C.J. Chivers Vividly Chronicles Bloody Missions of Misadventure in Iraq
Reporter C.J. Chivers’ ‘The Fighters’ describes the fallout from the post-9/11 wars, including two vivid roadside bombings that changed lives forever.
On Monday, September 6, Worley’s platoon, accompanied by several Iraqi troops, loaded into three seven-ton cargo trucks and a Humvee to return to its outposts. It was time to rotate back to the highway duty on Mobile.
Lieutenant Zirkle did not like the trucks as troop-transport vehicles; he considered them totally improper. They were outfitted with only rudimentary armor. Boarding them required Marines to huddle together in large numbers—a departure from smart tactics and best practices that made them vulnerable. Most of the Humvees available were not hardened either, and some had makeshift additions of “Hillbilly armor,” as troops called hastily fitted steel plates and sandbags. But Humvees at least carried only a few people, Zirkle thought, which limited how many Marines might be harmed by a single bomb.
The seven-ton trucks stopped at Camp Fallujah, the Corps’ big base outside the city, so the Marines could have a hot meal and pick up the Iraqi troops who would join them for the rotation. Worley usually rode with Lieutenant Zirkle in the lead truck. He climbed in to wait. But as the vehicles began to move, he realized he had made a mistake. The trucks were out of order. The lieutenant climbed into the cab of the truck behind him, which moved into the lead position as the convoy headed for the gate. The lieutenant would be out front without him.
By now the rotation routine was known to the militants, which created risks on the roads. The Marines understood this and spread their vehicles apart. They drove close enough to support one another with gunfire but not so close that an attack would strike more than one truck. The highway had six lanes, three in each direction. The platoon stayed in the center, to keep a distance from roadside blasts, moving at about 50 miles an hour.
A pickup truck drove forward on the convoy’s left side and pulled even to the lead truck, where Lieutenant Zirkle, ten other Marines, and several Iraqi troops were riding.
An enormous blast cracked the air. It heaved Marines onto the asphalt as it blew apart the truck and set its remains afire. Worley felt a rush of its pressure wave two hundred yards away. His truck stopped. He leapt to the highway and ran to his first mass-casualty event. Black and gray smoke poured overhead. Fire burned to his front. He saw carnage, strewn limbs, and chunks of flesh. He wondered if his sprint was pointless.
The lead truck was a flaming, melting husk. He came to the first recognizable human shapes: Some were decapitated, others were intact. All were motionless. He could not tell, as he rushed close, if the intact victims were alive. Worley ran closer. An Iraqi soldier who was with the platoon had survived. His femur protruded from the flesh near his hip. He was screaming, pleading for help.
There are people here alive, Worley thought.
Doc Santos was in a truck behind him, and as Worley reached the first victim, he could see Santos sprinting into the mess, too. There was far too much work for two corpsmen. They had to triage.
Other Marines converged around them. Worley and Santos went from downed Marine to downed Marine, trying to sort out their priorities. Most of the people who had been on the truck were dead, but not all of them. Bret McCauley, who had been shot in the platoon’s first fatal firefight, was among the living. He had only just returned to duty. Worley found another Iraqi alive, too.
Worley was still assessing the workload, trying to determine whether any of the Marines who appeared dead were alive. He had to keep moving.
“Come over here,” he said to one of the Marines, and showed him how to stop a wounded man’s bleeding. “Put your hand here. If I don’t see you putting every bit of pressure you can on this, I’m going to come over and hit you.”
“Lay your head near his nose about every ten seconds,” he said. “And if this guy stops breathing, you scream for me so loud that there’s no way I can miss it.”
Worley ran to the next motionless man, seeking life.
After a few minutes he and Santos had found three Marine survivors, including Lieutenant Zirkle, who had been blown out of the cab and suffered severe burns. Worley assumed he had broken bones, too. Zirkle was conscious. Santos reached him first, injected him with morphine, and removed a hot piece of metal that Zirkle had landed on and was burning through his uniform. After rechecking every down man, Worley doubled back to help him. The lieutenant refused medical care. “Treat the others first,” he said.
Worley lost his sense of time as he worked, but he came to a moment when he recognized a helicopter had landed beside the highway to lift the wounded away.
There was no one left to help.
