he would go into shock if I didn’t do something fast. So I lifted his legs and told the Iraqi sitting beside him holding, his head to take the gauze and hold it on the gash. Then moving down the body I bandaged up his rib cage, both thighs, right foot, and finally put his arm in a makeshift sling. I have never moved so fast in my life; it was as if my mind was elsewhere and my hands were just doing the work, and I had no control over them.
Next, they shuffled in a little boy whom I took particular interest in because I have a nephew named Jackson the same age as this boy and all I could see was his face in this scared young boy. This little guy was a trooper: he had shrapnel to the right elbow, left foot, and a hole the size of the bottom of a coke can in the back of his left knee cap. With all of these things wrong with him he wasn’t even crying. While I was looking over him, I looked up and saw that there were people all over the yard that hurt and I the only person that’s medically qualified.
I took a deep breath and said to myself “Here we go!!” I placed some gauze on the back of the little boy’s knee, patched up his elbow, foot, and moved on. But, before I left I took one more look at the hole in the back of his knee the blood had already soaked through the gauze and was free flowing down and around the wound. I knew that if I didn’t stop the bleeding this little guy would be dead by the time that I came back to him. So I took more gauze applied a field dressing and thankfully that stopped the bleeding. I was sure to give him a reassuring smile before I took off to the next person.
Next, was a teenage boy most likely playing with his brothers and sisters in the yard when this happened. He had shrapnel to the left elbow, right buttocks, both thighs, and the right ankle, which was completely shattered with the bones just barely beneath the layers of skin that they didn’t slice through. As I was bandaging him up he was slipping in and out of consciousness, so I prepped him for shock before it completely set in. Meanwhile, I took a look up for some reason and something to my back left caught my eye. Two women walked in were holding something in their arms wrapped in a blanket and all I thought was “Shit it’s a baby!!” Well, damnnit, I hate it when I’m right.
I took the baby from the two hysterical women and laid her down on the blanket, which was covering her so I didn’t know how bad it was until I laid her down. Upon pulling the blanket away I was thrown into a world of shock and amazement. The baby had defecated everywhere. The smell and sight didn’t bother me, I have been in the Army for eight years, trust me I have seen and smelt a lot worse, but that didn’t bother me, what bothered me was the palm size whole in the back right part of her skull. All I kept thinking was that this baby doesn’t need a doctor, she needs a priest. But I said a quick prayer while I was putting a bandage on her head. I told the mother or woman I thought was not to press the bandage down on the head since I could see in past the skull. One eye was dilated and one wasn’t. There was blood pouring out everywhere and there was cerebral spinal fluid coming out of the nose and ears.
At first the baby was crying and fully aware but in a matter of seconds the crying stopped and she began to get drowsy. So I did the only thing that I could think of: I started to talk and move my head and hands, since that always get my nieces and nephews attention. I cleaned off the injury and moved onto the next person. I had to stop thinking about that baby or I would forget a critical step while I worked on someone else.
My next patient was the mother; she had taken shrapnel to the right eye, left arm, both thighs, left rib cage, and the left ankle. Let me tell you something about Iraqi women. Everything on their bodies is covered except for their face. For a man, especially for an American man, to look at her legs is an amazing feat even when they’re injured. I placed a bandage on her eye and worked my way down her body, trying to fix what was damaged from the flying metal and rock, at the same time yelling at my buddy on the radio about transportation.
At about this time my aid bag is running dangerously low on gauze, bandages. I used anything I could find to use to patch up holes. As I stood up and looked around, I saw a little girl across the yard bleeding and crying. I went over to her and asked her what her name was, if she was ok, and where it hurt, and if she minded if I took a look. Mind you this conversation and all before with the injured and the families were all in Arabic.
She said it was ok if I looked, so I began my initial assessment. She had shrapnel to the left forearm, right hand, both knees, and right foot. All in all she was the best off but she was a little girl and was scared. She had caught just parts of the flying debris and just had a cut. Since she was so scared all she could do at this point was cry which I encouraged her to do. I know if she is crying that she is still conscious, alert, and she can still talk to me if she had to.
As I finished with her that’s when the real fun began, I was still attempting to put them in categories of precedence (i.e. Urgent, Urgent Surgical, Priority, and Routine). I’m yelling the nine line medevac, procedures that tells where we are what is wrong and how many are hurt, to my buddy Shawn, who is trying to call it up so we can get a few vehicles to our location to transport these wounded to the Combat Outpost. My other buddy, Chris is bouncing around like me as we are throwing gauze and bandages back and forth trying to help the wounded. As I made my third full trip around to everyone, the trucks showed up. We put everyone in either an M1114 up-armored hummvee, gun truck or a M113, armored personnel carrier that’s kind of looks like a tank without the big gun on top.
It was more chaos at this point than at any other time, since people gathering in the roads and the courtyard to catch a glimpse of what was going on. So, in turn they were blocking the only road in to get these people to a true medical facility. Also, somehow people made it into the yard and despite every effort short of shooting them, they just wouldn’t leave. This is dangerous because anyone to include the bad guys could have wondered in. Moving in the yard was like trying to move through a crowd at a Family Values Tour concert. Parents and friends shoved their way in to look, which shoved me out. One of the Iraqi Army soldiers saw this and said a few words and the crowd parted away from me like the Red Sea. I thanked him, but there were another 50 to 75 people that were still blocking the way.
At this point, I couldn’t see either of my buddies and didn’t know if they were ok or what they were doing. The baby and children were the most difficult to treat at this time since the friends and family were all concerned. I understood that they wanted to help. I have a mother-despite popular belief I wasn’t raised by wolves, nieces, and nephews the same age as these children’s age so I understood the families’ desire to help and the reassurance that they needed from me. We got all of our patience loaded up and off they went.
