A long dark road in the middle of nowhere

Steve and Liz
Dehli, India

Written 25 October 2006

As I was finishing a workout at the gym, I checked my watch to make sure that I wouldn’t miss dinner.  The date almost jumped off the dial.  It has been one year.  I quickly looked at the time.  It was 7:20 pm; almost exactly to the minute.  The hair on the back of my neck stood straight out on end and goose bumps passed over my arms as I remembered the “thump, thump” in the desert and the green glow that night…

“Screech-boom.”  7 months earlier, a rocket screamed over the base, flying very low, on an initial trajectory of only 21 degrees to the ground.  The 107mm Chinese rocket, designed to be fired at targets 7 to 10 kilometers away, was too close to be fired only 1.5km from the road nearby.  The rocket’s motor was still burning.  As it flew over my Platoon Sergeant’s head, he described the long red fiery trail that rushed out the back.  The rocket was traveling almost 500mph when it hit, just past the cafeteria, breaking apart before its 3 pounds of TNT exploded.  Had it been going slower, it certainly would have killed or wounded dozens.  Since it was already breaking apart when it detonated, large pieces of shrapnel flew to a few spots instead of the thousands of 1cm sized chunks of steel that it was designed to produce.

One Sri Lankan man caught two smaller pieces of shrapnel to his leg and chest.  The larger chunks tore through the air, ripping through the metal walls surrounding him, missing him by only inches to his right and left.  The screaming pieces of hot metal passed in and out of the restroom walls where he was showering.  The steel walls of the bathroom looked as if they didn’t slow the fragments at all.  Later, I interviewed him and asked him if his family was affected by the great tidal wave that struck Sri Lanka 3 months previously.  The massive Tsunami swept across one side of the island, bounced off the Indian mainland, rebounded, and then struck the far side of the island.  Almost the entire coast of the country was hit.  “Yes Sir, my entire village was wiped out.  But luckily, the wave came up to my house, and went back.  My family was spared.”  I thought that he had to be the luckiest man alive.

Lieutenant Breyers was so traumatized by the event that he curled up into the fetal position and was useless at work for the next month.  Or so I was told.

19:20 – “Thump, thump, thump, thump!”  I heard the sound on the horizon of the rotors beating back the wind.  It was without doubt the most beautiful sound I had ever heard.  I have seen police officers on docu-drama shows describe the sound of sirens on the horizon when they were in peril as the best sound they had ever heard.  It suddenly made sense to me.  The sound grew and faded and then grew again until it was steadily growing louder.  “Thank God,” I thought, “He’s going to make it.”

4 months earlier Captain Selleck, the base operations OIC (Officer in Charge) came to my office to alert me that a new team was coming in.  The new team was one Captain “heavy” meaning they had one extra officer who would be “unemployed” when they arrived.  Captain Selleck would have to find a “job” for the incoming officer, Captain Harvard.  “He’s pretty eaten up.  I have to find a place where he can do the least amount of damage,” Captain Selleck explained.  Apparently he went to training school with the new Captain and this guy was a walking accident waiting to happen.  Trying to defend my own department I protested, “Don’t put him in my office; I finally have this place running smooth.  The last thing I need is some guy who outranks me who has no idea which end is up.”  Captain Selleck suggested that perhaps he could put him in the convoy section.  Even worse – there he might get someone killed.  I made my disapproval known but I didn’t really have any say in the decision.  We just had too much brass and they had to be “assigned” somewhere.

19:25 – Pop!  Swish!  The flare streamed into the sky with the sound of a rocket on the 4th of July.  Its green glow illuminated all of the people in the convoy section who were scurrying around the desert and across the highway.  “Poof!”  As it burst high over our heads, everyone stopped and looked up.  The dead blackness that covered the desert was pushed back and the area 300 meters around us was now aglow in a bright white light.  Fwomp, fwomp, fwomp!  The sound of the helicopter grew louder as everyone stopped to look up into the sky as the flare burst.  Chris was still talking.  We last recorded a pulse for him at 18:50.  He had been 35 minutes without a pulse and was still fighting to get up.  He had no idea the extent of his injuries.  At least we know that he is not in pain as he complained when his arms were probed for an IV.

