Dispatch from Iraq: Wrong turn raises question: What might have been?

Northern Iraq.

Sept. 23, 2009

As I climbed up into my turret, I had a great feeling about this mission. That feeling wasn't going to last very long.

Tonight, we would be pushing farther north toward the last leg of what would turn out to be 15 days on the road. This push would take us past the outskirts of Baghdad and the neighboring cities of Balad and Tikrit. Tikrit was the home of former Iraqi dictator Sadaam Hussein, and loyalties to him still run strong there.

Our troubles that night started when we left the staging yard. The mile-long column of trucks snaked slowly out of the dusty yard toward the ECP (Entry Control Point). Somehow, our convoy became split when someone in the marshalling yard allowed several trucks from another convoy to leave at the same time, and intermixed with ours.

Capt. Derek Imig told Spc. Humberto Gamboa to turn back, and we returned to the marshalling yard to try and find the tail end of our convoy - no easy task in the choking and blinding dust.

Playing catch-up, we now had to follow the last military HET (Heavy Equipment Transport) and dozen or so civilian tractor trailers as they tried to negotiate the unfamiliar roads of one of the largest Coalition forward operating bases in Iraq.

In the confusion, the lead HET driver, Pvt. Nardy, took a wrong turn and drove toward where he thought the rest of our column had headed.

It wasn't long before we realized that we were headed in the wrong direction. Now we had to turn a dozen 60-foot-long trucks around on a narrow gravel road.

In less than an hour, we would come to realize how much this delay just might have saved three lives. With the column reunited, we made our way slowly toward the outlying neighborhoods of Baghdad.

The narrow two-lane asphalt road was bordered on either side by dense reeds and palm tree groves, old mud and concrete buildings and an occasional house. I slowly swung my turret randomly from side to side, trying to cover both sides of the road and present a "hard target." At the same time, I flipped the safety off my gun.

As we pushed deeper into the neighborhood, the densely packed houses on either side were separated from the roadway by 10-foot concrete "T-walls." The T-wall prevented people from rushing coalition forces or planting IEDs on the side of the roadway. What they didn't prevent was anyone with a Little League-grade throwing arm from hurling a grenade over the wall at passing convoys, and then running away unseen back into the neighborhoods.

The silence was suddenly broken by Sgt. Baum's obviously alarmed voice over the radio from the MRAP at the head of our column, "Break, Break, Break ... STANDBY!"

Baum's voice came back, and it was obvious that something was wrong.

"Someone just threw a grenade over the wall at the Humvee in front of us. It bounced off the windshield and didn't detonate. ... standby."

"S***," I thought to myself. Our column was now halted and it couldn't be in a worse place. With T-walls on either side of us, we were stuck in the perfect choke point.

I scanned from side to side hoping that I would be able to see over the T-wall enough to see someone approaching before they could hurl a grenade over the wall for a three-point shot directly into my turret ring. Imig reminded me to stay low in case there were snipers. I did so reluctantly. Lowering myself into my turret reduced my ability to look over the walls.

Baum's voice returned to the radio, interrupting the agonizing silence. "Someone threw an RKG over the wall. It's lying in the street and we're waiting for EOD to show up and dispose of it."

The RKG3. A Russian hand-held anti-tank hand grenade. When armed and thrown, a small parachute deploys, stabilizing it in flight, and ensures that it strikes its target explosive-head first. The grenade can penetrate several inches of armor with deadly results.

No sooner did Baum end his transmission than there was a flash and accompanying explosion from the head of our column. "Never mind. It just blew up on its own," Baum said, matter-of-factly.

The coalition patrol ahead of us cleared the road and we were allowed to proceed. We rumbled slowly along into the neighborhood and past the site of the attack.

I stood in my turret and looked over the walls. Everywhere were groups of Iraqi men and teenage boys who were staring menacingly at us as we passed, and I wondered if one of them had been responsible for the attack.

Just then, gunner Jake Sere came over the radio. "Hey," Jake said. "About 100 meters ahead of you on the right side of the road, just on the other side of the T-wall, is a group of about 10 to 15 Iraqi males acting suspiciously. Keep your eyes on them as you pass."

"Roger that," I replied.

There were a dozen or so Iraqi men who suddenly began approaching the wall as we passed. I swung my turret in their direction and dropped the elevation of my .50 to point the barrel just over their heads. They immediately turned, and staring over their shoulders at me, quick-stepped back to a courtyard and into the house.

Whether they were just curious or getting ready to hurl another grenade, I don't know. Either way, I wasn't about to give them the chance.

Our column finally made it to the freeway that makes its way through downtown Baghdad.

As we drove along I had time to think about a lot of things. For Imig, who is on his second tour here, and has survived numerous ambushes and IED attacks, I'm sure that what had just occurred was just a minor footnote for him. For me, it's as close as I've come so far in my tour here to enemy contact, and the possibility of combat.

Then, it struck me. Had such a minor event as our convoy getting separated leaving the staging lanes not occurred, or had Pvt. Nardy not made a right when he should have turned left, and our convoy being delayed 45 minutes as a result, it would have been us that was attacked instead of the other army patrol. More specifically, it would have been Spc. Miller-Cobb, Sgt. Baum and Pfc. Martin in the MRAP who most likely would have been targeted.

It would have been their windshield struck by a Russian anti-tank grenade, and maybe, just maybe, it might have detonated instead of bouncing off, and we might be mourning the loss of three brothers instead of laughing about it later that same night. Laugh about it we did, too, hours later in the barracks, tired, hungry and unshaven.

Fate, chance, or just dumb luck?

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