Tom Webb served as a Motor Transport Marine from 2001 to 2006 with two deployments to Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Tom holds an MA from North Dakota State in Public Health with a focus on American Indian and Veteran health outcomes. While pursuing his degree, Tom assisted in the creation of veteran specific programs at NDSU and also served as the Post Adjutant for American Legion Post 400 on campus. He currently works as a Veteran Service Officer for the state of North Dakota in Fargo.
When all one wants to do is sleep for the first time in days, the reality of combat shows there is no time to rest. The messenger in this case came in the form of a Soviet 120 millimeter mortar that landed next to my seven-ton truck around noon on April 5th, 2003.
For two days straight, our ten-vehicle convoy slogged towards the city of Baghdad at ten miles per hour. The five-ton truck I was driving was not running well, but with the slow speed of the convoy, it didn’t matter. The transfer case was slowly leaking and the brakes weren’t holding air. This caused my emergency lights to flash, which I had to disable quickly with my knife since they caused my night-vision-goggles (NVG’s) to black out with every pulse.
We were about ten miles northeast of Baghdad and things were starting to get serious. To disrupt our movement, the enemy had filled the ditches on each side of the road with oil and set them ablaze – which took away our ability to see as we drove. When using NVG’s, they require near complete darkness – otherwise one’s pupils can dilate due to the bright green and pixilated view caused by too much light coming in.
I noticed that my fellow Marines began to get nervous. While some of them tried to cover it up, I could see through the facade and was empathic – since I was beginning to feel that way too. We only knew each other for a short while, but the six of us had each other figured out pretty well.
As we approached the Baghdad suburbs, the war became real to me. The entire deployment to this point felt like a fast moving training exercise. The jokes about being back in the desert of our base in 29 Palms, California had become old, but were still recited. It gave each of us a welcomed false sense of security.
The flames were like walls along the road, creating a tunnel effect. I was anxious and my mind raced about what could be on the other side. Is there a sniper, machine gun, or tank? At one point, the flames crossed over onto the pavement. I though to myself, “Joshua Tree only grows in two places according to legend; Heaven and Hell. Had I entered Hell?” The Earth seemed to open up and large flames were swallowing the road, and me and the rest of the convoy with it, it seemed.
As we passed through, I let out a sigh of relief when I saw two tanks on fire. There were softball-sized holes punched through the sides, with flames dancing around the belly of the tanks. I didn’t see any bodies, but smelled burning fuel and flesh. We knew for certain that someone had been there before us. I remember feeling relieved, and then quickly realizing that one of our own tanks was on fire. We learned later that the tank was shot by a rocket propelled grenade (RPG), and the external fuel bladder exploded. Thankfully, everyone made it out OK. As gunshots rang out in the instance, this hellish scene was seared into my memory.
Soon after, we stopped to refuel and I had a chance to eat something I saved along the way. I felt like I hadn’t slept for a month. As I sat there, several Iraqi Army deserters walked by, and I waved and glanced down at their feet. They had boots on, but no uniforms, and others had military pants, but no boots; just sandals and tattered shirts. These non-combatants were easy to spot, and I was glad they didn’t want to fight. It made our job much easier.
I was so tired that I began dozing off while I waited to be refueled. As I drifted away, I was shocked to see an Iraqi corpse being tossed around by a large military-style forklift. I felt sickened. While I could see the need to move the man, seeing a machine do it was so disrespectful to human life.
I quickly pushed these thoughts down since there was nothing I could do about it, and then told myself, “hey, it’s war”. And then, BOOM! A loud explosion erupted very close to me, and I saw my passenger trying to lift himself up from between the door frame and the seat. “What the fuck was that?”, I shouted. “I have no fucking clue, let’s get the fuck out of the truck!”, he replied.
Screams and shrieks of “incoming!” could be heard from everywhere. The entire position was being attacked. Despite being trained for this, it took me a few seconds to respond to the reality of the situation. I grabbed by rifle, hopped out of the truck, and started to run – forgetting the rest of my ammunition.
I turned back in the middle of an open road, my heart pounding, ears ringing. I realized that my friends were in a dangerous spot. I couldn’t hear anything, but saw everything vividly. I ran back to the truck to get my ammo, and heard screams and groans nearby – and then saw two Marines had been injured. One ran as fast as he could to the nearest hole with only half of his foot.
The other had a broken and shredded right leg from his ankle to mid-thigh, and was being carried to safety by another Marine. I quickly met up with three Marines and we all sprinted to a nearby ditch and prepared for the attack.
As we lie there in the mud filled, eight-foot-deep irrigation ditch, each of us began to reflect of what had just happened. I nervously checked over my body to ensure I wasn’t bleeding and didn’t know it. The war had become real, just like in dreams, and each one of us had different reactions:
One said a prayer.
One prepared to fight.
And one quietly waited.
For 15 minutes there was an eerie silence that permeated the area. When the risk of attack had diminished, I went back to take a look at my truck. My ears rung badly, and I called the names of guys I knew from bootcamp (which was only a year and a half ago).
As I looked at my truck, I saw all kinds of internal fluids leaking to the ground. It looked like roadkill, and my heart sank. Even though it was just a vehicle, I had become attached to it. That was my truck. When I took a closer look, my heart sank even deeper and I began to shake. Most of the damage occurred underneath my seat. When the mortar hit, I must have bounced out of my seat as shrapnel hit the air pressure tank for the braking system. I found fragments and small holes all over the cab. It was a miracle that I wasn’t injured or killed.
This was really happening. Men were desperately trying to kill us.
After I was discharged from the Marine Corps, I would often dream about this incident, and thought that it was just a bad dream and didn’t really happen. It wasn’t until I found my journal from this time period that I realized, in fact, it did happen.