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Desolate Roads Part 1 of 2

Desolate Roads

Just before the mission.

FOB Marez,
Mosul, Iraq

The mission was to begin after dark. My gear was ready to go, but during the pre-combat lull, I wanted to make a final adjustment to the “dummy cord” on my night-vision monocular. Soldiers tie important gear and weapons to their bodies: anything not tied eventually falls off, flies off, splashes into a river, or is forgotten somewhere after a few days of sleep deprivation. The dummy cord to my night-vision monocular seemed unsure, and there was enough time, so I walked to the nearest light by some trailers where soldiers from the 2-7 Cavalry rest their heads and dry boots.

I pulled off the helmet and went to work. After settling on a tattered weight bench, Cavalry soldiers who did not recognize me politely challenged with a few direct questions, watching closely for the answers. Apparently I passed, and the soldiers relaxed while my fingers kept fumbling with a new dummy-cord. Just then, a Specialist wearing a uniform and clear ballistic glasses walked up and asked: “Need help with that?”

“Yes,” I answered. “I don’t want to lose this thing.”

“I’m Mike Wooley,” he said, as he set to work with parachute cord and scalpel, saying things like, “ . . . then loop it through this little slot—kind of hard to make it go through there (he pulled out medical tweezers)—so that when this piece gets knocked off, these two parts will stay together and kind of dangle but at least you won’t lose them. Then, to secure this piece, loop this one here, and end that with a bowline, and use a clip, and then clip that to your helmet. Do you have any allergies?”

Do I have any allergies? Anywhere else, that might seem non sequitur.

“You must be a medic,” I said.


“No known allergies. Thanks for asking.” My medical kit is packed with various bandages, tourniquet, and a blood coagulant toxic to people with shellfish allergies. One type of coagulant is poured into a wound to sort of burn the bleeding shut. Combat medics usually are quick to give classes if they sense a question. Mike Wooley didn’t wait for questions before giving last minute medical instructions, along the lines of, “And if you get shot tonight . . . do this. . . . ” Within three to four minutes of meeting me, Wooley had already inventoried my allergies, asked what kind of medical kit I carried, and issued emergency medical instructions. All while squaring away my night-vision gear. The man’s natural talent for multi-tasking no doubt serves him well for triage.

After about ten minutes of simultaneous gear-prep and medical class, I trudged off into the darkness and crawled into the back of a dark humvee, pulled on the ballistic glasses that a soldier had given me after mine were scratched to shreds, and began pulling on my seatbelt because I have learned the importance of humvee seatbelts. I sat quietly with four soldiers I did not know. Nobody said a word.

I practiced buckling and unbuckling the seatbelt, and opening and closing the door. Seems like no two humvee doors are the same, and many are warped and operate poorly. The seatbelts that work have different personalities. Best to know those seatbelts and doors and their personalities before they become the only obstacles between death and life.

A minute later, a face was yelling at me from the dark. Outside the thick humvee window, imploring me to open the door, was the medic, Mike Wooley, bearing a handful of bandages. “Take this,” he said. The humvees were ready to roll but Mike Wooley was still giving classes over the rumble of the engine. “Here’s an Israeli bandage, and here, take these,” Wooley said, handing over two tampons for gunshot wounds. In case I got shot. Twice.

The heavy door clanged shut like a submarine hatch, and we drove into the night, four humvees filled with soldiers. I didn’t know a single soldier in my humvee. I didn’t know anyone’s first or last names, where they were from, where they went to school, how old they were or if they were married.

We drove to link up with some engineers and EODs (explosives experts) next to the helicopter landing zone on the base. As we mustered by the pad in the dark, one of the young engineers saw my camera and began handing out free survival tips. I didn’t catch his name, but he said his brother got blown up somewhere in Iraq recently but survived and returned to duty to keep fighting. Whoever he was, that soldier sure was proud of his brother.

After maybe fifteen minutes, our convoy of engineers and EODs, escorted by the Cavalrymen I’d ridden with, mounted up to head into downtown Mosul. We crept along so slowly that a turtle strapped with a bomb could have killed us, but we had to drive that pace for the engineer vehicles to keep up. The point vehicle of the long convoy would detonate any pressure devices. I was in the point vehicle.

