Mosul, Iraq—The spring and summer of 2004 in Mosul was fucking terrible. The heat, the gnats, the mortars, and the jihadi hood rats were all out in full force. It made for a less-than-awesome vacation spot. One evening during a particularly vicious nine-day-long mortar and rocket party, the commo guy, Rodolfo, and I were hanging out, just shooting the shit and smoking. The evenings in Mosul were nice: cool sunsets, less bugs flying into your ears and mouth, and a coolish air flowing from the river.
Rodolfo was always talking about how he was going to marry the young female soldier he had met on the base. As a contractor, he was making a shitload of money for being in a combat zone, and was talking about the ring he was going to buy her. He was probably making three to four times as much as most of the soldiers there. Anyway, he was a cool guy, and we would hang out when there was a little down time. He was originally from Guatemala, and still had an accent when he spoke. He loved rap and booty music, and sounded funny when he would try to talk ghetto with a South-American accent.
Around 7:30 p.m., as we stood outside enjoying the sunset and some nicotine, a Chinese-made, 107mm rocket almost took Robert and I to the big house in the sky. Its trajectory was so low, when it flew in and hit the sidewalk a few meters from us, it skipped, sliced through the huge generator we had behind the house, and separated into two pieces. The rocket body, after cutting through the generator and igniting the fuel inside, had stopped just short of flying through the kitchen window. The explosive portion had somehow managed to separate from the rocket body and had landed on the other side of the house in the road. It never exploded. I couldn’t fucking believe what I had just seen. Our immediate reaction should have been to hit the ground and get away from the generator that was now engulfed in flames and burning dangerously close to the house. I think we were in shock.
We stood there for a few seconds, looking at each other and at the generator. Then, reality hit like a Mack truck.
“Holy fucking shit, Sarge!” yelled Rodolfo.
“Dude, grab a fire extinguisher, quick, and I’ll get everyone out of the house!” I yelled back, still in shock.
As I ran past the generator and through the back door of the house, I noticed that some shrapnel had cut through the back door and kitchen window, landing in the kitchen. Luckily, no one was making food or hanging out in there as we would often do. I was starting to wonder when my luck was going to run out. On this trip alone, I had already survived a group of Iraqi police mistaking us for suicide bombers in Kirkuk and almost killing us all, a riot in Mosul, numerous near-miss mortar attacks, and now a fucking 107mm rocket attack so close, I could’ve caught the bitch if my motor skills had been up to par. To this day, I still can’t believe it didn’t explode.
In mid-May, my buddy Jake and I were asked to translate an insurgent video of a hostage suspected of being Nick Berg, the American who had been detained by Iraqi police in Mosul and handed over to U.S. forces. He was released from custody on the 6th of April, was advised by U.S. officials to leave the country, and offered assistance in getting a flight out. He refused, and left FOB Freedom. The Iraqi police allegedly rolled him up because he was travelling around Mosul in the back of taxis with a Qur’an, trying to get in contact with elements of al-Qaeda and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. While on our base, he was suspected of making sketches and gathering information about the base to sell to local insurgents. Turns out, he got what he was looking for and eventually went missing—only to turn up in a beheading video.
All that said, when we began watching the video and translating what the masked insurgents were saying, we had no clue they were going to cut his head off. Much like the videos ISIS recently released showing the beheading of two American journalists, Nick appeared to be calm—not scared at all in spite of being dressed in an orange jumpsuit and surrounded by masked hajjis brandishing AK-47s and AQ flags like they were in some bad rap video.
As we continued to watch, the Arabic diatribe spewing forth was just like every other bullshit video those fuckers produced. Then, without warning, the guy that had been talking the whole time calmly took a knee behind Berg, grabbed him by his hair, laid him on his side, and proceeded to cut his fucking head off right there. The screams and gurgling sounds he made as the knife sliced through his skin, muscles, tendons, and trachea, were nightmarish. It all happened so quickly; Jake and I sat there in sheer amazement. At first, I didn’t even realize what was going on. Then, reality caught up with the shock.
Jake and I sat there with our mouths open, feeling sick from the brutal murder we had just witnessed. All the screaming on the computer had caught the attention of other folks in the office, and they came over wanting to watch it. I could not stomach seeing it again, especially now that I knew what was going to happen. He sounded like a woman as he screamed in pain, knowing his life was ending as the masked man slowly cut into his neck with the huge, sword-like knife.
Some people say he got what he deserved since he was trying to meet Zarqawi and had been caught making sketches and taking notes while on our base. He may have deserved punishment if found guilty, but not this way.
No one deserved to die like this.
U.S. forces found Nick Berg’s decapitated body May 08, 2004, on a Baghdad overpass. A strange twist to the story is how Berg had been investigated after the September 11th attacks for having links to Zacharias Moussaoui, the 12th hijacker that never made it. Moussaoui had used Berg’s email address prior to the September 11th attacks. Berg’s family explained this strange coincidence away when they claimed their son had lent his laptop and had given his email account information (including his password) to a stranger while taking a bus trip in Oklahoma. That stranger just “happened to be” the 12th hijacker now in prison.
The most likely scenario: Nick Berg attempted to provide aid and support to al-Qaeda in Iraq, and once he made contact, they either found out he was a Jew or thought he was a spy, and beheaded him.
The video of Nick’s beheading would further wound my already traumatized psyche. My experience in the war back in 2003 had worked me over pretty good, but I thought I had recovered from the initial shock and carnage of the whole thing. All the new traumas in 2004 added fuel to my imagination and created images and thoughts that would resurface in times of stress. This happened most often when operating outside the wire and near the end of my time in the Army.
Nick Berg’s bloodcurdling scream would resurface many years down the road at a Josh Radin concert in Washington, D.C. when I became nauseated and almost fell out of my chair from vertigo after the women behind me began to scream. I immediately realized that, for some reason, high-pitched noises were a “trigger” that would eventually evoke massive physical responses in my body whenever I encountered them. If I had only known about PTSD in 2003, or 2004, maybe I could have dealt with some of the traumas as they occurred instead of drinking myself into oblivion.
Fast forward to 2014, and I sit safely in my house in the countryside outside a major U.S. city, watching the news of the two U.S. journalists beheaded by ISIS. They wore orange jumpsuits, and were executed by a masked hajji. The rage, fear, and grief all rise to the surface. I thought I had beaten PTSD. It had been almost four years since the terrible nightmares plagued me and the panic attacks debilitated me. As I watch the news, I’m immediately taken back to Iraq, the heat, the smells, the death.
Welcome home, PTSD. My old friend, my old enemy. It’s time for a drink…
(Featured Image Courtesy: AP/militant source via Twitter)