Sleep, just sleep. Get some sleep. “Vehicle buckles”. You bust your knee on the armored frame. You are back-door now, you are an observer. It is near the end of Quick Reaction Force (QRF) week. We have been outside the wire 152 hours of it, Out of a 168 hour week. We rotate such weeks, but there is always another. Essentially we are working for $2.50/hour, to get killed, or worse. We are a single truck crew, among two others. As an observer, there is nothing you can meaningfully do to defend yourself, only if you dismount. Get some sleep, hit an IED crater, and then another. Bomb craters have no comparison to pot-holes, filled with fluid (of whatever kind) turns such craters into splash-mountain for the gunner. That fluid hits your sense of smell and physical touch for the whole crew, as it seeps down into the internal truck from your gunner like a mild but completely disgusting waterfall. Sleep. “Hey Ryan, pass me your gloves,” our gunner calls out to me. We are driving at 50 MPH, if we can, and the wind chill in an Iraqi winter for a gunner is literally numbing to the body and mind. Your body is numb? Fine, so long as your hands can work the gun if needed, and your mind aware enough where to direct the gun where needed. Sleep. Your buddy on gun calls once more to rotate gloves.
Shooters are a secondary threat, IEDs are the primary. It is impossible to see all potential IED threats. In realistic terms, it is not “if”, but “when”. For every eight you find before hitting, there are two hidden, waiting to punch your patrol in the gut. Please sleep. Blinking Rear-Door, you see what route you are on, and it isn’t a good one. You instinctively keep your mouth open, a small help in dealing with blast pressure from an explosive detonating right next to your vehicle. Most IEDs are “party-poppers” ones that normally cause superficial damage to the vehicle, but not the crew. Gunners know which times, dates, and locations to hunker down in the turret. But there is no way to prepare for all potential eventualities.
For the love of God, please let me sleep. You then remember the truck crew you lost within the last week. You lost your buddies to a “cato-kill”, a deep-bury catastrophic IED. That in past experience completely obliterates the truck-crew, and the truck. On a previous “cato-kill” where we lost four friends, we searched for their remains (and sensitive items) for 72 hours, and we found nothing left of the crew. In the Rear-Door, there is nothing you can do against such a threat. But how do you erase the known threat in your mind? You can’t, it is there. It is there every minute of every hour your crew is out on patrol. Why can’t I sleep? I know, but to acknowledge why potentially jinxes us to the worst outcome.
Close my eyes for a moment, quickly followed by a relatively distant blast. We chase such noises. We go directly towards where the danger is, it is our responsibility to attempt to provide some semblance of security to the local population. And which we attempt to prevent every day, we fail. Every. Single. Day. Don’t get me wrong, we want to do our jobs, we obsessively want to do our jobs. We left garrison life back in the states in order to do our jobs, instead of just training to do our jobs. Nearly every time, we are too late. We show up minutes afterwards to a horror scene, innocent people dead or dying. Show up on scene to family members lamenting and mourning the worst day imaginable. Doing everything in our power to prevent such events, and we are consistently failing. Such failures break both mind and body, it is a spear both into the brain and heart. But we keep trying, and every failure leads to a deepening burrow at our resolve. We need to do better, but we are doing the best we can.
No wonder I can’t sleep, there is blood on our hands. Literally on our hands, when we attempt to aid blast-site survivors. Of course our buddies we failed to protect, but an inexhaustible debt that can never be repaid to the local nationals we are there to protect. They are people like you and me, people that only want to provide for their families and keep them safe. That’s on us, and the weight of that feeling is immense. Nonetheless, I need to sleep. But it won’t come. It never really has since our tour began.
Beyond QRF, and daily patrols, we do occasional “pushes” into problem neighborhoods, hoping to a make a dent into the violence as we had been unable to do otherwise. “Kack, kack, kack,” nearby AKM fire, though it wasn’t directed at us. Our convoy splits off our route to the suspected source. Once again, we are too late. We ask our local interpreter to ask the victimized civilians for any details that would allow us to find their attackers. They refuse to answer, only to prevent reprisal attacks. Our truck has stopped, but with no real sense of peace to get that inkling of rest that the body is screaming to want. Grunts in the past have been described as the “walking-dead”, and we were better off being mounted in vehicles.
In our relative comfort, it never comes. All the same, most of us can’t sleep. Our vehicle commander (who had two tours already under his belt), slept relatively like a baby when he rotated on Rear-Door. The rest of us on our first tour were jealous to the point of salivating at his ability to do what we couldn’t. “Stop trying to control what you can’t,” was his advice, and it was difficult for us to collectively fathom, among the lower enlisted. We just felt so helpless, not only to protect ourselves, but the good people we were ordered to protect. It would be fine if it was just us, we were taught long ago to accept our own mortality. We held funeral ceremonies state-side in training in order to reinforce that we, or our other buddies could very likely die in combat. However it did not prepare for us that innocent people who would die for our failures.
We collectively volunteered to fight, they didn’t. Some guys acted like they didn’t care, but there was a subtle depression in all who joined up to fight, and rarely have a direct enemy to fight. We were literally driving around in circles. “GOD-DAMNIT SLEEP!” Sleep wasn’t nightmares, and it was a temporary reprieve from the living nightmares. And then I (we) had our reprieve, we all fell asleep in our truck once arriving back in our motor-pool. You could barely find a worse place to sleep, but we all did. Now off of QRF week, we collectively awoke to our Tactical Operations Center radioing us to get ready for our twice-daily routine patrol outside QRF. And the cycle went on.
Five months later, the truck commander and I were wounded in a blast. I was largely unscathed compared to others, but my one tour was at a last. . I was medically retired at age 20, around the time my school friends were just starting their own lives, and I started into a longer state of life anew. My truck commander went on with our crew, and he was wounded once more on our tour, and more seriously two tours later onto. You get home though, and you never get the sleep you so desperately wish for. We have new found peace, but a peaceful life not ever known. It remains a thought never here known. It never comes, you are always never at rest or at peace either never known. You have a new normal, a normal never found in the comfiest of conditions. You can return home to a loving family, and that should be enough. But, it isn’t. Without those craters, the cold/heat, the lost friends, the wailing of innocent families who have lost everything, the explosions, the gunfire, the moments away from death or being severally wounded. You are still there. Despite all that, the troubles remain. Maybe, just maybe if I went back, I could sleep again. A dozen years later, in a comfy apartment, with no threat of ours and yours’ dying, and little probability of you or your crew dying, you will find yourself dying a death worth defying. Get some sleep. We as a crew, find a crew’s death worthy dying. Please why can’t I sleep?