In January 2006, ABC reporter Bob Woodruff found himself in the wrong place and time in the Middle East. He was reporting from the hatch of an armored vehicle when a 125mm shell, also known as an IED, exploded. Mr. Woodruff and his cameraman were filming when it happened, which is quite possibly why they were attacked. Their bodies were sticking out of the vehicle like a sore thumb, which made for an easy target.
Woodruff underwent surgery for head trauma, having part of his skull removed to reduce the swelling. Irrevocably, his life had changed. His injury became a hardship that I can only try to imagine enduring. His bad luck was my good luck. Or vice versa.
When I was in the same part of the Middle East two years prior to Mr. Woodruff, I was lucky in many regards. When my vehicle got attacked, also with an IED and also in January, there was not a civil war raging. In other words, 2004 was not a great year to be in Iraq, but from what I know, what I’ve been told, what I’ve read, it was much better than 2006. (This all depends, of course, upon other factors such as where in Iraq you were and with what unit.)
Also, 2004 was when IEDs had not yet been perfected. EFPs, a really scary form of IED, had not yet been introduced. And when that first IED went off on my vehicle (we got hit with another one later on in my tour), there were two shells supposedly. One exploded, one did not. The one that did explode exploded after my vehicle had passed. In other words, my Humvee got hit from the rear and not the side, where I, the turret gunner, had much less protection.
I was also lucky to have been in an uparmored Humvee, although my platoon leader wanted my squad to take the less protected 1025s out. Uparmored Humvees had three-inch thick glass windows and three hundred pound doors. The doors of a 1025 Humvee were made of fiberglass and easily penetrable. My squad’s insistence on taking the uparmoreds out that day quite possibly saved my life. Uparmoreds had front and back turret shields. 1025s, while still officially armored, did not. So when my vehicle got hit, the front turret shield did its job and deflected life threatening shrapnel.
What also made me lucky was my team leader. In January 2004, I had just come back off of leave, and I brought with me a camcorder, which I had purchased from Best Buy. Iraq was a surreal experience. So, with a camcorder, I became a big tourist and started filming everything. In fact, I, like Mr. Woodruff, had made a mistake. En route to a fuel depot we used to call Karsh, I had my body sticking out of the turret like a sore thumb. I wasn’t sitting in the turret. I was standing. My team leader noticed this and said: 'Warneke, you know the Spanish got ambushed here a week ago?’ The Spanish were then part of coalition forces or the “coalition of the willing,” as President Bush once phrased it. Even though the Spanish were totally unprotected when they got hit, driving a regular motor vehicle, my team leader’s comment made my ass sit down on the strap of the turret, where it stayed for the rest of the trip back.
My stupidity clearly caught the attention of somebody up to no good. Because it was on the way back from Karsh, when we got hit. Less than a hundred feet past an Iraqi Police checkpoint, I remember seeing an orange flash and hearing metal flying at high speed. It was a weird sound, which I’ve always likened to heavy machinery compressing. A more accurate description, however, may be the ping of metal against metal, the shrapnel ricocheting off of the metal hedgehogs that lined Omaha Beach in the opening of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. Think of one very large or loud ping.
That second shell, the one that failed to detonate, was 125mm in size supposedly. I don’t know this for a fact because I didn’t go back to investigate. Somebody else unluckily did.
It’s been more than ten years since someone tried to kill or seriously injure me while serving in the United States Armed Forces. I look at Bob Woodruff now and think about his struggle. His family’s eleven-plus-year struggle. And even though Mr. Woodruff considers himself lucky (he and his family celebrate the tragedy every year with what they’ve coined his “alive day”), I know that I definitely am.
And to people like my exceptional team leader, Eric Bierbrodt, I couldn’t be more thankful.