I GOT THIS
By: Terese Schlachter with Gregory D. Gadson
Days like these formed the glue.
The security cordon established a perimeter inside the shadowy, heavily curtained meeting quarters of the Iraqi National Dialogue Council. Empty plastic water bottles and cups crusted with dried chai tea sat where they were discarded by members, some wearing traditional robes and head scarves, others in rumpled fatigues. Lt. Colonel Gregory Gadson handed off his camera to a member of his detail, who snapped a few photos, most of the men smiling. Those who didn’t smile, including Gadson, rarely ever did.
Outside, the get-away guy and the gunner were flawlessly executing their jobs: they were waiting.
Private First Class Matthew Reeder shifted in the driver’s seat of the Humvee, tentatively touching the wheel. “Least it’s not like last week. Felt like 130 degrees in here.”
“That A/C got it all the way down to 125, I bet,” answered Specialist Travis Ueke, shifting his gaze from the locked door of the building to the covered windows.
“It’s something like 60 back home.”
Didn’t matter where home was. It was a universal term, one that meant better place, better times, better food.
“Bet they’re getting some chow in there,” Reeder said.
“LTC Gadson always gets chow. People love to feed him, man,” said Ueke, maintaining his watch from the turret. “But I don’t think he eats. I mean, just enough to be polite,” He ran his fingers over the butt of his M240B- 7.62mm machine gun, muzzle pointed skyward, his voice echoing off the four metal protective shields forming a box around his middle.
“Be polite. Be professional. But be prepared to kill everyone you meet,” Reeder chuckled, quoting Gadson.
“Hot as Jesus.”
“Bizarro-hot as Jesus.”
Ueke lifted his head into the hot, ugly wind hoping for some relief. No bizarro luck. Everything man-made was a dirty gray. If it was made by God or something else, it was brown. He resumed his security stare.
“Patriot Six, headed out,” a voice from the Colonel’s detail came over the radio.
“Guess we’re outa here,” said Reeder.
The cordon exited the building methodically as they’d gone in, securing doors, windows and high spots, making sure there was no danger to the Colonel. Captain Bradlee Bandy came out first and got in the vehicle behind the passenger seat. Mike Oro, Colonel Gadson’s interpreter, climbed in behind Reeder. The Colonel, sliding on his Army issued sunglasses, the slightest glisten of perspiration on his forehead, strode purposefully toward the Humvee. An average height man, Gadson seemed taller, his steps elongating with the afternoon shadows. He slid in one easy motion into shotgun position. Gadson always rode shotgun. The rest of the detail assembled in three more trucks, about twenty soldiers in all. The first part of the day’s mission was complete.
The second part was becoming rote.
Improvised Explosive Devices – or IEDs, were increasingly in the spring of 2007, the enemy’s weapon of choice. The word “improvised” was misleading because it implied a weakness, a suggestion that it might not work, or wouldn’t work very well. Indeed, the IED was the Iraqi terrorist’s most successful weapon. It could be hidden behind a pole, disguised as a rock, even tucked inside an animal carcass. It could blow up a 16- ton truck. It could throw shrapnel hundreds of yards, piercing flesh with plastics and coppers and irons. It could hurl bodies and tear off limbs. It most often would lie roadside awaiting an errant tire or foot. It could be detonated remotely. It was made with paper clips, rubber bands, cardboard and homemade explosives. It was sometimes toxic, often lethal, and almost always debilitating. The number of U.S. troops wounded in action was nearing 25,000. Almost 3,000 had been killed. That May alone, one hundred and twenty-seven U.S. troops were KIA.
Two of those men were members of the 4th battalion, Special Troops brigade. A memorial service was being held for the twenty-three-year-old 1st Lt. Ryan Jones and twenty- year-old Specialist Astor Sunsin at Forward Operating Base Falcon. They had died five days earlier, on May 2, when their Humvee struck an IED. The deaths of the two young soldiers seemed no different than others. The Department of Defense posted their typical stark announcement on the Internet. Two dead, vehicle hit, names, ranks and posts were blandly described. No talk of service, heroism, dreams, goals or last words. They were exploded into thin air on a dusty, dirty Iraqi road. They were part of that landscape now, off-loaded onto a DOD web site.
