First Sergeant Michael Kish, a 35-year-old full-time National Guard soldier from Coeur d'Alene, wrote the above to begin a long and painful entry in his journal about the death of Timothy Kiser.
It was about 1840 hours. "Just about dark -- the time of night," Kish says, "where you always see deer and you wonder, 'Can I get a last shot off at that deer?'"
In this twilight, three guntrucks of IED hunters were wrapping up an exhausting yet ordinary patrol that had taken them nearly all the way to Kirkuk.
Spc. Timothy Kiser -- a big, bluff 37-year-old real estate agent, father of four, formerly a truck driver, from Redding, Calif. -- was at the wheel of the lead Humvee. It was a happy truck filled with laughter as it rolled through the gathering dark.
"There was a storm coming in," Spc. Nick Dahmen-Bosse, the wiry 23-year-old gunner in Kiser's Humvee, says. "The clouds were black. Thick black."
The little convoy was humming along at perhaps 50 miles an hour. The military tries to maintain a speed limit of 35, but after even a short time in Iraq, soldiers equate speed with safety.
Plus, they were roughly three miles from their base, with its promise of hot food, cold showers and bed. The Humvee, a model 1025 with added armor, was approaching the last curve between the convoy and the fort. The road in this section could almost be called pretty, lined with tall reeds and some willows green with spring where it bent away from a large irrigation canal.
Right outside Kiser's door in this blue twilight, a flash of light and a body-shaking boom erupted from two artillery shells hidden in the reeds.
"We hear a boom like we always hear a boom," says Kish, who was attending a meeting back at [forward operating base] McHenry, where the explosion was clearly heard. "Then the patrol, Dog 32 or Dog 34, calls in an IED strike."
It was routine by now. The other guntrucks braked to a hard stop short of the kill zone and watched Kiser's Humvee roll out of the blast, gradually slow out on the road and pull into a field. "Everybody thought it was just vehicle damage," Kish says. It seemed so normal.
Inside, it was anything but. The truck was filled with smoke, blood, exploding ammo, shouts; and Kiser, in the eyeblink of still laughing at a joke, was dead.
"He had a smile on his face when he died. I was glad he was not in pain," Dahmen-Bosse says.
* * *
April 28 had been a rare, quiet day in a tough couple of months at McHenry. As winter's cold rain -- and even occasional snow -- receded, the tempo of IEDs, sniper fire and sudden firefights picked up, especially in the restive city of Hawijah. Kurds who owned shops in the predominantly Arab city were murdered and their bodies dumped in the marketplace. The pace of nightly rocket and mortar attacks on the base also increased.
As the weather warmed, even the insects grew hostile. Tiny sand flies, which drill for blood much like mosquitoes, became buzzing nimbus clouds of infection. Only a third the size of a mosquito, a sand fly can bring on fevers of up to 104 degrees; some carry a parasite that may transmit a fatal form of the leprosy-like disease, leishmaniasis.
"I'd wake up with 50 or 60 bites," Kish says. Last year, Hawijah had the highest rate of sand fly fever in all of Iraq, Stars and Stripes reports.
All these conditions conspired to make for a head-spinning change of pace.
"In March and April, somebody got hit every single day," Kish says. "Every patrol that went out got hit by IEDs."
Minor wounds were a given: "Guys were getting glass in the face, dust in their eyes" and would be bandaged up to go back to work, Kish says. Shrapnel was also causing more serious injuries -- deep puncture wounds and slashes. The task force suffered 63 combat-related injuries, potential Purple Heart territory for roughly one in every 10 soldiers.
And with April came death. The task force lost soldiers from Montana and from Oregon as tension mounted for a promised "Battle of Hawijah."
Sgt. First Class Robbie McNary, a 42-year-old father of three and cement truck driver from Lewistown, Mont., was leading a squad on March 31 to provide cover for soldiers dismantling an IED in Hawijah. When they came under fire, he led his men to a warehouse where the gunfire seemed to be coming from. He was crushed by a Humvee that was speeding in reverse to ram the warehouse's steel door.
The morning of April 8, insurgents set off six IEDs on various routes into Hawijah. One went off under Staff Sgt. Kevin Davis' Humvee, with shrapnel nearly severing the Oregon man's leg. An advanced trauma life support team was in the area and raced to Davis' aid. When medics tried to lift off a helicopter from FOB Warrior -- a 12-minute flight -- they discovered brigade commanders had changed communication codes that morning, and McHenry didn't get the news. Soldiers spent 43 minutes working through the radio confusion before a helicopter was summoned. Davis, 41, died later in surgery. A father of three, he had been a juvenile detention officer in Lebanon, Ore.
