Today I yield this post to a person I am truly honored to count among my friends, Rich Musicant. Rich and I served in the Marine Corps together in the same unit, the same platoon, even in the same section... up until about 2 weeks before Operation Desert Shield became Desert Storm (I was transferred to another Dragon section then to fill the gap where they were short).
What you will be reading shortly is an excerpt Rich sent me, which I hope will soon be published as a book (should it get published, I plan on getting a copy, mailing it to him, and ask for him to autograph it). It is his account of the day before, and the days after, the launch of the troop movements known as Operation Desert Storm.
1st Section, Dragons Platoon, during Operation Desert Shield (approx. 2 months prior to the beginning of Operation Desert Storm)
I was once asked about the most defining moment of my life.
It happened on February 24th of 1991 at about 4:30 in the afternoon, local time. The locale of course was the Al Wafra Oil Fields of Kuwait, just south of Al Jaber Airfield. In reality it’s just an exotic name for another flat, desolate shitty piece of land adjacent to the Gulf coast. It was little more to us than a crappy landscape that we had to cross on the way to Kuwait City and the International Airport. But on that day it became real estate worth fighting and dying for.
The airport was more than just a destination in our eyes. We were in the land of Oz and on the way to the Emerald City, the launch pad for our freedom bird back to civilization. The word had come down from the top. Once we left Saudi Arabia, that was it. There was no turning back. The only way home would be from Kuwait International. After living in the desert for six months in tents and holes we dug in the ground, eating food not fit for prison inmates, we were more than ready. We were so sick and tired of the conditions that we were willing to destroy everything standing between us and that airport. Some people might say that had been part of the plan all along.
The preceding day had been anti climactic to say the least. We all milled around with nothing to do. The plan of the day was pretty self-explanatory. Church, chow…ground offensive. You had to admire the bluntness of military efficiency just a little. Now as the last remnants of daylight gave in to the darkness, we geared up and loaded into our Amphibian Tractors or “Tracks” as we called them, and slowly rumbled off into history.
The whole thing was almost surreal. I remember not being scared as much as I was worried I’d make a mistake or worse. I always thought I’d be scared at the moment of truth. I wasn’t prepared for what I felt though. My fear for my own life and well-being was taking a back seat to several things. My fear of making mistakes that would cost others their lives, my fear of the unknown and the pain and regret of knowing what I was putting my mother through weighed heavy on my mind. The whole time I couldn’t help but wonder… Is this really happening?
Anyone who says they weren’t scared in battle is either lying or crazy. There are of course degrees of being scared. For some people that fear cripples them and they freeze up in battle. Some experience it as an adrenaline rush. Some just don’t seem to know how to process it and store it away in some corner of their brain to deal with it at a later time. I don’t know where I fit into this except to say that I analyzed what I was feeling until I came up with the following conclusion.
This was the hand that life had dealt me. Hundreds of thousands of men and women had been dealt the same hand since the birth of our nation. I don’t know if I found the courage to overcome my fear as much as I realized my sense of accountability to those who had come before me. I had no right to neglect my responsibility to the legacy they had given to me. How dare I not stand up and answer the call.
I once served under a Sergeant Major who said that we were Marines, but we hadn’t truly earned the title yet. Sure we had made it through boot camp and we’d done some noteworthy things while serving in the Marine Corps. He wasn’t trying to belittle our service, but I understood what he was getting at. Now on the eve of battle I understood we were contributing to the legacy of the Corps. History was already recording the events taking place and tomorrow would be the next chapter in the history of the Marine Corps.
We rumbled over a large sand berm into Kuwait at about midnight or so. I sat atop a crate of explosives and mortar rounds, leaning against the engine compartment of our track. Three rows of somber faced Marines sat in contemplation of the coming events. Inside there was mostly darkness. The only light was a faint green glow from the radios. There was some small talk, but mostly we tried to catch a few minutes of sleep, as if that were possible. There wasn’t much else to do besides wonder what the next few hours would bring and soon enough we’d find that out anyway. Of course one couldn’t help but let his mind wander and wonder about the possibilities.
LCpl R. Musicant, USMC. Operation Desert Shield, 1990
At one point in the early morning hours I poked my head out the rear hatch of our track. The north sky glowed red and orange in the distance. I could hear the rumble of artillery and air strikes pounding the target we were slowly closing with. As far as I could see in either direction were the silhouettes of armored fighting vehicles and personnel carriers. The air was still and heavy. The temperatures that time of year were at or below freezing at night. The preceding morning we had woke up with frost on our sleeping bags. That night however as we rolled toward destiny the air seemed thick and warmer than it should have been. It was the proverbial calm before the storm.
Between midnight and dawn we closed in on our first objective, the first Iraqi defensive perimeter. The word was that it had been abandoned after a tremendous pounding. The formidable defenses which we referred to as the “obstacle Course” still remained though. We waited as the combat engineers cleared the way through the minefields, barbed wire and other impediments. We could hear the explosive line charges blowing paths through which we would pour into the heart of the Iraqi defenses.