Colonel Gadson had never met Jones and Sunsin, not that he remembered, anyway. He had some 500 soldiers under his own command, the 32nd field artillery, which was serving at the moment, as infantry. They were the fighters, the guys who pulled the triggers. Jones and Sunsun were part of Special Troops, which was traditionally a support unit, providing communications, intelligence and engineering personnel. The units’paths rarely crossed in theater. But they were a “sister” battalion. And they’d lost two men. So Colonel Gadson had stepped out of the Sunni meeting a little early so they could head over to the memorial service before dark.
The 1151 up-armored Humvee pulled away from the building, Reeder making sure he gave the truck ahead of him about 40 meters. If one of them was hit, best not to take out the others. That was standard procedure, despite the fact the truck was equipped with an SSVJ cell jammer, which could interfere with the enemy’s ability to detonate explosives using a phone. It also had a device known as a “Duke” which was supposed to do the same with radio waves. The rest of the four-truck convoy fell in line. The Colonel’s was third. Bandy and Oro stared through the two-inch thick glass separating them from what they sometimes called the “Wild West.” Reeder swerved the truck slightly from side to side, theory being that they would be less likely to take a hit directly to the more exposed underbelly, in the middle. Ueke steadied his clanky perch, thankful for the paved road’s smoothness. The road leading to FOB Falcon was fairly well traveled. An Iraqi checkpoint stood about a mile away. They arrived for the funeral service before dark.
The sobering ceremony made for a quiet ride back to Forward Operating Base Liberty, where they were stationed. Bandy, a company commander for Forward Support for the second brigade, 32nd field artillery, G Company, knew one of the soldiers who’d been killed. The captain wasn’t normally a part of the Colonel’s security team. He’d come along to pay his respects. The overseas ceremonies were a military tradition—he thought they were a good one. Sacrifice should be remembered. Honored. Jones and Sunsin weren’t the first KIA. Wouldn’t be the last, which brought up the matter of who would be next. He still had almost a year to put in here—to survive. Seemed like there was an incident damned near every day. Hurt or killed. Just clicking them off, almost, save for the ceremonies. Tomorrow they’d move on. It was getting late, around 8:30. Darkness rested on the desert. Behind a security fence, square block buildings rose randomly from the dirt. There would be paperwork waiting for him when he got back to Forward Operating Base Liberty—their home base—about ten miles away. His stomach rumbled. The dining facility would be closed.
LTC Gadson mulled that afternoon’s exchange with the Sunnis. It seemed more style than substance. He’d been introduced to some local community organizers and Iraqi military leaders. Abu Muhammad and Colonel Gassan would be learning security tactics and ways of maintaining their own peace, so U.S. forces could eventually go home. For now it was all about introductions, good will, the “hearts and minds” stuff. They had not talked particulars regarding what sorts of security his troops could provide, how much the Iraqis could muster. Muhammad and Gassan’s people had put out a spread, though, served, of course, with chai. What they lacked in military force and strength they occasionally made up for in plain old belly-filling. He was glad they’d taken pictures—proof of their cooperation and commitment to improving relations with each other and residents. Tomorrow he’d make a report. He felt around for his camera, touching the rough notches around the lens, making sure he’d gotten it back. Rubbing his palms over his kneecaps, he stretched back into the well-worn seat, breathing in the cool, comfortable night air. It was a peaceful, almost biblically black night.
Ninety percent of IED victims describe an attack the same way. “I didn’t see anything at first. I heard it. Just for a few seconds, everything slows down.”
Thundering decibels belched from beneath the front right tire of the Humvee, lifting the side of the ten-ton truck, hammering the clear night air. White, searing light glowed and flickered like an old-time movie, revealing splinters and smoke driving horizontally through the cab. Metal, plastic, debris and dirt seemed to attach to the sonic force, piercing the night, shredding rubber, bending metal. Three 130-millimeter artillery shells penetrated the cocoon so carefully woven by the security cordon. Chaos spilled out.
LTC Gadson felt himself go airborne, then hurtling across the asphalt. He knew they’d hit an IED. All he could feel in that blink of time was rage.
After the flash, all Bandy could see was smoke. The vehicle came back down flat on the road then careened, skidding forward. What was left of ten tons of metal stumbled on its shattered frame, rear wheels still propelling them forward. It seemed to take forever to stop. Nonsensical. They hadn’t been going that fast. Maybe he was dreaming. Maybe he was dead already. After what seemed like minutes, the lurching stopped. He caught his breath and in an oddly instinctive moment, snapped his flashlight off the barrel of his gun and shined it on his own legs. Still there. Feet too.
