It was around noon and as I started walking in the 100 degree heat, I thought about my wife and daughter sleeping back home. I shot a few pictures to show that the infantry was getting to work with some Bradley Fighting Vehicles. The plan was for the Brads to roll in front of the troops, destroying or dispelling the threats out on the city streets in the open. The troops would clear blocks by picking out key buildings to enter and clear.
The battle of Karbala was the only large scale urban fight undertaken by the 101st Airborne. Saturday, 4/5/03, I leapt from a cramped ride along with 16 other soldiers, from Bravo Company, 3-502, onto the desert and 4 kilometers from Karbala.
Earlier, I listened to Capt. James McGahey tell his soldiers that he planned to go no farther than a few blocks into the city, despite what was planned from above. He was concerned that the deeper the troops went into the city, the more they'd be stirring up the hornet's nest. He and the other company commanders had been informed that the section of the city they were entering would most likely welcome them. He wanted to get his men in safely on the first day and get prepared for what the senior leaders of the Brigade thought would hit them the next day.
There is an old saying among the military; "No plan survives contact with the enemy." Well, about an hour after walking through a trash dump and into the first block of Karbala proper, I crossed a street as the hiss of an RPG passed behind me.
What was a hero's walk, complete with cheering children and gawking crowds, very quickly turned into a page from the military's urban fighting manual. The walk in had been longer than we had expected and soldiers carrying enormous loads of weapons and ammunition were vomiting and at least 2 nearly passed out as they were given IV bags to rehydrate them. Exhaustion gave way to adrenaline and we began trotting along the trash filled streets to our first objective.
The water treatment plant was a kind of haven and it was quickly cleared and occupied. The medics began working on the dehydrated soldiers and I flitted around trying to shoot pictures while getting a read on what was coming next.
It was about 30 minutes since I had been shot at and I was actually getting bored when bursts of machine gun fire started railing outside. I went to the front of the complex and looked east with a couple of Sergeants as some mortar rounds fell a few hundred meters out in front of us.
Up to this point in the war, nobody from my company had shot at anyone. That was about to change.
"I fucking see him, in the red shirt; he is pointing at us and talking on something," one of the Sergeants said with a thick Cuban accent. "I am going to take that motherfucker out. He's an FO (Forward Observer) walking those rounds in on us."
One of the other Seargeants stepped up with a pair of binos and six shots later from an M-4 Carbine, the rounds stopped coming.
By now the whole horizon in front of me was filled with smoke and noise.
Kiowa Warrior helicopters were buzzing like angry bees over the city, spotting targets and lighting them up with machine guns and rockets. The distinctive cracks of AK-47s were answered by single pops from the US M-4 Carbines. It was just a blur of noise out there. I was trying to conserve my batteries and disk space, as there wasn't a heck of a lot to shoot. My boys were all just hunkered down in the heat, waiting for the Bradley's to come back so they could continue their mission.
The Kiowas were getting peppered with anti-aircraft fire from a few blocks away from us and the CO decided to send 2 platoons to go try to find the source. I naturally followed. As we were getting lined up to go out the door, someone started yelling to clear a path for a Brad that was coming in.
The Brad pulled up and stopped fast in the space between two buildings and dropped the tail. I couldn't hear what was being yelled, as there were so many soldiers barking for us to get out of the way. What I saw next didn't register until about 3 days later. I didn't remember even shooting a picture, I just watched as a wounded US soldier was carried from the back of the Brad.
I remember him looking right at me. I saw the bloody bandage around his abdomen and the dull look in his eyes. That was it. 10 steps and he was out of my view and out of the view of all the other soldiers that were about to step out onto the street. That same street that, by the end of the day, would claim one American life, injure another 5 and see a Bradley fighting vehicle reduced to flames and char. Everyone who saw him must have just filed it away, not wanting to realize just how high the stakes had gotten. It was a real unwelcome shot of reality that could have broken the nerve of the troops, but they just moved out of the way and formed up for the patrol.
I remember so many things from that day. I remember wanting to tear off the damned body armor and helmet that was making every move I made an effort. I remember giving water from my camelback to soldiers who drank their lot after the long walk into the city. I remember the dead animals in pieces on the streets. I remember the terror I saw in the eyes of the civilians that fled past the US soldiers, leaving their homes and even their injured relatives and friends who were unable to walk after having been caught in the fight. I remember finding a human hand lying on the ground.
I remember the constant sound of gunfire all around us and the snap of bullets passing inches from me. I even remember thinking how wonderful it would be to get on my sat phone and call my wife but two things stopped me; the fact that the mayhem and gunfire would freak her out, and the thought that if I called her and told her I was okay that I would be somehow superstitiously be inviting death upon myself.
That day never really ended, it just faded away as night came and the noise of the fight ebbed and subsided after a few days. I still don't know how to process all that I saw, but I know that I am somehow changed by it.
Three days after the fight, I sat down to take
a nap with my MP3 player. The song that came up randomly was the first
track of the lullaby album I played for Isabella, my 18-month-old daughter,
each night as I put her to bed. I closed my eyes and found myself cradling
my daughter, a world away, as tears slipped from my eyes.
© ROB CURTIS