Location: C-130
1300 Feet
Occupied Iraqi Airspace
Ten miles southeast of Baghdad
10 April 2003
0300 Hours


"Outboard personnel, stand up!"

Pause.

"Inboard personnel, stand up!"

Pause.

"Hook up!"

"Check static lines! Check equipment!"

"Ready Soldier?" My commander's voice is deep and clear in the shifting wind passing in through the plane's gate.

I nod.

"Jump."

I go over it once again. Static line. Check. Reserve chute. Check. Brain. Check. From there it is a ten count and then boots in the wind.

The desert is a harder landing spot than the green fields back home. No matter how many practice jumps you have, a jump into combat will always jar your bones much more than any one you have taken before. Your boots kick up more dust. Your ankles and knees buckle. Your ass hits the ground no matter how long you've trained to land on your feet.

"Buckle down, Soldier!" It's Currie. He's our Staff Sergeant. We're in his command until we touch base. I can hear him loud and clear but between the desert dust and the utter darkness, he's a hard shadow to find.

I gather what little of my gear has been separated from my body in the jump and run to his sound. Everyone starts to catch up. We're missing Johnson. Ten minutes into Iraq and we're already missing Johnson.

"Gregory, Brady, scan for Johnson!" Currie's voice shakes.

Johnson limps up from the darkness before we search. "I think I've broken my ankle, sir!"

"Can you walk on it?"

"I can try."




Camp Victory
Baghdad
10 April 2003
0500 Hours


Currie led us into base safely. Johnson's ankle was destroyed. Our first casualty happened before we even fired off a round. He was sent home to a hospital and replaced.

We met little resistance while on our run to the base. Iraqi's were sound sleepers back in the early days of the war. Baghdad was a fairly safe city. It had just fallen into the hands of US Forces overnight.

The next few days were filled with simple tasks. Wash and shave your face, Soldier. Brush your teeth. Eat. Sleep.

Camp Victory wasn't really Camp Victory yet. It was still just a small base, a place to rest, a place to feel at least slightly safe at war. The Engineering Corps were working on hauling in gravel, mixing concrete, reconstructing the Iraqi's airbase into what would become one of the largest US strongholds in Iraq. But for now it was just a mess hall and barracks. Simple. Soldiers like simple.



For soldiers who have never been to war before, every day is a new reason to be amazed. It starts out easy enough, realizing that you're half a world away from your home. Then you realize it's the same planet, but a totally different world.

Our first few weeks in Baghdad were pretty uneventful. Some men expected bullets and bombs from the get-go. Some men were relieved it wasn't like that. Some men were disappointed.

We mostly spent our time helping to establish Camp Victory, which would be finished and christened in September, or making daily rounds through downtown Baghdad.




Market
Baghdad
22 May 2003
1400 Hours


It was a month before we encountered what most would consider real war.

Currie was directing traffic at a checkpoint intersection. Men from the squad were interrogating civilians about a roadside bomb in the area a couple of days ago.

All points of the scene looked normal. I cannot express normal enough. Traffic was flowing smoothly, civilians were cooperative, polite, friendly, excited about our presence.

And then everything was different.

I heard the sounds before I saw anything happening. The crack of an explosion. And very, very near to us. My ears rang. My body shook. I wanted to shit myself.

We'd been trained since the second we got into boot camp for a moment like this. We were retrained in Kuwait for it. We were instructed about it at the Camp. But when it's happening, in real life, your training ceases to matter. Instinct takes over. Any soldier can tell you this.

We ducked and covered behind whatever was available. We grabbed kids and pulled them behind our bodies. Currie's voice shouted commands over the crowd.

"Count off!"

Voices rang through the noise and dust strong and fierce. One. Two. Three.

Four? Four didn't answer. Hawkins. A kid from Colorado who joined the army to help put him through school. But where was he now? In the moment that a soldier doesn't answer a count off your heart sinks. Your eyes search for him and your head prays it's not the worst. We were lucky it wasn't. For Hawkins.

He was cramped up by a tapestry stand holding the body of a little girl. He was rocking her as they both sat crying. It was shell shock for us all. You couldn't distinguish the girl's face from the rest of her shrapnel filled body. I would like to give you more detail of the scene but I can't. It's for your own good.

Briggs, our medic, ran to them both. Hawkins had been the closest to the car that had just detonated a homemade bomb from inside it's trunk. He checked out fine. Shaken, scraped, but fine for the moment. The girl died. There was nothing Briggs could do for her.

Support units came to the scene. They did the work of detaining suspects and getting information. We were relieved of our post.

We were a group of ten men that had just seen our first real death in time of war. We walked back to the base against a desert sunset in silence. Hawkins and Briggs lagged behind.

The real war had begun.

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