“Ueke!” Bandy called.
“I’m hit!” yelled Oro.
The Humvee was so filled with smoke Bandy couldn’t see across it to where Mike Oro was sitting. Bandy pushed open his door, barely noticing the inch wide holes that pocked it, and ran around the back to the other side of the truck. Clear of some of the smoke, he could see Mike, still in his seat. His pant leg was ripped and he was hurting but it was impossible to see how bad things were. There was no blood yet. Bandy and Reeder got the translator out of his seat and to the ground. Trying to muddle past his own confusion, Bandy knelt down beside Oro.
Private First Class Eric Brown, Battalion Commander Gadson’s personal security medic, had been riding in the fourth vehicle. He watched along with the others in his truck as the third vehicle lit up, then disappeared into a dark cloud. “We’ve lost our visual on the truck ahead!” he called. It took a moment for the smoke to clear enough to see the Humvee, rudderless, cross the highway, then finally coast to a stop. They pulled up to the right of the battered truck on the hit side. Brown jumped out and stuck his head inside the blasted carcass of the vehicle. The Colonel’s side door was open, but he wasn’t there. Must have gotten out.
“Hey, can I use your spotlight?” Brown asked Ueke, who handed over his field light. Brown shined it around. Odd, he didn’t see the Colonel.
“Medic!” someone called from the other side of the truck. Brown handed the light back to the gunner and ran around the back end of the wrecked vehicle. Captain Bandy stepped aside to allow Brown a better view of the injured man.
“My foot!” yelled Oro.
Brown assessed the 58 –year- old interpreter. Best he could tell he’d sustained a nasty shrapnel wound to his foot but luckily there was nothing else. Damn it was dark. He pulled a tourniquet out of his bag and twisted it around the wounded leg. Amazing little devices.
“Have you seen Colonel Gadson?” Fredrick Johnson, the raspy-voiced, fast-talking First Sergeant, who’d been riding in the truck with Brown, stood over Bandy and Brown like The Hulk. At six foot, 240 pounds, Johnson, who was the acting Sergeant Major on the detail, loomed above the fray.
“No, man, I thought he got out and went ahead,” Brown said.
Johnson disappeared into the night.
It wasn’t until that moment that it hit Bandy. The grunt. The white light flashed again in his mind. “Ummph”. The Colonel. He’d been hit. Bandy was sure of it. He struggled to put it into words, but it seemed to dawn on everyone at once. There was now a search on for the Colonel but the sudden understanding that Gadson was down meant Bandy was next in line. Now, the highest-ranking soldier on the scene, he was in charge. Aside from tending to the wounded the biggest concern was a secondary attack. He looked around the blast site—there was no security perimeter. Truck number one had u-turned south, back to the bomb site, in search of the Colonel.
“Truck two! Secure the road north!” Bandy yelled. The driver quickly positioned the truck sideways across the road, keeping the gunner in place. “Soldier!” Bandy called to a rifleman on foot. “Take the west side. Ueke! Take your position—look east!” The gunner climbed back into the damaged truck and swung the gun to the right, watching for any sort of motion. The IED had been on that side of the road. If the triggerman or any of his friends were still hanging around, likely they’d be over there.
A low hum turned into a roar, as reinforcements arrived. Delta Company 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry—the Black Lions—along with four more trucks and twenty men were a welcomed sight. They would help secure the site and move casualties. Some of his burden was lifted but still it was his scene to manage. Bandy looked back at Oro. Could be some broken bones in his foot or ankle but Brown thought he’d be okay. There were bigger problems.
Johnson stuck his head inside the misshapen vehicle. Where the fuck was Gadson? The aura of charred metal stung his eyes. He cantilevered his head closer to the floor. Oh, no. Oh, Jesus, there were the remnants of the Colonel’s tracking equipment, blown to bits on the floor of the truck. Gear and crap were scattered everywhere. Maybe Gadson escaped and ran ahead to check on his troops. Please God. Please let that be it. But there wasn’t much left of the forward quarter of that truck. And Gadson always rode shotgun.