With a jolt our track sprang forward. For hours the monotonous humming of the low gears had almost lulled me into sleep. Now the engine screamed as the track raced ahead into battle. Contemplation was over….It was game time. The Marines of our vehicle had their game faces on. The religious ones crossed themselves. Some of them fidgeted. The entire troop compartment was filled with an invisible energy that pulsated from the hearts of each man and traveled the entire length of the vehicle. Each Marine seemed to gather strength from this force and share it with his brothers. I don’t know any other way to describe it.
To my left my section leader Sergeant “Big Jon” White yelled at the top of his lungs. I couldn’t hear him, but I could read his lips. “Lock and Load”. As a career Marine his entire life had been about this very moment. Everything he’d done for the last 12 years was in preparation for this. I yanked back the bolt on my M-16 and released it, feeling the bolt slam home chambering the first round. My thumb found the familiar position of the selector and set it on 3 round burst.
Jinking left and then right, we knew we were about to disembark. The tracks were fanning out on the far side of the obstacle course. They’d cover the last few yards on line in a full frontal assault. I often wonder what it must have looked like to the defending Iraqis to see this wall of violent power bearing down on them like a giant brown tsunami.
It was only a matter of seconds now. As soon as the track stopped and we heard that familiar pop of the ramp hooks releasing we’d spill out the back and fan out, shooting the shit out of anything in front of us that looked like a threat. The idea was to clear out of the vehicle before any anti armor missiles could aim and fire at us.
With almost no warning, the track lurched forward as it ground to a sudden stop. Track drivers refer to this maneuver as a “brake stand” the vehicle actually starts to tip forward on it’s nose and then settles back on its treads. As we settled I heard the pop of the back hatch. Everyone sprang out of their seats, and plowed right into the hatch, which was still closed.
The door had somehow jammed. We waited for that first crack of sunlight to come through. There was a split second of dead silence and then we started pounding the door and screaming. We could feel missile crosshairs training in on us. Iraqi anti armor missile gunners were trained to hit the vehicles before they unload their combatants whenever possible. Catching them all in a confined area is an effective method of attack.
After what seemed like an eternity the hatch finally fell open. We burst out the back of the track like angry hornets. After hours of being in that cramped compartment, one couldn’t help but give thanks for the chance to stretch the legs and take a breath of fresh air, raging battle or not. As we cleared the back of the vehicle and ran forward I don’t know if I was prepared for what I saw.
There was a dense fog before us. We couldn’t see more than a hundred feet ahead of us. To my left and right I could see Marines fanning out and preparing for a full frontal assault. I thought at any second the world would erupt into a hellfire of automatic weapons. But what happened next was even more terrifying.
It was as if someone had flicked a switch inside my chest and my heart instantly started pumping ice water throughout my body. I knew this moment would come and I loathed it. It meant possibly spending the next 24 to 48 hours in full chemical protective gear complete with gas mask and hood. That meant no food. Urinating in the suit and drinking through a tiny tube in the mask. It also meant traveling inside the track where it was already unbearably hot and stuffy, even without the chemical warfare suits. More than that was the intense claustrophobic feeling of sitting inside that hot box with limited vision and restricted breathing.
The order came to move out. Climbing back into that track, I paused at the hatch, the troop compartment was like the gaping mouth of a cave. I didn’t want to get into that vehicle. I didn’t want to be stuffed into that cramped space. I would rather have walked the rest of the way. But what I wanted was irrelevant. I took one last look around, took a deep breath and climbed inside.
Sitting atop the explosives I was somewhat more relaxed. It didn’t feel quite as cramped as I thought it would. I tried to lean back and breathe normally. The heavier you breathe in the mask the harder it is to breathe. I forced myself to relax. I somehow convinced myself that since I didn’t have a choice, there was no point in worrying about it. And suddenly, as if that were the correct answer, we got the all-clear sign and we removed our masks.
After a brief shuffle across the desert, we dismounted for a much needed break. The sun was rising and slowly burning away the fog. In the distance we could see the remnants of a target we were advised of. It was a small cluster of buildings that were possibly housing some light artillery. Since I might be the one calling in a fire mission on this structure, I wanted to know where it was located. Looking through my binoculars all I could see was a patch of scorched earth and the charred wooden frame of a single wall.
A convoy of vehicles stretched across the desert as far as I could see. Hummers and trucks lumbered through the breach lanes, so heavy with gear the vehicle frames crunched down the suspension systems. Every hummer that passed us was a low rider. They looked like gypsies with all the stuff lashed to the exterior surfaces of the vehicles.
Engineers blew additional lanes through the minefields allowing even more traffic to flow through. Above us attack jets and helicopters darted about in the sky. A pair of Cobra helicopters buzzed past us low to the ground. One of the pilots looked our way and acknowledged us waving at them, giving us a thumbs up.
Sitting outside our track, we guzzled water and gobbled down food and chain smoked and dipped chewing tobacco. We stretched our legs and emptied our bladders and took deep breaths of fresh cool air. We rejoiced in our first taste of action, such as it was. We may not have taken or returned fire, but we had pushed our way into what was only minutes ago enemy held territory. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.
It wasn’t long before we were back in our track and heading north again, this time at an accelerated pace. We no longer had the darkness or the fog to conceal us. Speed and force were our advantage now. We had a lot more work to do before the day was out.
