THE NIGHTMARE CONTINUES
April 6th 2003
The satellite was in geo-sync orbit over the Middle East. From this position, secure communications were enabled. The link between Special Forces, US Command & Control and the F-18s over Northern Iraq was facilitated without a middle-man. This was real-time fighting.
It was overcast and had rained earlier in the morning. We were traveling towards the city of Kirkuk, one of the larger cities of Northern Iraq. Saddam’s Army had control of the city and area. The air was cool and damp. The Kurds, or as the fighters were called, the Peshmerga, were all happy in the convoy, sat in the back of their pickup trucks. As we approached Kirkuk they knew that time was drawing in on Saddam’s rule. Smiles and laughter interspersed the atmosphere created as they broke into song. One could be forgiven for thinking they were on the way to a celebration.
At the same time in Southern Iraq, the advance by the US forces was moving swiftly. Opposition was collapsing quickly and Baghdad was only a few days away. Here in the North of Iraq, due to Turkey not giving the coalition access to bases near the Iraq border for ferrying in troops and supplies, the US forces were limited in their logistics to the small airstrips like our base and as a consequence the advance was much slower. There was a heavy reliance on the Peshmerga. Air power was being guided by a small amount of US troops, mainly Special Forces.
The convoy that we were in consisted of twelve vehicles. Angie and myself were near the rear of this convoy, about three vehicles from the back. In our blue four wheel drive the seating was arranged with three in the front and three in the back. Leading the convoy were the two Special Forces vehicles. Between them and us were the Kurd fighters and another JNCBEST vehicle. Behind us were the other JNCBEST vehicle and a BBC film crew, bringing up the rear. We had been traveling since early morning towards the town of Kirkuk, into which Saddam’s men had fallen back from their original positions several times during the past week. This was due to the B52 bombing and precision strikes that targeted them. This raised the elation levels of the Peshmerga.
The Americans who were in charge of this operation weren’t as enthusiastic as the Peshmerga in advancing to Kirkuk. They preferred putting pressure on the Iraqis in the north while the Southern advance stormed towards Baghdad. I talked to the Peshmerga each day and their impatience for victory was apparent. They had been persecuted by the Saddam regime for many years. That morning Angie and myself talked to a couple of them through our interpreter Mani. They could see that soon they would be free and had ambitious plans for a free and prosperous future. One of them was getting married in two weeks and was inviting everybody he could to the wedding, in particular the US soldiers and the members of our team. We were, after all, helping in the war. He was twenty years old and had previously been unemployed. He was now travelling in the back of a Toyota pick-up, from battle to battle, with other Peshmerga. This would be his fourth battle with live contact with the Iraqi Army. He was clothed in traditional dress with a khaki ammunition belt and carried a Russian AK-47. Nearly all the Peshmerga carried Russian weapons, a combination of AK-47’s and RPG’s. On the back of each Toyota was a mounted heavy fifty caliber machine gun. The Peshmerga keenly crouched in the back of the trucks on their ammo boxes as the convoy rolled onwards.
I was sitting in the middle of the rear seat with Angie to my left and a French man, Roland, on my right. Our interpreter, Mani, was driving. Next to him were two other JNCBEST team members, Damien and Elena, both originally from Sweden. We were all kitted out in camouflage desert combats, slightly different to the US armed forces’ issue. On our shoulders we each had the flag of our country of origin. I donned an Australian flag and Angie bore the Stars and Stripes. The front of the jackets were tagged with surnames and the JNCBEST logo. Above the inner jacket was a flak jacket armed with ceramic plates on front and back. Most team members had a desert cap. I stood out in my signature Dallas Cowboys cap. Inside my jacket were ammunition clips for the Glock pistols that I wore in a holster under each arm. While in the vehicle we all had M16-VIPERs between our legs. Around my waist was a belt with a combat knife attached to it. My final item of kit was a pair of sunglasses. We drove along, talking loudly, laughing, joking, listening to music in the vehicle. Up to this point, although danger was ever-present and we had gone into some pretty hot zones, it had been a great adventure and we were all having a great amount of fun. An adventure of a life time would be the coined phrase of an action novelist. In fact I had put on my email signature “adventure has a name” . An adventure of a life time, a one chance opportunity to help a nation of people take back control from a tyrant and best of all I was able to share it with a person who I had fallen more in love with than anyone in my life, Angie. In the three JNCBEST vehicles there were eighteen members of the team, including three interpreters. The vehicles comprised of two white GM Suburbans and the blue Japanese four wheel drive containing Angie and I.
