- Published: 2 February 2021
- ISBN: 9781529135312
- Imprint: Century
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 416
- RRP: $32.99
Walk in My Combat Boots
True Stories from the Battlefront
PART ONE: A CALL TO DUTY
Mike Levasseur grew up outside Hartford, Connecticut. When he graduated from high school in 1997, he joined the US Army National Guard. He served as a civilian firefighter and paramedic for twenty years alongside his military service. He was deployed eight times, three of which were combat missions. After sustaining multiple injuries, Mike retired at age thirty-eight and went on to earn a master’s degree in emergency management from Georgetown University.
“We’re not going to make it.”
This from Jackson, the squad leader of my platoon. He’s referring to the forty-plus Humvees on the base in Kuwait, which in 2004 is nothing but a big mess of tents in the middle of the desert. The vehicles are all soft-shell. Not a single one has armor on it.
It’s 2:00 a.m. I just stepped off a plane.
Jackson opens his duffel and removes two Gatorade bottles — the big thirty-two-ounce ones. He hands them to me, then looks back down at the bag, thinking.
“Better make it three,” he says, and grabs another one. “Follow me.”
Twenty-four hours ago, I was at Fort Drum, in upstate New York, training with the US Army National Guard and freezing my ass off in forty-five-below-zero weather.
I haven’t slept since I was pulled from the field. No soldier does when told you’re going to war. Jackson finds an engineer. “We’re heading to Baghdad,”
Jackson tells him, “and I’d like to make it there in one piece.”
“What do you need?”
“Plate armor. Enough to weld the doors and cover the underside in case we drive over an IED on Military Supply Route Tampa. I also want to line the inside floor of the Humvee with sandbags.”
Jackson holds up a Gatorade bottle. “Brought you one of each. Vodka, gin, and bourbon — the good stuff, not the cheap stuff. We have a deal?”
Five hours later, we’re driving a jerry-rigged Humvee in a convoy heading north on this main highway that goes from Kuwait all the way up to Mosul. The road is flat and blackened from explosives. Smoke from a burning hulk of what looks like a car billows into the hard blue desert sky, taking me back to my time in Bosnia. I was there, working an ER shift at the base hospital, when 9/11 happened. We watched it live on a TV in the hospital’s waiting room. When we saw the second plane crash into the building, right then we all knew we were going to war.
Jackson comes to a stop. We’ve driven less than a quarter of a mile.
“Possible IED ahead,” he says. “Got to wait until the engineers clear it.”
We dismount. Everything is flat and dry and unbearably hot. In the distance I can make out the sound of small arms fire. My adrenaline is pumping, my mouth dry. I keep looking around me.
I worked in Bosnia as a medic. I was also loaned out — pimped out, as we call it — to units that needed a medic for their combat patrols. The biggest worry I had was stepping on a land mine. No one ever shot at me.
It takes well over an hour to clear the IED. I get back into the Humvee. The drive to Camp Anaconda, northwest of Baghdad, is over six hours.
It takes us two days.
The first battle in Fallujah happens three months later, in April. Some Blackwater guys riding in an up-armored Chevy Suburban stop on a road by the bridge at the entrance to the gates of Fallujah when they’re approached by a group of kids selling gum, candy, soda, and fake Rolexes. A guy rolls down the window to buy some candy, and a kid drops a frag grenade into the Suburban.
The burned, charred bodies of four Americans are dragged from the wreckage and strung up by the bridge. The insurgents declare an all-out war against the Americans in Iraq.
They start slicing people’s heads off on TV.
Camp Anaconda, where I’m stationed, is a sprawling military supply base that houses close to thirty thousand civilians, soldiers, Marines, and airmen. Every branch of the service. Even the Navy is there.
Camp Mortarville, as it will become known for the around-the-clock attacks, turns into the most dangerous place in Iraq. Pilots dropping off supplies keep their engines running. Each night when I go to bed in my small A-frame tent, with electricity that works maybe 40 percent of the time and no running water, I wonder, like everyone else, if I’ll be alive come morning.
The hospital, one of the largest in Iraq, overflows with casualties, mostly young Marines. The latest casualty is a kid who jumped on a grenade to save his buddies and was KIA. His name was Raphael Peralta, an immigrant from Mexico who came to the US and joined the Marine Corps.
