The sand filled my eyes, my pants, hell even my mouth. As I opened my eyes everything was replaced by a cloud of sand. A tan nothingness. My spirit had left my body, and an empty self-awareness remained. Within this moment, I realized I was flying through the air. Although it lasted only seconds, it seemed to be forever. As my brain processed the physical stimuli into an equation; I knew it could yield only one conclusion. I had stepped on an I.E.D.
We had just been talking about how Greer loved to find IED’s. I told him he sucked at his job.
“You engine-queers try too hard to be EOD techs”, I said.
“We find them just as good as you guys do”, he replied instantly.
This was how we communicated. Marines; especially when faced with a dangerous mission, can be like affectionate assholes. We spoke harshly to each other, yet “I respect and appreciate you” was communicated.
How it happened…
I was leaned against a two-foot-tall mud wall; Daniel stood just a few yards in front of me. He was near a building that my teammate (Eric) and I had just cleared of explosive threats, at Daniel’s request.
I am an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician, or a Bomb Tech. Cpl Daniel Greer was a reservist Marine Engineer, his job was to locate buried homemade bombs (IEDs), then call EOD to come disarm them. Although our jobs sound very different, we often found ourselves crossing into one another’s responsibilities to get the mission accomplished. In Iraq, engineers had been given limited training in blowing IEDs in place. However, that was very dangerous, and limited the amount of intel we could gain from exploiting the components of an IED. In Afghanistan, the enemy work with simpler, more effect, techniques; requiring Marines to wait for extensively trained EOD techs to remove or destroy IEDs. This left some engineers always wanting to do more and more of our job; as they were specially trained in sweeping for and finding IEDs. I mean, who doesn’t want to be a bomb tech! Yet Daniel and I worked well together.
Me-“You’re not a fucking archeologist, you don’t unearth every little wire. You find one indicator; find enough of the IED to confirm it and get the hell back and call me”.
That was the first thing I said to him months before when his platoon arrived in Afghanistan. By then, Eric and I had been in Afghanistan for weeks. We had already worked dozens of IEDs. We worked with Greer in that area for months. I took care in training Greer and his squad of engineers on what type of IEDs were common to our area; how to sweep for them safely, and how they were usually employed.
Eric was originally them team leader; leaving me as his peer, pupil, and confidante. However, Eric broke down physically and emotionally after a hard three day mission. Just nights after we returned from three days of the most intense combat we would endure, we received a message that a good friend and fellow EOD tech not too far from us was killed by an IED. In a separate incident, another had lost his legs. Eric and I were pulled back to an airbase to reset our minds. After working four months in one of the hottest area for IED’s in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan we were forced to take a break.
Just a few weeks later we were called to support an operation to clear and hold a small village that surrounded Safar Bazaar. This village was known for trafficking bad things and bad people. This time, due to Eric’s mishaps we would be equals, partners. If anything I was asked to be the leader, professionally and personally, to Marines who were entrusting their live to us.
We started Operation Roadhouse II on August 1st, 2010, and cleared streets and building for five days straight. In those five days Eric and I cleared 38 IED’s in just a few city blocks. The final count would be 207 IEDs in 2sq kilometers; we were walking into a mine field and Eric and I were the mine: sweepers, removers, and destroyers.
I woke the morning of August 6th, 2010, day six of operations, to a loud obnoxious Marine telling me EOD support was requested by Greer’s team. Greer and his team had started clearing the buildings we sectioned off; buildings within the streets that had been cleared the five days prior.
Me-“Holy shit! Don’t these assholes eat breakfast and take a shit before they start saving the world, what time is it like 0600 or something?”
“It’s 0830.” Eric shouted. “Get up, and quit bitching”.
“I will when you do bitch-arella” I replied.
