This is the last post in the series (Part 1, Part 2). The last point is the most important and the one that could save your life if you ever have to defend yourself or your family. Iraq was tough and dangerous. I hope that some of the lessons learned will translate to you and your self defense. Don’t learn things the hard way when so many others have already done the bleeding for you. Here’s the last two things I learned during my first combat tour in Iraq: Sleep can be more important than life After being up almost all night preparing to move into Iraq, we finally crossed the border the next morning. For the next three days I don’t remember sleeping at all. It wasn’t until we finally stopped in the middle of nowhere to make a checkpoint that I finally sat down to sleep. I got about an hour before my Sgt was over me, yelling about me being weak and sleeping with my helmet off. There is an old joke about sleep being over-rated. Not so. As the first week wore on, I cared less and less about what was going on around me and more and more about sleep. We where moving 24 hours a day and were only getting 3-4 hours of broken sleep a day. It got to the point that we were the walking dead.
Ordnance Cooking off in a Fire, Iraq 2003
We finally stopped and all got sleep one night when it was just too dark to travel. There was a storm and heavy cloud cover. There was no light at all, it was pitch black. We stopped and just stayed in the truck. We slept on top of each other. I slept for a couple hours and then had to go to the bathroom. I got up and fell out of the truck (literally) and walked a couple yards to pee. I almost got lost coming back to the truck (it was only about 10 feet) and had to call out to my Marines to find my way back. I was so tired that I didn’t care and just laid down next to the back of the truck and slept. It as February and about 30 degrees out. I was so tired that I didn’t care about the cold and slept anyways, with only my gear and sweater on to protect me from the cold ground. My Marines woke me up the next morning and I was frozen to the ground. I was so cold that I couldn’t move, a couple Marines helped me up and then hugged me to get my blood flowing again. It was one of the scariest times of my life. Another hour and I may not have waken up. My hands were blue and I refused to look at my feet. Hypothermia had almost got me because I was so tired that I didn’t care. I know better than to just sleep on the ground when it’s that cold out, but did it anyways. You do what you have trained yourself to do 21 Days into the war we rolled into Baghdad. After fighting a little and then moving multiple times we took the UN Building back from what was supposed to be a bunch of fighters but turned out to be a bunch of looters. We set up the mortars in the back parking lot. A wrought-iron fence surrounded the lot. While it wouldn’t stop bullets, at least it would keep people from sneaking up on us. We had been there a couple hours and had “borrowed” a UN vehicle. The Doc and I were sitting in the vehicle, listening to the BBC talk about the things we had just done a couple hours ago. It was funny to hear the things you just finished doing as breaking news. A large salvo of AK fire came into our position. The doc bailed and I rolled out and took cover behind the front tire of the vehicle. A close friend was laying only 5 yards to my right in front of the vehicle. He looked at me and yelled RPG. I rolled right as fast I could away from the vehicle (AKA RPG magnet). I stopped when I bumped into him. He rolled away from me to create space. By the muzzle flashes, it looked like there was about a squad of them and there was about a squad of us. It doesn’t get much worst than that.
They had created fire superiority and had us all pinned down. I looked to my left and right and saw all of my Marines taking cover wherever they could. Some even behind a large sheet metal street sign because it was the only thing there. My friend and I were caught in the middle with nowhere to go and just hugged the earth as rounds snapped by over our heads. Enemy fighters were only 25 to 50 yards on the other side of the fence. I almost panicked and yelled at my Marines that had cover to return fire. One looked at me and said, “I don’t see them.” “I don’t care,” I yelled back. We had all trained “one shot, one kill” and weren’t suppose to fire unless we could see the target. I was screwed. I should have plucked a grenade from my gear and throw it to give us the advantage. I have read many books and stories from WWII about how a lot of the men fighting would use grenades more than their rifles to be more effective against the enemy, but I had never practiced or done this during training. I had also learned from men in Vietnam that firing a complete magazine on full auto was a good way to turn the tide of fire, but again, I had never practiced this and didn’t think of it at the time. And my Marines wouldn’t go against their training and fire at nothing, even under my direction. It wasn’t until one of the bad guys exposed himself and we all fired at the same guy that we started winning that fight. I popped to my knees to shoot over the grass and rocks in front of me at the lone fighter I could see. I fired a couple rounds and heard a bullet zing of the fence in front of me. My friend was nice and yelled at me to stop shooting the fence (nice guy). They retreated and dragged their wounded and dead off. We pulled back to cover and found some other Marines coming to help. One had an M203 40mm Grenade Launcher and had no problem lobbing grenades into the location the enemy had run to. We went back later and that’s when I took the above picture. That bullet that zinged off the fence was an incoming round at about neck height. In the dirt, right below the bullet, I could see my imprints of where I was kneeling and laying. If I had been standing the bullet probably would have been my end. Conclusion: I’ve read tons of books and learned from lots of people about combat and how it would be. None of it totally prepared me for what happened in Iraq. It’s okay to accept that we will never be totally prepared for a life and death fight. We just keep going and doing a little more all the time. But the most important lesson I learned was that you will do exactly what you trained yourself to do. Don’t pick up bad habits and when you learn a new technique (or something out of book) go out and practice it. You will never remember what you want to do, only what you have practiced to do. Stay Safe, Ben