By design, our attack was supposed to be brutal and fast. The breach element, which was our battalion would hit hard and fast, barreling through the enemy’s defenses and push through with tanks and tracks. The assault element, an additional battalion trailing us would ride in our wake, mopping up any pockets of resistance while we secured the area ahead.
The second breach was much like the first, only much smoother through our dismount. As we flowed out of the tracks with much more precision we found a much different situation than the early morning attack.
The ground was flat and hard. We could see all the way out to the horizon where oil wells were furiously burning. Tanks rolled past us pushing toward the enemy trenches. To our left and right Marines had dismounted and were crouched in front of their tracks waiting for the order. Each team had a specific and well rehearsed task to complete.
I looked back and forth across the landscape, waiting for the command to advance. As the team radioman I was Big Jon’s shadow. I hugged the ground behind him, keeping my antenna low to the ground to avoid attracting attention. The air smelled of sulfur and something else I couldn’t identify. All I knew was it turned my stomach.
A SAW gunner cut loose with a long burst. Somebody had gotten nervous and pinned his trigger back. We all looked at the horizon for flashes of enemy gunfire. Everyone was ready to open up on the enemy, but there was none as of yet. A few more loose shots rang out before a platoon sergeant yelled out, “Cease fire…. Cease fucking fire!”
As we prepared to advance a white flag suddenly appeared from the trench. It was a long wooden pole with a white sheet as clean as new snow. It was waving back and forth for what seemed like an unnecessarily long time. We had expected this to happen but not quite so soon.
The first Iraqi soldier emerged from the trench, waving the flag back and forth. He was immediately followed by a long, long line of men. They began to pour out of the trenches. They all waved leaflets that had been dropped telling them how to surrender. Most of them had removed their shoes. At first I thought they just didn’t have shoes. Later I learned it was a symbolic gesture of their surrender.
Before we knew it they were everywhere, surrendering in droves. We had been told that many of the Iraqis didn’t want to fight. They had been out in the desert for so long, with little or no food. They had inadequate clothing and shelter. Most of them were sick to some degree. They were filthy and covered with dirt and lice. On top of this they had to endure weeks of continuous bombing. We had pounded them for so long and that they had lost the will to fight.
At least most of them had.
It was completely surreal at first. It was like a game or a very very big training exercise. They say when everything seems like it’s all going according to plan it’s the time to start worrying. That’s when it happened. At first it didn’t really register in my brain. The popping crackling noise of rifles in the distance was like background noise to me. It took a moment for it to click in my head.
“Who the hell is shooting ? …….Holy shit !… we’re in a fire fight”
As it turned out not everyone was interested in surrendering. The Iraqi soldiers who remained in the trenches were shooting at us and also at the surrendering Iraqi soldiers. The Iraqis caught in the middle started to panic and that’s when things began to get out of control.
To our right a large group of Iraqis were running toward our position. They hadn’t been taken into custody yet. They were screaming and pointing away from us. Big Jon sprang up and charged them. I was right behind him along with Lieutenant Jones our platoon commander who was along as an “observer” rather than being stuck in the rear of the column. As we approached the Iraqis we spread out, weapons at the ready.
We yelled at them in English and Arabic to halt and get down. They continued to charge. I slowed my pace a little as I brought my rifle to bear on the soldier closest to me. The front sight post of my M-16 was aligned with his chest. He was running straight at me making it easy to keep him in my sights. He was skinny as a rail, wearing a ragged faded green uniform with a brown wool cap. His beard was patchy and unkempt. He wore a green jacket over his uniform open and tattered. It didn’t occur to me until years later that he was wearing his shoes where other surrendering soldiers had taken theirs off and carried them as a symbol of their surrender.
Our instructions were very clear. If it doesn’t seem right, our personal safety was the first priority. In other words, shoot first and ask questions later as the saying goes.
I heard Big John yell out “Cut ‘em down…”
Everything slowed down around me. My finger tightened around the trigger in one smooth deliberate motion. It required no thought at all. I’d fired tens of thousands of rounds in the previous two and a half years. Every single one of those bullets from Parris Island to Pendleton to the Stumps to Diego Garcia was in preparation for this one moment. The three round burst was almost a surprise to me. The weapon bucked slightly into my shoulder. I could feel the vibration of the action cycling and the recoil spring slamming the bolt home again three times in rapid succession.
At the same instant that I fired my weapon, there were two very loud bangs to my right. I thought it was combat engineers blowing more line charges.
I saw two little puffs of dust come off the Iraqi soldier’s chest. One hit almost dead center and one a little above and to the right. He was in mid stride and it was as if someone had pulled a plug and let the air out of him. His eyes opened wide for a split second and then his face went blank. His arms dropped to his sides. At the same time his knees buckled and he stopped moving forward and crumpled straight down to the ground, falling backward and to the left. He hit the ground in one smooth movement. The whole thing happened in a split second.
At that same exact moment the world turned upside down on me.
It sounded like a loud hollow pop. It was as if a giant paper bag had been inflated and popped over us. It was a mortar air burst and I was in the kill zone, the immediate distance in which everything is usually killed. A thousand things happened in the next second.