We geared up and walked to the Command element where we were informed Greer’s team had started clearing the Taliban Hotel, a mud type storage facility across the road from the lumberyard we had occupied. Prior to taking the village with rocket propelled strips of C4 we only had drone photos of the buildings and roads. We had identified a radio station and what appeared to be a hotel. We destroyed the radio shack (pun intended); we thenlearned the hotel was actually a storage facility. Slightly ignoring protocol we left the lumber yard with our personal gear, hand tools, and radio. We walked the cleared path across the road and behind the Tali-tel where the other Marines had found a possible IED, and called for our support. With little information to go on we had to find the most senior Marine, along with the Marine who spotted the IED, to get a clear word picture of what was ahead. The Marines know when and IED is found to make a huge circle far enough away from the IED to not get hurt and close enough to see us and keep us safe as we work. One of the strips of C4 we had blown the first day had blown the inner mud linnings of each storage unit onto its contents. The roll-up doors facing the street, and across from our makeshift outpost, were too mangled to open. So we had to walk down a narrow path behind the units and breach them through open square holes in the back of each one. I joked that only the Taliban would rig up a locked garage door to the front of a storage unit and leave a 2ft x 2ft gaping hole in the back of each unit. As we crawled into each unit, metal detectors were rendered useless by trash resulting from our own counter-charges. The mess made it impossible to see the ground. We systematically cleared each unit; basically using our feet as mine detectors. Hey, that’s why we get paid an extra $150 a month.
We finally found explosives, IED components and an American Flare bomb that had failed to go off. Eric grabbed the flare (6ft long-5in around) and carried on his shoulder out of the unit and laid it behind the short wall directly across the path behind the tali-tel. I remembered working one if these flares in EOD school, and that we weren’t supposed to move it as it may set the flare off. I quickly walked to the wall a leaned over it to see if there was any indication the flare was still armed. Eric had walked down the path a few dozen yards to use the radio and call for forensic specialist to come exploit some of the more sophisticated IED components we had found. That’s when I leaned against the wall and started aggravating Greer about sucking a life.
The forensic guys peeped out from the far end of the building away from the side we walked in from.
“You know what to do so I’m leaving the scene in your hands; you’re in charge now Greer. We’re going to go eat and curse your name for making us work this morning,” I said.
Then I took a step forward, a step I’ll never forget, the last step I’d ever take with my own feet. The sound left my ears. I felt as if gravity had ceased and all I could see was dust. Then I hit the ground. Like a ton of bricks. On my back. I knew right away what had happened. I had stepped on and IED. I, a Marine EOD technician, had failed to find an IED and then stepped right on it.
“What a dumbass… God damn it,”
were the first thoughts through my head. I immediately looked down and a few seconds later saw a Marine applying tourniquets to what was left of my legs.
“Are they both above?” I asked the Marine.
That’s a question well anticipated by Marines who see their brothers get hit. Knowing if you lose a foot you’ll be alright, if you lose a knee its sucks, if you lose both of your knees you’re… well it’s not good. I had lost both knees.
I went to wipe my face with my right hand because i felt as if my lips had exploded from the inside out, but as I reached up I didn’t feel my hand. I looked down and saw my right forearm had been hit and it appeared as bloody spaghetti hanging from the bottom of my wrist. I had no control over my right hand. I looked over and Greer had landed a few feet from me pointed in the opposite direction, facing me and lying on his belly. A Marine ran too him,
“I’ve got a heavy breather,” he said.
I remember thinking, “what the hell is a heavy breather?”
I began yelling to the Marines to tell my family I loved them, then demanding they put a blanket on me as we had been taught to do for Marines who get hit to prevent them from going into shock. I grabbed the Marine tending to me and pulled him into my face by the collar,
“JJ-EOD-0007-O+” I screamed in his face.
That was my kill number. Months before, I had responded to a corpsman who lost his legs similarly; the Marines who tended to him were impressed that he stayed clear enough to repeat his kill number. It seemed like the most rational thing to do once it was me lying there bleeding out from three limbs.
Me-“I’m going into shock! Morphine, where’s the Goddamn Morphine! Say the Lord’s Prayer with me!”
