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I don’t remember how old I was when my father asked me this peculiar question, maybe sometime during my high school years. And I don’t know why he asked me or how it came up in conversation, but when it did, it hit me like a brick. “How many dying boys have you held in your arms, crying for their mother?”
To this day I have never held anyone dying in my arms, and no one crying for their mother. I don’t remember how I answered his question. I was dumb founded.
My father fought in the Vietnam War. He was an Infantry Scout Dog handler where he walked the point man with his German Sheppard, Beau. They led they way and looked for Charlie, ambushes, booby traps, tunnels, and weapon caches. My father and Beau were a team. They walked out in front of the patrol and Beau would alert my father if he smelled trouble ahead. The lives of the men they were leading through the jungles of South Vietnam were in theirs’ to protect.
Years later after my father asked me this disturbing question, he explained what had happened to him years ago in Vietnam. One day my father and Beau were leading a patrol through the jungle, when Beau threw up a signal to my father that he smelled danger, so he signaled for the patrol to halt. The Lieutenant ran up front and asked why “his” patrol had stopped. My father explained to the LT that his dog had alerted him that there was something ahead to be cautious of. The LT became angry, “That’s bullshit, this area has been cleared. Charlie hasn’t been in the AO for days,” the LT then ordered them continue on with the mission. Against my father’s better judgment he continued to lead the patrol deeper into the jungle.
Within a few minutes they walked right into a heavy ambush. Beau had been right. The patrol was pinned down and had to fight their way out of it. They were able to break contact with the enemy and pull back to safety.
However, during the firefight, a soldier in the squad took a bullet to the lower stomach and was bleeding fast. This young soldier happened to be a good friend of my father. Seeing his wounded buddy, he ran over to him yelling for a medic to come and assist. The soldier was lying on the ground, holding his guts in his hands, crying out for his mother. All my father could do was hold his friend and provided what comfort he could as he died in his arms.
After my father told me this experience, he confessed that he still felt guilty for this young man’s life. He said he wished he could have tried to convince the LT not to continue the patrol any further. Maybe there was more my father could have done.
In my father’s face I could see the heavy guilt and anger as a tear rolled down his cheek. Right then I knew that my father had just shared something with me that he probably hasn’t shared with too many others. I didn’t know what to say. But I did gain a better answer as to why he asked me that question years ago.
As I mentioned, I have never held anyone dying in my arms crying for their mother. So the answer to my Dad is no I have never experienced that. But let me ask you this Dad, how many nine year old boys have you held in your arms, crying for their father? How about a boy clinging to his lifeless father that you just killed?
In the summer of 2003, I was working a check point outside the small city of Al-Hawija in Northern Iraq. I was in the Army, in the Infantry, just like my father was, but instead of patrolling the humid jungles of Vietnam, I was fighting an urban guerilla war in the extreme heat and sand of Iraq.
Our check point was set up outside of town and we were stopping every vehicle trying to enter. We were searching the vehicles for weapons, explosives, suspected bad guys, stuff to build IED’s, and other contraband. Our check point looked like this: 300 meters out we had a warning sign written in Arabic that said, “Slow Down. Prepare to Stop!” 150 meters out we had another sign that said, “Deadly Force will be used if you do not stop!” We then had a maze of concerinta wire set up for the vehicles to weave in and out of before coming to a stop in an area that we nicknamed the “pit”. In the pit we searched the vehicles, and when nothing was found and they were clean, we waved them on, and allowed them to enter the city.
On that summer day back in 2003, my squad was manning the check point into Hawija. It was a slow day with not much traffic. I think it had something to do with the mid afternoon heat. When the temperatures reached over 130 degrees, most of the Iraqis wisely stayed inside and off the roads. Most traveled at night when it was cooler. But a one vehicle approached our check point. So I peered through a pair of binoculars and spotted a small white Toyota pick-up truck heading towards our position. I put the binos down and raised my weapon to the ready position.
