During my time in Iraq, I was assigned as an embedded advisor the Third Battalion of the Third Iraq Public Order Brigade, which probably doesn’t mean anything to anyone who reads this. My brother was also there, assigned to the Second Battalion.
At one point, I was temporarily assigned to the First Battalion because the Non Commissioned Officer in Charge there was away on leave, so I was sent to fill in while he was away. The First Battalion team of advisers was a great group of soldiers. The team was made up of some Regular Army guys and some guys from the Illinois Army National Guard. On top of that, the team leader, who was a Major, was an Army Reservist who in civilian life was a New York State Trooper. Despite the mixture of members from so many different walks of life, I thought it was a good team and it seemed to be tight and have a good attitude.
One particular day I went with this team on a mission which took us to the Iraqi First Battalion HQ. This HQ, and its companies were deployed the furthest away from our Forward Operating Base. The most remote company was stationed at a pontoon bridge which spanned the Tigris River, and it was about 45 Kilometers or Ks, away from our base.
That morning we ran the usual gauntlet and managed to arrive unscathed at this Iraqi HQ. We pulled into the courtyard, and we split up and went to various locations within the compound to conduct business. That morning, I made the mistake of leaving my M-4 Rifle out in my HUMVEE and went about my business wearing only my M-9 Pistol. The compound did have a level of security, so it wasn’t like parking on the street and leaving my rifle in it unguarded.
I was going about my business, when I heard a disturbance nearby within the compound. One of the buildings within the compound was once a two story school, but the rooms which were once used as classrooms were now used to house the Iraqi troops assigned there.
As I approached the area where the noise was coming from, I could hear A LOT of yelling, some in English, but mostly in Arabic. I climbed the staircase to where the disturbance seemed to be coming to investigate. Thats what cops do, right? When I got the 2nd floor landing, the scene I stumbled upon was astonishing. I could feel my stomach start to twist inside me as though someone punched then grabbed then grabbed my innards.
At the top of the stairwell, stood my Team Chief, the Major, and another sergeant, and they were both pointing their rifles at some of our Iraqis. The Americans were screaming things like “Drop your Weapons” and “We are going to fucking kill you all” over and over again. These two were facing off against about 20 of our Iraqis, all of which had their rifles trained on the two US Soldiers. Or should I say three, because now I am in the middle of it. As soon as I got to the top of the stairs, several Iraqis trained their rifles on me, all the while screaming at me in Arabic.
I immediately knew I was in deep, deep trouble. I knew I was a whisker or a twitch away from being shot dead. To tell you I was shocked, surprised or horrified would be understatement of the greatest magnitude. I quickly sized up the situation, and when I say this, I am not trying to be overly melodramatic, but I knew I had walked, with the exception of my holstered pistol, unarmed into a trap. I was dead and I knew it. Even more importantly, I instinctivelybelieved I was dead. I knew all three of us were dead.
What did I do? I did the only thing a reasonable person who was about to be shot dead could do. I slowly drew my pistol from its holster, raised it up, then pointed it at the face of the Iraqi closest to me. I was surprised I was able to do so and still be alive. He was probably no more than a foot away. My finger was on the trigger. I started to tell to him, in no uncertain terms, that I was going to kill him. During this time, he pointed his rifle at my face. I found myself in a desperate situation. Over and over I yelled. The two groups continued to scream at each other, neither understanding the other, and in some other context, I’m sure the situation might have looked comical. But, you can believe no one here was laughing. Then or now. We were all one trigger pull away from most of us dying. Probably the only thing that saved us was that each of us knew that. I think the young man I was ready to kill understood at some level the reality of the moment. He was certainly ready to kill me. I was ready to kill him. I don’t think at that point either of us ever thought of surviving. I know I didn’t.
During this standoff I can tell you that time stood still for me. I don’t know how much time had passed, but the only thought I can remember bouncing around inside my overactive brain was that I knew I was dead. I had committed to kill this one Iraqi on my way out of this life. I figured if I was lucky, I’d get one shot off. I looked him in the eye. I told him. More than once I told him. I screamed at him over and over things like, ‘motherfucker, you’re dead’. ‘I’m going to kill you’. I had sort of made peace with it. As much as anyone can make peace with violent death, if you are afforded the chance. I accepted it. I had the ability to accept the situation for what it was. My only thought was, I was taking this one MotherFUCKER out with me. I wasn’t going alone. I remember no other thoughts. No sorrow, no loved ones, not earn fear. Nothing. But, I was scared.
After what seemed like forever, someone, I don’t know who, lowered their rifle. There was a momentary silence, soon cooler heads prevailed. Slowly, quietly, all the rifles were lowered, and when I sensed the danger had passed, I gradually placed my pistol back into my holster. After a few seconds of milling around, everyone involved just kind of shuffled off to wherever they came from. I slowly backed down the stairs. I was amazed I was still alive.
To this day, I don’t remember the conversation I had immediately afterwards with the other two soldiers or the team. I’m sure this incident was brought up during the After Action Review following the mission. I don’t know if a report on the incident was sent up the chain of command. I assume there was, but I never heard much discussion of it after that day. We completed our mission that day, but looking back on it now, I think I may have actually have been somewhat numb or in shock for a bit after this incident. I do believe I wrote home about it. I functioned, but don’t remember a lot about it.
Later, I learned that the incident started before my arrival when one of our Iraqi interpreters got into some kind of an argument with one of the Iraqi privates. There was a perceived insult of some kind, one of them threatened to kill the other (the interpreter was unarmed) the Iraqi soldier threatened to shoot the interpreter with his AK-47. This in turn caused our Team Chief and the other sergeant who were nearby, to draw down on the Iraqi with their rifles. From there, the situation escalated out of control. The occupants of the nearby rooms emptied out. I probably didn’t help the situation when I foolishly wandered up and in between the two groups. I immediately took a position standing next to my two comrades. There was no retreat for me. No where to go. No cover to be had. I wouldn’t have left if I could. Not even the classic fight or flight syndrome. I guess that’s about the only thing good I can say about my actions that day. Looking back, I can honestly say that I took a position next to my brothers. That, and the fact that we all, American and Iraqi alike, survived to fight another day.
Once order was restored, everyone slowly went on with their business. Except that I never again, ever, when outside the wire, left my rifle behind. Hey, we learn lessons everyday in life, right? Some more costly that others…