Things That Go Boom in the Night

Military Police and security contractors investigate a rocket attack at a FOB near Baghdad. (photo by John Goodman)

When you're living on an army camp, there are certain parts of life that become repetitive. For instance, when it's time to eat, it's time to eat. After working all day and going for a run, I was pretty famished by the time 6:30 -- or 1830 as they call it here -- rolled around. This being the prescribed time to go get evening chow, I was already lamenting the fact that it would probably take ten minutes for everyone to rally, and another ten to get over there and get through the line. Imagine how pleased I was when I arrived at the company area to find one of the civil affairs teams taking a bunch of steaks and barbeque ribs off the grill. I was in heaven. It wasn't long before I had eaten a steak, and was licking barbeque sauce off my fingers before going for the chips and con queso dip.

As I was extending a chip towards the bowl of cheese dip, an explosion came from not too far away. I tried to tell myself it wasn't an attack, reasoning that since I always heard MRAP gunners test firing their 240B machine guns at the range nearby, it made sense that you'd be able to test a grenade there, too -- just for fun. "Those motherfuckers are at it again!" a few people hissed under their breath, quickly erasing my fantasy of this being someone's fun time test grenade.

Undeterred, i continued to reach for the dip. BOOM! Another explosion went off, this time much closer. My face was touched by the light breath of the shock wave, but I was still aching for the con queso. It was then that I finally heard the sound of the alarm over the din of diesel generators and our little boom box that was playing someone's favorite rock mix. I probably would've stood there and continued eating my delicious, cheesy snack, but a lot of the others were scurrying into a nearby blast shelter, so I decided this would be a prudent move for me as well. We all stood in the concrete tunnel, making jokes and waiting for the all clear to sound off.

Half the company was standing around outside like there was nothing going on at all, smirking at those of us who had run for cover. One guy had come running into the company area wearing full battle rattle -- the flak vest and Kevlar helmet. People began telling stories about folks who would actually sleep in the shelters wearing vests and helmets. "Ridiculous!" someone laughed. "What a pussy!" said another. The prevalent attitude seems to be that you can do whatever you want to protect yourself when a rocket comes in, but if it's your day to die, that's that. A rocket attack lacks the constant barrage of a full scale artillery attack, where one would be an idiot not to take cover. On the contrary, it's pretty random, and is usually over in seconds. There are plenty of stories of a hooch being hit while nobody's home, but the danger of being killed is still very real. That's why all of the chow halls have blast-proof rooftops.

As soon as we heard sirens, John and I Shanghaied a couple of soldiers into giving us a ride to the closest blast site to ask questions and take pictures. After all, that's what we'd done during forest fires back in Santa Barbara -- go against traffic and head toward the sirens. It wasn't long before we found the flashing lights. The rocket had landed in a field across the lake from our area. There were casualties. On the field were stacked hundreds of palates of bottled water. The explosion created a six inch deep crater in the dusty soil, and shrapnel had ripped through several of the water bottles. The bottles had subsequently bled to death.

It turns out that the first rocket hadn't even hit inside the wire. As we were standing there discussing the incident with the MPs, another explosion went off, but another of the farther away variety. "They always hit in the same place twice," said Staff Sergeant Dane Halligan, one of the civil affairs soldiers working with the 425th Civil Affairs Battalion.

"Then why the fuck are we standing over here?" someone asked in the darkness. The explosive ordinance disposal team was looking for bits of unexploded material, but were coming up short. Halligan and Sergeant First Class Fred Welch -- also from civil affairs -- compared notes about the insurgents' skills in using rockets, and the consensus was that they could really do a much better job. Hopefully they won't fire any more rockets for a while, but who knows. When it's time, it's time.

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