This essay was written by David Ellard, a retired Marine and a Marine Corps Community Services liaison to MilSpeak.
"First Combat Convoy"
By David Ellard
Twenty-plus years as an active duty Marine without spending any time in a combat zone did not prepare me for my son's first deployment to a hostile area. Growing up the son of a Marine may have made the Corps seem like the perfect choice for him but I doubt that did much to prepare him for his first combat situation either. The Corps provided a wealth of training about combat to both my son and me; however, combat and having a son in combat are two experiences for which no amount of instruction can fully prepare a person.
My son and I did not stay in touch as much as I would have liked while he was in Iraq; so, I was looking forward to getting together when he got back. He had gotten married a few months before deploying. Even though I was the best man at his wedding, the precious few minutes on a satellite phone were reserved for his young bride. Worse, he was never much of a writer.
It was after he returned before he was able to describe occurrences with any detail. I brought him to a billiard hall, one of his favorite pastimes, so he could 'whup' me at a few games of eight-ball and tell me about some of his experiences. He managed to do both at the same time. The following is my son's description of his first combat convoy with some of my thoughts interspersed along the way:
We had been in-country maybe 10 days and were going on our first convoy. My friend Ben came up to me and said, "I thought we were coming to Fallujah to repair vehicles, not ride around in them."
"Dude, you're a Marine first, a mechanic second," I told Ben. "Why do you think we trained to shoot all those weapons and shit? We'll be doing a couple of these convoys a week."
We climbed up into our vehicles, which were armored hummers rank with sweat and dust. As gunner on the left (driver's) side of the vehicle, I was practically standing beside the driver when I was up looking around behind my M240 machine gun.
Engines started rumbling up and down the line, and then we were on the move. The minesweeping 7 ton truck was the first vehicle in the convoy for obvious reasons, followed by several hummers: the command vehicle occupied by my new platoon commander and his radioman and gunner; the armored support vehicle I was in along with three other Marines; and the support vehicle Ben was in that was identical to mine. There were various other trucks in the convoy as well, for transporting troops and supplies.
Soon we were moving down the roads of Fallujah heading for a place called TQ. At first, the drive wasn't much different than any other drive I had been on before. The city had a constant smell of a landfill, which wasn't surprising because there was trash everywhere I looked, along with colorfully clad people of all ages and sexes walking and a few men driving in cars.
My son lined up his next shot, the 12 ball in the side pocket. I imagined the scene he was describing as a combination of the Arizona desert and the concrete urban squalor in certain "second world areas" we had traveled through as a family moving to a new military duty station when my son was still a teenager. My mind threw in some Middle Easterners I had seen on CNN and equipped a few of them with hidden weapons for good measure.
As the convoy approached the first overpass I tensed up and remembered this was no sightseeing tour. That was the first "this is for real" moment. We had been briefed that this was the first hot spot we would encounter. In this case, hot meant the enemy could be up on the overpass and choose any moment to throw something down onto one of the vehicles. Whether it was an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) or just a heavy chunk of concrete, it could be damaging to man or vehicle. I kept my eyes focused on the overpass railing but never saw any motion up there.
The next hot spot we were warned about was called "The Pizza Slice," a wedge-shaped divided four-lane road that merged into a simple, two-lane road leading onto a bridge. As the multi-lane road merged into two lanes, traffic slowed down to a crawl.
I didn't even hear the first bullets whizzing by. I guess because they we coming from the other side and weren't coming that close ... yet.
My son, studying the layout on the pool table, was intent on planning his next shot. There had been times when, as a child, he was so intent on what he was doing that he would be oblivious to all else. He rubbed his hands and knees raw playing on a skateboard when he was 4 and didn't even notice until his mother reacted to the blood.
The radioman in my hummer grabbed under the back of my flak jacket and pulled me down. "Watch out!" he said. "Don't be up there when bullets are coming at ya from where ya can't shoot."
