Chapter 1: The Highway of Death

“Death is the wish of some, the relief of many, and the end of all.”

– Seneca

    The midnight hour was filled with the movement of troops and the smell of diesel.  It was LA traffic at rush hour, except the only Mercedes were the semi-tankers the military borrowed from Kuwait.  From my vantage point in the back of my 7-ton troop carrier, I could see for miles across the open desert.  We were speeding north on a six lane highway towards the border of Iraq.   No one was driving south, but all three northbound lanes were bumper to bumper.  All of our waiting was over, and war was in the air.

     Military vehicles use blackout lights at night for concealment, and in the dark these lights look like little white dots.  Every road leading to the highway had a line of these dots, and each set of dots represented a single vehicle. For hours on end, we passed road after road with nothing but endless trails of dots stretched out to the horizon.  As far as the eye could see the landscape was filled with military vehicles packed to the hilt with troops, supplies, and weapons.  As the tires rolled against the asphalt and the wind blew on my face, I felt an overwhelming sense of awe at the sheer size of the coalition forces.  I had flashbacks to high school football games where victory appeared inevitable, and now I know how the Germans must have felt hours before a blitzkrieg.

     I looked around me to take stock of everything I saw.  There were M-970 semi-trailer refueling trucks.  HEMTTs pulled bulldozers and forklifts, while LVS transported supplies in conex boxes.  I saw Hummers with roof mounted fifty cals and 5-tons with water buffalo trailers.   I even saw a column of Bradley tanks bobbing over the dunes a few meters away.  There were vehicles I had never seen before and vehicles of different colors.  Most were olive drab but some were woodland camo.  Others were tan, which matched the desert, but all had a chevron painted on the side.  Flying low across the desert sands I saw squadrons of attack helicopters and high above formations of F-18s roared.  We were riding a tsunami of mechanized weapons and the inertia felt unstoppable.

     I looked at my gear.  I wore desert camouflage fatigues which matched my kevlar and a woodland camo flak vest which covered my chest.  I carried an M16A2 service rifle with 200 rounds of ammo, and my gas mask was strapped to my leg.  In my pack, dangling from the side of our 7-ton, there were 2 MREs and a MOPP chemical suit along with everything I needed to survive.  Our vehicle was occupied by twenty marines carrying M16’s and a SAW gunner with 600 chain-linked rounds.  Another marine carried a box of 7.62 mm ammo for the M240 Gulf, and on the ground was a shoulder launched rocket.  None of us had been to war before, but we all carried that old Marine Corps spirit and a feeling of devotion for each other.

       In the moonlit night I caught a glimpse of something that reminded me where I was.  Highway 80 was infamously known as the Highway of Death, a nickname carried over from Desert Storm.  On that road a decade before, thousands of Iraqi vehicles fleeing from Kuwait were boxed in by US forces.  With nowhere but the desert to flee, the Iraqis were sitting ducks.  Hundreds if not thousands of them were slaughtered.  A hundred meters from the road and mostly forgotten, were the rusted carcasses of bombed out vehicles.  They were the ghosts of another war, half buried in the sand and barely visible in the moonlight.  As we passed the old decaying remains, I was reminded that the angel of death drew closer.

     I never thought I was going to die before Iraq.  I had a few close calls while growing up, like the time I narrowly missed being hit by a car or the time I fell off my bike.  I survived two minor car accidents, and although they were scary I didn’t think I was going to die.  I can even remember tumbling underwater in the ocean and gasping for air, as a wave came crashing over my body.   I emerged from the sea and felt victorious, then went back in for more.

     At four years old I met death for the first time when my great grandmother died.  On the car drive to the funeral I made myself cry so everyone would think I was sad.  I wanted to be sad but I wasn’t.  Death felt surreal and abstract, and some sleepless nights I would stare at the dark shadows on the ceiling and think about what it meant to be dead.  One night as my mother put me to bed I told her, “I don’t want to die.”  

     My mother was a good Christian woman, and to put my mind at ease she told me the story of Jesus and how I could live forever.  At the end of the story we said a little prayer and asked Jesus to save me from my sins. Even after my faith began to fade though, my fear of death never returned.  Death was always there, lurking on the street corner at night or riding on the motorcycle that flew by.  I saw him in the news and heard him in the ambulance’s wail, and I could sense his tender touch as the autumn leaves began to fall.  I had spent the night driving down the Highway of Death, and in a few short hours I would meet him once again, only this time I would look him in the eyes.

     Yelling outside my hooch woke me in the morning after an hour or two of sleep. “GAS, GAS, GAS!!!” was yelled, and I grabbed my gas mask to slip it on.  I was nervous and fumbled with my MOPP suit, and my hooch mate was already out the door as I slipped on my last rubber boot.  I sprinted to the scud bunkers in MOPP level 4 with my overgarment, gloves, rubber boots and gas mask on.  The bunkers were trenches dug four feet deep by an excavator.  The trenches weren’t real bunkers, and only gave us the illusion of safety, but they were all we had.  Marines trickled in behind me and the First Sergeant stood on top of a crate just outside the trenches.   

     “At 5:00 am this morning,” the First Sergeant said “Cruise missiles were launched at Saddam and his entourage. We just received a message of ‘Gas, Gas, Gas’ over the radio, so stand by until we receive an all clear before you take your masks off.”