The skin on the back of my neck and my ears became intensely hot. My skin was stinging from thousands of tiny sand particles that pelted my skin at high velocity. There was an intensely sharp pain in my left leg, as if someone had just hit me with a sledge hammer just below my hip. I felt my leg snap and fly out from under me. I subconsciously wondered if my leg just got blown off. It felt as if it had just completely separated from my body. Something pulled the air from my lungs. At the same instant, with the breath that remained, I gasped a single word…
Damn…Eddie Murphy was right. You do say it when you get shot. Of all the stupid things to think of at this instant.
The concussion from the blast hit me and slapped me to the ground like a giant invisible hand. I accidently squeezed the trigger of my rifle as I was going down, letting a three round burst fly. I hit the ground so hard that I actually bounced back up. I scrambled and tried to take another step. The adrenaline was surging and I still had no idea what had happened.
It still hadn’t registered in the conscious part of my brain. My first thought was how everyone was going to laugh at me for falling down. Something told me to get up before anyone saw me fall or I’d get my balls broken about it by everyone later at some bar. My leg dragged behind me as I tried to take another step. I flailed my arms trying to regain my balance to no avail. I twisted in mid air and fell over in a broken twisted heap on the ground.
A wave of intense pressure washed over me. My body felt like it was trying to violently turn itself inside out. The pressure spread out through my body trying to get out through my ears and eyes and even from under my fingernails. I felt a stinging, burning sensation on my exposed skin. My blood began to boil inside my body.
The blast had sucked, or maybe knocked the air out of my lungs. I gasped for air. As I tried to gulp down a breath and re inflate my lungs I breathed in the dust and hot air and the putrid sulfur death smell. I gagged and gasped again. There was a long moment where I was vaguely aware of how quiet it suddenly became. I opened my mouth and tried to scream. A pitiful moaning noise spilled out of my mouth. I tried to take another breath and scream out…nothing. What I didn’t realize was that I had been temporarily deafened by the blast. In reality, people would tell me later that they heard me screaming from a mile away.
That was just the first second or two…
Mortar fire rained down on us. The shrapnel whizzed through the air, making a bizarre sound as the jagged edges of metal caught the air. All around me weapons opened up on full automatic. There was screaming in English and Arabic. I was acutely aware of the number of Iraqi soldiers who were around me. Somewhere to my left a machine gunner pinned his trigger back and burned through an entire belt of ammunition. The hail of bullets cut into a group of enemy soldiers advancing on our position. We didn’t even know if they were trying to surrender or if they meant us harm. All the gunner knew was things were going bad quickly and now wasn’t the time to ask questions
I tried to reach for my rifle. It was pinned beneath me. My radio and web gear held me pinned to the ground. The concussion had stunned me and my joints were like putty. I was almost completely paralyzed. I flailed my arms trying to regain control. I tried to reach for the combat knife on my belt. I frantically pulled at the knife trying to free it from the sheath. My arms were like rubber and the knife was stuck on something, maybe a strap or my own body weight. I was completely defenseless and any second some Iraqi was going to realize it, grow a pair of balls and jump me.
I struggled to regain control and to get up. It’s so funny how in the movies the hero gets nailed and ties a rag around the wound and then runs a marathon. The real thing is much different. I tried as hard as I could, but I still couldn’t move. Tears streamed down my face in frustration and fear. I wasn’t in pain as long as I stayed perfectly still. I just felt this immense pressure. I could feel the warm wet sensation of my blood running down my leg and pooling around me. I knew if I didn’t get up, I was going to die right there.
All around me I could hear yelling and shooting, but it sounded as if it was much further away. A Marine ran across my field of view. I thought it was one of the platoon commanders. He yelled out, “Let’s move it…. We gotta get outa here!” I screamed out, scared that nobody noticed me or I was being left for dead. It still sounded as if nothing was coming out of my mouth.
From some distance away I could hear Big Jon’s pissed off voice. “Who got hit besides me?” I tried to yell out for him, but again the baffled moan was all I could seemingly force from my body.
Another Marine yelled from somewhere, “Lt Jones caught one in the face. He caught one bad! He’s really fucked up! Weatherman’s hit too”
“Musicant!” I heard big Jon yell….. “Where’s Musicant….Radio up!” I yelled out to him, but to no avail.
This was it…. I was going to die right here in a broken heap on the ground. Nobody was going to know I was even down. The entire unit was heavily engaged and I was lost in the shuffle. I was going to die right here and quite possibly nobody would find me.
I don’t remember how long it was before help arrived, but I’ll never forget what it looked like.
Tony Martin was a very large striking black man and former gang-banger from Wisconsin. He had joined the Navy to get away from Milwaukee and the trouble he knew would catch up with him. Now he was racing through a fire fight to get to me. He ran right up to me and came to a sudden halt just a few feet away. His eyes glazed over, his mouth dropped open and he turned a bizarre shade of gray.
“Oh my God….” He gasped.
He found me pinned to the ground in a bloody heap. My left femur had snapped clean in two pieces just below the hip. My leg had twisted backwards and my left foot was next to my ear.
