Dispatch from Iraq: Finishing the mission he started | NevadaAppeal.com

Dispatch from Iraq: Finishing the mission he started

Sgt. Gary H. Underhill
For the Nevada Appeal
Courtesy of Justin HawsSgt. Justin Haws, and just some of the small arms and shrapnel damage to his HET. Note the baseball-size hole in the fuel tank at the lower right, and the exploded armored window in the upper right.

Taji, Iraq Nov. 30, 5 a.m.

Sgt. Justin Haws’ mission on Nov. 30 began like any other.

After eight months in theater, the routine had become dull and repetitive.

Like any soldier here, Haws, 26, thought about the possibility of getting hit, but quickly dismissed the idea as an event that happened to somebody else.

So far, Haws, of Las Vegas, and the rest of us in the 1864th Transportation Company have been lucky. Oh, we’d had a few minor scrapes with danger, but definitely nothing to write home about. It’s safe to say, we have become bored.

Some of us hoped and even longed for contact if for no other reason than to prove that we could be more dangerous than the insurgents when we had to be. No Major League ballplayer wants to play in the World Series and never get to bat. It’s the same in war.

Not everyone will admit it, but most here hope to go home with the C.A.B, or Combat Action Badge – that little black, wreath-wrapped bayonet badge, worn over the left chest, which signifies involvement in some sort of combat action. It means that we stood up, faced death and walked away – hopefully.

On Nov. 30, Haws was the truck commander of a HET, a giant, multi-wheeled transport that hauls the heaviest of armor. These lumbering beasts, weighing in at nearly 100,000 pounds, are lucky to hit 45 mph top speed when loaded. Haws and his driver were in the lead HET in a 50-odd-vehicle convoy headed north from Baghdad.

The column was making its way slowly over a sweeping freeway overpass that spans Baghdad’s largest municipal open-air garbage dump. Here, fires burn almost continuously throughout the dump, blanketing most of the area in choking smoke that smells like death itself. The smoke-engulfed night made visibility a challenge at best.

As Haws sat quietly staring out the 2-inch thick armored window his world exploded.

An IED detonated just a few feet from Haws’ side of the HET, throwing him from one side of his seat to the other. His head slammed against the armored glass and the air was sucked from his lungs by the concussion and pressure change of the explosion as he was simultaneously punched in the chest with the force of a Budweiser Clydes-dale’s kick.

Haws barely heard himself yell over the screaming in his ears. Shrapnel and pulverized concrete tore into the side skirts of the truck’s armor, fiberglass hood and engine block, shredding the 500-pound right front tire. Shrapnel punctured the passenger side tool boxes and storage compartments, and tore into Haws’ rucksack strapped on the rear deck. Several small pieces struck the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, which was chained to the HET trailer.

Like pissed-off hornets, shrapnel zinged past and ricocheted off the truck’s armor plate, leaving gleaming, silver dents the size of a quarter and as deep as a marble. Two large pieces of shrapnel punched into the 2-inch thick armored glass of the passenger door. The glass exploded into an opaque, milky white sheet, likely saving Haws and his driver from being killed.

The convoy pulled around Haws’ dying truck and pushed ahead and out of the kill zone to regroup. Then a second HET was attempting to reach the rally point when it was suddenly struck by another, more powerful IED. This IED drove a softball-sized chunk of shrapnel through a space between the driver-side front fender and the hood, punched through the thick steel truck frame just behind the front tire, and tore through the engine block itself, stopping the HET dead in its tracks.

The driver side of the truck was punctured by large, burning chunks of shrapnel, tearing into fuel and oil lines, the driver’s armored window and front tire. The truck lurched and smoked and bled to death with an oily groan. Several rounds of glowing green tracers fired from behind concrete walls by an unknown number of insurgents, tore through the night and slammed into the front windshield and hood.

As quickly as it had begun, it was over. Both Arizona Guardsmen in the second HET, drivers from the 1404th Transportation Company, miraculously survived unscathed.

With the attack over Haws dizzily shouldered open the 250-pound armored door and spilled out of the truck. His world fell silent from the deafening explosion.

Luckily for Haws and the other HET crew members, a nearby STRYKER Brigade Combat Team had heard the explosions and rushed to the scene. Haws and his driver were loaded onto the heavily armed and armored STRYKERs, where they were transported to the nearest base.

I ran into Haws the next morning when our convoy caught up with his just outside of Taji, Iraq. Up until that point, the rumor was that Haws had been air-lifted out with unknown injuries.

When I saw him walking toward me, he had his typical ear-to-ear goofy smile splashed across his face.

I clasped his outstretched hand and wrapped him in a bear hug.

“What the f—, bro?” I yelled in disbelief. “I thought you got hit!”

Like a kid who had just hit his very first Little League home run, Haws regaled me with his tale. I swear he never took a breath between sentences.

Haws was offered the chance to climb aboard our convoy and head back south toward Kuwait with us the following day, but, despite the ringing in his ears, he declined.

“I started this mission, and I want to finish it,” he said.

That’s why I love these guys!