December 6th, 2006
I was heading east on Sunrise Highway with the wind in my hair, the warm sun upon my face and green pine trees on both sides of me. Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock” was blaring on the radio. Suddenly, a tire exploded off of the tractor trailer in front of me. The sound instantly took me back to the desert in Iraq. All of a sudden I heard my platoon sergeant’s radio crackle. Eight seconds later he screamed: “FOURTH PLATOON GET UP! GET YOUR GEAR ON! FLIGHT LINE IN FIVE!” The platoon sprinted towards our Battalion’s flight line. The UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters were inbound to pick us up. One last order: “DON’T FORGET THE BODY BAGS!”
The blackhawk helicopters looked like angry wasps ready to sting as they landed rear end down. We pivoted our kneeling bodies away from them to avoid rocks the size of softballs from smashing into our faces. We hastily jumped into the birds and took off. The grim news finally came to light: our brothers from second platoon had been hit badly by an IED (improvised explosive device). The improvised bomb detonated underneath the first truck in their patrol. We knew there were casualties but we didn’t know who. Flying nose down at 120 miles an hour had always been a thrill until that day.
I drove on Sunrise Highway until it ended, riding the four-lane road briefly until I turned right on Tuckahoe Road. Passing Stony Brook University’s eastern campus, I was suddenly immersed in four low flying black hawk helicopters above me. The turbines & rotors drowned out my thought. It was a beautiful day to be in the air I thought.. Turning left onto Montauk Highway, I was suddenly in the country with old farmhouses lining the street. I felt like I was in upstate New York for a second. How peaceful.
Helicopter number two banked sharp left over the Iraqi city of Hawijah. Deni West was a route in the far western area of our battalion’s operations. As we approached the sight, we knew no one could have survived that blast. We knew there were no survivors. We avoided eye contact with one another. Emotions began to run high. The blast destroyed 90 percent of their Humvee. Only the engine compartment and windshield frame remained. Five soldiers killed in an instant. We scurried off of the helicopter and saw our fallen brothers body armor drenched in blood. Pieces of bodily tissue looked like raw chicken. I was shocked to see the body armor intact. I ignorantly thought to myself, “Where are they?” Fourth Platoons’ job was to police the area for our fallen brethren. We carried more body bags then usual but as we would horribly discover, there weren’t any whole parts to look for. Bone fragments and tissue were scattered around the area.
Halsey Neck Lane is a peaceful road. Always a lover of anything landscaped, I drove slowly to glimpse the meticulously landscaped estates. I couldn’t get enough of the beautiful hedges and manicured lawns. I pictured myself maybe owning one of these houses someday but definitely down on the beach after winning the lottery. I was approaching the turn onto Meadow Lane when a construction worker waves me down. Slowing me down to a stop, he complimented my Jeep. “What a nice jeep,” he said. “Who did the work? I know how all of you boys out here have money.” I told him I was a roughneck like him. Hard work allowed me to purchase the Jeep and determination is what helped make it look like this. “Watch for the cops, my man,” he warned.
My Squad leader asked how I was holding up. He pulled out his pack of Marlboro Lights and offered me one. I gladly accepted. Lighting my cigarette, I gazed around the gruesome scene. I noticed we were standing next to a ten-foot-deep water hole in the middle of the desert. I glanced to the right and noticed an eyeball still attached to its optic nerve. It looked like a pink and blue jellyfish. It was staring back at me. The eye was resting on soft mud, barely out of the water. Surprisingly, it was still warm to the touch. I picked it up and placed it in my body bag. We continued finding chunks and fragments of what was once flesh and bone. I was amazed at the devastation. Reality kicked me in the face: This could have easily been my body parts that someone else was picking up.
Meadow Lane in Southampton is majestic. Endless wealth at its finest. The spring season brings out all kinds of workers to this lonely place. I imagined the homeowners off jet setting in some other part of the world that few of us will ever know. The road comes very close to some homes that you can actually see the drop cloths covering the furniture. The helicopter landing pads on the bay side remind me of returning to our forward operating base’s flight line on that fateful December day. As I slowed down to make my way around the twisting turns of the road, I thought of how sick we all felt when our helicopter landed. That was the worst day of our lives.
Shinnecock East County Park was empty. Shifting my jeep into four-wheel drive, I began my excursion. The beach was surprisingly empty that day.That’s a rare occurrence on Long Island especially in the Hamptons. Losing myself in the scenery, I can’t stop re-living the sights and sounds of December 6, 2006. Almost ten years later and I can still taste the scene in my nose and throat. That day was the end of my innocence as well as that of my fellow soldiers. I was lost in my thoughts as I soaked up that warm sunshine. The scene was chaotic for all of us. Every soldier who was on the ground that day left a piece of their soul on that desolate bomb ridden Iraqi road. A cool shore breeze came over the Southampton beach. As I stared out in the empty ocean I could only come to one conclusion: I am grateful to be alive.