Tony grabbed me by the front of my uniform and lifted me off the ground. As he did I could see my left leg bending from a spot that it shouldn’t have. My femur had been snapped clean in two just below the hip. It flopped back and forth as Tony tried to position me on his shoulder. The femoral artery had been lacerated and blood was gushing out. There was a huge puddle of blood on the ground. I could feel it running down my leg and pooling in my boot, soaking into my sock. It was coming out of me so fast the ground couldn’t absorb it. My rifle swung back and forth on the sling attached to my shoulder.
Tony leaned down placing his shoulder against my chest and prepared to hoist me in a fireman’s carry. I grabbed a hand full of my pants on my left leg and twisted as tight as I could. I thought for sure when he picked me up, my leg would remain on the ground. Amazingly as he stood, lifting me off the ground, my leg came with us.
Several Marines ran up to us dropping on the ground, laying down cover fire. They yelled for him to go. They shouted encouragement to him as he rose with me and took off. He stepped off, running as fast as he could for the medevac vehicle, a track almost 200 yards away.
As long as I lay perfectly still I wasn’t in pain. Now my shattered leg banged against Tony’s back with every step he took. The broken ends of the bone grinded and banged against each other. The pain was worse with every step he took. I begged him to put me down. I thought if he could point me at the enemy, I could hold them off while he got more help to carry me. I couldn’t take the pain of my leg banging into his back. My blood ran down his back, leaving a trail across the desert as he pushed on.
Behind us, the Iraqis were mounting a half assed effort, taking wild shots at us as Tony struggled to cover the distance. As he took each step closer to the track, I could feel him struggling. Tony was as strong as they come, but I was dead weight, with body armor and a backpack radio. I could hear the sounds of gunfire growing slightly more faint. I expected my leg to fall off at any second. Later Tony told me that one of the hardest things he ever had to do was ignore my screaming long enough to get me back to the medevac.
He laid me down on the ramp where we were joined by Rob Parcells, the medic from my team. He had been working on Lieutenant Jones who had been hit in the face. To the side of the track I could see Big Jon, stripped to the waist, rifle in his left hand and blood running down his right arm. He was cursing up a storm and yelling at the Medic to hurry up and get the bandage on his arm so he could get back to work. He still had no idea what had happened to me.
Rob and Tony went to work on me, stripping away my pants. Blood started pumping and gushing from the wound. They started to pile battle dressings on the wound applying pressure to it. Sergeant Steve Miller held my hand as they worked on me. The left side of his face was covered in blood where a piece of shrapnel had ripped through his cheek and broken out some teeth, although it didn’t seem to concern him at the moment.
I tried to look at the wound. I lifted my head and I could see my broken femur wobbling under the skin. I saw Rob and Tony’s hands covered in blood. Rob looked up and slapped me in the chest.
“Don’t look at it….” He yelled at me.
They were having trouble controlling the bleeding and I heard them use the word tourniquet. I knew what that meant. I was going to be an amputee. My mind raced ahead to a VA hospital where I was walking between parallel bars with a prosthetic leg.
Tony took the last of his battle dressings and packed them into the gaping wound in my leg, jamming his fist in behind them. They jacked me with morphine and started to package me for transport.
Big Jon entered the track under protest. His arm was bandaged and bloody. He had taken a hit in the right arm. Switching his rifle to the other hand, he had provided cover until the medics arrived, dropping two Iraqis that had tried to get to me to take my weapon. At the time he didn’t know it was me. He had also led a bloody faced Lieutenant Jones back to safety under fire. He was more pissed off about being taken out of action than he was about being wounded. Big Jon was a Marine’s Marine. He was the heart and soul of the Corps.
When he saw me, his entire demeanor changed. He was suddenly less angry and more like a concerned parent. He sat down on the floor of the track next to me and took my hand. He grabbed Lt Jones’ hand with the other and sat between us.
As soon as all the wounded were loaded we rumbled off toward the battalion aid station. The original plan was for no wounded to be evacuated until the assault was complete but the regimental commander stopped the breach to let us through,
I’ve had enough medical training to know what was happening to me. As I lost more and more blood I was going into shock. When I was first hit I could feel my toes and wiggle them. Now I was acutely aware that I couldn’t feel them. My leg felt like a piece of dead wood and trying to move my toes was painful, much like on a very cold day. I was becoming very tired and weak. Big Jon kept shaking me, trying to keep me awake. He kept trying to talk to me only I was too tired to answer him.
The best way I can describe going into shock is to imagine sliding backwards, down an icy hill in your car. You can feel it happening and you know there’s nothing you can do about it. No matter how fast you spin your wheels, change gears or crank the wheel, you’re still going for a ride and there’s nothing you can do about it. You’re completely helpless to the laws of physics, a force that can’t be negotiated with. I knew I was dying and there was nothing I could do.
I thought at that moment of Sgt Huge, standing over us as we laid in the mud on that cold October day at Parris Island .
“How much can I take?”
The track was speeding across the desert toward the battalion aid station. Big Jon was holding my hand, shaking me and forcing me to stay awake. I was bleeding to death and the numbness in my leg was becoming an aching pain that was spreading up my leg. The shredded muscles in my leg were cramping and tightening up. The pain started to spread upwards. It was becoming harder to keep my eyes open, to focus, even to breathe.
“How much can I take?”
