Darkness in war is a combatant, and it switches sides at random. The Iraqis didn’t have night-vision equipment and we did, so in that way the night worked for us. But night-vision only lets you see if there is at least some ambient light or illumination from an infrared beam. There are nights in Iraq so dark opening your eyes doesn’t change a thing, and the IR beam from the night-vision goggles is narrow, focused, and limited to a very small area wherever it is directed.
On one of those nights a few days after the sandstorm we bivouacked on the shoulder of the highway, the fuel trucks had finally caught up with us and the battalion decided to have the everyone fuel up throughout the course of the night, so we would be ready to roll the next day. Normally we slept on the ground, digging our holes as close to the truck as we could to be sure no one drove over us. But, that night, Matt ordered us to sleep in our trucks. He didn’t care if it was in the back of the truck or on the broad hood, he just didn’t want anyone on the ground. We all slept fitfully, the ground is actually more comfortable than the inside of a cramped, stuffy humvee or trying to lay on the unforgiving fiberglass hood. The night was quiet except for the rumble of engines as vehicles, one by one, left their positions on the sides of the road and rolled up onto the highway to get fuel.
And then the screams started. No gunshots, we weren’t getting attacked, but the shrieks of a man in pain. Agony. His screams cut through the night from a few trucks away and there was no way to block them out. Screams that made me whimper to hear. Fuck. I was scared that night. I wasn’t even in direct danger at that moment, but the Gunny’s screams frightened me as much as enemy rockets. I never left my truck, there was nothing I or the rest of the team could do to help, but I heard the panic in Marines’ voices as they yelled for the corpsmen. Over and over, it was “Corpsman up!” voiced in sheer desperation.
We lost the battalion executive officer in the darkness, Major Nave, crushed to death instantly. The comms gunnery sergeant sleeping next to him lost his legs. The vehicles they were sleeping between had both moved to get fuel, and a combat bulldozer coming back from the fuel trucks rolled over them. The dozer had a Marine walking in front, with night vision, but the night was just too dark. There was zero moonlight or starlight, and the infrared beam from his night vision goggles missed the sleeping Marines.
I don’t remember the comms gunny’s name, but I remember liking him. He was bald and constantly had a chaw of tobacco in his mouth, and he was always willing to help out HET 3 with our comms gear. Major Nave, though… He had been a prick to the team. Not really sure why, maybe he didn’t like outsiders or maybe he was just a prick. But, it’s hard to be pissed off at the dead, at a fellow Marine who had just died for our country. And I know he wanted his Marines to survive the war, maybe he thought he had to be a dick to ensure that happened. I can forgive him for that.