I’m working in the ER on another young kid, his hand hanging on by the skin, when I’m told I’ve been pimped out for medevac. The kid keeps screaming to hurry up and cut his hand off and patch him up so he can go back to his guys.
Flying in the back of the Black Hawk helicopter, my adrenaline pumping, I’m told we’re heading to Samarra. A homemade bomb exploded near an Army guard post. As the Black Hawk lands, I remind myself to be ready for anything.
The bird’s door opens to screaming and smoke and blowing sand and I’m off and running. Someone is depending on me to save his life.
Dealing with trauma on the battlefield, seeing limbs blown off by an IED, the amount of carnage and blood . . . it’s more surreal than anything from a movie. Two Army soldiers have been torn apart by the blast. One is dead. Later, I’ll learn his name: Specialist Anthony J. Dixon, of Lindenwold, New Jersey. He was twenty years old.
The other is still alive. He’s on his back, blinking up at the harsh Iraqi sun. I drop to my knees and begin to apply a tourniquet around the stump of his missing leg.
His name, he tells me, is Armando Hernandez. “I need you to level with me, Doc.” He licks his lips, his eyes sliding to mine. “Is my junk still there?”
Gallows humor. It’s the only thing that keeps us sane.
“Still there,” I tell him.
Hernandez tells me he’s from a farming town in the desert of California. Volunteered to serve his country. He’s twentytwo and has kids of his own. I’ve got him stabilized. As we fly back, I keep looking at his uniform — he’s Army, like me. I’ve been on that road at his guard post at least one hundred times. This could have easily been me lying here.
Hernandez is alive when we land, and he’s alive when we bring him into the ER.
I’m on my way to clean up when a grave-faced combat surgeon finds me.
“No,” I tell him, shaking my head. “Don’t tell me — ”
“There was no way he was going to survive, not with those wounds. I was amazed he was still alive when you brought him into the ER.” He sees I’m not buying it and adds, “Trust me when I tell you that you did everything you could.”
I believe him, and yet some part of me refuses to believe him.
The surgeon sees that the indecision is eating me and says, “Mike, if this had happened on the front steps of Walter Reed, he wouldn’t have survived.”
I try to take some solace in that as I head to the showers. It’s Marine Corps–style, cold water only. You get wet, wash, turn the water back on, then get out. Nothing refreshing or relaxing about it. As I scrub down, washing away the blood of a brother, I have no idea what this war will end up costing me.
In my upcoming year here in Iraq, I will spend half of my time outside the wire. Years from now, I’ll end up with a pretty nasty case of PTSD. I’ll suffer permanent brain injury from having gotten blown up several times. I won’t be able to run, and there will be days when I can barely stand. I’ll have memory and sleeping issues, and my future wife will catch me every now and then clearing the house in my sleep, even kicking in my own closet door. It’s one of the reasons why I won’t keep guns in my house.
But I will never have a single regret. I will think of Armando Hernandez and Anthony Dixon and Raphael Peralta and the young Marine screaming to cut his hand off so he can go back out and fight with his brothers and sisters. I will think of them and all the brave soldiers who served with me in Iraq, and my heart will swell with pride and sadness, and it will haunt me that I’ll never be able to accurately describe their sacrifices to others.
The frail old man wakes screaming, tangled in an American flag—the same one that draped the coffin of his slain son, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, three days after his November 22, 1963, assassination.
I WASN’T PRESENT at the courthouse in Erva, Alabama, on that morning in June, when events unfolded that would suck me into the undertow of Douglas County.
The forest had a particular scent to it, a dewy moistness off the Columbia River mixed with Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, red cedar, hemlock, and maple.
A board a Night Stalkers Special Operations MH-60M Black Hawk helicopter code-named Spear One, Navy chief Nick Zeppos of SEAL Team Six checks his watch.
LIGHTS, CAMERA, action. This could mean everything to Latham. It could be his ticket out.
CINDY THOMAS FOLLOWED Robert Barnett’s assistant down the long corridor at the law firm of Barnett and Associates in Washington, DC.
I CHECKED THE street in both directions in front of an upscale coffee house called Flat Bread and Butter on Amsterdam Avenue near 140th Street. The street was about as quiet as New York City gets.
IT TOOK BOBBY a week to decide where to park. It had to be close to the wedding, but not too close.