One vehicle and 100 meters ahead, the blast sounds like a high pitched whine followed by a low roar. It is a sound that I have never heard before and yet is somehow intimately familiar.
Inside the vehicle there is a stunned stillness and I unconsciously count three silent heartbeats before I key the Platoon Mike.
“IED! IED! IED! Give me an ACE Report!”
Surprisingly my voice is calm and belies the sudden flush of adrenaline that has flooded my body.
One by one my vehicles check in.
“White 1 is up!”
“This is White 3! IED! We are up!”
“This is White 4…. This is White 4…. We have been hit by an IED… I think we are okay.”
I can tell that White 4 is still a little shaken.
Above me, the machine gun begins to rock with a guttural roar, its 7.62mm rounds ripping thru a partially flooded field to the North, and tearing into a haystack.
Part of me records the comical scene of a herd of cows scattering at the shattering noise and site of bright red tracer fire tearing thru the field.
Thru a dusty windshield, I have a clear view of the lead vehicle opening up with its heavy .50 Caliber Machine Gun. The five inch shells tear out of the weapon with a series of low coughs that blend into a blur of sound and impact high up on the dirt berm bordering the road to the south. The berm appears to explode outward as the dense rounds impact and slice a line of steel into the dirt, a veritable explosion of dust and earth running from east to west.
“Alright stop in place! Anyone see the trigger man!?”
The HMMWVs come to a screeching halt and the smell of smoke and rubber filters in thru the air conditioner.
In response to my question, adrenaline pumped voices flood the net.
“Negative, no trigger man!”
Turning in my seat, I can see that the gunner in the trail vehicle, White 4, is firing his machine gun straight down the road.
“Sir! Our Gunner said that he saw someone jump up from the berm after the blast and get into a car! It has taken off west! He thinks the guy is wearing green pants!”
White 4 is engaging a vehicle down the road that is too far away for me to see.
Switching over to Battalion net, I send up a contact report.
“Thunder Oscar this is Warrior 2/6. We have just been hit by an IED! Grid Coordinates as follows: MR 3456 8235. No damage, no casualties. How Copy!?”
“That’s a good copy Warrior 2/6. Do you require assistance?”
Looking out the windshield I can see the other vehicles in my patrol. They appear intact, and the gunner in White 4 has ceased firing.
Looking up and down the road, there is not a car to be seen on a normally busy stretch of highway just outside of town.
“Negative Thunder Oscar, we do not need the QRF.”
“Roger, Warrior 2/6. No QRF. Be advised, Apaches are on the way, Call-sign Deathstalker 2/3.”
As the Battalion gives me the call-sign, an Apache streaks low over my vehicle, the thunder of its blades almost deafening at this close distance.
The Apache almost immediately calls me over the Battalion net.
“Warrior 2/6 this is Deathstalker 2/3. I have five fighting age males wearing OD green in a field to the North.”
For once, communication with the Apaches is not crystal clear, and I have a hard time hearing what Deathstalker 2/3 is saying.
“Roger Deathstalker 2/3, give me directions to the five males!”
To the north, Deathstalker 2/3 is doing some incredible aerial acrobatics. The sleek Apache flies in a circle so tight that it seems almost to be standing on its side as it maintains a ring around the individuals spotted in a field.
Thru a haze of static, Deathstalker 2/3 gives dense, quick, concise directions.
Adreneline pumping, my driver floors the gas and the six tons of armored vehicle lurches down the road. Shouting I begin relaying directions to my driver as they are fed to me by Deathstalker 2/3.
For a heart-stopping moment, the HMMWV crosses over a deep water filled canal on damaged dirt bridge that does not look wide enough to support the vehicle. A vision of the HMMWV sliding 15 feet into the water filled canal at high speed crosses my mind, and then with a bump we are thru, tearing down a dirt road and into a grassy field.
Across the field I can see five men walking nonchalantly away from the vehicle, not looking at the patrol and not looking at the Apaches circling overhead. I yell at my gunner to stop them, and he starts shouting. “Awgaf! Awgaf!”
The men, still walking, don’t even look up. With a sharp crack, the gunner fires a warning shot into the dirt in front of the men. A fiery red light lances out of his weapon as the tracer round impacts the earth and skips off at an angle, burning thru the sky until it winks out in the distance.
At the sound of the first 5.56 round being fired, all of the men stop and look up.
Opening the door to my HMMWV, I jump out and raise my M4 Carbine. Leaving the door to the HMMWV open and aiming the rifle at the man closest to me, I start shouting, “Awgaf!” and begin advancing thru the broken field, keeping the man in my sights.
I notice that he is, in fact, wearing, green pants and a green sweatshirt.
Vehicles come to a screeching halt in the field, and soldiers are hurtling out of the vehicles, dismounting with their weapons ready.
“Grab those motherfuckers!” My voice is starting to become hoarse from shouting over the roar of the Apaches overheard.
With determined expressions they begin advancing on the men, motioning them over and forcing them to their knees in front of my vehicle.
Taking a deep breath, I lower my weapon and finally get a good look at the men we have captured.
For the most part, they are kids.
Four of them look younger than 15. The fifth, however is an adult. Wearing a flowing white robe and dark leather sandals, he is about 40, with a salt and pepper beard and crows-feet etched into the corners of his eyes.
All five look at me dispassionately. Despite the Apaches and the warning shots, the kids and the man are calm, cool, and collected.
None of them say anything.
Turning to my squad leader, I nod toward the trunk of my vehicle. “Alright, get the X-Spray.”
The squad leader crosses to the vehicle, and returns with a plastic kit filled with contact papers and three different aerosol cans, each containing a different chemical.
One by one the kids raise their right hands and white contact paper is applied to their palms. Spraying the paper with the three cans, the paper is observed to see if there is a chemical reaction.
If the paper turns pink, then the man we swabbed with the paper has handled an explosive in the last few days.
One by one, the contact papers come up negative.
“Alright, do a sweep of the area.”
The soldiers’ criss-cross the field, looking for triggering devices, wires, or signaling equipment.
The search comes up negative.
Finally, I take a step back and look at the men kneeling on the ground. As a body, they gaze at the ground, and I realize the youngest one, kneeling in his blue t-shirt and black shorts, is starting to look upset. He is trembling and his eyes begin to glisten with the beginnings of tears.
With a sinking feeling, I realize that we have no real cause to hold them.
“Alright, take their pictures and let them go.” Despite the suspicious circumstances, despite all the effort, this man… these kids… are not the triggermen.
The triggerman is still out there.
As the patrol remounts their vehicles and heads back thru the dusty field to the main road, I realize with a start that the sun is beginning to set in the west. I look down at my watch.
It has been an hour since the blast.
It feels as if the entire experience took less than five minutes.
Taking a deep breath I close my eyes. The HMMWV lurches beneath me as it re-crosses the shoddy dirt bridge and head back to the scene of the blast.
Finally, I open my eyes and look back to the setting sun.
Time, which had stopped, begins to run again.