When people think of Iraq they imagine a dry and desolate landscape that has been scorched by the sun. By and large that is true, but this day was an exception. It was the middle of winter in Northern Iraq, the time when the land gets its thirst satisfied. It had rained intermittently during the night, the type of rain that back home in Colorado Springs would have gone unnoticed. Such insignificant rain, people would not bother to pull out an umbrella. Yet, for this land this light rain is the source of life.
I woke up to find an earthy scent beckoning me out of the sleeping tent. Overnight the bleached yellow landscape I had grown accustomed to had been painted a rich dark ochre. The air felt cool, saturated with moisture. I’ll take the walk to my work tent leisurely today. It had been more than a year since I had seen the aftereffect of rain, and I wanted to enjoy it. There was no reason to hurry anyway. The surge of troops that came from Operation Restoring Rights had mostly dissipated and with them the excess workload.
Only a couple of dental drills were on my worktable awaiting repair. That wasn’t pressing. I went outside to check my generator. I was enjoying the change of weather and wanted to be out in the open. The generator was low on diesel, and all the fuel cans next to it were empty. I walked over to the regimental medical supply office to borrow Specialist Smith to help me in exchange for filling up their fuel cans. It was better to make just one trip to the other side of Camp Sykes, because going to the fuel pumps in a truck was a chore when there was a line of tanks and other heavy vehicles ahead of yours.
We secured the fuel cans on the bed of the truck, seventeen total. It was going to take some time to fill them all up. Good, more time outside. I put on my Kevlar and got on the passenger seat. The ride to the south side of the camp was smooth and slow. This was not by choice, but by design. The only paved road in the camp was a magnet for vehicle and pedestrian traffic. Too many accidents involving large vehicles had occurred. The regiment commander decided this situation was unacceptable and had ordered that on that road, a slow speed should be kept. This time I did not mind such a restriction.
We traversed the camp from north to south just like on many other occasions, but today the scenery seemed different; the dormant vegetation scattered across the land seemed to be alive. Funny what a few drops of rain can do. We got as far as the street would take us and transitioned to the long straight dirt road that would deliver us to the fuel point. Smith had made this trip so many times he could take a nap and still get us there.
Suddenly I saw dilapidated structures zoom past us at lightning speed. Nothing moves fast in this camp. It took me some seconds to make sense of what was happening. The water had mixed with the clay to make a slippery brown slime that coated the unpaved road, and now the truck was skidding at a high velocity. My heart was pounding. The normally deserted road was this day flanked on both sides by a large group of soldiers. Two and a half tons of metal flew past them. I looked at Smith. He was frozen, hand on the steering wheel and foot off the accelerator. The usual smile he sported had been replaced by the expression one would see on the victims in an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The truck didn’t hit the soldiers.
My pulse surged to unnatural levels. The column of tanks I had spotted at a distance was now disappearing from view as the tail of the truck was getting ahead of the cabin. I don’t know if it was because of the spin of the vehicle but I felt sick. I envisioned the ensuing crash. We are going to die. Like a child watching a horror film, I retreated to the safety that comes when you close your eyes. The rain was going to accomplish what improvised explosive devices and mortar fire had not. I gave in to the inevitability of what was to come and let my mind drift into nothingness …
The sound of our breathing became prominent in a sea of silence. I opened my eyes. The truck had come to a full stop in the middle of the road. Smith was still hanging to the steering wheel. We remained silent for several minutes. “We didn’t hit anything. Everything is fine,” I said. We laughed.
Alan H. Jimenez Cervantes served in the U.S. Army from 1999 to 2006. During his enlistment he became qualified in two military occupation specialties: finance specialist and biomedical equipment specialist. His military service includes a tour in Dongducheon, Korea and a deployment to Tal’Afar, Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He grew up in San Diego, California and is currently a second-year student at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy, where he is working towards a Masters in International Affairs. He has a passion for languages and is currently studying Japanese. His other interests include architecture, carpentry, and drawing.