All photography by Sgt. Daniel Dmytriw, Marine Veteran of Weapons Co. 3/25.
The story is known all to well. A man walks for days in the desert. Tired, exhausted and thirsty he comes to grips with the fact that he may not make it to nourishment alive. Suddenly a river of water appears on the horizon. The man uses the last ounce of energy he has to reach it, but the last hope he has, just within reach does not exist. This is kind of like the feeling that came to mind when our Mobile Assault Platoon (MAP) team traveled to a distant “Oasis” in the desert, a 20-30 square mile stretch of farmland in the middle of an otherwise barren desert of Iraq. It was the third or fourth day of searching the area for weapons and ordinance. The residences there, scarcely spread out over the island like mirage, mostly housed farmers. It is still a wonder how the inhabitants of this area sustain themselves with no other resources in site, aside from wheat fields, sunflowers and the neighboring Euphrates River. Everyone was now bitching up a storm, morale was low, especially among the 03’s who had to hump the entire stretch of land, leaving no stone unturned and finding numerous weapons caches. The operation know as “Cache Sweep” was dragging on and on; the ability to call home and get a shower just within reach but never making it.
MAP 8’s (or as we liked to call ourselves “Crazy 8”) Humvees stopped next to a small farmer’s house and dismounted the vehicles for a routine sweep for weapons. Only a Marine that has been to Iraq would understand the mentality and demeanor of some Iraqis. It was as if though the guy had thought we were aliens coming to abduct him with our highly technological equipment, body armor, Kevlar and M-16’s. Two kids run out of the house and start approaching the high back where I am sitting. All of a sudden our gunner LCpl Rick Turner starts trying to talk to the kids, “Do you know what a frisbee is? FRISBEE, DO YOU KNOW WHAT THAT IS? Here!” Turner shouts as he looks as his military issued Arabic to English dictionary.
LCpl Turner throws the frisbee and the kids watch it whiz by, absolutely clueless about what it is. There is a strange-looking Iraqi man, probably one of the brothers of the house, who was standing off to the side talking to one of his other brothers. They both were dressed in American cloths. A strange combination of sweat pants with early 90’s flannel shirts. From their body language they looked pissed off that we were there. All of a sudden Cpl. Stalker and others in Crazy 8 walk out of the house with some AK-47 rifles, grenades and other weapons, “Do you need these grenades for sheep herding?!?” Stalker shouts.
One of the items that we confiscated from the farm was this bayonet for an AK-47. I’m not quite sure what these Iraqi farmers were doing with it, but I would have to guess at one point, along with the majority of other Iraqis, were in the military and it was probably something the guy just hung on to. We could only dream of what they needed all this shit for. The guy still had the deer in the headlights look, “Why did you lie to us?” Stalker said in his thick southern accent. The truth was we could have arrested the Muj brothers, but we were so far from our base that it would take days to get these knuckleheads to processing, so we took their weapons including the bayonet and moved on, sweeping the rest of the area for ordinance and finding quite a bit over the next several days.
Today, the Bayonet sits on my shelf. I pull it out every once in a while and feel its dulled blade, smell the sand on it and play around with its pliers the blade and the sheath made designed for cutting concertina wire. A constant reminder to me of that story you always hear of that hopeless man in the desert.
Shortly after a tank was blown up by an IED outside of Haqlaniyah, MAP 1 was assigned to overwatch positions within range of the crash site. I was assigned to the Humvee next to a mansion which was equipped with a MK-19 automatic grenade launcher. Having just experienced one of the most awful things in my life, witnessing the death of the Marines in a Humvee explosion, I wasn’t exactly feeling very well. I asked the Doc to give me something, anything to get my mind off things. He of course handed me a Motrin and some water. I swear to God my fucking arm could have been blown off and he still would have handed me a Motrin and water.
I was now up for firewatch. I got up into the turret with the MK-19 and PAS 13 (thermal scope). From my position I could see the mansion to the rear of my POS, just to the front was the crashed tank, its hulk still smoldering. They were saying it was the type of IED to deliver an extra explosive impact due to the fact that the Muj used a combination of PE4 (like C4), oxygen tanks and old artillery rounds. To my 11 o’clock was the abandoned concrete factory that we just got out of hours earlier.
