To Live and Almost Die
By Robert Gonzales Jr, Army
Writing Type: Prose
To live and almost die in the desert. What a life that would have been: stuck where I didn’t want to be and almost escorted out by the grim reaper. Come, let me share a day in the life.
My brush with death came in the winter of 1991. I was in Iraq as part of Operation Desert Storm. My unit’s mission was combat support. We were combat engineers, bridge specialists by designation. At least that’s what we were trained for; however, this particular mission we were tasked out as combat engineers (land mine warfare). SNAFU!
I can remember the morning we headed out for the airfield we were assigned to destroy. It was chilly out and smelled like sand and diesel fuel. That’s all there was in the Iraqi desert at that time, sand that stretched for miles and military convoys from various nations, all running on diesel fuel.
We headed out, in what direction I’m not sure. East, west, north, south - it all looks and feels the same in the desert. I was the lieutenant’s driver, so you’d think I would know which way we were headed. I’m sure I did at the time, but I just can’t recall at this moment. Anyway, once we arrived at the airfield there were Blackhawks everywhere. They were lost, so this halted our mission for about an hour.
Once the helicopters had left, we set about our business: to blow up, break, smash, crush, or set on fire anything that could be used again by the Iraqis. First, we went around breaking windows and slashing tires on vehicles. Second, we set out placing demolition on all the buildings and satellite dishes. I remember having so much fun and thinking: Now, this is the Army! This is a man’s job; and here I am, barely a year out of high school. Oh, yes- this is the life! It didn’t take us long to make short work out of the poorly constructed buildings and the already-immobile vehicles. It was time to move on to the piece de resistance, tanks and other vehicles, full of fuel and their armament. We’re talking big booms.
Heading back towards the perimeter of the airfield where the “big guns” were dug in, we came across, oh momma, the jackpot, a T-72 tank. We had been told that there weren’t any at this airfield. I was so excited I began to quiver like a newborn doe.
For this behemoth we set aside our sticks of TNT and our blocks of C-4. We were going to use our M51 anti-tank land mines to send this monster back to the factory in Russia. Now there’s a formula you’re supposed to use in demolition: something like P =pounds. Not in our case: P = plenty. We put two M51 mines under this thing; each mine carried 50 pounds of high explosives. Not only did these mines render the tank unmovable, they flipped it and set the solid metal hull on fire. It was actually dripping metal. Talk about overkill.
We moved on, this time to troop transport trucks. It was me and a good friend of mine, Dino, who got the pleasure of destroying these trucks. Now you would think, that after what we saw two M51 anti-tank mines do to a 60 ton T-72 tank, we would not be stupid enough to choose as our tools of destruction, two M51 anti-tank mines. Well, we were. Dino and I grabbed our mines, two each, and went to the trucks. These trucks only weighed about fours tons each.
Upon reaching the trucks we both dropped, winded from carrying the mines down range. Once we had caught our breath, we surveyed the immediate area for a place to take cover once we had set our mines. Having found what we thought would be suitable cover, we set about our task. I placed my two mines under the front and rear differentials and was ready to disco. I just had to get the thumbs up from Dino, letting me know that he was ready. I got the go.
We counted to three and ran like hell. We had set our charges with three minute time fuses. It was more than enough time to run the 100 or so meters to the safety of the berm. Time seemed to go on forever. Then out of nowhere, BOOM! The mines went off like the sound of a thousand stampeding elephants, all trumpeting as they ran, causing the ground to shake.
Next thing I knew there were truck parts landing all around us. I started to panic. It wasn’t until a second later that the bed to one of the trucks landed about five feet off to my left. That set me off. I started screaming, “We didn’t get far enough away; we didn’t get far enough away!” In a frenzy, I tried to bury myself in the sand.
Throughout the entire 20 to 30 seconds, which seemed never to end, I continued to scream like a banshee. Dino jumped on top of me and started punching me in the side yelling, “I know! I know! Shut up!” I’m going out on a limb here and guessing that Dino was not too thrilled with the situation, either.
Once it was all clear we got up and started walking back to where the rest of the platoon was. It wasn’t until we got close to the guys and they started laughing that I realized that I had wet my pants. It took a long time to live that one down.
Now that we were safely out of harm’s way, something hit me. My life had not flashed before my eyes, like they say it does when you have a near-death experience. The only things I can recall are the screaming, trying to bury myself in, and Dino hitting me. It wasn’t until afterward, that I began to think about all the things I had not done in my life. It wasn’t until that point that I started dreaming and hoping for a better way of life. It wasn’t until just a few month’s ago this year that I began to chase those dreams, because the day after that truck bed almost landed on me, I got up and set out to boogie with the reaper!