Caught in hell

Navy Corpsman Pietro Christofoli cleans stretchers after a night of numerous casualties near Al Aziziyah as the U.S. Marines advanced on Baghdad, Iraq, on April 5, 2003.

Navy Corpsman Pietro Christofoli cleans stretchers after a night of numerous casualties near Al Aziziyah as the U.S. Marines advanced on Baghdad, Iraq, on April 5, 2003.



© 2003 Cheryl Diaz Meyer. All Rights Reserved.


ON THE ROAD TO BAGHDAD - A sickening WVOOOOOM! accompanied by a desperate call of INCOMING!!! woke me from my battle-weary sleep.

In the fractions of a second that my poor, numb brain registered the sound of the 122mm rocket that landed 20 feet from our camp, I thought, "Where do you get off lighting those things up so close to sleeping souls?" We were lined up in our sleeping sacks, trying to erase the horror of the day's battle that left four Marines dead and another 17 injured, when the explosion awoke us.

We had traveled 31 miles yesterday on a highway controlled by Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard. Everywhere we went we were met with machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades. My writing colleague Jim Landers sank back at the end of the day mumbling something about having stepped into hell.

I had barely extricated myself from my cocoon, when another rocket flew over us. The lieutenant colonel said the counter battery was tracking the source of the rockets and would destroy them.

The men of the Bravo command amphibious assault vehicle (AAV), with whom we had made a home for the last two days, looked at each other, shaking. And then the third one hit.

I jumped out of my sack, barefoot in shorts and a T-shirt. I collected my chemical suit, gas mask, Kevlar helmet, hiking boots, glasses and backpack and ran to the AAV for shelter.

"Oh my gawd, it's a mermaid," a young lance corporal, Keith Chandler, had barely covered up his skivvies with his sleeping bag before I trampled over him and perched myself on top of an MRE box, cursing under my breath. Getting into the AAV with all my protective gear normally takes me about a minute of huffing and puffing, and Lance Cpl. Chandler watched in disbelief as I leapt forcefully into the 3-feet-high entrance, throwing equipment in all directions.

After about 30 minutes, we straggled out, shaken, ready to take our chances. I crawled back into my sack, whimpering small comforts to myself.

If it was going to happen, then it would happen, and hopefully it would be quick. 

I prayed as I waited for sleep to take me away from the misery and fear. I thought, I don't care what it takes – who gets hurt or who gets killed – just, please, make them stop. And with each explosion of our artillery, I cheered in my heart because it was one step closer to making me safe.

The following morning would reveal a minibus with a man, woman and two children lying in a pool of blood; a sedan with a man in the passenger seat covered in a blanket; a man lying prostrate in front of a delivery truck; two men lying next to a car, one of whom was believed to be a three-star general in the Republican Guard; and countless others at various checkpoints.

After weeks of waiting for action, we seem to have gotten it in full with the 2nd Tank Battalion. Each day is increasingly hectic as we race toward Baghdad, blowing through town after town, only waiting to resupply ammunition and to evacuate the dead and injured.

My stomach has been weak since last night's close call. Several journalists traveling with us have quietly begun talking about leaving. We are rattled and shaken. And the increasing violence to which we bear witness is taking its toll.

For myself, I can only say that I am determined to see Baghdad, if my will permits.