About 30 minutes into my watch, I was doing a routine scan of the area and saw a white Nissan car / truck (I forget which one) approaching. “Shit!” I yelled. The vehicle commander and others ran over after I described the car. Two MAM’s (Military Aged Males) got out of the vehicle and started fucking with the crash site. I suppose they were hoping to steal some shit from the tank in hopes of selling it. We ended up calling it in to battalion and got the go ahead to go hot. “Light um up!” I heard a voice say from the driver’s side. I racked back the MK-19 and got a round into the chamber. “BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM!” The MK-19 fired 4 or 5 rounds in the general direction of the crash site. I kept trying to look for bodies or a crashed vehicle. I don’t think anything was ever confirmed but if I didn’t kill them I sure as hell scared the living shit out of them. One of them got into the vehicle and tried to drive away “BOOM BOOM BOOM” three more rounds. The vehicle started smoking. I picked up one of the empty shell casings,”I’ll keep this to remember”I thought as picked it up and felt it was still hot.
The HEDP round sits in a box with some of my other memorabilia. It is amazing how well you can remember the event just by picking it up, holding it in my hands, reading the writing on the outside of it. Gripping the round extra hard in my hands, I can almost feel the recoil of the MK-19.
What the hell is this? I thought as I picked up the silver finger welded to the embossed plate. Later I found out it was a ring holder. I imagined what kind of rings were thrown onto the small item maybe near to a large amount of jewelry. Before I took it, it was probably used to hold an Iraqi ring or something similar. I try to imagine what type of person the owner was. Obviously rich and powerful, maybe a woman used it to keep some more important pieces of jewelry. Today it holds my Marine Corps graduation ring. The silver ring holder is tarnished, although I tried to use some silver polish to clean it up a bit a few years back. It looks so out-of-place on my dresser, but its a constant reminder of how different it was over there to say the least.
One of the items I grabbed when we explored the mansion in Haqlaniyah was a brass plate. I just basically looked around the house for anything that looked valuable and although the house was well picked over, the brass plate stood out to me. What the hell does it say? I wondered as I put it into my cargo pocket. I tried applying some Brasso to it to make it shinier and that seemed to help. Later on that day I showed it to one of the terps (Iraqi interpreters). “Be Patient and Allah will Bless You” he said. Wow, that’s kind of cool, but at the same time kind of ironic. I’m here sitting in this shithole and some plate that I take from some Republican Guard asshole says, Just be patient and you’ll be okay. Okay, it’s a little odd and I think goes along with the whole superstition thing. But, for the rest of the deployment the words rung true. I still keep it as a reminder. Don’t get too worked up about things, keep calm, be patient and God will bless you.
Shortly before our unit deployed to Iraq in 2005, I kept in touch with a fellow I used to work with from Russia. He used to design security and camera systems during the Soviet Era (I would only guess for the government). The man became good friends with my Dad. They used to hang out in the basement of my parent’s house, sip on Russian Vodka and talk about engineering and technical things above my knowledge level. My Dad ended up recruiting him to assist him at the University where my Dad was a professor. Yurik worked with me at a computer store, where I worked part-time while in high school and my freshman year of college. When Yurik heard of my deployment to Iraq he wanted to come over and have dinner with the family. After a filling meal my Dad, Yurik and I adjourned to the basement where my Dad showed off our proud military family. Portraits of my Uncles and other relatives lined the room. Yurik was truly impressed. He gave my Dad a bottle of Russian Vodka, the kind with the Russian writing on the label, you know, the good stuff.
Yurik reached into his coat pocket and pulled out this horseshoe. He said in a thick Russian accent, “this will bring you luck. Good luck Matthew.” I kept the horseshoe with me, along with other small items as it seemed that the farther into the deployment I got, the more superstitious I became. Don’t take showers after chow, keep your left leg tucked underneath you when you combat drive, keep a rosary with you on the dash, sleep with a bible were among the many odd things that we did that some how attributed to me surviving. Whether it was the horseshoe, the rosary, the St. Michael medallion, pure luck, or coincidence I managed to make it home alive.