It began in September. It was the 18th, if I remember correctly, a month of godless heat when the air was so dry and heavy you felt it was physically trying to crush you, when the temperatures hit 140 at mid-afternoon and stayed unrepentant until dark. Joseph Conrad once wrote of Africa and addressed the impenetrable “Heart of Darkness” that that continent called forth in men of all colors and creeds; Iraq, as I was to learn, would call forth the “arrow that strikes in the day…the plague that prowls about in the dark…[and] the noonday devil.” (Ps 91:6). It was on the 18th that the war, for me, really began.
We had been in country for two months, ever since July 15th 2006. First a day or two in Kuwait, then a hop to Baghdad and across to Al Taqaddam airbase in Al Anbar province. As part of the advance party, I was assigned to one of the grungier duties – the battalion chow hall, where for five weeks I languished, hauling trash and begging 1st Sgt. Golden for a replacement. My company, Kilo, call-sign Voodoo, was one of the last to “leave the wire”, embarking on a massive sweep and clear operation at the end of August, code-named RUBICON. I was not part of that mission – and, green and fresh out of Infantry School as I was, envious to the gills.
When my call to rejoin the line as a functioning machine-gunner came, however, it was not in the way that I had expected. On September 2nd, Private Ryan Miller and Lance Corporal Phillip Johnson, two members of Kilo’s HQ element (Voodoo Mobile) hit an IED in their HMMWV and were killed. I have only the vaguest memory now of Johnson; what I remember of Miller is from one hot and dusty day when Gunny Knuckles and 1st Sgt Golden pulled the Kilo supply truck up to the semi-trailer-sized fridges behind the chow hall. Gunny hopped out and called out, “OK Lyon, hook me up!” It was SOP for the poor bastards assigned to chow hall duty to slip cases of frozen pizzas, desserts, the uber-precious fresh if much bruised fruit, and “Hajji Dew” onto their respective company’s supply truck in addition to the allotted cases of MRE’s that were being picked up. Miller was driving Gunny’s truck, the supply Humvee, an old model high-backed affair with a troop carrier attachment. He hauled MRE’s and fresh fruit and everything else at a frenetic pace, not even stopping, like the others did, to take off his flak jacket. I remember at the end of the work him giving me a tired smile as we passed, he on the way back to the wire, me to the safety of my barracks. Within a week the young man with the tired smile and the unrepentant flak jacket was dead.
I took the place of Johnson in the turret of one of Voodoo Mobile’s trucks. We had two “7-ton” trucks, heavily armored troop carriers that we used primarily to haul captured prisoners and supplies, and three HMMWVs, which took the positions of lead, trail, and command vehicles. I was put in one of big trucks, which was half a tractor-trailer with an inch and a half of steel armor on its bottom and two inches on the sides. In the turret I was assigned the MK-19, the heaviest automatic infantry weapon the Marine Corps had to offer, weighing in at over 130 lbs. I stared at the monstrous gun, all the squat and vicious power of 40 millimeter shells that could spit mortality at 375 rounds per minute – when it felt like it. And that was the key phrase- “when it felt like it”. In SOI, they had instructed those of us in the machine-gunners course that a 3-5 round burst was all you needed to be both accurate and effective with any automatic weapon. With the the relatively new M240 (7.62mm) and even the old and dependable M2 .50 caliber Browning this was not an issue. Use enough lube and the most recalcitrant pieces would open up and roar like a freight train.
The MK-19 was an entirely different creature. A gunner might get 10-15 rounds through his gun before a shell casing jammed on the bolt face or worse, the firing pin struck the primer and the round failed to ignite, leaving the gun crew with the sticky situation of disposing of an effectively live frag grenade. Thus, when I saw my assigned weapon, I was both thrilled and terrified in equal measures, a barometric irregularity that I was to become intimately familiar with over the next few months.
As I stood in the relative cool of the stairwell of our rarely used company barracks on the old RAF base at Habbaniyah, staring at the cool blackened steel of the “Mark”, I wondered how I would die. I remember now that it wasn’t a question in my mind of if, but when, and where, and how. I hoped it would be quick, but I did not want it to be instant; that was clear in my mind. I wanted time in my last seconds to gather my thoughts, my loved ones in my heart, and to gather my many sins into my soul and send them all forth together, with every ounce of remorse and hope and faith I had. I did not want to die unshriven, or barring that, unknowing.
These dark thoughts were spurred by what had happened to Miller and Johnson, to be sure, but also by rumors that had been circulating about the general bounties that the AQI (Al Quaeda Iraq) had placed on turret gunners. I can’t remember, now, what the overall casualty rate for turret gunners was in OIF and OEF, or even on our own deployment. Purely by our exposed positions we were the most vulnerable to attack, especially from sniper fire. There was hardly a gunner I knew or talked to in the battalion that had not been blown up repeatedly and had numerous close calls by the end of the deployment.
[Chris Lyon served with Kilo 3/2 in Iraq during OIF 05-07 from July 2006 to January 2007]