"I'm s'posed to watch the left," I said.
"Not when you can't shoot back," he said very deliberately. "And you aren't covered where it's coming from now."
Clutching a pool cue, I said a silent thank you to a Marine I'd probably never meet.
So while the convoy inched along, I stayed down a while in the hummer and tried to figure out what was going on from the sights and sounds, which were just confusing. "Fog of War." Like in Boot Camp, but nothing like Boot. Then, when I heard some fire coming from my side, I jumped back up and grabbed the machine gun again, looking for enemy so I could return fire. I saw an old man running away from the convoy with a couple young boys in tow. They'd been in the wrong place at the wrong time and were fleeing for their lives. Even though my vision narrowed, focused on the target, I noticed colorfully clad civilians scattering in several directions, as if they knew exactly what they were doing.
Some of the other gunners let loose a few scattered rounds, but I never saw anything I should shoot at. I felt silly up there behind the machine gun, not shooting, but we're trained not to shoot unless you identify a target because you can easily hurt innocent bystanders.
As my son ricocheted a billiard ball into a pocket with accuracy, I was proud to hear he had paid attention in training and maintained his discipline in the midst of trying circumstances.
I don't know why, but the radioman grabbed me and yanked me down again.
"Get your head down!"
As my butt hit the seat, I heard "Ping!" Paint flew off the inside of my turret cover. That was my first real "oh-shit" moment. I stared at the newly marked up turret cover where my head had been only a moment before. If that Marine had not yanked me down, (hmm) would the bullets have ricocheted off my helmet or gone through my head?
I smiled back at my son as I chalked my pool cue. I was happy because we didn't have the answer to his question. He could have been wounded or shot dead at that very moment. My worst fear could easily have been realized. The recurring dread of losing my son and the nightmare of guilt because I had practically delivered him to the Marine Corps and combat (I'm not sure I could live with it) was once again staring me in the face and again I gulped it down. Ignoring the fetid lump in my stomach, I listened to his continuing drama.
The convoy moved on over the bridge and the fire-fight was over. Just like that. From beginning to end, I had probably been in the hot zone only a couple minutes. I hoped no one had been hurt. My senses were pinging; I was more alert than ever. The rest of that trip was uneventful but the tension never let up. It was like that two-plus-hour drive took days to bring us within the relatively safe TQ encampment.
While there, all the gunners who had fired off rounds went to see the JAG Officer. (JAG stands for Judge Advocate General which equals lawyer.) They weren't in real trouble or anything but they had to explain what they saw and shot at. Those talks with the JAG Officers were actually for our protection. The details were gathered while still fresh in the minds of the shooters. I realized how lucky it was that I didn't squeeze off a round just to be doing what I thought everyone else was doing. In actuality, only a couple Marines had used their weapons that day.
After the cargo and men were loaded, we made the trip back to Fallujah in peace. I never thought of a convoy as just another ride again. I had qualified for a Combat Action Ribbon on my first convoy. More importantly, we didn't lose anybody and I had full respect for what I had gotten myself into.
Right after we got over the bridge, and as it all was happening, was when things changed. Everything changed. I realized and respected all of those who came before me and all of those there with me a lot more after that. I've had some scary moments before but never have I had an experience where I was almost more worried about the other Marines than myself.
I was standing off to myself smoking one cigarette after another when Ben approached me.
"Whad'ya think?" he asked.
"Shit was crazy," I said.
With a grunt, he agreed. With nothing else to say we stood there a half hour or more, smoking and appreciating each other's company, even in the silence, maybe because of the silence.
My son and I did not talk much on the ride back from the billiard hall; we didn't have to. I understood being more worried about the other Marine, my son in this case, than myself. My son understood better what being a Marine was all about. He seemed pleased we had shared and further bonded as both Marines and father and son. I was pleased and proud of the Marine he had become and thankful to God that he came home in one piece. We were just appreciating each other's company. Even in the silence. Maybe because of the silence.