Dispatch from Iraq: Finding a way around the bridge at Ramadi
Al-Asad Air Base, Iraq, Oct. 27, 11:02 a.m.
There is a monstrous four-lane concrete and steel reinforced bridge that spans the Euphrates River between the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in central Iraq. Two weeks ago, a suicide bomber drove a truck loaded with 10,000 pounds of explosives onto the eastbound span and detonated it. It blew a hole roughly the size of a football field in the eastbound span, and significantly damaged the westbound span, sending what was left of them both into the river below.
For the U.S. military, the Ramadi Bridge served as a crossing point for convoys transporting troops and materials out of the country as part of the overall draw down in Iraq. That all changed when an insurgent blew himself up.
This mission would be the first to have to bypass the bridge and find a new way around it. During our convoy brief in Kuwait, the gun truck squad leader, Staff Sgt. Greg Sanchez, said that there was an alternate way around the bridge but that we would have to use a much narrower, one-lane concrete bridge that parallels the main span, almost at water level.
Intel on how to get to that smaller bridge was spotty at best; it would be a learn-as-we-go process. To make matters worse, we would be crossing the bridge predawn, with only headlights and spotlights to guide us.
On the night we crossed the bridge, I had been driving our gun truck northbound on the main supply route from Forward Operating Base Victory for almost seven hours. Sanchez was the TC (truck commander) and Pfc. Mario Nikic was the gunner.
I was exhausted, and keeping my eyes open was a real chore. It was my first time as a driver; up until this point, I had either been a TC or a gunner. I was completely unprepared for how physically taxing it is to push a 15,000-pound truck for hours on end. At the end of this mission, I would have a whole new respect for our drivers.
About two miles out from the bridge, we began looking for the unmarked dirt road that was supposed to break off from the main supply route and take us under the destroyed spans to the smaller bypass span. We missed it, and soon, the MRAP on point was halted at the destroyed span with nowhere to go but back – along with our gun truck, three 50-foot, 93,000-pound Hets and 11 tractor trailers.
I muscled our gun truck into a three point turn and headed back while the column waited on the bridge approach. After about 100 meters, I saw the turnoff – a narrow dirt road that cut off at a sharp angle and headed downhill into the dark toward a village. The entrance was almost completely concealed behind a pile of rubble.
Sanchez radioed to Staff Sgt. Frank La Spina’s gun truck to follow us down the road so that we could conduct a quick recon before taking an entire column into the unknown. If I wasn’t awake before, I sure as hell was now.
I cautiously pushed our truck forward, looking for signs of hidden IEDs. I soon gave up, because there was nothing around us but piles of dirt, rubble and trash. If there was an IED hidden there, we’d never see it until it hit us.
The road zigzagged down toward the village until we came to an intersection with an asphalt road. I was glad to be away from the piles of trash and dirt until I turned onto the hardball. There, directly in front of me, about 30 feet away in the opening to an alley, was what looked like a 155-mm artillery shell. My heart stopped as I called out over the intercom, “I’ve got an artillery shell in the alley, 12 o’clock, 10 meters.”
Nikic in the turret, Sanchez and I all grabbed our rifles and in the cramped confines of the truck cab and tried to look through our telescopic sights for a better view. Seconds passed like hours as we stared and scanned the surrounding area looking for telltale wires. My heart began beating again after we all confirmed that it was just a large pipe that with the naked eye would have looked to anyone like a partially concealed artillery shell.
With my heart now pounding at what I was sure was an unhealthy rhythm, we pushed forward, skirting the edge of the village. Sanchez reminded Nikic to stay low in his turret in case of snipers.
On to the bypass
In a few minutes, I came upon an Iraqi Army outpost at the river’s edge. In surprisingly good English, a young soldier told us that if we followed the road, it would take us onto the bypass span.
I turned the truck around and we went back through the village to link up with the column. La Spina and his crew had already proceeded back and was attempting to oversee the arduous task of getting the column backed up enough so that we could lead them onto the dirt road and across the river.
We returned with the column to the Iraqi Army checkpoint, and they waved us forward and toward the lower bridge bypass.
As I looked at the destroyed spans slowly passing overhead, I was amazed at the extent of the destruction. Four-foot-thick sheets of concrete and asphalt, some the size of a small house, held together by steel re-bar that was bent and twisted in surreal shapes, hung like torn Christmas wrapping.
We passed under the main bridge and I saw the lower bypass ahead of us. The bypass span was nothing like I had expected. It was minuscule compared to what was left of the Ramadi Bridge, and looked like it was meant to handle nothing more than donkey carts.
Inches from the edge
I’m pretty sure I held my breath as we drove slowly across, tires just inches from the edge. It was like one of those deep-sleep nightmares – the closer we got to the end of the bypass, the farther away it seemed to get. I instinctively unlatched my seat belt, disengaged the lock on my armored door, and felt for the quick release on my vest. If we were about to go into the water, I wanted to make sure that I could get out before I drowned.
My waking nightmare finally came to an end as I felt the road beneath me turn to solid dirt again and the village disappeared from view. The road made its way back uphill toward the MSR. I wheeled the truck onto the highway and led the rest of the column away from the river and back down the highway again, where we came to a halt and got back into our regular convoy order.
As we sat on the MSR waiting for the rest of our column, I silently hoped that none of our company would have to cross that bridge again. I was sure that it was only a matter of time before the insurgents figured out that it was our only way across and took advantage of the situation. It was an ambush just waiting to happen.