My broken leg bounced up and down as the track hit rough terrain. The broken bones rubbed and ground together. White hot pain shot up my leg. Big Jon squeezed my hand even harder. I screamed so loud Steve Miller heard me in the troop commander hatch and kicked the driver, yelling at him to take it easy.
“How much can I take?”
I don’t remember being scared at that point. I suppose that’s when I figured out that it didn’t really matter one way or the other. Either I was going to die or I wasn’t. It was completely out of my hands. It didn’t matter how much pain my mother would be in and it didn’t matter how proud my father would be. Tomorrow the sun would rise with or without me. At least I was going to die like a man. As a bonus it was doing something I believed in and was proud of. I loved being a Marine and to die as one was somehow not so tragic. It was honorable and romantic and heroic. I felt strangely in touch with every Marine who had fought for Corps and County before me. I didn’t want to die, but if that was the hand God had dealt me then I would have to accept it, like thousands had done before me.
“How much can I take?”
As we arrived at the battalion aid station the sun was setting. The doors opened and there was Chaplain Dan Hall standing there waiting for us. The setting sun was to his back and it was like he had this halo of light that surrounded him. I don’t know if this was a good sign or a bad one. But I felt better having him there either way. Whether it was to pray with me or over me I knew I wanted him there.
Doctor Gordon Naylor and his team of trauma medics went to work on me. Dr. Naylor was a pediatrician normally. Today he was a trauma specialist. He was in fact the chief trauma specialist in an emergency room hastily erected just a few minutes earlier. The Navy had pulled doctors from every facility and every specialty. All Navy doctors regardless of specialty are required to take Advanced Trauma Life Support Training. Dr. Naylor was an ATLS instructor, which was a blessing for those of us who crossed his table.
It was at some point during this process that the lights went out completely. Later I would find out I was clinically dead for a few moments. I had lost almost all the blood in my body. I was resuscitated on the table and massive amounts of fluid were pumped into me. I never saw any white lights or heard anyone calling me. I simply remember that I was no longer cold or in pain and I was just too tired to care about anything. My life didn’t belong to me at that moment. It hung somewhere between Dr. Naylor, Chaplain Hall and God. I felt a strange calmness and euphoria that I can only explain as physical and spiritual acceptance of my situation. It was like a warm embrace from a giant unseen hand.
I awoke to find Chaplain Hall standing over me. He was probably one of the most amazing men I had ever met. Before he became a priest, he had been an Army Special Forces officer. We used to laugh about how the Battalion chaplain had more confirmed kills than most of his Marines. I had come to have tremendous respect for this man. He was wise beyond his years and it was as if he had been chosen by some devine plan to be there with us. It was a comfort to have him by my side at this moment.
He smiled, looking down at me. He was strangely calm. It helped me to see him not worried. “How are you doing?…” He asked me.
“I don’t know…” I replied. “How am I doing?”
“You’re Okay…” He said to me.
I looked down. I was covered with a heavy blanket. I couldn’t feel anything. I could see my right foot poked out beneath the blanket and I could feel it. I couldn’t see or feel my wounded leg though.
“My leg’s gone…” I said
“No it’s not…” he reassured me. “It’s just wrapped in a splint. Everything will be Okay.”
“You’re just saying that,” I told him. “You have to say that because you don’t want me to worry. You’re not supposed to tell a wounded man bad news. Swear it to me… Swear to me before God that I still have my leg and that I’m not gonna die.”
“I swear to you before God that you still have you’re leg…” he said with a smile, still calm and reserved. “And everything is going to be Okay.”
Doctor Naylor came over. “You’re Okay, he said” You have a shrapnel wound and a broken leg, but you’re going to be just fine. You’ll be up on crutches in a day or two…”
Just then I heard a loud voice outside… “Where the fuck is the medevac bird? This guy can’t wait!”
Doctor Naylor’s expression changed for a moment and then he looked back at me. “It’s okay, they’re talking about someone else.” He said. Judging by the number of medics and the Chaplain standing by my side, I wasn’t very convinced.
“Look…” I said “Don’t tell my mother. I’ll call her from the hospital in a day or two. If you guys call her, she’s gonna freak the fuck out.” I could just imagine the panic. The thought of some random person knocking at her door and telling her I was hurt, but having no real details was enough to make anyone crazy beyond words.
Chaplain Hall sat with me and prayed for me until the chopper came some time later. I drifted in an out of consciousness as I listened to him talk to me. Eventually the litter bearers came for me and carried me out to the landing zone. The sky was dark now and it was bitter cold outside.
“God be with you Richard…” He said to me. “I’ll see you soon”
It wasn’t until years later that I learned they had “black tagged” me. When large numbers of casualties arrive at an aid station or a field hospital, a triage unit has to establish who can be saved and who cannot. A black tag means the patient isn’t expected to survive and if the casualties are high those who can be saved get priority. I was lucky enough to hold on long enough to get the attention I needed.
By the time the CH-46 medevac chopper arrived it was dark again and cold. I was bundled in a wool blanket, naked underneath except for the splints and bandages on my leg. The cold air lashed me as the litter bearers rushed me out of the aid station and into the rear of the bird. The sky was black as coal and starless from the oil well fires that burned out of control. The helicopters were having difficulty navigating and flying through the smoke. I later learned another Marine from 2/7 who sustained a similar leg injury had died waiting for a medevac chopper to arrive. As it turned out I had waited more than two hours for them to find us and fly me out.
