by Gunnery Sergeant L. Christian Bussler
Editor’s Note: These excerpts are from the multi-award winning book “No Tougher Duty, No Greater Honor” and were provided by the book’s author, Gunnery Sergeant L. Christian Bussler, who retains the copyrights.
This an exclusive look into the world of how the Marine Corps took care of our fallen warriors during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The book can be found on Amazon, Kindle, and Audible. This first appeared in The Havok Journal on April 1, 2019.
Excerpt from Chapter 30
“Angels from Ruin”
September 29, 2005
The morning sun seemed perfectly hung in the beautiful, cloudless sky as if placed there by an artist’s hand so that one could appreciate the play of light against the dark shadows. Midnight winds had carved elegant designs upon the sand and sifted its grains to expose the particles of quartz that glittered in the light like the glisten of early-morning snow.
Tiny tufts of grass in the corners of the maintenance lot bobbed up and down upon the cool gusts of wind as if their spines were made of clockwork springs. In the middle of all of this wonderment of nature, in the middle of all of this picturesque beauty, lay a sickening black smudge of charred butchery of a burned-out M2A2 Bradley fighting vehicle.
It stole my breath, it broke my heart, and my soul earned another shade of hate to know that there were five men trapped in there when it was blown up by an IED inside the city. Out of those five, there were still three soldiers unaccounted for, buried among that twisted, burned mess of steel and wire. This was the reason why we were flown out here to Camp Ramadi: to recover the remains of these three fallen heroes and return them home with honor.
The Bradley was placed upon a low flatbed trailer and transported here to the Pennsylvania National Guard’s compound. It sat in the middle of a giant maintenance lot, open to the sky and open to the wandering gazes of the curious passersby. Some snapped photos of the wreckage, but unit members quickly challenged them and brazenly educated the offenders to erase their cameras or face getting their cameras broken. Their friends were murdered inside of this burned carcass of machinery just yesterday. They would not stand for rear-echelon gawkers to insult their sacrifices by photographing the scene that still held the remains of their fallen brothers.
It was utterly destroyed and resembled more a heap of broken, burned parts on top of tank treads than a Bradley infantry fighting vehicle. The entire structure of the troop compartment from the floor up was totally gone, obliterated by a chain reaction of pyrotechnics and the melting points of metallurgy. The two signature characteristics of this tank-killing armored personnel carrier (APC), the turret and imposing profile, were completely gone and now lay in multiple pieces on top of large pallets around the flatbed trailer.
The 25mm chain gun was now all that remained of the turret. It had collapsed back into the gaping hole; its breach now rested upon the floor, and the long barrel pointed skyward as if it were the mast of a wooden wreck. My mind was locked, so fixated and bewildered at such a scene that I did not notice the lone figure that stood on top of it. But the clanks and bangs of heavy vehicle parts being tossed about quickly captured my focus. Obscured against the light of the blinding sun, a silhouette roared an indiscernible clamor, all the while poised atop the husk of charred machinery that started off yesterday morning as a formidable war machine.
This was hallowed ground, a murder scene that still awaited the recovery of its former tenants, and now someone dared to intrude and stand atop this wreck to make silly poses. What kind of jackass could even come up with such a thing? Who was so heartless, so callous, and disrespectful to think that this was even remotely funny to commit such a crime against these fallen heroes?
With grinding teeth and clenched fists, my internal war hounds were set loose with an insatiable thirst for a bare throat and a pumping carotid artery. Everything rational in my mind stopped dead in its tracks. Now a bellows fire flickered and snapped within my glare, and my fists hungered for retribution. “Hey! Hey, you motherfucker, get the fuck out of the Bradley right goddamn now!” I threw down my gear and charged the tank, hurling insults and commands as loudly as I could in an attempt to halt this trespass and desecration.
But I got no reaction from the offender, and his disregard for my orders just added more fuel to my inferno. I slammed my hands down on the lowboy trailer and pointed at him. “Hey, you, you fucking piece of shit, who do you think you are? Get out of my recovery site right goddamn now!” I saw a glint in the sunlight and noticed his graying hair peppered throughout his receding hairline, and it caught me off guard. Desperately he reached down to lift another enormous hunk of charred debris off one very badly burned angel and slowly tossed it aside. I then realized who he was, and then I was dismayed.
Inside his own world, he stood alone. On top of a mountain of grief made from broken pieces of a Bradley fighting vehicle that once carried his men into battle, he screamed toward the sky, “Why? Why? I am tired of all of this. As hard as I try, they keep dying!” He reached down and threw another heavy piece of bent metal into the back. “I’m tired of sending our young boys to die. All for what? Why can’t we just take them home? Just let me take them all home!”
An audience of five stood watching, some with arms folded and some with hands inside their pockets, but they all shared the same sweaty expressions of frustration and pity. They were all the senior staff members of this unit, and the man who stood upon the wreckage was their Colonel. I looked back at 1st Lt Forrest, and I finally understood why she was in such a hurry and what she meant by having a “big problem” and needing our help. I profusely apologized and identified myself, my search-and-recovery teammates, and the nature of our mission, but this time I chose my words very, very carefully. I stated that we were there to take custody of the scene and were ready to begin our recovery efforts immediately; evidently, it couldn’t come soon enough.
Excerpt from Chapter 35
“In Certainty of Slaughter”
October 16, 2005
“Which vehicle are you two guys going to ride in, Staff Sergeant? There aren’t any more left. How are you guys going to get back?” Cpl. Thomas asked.
