Earlier this morning, I watched Lone Survivor and, as a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the Global War on Terrorism, I felt deeply saddened at what happened to that Navy SEAL team in Afghanistan. A lot of regular Americans—actually, just regular people in general—don’t have the slightest idea of the terror the heart goes through being in an active wartime environment. Even for the most gung ho of the bunch, it’s truly a scary experience in some respects. Nothing in life can really prepare you for it…not even my upbringing in the slums of Birmingham. That brings me to this week’s moment in the Flashback Friday series, which actually happened 7 years ago today: the attack at Balad.
How I first came across this moment? It was a little after 7AM AST on November 28, 2007. I was on my way back to my quarters as I had just finished up an overnight 12-hour shift in the 332nd Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron’s Operations Office. It was supposed to be a simple 8-minute walk…one that I had did twice a day, 6 days a week since September 3, 2007. On this particular morning, however, as I was about halfway through the walk and passing Red Tail Village—where all the officers and important Air Force people stayed—there was a loud boom behind me. Naturally, I turned around and one of the K-span buildings—about a couple of football fields away in terms of distance—had been hit with a mortar. Right when that happened, the mortar attack alarms started blaring and I heard “Incoming, Incoming, Incoming” on the Giant Voice. Another boom, another hit to the same building. I absolutely knew what time it was then: time to get my @$$ to safety. I looked around and quickly spotted one of the scud bunkers and hurried myself over to it. Inside of the bunker, I positioned myself in the extreme middle and waited it out. In the 11 minutes, 28 seconds I was in there—yes, I actually timed it out on my stopwatch—I could hear 5 other booms…some seemingly close, some a good distance off. Finally, the all clear alarm started blaring and the Giant Voice followed in well-known fashion: “This is the Command Post. This is the Command Post. There has been an indirect fire attack. Post attack reconnaissance teams are directed to conduct UXO check. All other personnel are released. All personnel are to remain vigilant for UXOs. All clear, all clear, all clear. Command Post, out”. I peek out of the bunker, looked around to see if there were any unexploded ordinances around me. There weren’t any. I then proceeded to very swiftly double-time to my quarters, where I made the phone call up to my office for accountability.
What it meant to me then? I’m not gonna lie. In the moment, I was quite fearful. I mean, I had been through all of the training and participated in numerous readiness exercises but that was the real deal. It was some “I can really die right now” type $#!+. Having been there for almost 3 months at the time and seeing the January 2008 finish line so close on the horizon, I had grown to take the attacks for granted. By that point in the deployment, I had made it a habit to leave my helmet and my interceptor body armor—the flak vest and the plates—at the office as I didn’t want to carry the extra 27 pounds on me. For the most part, I was in that bunker naked. I remember calling on Jesus’ name in that bunker. I must’ve said “Please Lord” a good 50 times while I was in there. When I did get back to my quarters, I couldn’t sleep. I was literally terrified. As I later found out, most of the “indirect fire” happened within 2000 yards of where I was.
What it means to me now? By the time I got to work that evening, I was still kinda shaken up but that wore off as I settled in to my shift and continued working on my project. After that day, for the remainder of my time there, I made sure I had that helmet and IBA with me. In hindsight, some 7 years later, it serves as a reminder of just how delicate life really is and it gave me the experience of knowing exactly what real war feels like and looks like.