not a quiet day

by Karen Kolb

melissa thomas

spring 2016


The loudest boom I’ve ever heard and then everything around me went black. My eyes were open I think, I just could no longer see around me. A few long seconds passed. The air around me began to clear and sounds started crackling into my focus and attention. I could hear frantic voices emerging from the radio to my left, although I couldn’t yet bring into meaning what they were saying. I vaguely began to realize that an IED had just blown up. That was the loud noise. Looking out the cracked windshield in front of me, half of the hood on my side of the vehicle was gone. It wasn’t just that an IED had gone off, the IED had hit our truck. 

I was out on one of my first missions. Anxious to see the roads and towns that surround the fortress of a base in Iraq that I was confined to living on. A serene spring morning consisting of a simple trip and a few hours of providing medical care to locals, changed in an instant.

Did that just happen? Did we just blow up? Is this for real? Training mode took over since I had been through this scores of times before for pretend. I looked to the left at my driver, a dental technician. We shared a frantic look and I yelled, “Can you keep driving?” He yelled back, “yeah!” “Then keep going!” Why were we yelling? Could we still not hear very well? Was there a lot of noise from the truck and radio? The noise wasn’t coming from the passengers, as everyone was as stunned as I seemed to be.

            So what’s next? I looked around at the rest of the Soldiers in the truck. “Everyone ok?” The dentist seated in the back and the gunner standing in the middle with half his body out the top nodded and yelled back, “yeah!” We started moving forward again and I realized that my door had blown open. I leaned out, body armor pressing against the seat belt limiting my range of motion and reached to grab the heavy armed door to pull it back shut. I knew I needed to report in on the radio to give the convoy commander an update. The radio still exuded commotion of everyone else talking. Since I wasn’t processing what the voices were saying, I wasn’t sure if they had even asked our status yet. Instead I could only imagine they were calling back to headquarters with updates, as well as coordinating the response with our security to attempt to find and apprehend the insurgent who caused the blast. 

“Lancer 5 this is Cobra 5. Lancer 5 this is Cobra 5.” I attempted to call in and be heard, a lowly lieutenant in the officer pyramid reporting to the much higher lieutenant colonel squadron executive officer who happened to be leading our convoy from the truck in front of ours. No more than a few hundred feet away, yet I felt isolated and distant. Somewhere in the midst of the disbelief I was feeling, I still felt the need to attempt to sound calm. We were guests there. A lone medical vehicle from the only medical unit in the brigade allowed to have women assigned. We needed to accompany the all male combat units whenever they wanted to set up community health support missions. This was early in the deployment. March. The true fighting season hadn’t yet begun. An IED on a mission was still a novelty; the routineness of it all was yet to take place. 

            “Go ahead Cobra 5.” “This is Cobra 5, all passengers in Charlie 7 [our vehicle] are ok, no injuries, still moving forward, all sensitive items accounted for.” 

Wait. Were all of our sensitive items accounted for? I said that out of habit. Where was my rifle? My rifle that always rested between my legs, muzzle up. There was no longer a weapon there. The air vents weren’t there either, now filled with dirt and dust, and what I realized the blackness must have come from. The sky didn’t go dark, my eyes didn’t close. Instead the vehicle just filled up with dirt from the ground below us as a 100-lb bomb lifted our truck, dirt, and pavement underneath us. A complete brown out like a sandstorm. The door. The open door. My rifle must have flown out the door during the blast. A wave of panic shot through me; I screwed up. “Lancer 5, this is Cobra 5, correction. One rifle is missing. One rifle is unaccounted for.” I purposely didn’t mention it was mine.

            We arrived at the school parking lot, our intended destination. The IED having gone off a mere few football fields distance away down the road. My driver and my gunner, a mechanic from our sister company, quickly assessed the status of the vehicle and began to pull out the spare tire and tools to change it. I finally was able to step out and see for myself, my eyes beholding the carnage of warfare defied by the protection of armor. My eyes opened wider in awe, aware now of how close I had been to becoming a casualty. I was seated in the front passenger seat. The brunt of the blast was taken by the underside of the truck a foot or so in front of where I sat. The passenger half of the hood was obliterated, many pieces of machinery like the air filter were missing, and the tire was blown open, the axle bent in. 

            At some point, one of the Lancer Soldiers there for security, came up to me in the parking lot with my rifle. “Ma’am, here you go. We recovered it in the road” he said, more with awe than annoyance. I immediately cleared the weapon, removing the ammunition and running a quick functions test to ensure it remained operational. This was partly due to habit; I knew I needed to make sure it was still working since it did fly out of the vehicle. But mostly I wanted to appear like I knew what I was doing. I was grateful my driver and gunner were taking care of the tire. Being self-sufficient in restoring our own truck would go a long way in proving we could take care of ourselves, an ally versus a liability in the long haul of the deployment.

            We stood around for a while taking pictures with the vehicle, proud to have lived through it without a scratch. Temporary local legends in that parking lot. Shortly thereafter we began to return to Taji, attempting to drive the limping battered vehicle that had ultimately protected us back to our combat operating base. The rumble of the tires beneath me was now a constant tremor felt by my heightened senses. I strained to hear every creek and rattle of the vehicle, not wanting it to crumble leaving us stranded in the road. We passed back right next to the now hole where the IED had been buried. Had I known at the time, I could’ve looked off to the left and seen the house where the insurgent laid in wait. Even though security forces had already passed through the area, they had missed the wire running from under the road, into a house, all the way up the stairs to the second floor to a window overlooking the road. 

He had lain in wait as three vehicles drove over the spot and when ours passed, the loudest - Boom! But a split second too fast to cause bodily harm. That’s all it takes. The timing and hand-eye coordination of a disgruntled Iraqi meant the difference of my rifle flying out of the vehicle or parts of me flying out.

Charlie 7 continued its rumble down the uneven dirt road. I squeezed my legs together tightly and looked down. My rifle remained secure between my legs, muzzle up.