The War with No End
Part 2: FOB Saint Mike
Nigel was deployed to Al-Mahmudiya, Iraq, in the Sunni Triangle, south of Baghdad in late 2003. Forward Operating Base (FOB) Saint Michael, nicknamed “Saint Mike” was located in a converted chicken processing factory.
“It was just a little military outpost,” said Nigel. “There was a tent set up where we lived. There was a chow hall and a command centre.”
In total, there were about 500 American troops stationed there, including an Army unit, the 82nd Airborne. On his third day at FOB Saint Mike, Nigel’s squad went out on foot patrol into the countryside. “That was my first real mission,” he recalls. “I was terrified.” The squad scoured trees for bombs and checked dead animal carcasses for concealed weapons. “Weapons could be built into anything. There were potential threats everywhere.”
The mission in Al-Mahmudiya was to establish a presence. There had already been active engagement with the loosely defined enemy. The Mujahideen came from throughout the region: Syria, Jordan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan to fight Americans in the name of Allah. There were community-based, grass-roots factions focussed on keeping Americans out. There were organized military units left over from the remnants of Saddam’s Fedayeen paramilitaries, as well as Ba’athists, nationalists and a variety of tribal and religious militias.
“There really was no big picture strategy,” said Nigel. “It was a mishmash.” Most of the time, firefights felt random. Attackers often fired without even bothering to take aim. They’d lean out a window, or out of a grove of trees, shoot and then run off. If you look at Vietnam in comparison, “that war was like a chess game. Everything was thought out.”
Nigel arrived at the time when IEDs were first being used against Americans in Iraq. On a phone call one evening, Nigel’s parents told him they’d heard news that a marine whom Nigel had been close to during boot camp and had been part of the advance party at Saint Mike, had been badly injured in an IED blast. The blast had torn away part of his skull. He would need extensive surgery. That moment, said Nigel, was “a kick in the ass.” For the first time since his deployment, it all became too real. “Life and death. Not a walk in the park.”
Nigel was in Iraq for about two weeks when the IED incident occurred. He and his squad had left the FOB one morning about 1 a.m. They drove down a rough dirt road parallel to the main supply route – nick named “IED alley” because of the frequency of attacks. The patrols took place nightly, reconnaissance missions to see if they could find anybody likely to mount an attack. Where they went, which direction varied day to day, but that was the point: to intercept anyone who appeared to be up to no good.
They were in a convoy of four Humvees, driving with their headlights turned off. They’d been moving for about a minute when an IED detonated beside them. In the moments before the blast, Nigel had a what he terms a “weird feeling,” an intuition that they were about to get hit. Nigel described the explosion as feeling like a thickening of the air, almost as if he were under water. He lost consciousness for about a minute. When he came to, he was covered in dirt. The Marine seated next to him was unconscious. Dirt thrown up by the blast rained down on them.
A technical error on the attacker’s part had saved him and the convoy: they’d buried the bomb too deeply. For an IED to be deadly, it has to be buried near the surface.
“Had it been six inches shallower, it would have done a lot more damage,” said Nigel. One of the vehicles had flipped over into an irrigation canal next to the dirt road, entrapping three Marines upside-down in several feet of water. Soldiers from Nigel’s vehicle freed the trapped men. A corpsman (medic) was summoned for the soldier who’d been knocked unconscious by the blast.
Then the squad leader announced they were going to clear a compound on the other side of the canal. He believed the attackers hiding in a farm compound had detonated the blast with a cell phone hooked up to the blast igniter.
Nigel had never cleared a compound before, and he was scared. It was an uncharacteristically dark night. Starless, he recalled.
They scoured the compound, expecting to find people. There wasn’t a soul. The Marines returned to the convoy. The lead Humvee had taken shrapnel, as had the one he’d been in. The third was upside down in the canal and would have to be towed back to Camp Mike. The fourth was intact. They would have to wait for a tow truck to come pull the inverted Humvee out of the canal.
“Waiting for a tow truck in a war zone is a nightmare,” he said. “Waiting for a tow truck in America is bad enough. There were a half-dozen times I was in Iraq when we had to wait four to eight hours for tow trucks. This was the first.”
They posted a security watch around the convoy. All the lights were blacked out. Then from down the road they heard a truck advancing. It rounded the bend, its lights extinguished. The Marines started firing. When the skirmish was over, they discovered they’d been shooting at two young Iraqi guys. Whether they were military or civilian was impossible to know. Attackers not wearing a military uniform didn’t mean anything. At some point in 2003, said Nigel, regular Iraqi army – what remained of them – realized it made no sense to wear uniforms. Anyone in uniform was a target for US forces. There was a lot of surrendering. Huge numbers of soldiers jettisoned their uniforms so they couldn’t be identified. If a soldier was captured wearing an Iraqi military uniform, it meant only one outcome: imprisonment at Abu Ghraib.
Two young men were severely injured. One had taken machine gun fire to the top of his head and was still alive.
It was the first time Nigel ever seen someone shot, up close. He’d been in Iraq two weeks. I asked if there had been any real training for what it was like to be with people who had been shot and were dying. Although the role-playing training in Riverside was supposed to simulate the real experience, nothing prepared him for what had happened.
“You just can’t replicate the gore of combat in those types of role-playing situations. Once you see skull fragments brain matter up close and personal...people handle it in different ways.” The situation in real time was intense beyond anything he could have imagined.
A medivac was summoned, and the young men were transferred to the military hospital, where they died of their wounds.
The tow truck arrived right after dawn, and they returned to base.
“That situation was pretty fucked up. I was not the same afterwards,” said Nigel. The injury didn’t feel emotional. He felt something was wrong with his brain.
Although he improved over the next weeks, and he started feeling better, he still did not feel right.
Years later, in 2011, when he finally sought assistance from the VA, Nigel asked about being worked up for traumatic brain injury. The blast had affected him. He knew he’d experienced an impact damaging to grey matter.
The VA, however, chose to diagnose it differently.
“They lumped it together under PTSD. They maintained they didn’t have significant reason to believe there was a traumatic brain injury.” They cited difficulty walking as a definitive symptom. Nigel’s walk was fine.
“It’s the sort of horse shit the VA has given me throughout the years,” he said. “What do you do with it?”
The IED blast was a turning point for him. He began to feel an overall numbness. He didn’t feel completely connected with his body. He’d heard some battlefield folklore before he’d arrived in Iraq: Once you go to war, something gets turned on that once you get back you can’t turn off. You will never view anything the same after that. It was true. Some sort of survival mechanism had kicked in. In some ways it helped him. He was inured to any feelings of vulnerability. He stopped being scared on patrols. He became “more ferocious.”