• Omar Rutledge

Looks Can Be Deceiving

Updated: Jul 27, 2019

For this week's throw-back, I'm going to take us to Iraq, 2003. After reading over it a few times, I realized I used quite a few acronyms from the Army. I'll try to explain their full descriptions after their initial use.

We received a call from the rear gate guards. They said one of our Iraqi allies had brought a bomb to the gate and was freaking out saying Al Qaeda was after him. I looked at my counterpart, the S-3 RTO (Operations Radio Telephone Operator), and smiled. This was going to be an interesting night. Working the night shift at the battalion headquarters and manning the S-2 (Intelligence) desk could be exciting in some way or another, but at least at that time, more nights were quiet than not. This certainly sounded like a serious situation. The Battle Captain told the gate guards to escort the Iraqi to the Headquarters building, they acknowledged, and then the war room broke into chaos. Officers and NCOs were trying to figure out what to do while I just sat back and watched. This was definitely above my pay grade.

In observing the situation, I realized I was pretty lucky as an E-4 infantryman to be sitting in that room. Just a few months prior I had been going out on patrol several times a day as well as participating in special missions and raids. It wasn't long after we took over the country that terrorists started moving into Baghdad, and they were pretty smart. They'd try an attack, we'd figure how to defend against it, then they would figure out a way to get around our defenses. It was nearly a game of cat and mouse, except this kind of "game over" was absolutely final. Every time I left our FOB (forward operating base) I wondered if it would be the last time.

I started the invasion in March 2003 as a dismount machine gunner (M240-B) in a mechanized infantry company (C 2/6 IN), but because of a back injury, they moved me to be a driver. I enjoyed that move since I could tinker with things more than just my weapon, but it also amped up my anxiety because IEDs (improvised explosive devices) usually detonated on the roads. I could never tell if that dead dog on the side of the road was just a dead dog, or one stuffed with a massive amount of explosives. The last thing I wanted to do was to drive over one and keep one of the guys in the back from returning home. One day my first sergeant called me into his office and said that our battalion S-2 needed a driver and they preferred someone with a brain. I laughed when I heard that, but it sounded like a pretty neat opportunity. I didn't necessarily want to leave my platoon to move up to battalion, but I also wanted a change of pace. This situation was definitely different.

Some soldiers brought our Iraqi friend to one of our meeting rooms in Headquarters while we took a look at the explosives in the war room. It was a sandbag with an 88mm mortar shell inside packed with PE-4, a sandy, crappier version of C-4. There was a washing machine timer connected to some batteries and blasting caps that were supposed to act as the trigger. Very primitive technology, but I'll give it to them, it would be effective if used. As the story unfolded, it sounded much more challenging than I had originally thought. Apparently a few of the Iraqis that had been helping us were identified in their neighborhood, and two of them happened to know each other. One was approached by masked gunmen and told that they knew he was working with the Americans, but they also knew this other guy was too. The gunmen threatened our guy by saying that if he didn't place the bomb in the house of the other guy, these terrorists would kill our guy's family in front of him before killing him for working with us, the infidels. This was not good. Worse off, our hands were tied with regard to protecting him. We can't just take in everyone who needs protection, which is a horrible way to treat those willing to risk everything for us. These guys had indeed risked it all, and we had to figure out a way to protect them and their families quickly.

For some reason I felt compelled to speak up. The Operations Officer, Major Jones, walked by my desk and I made a suggestion. "Sir, we don't have much time, likely a day. We just need to buy some time to figure out what to do. Perhaps we can make a fake bomb and put it out there, and then we can pretend like we just happened to come across it. We can "disarm" it. It's a total show, but it's believable and it may just allow us enough time to find somewhere safe for these guys and their families." "Rutledge, I like it. Make it happen." Wait, what? Me make it happen? I just thought it was a crazy idea, but I didn't think anyone would want to try it. "Ok. Yes, sir."

I started looking around the TOC (tactical operations command) looking for items that could look like the real bomb materials in the sandbag. A couple of old radio batteries taped together had about the same weight and dimensions of the washing machine timer. Telephone wire instead of det. cord. A couple of Bic pens cut in half to act as the blasting caps. We could still use the real mortar round since PE-4 doesn't detonate on contact; it requires a trigger. Within an hour, we had given the sandbag with the "modified" device back to our Iraqi ally and told him we'd be over after sunrise.

Usually my shift would end after briefing the commanders on the important events in the country over the last 12 hours, but no one really got any sleep that night, so I didn't mind staying up either. Major Jones asked if I'd be willing to act like EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) and go out on the morning mission. I thought, "Hell yeah, I'll make it a real show." I always wanted to be EOD, now I had my chance, even if it was a total sham. We rolled out with a platoon of tanks and humvees. The Iraqi sun was just coming up, so it hadn't reached the insane temperatures of the midday yet. It was certainly beautiful watching the sun rise through the leaves of the palm trees on the horizon. This place could be so much more.

We pulled up to the neighborhood and our tanks made a perimeter around the block. We drove up closer in the Humvees and I could see we already had a crowd. Just across the alley from our house with the bomb in the yard was a school, and over the mud brick wall were scores of children peering over to see what we were doing. It seemed like everyone in the neighborhood was out watching us. We cleared out the area and the platoon sergeant signaled to me and said, "You're on." Alright, here we go.

I walked around the Humvee and located the sandbag. It was in the middle of the front yard of this house. Of course, the yard was nothing but sand, but I guess that's what you call the patch of land in front of one's house. I dropped to the ground and started low crawling over to the sandbag. It's not fun low crawling, but in this instance, it was exhilarating. When I finally approached the bag, I looked inside and saw something I wasn't expecting. There were red wires inside of this bag! I never used red wires. Those telephone wires were black. I'm not a real EOD guy. I don't know what I'm doing. WTF!!!

I figured I was probably already dead, so I reached in further to investigate where these red wires were connected. They weren't connected to anything. Later I found out that our guy put them in there to "make it look more realistic". Oh, he achieved his goal. I nearly had a heart attack! Once I could be certain the bomb was not active, I pulled out my Gerber multi-tool and very ostentatiously acted like I was cutting the wires. The crowd was completely silent. I just wanted to be certain that the bomb wasn't going to go off, so I cut every single wire for good measure. Upon completion, I pulled the mortar round out of the sandbag and stood up with it in one hand and the sandbag in the other. The crowd erupted in cheers. Kids, adults, absolutely everyone was jubilant.

We started packing up when the school must have let the kids out. They all swarmed around us. "Mista, mista," they would say. "Bush good, Bush good. Thank you." What a different world back then. We drove away in our small convoy and headed back to the FOB. There was still much work to be done, but at least for that day those families were safe. I would have never thought that through a theater performance in a combat zone, I could help save people's lives. I don't know where those families are now, and I fear that they may no longer be alive, but maybe they had the chance to have at least one more happy experience as a result of our efforts. What can I say? War is hell. I hope they're okay.

Pretty crazy, huh? What do you think about this story? It's a little different, for sure. I'm trying something new. Let me know how you feel in the comments.


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