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INSIDE THE CROSSHAIRS - YOU NEVER HEAR THE BULLET
Inside The Crosshairs - You never hear the bullet
Jack Hemingway sat in the right front seat of the military Humvee. As they rolled along the desert floor he tried not to think about what had happened the day before.
He was part of a forward scouting troop of Humvees and M3 Bradleys that were well ahead of the main US forces searching for Iraqi defenses as they made their way towards the Kuwaiti border.
Military Intelligence had communicated to them earlier that they were clear of any enemy in the area and that there were no Iraqi forces between them and Wadi Al Batin, some thirty miles east.
Jack didn't like it. Sometimes those uneasy feelings that hit him in the pit of his stomach turned out to be nothing. Other times it was a warning of something to come. Jack wasn't sure which one it was this time. Maybe it was just the MRE (meal ready to eat) he had eaten earlier.
The weather didn't help things either. It was windy and wind in the desert produces dust storms from the very small dust swirl to large Haboobs which are dust storms that can be hundreds of miles across. Added to that was the black smoke hanging in the air from oil well fires started by the retreating Iraqi army. Visibility was increasingly poor to say the least.
As the troop rumbled along the desert floor a well-entrenched element of the Iraqi Republican Guard's Tawakalna Division lay in wait off in the distance; mostly amassed on the backside of a small hill. They occupied good ground, had well placed tanks and plenty of armor mounted 23mm guns. They spread out over a line well north of a number of buildings. There were two Iraqi T-72 tanks on the front side of the hill facing the approaching Americans.
The Scouts from Eagle Troop topped the high ground, and off in the distance there was something within the landscape that just didn't look right.
Jack picked up his field glasses just as a call came over the radio.
"Enemy contact, enemy contact!" the voice declared. The vehicles came to a stop.
"Oh shit," Jack mumbled as he squinted his eyes and peered through the glasses.
He saw the muzzle flash from a tank as he adjusted the focus. "Ah – I think we've got incoming tank rounds…" Jack said.
Just then a tank round landed exploding some 300 meters off to the right and short of the line of Humvees and Bradleys.
"Let's get the fuck outta here!" a voice crackled over the radio. On another channel coordinates were being relayed back to the main force which was spread out over a twelve mile line.
US M-1 Abrams tanks returned fire from more than ten miles back trying to lock in on the Iraqi targets.
"Eagle 2-4, we're heading for those buildings off the left flank, to the north. Get in under their tanks." Jack held his radio to his ear to hear the plan.
He tapped the driver on the arm and pointed off to the left. "Towards those buildings!" The vehicles broke from the direction to the northeast to begin heading northwest.
They entered the perimeter of buildings hot, weapons at the ready, looking for Iraqi troops. They stopped their vehicles and dismounted, beginning a security sweep.
Jack took a squad of men and proceeded on the right to go through buildings searching for enemy troops.
What was unknown to Jack and the other men was that two of the buildings in the middle were occupied by a number of well-armed Iraqi soldiers.
As the troop of Americans searched on they entered into what would be best described as excellent enemy cross-fire, just as an explosive round of automatic gunfire erupted from two buildings.
Everyone scrambled for cover. Jack motioned his squad behind a pile of brick and rubble and he quickly peeked over the pile to see where the enemy fire was coming from.
"The building straight in front, bottom window," he said to his men getting back down. Then he broadcast the same information over the radio. He and his men opened fire on the building.
Jack thought back to earlier in the day when the division had encountered Iraqi resistance. There was a brief engagement by other regiments of his division that lasted only a short time but Jack had seen his first dead enemy soldier. He felt a bit empty inside.
He had never seen a dead person before. He had never killed much of anything in his life, not really being the hunter type. But he did go hunting once in a while with his dad growing up, or with a group of his dad's buddies for a weekend hunting trip. But Jack never shot at anything.
When he was a teenager he went dove hunting in the hot Arizona desert with a group of friends and they would tease him about not bagging a single bird. Jack would joke, "I think my shotgun is bent!"
It wasn't that he never shot the gun. He would target practice on old tin cans he came across, or maybe feign that he was shooting after a dove, but shooting well behind it.