The convoy had stopped. I could see planes in the distance. Over the radio we could hear the chatter of the Peshmerga and the US military. I had a phrase-alator in my lap and turned it on and put the ear piece in to listen to the radio conversation. The Peshmerga was asking why we had stopped and the lead Special Forces vehicle explained that an Iraqi tank was a few kilometers ahead of us and they were calling in an air strike. I leaned over Angie and looked out of the window. I identified two F-14’s, circling at a steady pace, only about five hundred feet from the deck. We heard over the radio: “This is US Special Forces team requesting air support”. “Roger that USSF” was the response. “This is USSF, requesting air support on a T72 approximately one kilometer from present position.” The Special Forces team proceeded to give our coordinates and details of the vehicles in our convoy. The pilot in one of the planes then answered “Roger that USSF, we see you and have visual confirmation of twelve vehicles”. The planes were given the coordinates of the T-72 and the pilot answered, “roger that USSF, have target co-ordinates and preparing to fire”. By now most of the people in the convoy were watching the T72. Most of the Peshmerga were standing up in the backs of the pick-up trucks trying to get a better view and waiting for the plane to strike. My eyes remained focused on the planes. Over the radio, as I saw it leave the wing of the F14; the pilot said “roger USSF, missile away and set for target coordinates”. The missile, which I now know was a GRB, could be seen zooming away from the plane. It seemed like a couple of minutes, but was in fact less than 15 seconds when I saw ahead, out of the corner of my right eye, an orange thing, about to hit the ground only some ten yards away from the vehicles, bang in the middle of the convoy. instinctively reached to my left and covered Angie. As she looked surprised and was about to say something, there was a deafening roar. The windows of the vehicle blew in. There was a huge explosion, BOOM!
Silence reigned for a few seconds and, as smoke billowed through the interior, I immediately knew that our vehicle was on fire. I looked at Angie. She had the look on her face ‘what the fuck just happened’. Confusion reigned for a split second then I could hear people screaming, yelling and car horns blaring. The weapons and ammunition that were in vehicles in front of us were exploding or in correct parlance ‘cooking off’. I looked through the smoke and saw most of the vehicles in front of us alight and in pieces. Bodies were all around with some of the dead and indeed living people, also on fire. They were screaming and rolling on the ground, trying to put themselves out. The smell of burning flesh seized my lungs. The guys in the front of our car were slumped forwards in their seat. I leaned forward and grabbed our interpreter, Mani, by his shoulder and pulled him back against the seat. I looked at him but he was dead. I saw in his chest a hole the size of a large orange from the shrapnel of the explosion. Blood poured down the front of him and there was no breathing. Damien and Elena, the Swedes in the front seat, were also dead, again, killed by the shrapnel. Damien had a piece of metal over a foot long embedded in his head and Elena had multiple wounds in her chest. The shrapnel had pierced both her flak jacket and the ceramic armor. As the adrenalin built up in my system I looked at myself and Angie. We were both covered in blood and soot. My flak jacket had large pieces of glass and metal in it, most noticeably around the back area. I had a sharp pain at the front of my ribs It seemed a lifetime, but in reality it was less than a minute. I kicked the door open and pushed Angie out, then pulled Roland, who was unconscious to my right, out of the car. I dragged him twenty meters away from the vehicle. I made sure Angie was safe and uninjured. I instructed her to stay. Pointing to the ground. I said, “Keep down as the ammo is going off!”. I kissed her and had a look at Roland. He was still unconscious and was bleeding from his right side and making gurgling noises, which I assumed was due to a wounded right lung. I moved him onto his right side so the blood would drain and not build up in the chest area. Angie watched him. Calling out for a medic, I ran to see what assistance I could give to the other survivors. Looking around and seeing the BBC TV guys filming this chaos, death and destruction, caused anger to well up inside me. I could not comprehend why, at that moment, they weren’t helping with the injured. I immediately started to help people and started first aid. I helped drag some more survivors away from the burning vehicles. My adrenaline was at the highest level I have ever experienced. I felt super human strength and resolve in this situation. Covered in blood with my ears ringing, I could hear people yelling and screaming, while the ammunition in the vehicles was exploding in the fires, plumes of smoke rising from the wreckage.
