Ramadi Bridge in the rear-view mirror – a welcome sight | NevadaAppeal.com

Ramadi Bridge in the rear-view mirror – a welcome sight

Sgt. Gary Underhill
For the Nevada Appeal
Courtesy of Sgt. Gary UnderhillHere I am, shortly after after arriving at our forward operating base just 6

Camp Arifjan Kuwait,

29 October 2009

The return trip across the Ramadi Bridge couldn’t have been choreographed more poorly if we tried.

In the end, though, we made it across, unhurt and with all trucks accounted for, the only casualties of the night being our frazzled nerves. Approaching the bridge on the main supply route, we vowed to do things differently than we had just a week earlier on our first trip across.

Before reaching the bridge, we began to slow and brought the column to a halt. Another convoy was in the process of crossing the bridge from the opposite direction, and the roads weren’t nearly wide enough to accommodate both at the same time.

Sgt. Christopher Rosales in the MRAP made contact with the approaching convoy and said we would hold fast while they crossed. I could hear the stress in the opposite MRAP sergeant’s voice as he acknowledged and thanked us for our patience. In the distance, I could see the lights of the approaching column as they appeared from under the main span of the destroyed bridge.

As the opposite column snaked its way slowly back onto the MSR, we sat blacked out awaiting our turn. Sweat began to slowly trickle down my back underneath my armored vest, and I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat trying to adjust my load. The air conditioner blew with little enthusiasm, and my legs began to ache in the cramped driver’s seat. I fought the overwhelming temptation to open my window and let in some fresh air, even if for a moment, but held off because of the risk of letting in shrapnel from an exploding improvised explosive device or a maybe a sniper’s bullet.

I felt increasingly claustrophobic as the impatience set in. I saw the tail end of the other column finally appear as it began making its way up the dirt road and silently willed them to hurry the hell up.

As the other column’s last gun truck finally turned onto the asphalt, we moved forward. Rosales led the way in the MRAP, with our gun truck following closely behind. It was our job to clear the exit route and make sure that it was safe to bring the entire column down. We bounced along the dirt road, past dilapidated and rusting hulks of old cars, dimly lit houses and an abandoned automotive garage until we came to the one-lane concrete bypass bridge that we had so gingerly crossed just a week before.

I had just witnessed an entire column of HETs and fuel trucks cross that bridge, but it didn’t make me feel any better about the situation. I held my breath as we pulled our 15,000-pound armored gun truck onto the bridge, the dark water of the Euphrates river flowing just a foot or more below. Near the end of the bypass, several Iraqi soldiers stopped us at an army outpost.

The soldiers, looking like living advertisements for the video game Halo 3, were decked out in the latest designer special ops gear. One soldier frantically and angrily waved his arms, directing us to stop and proceed in the opposite direction that we had intended to lead the column. That direction, however, took us around the north side of the bridge and through the narrow, winding streets of a village.

Any thoughts of being out of danger suddenly evaporated. We knew this village had not been cleared, and we had no idea where the road led. We hoped that as long as we paralleled the main bridge, that it would eventually lead us back up and around to the MSR.

With no choice but to move forward rather than bunch up the entire column, we pushed slowly forward and entered the village. My head scanned from side to side looking for signs of hidden IEDs or moving shadows in the alleys.

I was burning up in the cab, and my legs were screaming in agony. I desperately wanted out of that truck, and I suddenly found myself hoping that I would get hit by an IED. At least then I would get a shot of morphine and helicopter ride out of there, no longer having to worry about the pain in my legs and the unnerving anticipation of awaiting an explosion that might never come. I quickly dismissed the thought as insane, and pushed the truck forward, dodging debris and potholes along the way.

Leaving the village, the MSR came into view, and we passed a second outpost just before the MSR. This one, though, was manned by the rag-tag Iraqi Police. It’s well known that these police officers moonlight as insurgents, planting IEDs in their off-duty time. They watched us pass with the same intensity that we watched them, like two cage fighters exchanging intimidating glares before a match.

Our suspicions were confirmed when the Iraqi Police began suddenly redirecting our third-country national trucks down an opposite road and away from the column. Sgt. Eddie Lauron and his crew, gunner Spc. William Frias and driver Spc. Jose Torres, spotted the ruse just in time and sped forward to intercept the misdirected trucks and got them turned around. Whatever may have been waiting for those trucks farther down the road is anybody’s guess.

With all trucks and crews accounted for, we moved out and away from that damned bridge. Approximately two miles farther we stopped, got back into convoy order and pressed onward toward our next FOB.

I pushed the Humvee back down the MSR. Before long, the trickle of sweat returned, my legs began screaming in protest again and as the inevitable adrenaline dump set in, my eyes began to get heavy – but at least we were leaving the Ramadi Bridge, the crooked Iraqi Police and those video game soldiers in our rear views.