Death Square

While deployed to Baghdad during 2006, the army had begun to utilize MPs in what had become known as “the year of the police.” A year of training continuity that was to be rigorous and detrimental to the development of Iraq’s brittle security forces. Routinely, we were tasked to train, support, and often supply local Iraqi police. Assisting them in whatever endeavors our higher-ups could concoct.

We were assigned several Iraqi police stations that were to be our designated “patrol zones” for the forthcoming year. During the beginning, we constantly and consistently strived to remain “Ever Vigilant,” remembering this motto from an excerpt of a speech our battalion commander had given during our pre-deployment ceremony. We were continuously alert, prepared and ready each time an ambush or an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) would ensue. But, as the deployment traipsed forward and the attacks began to increase, our motivation and morale became stagnant. We allowed ourselves to become complacent.

I recall actually thinking that it was nearly time to return to the FOB (Forward Operating Base) and remember looking forward to some downtime and maybe the possibility that I would get to call my daughter that evening. I hadn’t spoken with her in several days and had developed a severe pining just to hear her laugh. Contact with family at this point was sparse at best. It was the witching hour, as the guys in my squad liked to call it, the hour just before sunset when insurgent activity tended to spike. We had been dispatched on a routine call for body patrol, receiving a call to assist the Iraqi police in picking up a dead “haji” (our nickname for locals) that had been found in an area we called “Death Square.”

The area was well known not only to our squad, but throughout the entire battalion. Our squad had been hit with IEDs five times there alone in the last month. It was a quarter mile by quarter mile square block that held an abandoned TV station in the middle of an open field, and was surrounded by “mahallas,” the Iraqi word and our nickname for Baghdad neighborhoods. We knew it was bad news. Everyone was somber, our moods instantly changing. We entered the northeast side of the square and began to defensively position our trucks for egress in the chance that we would have to move to cover. The standard military police TTPs (Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures) that had been drilled into our brains since basic training were to dismount our up-armored hum-vees and conduct a 25-meter walking perimeter check around the vehicle after the gunner had stood up in his turret and conducted his 5-meter check for potential threats.

Before exiting the vehicle, I recalled an intelligence report from another patrol that morning that had suggested that the enemy was possibly rigging mopeds with IEDs, essentially turning them into vehicular improvised explosive devices, or what we refer to as VBIEDs. My gunner called the all-clear to exit the vehicle and I reached for the handle, shoving my shoulder into the five-hundred pound door. I stepped out, and almost into, what looked to be a crater from a former IED blast. I could see the Iraqi police and what appeared to be a dead, three hundred pound Iraqi, half rotted and bloating in three days of Iraqi sun right beside to them. My heart pounded as my first boot hit the sandy asphalt. Something wasn’t right.

My grasp tightened around the pistol grip on my rifle. I could see my friend, who also happened to be my roommate, begin to walk toward the IPs with my Platoon Sergeant. “At least someone’s going to help ‘em move the bastard,” I remember saying out loud. Sweat began to bead on my brow. It hadn’t been an exceptionally hot day, for Iraq at any rate. It was mid-October. Football season back home. My heartrate increased with each step I took away from the vehicle, away from safety. I knew something was about to happen. I hadn’t felt this way since my first mission outside the wire in 2004 when a sewage and waste truck we were escorting took an RPG to the driver’s cab.

My eyes darted back and forth, sweeping the ground, trying to cover every inch, every nook and cranny, anything that might seem out of place. I didn’t want to miss a thing. I knew it meant the difference between life and death. I had started to feel a little a more comfortable toward the end of my sweep. Just a couple more steps and I could return to my vehicle. Then I saw it. A ratted, old, rusty moped parked on the curb. My heart leapt. All that I could think of was that intel report. Sweat began to drip into my eyes; my hand gripped my weapon so hard it began to shake. I crept forward, looking for possible wires or anything resembling an explosive. I stepped onward, parallel with the moped. Nothing. I leaned a little closer, still nothing to be seen. An instant sigh of relief escaped my throat, the words “All Clear,” began to form on my lips. Then it hit. One of the loudest noises I still can ever recall hearing. My ears began to ring before I could even register what had created the noise. Imagine your head in Neil Pert’s kick drum at a Rush concert. Now imagine it louder. A white flash seemingly blinded my vision followed by an instant blast of heat. It felt as if I had put my face in an oven. I could smell my own hair burning as I looked up. A second enormous ball of flames was headed directly toward me. Usain Bolt would have been proud of how fast I turned and high-tailed away from what looked to be the sun being hurled in my direction. As I ran I could see my hum-vee in front of me, no more than twenty meters, yet it felt as if I had been running for an eternity. Each step felt as if my boots were filled with cement. It all felt surreal.

Everything moved in slow motion. As I ran, I began to feel debris strike me in the back of the helmet, my arms, legs and body armor. Ignoring it, I ran faster. As I reached the hum-vee, I instantly took cover behind it, meeting my truck commander almost simultaneously. His training had told him the same thing. Get to Cover. I instantly remembered the debris that had struck me from behind. “Pleeease don’t be shrapnel,” I remember thinking as I began to check myself for possible injuries. “No pain, no pain.” I uttered hurriedly.

I patted the back of my legs and brought my hands up to my face to make sure there was no blood, but as I brought them to eye level, my worst fears were confirmed.

They were enveloped in blood. My entire back was covered in it. “But I’m not in pain!” I recall thinking. And then I realized it wasn’t my blood.

Intel reports later informed us that the body had been lying on top of a one-five-five millimeter mortar round that had been placed by insurgents. But at that exact moment, I had completely forgotten about the haji body. I was convinced that it was my friend’s blood. I turned and ran again, this time in the direction of the blast. Adrenalin coursed through my veins and I matched each stride with a guttural growl, forcing my body to move faster. I hadn’t yet reached his vehicle when I saw him. His body had been thrown from the blast and beneath the hum-vee, leaving only his head and arms exposed in a pool of his own blood. I yelled his name. Nothing. “Gleeenn!” I screamed again.

Nothing. I quickly began to pull on his arms, praying for him to wake up. I could see other members of the squad running toward me in the distance with a stretcher. Every ounce of combat lifesaver training I had ever received raced through my mind. In training, they had taught us to methodically check a casualty step by step, ensuring that you missed nothing. There wasn’t time for that. There was so much blood. I had to find the source, if I wasted even a fraction of a second I knew he was going to bleed out.

I began to pat his legs, slowly pulling harder to remove him from beneath the vehicle. And then I found it, a gaping hole, in his left thigh. I immediately began to apply pressure with one hand, while fishing with the other through the small medical pack on my body armor, looking frantically for a tourniquet. “Come on man, come on!” I yelled as I threw everything out on to the ground. Another squad-mate began to apply pressure, freeing my hand, allowing for me to find and unwrap the tourniquet. I wrapped the tourniquet as tightly as I could and began to twist the windlass trying to cut off circulation. With each twist his leg began to shake, then slowly, the bleeding subsided. He started moaning in pain. “He’s okay! He’s making noise!” I screamed. I remember letting out the longest sigh of my life. All that I could do was grin as the Quick Reaction Force turned the corner in our direction to pick him up and take him to the Green Zone hospital. He was going to be fine.

Glen and I remain close friends to this day. He is out of the army and is currently a postman in a small town near the New Jersey shore. Although the awards we received from the events of that day will be placed in a box one day and put away in the attic, I know that whenever I look at them, it will remind me of why I fought. It will remind me of why I am thankful.


Paul Maxwell