By Jacob Worrell ’12E
It was raining. People are often surprised to hear that it rains in Iraq. When people imagine the daily discomforts of soldiers deployed in Iraq, they think about facing imminent death, frying in the desert sun and the dull monotony of daily routine. Anything but rain. But in northern Iraq in 2005, for roughly three months between mid-December and March, it seemed to rain every other day—not refreshing summer drizzles either, but ice-cold buckets.
It also happened to be Christmas Day. When people hear about deployed soldiers working on holidays, especially ones loaded with sentiment like Christmas, I imagine they feel at least a tinge of sympathy. In Iraq, when it came to one’s general disposition or mood, it was all about expectations; expect the worst, hope for the best. The fact that we were getting ready to patrol on Jesus’ birthday hardly bothered even the most hardcore of our religious devotees. But the rain, on the other hand—that was a pain.
I occupied the vehicle commander hatch located at the top left of our Stryker armored vehicle. My gunner, Pfc. Marshall*, occupied the hatch to my right. The hatch to my rear contained the rear air guard, Pvt. Jordan. Our driver, Pvt. O’Reilly, remained concealed in the “driver’s hole” up front.
When we rolled off the base and accelerated, rain droplets became tiny ballistic needles that smacked the skin left exposed by my facemask until my face felt like it had been pumped full of anesthetic. The eight tires of the Stryker churned through the thick mud of the dirt road separating the walls of the front gate from the open road. During those rainy months, I reflected on how different the mud in Mosul was from the mud in my home state of New Hampshire—it was thicker, like clay, and enormous globs would stick to our boots during dismounted patrols, creating natural foot weights.
Eight-Eight (my vehicle’s call sign) occupied the third position in the four-vehicle convoy. Due to the rise in
vehicle suicide attacks in our area of operations, there was a strict policy of directing all traffic to pull over to the side of the road when any military convoy passed. The civilians in Mosul knew the drill: When a Stryker approached, they pulled over to the right shoulder. Most importantly, they knew to never ever get in the middle of a military convoy.
In a war where the bad guys looked exactly like civilians, failing to do so had the potential of resulting in injury or death. Hence the two big signs hanging from the back of our vehicles that read (paraphrased and in Arabic), “Stay at least 100 feet away or we’ll shoot you.”
After two years of steady warfare, most of the Iraqi civilians were conditioned to pull over immediately. Occasionally, however, a driver asleep at the wheel would pull out from an intersection into the middle of a convoy. Following the rules of engagement (ROE), there was a strict standard operating procedure for escalation of force in those situations. First, a crewmember in a hatch would attempt to verbally and physically signal the driver to pull over. Flailing one’s arms, pointing and yelling didn’t always send a clear message; perhaps that sort of pantomime got lost in translation. But once you pointed your rifle at someone, they almost always got the point. Apparently the international gesture for “pull over or I’m going to shoot you in the face” transcends all cultural barriers.
If that somehow didn’t get the driver’s attention, a warning shot was fired, though it rarely came to this. If the driver still failed to pull over, a second warning shot was fired into the engine block of the vehicle—this happened maybe once in my 16 months overseas. If that still failed to convince the driver, only then could one employ lethal force, and only if one felt his life or the life of his crew was being threatened.
The ROE set up reasonable guidelines—at least they looked that way on paper. But war isn’t a movie script; the picture doesn’t start moving in slow motion during tense moments nor does the ominous soundtrack kick in right before all hell breaks loose. There is no foreshadowing. If a vehicle is speeding toward your crew at 60 miles per hour, you don’t have time to signal with your hands, deliver a warning shot, deliver a second warning shot and then deliberate—the ROE goes out the window. You act.
On Christmas Day 2005, as we rolled through a traffic circle, a lone vehicle pulled in between our convoy, behind Eight-Eight, my vehicle. It accelerated quickly and began to hug our right shoulder. A frantic call came over the radio, the voice of Seven-Seven’s VC (the commander of the vehicle behind us) belting into my ear, “Eight-Eight, behind you!”
“They are drifting into us, Sergeant!” Jordan nervously exclaimed from the rear hatch.
All of this happened in a matter of two to three seconds. I whipped my head around and attempted to get a look at the driver. I couldn’t see a face through the rain, but the car was very close to Eight-Eight and the driver didn’t appear to be slowing down.
I acted.“Light ’em up, Jordan!” I ordered. I immediately expected to hear the tat-tat-tat spray of Jordan’s SAW light machine gun. No sound. It was too late.“Down, down, down!” I exclaimed. This was the command given when one expected imminent catastrophe. It alerted all crewmembers to drop into their hatches and brace for impact. I dropped into my hatch and braced myself for the sickening percussion of a closely exploding artillery round, an event that is best described not as a sound, but as a violent, sudden vibration of every molecule in the body.
