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For the Living: A Soldier’s Story on Veterans Day
Veterans Day isn’t about the fallen. They have their own day. And Veterans Day isn’t necessarily about heroism, although the heroism of some of our veterans is often and appropriately honored. Veterans Day is about honoring the living for their military service, and the dedication unto death that’s an inherent part of it.
Carl Wild knows what service means, and the meaning of dedication unto death. He learned those lessons as a young man, in a notorious part of a notorious city that many Americans grew to loathe, in a war that at that point was changing from a liberation to a grueling counterinsurgency against one of the most brutal enemies we’ve ever faced.
Carl Wild’s lessons started on what they called a “shitsucker” mission. Then-Specialist Wild’s platoon was escorting Iraqi sanitation trucks that sucked raw sewage from the streets of Sadr City. But a short while into the mission the Iraqis suddenly disappeared, and Wild’s platoon had nobody to escort. The platoon leader got new orders to conduct a presence patrol past Muqtada Al Sadr’s headquarters, then head back to the FOB. Easy enough.
Wild during his first deployment in 04
Wild’s platoon was mounted in four Humvees, two armored and two with bits of welded-on Mad Max armor. The platoon leader rode in the uparmored lead Humvee, Wild rode as gunner in the Mad Max #2 vehicle. He had no teacup, no gun shield, nothing but a steel plate welded just behind him. The four vehicles made a turn, and Wild saw more people jammed onto one street than he had ever seen in his life. Sadr City is a huge slum with millions of residents, they all seemed to be on this one street, and none of them looked particularly friendly.
Men in traditional black Arab clothes wearing green Shiite bandannas walked toward houses and buildings, glaring at the platoon before they disappeared through doorways. Women hustled children out of sight. As the platoon drove through the crowd, it quickly evaporated. Wild’s platoon was all alone.
It was April 4th, 2004. Specialist Carl Wild’s battalion, 2/5 Cav of the 1st Cavalry Division, had arrived in Iraq all of four days earlier. Back home as they prepped for deployment to Iraq, they adopted the unofficial motto “Shoot ‘em in the face.” Then they received an intel brief with unexpected news that sounds laughable today: “You’re going to Sadr City, one of the safest places in Iraq. There have been no major attacks there for six months.” So their unofficial motto changed to “Bread, not lead.”
Wild was born on an American base in England, the son of military parents. After his father’s retirement the family settled in Texas. Wild was comfortably middle class, smarter than average, and had opportunities to go to college if he wanted. But he’d known since second grade that he wanted to be a Soldier, and as far as he was concerned being a Soldier meant being infantry. So he joined the Army during high school, and left for basic twenty days after graduation. That was late June, 2001. On September 11, he was at the gas chamber. Less than three years later, Wild was a twenty-year old E-4 manning an M240 on a Humvee patrolling a suddenly-deserted street in Sadr City, Baghdad, Iraq.
AK fire exploded from an unfinished building that looked like a parking garage. A Humvee gunner shot back. Wild saw an Iraqi with an RPG step into the street and aim his weapon at the convoy. “I was terrified,” Wild said. “I wasn’t frozen by fear, but I was really close to it.” But he managed to hit the RPG gunner in the chest with his first burst. The Iraqi launched his RPG in an upward arc as he fell dead to the street. And then it felt like everybody in Baghdad opened fire on Wild’s platoon.
The story of the ambush on Wild’s platoon, which resulted in eight American KIAs in a single day plus numerous wounded, was recently chronicled by Martha Raddatz in her book The Long Road Home and is being portrayed on film in a NatGeo miniseries that started Tuesday night. But I knew nothing about this fight, despite the fact that Carl Wild and I deployed together.
