The following third article was written by a Vietnamese American who is a U.S. Army physician and has been deployed in Iraq in the last few months. Major H. Luu continues to share his personal experiences, along with personal candid perspectives, as a medical doctor on the war front.
IRONY OF WAR
September 2005 - Major H. Luu
There is no doubt war is confusing, even for those of us on the front lines. There are too many underlying issues that color our view, even as we try to maintain the simple picture of good versus evil so that we can focus on the job at hand. On one given day, I noted so many incongruities that made me wonder if we are naïve to think that our job here is clear and simple.
Part of the medical troop’s responsibility is to maintain medical supplies and we often make trips to Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) to pick up the much-needed supplies. The main supply route (MSR) is a four-lane freeway that could be a breezy trip if it was not for the many surprises along the way. Improvised explosive devices or vehicle improvised explosive devices (IED/VBIED) are often planted on the road, and some parts are so frequently targeted that we call them “IED alley”. On this day, I was traveling with two of my medics escorted by a convoy of armored trucks. As always, the nervousness begins as we leave the gate, with our weapons locked and loaded. It was not until we exited off the MSR onto a dirt road toward BIAP, that the mood of the men in the vehicle lightened. Along this stretch, the men often throw out candy to children and they have brought with them a large box of candy on this occasion for this purpose. When asked if they were aware of the risk of running over the overzealous children vying each other for the treats, the sergeant in charge replied that they would be careful.
“You see, they run up to our vehicles anyway. The road is so narrow it is hard to avoid them. We throw the candy away from the road, that way we keep them off.” He continued to tell me more about his plans, “I am looking for a little girl. I have something special for her. My wife sent it for me”. The sergeant held up a small teddy bear.
“Last time we were here, some of the boys beat her up and took her candy. I felt so bad, and wanted to get out of the vehicle but could not”. This time, he planned to throw candy to the boys, and wave the girl to the side and give her his teddy bear.
He grins, “I love these kids, they have nothing. They remind me so much of my kids at home. It is the adults that I have a problem with. Most of them are nice, but I can never tell who I can trust. It is much easier with kids”. He was genuinely disappointed when he did not see “his” little girl after half of the candy from the box was given out. The other half is saved for the trip back. It struck me that something as simple as giving out candy can be complex, and requires “good” judgment to avoid causing harm. In this case, that would mean violating a general rule that was put out: to not throw candy or food from the vehicle.
We spent the day at BIAP getting supplies and indulging our cravings at Burger King and the Post Exchange store (PX). I could not get over the enormity of the base and different vibe emanating from it compared to our small outpost base. It did not feel like we were in a war zone in BIAP. The soldiers stationed here lived in trailers with air conditioning, and walked around without body armor. They even conducted salutations here. Everywhere I looked they had all the newest armored vehicles, while we had to beg to borrow a “hillbilly” vehicle (plates of armor wield to the doors for protection, which is hardly the same caliber). It would seem the allocation of resources was not always on target. Some people were surprised that we still slept and worked in tents.
BIAP was also where Saddam had some of his famous palaces. There is a large man-made lake surrounded by multiple palaces, which had large doors, marbled floors throughout and magnificent chandeliers hung in almost every room, even the bathrooms were opulent. It appeared that even during Saddam’s time, this place had many more luxuries when compared to what was available to the common Iraqi people.
As we left the base, I noticed a group of Iraqi workers sweeping the road. This was odd, because we were in the desert with loose sand all around us. As soon as they swept one part of the road, the wind would promptly blow dirt and sand back. My guess was that they needed to be gainfully employed so that they could care for their families. They did not seem to care that their work was an exercise in futility, so long as they were paid.
During our drive back we passed a motor vehicle accident. The civilians appeared to be trying to free a trapped driver from the collapse of the roof. The gunner in the group asked me, “Sir, correct me if I am wrong, are we not here to help these people?”
I replied, “Yes, why do you ask?”
“Why didn’t we stop back there to help that trapped driver? Between all our vehicles, we would have had some equipment to help that man. Sometimes I wonder what we are doing here.”
I was caught in a dilemma; I knew that the answer he was looking for was not that simple. I was also surprised that he showed so much emotion and compassion, given our precarious position every time we are on the road. I had to think of a proper answer, because the decision not to stop was not mine. This responsibility falls on the convoy commander, and I did not want to undermine his authority by simply agreeing with this Soldier. I told him that I was not sure why we did not stop, but we have to consider our security. The convoy commander has responsibility for all 5 vehicles, 20 men.
“Recall that one of the vehicles was having engine problem and could not keep up; maybe his decision was based on the risk of stopping and having a deadline (meaning nonfunctional) vehicle.” The Soldier seemed to accept my answer.
