”I’m going for it!”
“No, you stand down, that’s an order. You remain here until we clear the wall! You are not to make a single move without my say so!”
“I’m telling you, I can make it through. The package is just around that west corner! I’ll be in-and-out, real fast, ma’am! Just give me cover long enough for me to make it to that car up ahead. I’ll be in-and-out, real fast!”
“Ramirez!” I shouted. He couldn’t hear me. He was already dashing up the road past the other emptied Humvee. I could barely see him anymore. I never even had time to fulfill his request for cover fire.
After he darted around the corner up ahead, I heard a BANG that was followed instantly by a cloud of dirt, smoke and a rain of rock and ash that cascaded down in all directions. Anyone who has ever seen an action movie knows that that isn’t a good sign. I wanted to chase after him, but the bullets whizzing by only a few inches from my helmet kept me from pursuing. All I could do was call out and hope to God he heard me.
“Ramirez!” I called again. Nothing. Even if he did respond, how could I hear him with the sound of rounds being snapped off on all sides of me?
“Houston! Covering fire on my position and move up on my mark!” I shouted. “Yes ma’am, copy that!” Fire was focused on the roof tops down the road. We were in a bad place, and on top of that we were now missing one of our guys. Our convoy was heading through Al-Qurnah on a routine patrol to pick up some local intel when we were hit. Two Humvees filled with 3 Infantryman each. Total 6. We stopped and fanned out once we heard the high-pitched whistle of a shoulder launched rocket stream toward us. It barely missed and instead knocked down the wall to a residence just a few meters off from the rear vehicle. That was when we stopped. And that was when Ramirez took off.
Pop-pop. Pop-pop. Concentrated fire was tearing apart the roof line ahead, and it was time for me to move.
I jumped up and hauled ass across the dirt road and into an archway on the western side of the road. Not much room to move, but more cover than the swung open door of the transport was giving me. At least now I could stand. I was now a few dozen meters from the corner where I last saw Ramirez. If I was right, then he must be on the other side of this house, hopefully alive.
“I’m out! Reloading!” I heard from one side. “Copy, firing!” I heard coming from behind the front Humvee.
There were six of us. Jacoby, Marshall, Houston, Kelly, Ramirez and myself. Only three months as the CO of this little company, and already about to face the fact that I might lose one of my own. Not how I thought this day would go. My mind was buzzing with the mantra that was driven into us constantly at Basic: Leave no man behind. My only priority right now is to get to Ramirez.
I poked my head out. As my nose cleared the corner, a chunk of wall blew apart into a fine powder right in my face. Thank God for goggles. I crouched and poked my muzzle out and snapped off three rounds toward the roof top. They returned fire. Exposing himself for a chance to take me out, Houston switched targets to him. It was as if a watermelon exploded upwards into the air, the insurgent’s scarf ripping open and sending chunks of pink skyward accompanied by a mist of red. One down.
I returned to cover and gave a thumbs up to Houston. Even though he had his shemagh pulled up over his face, I could tell he had a big smile underneath, no doubt pleased with the order of brain stew he just served up on that rooftop.
The intersection was a three way. Our road leading north up to a perpendicular crossroad with no choice but to turn left, west, or right, east. Ramirez went west after we came to a halt. The insurgents were lining the roof tops and spraying down at us. They had the high ground and it wasn’t looking good. The only advantage we did have was training, but one thing they don’t teach you in Basic is how to come out on top when its twenty plus bad guys and only six Infantrymen, possibly even five now.
Four minutes have passed since I last saw Ramirez. What if he’s been grabbed? What if he hit an IED and was now a fresh coat of paint on the wall of an alleyway? My mind went over these possibilities and more as I stood in that archway. I poked my head out again to plan my next dash. A broken down Volkswagen was in the road only 25 meters away. It would take me a couple of seconds to sprint there and get down behind it, but that’s a solid window where I’m openly exposed to catching a bullet to the gut. I leaned back into cover. I took several quick breaths. I knew I had no other choice in the matter.
“Houston, cover fire on me!” “Copy that, cover fire on Miller!” The muzzles of all four tilted in my direction and over my head. Pop-pop-pop. Dust was flying up in all directions from the adjacent walls and rooftops. This was my chance.
I jumped out of the archway and was running for the cover of the old sedan that was straight ahead. I slid into cover and pushed my right shoulder into the driver’s side rear door of the car. Relief. The front of the vehicle looked as if someone took a giant bite out it, and then set it on fire. Burned and worn down from years of most likely being parked in the same place in the scorching sun, the only good it would do anybody these days would be to stop bullets from ripping into them, in this case me.
Finally past the corner of the intersection, I could now actively search for my hopefully not fallen ally. “Ramirez! Where you at?!” I called. Still nothing. I poked my head up to get a better look around, and was met with more whizzing sounds. The pinging of the bullets against the Volkswagens surface was deafening. I leaned out and snapped off four rounds at the attackers. Two of my rounds pegged one in the chest and shoulder, and he disappeared back from the roofs edge.
I got on my belly, elbows and knees and crawled to the far side of the car and looked at the damage. Where the bite was taken out of the bumper, there was a smoking crater in the road, still smoldering. An explosion. No doubt from a shoulder fired rocket. This must be the blast that I saw Ramirez disappear into. He’s close.
To my left was an alleyway. I was afraid to look down its corridor for fear that I might see that fresh coat of paint. This alleyway was out of view to the shooters, and would provide me with cover. It was only fifteen feet away, but fifteen feet of nothing but open air. I glanced up to see if any insurgents were on me still. It looked clear, but I knew they were there, waiting for a chance to send their hateful projectiles my direction. I pulled myself up to a crouch, and then pushed off.