On the last day of the hunting trip Jack had become bored and had wandered off on his own for the day. As he walked along through the brush and tumbleweeds he was startled when a dove flew from the brush just thirty feet or so in front of him.
He lazily tracked the dove figuring he'd shoot off a round after the bird had flown by.
The dove flew right and then quickly darted back to the left just as Jack squeezed the trigger. The birdshot struck the dove and it spiraled and plummeted to the ground.
"Oh my god!" Jack yelled, lowering the gun and running over to the downed bird. It fluttered on the ground as it neared death. Jack hadn't hit it directly, rather when the bird darted left it just barely flew into the blast and its left side was peppered with a number of pellets.
Jack just stood over the dying bird. Perhaps he should crush its head to end its pain, he thought, but he couldn't do it. He just stood there, and watched the dove slowly tire.
When it finally stopped flapping its wings, Jack reached down and picked up the bird. He held the dove in his hands and looked into its eyes and he began to cry. He used the butt of the shotgun and silently dug a small hole. Through tear-filled eyes he said, "I'm so sorry," and buried the dove.
Jack had a long walk back to camp. Without really knowing it, he had changed that day. The dove was the first thing he had ever killed, but it wouldn't be his last.
Another blast of enemy gunfire swept across the rubble pile Jack and his men were behind. Fire was returned from numerous American positions and they cautiously began to advance on the two buildings. Jack sent three men to the left and he and two others went to the right side of the pile to prepare and advance on the building. They all checked their weapons and those who needed to reload did.
Jack saw movement in one of the windows of the occupied building and trained his rifle scope on the area. He immediately saw an Iraqi soldier and he automatically squeezed the trigger. Half a second later the soldier went down.
"Holy shit, Jack – you got him!" a soldier next to him called out.
Jack slumped down behind the pile, he didn't say a word. Though it was only about 65-70 degrees out, he was hot with his uniform and gear he carried, the sweat was pouring off his face as he felt a tear well up in his eye; he didn't figure anyone would notice. He imagined the enemy soldier, like the dove, on the floor flapping his arms as he lie there dying. He hoped someone would crush his head to put him out of his pain, but he didn't imagine that would happen.
He shook his head as more enemy bullets sprayed the pile. American troops jockeyed to gain the upper hand while Iraqi's called in coordinates to have mortar rounds fired at the Americans.
Jack cleared his weapon and reloaded it. He stood up to give covering fire in order for his soldiers to advance and he shot another Iraqi soldier in front of him and watched him go down. At the same moment, an Iraqi soldier on the second floor trained his sights on Jack.
What Jack hadn't noticed was when he abruptly stood up to aim at the second Iraqi soldier that he shot in front of him, there were four or five US troops huddled directly under the enemy soldier in the second floor window. One of the troops was Captain Jones.
Jack's hurried movement aiming his rifle was misread by the group of US soldiers who just saw someone pointing a rifle in their general direction. They may have had no way of knowing it was a friendly soldier and two of them pointed their weapons in Jack's direction.
He caught the movement of the second floor Iraqi soldier in his peripheries and was in the process of adjusting his rifle towards the second floor when he saw a muzzle flash come from the group of US soldiers.
Jack managed to fire a three round burst from his weapon before the bullet aimed at him struck its target. It hit him at a very slight downward angle and entered his stomach just above the navel. It was too level of a bullet path to have come from the second floor window. This information would later be lost, along with the bullet fragments removed from his body, in official statements and versions of what the military said happened that day.
The bullet ripped through his body and ricocheted off of his right hip splitting into four main fragments. One exited his back near his hip and one tore out of the front right side of his stomach. The third and fourth fragments traversed back as one lodged in his spine while the other penetrated the descending colon where it hid undetected for more than twenty-five years. He fell to the ground in a rumpled heap.
He laid there bleeding and motionless as his men returned fire.
Sgt. Dan Ramirez who was next to Jack called out over the radio, "Eagle 2-6, Actual has been hit!"
"Say again Eagle 2-6, say again," the call came back.
"It's the Lieutenant, he's down!"