We pulled to a stop five minutes later as the road was blocked by EOD (explosive ordinance disposal) team. These men put themselves in danger everyday by detecting and destroying IED/VBIED on the road. There was an IED ahead, and all traffic was stopped in both directions until they could secure and detonate it. In a blink of an eye, our simple supply mission turned into a security mission. We dismounted to provide security and ensure no one passed us and drove into the IED. Traffic began to back up for miles as the EOD planned for the deliberate detonation. Many of the Iraqis got out of their vehicles and congregated at the road barriers, causing a small commotion. Apparently, there was an important sheik in the crowd that needed to get his funeral procession to their destination. Without a translator, all we could say was “Bomb” and make a loud boom sound. The sheik was agitated because of the Iraqis’ custom to bury their dead before sundown. I thought to myself, this will get complicated if we do not clear the road in the next hour, as the sun is beginning to come down to the horizon.
Some of the vehicles got tired of waiting and decided to go off the main road and drive around on a dirt road 200 feet away. We could not risk them interfering with EOD so we waved them to stop. Some did stop and turn around, but then after a few minutes another vehicle tried to repeat the process. He kept coming despite all our signaling. The last option was to shoot warning shots. Here we were trying to protect the civilian traffic from harm and we ended up shooting at them in order to protect them. Even after the four warning shots, the stray car kept coming. We would have to shoot at the vehicle, not in front of it, to get the driver’s attention. After two more shots he finally stopped behind a tree. There was no visible movement for five minutes. Now the convoy commander was worried that we may have accidentally injured the driver. He wanted to dispatch two vehicles to assess the damage. I rode along with a medic to see if we could help.
I rode on the front passenger seat, with my medic in the back. We were in the second vehicle, so we had limited visibility. As I was rehearsing in my mind where everything was packed in my aid bag, we slowed down to approach the vehicle. Suddenly, we accelerated and the gunner began to yell something that I could not hear clearly. The Iraqi vehicle took off as we got near and now we were chasing them down a dirt road on through farmland. Our lead vehicle shot off two more rounds and they finally stopped. This medical rescue mission had now changed, yet again. Now, we had to figure out why they would deliberately run away from us. We quickly dismounted and stayed behind our armored doors to provide security in our sector (each person takes up 90 degrees of the 360 degrees). The lead vehicle had already sent two Soldiers to begin the search process. Two Iraqi men were ordered out of their car, and to sit ten feet away on the right side of the vehicle. This put them about twenty feet in front from me.
By now the adrenaline was in full throttle, I felt my heartbeat in my throat banging in my ears. Both my hands clutched a 9mm handgun. I reminded myself that the bullet was already in the chamber, my thumb rested on the safety switch, which was the last barrier to the weapon going “hot”. I looked over to see that the Iraqis were not exactly cooperating. One Soldier was inspecting the vehicle and the other kept an eye on the Iraqis. They were told to sit down several times, but each time the Soldier turned to communicate with his partner, they stood back up and tried to talk. This made me really nervous, I wanted to yell out, “Keep those guys down and do not turn your back!” But nothing came out. My mouth felt dry and I felt strange, like a fish out of water. I thought about how I was not trained to do this and that I came to Iraq to save people not to kill them. However, I am a Soldier first and I am prepared to protect my comrades if the need arose. I began to plot out a plan of action, should the Iraqis make a move. In front of me were plowed rows of dirt that appeared to have not been planted yet. I was not confident that I could take a clear shot, even at this close distance, thus putting the two Soldiers at risk. I began to rehearse in my mind what to do. I would run along the ditch toward them, in order to shorten the distance and improve my odds of hitting the target. Looking back, this was not necessary because the gunners on top of the vehicle would have picked them off easily because they had better weapons, training and visibility. I probably would have gotten myself into their kill zone and created more problems.
I glanced over to check on SPC Edwards, my medic. He was on one knee with his weapon pointed straight out from the right side of the vehicle. “Ed, you doing alright?”
“Roger Sir, I have got our sector covered. There are a couple of kids 100 meters away, I have signaled them to stop approaching”. I followed the direction of his weapon and realized that he was aiming at two teenage boys. Edwards was a junior high school history teacher until 9/11. He felt compelled to enlist in the army although he was fifteen years older than the average recruit. He has a college degree and is a gentle, well-read, and articulate man. How strange that he is here now pointing a weapon at two boys who would be the age of his students back home. I know he is very competent, but I could not stop myself from reminding him not to shoot them. I appreciated that he simply replied “Roger that Sir” rather than some sarcastic remark.
As we completed the search of the vehicle, EOD detonated the IED. The loud boom for a moment made me duck instinctively. A new habit developed from being mortared every week. We drove back to the main road and set off for home. It had taken two hours for EOD to do their work, but for me it felt like minutes. I did not breathe a sigh of relief until we approached our gate. It was a long day, but we managed to accomplish the mission safely. I reflected on all the ironies and complexities that this one day brought forth. As we approached the medical compound, I am reminded of one last personal twist of fate. The sign for our base bears the history of a second lieutenant who served and died in Vietnam. He was a professional football player. It is ironic that this is the only named structure that I know of that bears any ties to the Vietnam War, and I am here to fulfill my debt to those veterans.