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Someone Tried To Kill Me On Route Taco: A Glimpse Into the Invisible Wounds of War

by J. Darin Ellis

 

Throughout my days, there have been countless events that have defined who I am. Very few, however, have changed me quite so radically as the first time someone tried to kill me. The details of my incident on Route Taco, a narrow alternate supply route just North of Baghdad, are simple and few. I’ll expound, but the short answer is that someone attacked our convoy with a roadside bomb, my truck was hit and disabled, and our crew survived, relatively unscathed.  The fight was brief, only a few shots were fired, and one insurgent was killed. Within minutes of the attack, my truck was hooked up to a wrecker and pulled out of the Kill Sector. The explosion that lifted my truck off the ground, however, had a long lasting effect on me that I never could have imagined.
We were bold and brash, Army Cavalry Scouts, best of the best, or so we told anyone that asked and many that didn’t. For most of us in the Centurion Battalion scout platoon, this was our first time outside of our own country, and the most action we had seen as of yet was in a Halo game, and yet, there we were, cruising through the Baghdad slums locked, cocked, and ready to pop. We had been honed for this at Riley and Polk, drilled and drilled to deal with any scenario, until our action was smooth and flawless, living embodiments of the weapons we rested our thumbs on. We were the emissaries of Dubya, sent to fulfill America’s destiny as Freer of Captive Nations.
This was just our third trip outside the wire since arriving in Iraq and we had yet to see any real action. To be honest, I had begun to think that this was all an elaborate training exercise taking place in Juarez. It would certainly account for the slums and the brown people that, in my naive, xenophobic mind, could easily be mistaken for Mexicans from a distance. And really, hasn’t the military spent taxpayer dollars on more frivolous things? The occasional “Bongo” truck out past curfew was all that we encountered, nothing serious, and no shots fired in anger.

While driving, I remember thinking it strange that, out here in the desert where everything was so brown and dead, there should be a single green bush beside the road as we went barreling from Forward Operating Base Warhorse on Route Taco. Then someone took a picture and the flash lit up the night in a sickening sepia tone. Nothingness engulfed me. As my eyes tried with all their might to refocus, I felt a tug on my sleeve and heard the faintest call from somewhere so far away. I thought it was my wife telling me to wake up, she’d made breakfast.  As reality seeped back in, my wife faded away, back to the Kansas prairie, and my LT sounded a little bit clearer as he asked if I was up, if I was alive. I instinctively pushed the accelerator to the floor, but the engine was unresponsive and my truck coasted to a stop. The rest of the platoon circled around me to provide security while we assessed the situation. We were all still alive, the truck commander, the gunner, a comms specialist that had hitched a ride with us, and myself. The bomber had missed his mark, and the only damage was to our Hummvee, Wolf 3.
A fifth of Jim Beam a night. Sometimes more. That’s what it took to make the nightmares manageable after I got back. Every time I closed my eyes there was the flashbulb pop and that roaring silence, a football player hit me from behind, and then the fear. Sure, there were other things I saw and did over there that gave me nightmares, but nothing matched the terror of my first time. Nothing ever compares.
The guys laughed and joked, I had gotten my cherry popped. I had literally gone through the fire, and relatively unscathed. I was invincible. The reality was that I didn’t sleep for a solid week after that night. The reality is that I still spend sleepless nights rehashing and reliving that run down Route Taco.
There on the road, still a little flash blind and punch drunk, I could smell the burnt accelerant as I scrambled in the dark to hook my crippled HMMWV to the wrecker.  My hands fumbled in the dark, shaking from adrenaline, to change the two rear tires that had been shredded by shrapnel so that the truck could be towed. Shots popped off behind me.  I remember screaming at the top of my lungs to the gunner two trucks back, “Kill that motherfucker!” There was no way for him to hear me over the din of engines and from my position, but I didn’t care. I hated the insurgent triggerman more than anyone had hated anyone prior and I wanted nothing less than to kill the bastard that had just tried to kill me.