“After I took out the RPG gunner, the platoon got separated. We were taking fire from everywhere,” Carl said. “My Humvee got shredded and died, but our platoon leader’s Humvee kept going because they didn’t realize the rest of us stopped. The other unarmored Humvee behind us pushed us for a little while, then it got shredded and disabled. Sergeant Chen was killed during that time, by a round that hit him in a gap in his body armor. Then the lieutenant realized his other three victors were stuck in the kill zone, and came back to help us push out. We zeroed out the radios, bailed out of the two disabled vehicles and strongpointed an alley. We dismounted the crew-served weapons from the Humvees, took a house and got on the roof. And we just fired for hours at all the enemy that kept attacking us, in waves.”
Even though I’m not in the Army anymore I still hope to spread hard-learned lessons to today’s Soldiers, and Carl learned some good lessons. “First, don’t trust every intel report,” Carl said. “We really rolled into Sadr City expecting the locals to like us. Second, study the maps. We didn’t know the area, we didn’t really know where we were, and we didn’t recognize easy landmarks that we learned later on. We were maybe 1800 meters from a tall, easily-identifiable Iraqi government building called the DAC [District Area Council], but we didn’t know it.”
Third lesson? Ammo. “Within the first two hours we were all almost black on ammo. We had salvaged everything we could from the downed Humvees, but we were being attacked by so many enemy we were down to nearly nothing real quick. After that fight I never went out with less then twelve magazines. In a firefight you never hear anyone complain that they have too much ammo.”
The platoon leader called in the contact early on, and pretty much all of 2/5 Cav rolled out to rescue the stranded platoon. But since the platoon only knew roughly where it was, and the rest of the battalion wasn’t familiar with Sadr City either, they couldn’t link up. You’d think a huge firefight in the middle of a city would be easy to spot, but it was daytime, and the battalion couldn’t see the tracers, flares or smoke. Within a few hours Soldiers were cutting their sleeves off and burning them to create signals for the relief to spot. It didn’t work.
“Our battalion figured out more or less where we were, but they got hit bad on the way in and took a lot of casualties. Eventually a platoon of tankers who knew the area really well figured out where we were and rescued us. We wound up loading everyone into the two Humvees we had left, stuck some guys in the tanks, and the rest rode on top. I wound up TCing a Humvee out.” Wild’s platoon, seventeen Soldiers including one KIA, several badly wounded and several more lightly wounded, rode out of Sadr City. The grunts riding the tanks, like Russians on the Eastern Front, took fire the whole way out.
The rest of the battalion, in its hours-long and ultimately fruitless attempt to rescue Carl’s platoon, took seven KIAs and many more wounded. One of the KIAs was Specialist Casey Sheehan, whose mother Cindy would become a vocal anti-war activist.
The fight had lasted about four hours. Maybe an hour into it, Carl stopped being scared. “I just decided I was going to die,” he said. “So I did my job, killed as many enemy as I could, and did my best to keep my brothers alive. I held on to that belief, that I would die, for the rest of that deployment.” He also learned that deep down, almost – almost – everyone has a reserve of strength they can draw from when everything has gone wrong, good guys are down, and help doesn’t show up when it’s most needed. Carl discovered he wouldn’t quit even when the situation felt hopeless and fighting on seemed futile. He saw that same strength in almost – almost – everyone in his platoon.
Carl survived the fight. His battalion regrouped at their FOB, rested overnight, and went out hunting Mahdi Militia the next morning. And the day after that, and the next day, and many more days afterward. Carl isn’t sure exactly how many days straight of combat they were in, but knows it was at least eighty. He survived all that combat, the rest of the deployment and another deployment escorting convoys in the National Guard without ever being hit.
Carl on his second deployment
But in 2008 the Texas Army National Guard received a mission to deploy a Military Intelligence battalion to Afghanistan. The Texas NG passed the order to its only MI battalion, which happened to be in the process of being deactivated. That battalion began a mad scramble to fill its ranks, plus supplement its intel teams with combat arms soldiers who would be attached as integral security. I was a frustrated former tanker who was dragged kicking and screaming into the Cavalry Scout MOS when Texas lost all its tanks, and I volunteered to go with the MI as a cav scout but wound up transitioning to human intelligence collector instead. Carl Wild was recently divorced, didn’t have much going on at the time, and had an infantry buddy attached to the MI. So he volunteered for his third deployment.