But no explosion came—not today, anyway. A few moments passed before a voice broke over my headset. “Eight-Eight, this is Seven-Seven, they pulled over. We are going to stop and search them.”
The search proved uneventful. After our interpreter questioned them, we discovered that the passengers were an elderly couple and their teenage granddaughter. There were no explosives in the vehicle. The old man simply could not see us through the heavy rain because his windshield wipers were damaged and his eyesight was bad. Had Jordan taken the shot I ordered him to take, he would have killed at least one innocent person. And because you are responsible for everything your subordinates do or do not do in the Army, I would have killed at least one innocent person.
Later, I asked Jordan if he had not taken the shot because he could see that the passengers were an unlikely threat. He admitted that he simply froze. “I thought I was dead,” he confessed. Despite the relief I felt, I knew I had failed. All of the information we had pointed toward imminent danger and my soldier failed to act. We were lucky. If the driver and his vehicle had been rigged to explode, the situation would have looked no different. He would have detonated and perhaps killed my entire crew. It would have been Jordan’s fault for not using deadly force and it would have been my fault for not training him properly. And yet I couldn’t argue with the actual event’s outcome. I had also failed to identify the driver of the vehicle before ordering Jordan to engage. Perhaps there was no way I could have seen him through the rain, or perhaps I just wasn’t quick enough. Either way, it was only because I failed twice that I did not end up with the blood of an innocent family on my hands. I was both relieved and confused.
When I reflect back on this event, I often find myself thinking about my first team leader, Sgt. Goodwin, whom I had met back in garrison before my deployment to Iraq. Once, after he had consumed nearly three-quarters of a fifth of vodka, he relayed to me, through choking sobs and a steady stream of tears, the tragic story of his previous deployment to Ramadi. During a firefight, a boy he described as no more than 7 years old was accidentally slain by a round fired from Goodwin’s rifle, by his hand. I will never forget the agony and remorse in his voice as he repeated, “I will never forgive myself,” over and over again.
Now that my career as a soldier is over, I will probably never have to face the possibility of living with the type of regret that Sgt. Goodwin will carry as a burden for likely his entire life. But I don’t deserve credit for that. Jordan need have only followed my orders for a similar weight to be placed on my shoulders. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.
I had heard the saying “You learn more from your failures than your successes” even before my deployment to Iraq, as most people have. I had always assumed it meant something like, “By trying and not succeeding, you will see what you should have done and be able to apply that lesson to a broad set of similar situations in the future.”
Perhaps that is the intended meaning when uttered from the mouths of most people. But now I see that some failures teach a much different lesson—a lesson that extends beyond mere platitudes. The lesson is that some failures don’t teach you what you should have done, but rather hammer you with the existential truth that there is no “instead,” no counterfactual that will help guide your future decision-making process. You are made or broken by the chaotic winds of chance. Some events just happen as they do: You act, there are consequences, and those consequences will shape your life in a way you can neither control nor predict. In other words, the life lesson to be gathered from events such as these is not “Try harder” or “Do better next time,” but “You have to live with it,” whatever “it” may be—no matter how terrible or fortunate. You live with it whether chance squeezes you into bitter isolation like a sadistic jailer or bestows relief upon you like a beneficent god.
I believe that it is at least possible that the only difference between Sgt. Goodwin and me is that he was there, holding that rifle, looking down his sights at a figure he perceived to be a threat, and that perceived threat ended up being a child. He was there and I was not. The forces that forged the trajectory of our very identities diverged in two completely different directions. We were both molded by dumb, blind chance. I tell myself to remember this sobering truth during moments when hubris, brought on by my various successes, threatens to overtake me. I remember that, every Christmas since 2005, I have been able to look back and feel airy relief rather than crushing remorse only because of good fortune—remembering that I owe as much to Pvt. Jordan for not pulling that trigger.
That was a cold, rainy day in Iraq. And though the weather of my life has since improved, there are times when the memory of that day creeps in like a surreptitious cloud. It brings with it a vague shadow of guilt, not because of any actions taken by my crew or because I wish I could go back and change things, but because I was lucky. Because I have since enjoyed many sunny days knowing that, for some, the rain never stops.
*The names of all Army personnel have been changed to protect their privacy.
Jacob Worrell is a veteran of the Iraq War, having served with the 172nd Stryker Brigade out of Fort Wainwright, Alaska, between 2005 and 2006. After separating from the Army in 2007, using benefits from the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, he enrolled in college, eventually graduating from Amherst with a double major in economics and philosophy. He works as a product strategy coordinator for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), an organization founded and led by Paul Rieckhoff ’98.
This article was first published in ©Collier’s Magazine, a division of JTE Multimedia, LLC (Colliersmagazine.com).
Photos © Mike Buytas/U.S. Air Force/CPN/Corbis