“There is no other choice, brother; Kinley and I are going to ride in this Bradley here. We are just going to have to stack all the body bags and gear on top of us. This here is the shit that nightmares are made of, and I would never ask you guys to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself.” The team just looked at me with wide eyes, standing there and looking perplexed for a quick second. It was a cardinal rule to never stack the remains and always treat the fallen with the utmost respect. But the reality of the situation demanded that we do it this way. There clearly wasn’t any other choice in the matter. We had to get them, and us, home.
Kinley and I climbed in. “Come on; let’s start getting these guys in here and get this shit over with.” The angels were stacked on top of us from floor to ceiling, and their uncomfortable weight crushed my legs, causing my feet to fall asleep. Little rips had formed in the corners of the black vinyl body bags from the difficulty of maneuvering inside the first and now second Bradley, allowing some of the viscosities to escape. We were ready to go, and I couldn’t wait to get the fuck out of here.
The three S & R team members started to walk toward their respective tanks. I watched Thomas walk off and disappear into the tall grass, following the dirt trail. My imagination and all my fears of losing my warriors over here gripped every minute and held back the air from my lungs. Several agonizing minutes went by, and after what seemed forever, the Bradley’s commander bent down from his perch inside the tank with a thumbs-up to confirm their arrivals. Thank God.
The ramp slowly started to rise with a high-pitched mechanical whine. I could feel my heartbeat thumping inside my chest, and my breathing became rapid; I was on the verge of a panic attack. Like the closing of heavy drapes on a bright day, the closing of the ramp slowly choked the darkness the further it went up. Absolute terror sent electrical shocks through my muscles, making my hands tingle, and there was a definite copper taste in my mouth from the fear.
I was being crushed by the weight of all the dead on top of me. I closed my eyes and had a conversation with God. Oh Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name… The door closed, leaving us in complete darkness. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done… Large automated locks turned, sealing us inside the heavy, steel, mechanical box. The air pressure changed. …on earth as it is in heaven. The stench had no place to go; it too was trapped, sealed up tighter than a drum with the rest of us. The Bradley’s crew, Sgt Kinley, and I sat breathing the putrid smell, and it made all of us feel nauseated. Give us this day our daily bread… A green light flipped on, and we were able to see. The tank started to move, making the metal-on-metal, clickity—clack-clack-clack sound, reminiscent of a large bulldozer.
This was the last place on earth that I ever wanted to be. I could never have imagined myself being in this situation, trapped inside a steel coffin with piles of dead guys stacked on top of us with their bags leaking and stinking, expecting to hit another IED and die at any second. And forgive us for our trespasses as we forgive those who trespassed against us. I kept my hand on the emergency hatch, but I knew that our chances of surviving an IED as big as the ones that were now popular in Ar Ramadi were nil. It just gave me comfort thinking that I could get out. Lead us not into temptation… I didn’t want to be in here anymore. But deliver us from evil… I didn’t want to burn alive. I didn’t want to die this way. For thine is the kingdom, the power…
The clickity-clack sound stopped. …and the glory, forever and ever, amen. The radio traffic squelched, “Fire in the hole, fire in the hole, fire in the hole!”
Ka-boom! The shudder rumbled the Bradley. EOD set off an explosion to expend the unexploded ordnance, denying it to the enemy. Like the quitting time whistle of a rock quarry, it announced our departure, but for the enemy, I could imagine that it rang the dinner bell.
Excerpt from Chapter 39
November 26, 2005
The uncomfortable silence was deafening in the cold, brisk, moonlit night as we all stood rigidly saluting. The shivers had become over-pronounced, the trail of breaths had become long, and the sniffles of the mourners had been disguised as reactions to the wind and were lost in the cold November night. The quiet commands of the honor guard could be overheard as they slowly marched in unison, carrying the flag-draped transfer case of our lost friend and compatriot, Master Sergeant Brett Angus.
The honor guard turned and carried him into the refrigerator, halting in the center. In a movement performed too many times here in Iraq, they crisply faced each other, paused, and then lowered his body slowly to the cold, diamond-plated aluminum floor. They released their grips and then slowly stood at attention together. At a funereal pace, their hands slowly traced the front of the buttons of their uniforms and stopped at the brim of their camouflaged covers, paused, and then slowly returned to their sides. At the command of the NCO in charge of the detail, they faced the opening and then marched out to return to their point of origin.
Alone I marched in and stood for a second at attention at the foot of the transfer case. I knew that at that exact moment, the eyes of everyone here were upon me. But just as I had done for every angel that came through my custody, I ceremoniously began to walk around the transfer case, inspected the flag, tucked it in a little tighter, and dusted off any stray threads that might have fallen onto it. In the field of blue and white stars, I stopped to touch the corner of the transfer case in my personal attempt to honor the sacrifices of those who came through here.
In my mind, for every angel that left my custody, I wanted the very last hands to touch them in Iraq to be caring hands. Too many people that I had known lost their lives here; too many people on the other side of the world would soon have their worlds shattered, so I took the extra time to make things right. I not only honored their sacrifice but the pain that their families were to soon endure once the message reached them. If any remains were to leave my collection point, the flag had to look its very best. These guys had given their fullest measure to preserve our freedoms, and we owed it to them to be sent home the best way we could.