The back-to-back deaths sobered and angered Kish. He and other soldiers were looking forward to some sort of an open "Battle of Hawijah," but it never materialized. Insurgents stuck with hit-and-run tactics that better suited the disparity in weaponry and played to their strength of greater local knowledge.
Like sand fly bites, the insurgent tactics could be maddening. After a sniper bullet whanged off the pavement just short of where he and Sgt. First Class Kevin Kincheloe were standing while on patrol in Riyadh one day, Kish wrote:
"16-Apr-05: I am tired of getting shot at. I do not think I have written down all of them."
Even the base was no haven. In the nights that followed the sniper attack, Kish heard the whistle of a mortar round which, he says, is a bad sound -- indicating it's right on top of you. The shell was a dud. Insurgent rocket teams scored several "air bursts" in which the rocket explodes before hitting the ground. One went off over a repair truck and wounded the mechanic on it. Another exploded above a CHU; shrapnel sprayed inside and injured three people sleeping there.
"They had no sandbags," Kincheloe says. "The next day they had sandbags." Photos from early in the year show sandbags stacked waist-high against the CHUs. Near the end of the tour, only the doors and the butt ends of air conditioners are visible.
And to top all this, Kish again was a sniper's target during a night patrol in Riyadh.
"22-Apr-05: I am growing impatient with getting shot at, blown up and worrying about my guys. They should be at home... playing volleyball on the CdA beach instead of bleeding and sweating in the heat of Iraq. I still believe it is all worth it, just want to ensure all of my guys make it home and not draped w/a flag when they get off the plane."
* * *
In this atmosphere, as danger levels were spiking, Timothy Kiser and the others in his truck were happy to at last get outside the wire and conduct long daily patrols as IED hunters.
"I'd rather be outside the wire. Inside, time comes to a standstill," says Dahmen-Bosse, the young turret gunner. "All you can do is watch movies and play video games. After a while, you've watched all the movies and defeated the video games every way possible."
All five soldiers inside the Humvee had been assigned to Charlie Co. 116 as last-minute replacements. Four -- Dahmen-Bosse, Sgt. Damon Hall, the squad leader, Spc. Adam Bagley, the medic, and Spc. Jesse Ingram -- were from Turnbow's second platoon. At least these guys from the Moscow armory knew their fellow North Idahoans in Charlie Co. from Guard functions and the six months of training on the way to Iraq.
Kiser, who served a brief stint in the regular Army 20 years ago, joined the California National Guard at age 35 in hopes of medical training to become a physician's assistant. He was sent overseas as a grunt with orders to join the 116th as a fill-in. It was in Kuwait just before Christmas when he walked up to Kish, saluted, yelled out his orders -- "Sir!" -- and joined the unit.
As late replacements, the guntruck crew felt like the tail in Pin The Tail on the Donkey, and for months they seemed to get the cruddy jobs in the duty rotations.
"We were more or less outcasts in that FOB," Dahmen-Bosse says. "We did a lot of FOB security -- sitting in a guard tower for eight hours. We did what they call FOB work, which is dishwashing. Our platoon got that a lot. We were a unit without a unit so to speak."
Like outcasts anywhere, they became a tight little band. "Every night was movie night at our CHU," Dahmen-Bosse says. They even threatened mutiny at news of a plan from somewhere on high to rotate medics.
"We insisted Bagley stay. He was our medic. We weren't going to roll without him," Dahmen-Bosse says. Bagley, as they all called him (some never learned his first name), knew his trade inside out, even though he was just 21. He pushed all the soldiers who had combat lifesaver training and made them feel more confident.
"All that plus he wanted to go outside the wire," Dahmen-Bosse says. From a soldier, it's high praise. "We put our feet down."
Bagley became a regular at movie night where eight or more guys would crowd into the four-man CHU to watch DVDs of films or TV series on a large computer monitor. Kiser was a regular, too, even though he was 15 years older than the others.
"Kiser, he was with us a long time. He was a good guy -- the guy who tried to lift everyone's spirits," Dahmen-Bosse says. "If someone was down because they had a problem at home or something happened that day, he'd come over and BS with you and just talk."
He had a way to ease friction. When he was assigned to the squad, Sgt. Hall noted Kiser's truck-driving experience and made him driver, bumping out Dahmen-Bosse. Hard feelings never developed.
The younger man volunteered to be gunner, which is no small act. "When IEDs go off it's usually the gunner who gets killed," Dahmen-Bosse says. Once the squad got outside the wire in March and April, Dahmen-Bosse and Kiser almost always rode together.