The middle of the convoy was missing – now just a pile of twisted and burning vehicles. The Toyota was on fire and now almost gutted by it. The front was unrecognizable. I felt wet near my right ear and there was blood was coming out it. This explained the great loss of hearing I was enduring. I had, at the very least, a blown ear drum. There was an intense, sharp pain on the right side of my ribs. The shrapnel not just gone in my back and out the front of my body below my collar bone, but had shattered a large piece of my lower rib. One of the Peshmerga who I had been talking to early in the morning was lying near our vehicle and screaming in pain. I dragged him clear and saw he had massive injuries to his abdomen. I literally started holding his intestines in his abdomen as they had spilled out. He was the guy who had told me in the morning that he was getting married soon and had invited Angie and myself. He was now screaming in pain, his eyes looking at me with so much pain and fear. He was yelling but I couldn’t understand him. I kept holding in his intestines and trying to stop the bleeding. I looked him over and most of his body was burnt. The pain must have been unbelievable. I shouted for a medic. Continuously glancing over at Angie, keeping an eye on her, I could see that she was still many meters away from the convoy, on her hands and knees vomiting. She was still trying to watch over Roland. I thought if she concentrated on Roland, then what had just happened would have less of an effect on her, but the shock and horror and the burnt bodies, men screaming in pain; it was all too much for her. I wanted to go over and console her, but I knew physically she was alright and priorities were to help this guy and the other wounded. The Special Forces team members were also administering first aid, with one of them running up to me and shouting “are you alright? Do you have any injuries?” I couldn’t hear him properly, but I shouted back that I seemed to be OK. He insisted in doing a quick check over me while I kneeled over the Peshmerga, helping with the abdominal wound. The first-aider gave me the thumbs up and said “most of it is in the flak jacket, you do have a small wound upper right shoulder, but it is nothing to worry about”. Later at the hospital, I found out that a piece of shrapnel had gone through my body, somehow missing my right lung and taking a large section of my lower rib out. The Special Forces guy then gave my patient a pain killing injection of morphine or something similar. He looked at me and shook his head. I knew that meant there was no hope for the Peshmerga. He departed, making his way to check out Angie, Roland and the BBC guys, who were still filming the carnage. As I tried to stem the flow of the blood and hold in what was left of my patient’s intestines, I kept talking to him in English, saying that he would be okay and he would be home soon and once he was healed the marriage could take place, but I knew really he didn’t understand me, but hoped my talking would help him cling to life. It seemed the injection was now working and he stopped screaming and yelling and talked softly and I could see tears in his eyes, and not much sooner after that all the movement and breathing stopped in him. He was dead. I closed his eyes, and caught my breath and then got up and ran to a group who looked as though they needed help. As I ran across the ground to them I looked again in Angie’s direction and saw she was next to Roland and the Special Forces team member was administering first aid and explaining to Angie what to do to help. I thought both of them would be okay for now. I went to our vehicle and pulled out the equipment from the back and threw it on the ground. A chopper appeared, circled and landed. Then down the road from where we came I could see ambulances and other vehicles speeding towards us. I helped some of the Peshmerga with their light wounds and burns, and then got up and went to the JNCBEST vehicles. With the help of Blaine and some of the others that had survived this horrendous accident, we pulled out the bodies of our team members and carried them away from the vehicles. I could see Blaine was trying to help as much as he could. He said to me with trembling in his voice that it was his fault that they had died as he had hired them to come on this assignment in the first place. I looked at him, grabbed his shoulder, and said in a calm voice that it was every ones decision to come here, no one was forced and it was not his fault. In fact no one could be blamed, as it was war, and in war people die, people get injured, on both sides and sometimes, as in this instance, by their own side. Like all deaths in war, we were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It seemed to help him. He told me I was right and walked off to help out the other team members. He made sure our injured were being looked after and being medi-vacted as soon as possible. Besta and Ila had wounds to their upper body, but Ila had a good portion of her arm missing. Aly was unconscious and had several wounds in his neck and head region. Laying in a row away from the vehicles were the bodies of our team members that we had extracted from the vehicles. Some were burnt beyond recognition; laying there was Dan, John, Karl, Benny, Damien, Elna, Mani and Mohammed. Besta, Ila. Roland and Aly were seriously injured and now being evacuated to a hospital. I thought then that it was only luck that Angie and I had not been killed and it was probably due to me covering her at the moment of the car exploding inwards from the missile and that my flak jacket had taken most of the force and shrapnel. I looked at my hands and arms. They were covered in blood. I looked for a container with water in it and poured it over my arms and hands and slowly the blood was washed off. I saw Blaine sitting now with his head in his hands and Johnno talking to him.
As more people arrived by vehicle and helicopter, they helped the injured to the ambulances, trucks and helicopters so that they could be taken to hospital. The Peshmerga leader, with whom we had dinner a few days prior to the incident, being stretchered to one the choppers with some of the JNCBEST team members, including Roland, Besta, Ila and Aly. It took off and headed back to our base at Hirar Airfield. The serious ones were stabilized and then flown to the US base in Germany for medical treatment. Having cleansed the blood, I rushed back to Angie. She was very white, shaking, and in shock. She was crying and like me, slightly deaf due to the explosion.
“Fuck” I said shaking my head, “at least your okay”. She fell into my arms and cried and cried. I held her tight, and I was glad she wasn’t injured. My shoulder and my right lower rib was starting to hurt as the adrenaline level in my system started to lower. I kissed the top of her head and said everything was okay, and kept her as close to me as I could.
I looked around at the what was left of the convoy, still burning with ammunition exploding from the vehicles and saw over twenty two Peshmerga fighters and JNCBEST team members bodies horribly and terribly torn apart, all victims of this ‘blue on blue’ friendly fire incident.
I felt woosie, sick to the stomach and started to feel the shock creeping up. I fell to my knees. I thought I must fight this and held onto Angie tighter and then things started to go black.
(excerpt from the forth coming novel “My Life For Rent”)