The CH-46 was lined with litters stacked two high on both sides. The majority of the litters were empty. They locked my litter in place and the medics exited the chopper. One of them grabbed my hand, squeezing it hard and shouting something I couldn’t make out over the noise. A few more litters were loaded and we took off.
The ride was deafening and silent at the same time. I had no watch, so I couldn’t tell how long we were flying. The air crewman tried to talk to me, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. He was obviously asking me what happened. I started to tell him when I realized I couldn’t even hear myself speaking. It was too much effort to move my lips. I rode mostly in silence, looking around the chopper, feeling the gentle rocking as we made our way south. I tried to spot Lt Jones and Weatherman. I tried to flex my toes, but couldn’t feel anything. I tried to look up and see if I could see my left foot poking out of the splint. It was too much effort to lift my head.
The medevac touched down at Al Khanjar Trauma Center, a Navy field hospital that had been built just 4 days prior to my arrival. I craned my neck to see out the back of the chopper. It was dark except for some headlights. The crew chief pointed at my litter and two men lifted me out of the rack. It was cold and windy and dark. The bitter wind tugged at me, sneaking in under the folds of the blankets that covered me. They carried me to an ambulance at the edge of the landing zone. As soon as I was in the two litter bearers stepped up on the rear bumper and the ambulance took off without waiting to load patients into the other three racks.
The two litter bearers tried to talk to me, asking what happened, but I was too tired to speak to them. I mumbled something about having been hit by a mortar. They talked to each other trying not to look at me. I was too weak to really say anything else. I gripped the sides of the litter and stared at the roof of the ambulance.
The ambulance came to a stop and the two litter bearers were joined by two more, rushing me into the triage area. It was poorly lit with tarps separating treatment areas. Doctors and nurses flocked around me asking questions about what happened to me, who I was, and a flurry of questions that I was unable to answer. It was too much effort to speak, to move, to breathe… Even to blink. I felt like my eyes were stuck open and I didn’t have the energy to close them, even for a moment.
They spoke to each other in urgent tones, but I was unable to understand them. Someone said “We’re going to take good care of you…” and I felt my bed start to move. I started to drift off.
I drifted in and out of consciousness for some time. At one point I awoke in a drug induced haze with someone asking me about hives that had broken out on my skin. I had no idea why, and was too tired to give a shit. I dropped back into dream land. Every now and then someone would appear and ask me a question I had no interest in answering. I’d never been so tired in all of my life.
It was at some point during this time, my father was awoken at 2AM he later told me he nearly had a heart attack walking to the door of his apartment. As he opened the door, a Marine Lieutenant Colonel in dress blues greeted him. Dad’s heart pounded and was going to pop out of him any second.
“Sir, your son is ALIVE!” the Marine said very quickly…
Lt. Col Dennis DeLisle was a Marine Reservist who worked full time as a banking executive in New York City. He had been assigned the dreadful duty of Casualty Assistance Officer. In other words, he was the poor bastard saddled with the duty of delivering bad news to families. It’s perhaps the worst duty any service member can be assigned to. He knew full well anyone seeing him at their door would expect the worst and rather than delay the agony. He decided to start off with the best news and take it from there.
Unfortunately, the fact that I was alive and in critical condition was the only news he had to provide my family. There was no further information available. This was sort of a curse in the era I served. Information could pass quickly, but never in enough detail to do anything other than scare the shit out of your family. There was no way to confirm anything or get further updates. There was nobody to contact or any source of information other than the casualty assistance officer, who only knew what was printed on a single page transcript that was little more than a telegram.
Lt.Col. DeLisle insisted they go to notify my mother next. Dad called her and gave her the highlights. Mom quite frankly didn’t know what to do with herself. As she waited for them to make the 5 minute trip across town, she found herself emptying the dishwasher just to keep herself from going crazy.
They offered the same news… “Richard is alive, but in critical condition.”
“We don’t know.”
“Where is he?”
“We don’t know.”
Dad looked at him and could only ask one question.
“I appreciate you coming out here and telling us what you know, but I have to ask. Why would you get in dress blues and come out here at 2 AM to make a notification?”
He offered a very simple explanation.
“Would you rather hear from the Marine Corps in person, or from CNN?”
In 1991, CNN was embedded with the military, but the guidelines were somewhat loose and the media had little respect for privacy. They would probably have loved nothing more than to be there to drop that bomb themselves, or tag along with the military to capture the emotional moment. This was the beginning of the information age that later led to closer scrutiny of the notification process. It also led to the regulating of embedded reporters as to what they could and could not release.
We fail to realize what military service does to our families. It was years later that my mother explained to me she had been prescribed medication to help her deal with the stress of those few days in February. My sister was away at school, alone to face this reality. She mentioned some years later for days she was on the verge of passing out or throwing up. She was scared to answer the phone.
News spread rapidly though our community. The house was flooded with phone calls from concerned family and friends. The word spread much like the “telephone game” with details getting more embellished each time the story was told.