3 months earlier, Captain Harvard arrived and was placed in charge of the convoy section.  He talked a good game, had unit bar-b-ques, and hung out with his troops.  But in reality, he was a walking accident waiting to happen.  The unit had a convoluted plan for each convoy, standards were not maintained, and proper military procedures were not followed.  It was not uncommon for soldiers to ride above their Humvees outside of the protective armor.  Some did not wear their ballistic eyewear, their proper armor, carry enough ammunition, and some didn’t even carry their rifles.  I politely commented to Captain Harvard, and later to Captain Selleck that the standards were not being met, I was politely told it wasn’t my business.

The helicopter was more than a half hour late, but it carried a medic.  Chris had lost so much blood, but now, at least he had a fighting chance.  We did not have a medic on our convoy, only CLS trained soldiers.  The Combat Life Savers course is like an enhanced CPR class.  Soldiers are taught how to place an IV and to stabilize a patient.  It is a super program and it has saved countless lives.  But, it isn’t a medic.  During this incident, our CLS personnel never were able to get an IV started.  In the CLS class they might have placed one, maybe two IV needles but it may have been months since these men took the course.  As the time drug out, 45 minutes since the initial call for help went over the radio, our hope faded that he would make it.

Instead of leading the convoy during the halt, organizing the relief effort, or placing the vehicles and soldiers in a defensive perimeter, Lieutenant Breyers shirked his duty as the Convoy Commander.  He didn’t want to lead his unit and instead knelt by Chris’s side, reassuring him.  As the convoy commander, he should have left this task for the medics, but for some reason, he didn’t want to lead on that dark night.  Earlier when the CLS shook his head “no” at me, I understood what he meant; Chris wasn’t going to make it.  I encouraged those around Chris to get him to talk about his family.  If he didn’t survive, at least we could give them his last words.

On one convoy, 2 months earlier, our gunner stood above our Humvee the whole way to our destination and back.  Actually, each gunner, in every vehicle in the convoy stood up, the length of the convoy, high in their turrets making an inviting target for the shrapnel of an enemy IED (Improvised Explosive Device, literally, a roadside bomb).  The chunks of metal fly through the air at 2 and 3 times the speed of sound penetrating metal and glass, destroying everything in their path.  Anyone standing outside of their turret invited a sure death.  But the soldiers are young and think of themselves as invincible.  Captain Harvard said again to me, “Gunners stand up from time to time, it’s what they do.”  He was allowing a direct violation of theater policy.  When I brought the subject up again with Captain Selleck, his supervisor, I was told again, “Don’t worry about it, it’s not your lane.”  That’s a polite Army way of saying, “It isn’t your business, stay out of it.”

A Major, from Brigade in Baghdad, traveled on one of our convoys and was so shocked at the lack of standards that he made a formal complaint with the Brigade Commander.  The Force Protection Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Prey received a proper “ass-chewing” and had words for the Convoy Commander (Captain Harvard) at the next morning’s daily brief.  “I don’t want this to ever happen again!  The next time you have a VIP on your convoy, you make sure it’s cleaned up!”  I thought to myself, “What? Did I just hear what I think I heard?”  No effort to fix the problem, just “gloss it up” when a VIP is on board?  I later suggested to Captain Selleck that he sack Captain Harvard as Convoy Commander to which Captain Selleck replied, “I can’t do that!  It will ruin his career!”  Both Captains were Air Force Security Forces Officers.  The Air Force Security Forces are the equivalent of the Army’s Military Police.  I worked with these fine individuals for a year and came to learn that they think of themselves as policemen.  Somewhere, the civilian “blue line” crept into the Security Forces mentality and Captain Harvard thought it disloyal to “rat” on another “cop.”  I did hear him say that once regarding another issue that came up, “Cops don’t rat on other cops.”