A solemn cleanup began. The remains of six of the platoon’s Marines, the Marine driver, and three Iraqi troops were put into body bags. Worley was blood-soaked, exhausted, grieving, and enraged when he arrived back at Baharia. But he knew he had done what he was supposed to. He had found his reason for being in Iraq.
For ten days the survivors of Pale Rider Three remained on the base; their platoon was deemed not combat ready. Lieutenant Zirkle had been evacuated from Iraq, leaving the platoon without an officer. It was mid-September and the battalion’s deployment to Iraq was almost over. It was due to leave the country within weeks. Fox Company dissolved Pale Rider Three and assigned its members to other platoons. Worley joined Pale Rider Two and prepared to rotate back out to the highway.
The platoon left Baharia on September 17 for the outposts. It was Worley’s first time outside the wire since the suicide attack. He arrived to tension. His new commander was simmering. The platoon was beset by radio troubles, and the lieutenant was struggling to talk with the company and battalion.
A call came that a Marine at Post Three had cut open the back of his right leg. He needed a corpsman to examine the injury and decide on treatment. The platoon’s longtime corpsman, Petty Officer Third Class Michael Meaney, was on a satellite phone call with his mother. Worley was glad. He wanted to escape the stress around the lieutenant, and volunteered for the ride to the sandbagged post to look at the Marine’s wound.
The cut was deep. The Marine needed stitches, which meant Worley and the rest of the patrol would need to drive him to Baharia, about forty minutes away.
The Marines loaded four Humvees and set out. The Humvees were not properly armored.
Near the first bridge a civilian car sped up behind them. Worley was in the rear truck. The Marines waved at the driver, warning him off. The car kept coming.
It was getting closer, ignoring signals to stay back. Less than two weeks before, a truck bomb had detonated beside Pale Rider Three. The Marines were on edge. The gunner looked to Worley, unsure what to do.
When the car was about fifty yards away, Worley gave the word.
“Engage,” he said.
The gunner opened fire.
The car veered as bullets struck it. It hit a guardrail and stopped. The first Marine truck was driving over the bridge.
An explosion rocked the air, away from the disabled car, from another direction. Worley spun to look forward.
The Marines’ second truck had been hit by an improvised bomb on its passenger side. The device had been hidden on the bridge. The other Humvees stopped. Worley zeroed in. Smoke poured from the truck.
Nothing else seemed to move.
He grabbed the forty-pound trauma bag, scrambled from his Humvee, and sprinted yet again. He ran onto the bridge and into the open—and the next stage of the trap.
Whoever was watching waited until Worley pulled even with the second bomb, which was embedded in the guardrail. It exploded about ten yards to his right.
Worley felt heat, pressure, and shrapnel as the blast blew him sideways. Pressure wrapped around him. His big frame felt inconsequential, a feather hit by a huge puff of air. Then he was heavy. He hit the blacktop at an angle, facing about 45 degrees left of the direction he had been running.
His ears rang.
His mind, buzzing, was unsure of what had happened.
For some time—Worley was not sure how long—he did not move.
Smoke drifted downwind. His thoughts were peaceful, almost spiritual.
I’m as good as dead. It’s out of my hands.
Until he had landed on the hot asphalt, and began grasping what had happened to him, he had not realized how exhausted he felt, how draining the experience of Iraq had been, and how vigilant and edgy all of it had left him.
Now was different, and better. Things had spiraled so far out of control that he was no longer stressed. The blast had delivered to him something he did not know he had wanted. He welcomed it as it washed over him like a wave.
It was relief.
I have done everything I can and there is no more burden to perform.
It did not last. Worley felt part of himself waking.
Other thoughts rushed in.
I need to roll over and see if I am going to die.
He forced his buzzing mind to think. His training kicked in.
I need to see how bad it is.
The pain had begun; it pulled him further toward alertness. He saw blood spreading on the road in an expanding stain. This was his blood.
Chunks of hot metal had hit him. He needed treatment.
He realized he was in the kill zone, which meant he would have to treat himself.
He started the inventory of his wounds. He lifted his right hand and ran it over his face and neck. No bleeding there. He reached for his pistol, which he remembered he had fastened to his hip instead of to his flak jacket, just before returning from the stand-down. It was gone, shattered into pieces around him. It had stopped a flying piece of shrapnel and probably saved his life.
He heard Marines shouting. They were behind him.