The white truck approached the first warning sign, but did not attempt to slow down. My squad leader ordered a warning shot to be fired as a sign of force, so the man next to me fired off a three round burst with his M-16 over the top of the truck. The truck was not slowing down. It soon approached the 150 meter second warning sign. Fearing that the truck could be loaded down with explosives on a suicide run, our squad leader ordered everyone to open fire on the truck. I raised my weapon and put 30 rounds into the driver’s side windshield. The man next to me with the M-240B machine gun opened fire and sprayed about 150 rounds into the vehicle’s engine. With each bullet weighing 180 grains, he put about a pound of lead into its engine block.
Black smoke started to billow out from under the hood, as the little truck started to swerve back and forth. It ran into our concertina wire and eventually came to a stop inside the pit. Immediately I slammed in a flesh magazine and fired off a few more rounds into the driver side door. Our squad leader then yelled for a seize fire. The firing stopped but my adrenaline was still pumping. The driver of the truck was hanging out the driver side door, hunched over. Blood was running out of his head, chest, and arms, turning the side of the truck a dark liquid maroon. A squad member opened the driver side door, and his body fell to the ground. I can still hear the thud it made as he rolled out of the truck.
Wildly, the passenger side door flew open, and I saw a young boy, eight or nine years old, jump out and run around the front of the truck. He dove on top of the bullet riddled body, screaming and crying, all in Arabic so I am not certian what was being said. All I could do was watch in horror.
As it turned out, the driver was the boy’s father. Fortunately thee boy was not injured as we all fired our shots into the driver’s side of the truck. The boy was wailing hysterically holding onto his dead father. He was now covered in his father’s blood and it took 3 of us to pry him away. We managed to drag the boy from his father’s body and over to one of our Humvees. We held the boy so he couldn’t see his father lying on the ground in a pool of blood. Our medic walked over to the body to check it out. There was nothing the medic could do. The damage had been done. The medic just stood over the body and kicked it a few times and then flung his arms up into the air, telling us, “fuck this!” We all knew he was dead. I don’t think you could count all the bullet holes in his body.
They loaded the young boy into the Humvee and drove him off. To where, I don’t know. I never saw the boy again. We spent the rest of the afternoon trying to clean up the carnage. We packed the father’s body into a body bag and tossed it into the back of another Humvee like it was a old bag of trash. Where they took him, I also don’t know. I never asked where they took the bodies after we killed them. I really didn’t care either. My job was just to kill. The rest was up to someone else. I don’t know whose job was worse.
Next, we had to figure out what to do with the truck. It was completely disabled and the inside of it was covered with blood and chunks of flesh. No one wanted to climb into the truck, so we called in the mechanics and they towed it out of our check point. Later on the mechanics told us after checking over the truck that the breaks were broken. The truck wasn’t trying to run our check point, it just couldn’t stop. It turned out just to be a father and son coming back into town after what had to be a grueling day working out in their watermelon fields. The back of their truck was full of watermelons and shovels. Maybe they were on their way into town to sell their melons at the market and perhaps make enough money to get the breaks on their truck fixed.
Could this shootout have been avoided? I don’t know. Myself, and the others in my squad were just following orders. We were ordered to open fire on the truck, and we were just doing our job. A job that was illegally ordered by a Congress and White House without any recognition of international law, let alone humanity. How were we to know if the white Toyota truck wasn’t loaded with explosives, ready to blow us all up. And how were we to know that the truck was just a father and son coming back from their fields and that the breaks on their truck were faulty? And how to you explain this to the young boy who watched his innocent father be killed by American Forces occupying his country?
That was over five years ago, making him a teenager by now. Maybe he will be driving a white Toyota pickup truck tomorrow, approaching a collation check point somewhere in Iraq. And I can damn sure bet you that he won’t be hauling watermelons.
KRISTOFFER REHDER was first deployed to Kirkuk, Iraq in 2003 where he served in the 4th Infantry Division, 1-12 Infantry Battalion for 13 months. In 2005 he was redeployed to Iraq for an additional 400 days despite being classified as 50% disabled by the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Minnesota for severe PTSD, hearing loss and bad knees. He now lives in Montana and can be reached at KRehder@carroll.edu