Dan reached out with two fingers frantically trying to find a pulse on Jack's neck. He didn't feel anything.
"He's down down."
The radio crackled again, "2-6 are you saying Actual is KIA?" (Killed In Action)
"Lieutenant Hemingway is dead!" Dan yelled into the radio.
The radio was silent for a few moments.
"Roger that 2-6. Copy your KIA," came the eventual reply and then normal chatter resumed.
The battle continued and after several minutes Jack blinked his eyes. He coughed as he came back into consciousness. The pain ripping through his body was nearly indescribable. It felt like someone took a red hot poker from a furnace and just skewered him with it; while at the same time taking a baseball bat and hitting him in the stomach as hard as it could be swung.
He didn't want to look down at his stomach, he feared his guts would be all strewn about. He felt down with his right hand over the areas that were wracked with pain. He could feel his blood oozing from his body, and the exit wounds the bullet created hurt like hell.
"Dan, help me up!" Jack called out.
"Jesus, Jack!" Dan said with a stunned look. "I thought you bought it!"
Jack touched his stomach. I still just might, he thought. He checked his weapon and then fired at the window on the second floor.
At this point is was sheer adrenaline that kept Jack going. He and Dan covered the other men who were approaching from the opposite side as they advanced on the building.
An Iraqi mortar landed in the open ground in front and exploded. Dirt and debris kicked up and an American soldier advancing from the opposite side was struck in the leg and went down. Enemy fire tried to finish off the downed soldier and every one of the Americans trained their weapons on every window to cover their man.
Jack's helmet had rolled off his head as he pulled himself up. He figured shock was setting in because the pain in his stomach wasn't as bad now.
He slowly stuck his head out so he could look around the corner of the wall and he saw the friendly soldier trying to crawl from harm's way.
"Shit," Jack said, "Connor is down."
Jack decided to make a break for it and Dan followed him but gunfire from above them peppered the ground between him and Jack forcing Dan to retreat to cover.
Jack limped a bit as he ran and fired his weapon up at the building on his left until he got to the wounded soldier.
"Help me!" the soldier pleaded as he lay face down on the ground. He had a large gash in his left thigh and another on his lower leg and couldn't walk.
Jack dropped to the ground next to the wounded soldier and braced his weapon over the soldier's back. He fired every clip of ammo he had at the building until he ran out.
Jack just stayed there, covering the soldier's leg with his body…and waited. He didn't know for what, surely they would both be dead in moments.
What the fuck am I doing here, he asked himself.
At that moment an Iraqi soldier fired an RPG – a rocket propelled grenade – in Jack's direction. RPG's are a dangerous weapon, but they aren't always the most accurate things in the world.
The RPG round hissed along towards Jack and Connor about six feet off the ground. It flew right over them striking a debris pile about fifteen feet away sending shrapnel flying in all directions.
Shrapnel from the round tore into Jack's left thigh, right forearm and right hand nearly severing the pinky. Two smaller fragments lacerated his left cheek between his eye and nose.
As the dust settled there was a growing pause in the firefight. Jack rolled onto his back and held his stomach, his legs crossed over at the ankles. He was too weak to straighten them out. He looked up at the blue sky as his breathing slowed and shallowed. He felt his blood draining from his body as it seeped into the earth.
He had gone into shock and could no longer feel the pain that wracked his body. As he slipped into unconsciousness he saw the emptiness of the blue sky and he felt the earth beneath him. The faintest of smiles began to trace across his lips and as his eyes half closed a tear slowly seeped from the corner of his eye.
So this is how it ends for me…I never should have set foot over here, Jack thought.
His vision dimmed and he could no longer see the blueness of the sky, or sense the earth under him. Where am I, he wondered. He was no longer hot or sweaty, he wasn't cold and he could not hear or see anything going on.
In the vast nothingness Jack could hear a distant rumble that slowly drew closer. It was a familiar sound, it was the thundering cadence of beating horse hooves. The beating resembled the rhythmic sounds of Native Indian drums that he grew up with and knew well. A magnificent wild Mustang appeared before him and reared on its hind legs. It was the Ghost Horse and it beckoned for a rider.