“Doc’s moving!” one said. “Cancel the KIA!”
He continued checking himself, allowing his eyes to drift down his body. His left leg, from the knee down, was mangled beyond recognition. What remained was attached by a white scrap of tendon.
Worley was thinking clinically now. Unsalvageable, he thought.
His abdomen was bleeding. Nothing he could do about that here.
The blood rushing out his left leg would kill him before whatever was going on in his guts got the chance.
He sat up, hearing the same adrenaline-fueled shouts he recognized from so many patrols. Marines were securing the bridge, coming for their wounded and their dead.
Worley needed to do his job, this time on himself. In his right cargo pocket, beside the thigh of his intact right leg, he kept a tourniquet that he had put together in Field Medical Service School. He had carried it on every patrol. It was a simple lifesaving device made from a broom handle, a grenade pin, and a green field dressing.
It was a talisman, his charm.
He pulled it from his pocket.
Now was its time.
He leaned over his ruined left leg, fastened it tight over the meat above the knee, and twisted the broom handle, mashing his quadriceps against his femur, cutting off blood flow. He had little time. He had to get this done, or die.
A sergeant called him. “Do you need someone?”
Worley’s senses had returned. He knew he was in the trap. Maybe he was bait.
The tourniquet was in place.
“No!” he shouted back.
He flopped sideways to the ground and rolled onto his stomach. He could not walk but he could try to crawl. He started to pull himself over the ground, chest down, with his arms, through the puddle of his own blood. He wondered if he could reach the damaged truck. He had not seen anyone come out alive. The exertion raised his heart rate, causing more blood to flow from his wounds.
I will kill myself doing this.
The bombs had triggered a response across Pale Rider Two. Marines from Post Two were speeding to them in trucks. They ran onto the bridge, into the blast sites, toward him and the smoldering wreck he had never reached. Marines in a Humvee with Doc Meaney pulled up to the damaged truck, removed a wounded man, then rushed to Worley. Hands grabbed him, dragged him clear, and lifted him into the truck. He saw Meaney and the wounded Marine—Lance Corporal Jacob Lewis, the driver of the second truck. He was bleeding heavily from shrapnel in the neck.
The Humvee raced toward Camp Fallujah. Doc Meaney leaned over him, calm. He was a friend.
“You’re leaking, brother,” he said.
Worley looked at his mangled left leg, the torn and blood-soaked pants. Blood still seeped. He was disgusted with himself. If you’re going to do something right, putting your tourniquet on better be that thing. He gritted his teeth, and he and Meaney gave the tourniquet three more twists.
But Meaney was also examining Worley’s right leg, which had been hit by shrapnel and was bleeding, too. He took a second tourniquet from his bag and tightened it to the right leg. The bleeding slowed, then stopped.
The Humvee kept driving, with Lewis beside them, holding a bandage to his own neck. Meaney chatted with Worley as he worked. Next he
tried to get an IV started but couldn’t. He felt guilty. Worley was horribly wounded and in shock. Pale Rider Two was Meaney’s platoon, and ordinarily it would have been him treating the Marine who had cut his leg. It would have been him in the ambush. Now he was keeping Worley calm and talking about Worley’s daughter, Abigail Magdelana. She was three months old and had been born while he was here. He spoke of Angel, Worley’s wife, and how he would see her soon.
Through the haze of shock and blood loss, Worley knew what Meaney was doing. He was functioning on multiple levels: as caregiver, victim, and someone who understood exactly how this situation worked.
Marines who survived bomb blasts often acted according to pattern. First they would see if they were alive. Then they would seek their weapon. Then they would ask if their genitals were still there.
He had gone through the first two steps.
He loosened his pants. He looked. There were no apparent wounds.
The Humvee drove on. Worley wanted to know about the others in the truck the bomb had stopped.
He looked at Lewis. “Was there anything that could be done?” he asked.
“Absolutely not,” Lewis said.
The Humvee passed through the base gates.
Worley was rushed inside an aid station to a doctor and more corpsmen. They cut away his bloodied clothes. He felt a catheter being pushed down into his urethra. He did not know what other wounds he suffered or what his chances were. He was losing consciousness to anesthesia, unsure whether he would wake again, knowing that if he did he would be an amputee.
From THE FIGHTERS by C.J. Chivers. Copyright © 2018 by C.J. Chivers. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.