IEDs explode here every day, and over the next five days, this small Cavalry battalion would lose six men killed in action by bombs in the road, and there would be sniper attacks and so on. A Stryker vehicle had just been destroyed that morning, or maybe it was the night before. Time spins in a blender here, and often there is none to spare for checking notes.

On this mission the Iraqi Army was pulling outer security while the American soldiers pulled inner security around the engineers who were patching holes in the road trying to prevent the enemy from planting bombs. We crossed from the west side of Mosul over the Tigris River to the east side. Some minutes later, the humvee I was riding in pulled to the side to park in a garbage dump. The rank stench of Mosul’s refuse filled the truck, and we nearly got stuck, bumping tires spinning in the dark, and a few heavy fish-tails before finally parking.

We sat for maybe forty-five minutes in the hot stink. Although the night was cold, the motor was kept running to power radios and other gear. The smell of sweat and fuel were heated, mixing with the stench of the garbage, and giving me a throbbing headache. I peered out the thick window at my sector at the 2-3 o’clock positions. The night-vision monocular rendered an eerie world in shades of white, black and green. A pack of large dogs came rummaging in the dark. The enemy sometimes kills dogs and other animals, including people, and stuffs bombs into their bodies. I kept peering out the window.

The big news back home was the “Troop Surge,” and the “Iraq Study Group” and the University of Florida football and basketball champions. I’d read where interviewers asked combat soldiers what they thought of the “troop surge” and the soldiers would give answers having no idea what they were talking about, no more an idea than the person asking the question.

But tonight none of that mattered. This was the real war, except nothing was going on. Not on this particular spot at this particular minute. No explosions or gunfire. Peering through the green night-vision, I saw American vehicles driving a few hundred yards away without any lights on.

Another humvee rolled in to pick me up: curbside service in a Mosul dump. I transferred out of the first one, still not knowing the name or hometown or life history of a single soldier because I hadn’t asked. The climate inside that humvee wasn’t exactly conducive to the social graces. Inside the second humvee, I knew only LT Jackson by name, and only because he was leading the patrol. We drove somewhere else in the dark, and they put me out and into the custody of other soldiers from D-company, 2-7 Calvary. General Custer’s old unit.

Mosul, the evening of 14 January 2007. A giant bomb was planted nearby.

Out in the road ahead was Captain Kiser. I knew he’d been shot in the arm recently because his commander, LTC Eric Welsh, had told me so while bragging about his soldiers. Good commanders often will brag into the night about their soldiers, until they see the writer is consciously trying to make his eyes glaze over. But here we were in the dark, and I was standing with the same Captain Kiser that LTC Welsh bragged about, only now Kiser was bragging about his own soldiers and there was no way he’d be able to see the glaze even if I could conjure it up. It was after 9 o’clock on a dark street, very close to where a gigantic bomb planted under the road would soon explode.

Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are getting stronger by the month in Nineveh Province, where Mosul is not just the capital, it’s also the canary in the OIF coal mine. There have been vast ISF improvements since 2005 when I last was in the city, but the security situation remains very dangerous. Nineveh is not a “done deal.” Today, barely more than a single battalion of American soldiers remains in Mosul. By this time next year, Nineveh might be seen as the beacon of hope. On the other hand, if the surge in Baghdad or Anbar goes awry, Mosul and Nineveh could again descend into chaos.

American MP with bomb dog on the evening of 14 January 2007. A pack of wild dogs was skulking quietly around the edge of the darkness, trying to get closer to the bomb dog, and the Army dog clearly wanted to run off into the night and join the pack. While distracted, the canine without a leash impatiently heeled, its legs twitching with pent energy.

The engineers, explosives experts, and military police all searched for bombs, while ISF and 2-7 Cavalry provided security and laid ambushes. Business as usual. In fact, Iraqi Army would soon shoot and kill four men implanting bombs nearby, and each held Iraqi Police credentials, though it remains unclear if they were actual police.