My exposed backside was to the wall of assailants, and they did not hesitate. Although only fifteen feet of space, it may as well have been fifty: Illegally obtained bullets causing the dirt and rubble around me to come alive. Dust and debris jumping off of the walls and ground before me, missing me by mere centimeters this time, I could feel the rush of wind from the sailing rounds fly by and sting my face.
I made it into the alley. Safe. I’m out of breath. Even though it’s a short amount of space, the adrenaline kick from that bullet-dodging sprint was exhausting. I check for myself for damage. Lower half? Check. Upper half? Check. Wait. My arm is burning. I rotate my arm to see that the space of sleeve just above the elbow has a one inch hole in it. Shit. One of the bullets grazed me. I should consider myself lucky that this was the only payment for the madly suicidal dash I just finished.
There is a door on the adjacent wall to my left. I keep scanning. The alleyway is clear, but also a dead end. Where did he go? I take a step forward to examine the wall that was behind me. Phew. Just dirt and clay. Nothing else. I move to the door and find a smear of blood against the already painted red wooden door. My heart sinks into my stomach. I lower my rifle and sweep the threshold for wires. The door feels rough and splintered under my gloved hand. No sign of traps, but the door isn’t closed all the way either, but left ajar. I back up a few steps and put my left foot forward. I have to breach this door.
I ram my foot just above the door knob and force it open. Wooden chunks leaped into the air along with it. I flip on my flashlight and step inside, scanning the room with my rifle drawn, checking the corners. No sign of insurgents.
“Ramirez!” I called out into the dimly lit room. “You in here!?”
There was only one window on the far wall, and it had a thick cloth over it. The only usable light sources were from the open door behind me and from the miniscule holes hewed by hungry moths over however long that cloth had been hung there. Once my eyes adjusted more I could see that inside was a table, two chairs, and a torn up sofa against the wall, and in the corner beside the sofa were a set of dirty and bloodied beige boots. Ramirez.
I swept toward him. “Ramirez, can you walk?” He was unresponsive, propped up against the wall and ground between the sofa and end table. His chin was resting on his chest and he was not moving. I gripped his chin and lifted. His eyes were shut and he was bleeding from his mouth. I pushed the table aside and patted him down, checking for wounds. His front seems clear. I rolled him over slightly and then I saw it.
It looked like a package of raw ground beef was trying to squeeze its way out of a rip in his lower back. There was pink all over, and his entire backside was soaked in blood. The blast must’ve did to him what it did to that car outside.
I slowly lowered him onto his back again. I had to wake him up. Can’t let him sleep. He must be only a few minutes away from bleeding out, I have to keep him awake for what little time I have to get him back. “Ramirez. Wake up, buddy!” I slapped the side of his face repeatedly. He was coming around. He was groaning in pain, but at least he was producing some signs of life. “I’m getting you out of here.” He was trying to mumble something to me, but nothing was spilling out of his mouth other than blood.
He had a radio in his pack, and this was the time to use it.
“This is Staff Sergeant Miller to Baseplate, requesting an immediate Medevac Dustoff. Military personnel has taken a pretty heavy hit.”
A crackle came over the line, and I gave them our coordinates, calling in the 9 Line Medevac, stating Ramirez’s condition and enemy surroundings.
“This is Baseplate, solid copy on that.” Said a voice crackling back over the transceiver. “Proceeding with caution to your locale. Staff Sergeant, have you located the Intel that was reported to be in your vicinity? Report says it’s a small memory stick, black and silver in color Over.”
“Negative on that Baseplate. Area too hot to continue search, will have to return after we extract our wounded. Over.”
A break over the radio. A pretty obvious hesitation. “Copy that Staff Sergeant Miller. Be advised, LZ is too hot for Dustoff on your current position, are you able to move away from the line of fire. Over.”
“Affirmative on that. Over.”
“ETA is seven minutes. Given your position head 2 klicks over to the west and tag your position with Line 7 Charlie. We will find you. Over.”
“Copy that. Popping Purple, over and out.”
I returned the radio back into his pack and pulled his limp body to his feet and crouched, letting his body weight fall over my shoulders. Struggling, we moved to the exit of the hut. I knew that I would not be able to move Ramirez and myself easily through the gunman filled streets to the LZ, but it would be attempted.
We entered the alleyway. Still clear. I planted Ramirez against the wall and moved to the end of the space to scan the condition of the street. I could still hear shots being fired and returned but not nearly as often as it had been just a few short moments ago. I returned the wounded soldier and pulled his limp body over my shoulders again when I heard Kelly and Jacoby pulled up in the truck to the front of the alleyway. Kelly exited and stacked up in the alleyway, covering the east side of the street.
I was so glad to see them.
“It’s time to go, Humvee is up and we’re Oscar Mike! We’ve gotta move!” Kelly shouted. I pulled Ramirez down onto his feet and Kelly took his other arm over his shoulder as we pulled his flaccid body into the flatbed of the truck. The second Humvee rounded the corner and pulled up behind us, Houston behind the wheel and Marshall manning the mounted 50 caliber turret up top. Jacoby is in the alleyway still diligently watching the adjacent rooftops.
Ramirez was beginning to cough and gurgle his own blood, struggling to breathe. I gave the order to roll out to the designated Medivac site where we would signal for extraction. We called out and got Jacoby into the rear Humvee, finally on route out of this nightmare of a day we were all living.
Ramirez was coughing up more blood and wheezing what sounded as if they could actually be words. I leaned in and pulled my ear close to his leaking mouth. “In– and out” he coughed. He pushed his gloved hands into mine, placing something small and rectangular in my palm before dropping his limp wrists back onto his chest. “…real fast” he wheezed. His eyes rolled back and closed. In my hand, was battered black and silver memory stick.