The squad was assigned long, daily missions scouring various roads for IEDs. Their travels took them to the outskirts of Kirkuk, 40 or so miles to the east. In normal conditions, you could drive it in less than an hour.
"We had guys on the ground the whole way. You've got to be on the ground to see the IEDs," Dahmen-Bosse says. The patrols would dismount (a term soldiers use because A) that's what the military calls it and B) it sounds way cooler than "get out of a Humvee") at every canal, bridge, culvert, dirt pile, rock formation, suspicious hole in the ground, previous IED crater and pothole.
"There are a lot of potholes. The roads there are terrible," Dahmen-Bosse says.
So, by and large, this meant walking to Kirkuk every day. Also, by and large, this is as real as it gets in Iraq in terms of facing the enemy. The bombs are it, detonated at a distance by foes seldom seen much less caught. The IEDs are often cleverly hidden, and pack increasing punch to get through Humvee armor. Sometimes the bombers add gasoline to the mix for terror purposes -- setting the inside of a Humvee on fire, for instance. And the soldiers on foot, even as they peer into culverts or poke around holes, know that somebody, somewhere has a cell phone or garage door opener that could touch it off from afar.
The squad never got hit until mid-April, about the time Kish was getting regularly shot at and mortared. Kiser was driving a bunch of medics somewhere when the road exploded under the Humvee. Three artillery shells had been buried in the road, stacked one atop another, but only the top shell detonated.
Shrapnel, bits of pavement and rock, caused minor injuries and lacerations to the passengers and especially to the gunner that day, Sgt. Jason Kivett. In photographs, Kivett's face is a crazy quilt of bandages.
"That was the first IED hit for us, personally," says Dahmen-Bosse, who was not in the truck that day. "It didn't phase Kiser in the sense of being scared, it was more like he was in shock at having witnessed it."
It drove home the nature of the war in Iraq, soldiers driving rigs that are largely confined to roads against an enemy who thoroughly mines the roads.
"With IEDs, our mentality whenever we left the wire: We expected the worst," Dahmen-Bosse says.
And every morning they rolled out, jacked on adrenaline, to hunt IEDs.
* * *
In the month of craziness, April 28 had been so quiet. The patrol was uneventful. The three trucks were nearly back at the fort. They were driving head-on towards an electrical storm that had boiled over the northwest horizon and was coming on hard.
"It was eerie. It was a black, weird, eerie night," Kincheloe says. "The lightning was incredible. It's more intense in Iraq. It's so much closer to the ground."
The thick black clouds crackled with spectacular bursts of lightning. It was wild enough that it prompted Dahmen-Bosse to scrunch his head down through the turret and share the amazement with the crew inside.
Talk in the truck quickly turned to lightning stories. There was a tale going around the FOBs, and it was sworn to be true, soldiers insist, that a lightning strike at least once had set off an IED.
"So we all started making jokes about wouldn't it be funny if lightning set off IEDs," Dahmen-Bosse says. "What if lightning struck and -- boom, boom, boom -- IEDs started going off on both sides of the road? It would make our patrol the next day so much easier.
"Right when we said that it went off. I thought 'Damn, we did get hit. This f---ing sucks,'" Dahmen-Bosse says.
So many things happened at once: A shell that propelled directly through the driver's door, killing Kiser instantly. Kish, who later helped remove Kiser's body from the truck and place him in a casket, wrote this:
"Kiser was covered in shrapnel up his left side, front of neck torn away and the left side of his head gone. The radio stood in the way of SSG Hall, otherwise he would be dead also."
The deadly hail of shrapnel and shards of the obliterated radio tore into -- and sometimes through -- all five people in the Humvee.
The bomb was comprised of a 152-mm shell and a 132-mm shell and was a shaped charge. When the military calls something a shaped charge, here's what they mean: "Unlike my IED, which went off willy-nilly, you carve out some of the inside of the shell so you funnel the explosion, the flame, in one direction," Turnbow says. Imagine a blowtorch when it suddenly whooshes to life.
Given his connection to the men on patrol, Turnbow was keenly interested in this IED. He and Kish note the bomb was expertly placed to hit a Humvee square in the door and "The AIF nailed it just right," Kish adds.
Shrapnel was everywhere. "Some of the shrapnel above Bagley's eye came out of me. There was a piece of me on the front of his (armored) vest. It fell off when he bent over to take care of Ingram," Dahmen-Bosse says.
It's one of the small, surreal moments that don't go away after such an event. Outsiders like Kish and others were struck by the weird, smooth stop of the Humvee. It quickly became legend:
"Somehow Kiser, even though he was dead, kept the speeding vehicle from wrecking. The vehicle slowed down for 200 meters and rolled into a field. God saved the rest of the men through Kiser that day."