Comanche Company

We are the pride of the Army,
And a regiment of great renown,
Our name’s on the pages of history,
From sixty-six on down.
If you think we stop or falter,
While into the fray we’re goin’
Just watch the step with our heads erect
When our band plays “Garry Owen.”
(Lyric Verse from “Garry Owen”)

Some members of 2-7 CAV just after a mission in Mosul.

Units like the 7th Cavalry embrace inglorious parts of their history as strongly as the glorious, so long as the soldiers fought and died well. General Custer was slaughtered by Sioux Indians and their allies at the Battle of Little Big Horn, yet C-Company of 2-7 embraces Custer as one of its fathers and calls itself Comanche Company. Comanche warriors were not present at Custer’s Last Stand, but they were masters of the horse, and warriors of renown. When CSM Jeffrey Mellinger dropped me off in Mosul on the third of January after a long and dangerous humvee journey from Baghdad, we headed straight into a nighttime mission. Before the mission started, the all-business battalion CSM James Pippin told us about the famous Garry Owen Irish marching song and how Custer’s affection for the song led to its being so closely tied to the 7th Cavalry.

And so that night we drove off into Mosul to link up with some Iraqi soldiers who had just shot and killed a couple of armed men and were transporting their cooling carcasses back to base. Gunfire rippled the air nearby, but I did not see any fighting. The full moon was rising large in the disappearing sunlight, and Saddam was still fresh in his grave, as I rode for the first time with soldiers of the 7th Cavalry.

Someone up ahead had found a bomb so we were stopped on a street bathed in pale gray light when our young humvee gunner became very nervous about a man who was approaching us. The man’s hands were shoved into the pockets of a thick jacket, with sufficient room to conceal a bomb large enough to shatter us all. A friend and I had barely missed such an attack in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan, last April.

Having just departed from the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) there, we were driving in an unarmored vehicle and about to spend hours traversing rugged enemy terrain en route to Camp Bastion. Just after we left the PRT, a man wearing a bomb walked up to an SUV in which civilian contractors were seated. He detonated.

Covering war up close leaves countless such experiences, but the gunner standing above me in Mosul on 3 January 2007 was fresh to war and had never seen anyone blow himself up, and I sat below with only a camera, as the man in the thick jacket slowly approached us.

The gunner screamed at him, shone a light in his face, pointed the machine gun and finally his rifle at the man, who still kept coming toward us. He kept on coming, slowly, smiling, rocking back and forth with his hands in his pockets. He seemed almost blissful despite having a rifle pointed at his chest by the clenched hands of a young soldier who in any language clearly was threatening to kill.

This went on for what seemed liked several minutes. Long enough so that the gunner and everyone in the humvee would be dead if the smiling man pushed a button in his pocket. I practically screamed at the gunner to at least fire a warning shot. Had our places been switched, I would have killed the man several minutes earlier. The smiling man with his hands in his pockets sidled right up next the humvee door. As is my habit when I am about to die, I took a picture.

A suicide attacker whose button did not work? Maybe just a very lucky lunatic.

Then there were two American soldiers pointing rifles at the chest of this smiling man, screaming at him with their fingers on the triggers, when CSM Mellinger radioed back to leave the man alone. Mellinger had seen the man approach from a different angle, and did not see the staring and smiling man as a threat. The man ended up just slowly walking away into the night. The CSM had read him right.

When we headed back to base, we drove over the spot where a 1,500-pound bomb was very likely already hidden; a 1,500-pound bomb big enough to pirouette a tank and skelp thunder across all of Mosul. But it did not explode. Not then.

That was eleven days and a lot of missions ago, and now on this evening of 14 January, under the miserly light of a waning crescent moon, the engineers, the explosives experts, the MP and that dog of his that wanted to run off with the pack, were heading back to base in Mosul. Straight down the road where that giant bomb was buried. Sometimes when I hear the bombs at night, I step out with my night-vision monocular. The mushroom clouds are so hot their billows light a pale green arrow back to the heart of the detonation.

End of Part One

Read Desolate Roads Part 2 now

Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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