Along with the Ghost Horse came the sensation that he was somehow being broken up into millions of tiny particles to be returned to the Earth and Universe from which all things come. And while he could no longer move his body, he felt himself moving.
Jack's limp body was abruptly pulled off of the wounded soldier beneath him he had been covering. They were both hastily dragged behind a building and out of immediate danger.
"This is Eagle 2-6, Eagle 2-6!" Dan yelled into his radio.
"Go ahead 2-6″ the reply crackled.
"We've got two down, repeat, two down, both critical. Eagle 2-6 Actual is down but not KIA! Need priority med-evac now!"
Dan looked down at Jack. He wasn't moving and did not appear to be breathing. He checked Jack's pulse, he barely felt one. His vacant eyes stared past Dan gazing lifelessly into space and the deepest parts of the Universe.
"Hang in there, Jack!" Dan yelled and gently shook Jack's shoulder. "Hang in there buddy…gonna get you the fuck outta here!"
The other soldier that had been wounded was still conscious and leaning back against the wall, moaning loudly.
A medic made his way to the two wounded men and looked at the conscious man first. He began to apply a field dressing to his massive wounds.
"He's worse," Dan said pointing to Jack.
"Is he dead?" the medic asked.
Dan shook his head, "I don't know!"
The medic looked at Jack and checked his vital signs. At first he couldn't find a pulse, but after seeing one eye barely blink, he finally found one.
"Get that med-evac helo inbound now!" the medic demanded.
"Mayday, mayday, mayday…priority, priority, this is Eagle 2-6, need that med-evac helo now!" Dan screamed into his radio.
"2-6, just sit tight until they contact you!"
Dan was angry at the delay in the evacuation of Jack and Connor. He threw the radio down, "Fuck!" He blurted out to no one.
It seemed like forever before the radio crackled again. "Eagle 2-6, this is Med-Evac 4. Coming up on your position, pop smoke so we can identify."
"It's about goddamned time!" Dan yelled as he took a smoke charge from his pack and threw it ten or so feet out to his left, away from the last remnants of the firefight.
A moment later came the reply, "copy that 2-6, we see your smoke."
The helicopter landed some thirty yards from where Dan had dragged Jack. Two corpsmen came out with field litters to retrieve Jack and Connor.
"Whatcha got?" the corpsman asked the medic as they put Connor on one stretcher and then Jack on the other.
"This guy has a lacerated femur, shrapnel still inside, full leg trauma." the medic replied.
"And this guy?" the corpsman pointed to Jack.
The medic shook his head, "Not good…multiple wounds, two, three exit wounds, shrapnel wounds, facial lacerations as well; lost a lot of blood!"
Dan helped carry Jack's litter to the waiting helicopter and loaded it inside. After the wounded cargo was aboard and with no other immediate casualties, they took off to return to a rear base.
The helicopter slowly lifted off the ground as dust swirled around it. As it flew high above the desert floor the wind blew Jack's short, smartly cut hair. Dust colored it a light sandy brown and his face had dirt and dried blood caked on it.
They were nearly back to base when Jack's body decided it could no longer sustain life. The Ghost Horse now had its rider and Jack held its wild mane on the journey towards the Spirit World to be with the Ancient Ones. He flatlined and immediately went into cardiac arrest. The corpsman on the evac helo began CPR.
At the hospital they were able to stabilize him enough for surgery and during the four hour operation to save his life he flatlined and went into cardiac arrest once again. The Ghost Horse was refusing to relinquish its rider. Finally, with a tacit agreement, the Ghost Horse halted and allowed Jack to dismount, then whinnying wildly as she galloped away. The hospital, having all the necessary equipment, was able to restore Jack's heartbeat with a defibrillator and finish the procedure.
He would later be flown to Germany for another round of surgery before heading back to the States to convalesce.
After months of recovery Jack began the process to resign his commission as he had wanted to do since he got home. The disgust and anger of his wartime experience lingered in his mind invading his peace each night like the enemy he had fought against. But this enemy he fought now was from within.
Read the conclusion in Casualty Of War — Inside the Crosshairs — The Final Chapter.
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