Editor’s note: The veteran featured this week wished to remain anonymous due to the nature of his work. We will refer to him as Joe for this feature. Part 1 appeared in last week’s edition.
Having come from another military detainment center, Joe and his fellow troops were outnumbered 500 to 1, or worse, at Abu Ghraib, Iraq. Along with daily mortar attacks, troops had to be aware of the Muslim sects and who may be friend or foe.
“The Shiites — Saddam (Hussein) was Shiite — hated us,” he said. “The Sunnis were in between and wanted their interests. The Kurds loved us.”
Abu Ghraib was mortared every day, remembered Joe. Small-arms fire came with each nightfall. Troops got so used to the mortar rounds, they would continue their baseball and football games based on how far in the distance the mortar rounds sounded.
“We were playing one day and we heard rounds coming in,” said Joe. “We said it was far enough away. They kept getting closer and closer. Finally, we said we should get out of there. We ran around the corner and a round landed right where we all had been.”
Walking to work early one morning, Joe and five other troops were making their way to the tower when a round came in and exploded near the group.
“We all did our radio checks and (one of Joe’s friends and fellow soldiers) didn’t say his name,” said Joe. “My first thorugh was to send up a flare. I found him and crawled over to him.”
The trooper had a horrible chest wound and was bleeding profusely. Joe used the trooper’s medical kit and his own to try to stop the bleeding — to no avail. He called medics in and held the man in his arms.
“I saw the wound and held the bandages on his chest until the medics got there. He was dead on arrival.”
After the traumatic incident, Joe was told to report to work. After checking in, he went to the restroom to wash the man’s blood from his hands.
“It hurt a lot,” he said. “I thought, ‘Why him, why not me?’ He had a wife, two kids.”
Later he walked past the mortar site and saw the wall peppered with shrapnel.
“I still beat myself up over it,” he said.
Once Hussein was captured and interrogated, he was initially brought to Abu Ghraib, however military officials quickly realized the dangers at the site were too much and transferred him to a more secure facility.
“I saw him arrive and I saw him get out of the transfer truck,” said Joe.
Not long thereafter, a mortar round hit the prisoner compound, causing dozens of casualties. Joe, and all the troops on hand, sprung into action.
Casualties were loaded onto military trucks.
“Our medics were stabilizing them,” said Joe. “They had us holding the IVs. It was awful. It does something to you. These guys had holes all over their bodies, some had open wounds. It was a rough night.
“Even though they are military detainees, they are human beings.”
Early news reports stateside failed to note that only detainees were injured in the attack. It left those at home wondering whether or not their loved ones were OK.
Joe and his unit initially heard they’d be going home around July 4. It wasn’t until February 2004 that they headed toward Kuwait to hop a plane home.
“Crossing into Kuwait, that was the biggest relief,” said Joe. “I knew as a soldier, all that sh-- I saw, all the sh-- that happened was over. I was not going to have to think about whether or not I was going to die today.”
Joe welcomes anyone with PTSD to his weekly group meetings at 7 p.m. Thursdays at Trinity Lutheran Church, Milton.
“I struggled with it,” he admitted. “My wife has been through it with me. If not for my wife, my son, I probably would not be here today.”
Those afflicted with PTSD never know what may trigger the next episode, the next attack, nor do they know how bad it may be.
“Through counseling, I’ve learned a lot,” said Joe.
“I have survivor’s guilt. He passed away but he would have passed away even if he had been in the world’s best hospital. It took counseling for me to realize that.”
Since coming home, Joe’s lost another brother in arms to suicide.
“He was always smiling, always happy,” he said. “It was such a shock. He had the perfect family.
“The enemy won again. It’s something no one really thinks about. That’s why it hurts so much. The enemy won again.”
Through counseling and thanks to weekly meetings, Joe is doing well. Family means the world to him.
“I look at my kids and I can pull myself out of it,” he said. “I now realize I’m not the only one.”
Chris Brady is managing editor at The Standard-Journal and author of three Vietnam-based books, “Remembering Firebase Ripcord,” “A War We Can’t Forget” and the novel, “We Answered the Call.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.