If you can, bear with me through this story of sacrifice. This is the first time I have told this story to anyone in any amount of detail other than my husband. I tell it to you, now, because it seems appropriate today, of all days.
Today marks the 10th anniversary of the loss of three soldiers with whom I was with in Iraq at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. These three soldiers, PFC Miller, SPC Mitchell, and SGT Brown, were all going about their duties in support of the brigade TOC (Tactical Operations Center) which had set up a semi-permanent site within an abandoned Iraqi compound located approximately 10-clicks from Baghdad. For those who are wondering, a click is 1000 meters or 1 kilometer. Our TOC consisted of communications, artillery, public relations, mechanics, and high-level command elements.
The night before, the TOC had spent hours setting up inside this compound that had one large building and a smaller area that was enclosed by brick walls but no roof. The communications teams were positioned inside that smaller area, rather snugly, and set up the necessary antennas to maintain the signal for radios, phones, and even secure internet via satellite. All other elements, aside from the brigade commanders, were directed to set up outside of the compound in a secure perimeter. Guard duty rosters were established and every soldier was on the lookout for anything suspicious throughout the night.
On the radios that night, I listened to QRF (Quick Reaction Force), artillery, and infantry teams reporting incoming attacks and subsequent elimination of enemy threats from further out. The night at the compound was uneventful, although the feeling of some pending attack was still there. Prior to our arrival at the compound, we had experienced two ambush attacks with small arms and mortar fire. We all were on edge but the area seemed safe so we seemed able to relax a little.
Each soldier had found a corner or small area to set up a cot and catch a nap or write a letter home. I was told, by my team chief, that he wanted me to set up my cot inside of the large building across from where my truck was set up. I did not want to be away from everyone else but because I was on the night shift, I accepted that the empty, window and doorless room would provide a better place to attempt sleep during the day.
Before my shift was over, at approximately 0530 local Zulu time, I had a conversation with my company commander and SPC George Mitchell (the 2nd Brigade Training Command Sergeant Major’s Driver) about inconsequential things that really didn’t matter to anyone except us. Mitchell went to his truck to call his wife, my commander went to prepare for meetings with the brigade command team, and I considered whether I would try to hand wash a uniform or rinse off from the 5-gallon water jug. After a few minutes, I decided to sleep first, wash after.
About 2 hours after I laid in my cot and went to sleep fully dressed in my uniform, taking off only my boots, I woke up to the loudest noise I have ever heard. There were five other soldiers in the dark room, intended for night shift soldiers to sleep peacefully. I looked around and realized that all six of us were on our feet waiting to find out if this was the sound of incoming or outgoing fire. Seconds later, screams of “INCOMING!” followed by cries of fear pierced my half-asleep state of mind. The next seconds were filled with panic and trying to collect ourselves to leave the room and do our jobs as combat trained soldiers.
Once I left the room, what I saw cannot be described. I am still not able to fully describe the events that followed without being overwhelmed by the same emotions I felt then. I can tell you that three soldiers died instantly and 17 others suffered injuries of varying degrees. My truck was destroyed along with 12 others, including the antennas and equipment being used to provide communications.
Most of us escaped, physically unscathed, to the outer perimeter of trucks and soldiers waiting to escort us to safety. Some of the soldiers from the perimeter went inside the compound to help those that could not escape on their own. However, after about three minutes, the entire compound was on fire which had spread to the ammunition that lied within each truck, ruck sack, vest, or shelter. The 5.56mm rounds, smoke grenades, AT-4 (anti-tank weapons issued to each truck), and any other ammo began to burn and “go off”. We couldn’t go back in the compound until it had completely burned out, about four hours later.
Our commanders had instructed the remaining trucks, soldiers, and communications team to set up directly outside of the compound. We set up a new “shot” (term used by communications to refer to the signal) to the network. Once communications was reestablished, the reporting began. Shortly after, we were joined by a tank team and other combat troops.
When it was safe to go back in, soldiers ventured to their trucks or areas to see what could be salvaged. My truck had been reduced to an 18-inch high slab of melted metal and magnesium. My personal items such as CDs, extra uniforms, a blanket I had brought from home to remind me of my family, and the many disposable cameras containing hundreds of pictures were gone. In an instant, one 10-foot missile had destroyed so much. So many lives. So many memories would now be etched with pain and suffering.
I look back on this day and think of the 3 that did not make it out. Mitchell, who was on the phone with his wife when the missile hit the truck he was sitting in. Brown, waiting to be promoted to Sergeant and later receiving that promotion, posthumously. Miller, a funny guy who was last seen laughing right before the missile took him. I think of these three and wonder how I was so lucky. If I had been washing my uniform or rinsing off as I had thought about doing, I could be dead; crushed by the wall that had collapsed from the impact of the missile. What made me decide to go to the safety of that room instead? Why was my life more important than theirs? I don’t know why I was spared and they were not but I know that every year, I look back on that day and thank that Angel for guiding me out of harm’s way. I remind everyone that our freedoms should not be taken for granted. Our lives, full of trivial things, when you compare them to the life of a soldier in combat, are ours because of that soldier.
I take this time, on this day 10 years ago, that we lost 3 soldiers, to remind everyone that it is because of their sacrifice that you have the right to disagree with the reason they were there or to debate the issues that you feel are important. It’s because of the American Soldier, that you have the rights that you enjoy today. Take a moment to look up and thank those that died for your rights and salute the rest.
Less than 7% of the population has put on the uniform of an American Soldier. The 7% that protects the 93%.
Never Forget – April 7, 2003
3d Infantry Division(Mechanized), 2d Brigade Combat Team, 123d Signal Batallion, Bravo Company