Chapter 7: VBIED at the Gates

Posted: December 16, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

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I sat straight up in bed and looked at my watch. It was 6:17 in the morning and my heart was pounding. “What the hell was that?” I thought. It was too loud to be a controlled detonation – and way too early in the morning for anyone to be at the range.

I was staring at my wrist watching the seconds tick by. If this was an attack then the alarm should go off any second…

It couldn’t have been five seconds before I heard the alarm screaming “Initiate Force Protection Condition DELTA….” which meant something bad was happening. I was now fully awake and aware that I was not dreaming. I jumped down from my bunk and started putting on my gear. This was an all too familiar routine, but the feel of adrenaline starting to pump told me that this time it was close.

I ran down to the aid station where we started getting accountability. It was the usual post-alarm chaos…people running around trying to figure out who was missing. The only difference today was that everyone genuinely looked concerned. You could feel the tension in the air. The officers and NCO’s were on the radios trying to figure out what just happened. Pieces of information started trickling in.

Apparently there had been a large explosion at the Entry Control Point – the front gate. At this point no one was exactly sure of the details. Was this an accident? Was it a helicopter crash? Did a fuel tank explode? A lot of different scenarios ran through my head.

Then we started getting some real info. Our base had been attacked by a VBIED: a Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device. Two vehicles loaded with explosives attempted to gain access to the base. The driver of the lead vehicle detonated as he entered the first gate. There were dead and wounded and they were all headed our way.

Not ten minutes after waking up and getting to the aid station did the first vehicles started showing up. The surgical team was quickly overwhelmed with patients as were our two physicians, the nurse, and the PA assigned to our battalion. I was asked to go out front and triage any additional wounded.

Moments later an Afghan Military Toyota truck pulled up in front of the aid station. There were several men in the back of the truck. Those who could walk on their own stumbled out of the truck and surrounded me. They were pointing and yelling at something lying in the bed of the truck. I looked up and that’s when I saw him.

There was an Afghan soldier – a member of the partner unit that helped guard our gate – lying face down on a litter. One of his legs was mangled and mostly amputated. His arms and shirt were up over his head. His leg wound looked like meat from the butcher: pale reddish-gray. I noticed immediately that he was not moving. I quickly jumped up in the bed of the truck to look for a pulse I knew I wouldn’t find. I pulled his hands and shirt down from over his head to gain access to his neck.

I still don’t fully understand what I saw. The best way I can describe it was that his head wasnt where it was supposed to be. There was just a flap of skin: neck and hair. What was left of his face was unrecognizable as human. What remained of his scalp was simply matted hair with blood. There was no bleeding.

Two of our medics ran up to the truck to help me.

“Put him in Expectant…” I yelled, referring to the worst of the four triage categories. I told them to help me carry him to an area we had designated as the collection point for the dead and dying. As we moved the Afghan soldier out of the truck, one of the surgeons came outside and asked where we were taking him. I told the Doc that he was dead. He quickly listened for chest sounds with his stethoscope and then nodded.

We carried his body behind a wall so that the others couldn’t see him. I told his comrades that he was dead. There was nothing we could do. I don’t think they spoke much English, but they understood. The medics placed his remains in a human remains pouch (aka a body bag) and I went back inside.

The whole aid station was chaos. There were wounded Afghan and US Soldiers in every treatment room and in the hallway. Our PA asked if I could sew up a wound on a man’s face. The blast split open his chin and would require several sutures. After gloving up, I anesthetized the area, irrigated the wound, and placed five or six vicryl sutures. Not the ideal suture material to close a facial wound, but the thread is white which was essential in the situation considering the patient’s thick, dark beard.

Later that morning our Company Commander and I drove over to the ECP to survey the damage and check on our soldiers – my dental assistant had been on guard at the gate that morning. We knew very early on that he had not been injured, but we wanted to check on him and see how he was holding up. He had witnessed the entire event.

After checking on my assistant– who was shaken up but otherwise okay– we walked down to the site of the explosion. The force of the explosion threw the engine block of the vehicle over fifty feet into a concrete bunker wall. The driver was essential vaporized. Someone later told me they found a part of his spinal column hundreds of feet from the blast. There was burnt, twisted metal everywhere.

The attack that morning left nine Afghan soldiers dead and about fifteen wounded. Two American soldiers had been wounded, but thankfully none were killed. Had the driver waited a few more moments before detonating his vehicle, many Soldiers –my assistant included– would have been seriously wounded or killed.

After the situation stabilized it was back to life as normal. I decided to close the dental clinic for the morning as my uniform was bloodied and dirty and I was a bit upset. I needed a shower and some time to regain my composure. I wasn’t hungry but my head was screaming for a cup of coffee.

The events of that morning left me bothered for a couple of days. We were less than a month from the end of our deployment and I mistakenly assumed the worst was over. The attack renewed my sense of fear and left me scared, nervous, and ready more than ever to get home safely.

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