Tikrit – Where We All Nearly Died

May 15, 2012 by

The entrance to Tikrit. Saddam built a replica of the Al Aqsa mosque (the original being in Jerusalem) on these arches over the road to his home town.

the box on the right was our toilet.

   Taking Tikrit turned out to be pretty easy, it had been almost entirely abandoned. We rolled into a ghost town, the night after we rescued the POWs. So, the next day, we began to explore…

The palace compound stretched for miles along the Tigris River. While exploring we came upon several locals fishing in one of Saddam’s private fish ponds. Just days earlier they would have been executed for fishing there, had they been caught. We were alone, just one truck, but even so they were scared at first. Johnny jumped out and started talking as soon as we stopped, and within minutes the Iraqis were laughing with Johnny, and effusively showing their gratitude for invading and overthrowing Saddam. They had caught several monster fish, carp or something, and even though they had to feed their families they insisted on giving us the largest fish they had. It was about three feet long, and at least thirty pounds, Saddam let his fish get big, probably by feeding on bodies. At first we demurred, what would we do with a raw fish?  But they wouldn’t let us refuse, saying Allah would give them a bigger fish if they gave away their biggest. Johnny jumped on the offer, and said he’d cook it up that night. So, we shrugged, accepted the gift and Johnny wrapped it up in a sack and stowed it in the back of the humvee. And, as we started to drive away, I’ll be damned if the Iraqi fishermen didn’t start shouting praises to Allah as they hauled in a fish half again as big as the one they had given us. They cheered us as we left.

Johnny asked/demanded that we go into the city of Tikrit, to get vegetables to cook with the fish. We spent money we’d captured, thousands of Iraqi dinar, to buy sodas, tomatoes and onions and various other cooking supplies. That afternoon we went back to the garage and found the other HET, CWO Dunn’s guys, already well-ensconced in the building. Johnny set to work, cleaning the fish and getting a fire going.

Even though he pissed us off sometimes, Johnny worked for us like no other linguist I’ve ever had, going far above and beyond what was strictly required in his job description. When evening fell, we started breaking out the booze and the hookah. The officers avoided the former, but we all partook in the latter. Johnny’s fish turned out to be delicious, grilled up with the onions, tomatoes, garlic and various mysterious spices he had picked up in the market. The best seasoning was the fact it was our first cooked meal in weeks, months if you don’t include the shitty chow hall food back in Kuwait. You had to be careful of the bones, but even picking through the flaky white meat with my bare hands I felt like I was feasting.

The night progressed, and most of us got a little drunk. The booze from the distillery in Baghdad was harsh beyond belief – whoever heard of ‘banana gin???’ –  but it felt good to get a buzz with other Marines in a more or less safe environment. The fish was devoured, and I finally crashed out next to Johnny at about 1am. The whole garage was quiet, though a couple guys were still smoking hookah outside. We slept in cots, or on the concrete, with our rifles and pistols beside us. After all, we were still in a warzone. All of our weapons were fully loaded, magazine inserted with a round in the chamber. Safeties on, of course, but our weapons were constantly ready. A strange psychology develops when you carry a loaded weapon for an extended period of time, it becomes as much a part of you as any other accessory, a watch or a wedding ring. Which is why, even though we’d had a few drinks and we were deep inside friendly lines in territory controlled by TF Tripoli, no one even considered unloading their weapons.

I had just started to get to sleep, I was drifting away into a semi-conscious state on a cloud of banana gin when I was snapped awake. Johnny was shouting in Arabic at the top of his lungs, “I hear you on the roof!”  Before I was even fully awake, I was holding my rifle. Johnny was sitting up in his sleeping bag, eyes closed, yelling. I immediately realized he was asleep, and dreaming, and started to try to calm him down. I said his name over and over, and pushed him back down. He stopped shouting and started mumbling, but in the silence that moved into the absolute darkness I heard all the other Marines in the garage grabbing for their rifles, that slap of skin on plastic handguards and buttstocks. Then, the unmistakable ‘click’ of safeties being switched off. Every Marine in the room had his rifle or pistol off safe, rounds in their weapons, ready to fire. Everyone was sitting up in their sleeping bags holding their weapons, looking into the dark for something to shoot. They had all just been jerked out of sleep by shouts in Arabic, they were reacting reflexively.

Johnny’s nightmare almost cost us lives. If anyone had fired, everyone probably would have fired. At nothing. At each other. As soon as I heard all the ‘clicks’ I shouted out, “He’s dreaming!! It’s not real! We’re fine!” No one fired. It was almost a disaster, but we survived.

As they say, “Friendly fire, isn’t.”  Fratricide incidents are a horrible consequence of the fog of war, several occurred during the invasion. During 7th Marines’ assault on An Nasriyah in the early days of the war an Air Force A-10, known as the Warthog, destroyed a Marine vehicle killing all the Marines inside (I think it was seven). Also, a British main battle tank, a Challenger, mistakenly identified another Challenger as an Iraqi tank and destroyed it during the assault on Basrah, killing their fellow Brits.

Then there was an incident of fratricide by abandonment, a rumor we heard in the first days of the war. Outside An Nasriyah a young Marine was driving a cargo truck, called a seven-ton, by himself without a radio. It broke down, and he had to fall out of the convoy. One by one, the convoy flowed by him, each probably assuming the trail vehicles would pick up the Marine. But, they didn’t. They left him, maybe they just thought the truck had broken down and the driver had been picked up in another vehicle, and he didn’t have a radio to call for help. General Mattis was watching the situation develop from a UAV feed, but the headquarters couldn’t get into contact with the convoy to tell them to go back and get the lone Marine. As soon as the convoy passed, Iraqi militia appeared from the dunes. They hadn’t dared attack an entire convoy, but the lone truck was easy prey. As was the lone Marine.

Mattis wanted to order Cobra attack helicopters to protect the Marine, but his staff told him that the Cobras were fully occupied supporting the assault on An Nasriyah. Taking Cobras away from the attack to protect a single Marine could mean Marines dying in An Nasriyah. Mattis and his staff had to watch on the UAV video as the Iraqis attacked the Marine, and killed him, as he faced them with nothing but an M-16. We all die alone, but that Marine died alone and abandoned.

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1 Comment

  1. James

    Left alone in a faraway land, don’t know the language, don’t know the culture, barely out of highschool….. I’ll be thinking about that Marine for a long time. I close my eyes and can feel the rumbling of the last vehicle of the convoy going by and think “They wouldn’t leave me, somebody will be along in no time, to come and get me.”

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