It was dark and relatively quiet. The truck commander and gunner were babbling on about something for the strict purpose of staying awake I would imagine. The rumble of the HMMWV’s engine hummed faintly through the sound dampening headset I wore under my helmet that connected me to the vehicle intercom and the troop and squadron radios that were mounted between myself and the TC. It was early morning around one or two o’clock and we were rolling in “blackout”. That meant all our lights were off and our vehicles were lit only by infrared blackout markers which would not give a bright light signature. We could see each other because, per protocol, we were all wearing night vision goggles or NODs. NODs pick up the IR light of the blackout markers as clearly as the naked eye picks up a high-lumen flashlight.
We were in the city of Mosul in northern Iraq. The smell of excrement and the blood of slaughtered animals drying in the gutters was rich in the air. We were doing a routine presence patrol in our sector, one border of which was the Tigris River. River Road was the eastern border of our sector. Heading north it ended at the intersection with Route Nissan. A right turn would take us across Old Bridge to another sector but a left kept us in our sector. Route Nissan was also called Market Street because when curfew wasn’t in effect it was a very popular market area. As such it was lined with the steel roll up doors that cover shop faces throughout Europe and the occasional fruit cart dotted the sidewalk. I was on an unfamiliar truck with an unfamiliar crew in an unusual role. I was driving the lead vehicle because the regular driver from the crew was on radio watch at the JSS on FOB Marez. This was our link to local military activity and as such it was always manned by an American soldier and an interpreter. They listened to troop movement and if local assistance was needed they would dispatch from the Iraqi station. It was cold and I was tired and having no one in front of me, I had been less than mindful of my speed on more than one occasion that night.
As we got to the end of River Road I made my left turn and gave the truck a little throttle. Our patrol pace was a crawl, but I have a heavy foot. A moment later I was a good way up the first block and I just happened to glance at my rear view mirror. The second truck was just rounding the corner and I was way too far ahead. Before the TC could tell me to slow down I pulled my foot off the pedal to allow the convoy to catch up. The weight of the truck was enough that I didn’t need to touch the brake pedal, it slowed almost to a stop on its own. The moment the truck lost its momentum there was a flash and the phosphorescent trail of an RPG erupted in the air in front of me. It went from behind a fruit cart to my two o’clock, just inches above the coil of concertina wire on my hood, inches away from my windshield and the mirror I had just glanced in. The projectile that was intended for the four-inch-thick glass that separated me from the outside world impacted against the building just a few feet from my door and exploded, showering our truck in brick and concrete.
The gunner, who had been talking about his relationship with some girl back home became a bumbling mess of straps and equipment. In his attempt to get on his feet from the strap that gunners use as a seat he managed to kick the knob on the radio control box, bumping us off our troop channel. I was shouting at him the direction of the shooter, but he was having trouble orienting himself. The gunman and his assistant/loader must have realized they missed because as I was yelling where they were they slipped away down an alley. The gunner finally got himself together and fired two rounds down the alley after them with his M4. Why he didn’t just spin the turret and engage with his 240B machine gun I will never understand. By this time the TC had figured out we had no communication with our patrol because the radio had been switched. He clicked the knob back and the radio exploded with chatter in my ear. The patrol thought we’d been in contact with an IED. We finally got on the net and informed them what had actually happened.
Two blocks later we passed the Iraqi Police checkpoint. After that, everything changed. In the moment my trained responses kicked in and everything was controlled. Once the situation was over and clear and I gained a little perspective it clicked in my brain what had happened. That had been my first real brush with death. Had I done one thing in the 10 seconds before the shooter pulled the trigger on his RPG launcher any different than I had, there is a good chance I would not be writing this right now. I had been his target. I had no idea who he was, he didn’t know me. He knew, however, if he had killed or disabled me the entire convoy would be open for ambush. Fortunately my incredible combat luck came through and his operation, whatever it may have been, was scrapped. He and his rocket loader ran and, due to the uncoordinated nature of the gunner, they got away. My life and my perspective hasn’t been the same since.