Everyone with a gun or who could help led, or ran alongside, or followed those three vehicles watching for Improvised Explosive Devices and bad guys until the drivers hit the gas and the superchargers kicked in. The streets cleared awkwardly fast, the same way a high school party does when the police show up.
I went back into the yard to see about 30 women unveil their faces and I saw tears of both pain and tears of happiness. First the tears of happiness, because they knew that the Americans were there to help and the help that we give is first rate. I found out why they were in pain while I was gathering all of my things from my aid bag, which had been ravaged and dug through like my room in high school. I looked at my legs, sleeves, chest, and gloves and saw why. They were covered in blood, not my blood, not my buddy’s blood, and not the Iraqi Army’s blood but these women’s family and friends. I quickly grabbed my stuff and left. As I was leaving, I thanked everyone for their patience and help. I left the courtyard the same way that I came in by jumping another courtyard wall. For the rest of the day, I was quiet and didn’t move much either. All I could think about was if that baby made it.
Later that day the three of us -Shawn, Chris, and I- decided we would go do a crater analysis. That means that we look at the hole and can determine where the mortar rounds came from thus giving us the next place to attack. That’s when we found out that the family that we treated was in the back yard was about 20 meters from the blast. Remember that the kill radius was 30 meters. We moved out at about 1500 in the direction the locals pointed us in. None of us had been in this area before, and all we had heard about the houses we were traveling into was that they were littered with snipers. All of the locals, the Iraqi Police, and even the Iraqi Army wouldn’t even go where we were going.
But two gung-ho Army boys and the Marine all agreed and said “Screw it!” and do it for fun and a story. This is how we usually decide to do a mission is based on the fun and danger level. The three of us were ducking and diving, moving from house to house and palm tree to palm tree. We were moving like the Special Forces guys in the Chuck Norris movies. I was thinking about that and the high probability that someone was looking at me through a scope on their sniper rifle waiting for me to show something, anything for longer than a second. While we moved, this made me start to laugh and giggle like a little school girl and soon all three of us found amusement in our high chances of never seeing another beautiful American woman in a bikini again.
This city looks like the projects in Chicago. So you can imagine the trash and difficulty in negotiating an area like that. As we were running, weapons up and ready for anything, we saw the tree that had been blown in half. While we were talking about the tree, a man form the Iraqi Police came out and told us about the tree and that a little girl was hurt. The three of us looked at each other and said “ANOTHER ONE!”
Once again my heart stated to race in both anticipation and reluctance. I went through the court yard and into the driveway/patio and the mother and a little girl came out from the house. The girl was holding her left arm and was walking slowly toward me. She was a young girl who was scared, amazed, and curious all at the same time. I looked at her injury and was glad to see that it was a two inch cut and not very deep. I looked at her smiles and told her that she would be just fine. By this time, the whole family, about 8 people, were watching my every move. I took off my helmet and sunglasses and put them on her brother’s head. I have never seen a kid smile so big; when he smiled he looked like a Jack-o-Lantern. He was just a normal little boy growing up and losing his teeth in no particular order.
I put down my Squad Automatic Weapon and pulled my aid bag off my shoulders. I opened the bag making sure I didn’t pull out anything that might scare the little girl. I grabbed some gauze, a few Band-Aids, and a couple of alcohol prep pads. She moved a little when I asked her to sit in a chair and place her arm on my knee. I cleaned off the cut and put a Band-Aid on it and then wrapped it in curlex.
While I bandaged her up the women went inside to fix the three of us chai. I gave a couple of Band-Aids and alcohol prep pads to the mother and gave her instructions about care for the cut. The woman of the house brought out chairs and a pot of chai. The family insisted that we stay for chai and a smoke. Once we finished our tea and were done rolling around in the yard with the kids, we started to grab our stuff to leave.
When the whole family asked us to stay for dinner, we reluctantly declined the offer because we had to return to the strongpoint about a click, 1000 meters, away. The whole time that I was there the little girl I helped was glued to my side; she was smiling at me and staring at me with those big brown eyes. Both of my buddies were laughing and saying that it looked like I had a little admirer. So I turned to her smiled then winked and started to laugh with the rest of the family. Her little face grew red as the stripes on the American Flag.
As we finished getting our stuff on, I blew up a few rubber gloves into balloons and gave them to the kids along with a few red chemical lights. The way those children acted when I gave that stuff to them, it was like the greatest thing since sliced bread. As we left, the kids followed us to the end of the gated driveway, all of them extremely hesitant to step even one foot into the street for fear of being shot.
As we moved down the street they were still by the gate waving and smiling, until we disappeared into the houses and through an alley. We left as quickly and stealthily as we had come. The three of us were just walking around looking for a fight when we found a family and a hurt little girl. We were that warm light of hope that encases a small family living in a small house in a country torn apart by war and terrorism.
During those few moments, we were the center of that family’s universe and everything that could have possibly comforted us; they thought of and did to the best of their ability. For doing something as simple as putting a Band-Aid on a hurt girl the three of us were viewed as saviors and no longer as strangers from a far off land. But we were three guys with an impeccable ability to make a little girl smile and put a family at ease. The Army has taught me a lot of things. First off I am an Infantryman, a grunt or ground pounder, so my mentality is that of either kill or be killed. Second, I am lucky to have the medical knowledge that I do, that finally came in handy. But third and most important the three of us used that training and experience to give a few families another day in a city that hates us.
At least we know that there is one neighborhood that will watch out for the Red, White, and Blue. When all was said and done that day the quick response and correct medical procedures everyone, to including the baby, survived this day and will never forget three guys just trying to do their job and go home.