(This story first appeared in Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, Volume 2)
I’ve only had one bad reaction to going downrange. One where I broke down and lost it. It was after my first trip to Iraq in 2005. I went to Balad Air Base in Iraq in May 2005. It was a two-month trip. I didn’t really do anything. I did several shows of force while there, but I never dropped any bombs or strafed anything with the 20mm cannon. I saw some nasty stuff from the air, though.
In one case, I led our two-ship of F-16’s to a small town called Tuz. It was southeast of Kirkuk. It was essentially a truck stop next to a giant ridge of ripples in the earth. I was there with a wingman, I think it was Beav, and we were doing Close Air Support (CAS) like virtually every single mission in Iraq.
The Joint Terminal Air Controller (JTAC) we were talking to was a guy we had trained with back in the states. He went by Wheels. When I heard him on the radio and recognized his voice, he really perked up and was psyched that some Minnesota boys were overhead.
A vehicle borne IED (VBIED) had gone off right in front of the mayor’s office in the center of the town. Essentially the only major intersection in town. We showed up overhead and I could see the black smear on the pavement. Wheels wanted us to perform a show of force. We flew directly over the location at around 1000 feet above ground level at around 500 knots. In this case, he wanted it because he was concerned that snipers would set up on the rooftops near the explosion and try to follow up the car bomb with small arms fire.
Wheels was actually at the TOC or tactical operations center. He wasn’t at the location itself. There was a patrol of Humvees and associated infantry at the location. In order to talk to him on the radio about what was happening directly below, I had to fly a little bit to the south and climb up to the mid-teens to get him clearly on the radio. I gave them a show of force and then we climbed up to tell him we were done. We went into search with our targeting pods to see if there were any threats near the site. We never saw anything.
We got back to Balad and I got an email from Wheels a few days later showing some pictures of the carnage. As we are often 5 miles away from the excitement and in an air conditioned cockpit, I was curious to see what the guys on the ground see. I got an eyeful. The engine block of the car bomb. An arm lying in the street. Some body parts thrown up into a tree like some kind of sick tinsel.
Wheels described to me how they had patrolled the town on a regular basis and had become friends with the mayor. He had a little daughter who would play soccer in the street while the guys would visit with the townspeople. I don’t remember whether the mayor was killed. Or the daughter. I’ll go back and check my notes, but I think it’s interesting as I write this that I can’t really recall. Maybe I don’t want to.
I know I’ve never asked anybody to send me pictures of body parts again.
Later that year, in October, my son’s birthday party was coming up. Like usual, I left everything up to my wife. There’s a local gymnastics facility where they’ll hire out the place so the little 5-year olds can run around. It’s pretty slick. The kids get all jacked up on cake and sugary drinks and then go berserk. It’s nice because they’re tearing around in what amounts to a padded cell instead of in your house.
Well, Shelley said that our son Sam wanted an Army theme for his party. I asked her to explain. She said there’d be little Army Humvees on the napkins and on the cake and that there’d be a piñata in the shape of a Humvee.
Something about the idea of my son taking a bat to a Humvee, destroying it, and having candy fall out of it made me feel physically ill. I still don’t know why it would affect me. I’m the fighter jock glory hound who’s never been near any actual blood. I had no reason to get upset, but tears filled my eyes.
I told Shelley there was no way in hell our son was having a party where he attacked a Humvee with a bat. She was surprised at my reaction. Not nearly as surprised as I was. She said the party was only a few days away. I said I didn’t care.
Shelley convinced Sam that he wanted a firetruck theme instead. At some point, I’m sure he thought he really wanted firetrucks. He ended up smashing a big number 5 until the candy fell out. And the kids all dove in to scoop up the wreckage.