When a member of the armed forces is injured, it’s very much like a stone hitting a pond. It creates a ripple effect, spreading out to all the corners of our lives. It touches everything we’ve ever touched. Our families and close friends are in that inner circle followed by people who you’re friendly with. Then comes people whose lives you’ve touched in some way, be it going to the same school or working with them. Even people you may have not liked or been at odds with, or even didn’t care about you are sometimes oddly struck by the event.
My family and friends felt the effects as did my unit, who was equally distraught. Even the Marines whom I was not friendly with, or barely knew had been affected. Seeing one of your own torn apart is like seeing yourself. You realize, “That could have been me” and the reality of war and mortality touches your life, perhaps for the very first time. All of the sudden you go from invulnerable and invincible to realizing just how vulnerable the human body is. The moment in which a Marine truly realizes he’s mortal and vulnerable is a turning point. Some come to the realization that we’re all mortal and one must live their life and do their duty. They draw strength from that realization that all you can do is be the best Marine you can and if you can’t win, at least fight with honor in the tradition of the Corps. It’s like the old saying… “It’s not whether you win or lose. It’s how you play the game.”
Maybe war isn’t a game, but you still want to others to respect you and admire your courage and discipline, just as you heard about those who came before you and set the example. The Marine in your soul awakens and acknowledges the responsibility to follow in the tradition. I’m not saying every Marine, soldier, sailor or airman feels the same way, but so many do and it’s part of what makes us who we are, both as a military and a nation. We know where we came from and why we are free and who paid for our freedom and most of us step up to the plate to fulfill the time honored tradition.
Others lose something at that moment and are never the same. I won’t point at people who lost some of the wind from their sails after this engagement, as I always remind myself it could have very well been me. You never know until you’re faced with it. I thank God every day that I was able to step up because until that moment, I didn’t know if I could do it.
I know everyone reacted differently after that first firefight. Some of the guys became very angry and while they didn’t torture or abuse the Iraqi’s, they were somewhat heavy handed in their dealings as they took them into custody. Nobody really knows exactly what went down in that firefight. Perhaps the mortars were meant for us and the surrendering soldiers were decoys meant to draw us out. Maybe they were as much victims as we were. Maybe it was somewhere in the middle. I do know after that engagement, surrendering soldiers were not viewed with the same level of trust. I know some of them were roughed up a little as they were taken into custody and looking back I can’t say I disagree.
At some point I woke up and was vaguely aware of being lucid. I could hear a radio in the background. I heard the familiar sounds of CNN reporting on the war and what was happening. Statistics were being rattled off about troop movement and progress. I realized I wasn’t too tired to listen, though I didn’t want to open my eyes just yet.
The air was cool and crisp, but not cold. The air smelled clean… Almost sanitary. No foul odors of the desert, sulfur, smoke, body odors or anything. It was just clean. I laid still for a while, listening to the sounds around me, breathing in fresh air, trying to taste it and savor it. It was like Thanksgiving dinner in my nose.
I opened my eyes slowly at first. It was so bright. It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the light. I was surrounded by white lights. I was wrapped in crisp clean white sheets and blankets. I rubbed the sheets with my hands, feeling the texture of the linens. It had been months since I’d slept in a bed and longer since I felt sheets on my skin. I was at the end of two long rows of beds, all of which were empty, except for one bed across from me.
My brain was still operating in slow motion and it took a few seconds to realize I was in a hospital. It took a few moments longer to realize exactly why I was there. I suddenly remembered the battlefield and it’s sulfur death stench, the stinging heat of the blast, the sticky sweet smell of my blood and the warm wet feeling of it running down my leg. I remembered the Iraqis all around me. The growl of Tracks behind us and the crackling of gunfire in the distance. The distinct sound of shrapnel flying, its ragged edges cutting through the air.
The frantic screaming…
I gripped the rails of the bed, afraid to look down. I tried to think hard… Could I feel the cool sheet with my left leg? No… I couldn’t. I tried to flex my toes and couldn’t feel anything. I flexed my right leg and wiggled my toes. I could feel the sheets pull against them, but not my left leg.
I was paralyzed for a moment trying to comprehend my situation. My mind raced with thoughts of recovering in a VA hospital, walking between parallel bars with a prosthetic leg. My heart pounded in my chest and I broke out in a cold sweat. I took long deep breaths and prepared to look down.
A man appeared in my peripheral vision wearing desert camo trousers and a O.D. green T shirt. He noticed me looking down, searching my left leg.
“It’s there…” he said “Your leg is still there.”
I let out a long slow sigh. My eyes welled up and blurred with tears. I was relieved and at the same time confused. I still wasn’t sure what had happened. My brain was full of snapshots of the events that had led up to that moment. Thoughts started bouncing around inside my head and I wanted to ask questions I knew nobody would have the answer to.
I would spend the next three months in the hospital. Two months in a wheel chair. Two months on crutches and another with a cane. It was more than a year before I could walk normally and another six before I could run. I had 12 major and minor operations to repair my leg. The physical therapy lasted for months and hurt every bit as bad as the blast that landed me there. I spent many days in my room with a sheet over my head, tears streaming down my face because I thought I’d never walk again.
I’d do it all again if I had to and wouldn’t change a thing. It made me who I am.