19:28 – We covered Chris’s body as best as we could as the helicopter flared out and landed.  It landed, to my surprise, on the northbound lane of the freeway instead of the landing pad on the west side of the road that we had flooded with glowing green chemical sticks and vehicle headlights.  Chris’s leg was cut completely off mid thigh and folded under his body.   We spread out over him to keep the blowing sand and trash out of his open wounds.  As the helicopter medics came close, I moved away to give them space.

Six weeks earlier, Sergeant First Class Albert and I walked to lunch with Captain Selleck.  I again brought up the subject of the convoy section and their lack of standards.  The Humvees are equipped with the SINCGARS radio, an encrypted system that prevents jamming and is impossible to eavesdrop on.  We were not using the capabilities of the radio systems but were instead transmitting in “single channel – plain text.”  This was no different than talking on a CB radio.  Any Iraqi insurgent or foreign fighter within radio range with a $50 scanner could hear EVERYTHING that we were saying.  I remember taking a trip to a nearby base and as we departed the gate, the convoy commander squawked out his check in call, alerting to anyone who was listening that the intelligence officer, operations officer and area security officer were departing the gate.  Now, every terrorist within miles could set up an ambush for us.

When I voiced to Captain Selleck that this was dangerous, he became very irate with me and told me to mind my business and not to worry about the convoy section.  He addressed me by my rank and when a higher ranking officer calls you by your rank; it means that you are in trouble.  He didn’t want to hear problems in the convoy section.  A blind man could see that the system was broke, but he was more worried about moving into a new headquarters building and his turf battles with a Major from the Virginia National Guard. 

19:40 – The medics worked to stabilize Chris; he was still talking.

Five weeks earlier, I went on leave to Europe.  I had two of MY soldiers from MY platoon with me.  Since we were flying home, there was nowhere to store our weapons.  Rather than take our rifles with us and have the convoy section bring them back, we were ordered to travel completely unarmed, depending on the convoy section, call sign “Guardian,” (Captain Harvard’s unit) to protect us on the convoy.  My soldiers and I climbed into the Humvee that would take us to the base where the airport was.  The convoy section Sergeant First Class that was driving had his M-16 rifle, but had NO ammunition.  “Sergeant, where is your ammo?” I asked incredulously.  “Well,” he hemmed and hawed, “We’re only going to the airport,” he whined.  I thought to myself, “This convoy section is going to get someone killed.”

19:45 – The medics folded Chris’s severed leg over and into the gurney.  They strapped him in, held the IV bag above him, and carried him to the idling Blackhawk that sat in the middle of the freeway.

4 weeks earlier, one of our convoys departed the front gate and made their radio call – as they always did – over the open radio, alerting everyone that they were coming.  Enemy insurgents were waiting and triggered a bomb that killed one soldier from my unit, and one soldier from one of our working units.  We will never know if the lax convoy section standards contributed to their deaths, but it was inexcusable to be talking over the open radio after the tax-payers had paid for $4,000 for encrypted radios and placed one in each Humvee.

19:50 – Chris was still talking when they loaded him into the helicopter and then it carried him away.  My spirits soared as I knew he would make it.  My attention was now drawn to the fight erupting between Lieutenants Breyers & Grispen…

At 4 hours before the arrival of the helicopter, the convoy members socialized in the Burger King parking lot.  Usually the convoy commander, or one of his assignees, collects the trip tickets (convoy permits), and gets a count of the number of personnel and vehicles.  Following the accountability drill, the convoy commander gives a convoy brief wherein he explains what the SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) of the convoy will be, what to do in an emergency, what the radio frequencies are, the route to be taken, any reported enemy activity, and in which vehicles the medical kits and CLS personnel were located.