I heard his name, and it was always in a positive light, but for the life of me I can’t remember ever meeting Wild during trainup, deployment or redeployment. That’s partly because Wild got blown up early on, and was sent home for three months to recover. After all the fights he was in during his first tour, then after surviving countless convoys during one of the worst years of the Iraq war on his second, Carl was nearly taken out by a random 107mm rocket that hit his team in, of all places, a FOB motor pool, as they were engaged in the distinctly non-combat task of unloading their MRAP. Carl lost a kidney and had a lung punctured, but still helped transport a more-seriously wounded teammate. He was evacuated, returned to Afghanistan midway through our battalion’s deployment, finished it out, and was later medically retired from the Army.
Wild, second from left, with teammates in Afghanistan in 2009. The Soldier at far right had been in the rescue convoy that was hit hard during the April 4th, 2004 fight in Sadr City.
Not surprisingly, his deployments left their mark. “I was an asshole,” he says. “I was angry, I was hostile, I was hard to deal with. That lasted a while.” His second marriage failed, he felt lost for a time. But he’s anchored now by devotion to his daughter, and the plans he’s developed for their future. It might be a surprising career choice for a three-deployment, combat wounded infantryman, but Carl is in school to become a radiologist.
“I’m a better person now than I was before, even before I joined the Army,” he says. “I know what I can do. I know I would have died for Sergeant Chen, I would have died for any of the seven Soldiers who died trying to save us. We all would have. We know what’s important now.”
The important thing Carl Wild is describing is dedication unto death. It’s the hallmark of the veteran. It’s why Carl and his comrades would have died for each other. It’s why some of them did.
Wild on the set of The Long Road Home
As I mentioned earlier, Veterans Day isn’t for the fallen. It’s for the living. It’s for people like my quiet neighbor, a Vietnam infantryman who went on to become a printer and later a middle school janitor. The students around him never knew that at only twenty years old he had tried to drag his shrieking, mortally-wounded foxhole mate to cover while North Vietnamese soldiers overran his company perimeter. It’s for the small number of living military heroes, and the large number of regular Joes who wore the uniform and carried a weapon before going back to normal, quiet lives. And it’s for Carl Wild, the friendly radiologist whose patients won’t know he was once part of a tiny platoon, trapped in a remote hostile city, decimated by casualties, surrounded by thousands of enemy, hoping in vain that his friends in a besieged convoy would break through to rescue him. They won’t know that Carl voluntarily went to war three times, and that he helped save a wounded comrade’s life even though his own internal organs were badly damaged, or that he foundered through life after the Army until his child drew him back to stability.
They won’t know any of that. But we do. And we should remember to devote one day to Carl, the other survivors of his platoon, and the survivors of his battalion. And every veteran, combat or not, who took the pledge to stand with Carl, in defense of our country.
This article was brought to you in its entirely by Quantico Tactical (@quanticotactical), a member of JTF Awesome – find ’em on the Facetergrambook at /QuanticoTactical/.
“People will let fail you. Tacos are forever.” Chris Hernandez
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About the Author: Chris Hernandez, seen here on patrol in Afghanistan, may just be the crustiest member of the eeeee-LITE writin’ team here at Breach-Bang-Clear. He is a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also a veteran police officer of two decades who spent a long (and eye-opening) deployment as part of a UN police mission in Kosovo. He is the author of Tacos Are Racist, Females in the Infantry – Yes Actually, The Military Within the Military, and several other delightfully opinionated bloviations. He has also penned several modern military fiction novels, including Line in the Valley, Proof of Our Resolve and Safe From the War. When he isn’t groaning about a change in the weather and snacking on Osteo Bi-Flex he writes on his own blog. You can find his author page right here on Amazon.