Celebratory Fire

Jun 28, 2012 by

For the majority of the summer of 2003 HET Three was in Al Kut on a tiny, postage stamp-sized base on the eastern side of Tigris, just north of the city. We were remote, the main Marine force of Third Battalion/Twenty-Third Marines (or simply 3/23, a reserve unit with a lot of guys out of Louisiana and the mid-west) was on the western side of the Tigris on an old Iraqi air base. They were at least forty minutes from us. We were on our own.

The extent to which we were alone was made perfectly clear the day Uday and Qusay Hussein were killed.

We had a satellite dish, courtesy of excellent scrounging in the Al Kut bazzar with Johnny), so we had a few english channels, Al Jazeerah, and of course Al Manar – Lebanese Hizballah’s propaganda channel. But, during the day nothing came on about Uday and Qusay getting killed.

Evening fell. The team, except for our lieutenant, Nate, had been drinking for several hours. We had brands of foreign beer we’d never seen before and rotgut Lebanese and Jordanian whiskey, but it got the job done.

Just before dusk, small arms fire started in the city. AK-47’s, pistols. We barely looked up from our beers, celebratory fire is perfectly normal in Iraq. Weddings, funerals, births, Iraqis took any celebration as an excuse to fire weapons into the air. It was disconcerting at first, but we eventually got used to it.  It turned into just another part of the Iraqi background noise, like the daily call to prayer wailing from the mosques.

Being mid-summer, it was hot as shit even though it was getting dark. We were all stripped down to our green silkies and flip flops in the 100+ degree weather and the last thing we wanted to think about was enemy fire. We hadn’t been shot at in a couple of months. Well, once or twice, there had been a few pot shots, but nothing serious. No real attacks. It was late-July, the war was over, right?

But that night the small arms fire started to increase. Slowly at first, then, as dusk turned to night the gunfire became almost constant. Heavy machine guns started opening up, red tracers began streaking across the sky over Al Kut, explosions from what sounded like RPG’s sounded in the distance and orange glows flashed from the heart of the city.

Nate started to freak a little bit, he thought the Iraqis were about to come over the wire and kill us all. Actually, we all thought that was a real possibility. The company of Marines holding the base were sober, of course (they didn’t have access to booze), but even so, the tiny base only had some concertina wire and a berm to protects us. If any concerted effort was made to overrun the base, we were all dead, there’s no way we could fight off a serious attack, given the poor defensive posture of the base. No one was coming to help us, not that they would be able to get to us in time from the airbase.

And, of course, considering the HET was… not sober. We were definitely fucked if any Iraqis actually came over the wire.

Nate ordered us to get into our battle gear.  Considering the amount of fire, we didn’t bother putting our uniforms, we just ran back into our barracks in nothing more than shorts and flip-flops. We grabbed our weapons, threw on our helmets and body armor and ran (stumbled) back outside to take positions against what we thought was an imminent enemy attack.

I crouched against the barracks wall. Well, leaned, mainly. I was in my helmet, armor, silky shorts and flip-flops. Holding my weapon, and swaying, hoping I wouldn’t have to fire it. And, kinda hoping I would. I guess it’s kind of like drunk driving, fun as hell, but dangerous and stupid as fuck.

Dusk turned to full darkness, and bullets and explosions cracked all around us and throughout the city.

That was when one of our linguists stuck his head out of the main barracks room, where they’d all been watching satellite TV.  He informed us Uday and Qusay had been killed by the US Army, which explained the unprecedented amount of ‘celebratory’ fire. We weren’t under attack. I slumped back against the wall, clutching my rifle, and whispered the idiot’s prayer of thanks.

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