Together-, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”
Me-“Goddammit don’t let them take my hand! Hide my fucking hand”
Together-“Kingdom come thy will be done…”
Me-“Tell my family I love them”
Marine-“you’re gonna be alright”
I felt them pull me onto a stretcher, I could hear Marines yelling. I was loaded into a mobile trauma bay. Everything looked stainless steel and the pretty blonde nurse I had watched all week was smiling down at me. As she rubbed my forehead I felt my eyes begin to swell shut. I don’t know if there was a tunnel or a light, but I knew I was ascending into the afterlife. I was later told I was incessantly mumbling ” I’m sorry, I let you down, I’m sorry.”
I woke up in a hospital room not unlike what you’d expect; with machines and IVs and the smell of sterile plastic and metal. As I opened my eyes the first thing I noticed was the strange color of the walls. They seemed to be painted a tired hint of sea foam green, a color especially noticeable to an EOD technician because almost all white phosphorous munitions are painted with that ugly pastel version of turquoise. I somewhat vividly remember my body wrapped in blankets, each of my limbs, or what was left of them, were propped on a bed of pillows. I could see my right arm in what appeared to be a wire frame, I couldn’t see my left arm at all. I didn’t quite know the extent of my injuries, but I remembered everything from the incident. I knew I didn’t have legs, and I knew my life had changed forever.
The night before I deployed I sat in our den packing each article of my gear as if I were being inspected on it. Each article of clothing folded tightly or rolled, not an inch of free space left. My roommate April couldn’t sleep either, in just a few short months these girls had become my family and she took it the hardest seeing me prepare to go to what was all but guaranteed to be a deadly deployment. As I sat packing the last dozen socks into the zipper compartments attached to the lid of my oversized combat suitcase April sat down beside me. Her knees together, arms awkwardly in her lap she asked me if I was scared. Scared? No, anxious, perhaps. Scared of what? To go to war, hardly; excited! To die? No, I was confident in my abilities to dismantle bombs… But something did bother me… She asked a few more questions probing at my psyche and finally I told her, ” I’m not afraid to die. It’s a part of life and I’m willing to make that sacrifice. But getting blown up and living would be worse. If I step on an I.E.D. And lose my legs… Well, I’d rather die than be some invalid burden on the people I love.” At the time, I meant it. Little did I know how quickly that idea would change the moment I looked down at two mangled stumps gushing blood where my. Knees once were.
I don’t remember how much pain I was in I’m sure some but I was pretty heavily medicated and for the most part I was just trying to figure things out. They woke me up by taking a breathing tube out of my throat so the first few minutes I couldn’t speak just beg for water they couldn’t give me. Instead, the nurse would just wet my lips with a sponge. It was the most tormenting thirst you could ever imagine… Little did I know it would become an every other day sensation for weeks of surgeries to come: As my memory began to clear, my new horrendous reality set in, I realized it wasn’t just yesterday I had been hit. I had been out a few days and just before I lost consciousness I had seen A face, a blank stare. It would become a haunting reminder of how lucky I really am. In the moments after the blast I remember seeing Daniel’s face looking back at me motionless. I’m not even sure you can call life, I don’t know that I’ve seen death… I’ve seen dead things and I’ve seen people die but Daniel looking back at me in those moments felt like death reaching out, laughing at my vulnerability and helplessness. I screamed, begging for him to wake up, to speak, wink, show me he hadn’t left and it wasn’t all my fault.
There was a nurse in the hospital room with me after I came too. She must have been the one who pulled the breathing tube out of me. I have no idea why, but I remember her with a southern accent. Within the first few minutes, or maybe an hour, i regained the ability to speak. I had only one question on my mind. After glancing over my own body, I could not distinguish where my residual limbs stopped and the blankets started. I looked at her silent for a moment, then asked “how is Greer?” I don’t have the same vivid memories of that day as the day I was injured, but I know she spoke back quickly…