Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

A Few Unforeseen Things

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

A Few Unforeseen Things

Article excerpt

The suicide bombing of a chow hall in Iraq forever scarred the lives of the victims' families and friends. BY Elliott Woods

On an otherwise typical, sun-parched afternoon at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Marez in Mosul, Iraq, four days before Christmas 2004, someone walked unnoticed into the chow hall and blew himself up near the sandwich bar. The blast ripped a hole through the roof forty feet overhead and tore apart fifteen US soldiers and seven civilian contractors-along with the bomber.

No one knows for sure how he gained access to the chow hall or how he delivered his lethal payload, but among the soldiers, shock has mixed with standard-issue paranoia to produce a host of conspiracy theories. Some credit the attack to a faceless mess worker with jihadi sympathies, perhaps a Tamil Tiger in hiding. He could have planted the bomb in the cabinets below the sandwich bar, and then used a remote detonator. He could have saved his own skin. Another theory attributes the explosion to a surface-to-ground missile launched with precision target-acquisition equipment from somewhere along the jagged line of beige rooftops deep in the heart of Mosul. After all, the complete layout of the base, including the location of the chow hall complex and its GPS coordinates-slightly skewed per US military security requests-was freely available to local mujahideen via Google Earth.

The official story, however, blames Ahmed Said Ahmed al-Ghamdi, a twenty-year-old medical student, who had grown up in Sudan, where his father was a Saudi diplomat. He could have entered the base through one of the many holes in the miles-long, barely protected perimeter, then sneaked into the chow hall with a stolen Iraqi Civil Defense Corps uniform and ID card. He would have been surprised, perhaps even worried, by how easy it was. Then he would have sized up the scene before him (soldiers and Iraqis dining together in clusters throughout the football fieldsize cafeteria), planted his feet in the spot with the densest mass of people, and closed his eyes. He would have detonated a suicide vest laden with several pounds of C-4 or Composition B and pounds more of ball bearings, and he would have vanished instantly into a fine red mist.

I was in the middle of checking my e-mail at a FOB internet facility, thirty miles south of Mosul, when the lines suddenly went dead. Ten months into my tour, I was waiting out redeployment at a boring oasis called Q-West. While Third Platoon spent their days running around the city with infantry units from the spanking new Stryker Brigades, most of Charlie Company-including my platoon-was stuck biding time at "Key West"-as it was euphemistically known. "Commo blackout," the administrator announced from the doorway. That's when I knew: someone in my brigade had been killed-they always suspend communication for a couple of days to give the Mortuary Affairs people enough time to notify the families before sympathetic e-mails start rolling in.

When I got back to the company area, the squad leaders were herding everyone down to the Tactical Operations Center. It was there the CO told us that two of our friends, two of our "battle buddies," Specialists Nicholas Mason and David Ruhren, were dead. Others were badly injured, no telling how many yet; he'd let us know. The CO had tears in his eyes. Somehow he'd managed to make it this far into our tour without a major casualty, and then, as we were preparing to turn our gear and our mission over to our replacements, the worst occurred. He didn't offer a speech or any consolation. There wasn't anything to say. Ruhren and Mason didn't die gloriously. They weren't holding their positions to the end or rushing in under fire to pull out wounded comrades. They were making sandwiches. Nick Mason, his friends remember, was piling the salami high and stuffing his pockets. And, as he turned for the door, you can bet he was smiling.

WE HAD ARRIVED TOGETHER months earlier, stepping off the C-13O into the chilly March air of the Tigris basin, greeted by Mosul's sulfuric stench. …

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