But on this fateful night, none of that happened.  Instead, I saw Lt. Breyers, the convoy commander get out of his vehicle, call for everyone to “mount up” or to board your Humvee or truck for immediate departure.  He gave no safety brief, took no count of the number of people or vehicles in the convoy, and notified no one of the radio frequencies that we would be talking on.  This convoy had all the makings of an amateur act.  The Lieutenant didn’t know if he had 4 vehicles in his convoy or 24.  He just drove off and whoever wanted to follow jumped in line.  It was one of many bad decisions that, stacked like dominoes, toppled one after the other.  If just one thing was changed, if just one domino was pulled, the outcome of the night would have been very different.

20:02 – After his confrontation with Lt. Grispen, suddenly Lieutenant Breyers – who had previously shirked all responsibility as convoy commander – now wanted to be in charge.  He began barking out orders for everyone to mount up and move out.  Just like at the Burger King, he had failed to get accountability of all of the convoy personnel and equipment.  This was a serious violation of his officer training.  Why he was ever put in this position was beyond me.  He had shown naked cowardice 5 months earlier following the rocket attack and clearly should have been sent home, not promoted to a position in which so many lives were trusted.  Lieutenant Grispen and I argued with him that he needed to make sure that we didn’t leave anyone behind in that dark desert.  It was obvious that Lieutenant Grispen was frazzled and scared.  He just wanted to get away from that place.  He wanted to retreat to somewhere safe.

2 hours before the helicopter landed, we stopped the convoy again.  This was our second halt.  The first stop was for a flat tire, and now a broken axle.  As before, the convoy members were not following proper protocol.  A 5X25 meter search was to be conducted following each stop, looking for roadside bombs.  On our halts, soldiers were sitting on the curb, smoking, talking, few, if any, were doing what they were supposed to be doing.  The convoy NCOIC (Non-commissioned officer in charge, the “sergeant” of the convoy) was Sergeant Albonza.  Never, not once during the entire convoy – before or after Chris went down – did I ever see him.  He and his convoy commander had both failed to lead in any way, shape, or form. 

20:45 – Once proper accountability was taken, the convoy began the drive back to base.  One soldier from the headquarters unit was crying uncontrollably.  He was an office clerk and had never been outside the wire; this was his first mission.  He was standing right next to Chris when the accident happened.  I made my way to the briefing room to report in.

One hour before the helicopter landed.  The sun had now set and we were parked right in the middle of the freeway – with our lights turned off.  I asked my vehicle commander, Lieutenant Rain, “Why don’t they turn the lights on?  There is going to be a car accident.  Someone is going to get killed.”  He told me that it “wasn’t my lane,” and “don’t worry about it, its Lieutenant Breyers’s job.”  I remember that we argued whether or not someone should take control of the convoy away from Lieutenant Breyers.  Lieutenant Rain argued that we were not within our rights to do so.  Later I checked and found out he was right.  The standing order at our base was that the convoy commander had final say in all matters related to the convoy – regardless of rank.  All we could do was to make suggestions, the convoy commander had say as to what did, or did not happen that night.  For a harrowing 40 minutes, we watched as car after car slammed on their brakes and screeched to a halt to prevent running into our convoy which sat in the center of the freeway, in the pitch black of night, with all of our lights turned off.

21:00 Lieutenant Colonel Prey was getting briefed by Lieutenant Breyers.  He couldn’t understand the sequence of events.  After listening to Lieutenant Breyers’s explanation it made perfect sense to me.  He was explaining it all wrong; it was obvious that the Lieutenant had no idea the sequence of events that evening.  Lieutenant Colonel Prey asked me if I could shed some light on the earlier events.  Before I started, I asked him how Chris was doing.  He told me that he was sorry; Chris had died en route to the hospital.  I felt so defeated.

