In combat you can easily become inured to tragedy, but every once in awhile you see something that burns through the mental armor and leaves you reeling. Such was the case today. Before this starts I should warn you this is not an appropriate post for all readers.
The sun was still low on the horizon as our vehicle made its way down one of the winding mulhollah streets. As our HMMWV snaked through the forest of dense infrastructure the only sound was the roar of the turbodiesel engine and the clipped and crackling radio transmissions. As SGT Bard whipped the HMMWV through the traffic snarled street SPC Spartan spun the turret in sweeping arcs, the two working together in mute synchrony. As we barreled down another nameless road we all felt the low flat crunch of tortured atmosphere pulse through the air. And then in unison we all yelled out what the shockwave had already revealed - “VBIED!”. SPC Spartan scanned the area and instantly called out the distance and direction, and I pivoted and watched a boiling column of black smoke claw upward in an impossibly straight line. Up and up went the vile pillar, pausing only to blossom into an ugly mushroom shape. For a moment the atmospheric death’s head glared over the wreckage that had spawned it, then it melted into the thickening smear of smoke.
As we pulled into our link up point we married up with another security element, and then adjusted seats so that MAJ Ursa could accompany us to the site of the blast. As soon as our vehicles were arranged the turbodiesels roared to life and we sped towards the blast site. The drivers weaved through the maze of muhollah streets at speed, guided forward by the jet black beacon splitting the sky. And then we were suddenly at the site of the blast, watching the violent orange flames chew through the scattered remains of vehicles. The burned metal carcasses of shattered Iraqi cars were scattered on the road, their component parts spilled out as if they had been disemboweled. The residential buildings on both sides of the street were reduced to a burning mass of concrete and steel. And lying in the middle of the road, arms forever reaching to heaven lay the pulverized remains of one of the Iraqi victims. The grim scene was brutal, but it was the clinging smell that was hardest to deal with. The air was thick with the oily stench of a fuel fire mixed with the acrid stench of burning rubber, and all of these smells were wound around the nightmarish smell of burning flesh.
MAJ Ursa and I spent the next few minutes trying to coordinate the chaotic scene, setting in security and starting to move the wounded inside the buildings away from the scene. A minute or two after we set into position the Iraqi Police arrived in force and started fanning out to supplement our security posture. The Iraqi fire department was right behind the police, and they didn’t hesitate for a moment. Instead they barreled into the middle of the wreckage and starting to uncoil fat lengths of hose with desperate urgency. As soon as the hose was linked up the fireman turned on the water and started advancing on the fire.
With the fire under control we could finally move past the blast site, and I grabbed our medic and started towards the human wreckage laying in the road. As I walked over I wasn’t expecting any survivors, but we had to check to be sure. I stepped around the first body and as I passed one of the destroyed trucks I felt my boot crunch down on a shard of something. As my weight shifted forward it cracked with a sickening snap and I suddenly realized what was under my foot. I didn’t bother looking down. I knew better then that. Instead I continued forward into the human wreckage in front of me. It took less then a second to realize there was nobody left to save in this abattoir. The Iraqi victims were utterly annihilated. White ribs glittered out of scorched bodies like the ivory spars of shipwrecked boats. The slick concrete was awash in congealing rivers of scarlet. What we couldn’t see from our original position was that this was a wasteland of metal debris interlaced with smoking piles of meat and ruptured organs. We stood there in numb shock for a moment, our senses blinded by the utter carnage before us.
Then we turned and started to tend to the living. Dazed and bloodied residents were still filtering out of the area, and then I watched a sight as pitiful as any I have seen in Iraq. A grandmother carried a dead infant carefully swaddled in blankets away from her shattered home, the grief stricken mother following blindly behind. They continued forward utterly oblivious to the broken world around them, shuffling slowly forward until they were out of sight.
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In a few minutes all the bodies were bundled into waiting vehicles and the Iraqis started to leave the gory scene. As we started rolling out I looked back at the steaming ruin – the blood stained patch of road was still littered with debris and stained surgical gloves. Those grim tokens would be left to others to gather up, for now there was little else that could be done. We mounted our vehicles and started the return trip to the FOB.