The audacity of a roadside bomb is incredible, simply because it is so impersonal. We didn’t know each other, the bomber and me.  We had never met. I had never done anything personally to offend him.  And yet, he had seen fit to wire an artillery round to a cell phone and make an attempt at sending an infidel to whatever hell he believed I would go to. Was it anti-American ideology that guided him? Some concept of revenge for being wronged by someone else? I could only wonder. As I contemplated the explosion over the next few weeks, I think that the random nature of the act is what appalled me so much. I had known there would be fighting when I signed up. I knew there were bombings every day in Iraq.  I had trained for this exact scenario countless times and I acted flawlessly in the midst of chaos. But it really wasn’t the attack or my actions during the attack that surprised me. What really shocked me was my reaction to the bombing.
I didn’t want to play soldier anymore. I realized that this person, this human being, that had tried to kill me had done the exact same sort of thing I would have done, had the roles been reversed and he had invaded my country. Those feelings made me do the unthinkable: I questioned our presence in Iraq. I questioned war altogether. I never rejected an order or refused to roll out on patrol, but it was all different here. I saw through the bullshit I had been spoon fed, the propaganda stopped working on me. I didn’t buy into the lies anymore about weapons of mass destruction and that we had liberated the Iraqis from an evil dictator. Instead, I saw that the war was less about freeing the oppressed Iraqi people than lining warmongers’ pockets.
When you’re at war, the last thing that your leaders want to hear is that you don’t believe in what you’re supposed to be fighting for. I wasn’t exactly quiet about my newfound revelation, but I didn’t try to raise a stink about it, either. I knew that I was in the desert because I had volunteered to be there. No one forced me to join the army, and if I wanted to make it back I would have to shed blood and fight just like the rest of my brothers. Still, as something like this does, word got around that I was “less than pro-war” and my superiors were more than mildly annoyed with me.

Three weeks after the explosion, my platoon sergeant paced the floor of his makeshift office while I stood silently locked in parade rest. The fall of his boots and a squeaky floorboard were the only sound for several long minutes. My entire body burned from the smoking I had just received, but I struggled to make sure that I held perfect posture. My eyes darted to his desk and I stole a glimpse of my rifle, confiscated and lying next to a copy of emails containing anti-war statements that I had sent to my wife, intercepted and sent back to my highers. I wasn’t a shitbird, I didn’t deserve to be castrated like this. I may not have believed in the cause anymore, but I definitely believed in my team, my platoon. Emotions swirled violently inside, anger, shame, frustration, as he told another NCO to escort me to mental health. I spoke out of turn, pleading my case, to no avail. Later, I had to force back a smile when mental health ordered them to return my weapon because I wasn’t a danger to myself or others. I wanted to smile not only because of the victory, but also because I found it ironic that less than 24 hours prior I had been sitting in the port-a-john with the barrel of a loaded and charged pistol under my chin, trying to muster the stomach to pull the trigger.

It was a dark time for me, the darkest I have ever known. The blast from that explosion resonated throughout the rest of my deployment. It was in the background through every fire fight, every close call, every time I bore witness to the horrors of war. It shaped me and helped me become the killer I would need to be. It was the first step in losing the humanity that I would later fight so hard to regain.
My wife and kids can attest that the man they welcomed home was not the same person they had sent off to war. Almost instantly on my return, my life began to unravel. My marriage went to hell, my kids were terrified of me, and my work suffered immensely. I found it difficult to be in crowded spaces, and I still hate the 4th of July fireworks. I went to counselor after counselor, shrink after shrink. I ate handfuls of antipsychotics, antidepressants, and antianxiety drugs. I washed them down with bottles of booze. I self-medicated with pot, MDMA, psilocybin and LSD. I sought comfort in God, and did not find him. The prescription drugs left me like a zombie, the booze turned me into more of a monster than I already was, and the counselors provided little help, other than teaching me to monitor my breathing. Pot helped me to take my mind off of the mental anguish for a while and gave me a cheerier disposition, but it didn’t resolve the issue, it was just a Band-Aid. I was lost. Strangely, I longed to be back in Iraq, where most of the decisions to be made were black and white. There was a bizarre simplicity to life in combat that I secretly wished for again. I felt like I didn’t belong in life at home anymore.

Nowadays, the nightmares aren’t as frequent, but the echoes of that explosion still resonate through my day to day life. After 6 years, I’m getting better at living like a normal human being, but it has definitely been a process. The explosion left me partially deaf, and my doctor says it’s likely that the concussive force of the blast permanently rewired the way my brain works. But the irrational fear of being blown up again is what troubles me the most. Sometimes just driving at night will make me sweat, start clenching the wheel as I grit my teeth and scan bridges and overpasses for imaginary bombs. Other combat vets I talk to, if they are honest, share extremely similar stories. The PTSD commercials I see on late night TV ring true; not every scar a veteran has is visible, and certainly, those are the scars that heal the slowest. Someday, my scars may heal, but I’ve been forever changed because someone tried to kill me on Route Taco.

 

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