Johnson’s breath grew short. He couldn’t hear—either a result of the deafening blast or the yelling of 20 adrenaline charged men. If Gadson’s was one of the voices, he couldn’t hear it. He scanned the fence line. Dust and rocks. And more fucking dust. Through the clearing haze he thought he saw dark form laying along the side of the road, about 150 feet behind the mangled truck. Was it another explosive device? There was no movement. He looked out into the desert, squinting at the few barely habitable homes nearby, watching for the men who likely rigged the bomb, who may have planted more. Johnson moved closer to the figure, keeping the landscape in his peripheral vision while also glancing down, searching for trip wires. Those mother fuckers. If it was another bomb, he was about to find out in the most deadly of ways. Gradually as he inched closer, the form took shape – a head, an arm, a face. With a cry, he recognized his commanding officer’s distinctive profile—the cheekbones that nearly cut into the corners of his eyes. It was Gadson.
“Sir!” screamed Johnson, fearless now, running toward the him.
Nothing. No sound. No movement. Sergeant Johnson drew in his breath. He knew about death. He’d seen it creep up before. He was not watching it again. This was not happening. Commanding officers did not get hurt. They did not die. Not in the company of their own security detail. Not with the younger soldiers watching. This was not going to happen.
“Sir! Can you hear me? Colonel Gadson. Jesus. Mother of God.”
Johnson stared for a few seconds at the Colonel’s chest. It could have been the Interceptor Body Armor that was masking its rise and fall. But he didn’t seem to be breathing. He pulled up the Colonel’s eyelids. All he could see were whites.
“Sir!! You’re not fucking going to die!” He began to notice the wetness on the dark pavement. It was blood.
Johnson leaned directly over his friend and opened his mouth. Cupping his hand around the Colonel’s jaw, he inhaled as much air as his lungs could contain, then forced it out of his own abdomen into the Colonel’s. Johnson gasped. Then he did it again. And again. He was dizzy. There was so much blood.
“Medic!” he wheezed between bursts of air. “Medic! Man down! Man down! It’s the Colonel!” The slightest fraction of a sob caught his throat. Another breath. Stay calm.
Johnson checked the Colonel’s pupils again. This time his eyes rolled forward and seemed to see him. Johnson held the gaze for a split second, then turned his ear sideways to listen to his chest. Yes. There it was. He was breathing. It was shallow. But Gadson was still alive. The Colonel stirred a little then spit something up.
If there was one thing Johnson knew it was the sound of his own voice. Stevie Nicks meets Barry White calling the Kentucky Derby. Distinctive. That’s what he’d always been told. He used it to call the Colonel’s name over and over. He was probably in shock. He fixated on the commander’s face, looking for any additional sign of life, keeping his middle finger on his neck, searching for a pulse.
“Colonel Gadson. Colonel. Colonel!” His voice scratched the air. He felt a strange tightening on his other wrist. The Colonel’s long fingers, calloused and dirty, reached around his forearm.
“Don’t leave me out here, man,” Gadson whispered.
“No Sir!” Johnson answered. Gadson had recognized him, or more likely, the sound of him.
“I can’t get up,” he told Johnson. “My legs hurt.”
“Yes, sir.” “Hurt” seemed an understatement. But panic pushed away every other thought or possible response, as Gadson dipped back to blackness.
“Reeder! Keep an eye on Mike,” Brown called as double-timed the 150 feet back to where Johnson had found the Colonel.
“He’s breathing,” Johnson said. “Barely.”
“Sir! You’re hurt, Sir!” Brown yelled.
Blood ran from the Colonel’s body to the other side of the road, pooling in a small hole. There was no way for the medic to tell how much he’d lost but it was definitely enough to kill a guy. Brown pulled two more tourniquets out of his bag and put them on each of the colonel’s thighs. That stemmed the flow but the damage to his calves was incomprehensible. Brown thought the body armor might be restricting his breathing. With a pair of trauma sheers and a knife he hacked at the chest straps and rough canvas, trying to pry it from his chest. Time was short. The Medevac helicopter was on its way to FOB Falcon. If they could only get the Colonel there he might be stabilized, then on his way to a real field hospital.
The commander needed to be moved onto a vehicle. Gadson, a former West Point football player, weighed in at 210. Somehow Brown, Johnson, Bandy and a few others had to lift him into one of the Humvees. The rest of the patrol had all they could do to maintain security and arrange for reinforcements. They needed more trucks and some fresh gear. Their position was still vulnerable. And they needed to stay square. Brown heard their strained voices as the rest of the detail neatly formed a disciplined chain. Just get it done.
Johnson, running now on pure adrenaline, put his right arm under Gadson’s shoulders and his left one, under his legs. His right arm strained under the man’s weight, but his left swept clumsily through the air. Johnson gasped as he realized there was little flesh left to grab, nothing to balance the weight of his chest. Gadson’s legs seemed to have been shredded.