It wasn't like that, though.
Dahmen-Bosse, head scrunched through the turret opening, remembers looking down at Kiser and the squad leader. Everybody was laughing at the lightning joke. Then came the out-of-nowhere gut-punch of the concussion.
"Then I saw smoke. The smoke was coming from Ingram. Shrapnel had ripped open one of his magazines and set off the ammo. I saw Kiser's hands on the wheel; then they fell down to his sides," Dahmen-Bosse says. "I knew he was dead."
* * *
Even with shrapnel and smoke and pieces of radio and a magazine full of ammo tinking off like crazy popcorn inside a driverless Humvee doing about 50 on a curve, everybody's training kicked in.
"I went to stand up and look for who set it off," Dahmen-Bosse says, reaching to jack a round into the .50-cal as he did so. "I was going to engage. But when I tried standing, I felt my legs go... [He waves his hands in the air like fish tails] I sat back down in the sling. I didn't know I'd been hit. But I looked at my left leg and it was dangling, and I thought 'Crap, that'll probably come off.' Then I looked at my right leg and saw blood beginning to pool. That's when I stopped looking at my legs."
Shrapnel mangled his lower left leg and punched completely through his left thigh, entering his right where steel met femur, smashing it to fragments.
Someone, probably Bagley, who was himself hit in five places, was shouting to see who was conscious, who was alive. The shouts almost immediately changed to "Grab the wheel! Grab the wheel!"
Ingram, although shrapnel tore a chunk out of one leg and broke his tibia -- and with exploding ammo in his lap -- shot an arm over the driver's seat, pushed Kiser aside and steered the Humvee away from the irrigation canal. The canal was cement-lined and big and it was running deep.
Dahmen-Bosse doesn't know how the guntruck came to a stop. "It didn't feel like we were slowing down."
But as soon as it jounced into the field, Bagley was out and dragging Ingram with him to start triage. Hall hustled to find another radio.
Dahmen-Bosse, despite two shattered legs, pulled himself out. He had just let go of the doorframe, bracing for the long fall to the ground, when "Bagley ran up and caught me."
Two soldiers from the next truck, Scott Sollum and Frank Boguloski, pounded up to help out, cutting away Dahmen-Bosse's pants and punching an IV into his arm. Hall reached a radio.
Less than two minutes had passed from the boom and the initial report of the IED until Hall's next words changed everything:
"I have two WIA and one KIA. I need an ambulance and I need a helo right now."
"Say again?" In the TOCC [the company's command center, there was a heartbeat of disbelief. Then a galvanic jump into organized chaos. "We grabbed all our guys and our all gear and said, 'We got to get ready to go. Two minutes or less,'" Kish says.
Casualties are called in by number, not by name. As Charlie Company's soldiers punched their way into armored vests, grabbed weapons and ran for Humvees, Kish checked the battle roster.
Word was spreading that someone was dead. The company lined up in its guntrucks, idling at the gate, as fat raindrops began to fall, drumming on the steel.
Kish quietly passed the names along to the commander. "There was a quick, awkward moment of silence. Then I said OK, 'We are ready to roll sir!'"
And then the storm hit.
"My Lord, it was one of the hardest rains I have ever seen. The winds whipped up to about 40 miles per hour, there were big old raindrops, lightning, and the rain made night-vision goggles useless," Kish says. "I recommended we roll under white lights. If somebody wanted to blow us up in this weather, let them do it."
The entire company rolled out, lights blazing, to reach their guys. A tree had been blown across the road, and Dahmen-Bosse and Ingram were gone by the time the obstacle was cleared.
A helicopter was beating west from Kirkuk, racing along the dark line of the approaching storm. A scout patrol had arrived with an ambulance. The bend in the road was crowded with Humvees and soldiers, and there was plenty of confusion: The wounded were to be airlifted; no the wounded should be driven to McHenry.
"I was hearing that on peoples' radios," Dahmen-Bosse says. He and Ingram were in the ambulance when the helicopter pilot began chewing out people on the ground.
"He said, 'Screw this. I know there are guys seriously injured and we need to move them now!'" Dahmen-Bosse says.
In an almost impossibly tight spot, the pilot dropped the helicopter inches above the marshy canal banks, slid sideways under a power line and skidded to a halt on the road, thudding rotor blades only a foot or so away from various Humvees.
"The crew chief got out and was yelling 'Load these guys now!'" Dahmen-Bosse says. The storm was upon them at last. It was beginning to rain.