My friends and family rarely hear me talk about my deployment overseas. Mainly, I believe that it’s no ones business. We were sent to Iraq to fulfill our mission and come home alive. Today is one of the days where I’m compelled to share my thoughts in an attempt to express my gratitude to one of our great warriors.
As a 20 year old kid, I was deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom to Taji, Iraq. I spent a year patrolling the streets of a war zone in the middle of the night, just 20 miles north of Baghdad. We were tasked with conducting Route Clearance – to identify and defeat ambushes and improvised explosive devices (IED) in an effort to make routes safer for the rest of the armed forces. Our missions were carried out with special vehicles and skeleton crews (minimal number of soldiers in vehicles in an attempt to minimize casualties).
When I first arrived in Iraq, everything was surreal to me. There was a lot of sand. Everyone carried guns. Each soldier was on high alert. With that being said, it didn’t feel like war. That all changed on February 21, 2009.
My unit was conducting only our 3rd or 4th solo mission. A few hours into the mission, SPC Mohney and I heard a “whiz” right over our head. Immediately both of us ducked inside our vehicle and stared at each other. The conversation that ensued included “Was that a bullet?”, “Holy shit, possible sniper?”, and “Dude, I’ve never been shot at before but I hunt a lot and that was a fucking bullet!” Needless to say, we called out to the rest of our convoy and alerted them to the possible sniper (we never confirmed it). Crisis avoided for the time being.
Within minutes, the convoy turned onto the largest supply route in Iraq. We began going north and clearing the road. A few seconds down the route, there was a huge noise and flash of light. Our vehicle shook. Although we had never been attacked before, everyone immediately knew….game on! The first vehicle in our convoy had run over a large IED. The vehicle was lifted up and slammed into the ground. Thankfully, the lone driver only suffered a severe concussion.
As soon as the explosion occurred, our training took over and we went to work. Screams of “IED, IED, IED” rang out, while others yelled “Scan your sector and find that mother fucker!” Someone had just tried to kill one of our brothers. We were gonna find him and return the favor.
My vehicle’s driver maneuvered to the front of the convoy and we located a group of men running through a field. A group of men running through a field at 4am with weapons and immediately after an IED explosion? According to the Rules of Engagement, we were cleared to engage the enemy. Our gunner opened fire with the .50 caliber machine gun that was mounted on top of our Stryker. Short bursts of bullets began flying. He missed. He missed again. Finally, a direct hit. One guy went down.
The other men immediately hid where we couldn’t see them from the road. While we were engaging the enemy, a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) was spun up and sent to meet us. They are tasked with providing backup support when a unit is attacked. Immediately after hitting the first enemy soldier, QRF showed up.
What transpired next has forever changed my life. I will spare you of many details. A number of soldiers set out through the field to capture the wounded man, while looking to capture or kill the others. At the end of the field, an enemy ambush awaited. Once the US soldiers reached the ambush, the insurgents opened fire with an AK-47. Everyone hit the ground. Fire was exchanged back and forth. At some point during the firefight, SGT Mark Baum stopped returning fire. He was shot in the head.
The firefight was over quickly. A call was made back to our main base to have a helicopter fly in and air lift SGT Baum out of the combat zone. Our worst nightmare came to fruition. SGT Baum was the first US soldier to die while we were deployed. He wasn’t a member of my unit. I had never met him before February 21, 2009. He showed up with his unit to help my platoon and I. In the end, he gave his life for his country. He gave his life helping us.
After February 21st, we knew we were at war. I have carried SGT Baum’s memory with me every day since. He reminds me that life is fragile. Tomorrow is never promised. If we don’t live our lives to the fullest, we are wasting a gift that others wish they had. SGT Baum’s wife no longer has her husband. Their children no longer have their dad. This is real life and stings every day. SGT Baum has had a major impact on my life, but unfortunately he hasn’t been here to see it.
My hope in writing this is that at least one person is positively affected. If one person’s life is changed, it was worth it. Enjoy life and do the things that make you happy. One day we will all join SGT Baum. I plan to show up with great memories and some awesome stories.