Johnson lost his footing, slipping in the streams of blood. He was going to have to lift him by grabbing under his arms. The driver of the truck backed up closer to them. Staff Sergeant Patrick Whaley sat at the tailgate, facing them, ready to pull up. The truck configuration inside made loading six feet and 210 pounds of dead weight even more difficult. A four- inch high rear dashboard where they stored ammunition took up a lot of room. Any gear that was not attached was thrown to the pavement.
“Are you still with me Sir?” yelled Johnson. “We need to get you onto the truck, Sir. Stay with me. Stay with me.” That’s when Johnson took his first blow. Gadson’s fist smashed into his jaw with shocking power.
“Let me go!” yelled Gadson. “My legs are hurting!” He struggled to get free of Johnson’s grip.
“Sir, your legs are messed up.
Again, the Colonel clocked him, this time higher, closer to his cheek.
“Shit, that hurt!” yelled Johnson. “You can pound on me all you like, sir, I’m not letting go!” Gadson was clearly in excruciating pain, screaming now, delirious, fighting his every move.
It was with a certain amount of mad love, dedication and frustrated energy that Johnson and the others managed to get the Colonel into a bear hug lifting his full body weight up, holding him under the arms. Whaley grabbed from behind at his commander, yanking at the back of his shirt. Johnson slipped again in the blood and the two of them fell back on the ground. Gadson continued to struggle and scream. The tourniquets had curbed some of the bleeding, but they all knew the situation was grave. If they didn’t get their Colonel to a medical base soon, he would certainly die. Even if they did, he might not make it.
It took four more tries and at least one more punch, thrown with amazing force from a man so close to death, before Gadson was finally secured–lying on his side—in the truck. Brown saw that his legs were not going to clear the tailgate and grabbed the Colonel’s calves to bend them at the knees. Bags of ground, raw chicken. That’s how they felt. Bandy went for his ankles. They folded backwards.
What looked like gallons of blood were on the ground; it was hard to imagine there was enough left to feed the Colonel’s heart. But somehow, it was still beating. Johnson wondered for how long.
He watched the truck pull away gently at first, the driver conscious of his oddly perched and folded cargo, then thunder its way back toward Falcon. One of the other trucks escorted. It was getting close to ten o’clock by now. Almost an hour had passed since the blast. That Golden Hour – the one that, statistically, determines whether someone lives or dies. They would make it to Falcon just inside that deadline.
Gadson came to enough to feel the movement of the Humvee. He knew he was being transported but it seemed to him that they’d been driving for hours—making circles—with no destination. His own security detail was just driving around! They needed a command, some direction. Brown was talking to him. He could see the medic’s face but he sounded so far away. Maybe he was trying to tell him why they couldn’t get to their destination. Somewhere. The kid was new to his detail but there was something in particular about him, something familiar.
“Colonel. Colonel Gadson, sir you’re not going to die here. We promise. Just hold on please, sir,” Brown said.
Gadson looked down to see his own foot, lying in his crotch. He pulled his head back up, fighting the image. The look on Brown’s face wasn’t helping. He needed his higher power. That’s what he remembered about PFC Eric Brown. The prayer. Each day at FOB Liberty began with a prayer. The day it was Brown’s turn to lead a blessing, he’d loved the prayer so much he’d asked the private for a copy.
“Brown,” Gadson said quietly.
“Colonel? We’re almost there, sir, just hold on.”
“Brown. The prayer. Say the prayer.”
“The Soldier’s Prayer, sir.”
It took the medic a moment to remember how it started. It was on a piece of paper stuck in the back of his Bible. Not standard patrol gear.
“Almighty and all present power
Short is the prayer I make to Thee.
I do not ask in this battle hour
For any shield to cover me.
I seek no hope to smite my foe,
I seek no petty victory here.
The enemy I hate I know,
To Thee dear Lord is also dear.
The vast unalterable way
From which the stars do not depart
Shall not be turned aside to stay
The bullets flying to my heart.
But this I pray: be at my side
When death is drawing through the sky…”
“Almighty God who also died
Teach me the way that I should die.”
“But you’re not going to die, sir. See? We’re here.”
The gurney was ready. Help was fresh. The Colonel somehow, soothed.
It was strange, the Colonel thought, to feel no pain.