Monday, December 18, 2006

August, 2004: Close Calls Getting Closer

The photo at left shows a damaged steel fence in front of a rocket crater. This impact was only about 100 meters from where I lived with my team in the Green Zone in 2004. With only a couple of months left in our tour, I wrote this for the Orlando Sentinel and it was published on August 19, 2004:


The enemy rocket tore through the sky over my head and exploded nearby, shaking the ground under my feet and sending me rushing for cover. I had heard two other loud explosions before running out of my residence on the west bank of the Tigris River. This third explosion sounded even closer. It was dark this night of Aug. 7 and I could not see the rockets, but there was no mistaking the air-piercing sounds of the projectiles above me or the explosions that followed their impact.

Soldiers like me who live in Baghdad’s Green Zone, now known as the “International Zone”, have become accustomed to frequent mortar or rocket attacks. Most are aimed at the U.S. Embassy, which is south of us around the bend in the river. Other attacks target nearby coalition installations or Iraqi government buildings. The resulting explosions are heard, but are rarely this close.

Kneeling in a fairly secure walled-in area, I tried to count the rockets that seemed to come from the area of Sadr City to the east, the home of Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army. They continued to fly over my head, and one rocket exploded only about 75 meters away, hurling debris and razor-sharp steel shrapnel onto the roof of our house.

A total of 10 rockets landed perilously close to us and to our neighbors. This was the closest brush with these weapons that I have had here in Iraq. We do our best on convoys to avoid ambushes or IEDs (improvised explosive devices), but with these rockets, it is like living near the bull’s-eye of a target. If the insurgents had aimed only a little lower and to the right, that one rocket would have landed on top of me.

Within the last week or 10 days, there have been a lot of close calls for people I know. In addition to having their house peppered with shrapnel from the same rocket that impacted near me, the civil affairs team living next door has had other near misses. In the most recent incident, a mortar landed in front of one of their Humvees in downtown Baghdad but, miraculously, most of the blast went away from them.

Staff Sgt. Aaron Self, one of the soldiers I supervise on the Protective Service Detail, had two bullets whiz by his head as he stood in the gun turret during one of our convoys.

A friend from my former Army Reserve unit in Orlando was seriously wounded in Sadr City. Another soldier from the same unit was lightly wounded.

The other day, we passed a group of Iraqi soldiers surrounding a rocket that only minutes before had buried itself in the middle of our route, failing to detonate. Also that day, our convoy returned along the airport road to the International Zone, passing the remains of an IED that had just exploded. On a recent night, a rocket-propelled grenade narrowly missed a Marine colonel we have worked with.

When I was in Vietnam, it seemed that the last 60 to 90 days of a soldier’s tour were the most dangerous. A lot of guys were killed on their last helicopter ride, their last convoy or their last patrol. In Iraq, this same phenomenon has happened again, as it did to the Apopka soldier killed just before he was to return home.

With around 140,000 of us in Iraq, the odds are small that we will be the ones wounded or killed. Still, as the end of our own tour approaches in a couple of months, those odds can slowly begin to work against us. After hundreds of convoys and dozens of rocket or mortar attacks, the chances begin to increase that we will also be ambushed, hit by an IED or found by one of those poorly aimed rockets or mortars. Fortunately, these potential threats only heighten our senses and strengthen our resolve to survive.

I keep telling my wife, Debbie, not to worry. If the whole North Vietnamese Army couldn’t kill me, I won’t let these guys get me either.

SFC Chuck Grist
Baghdad, Iraq

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