Sunday, May 24, 2015

I've Never Had to Kill Someone

But I came damn close once.

Spoiler alert: I'm going to describe a scene from American Sniper below. If you don't want to know what happens in that movie, don't read this post. I'm going to throw in another paragraph before I get to that scene, so you have plenty of warning to get out of here.

The reason I'm going to describe the scene is that the reaction it brought out in me feels a lot like PTSD. I've spent most of the day, since watching it this morning, re-living a particular moment of my life a number of times, complete with elevated pulse and the shakes.

The scene from American Sniper: A Marine patrol is moving down a street when a car comes hurtling around a corner and accelerates toward them. They light up the vehicle, as does the protagonist (Chris Kyle), who is providing overwatch security from the roof of a nearby building. The driver is holding a "dead man switch." When he dies and his hand relaxes, the car blows up.

The incident in my life:

My unit's first assignment when we (Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 24th Marines) deployed to Saudi Arabia a few minutes after midnight on January 1st, 1991 was to provide perimeter security for Headquarters Marine Corps Southwest Asia. This was a compound in the port city of Al Jubail.

Early on, we had sandbagged bunkers at various places along the perimeter. Later, "Conex boxes" (large metal boxes used for shipping cargo by sea) were brought in and we moved our bunkers up on top of them (better view, and also we weren't down in the muddy sand when it rained, which it did quite a bit that time of year).

I forget what the number of my post was (IIRC, there were a total of 16 such posts). I wish I could remember the first name of the guy that I was on that post with, but I can't, other than "PFC." His last name was Lummis. The post was located on a corner, overlooking an open dirt field, next to a street that ran into the compound.

But that street had been blocked off with cement barricades. Only one street was set up to allow traffic in and out so that it was easier to control traffic, search for bombs under trucks, etc. So there was no way for vehicles to enter or leave the compound on the street that was part of my area of responsibility. Anything coming down "my" street was, therefore, suspect. Remember, this was only a few years after the Beirut truck bomb attack, in which 241 US Marines and sailors had died. This was a threat that we took very seriously.

So one day Lummis and I are on our post, and here comes an unfamiliar vehicle. It's painted "sand" colored, but it isn't an American military vehicle. It looks like a panel truck. It turns onto "our" street and starts accelerating. Not a normal rate of acceleration but really hauling ass.

At this point I pull the cocking handle on the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon with 100-round drum of ammo that I'm manning (PFC Lummis's weapon is his standard issue M-16). The SAW fires from an open bolt, so it has to be cocked before firing the first round (after that, it's full auto). I aim in at the front of the truck.

Our rules of engagement for this kind of situation have been kind of informal. Basically, we've been told to pick a reasonable point at which an approaching vehicle has gone "too far" and should be fired upon. We've done this, of course. There's a little bush, maybe 50 meters up the road from the perimeter that is the "point of no return."

The truck continues to accelerate. I'm guessing he's going a good 50 miles an hour. He's approaching the bush. It's at this point that I begin to squeeze the trigger. I don't recall what the "pull" poundage on a SAW is, but the point here is that I am in fact in the process of firing the weapon ... when the driver stomps on the brakes, cuts his wheels hard, turns around and takes off in the other direction.

On the back of the vehicle (but not on the front or on either side) are painted a red cross and red crescent. It's an ambulance.

There's no doubt in my mind that I came within a fraction of one second of ending the driver's life. Luck? Divine intervention? Just randomness? I don't know. All I know is that I was in the process of pulling the trigger when I heard the brakes squealing and that I ended up not firing.

I'm pretty sure my pulse went to 200+. I started shaking and sweating. I had nearly killed an ambulance driver. I've spent considerable parts of the last 12 hours back on top of that Conex box, behind that weapon. I'm kind of hoping that writing about it will get me the hell down from there.

I've never had to kill someone. If the feeling of nearly having done so is anything to judge by, I'm thankful for that.

Coda, of the "kind of weird shit" variety:

During the time that we provided security for that HQ compound, we had numerous reports from posts that they were taking small arms fire. Nobody got hit. In one of these incidents, I was part of the reaction team that team rushed across an open area under fire and cleared an oil refinery compound looking for the shooter. We didn't find him.

A few days later, I was off duty and resting/recreating at our base camp when firing broke out. Two Marines from my unit were walking between the HQ and the base camp when they hear the fire, identified the source, and returned fire.

The firing came from a British army ambulance. I never saw this ambulance, so I don't know if it was the same vehicle that I nearly shot at myself. But I have always kind of assumed that it was.

The two Marines were charged with something -- I don't recall what -- and faced court martial for shooting up that ambulance. Then ... it all went away. The Brits refused to provide the ambulance as evidence in the court martial. The charges were dropped.

The Marine Expeditionary Force commander, General Walter Boomer, passed down the word that we were all just Nervous Nellies, that all this shit was was a figment our imaginations, and that none of the firing we had reported and responded to had ever happened. That zeroed out any vestige of respect I had for the guy. I hadn't had a lot of that before. He was one of those idiots who insisted on being saluted by Marines on guard duty at the front gate of the HQ compound; I was almost reassigned to that post once and got out of it by telling my platoon commander that if Boomer demanded a salute from me, he'd get the explanation that I didn't give a damn if he got shot, but I didn't want anyone mistaking me for him. So I ended up on the post I mention up top.

So anyway, a couple of days later, a public affairs unit moved into the HQ compound and displaced us from one of the little shacks we had been using as "sleeping place when not on post."  One of them asked me what unit we were from. I told him -- Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 24th Marines.

The conversation, as best I can remember:

Him: "Wow -- so you're the guys who killed the IRA terrorist!"

Me: "Er ... say again?"

Him: "Yeah, I saw it on CNN right before we flew out yesterday. An IRA guy joined the British army, got over here as an ambulance driver, and started driving around taking potshots at guard posts and stuff. A couple of your guys killed him."

I've never run across anyone else who claims to remember such a story running on CNN, or who claims to know anything about the incident, so I have no idea if that was what was up, or if this guy was just blowing smoke up my ass. But the whole thing was definitely pretty strange.

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