Ten minutes before the helicopter landed, Lieutenant Gripsen’s QRF (Quick Reaction Force) arrived with a medic.  His medic did in two minutes what our CLS crew could not do in an hour; place an IV needle in Chris’ arm.  But, I found out later, that it wouldn’t have made much difference.  The CLS personnel never placed a tourniquet on Chris’ leg despite that it was severed completely.  Instead, they placed some “quick clot” agent (a granular powder that can seal some wounds).  I do remember someone questioning the CLS personnel about a tourniquet and they said that the “latest” CLS training directed that they should only use the clotting agent.  Someone disagreed and said that a tourniquet should be used.  The CLS soldier asked, “Are you CLS qualified?”  And when the answer “no” was given, he said that he was and that this was the proper thing to do.  Lt. Grispen’s medic was incredulous.  He explained that Chris just slowly bled to death because the clotting agent was not intended to close arterial openings caused by amputation.

Lt. Grispen was furious, as he should have been.  Lt. Breyers didn’t set up any security, had no control over the personnel in his unit and was not taking any responsibility at all.  But what Lt. Grispen told me next, I could hardly believe, and it explained some of his anger.  He told me that a passing convoy offered their medic for our assistance and Lt. Breyers turned down the help.  Apparently, he thought that we had a medic in our convoy.  Had he taken account of his convoy before he departed, he would have known that we did not have a medic.  Additionally, Lt. Grispen explained that Lt. Breyers called in the MEDVAC (call for a helicopter ambulance) on the wrong radio frequency.  He was calling Lt. Grispen’s radio relay point.  When Lt. Grispen’s radio operator told Lt. Breyers that he was on the wrong frequency, he argued that he was in fact on the correct frequency and told the radio operator to get off of the radio line.  Lt. Breyers incompetence compounded again and again that evening and it led to fatal results.

22:00 – Captain Harvard, the convoy section OIC, called in all of the convoy personnel and had them write statements as to what happened.  What the unit lacked in proficiency in the field, they made up with loyalty.  They all rallied around each other and cast blame on others.  When I wrote my statement the following day, it was a stark contrast to the majority of statements in the convoy.  Captain Harvard ordered me to give him my statement; I refused and gave it instead to CID (Criminal Investigation Division).  A safety board was convened to determine what could be learned from the incident, and later a 15-6 investigation (Commander’s Inquiry) was ordered.  Lieutenant Grispen, the Commander of the detachment that came to gave us aid, provided statements as did his soldiers.  Their statements and my testimony were key in the 15-6 investigation.

When all the dust settled, blame was placed at the lower levels.  The Lieutenant Colonel and the pair of Captains escaped all justice as best as I can tell.  Reprimands were handed out at the Sergeant and Lieutenant level.  It appears as though my testimony that the higher ranking officers knew of the problem, and then failed to act, was “overlooked” or ignored by the investigating officer(s).  It looked as though they wanted to place blame at the lowest level possible and to quickly close the case out.  I believe that a “sanitary” explanation was preferable to the truth.

Tonight I remember that young man and his last words.  Someday I will find his fiancé and his family and share with them what he wanted them to know before he passed.

I remember seeing later that week that Chris Monroe was the 2001st casualty in Iraq.

All names except for Chris Monroe have been changed.


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Steve and Liz
Dehli, India

7 thoughts on “A long dark road in the middle of nowhere

  1. This was a sad but moving post.

    I have friends and family that are in the military and I worry about them all the time. I have also lost a friend to war. She died shortly after her humvee ran over a roadside bomb. She was young and had so much going for her career. She is now buried at West Point.

    I am helpless in these matters and all I can do is pray for our soldiers.

    • Thanks for dropping in and for the comment. I had really agonized over including my Iraq posts as this is a ‘travel’ site, but as I thought about it, going to Iraq was travel even if for work. My views on the war(s) have changed a lot since seing them first-hand. I posted a few weeks ago (a few posts before this one) the videos for Steve and Liz. I don’t think that I could have written anything that those videos don’t say just in their content.

      One thing is for certain; I have come to appreciate life more than the average person (or so I think). I believe that travel opens our minds and broadens our horizons but a close brush with death makes you realize how fragile we all really are.

  2. It was good to read this story again. Can’t believe how much time has flown by. I pray for your safety and everyone who is away from home in harm’s way.

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