I wasn’t supposed to go back to Iraq. I had spent almost a year and a half overseas, two tours back-to-back, and I had orders to a sweet gig in northern Virginia. I was supposed to go to the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity in Quantico. It was an assignment I had to fight for, one I thought I deserved. No combat, no long deployments, just an easy few years until I got out of the Marines. And, being near the Beltway I would be perfectly positioned to network with other intelligence professionals in the area and easily find a government or contractor job post-Marine Corps.

Maybe even more importantly the girl I’d started dating, and fallen in love with, had chosen a graduate school in northern Virginia so that we could be together when I got out there. Our lives were on a great path and we talked about it almost every day. I felt like I’d finally caught a break, that maybe I could leave the war behind.

But, a few weeks before I was supposed to go to Virginia, I was told I had to go back to Iraq instead. It wasn’t open to discussion. “Needs of the Marine Corps” trump all personal desires.

So I went back. And, not just anywhere, me and my new team, HET Two, went to the heart of the burgeoning insurgency. Ramadi in 2004 was a special kind of hell. Nothing could have prepared us. We had no idea what we were in for when we showed up.

Iraq in 2003 was a traditional military operation – a straight-forward invasion – and we were not really prepared for what would turn into a full-blown insurgency. The months I’d spent in Al Kut with my old team after the invasion had been in a relatively friendly city, we routinely drove around in unarmored trucks with only a few Marines. There were times when I just took my linguist Johnny Nano, pulled up to a tea shop, and smoked hookah for an hour or so. Ramadi in 2004 was utterly different, and we learned the difference almost immediately.

Ramadi is the capital of the Sunni-dominated western Iraq province of Al Anbar, part of what would be known as the Sunni Triangle and the center of the Sunni and Al Qaeda insurgencies. This part of Iraq, Western Iraq, was quite literally the wild west. Baghdad was always known as a cosmopolitan city, full of intellectuals and technocrats. Al Anbar, though, was known for the Arab equivalent of the hill country, home of the Iraqi rednecks. With banjos playing in the background. Saddam was Sunni, and yet he still had problems keeping Al Anbar under control. There were times, according to the stories we heard from the locals, when Saddam sent his Republican Guard, the ‘Harisjammori,’ into Ramadi, killing whole villages to make sure they stayed in line. One tribe was especially known for fake documents. The story was, that tribe in that particular Ramadi neighborhood could make you a passport better than what the government could provide. Which, of course, pissed off Saddam and caused occasional retaliations. Ramadi is a rugged, well-weathered city, the Tombstone of Iraq. And we were supposed to be the Earp brothers.

Ramadi is bounded on two sides by water, the Euphrates river to the north and a canal branching off of the Euphrates to the south. The city spreads to the east as the two channels diverge from each other, with outlying communities across both bodies of water. In an effort to better control the city, Two/Four was dispersed throughout Ramadi. Two companies, Echo and Golf, were situated on the eastern edge of the city on a tiny operating base named Combat Outpost. On the western edge of the city where the river and canal diverged the headquarters company, Weapons Company and Fox Company set up in a small palace complex from the Saddam era named Hurricane Point. This geography, and the fact that there were only two main roads through the city, meant Two/Four would be operating in a shooting gallery. And HET Two was along for the ride.

The first few days in Ramadi me and my new HET just tried to get familiar with our area of operations, what we called “area fam.” The HET chief,Tony, and Brent went to Combat Outpost to support Echo and Golf. Conditions were incredibly spartan on the tiny base, so on the morning of March 17th Jason and I joined up with the regular morning logistics convoy from Hurricane Point to Combat Outpost to bring them some gear and a linguist. I drove one of the HET Two vehicles, just as I had driven for HET Three in the invasion, Jason sat in the passenger seat and the linguist sat behind him. The convoy took the River Road, the northernmost of the two routes through the city which ran parallel to the south side of the Euphrates.

About two thirds of the way to Combat Outpost, the convoy had to take a hairpin turn to the left, slowing from our fast pace to a crawl. As I passed through the turn, eyes on the fuel truck ahead of me, I was briefly distracted by a shepherd waving at me from the side of the road. And then the world exploded. I don’t remember much. I saw a huge geyser of earth as it rose up from my passenger side and my truck lifted up onto two wheels, almost flipping over. If it had, I would have been crushed instantly. My truck slammed back down to the ground, unmoving though I think I had my foot on the gas. Good thing, though, since if the truck had been able to operate I would have slammed into the fuel truck ahead of me (the probable target for the bomb) which had stopped as soon as the explosion happened. I desperately grabbed for the radio handset, screaming into it, “HET’s been hit, HET’s been hit!” I looked over at Jason, and back at our linguist, but they didn’t seem to be bleeding, though they seemed dazed. I couldn’t hear anything. I looked down at the radio, and saw that the handset cord had been ripped out of the radio, I’d just been yelling to myself. I stared at the limp cord and felt like an idiot.

I stumbled out of the truck, my head ringing and the world spinning. I had my rifle, and I took a knee a few feet from my door as the rest of the convoy stopped and Marines dismounted their vehicles to set up a defensive perimeter. It was a disorganized mess. This was the first Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attack the battalion had suffered, and no one really knew what to do, even though we had all trained on how to react.

Fortunately there was no follow-on small arms attack, which happened frequently later in the deployment. The convoy was so disorganized after the explosion we almost certainly would have lost Marines if the insurgents had started attacking us with rifles and RPG’s.

The bomb guys, Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), told me later the only reason we survived was because the insurgents had fucked up, they’d buried the IED too deep. It created a crater about five feet deep and nine feet across. If it had been buried closer to the surface, or been loaded with shrapnel as well as explosive, the three of us in the HET truck would have died instantly. It was still a young insurgency, and the enemy would learn from this mistake. Their IEDs would rapidly improve.

Combat Outpost sent a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) of Marines and gun trucks to protect the convoy as we limped into the base. The corpsmen immediately examined me and Jason, we both had ears bleeding, his right my left. Even though the earth had taken the majority of the blast, evidently the concussion had slammed into his right ear, the explosion having come on the passenger side, passed through the vehicle (blowing up the truck’s roof), bounced off of my door and hit my left side.

I didn’t want or expect a Purple Heart, but I got one, along with my buddy in the passenger seat. I felt embarrassed. Guys with Purple Hearts lost legs, arms, eyes, they suffered severe burns. I took a blast, got my head rocked, and had a fucked up eardrum. I didn’t think I deserved it. But, it was automatic. As soon as the corpsmen put in their report on our injuries from the blast, we were immediately put in for Purple Hearts. All the guys told us we deserved the medals, but, I still feel conflicted. And I still feel sharp pain and hear a constant, piercing ringing in my ears that makes it almost impossible to sleep. I wish I’d just been shot.

It took hours for headquarters on Hurricane Point to muster a new convoy to come get us, we made it back to Hurricane Point in the late-afternoon with our wrecked truck in tow. Eddie didn’t say much, he made sure me and Jason were ok and then grabbed us, dug up a bottle of scotch he’d acquired somehow and told us to have a few drinks. I’ll always be grateful to Eddie for that gesture.

That IED was the closest call I ever had in the Marines, and it was a wake-up call to the team that Ramadi 2004 bore no resemblance to the invasion 2003. We had been in-country for exactly ten days. We still had six months to go. We went from full of confidence to convinced we weren’t going to make it.

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