     In the bunker we listened to the BBC report about the attacks on a shortwave radio and waited.  The minutes dragged on for hours and I could feel the straps digging into the back of my head.  The sharp annoying pain felt like torture and I couldn’t adjust the straps without taking off the hood of my chemical suit.  I moved my head from side to side, trying to ease the pain, but I was careful not to break the seal between my face and the mask.  In the desert sun, the black rubber gloves began to heat up and my body began to sweat.  My forehead burned as the mask began to bake, and I felt like I was trapped inside my suit.  My field of vision was limited and claustrophobia set in.  

     The all clear came fifteen minutes later, and not a moment too soon.  We all thought the same thing at once.  If there was a real gas attack, there was no way we would ever survive.  Another drill came an hour later when the sun was even warmer, and I dreaded the thought of how many drills were still to come.  During the second drill, a reporter from the West Coast Examiner lost her mind.  She started to moan softly over and over again, “I’m going to die, I’m going to die, I’m going to die…” As she ripped her mask off, two marines pulled her from the trench and dragged her through the dirt, kicking and screaming, to the Command Post (CP) tent to calm her down.  No one spoke for a while, but then there was a laugh, and then another.  We all felt like laughing because no one knew the proper way to react.  A few minutes later the First Sergeant told us we could stay at MOPP level 2 with our gloves and mask off, and our fear began to subside.  

     The BBC announced that scuds had been launched towards Kuwait but none of us had seen one yet.  The only reported deaths I remember from the first gulf war were people who died from scud attacks. I remember watching the news as a child and seeing a video with air raid sirens and a barracks building on fire after being hit by a scud. One night soon after, I dreamt I was inside that same building, and couldn’t get my boots on fast enough as the air raid sirens wailed.  Before I had time to get out, the building blew up and I woke up from the dream. In the months following that dream, every time I tied my shoes I imagined myself back inside that building.

     The third drill came just before sunset.  The reporter stood next to me again, but this time she was calm and the mood was mellow. Some marines were packing gear for the Executive Officer and weren’t even in the bunkers.  The drill seemed like a formality and we joked and laughed like nothing was wrong.  Anderson was telling everyone a story and I turned around to listen. Mid-sentence he stopped though to look into the sky. With a weird look on his face he said, “What’s that?” 

     As I turned my head around I saw an object quickly rising in the sky and it looked like a missile with a red flame behind it.  Maybe it was the flame or maybe it was the afternoon sun reflecting off the exhaust cloud, but either way I remember the color was red.  We all watched it rise high into the sky until it reached its final height. 

     No one said anything at first and the First Sergeant was the first to break the silence. “Will you look at that,” he said, and then he paused for a few seconds.  He kept his eyes on the missile the whole time, and without turning around to address the company he said to us all, “You might want to get down now.”  

     As those words left his mouth, time began to slow, and madness ensued all around me. It was exactly how I imagined it. I stood there motionless as the others got down and watched for what seemed like hours but were really only seconds.  The marines outside the bunker seemed to be in slow motion as they came flying in from all directions knocking the marines inside to the ground.  The reporter next to me went down hard and was pinned against the ground. She moaned again, but this time no one stopped to help her. The missile looked as though it was aimed right at us, and not just our camp but me.

     Everything slowed to a snail’s pace around me, until a bright flash shot its way across the blue backdrop like a shooting star.  In an instant two more flashes from different points along the horizon traversed the sky and converged at one point. I had never seen a patriot missile before that day, but when I saw the flashes, I knew that’s what they were.  As quickly as they appeared they vanished, and so did the scud.

     When people are close to death they sometimes experience strange or magical things.  As I stood there motionless and time slowed down, my memory faded between what was probably real and what must have been imagined.  All the fear and madness around me only momentarily distracted my gaze from the missile in the sky.  My imagination took me into some dream-like parallel universe in that moment as I watched the missile slowly descend from the heavens above. It got larger and closer each millisecond while everything around me was frozen.  

     There is this woman in an episode of the Twilight Zone who has the ability to freeze time.  She thinks it’s a blessing at first because she finally finds the peace and quiet she desperately wants with everyone around her frozen.  She stops the clock one last time though, right as nuclear war begins.  As she walks the frozen streets, she sees a missile hovering in the sky just above the movie marquee for Failsafe and Dr. Strangelove. My imagination must have recalled that image as I stood there and watched the missile descend frame by frame and hit the ground only meters away. Shockwaves and a ball of fire emanated from its collision point and consumed me.  I didn’t duck because I knew I was going to die, and I yearned for time to slow even further so I could experience every last detail of the moment.  The feeling of awe resonated through my soul on that hot dusty afternoon as the monstrous hand of death hung above my head.  

     The fog of war clouds the mind with doubt and when you choose to remember certain things from that haze, it can feel more psychotic then trying to forget them.  When I think of that day in which the scales of fate weighed in on my life and I waited patiently for the time of my demise, I remember seeing the face of death in all its overwhelming beauty.  I’ll never forget it, nor do I want to. When I recognize it now and I know that death is near, my heart will beat a little faster and my eyes begin to shine.