16 April 2004
At first it sounded like someone in the distance was slapping the bottom of an office waste basket. It was loud enough to stir me, but not enough to rouse me out of the rack. Slightly awake, I became sweetly conscious of the comfort of the small, cool pillow underneath my head and the warm, soft sleeping bag cocooned around my body. I rolled onto my side and fell back to sleep.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
The office waste basket was now a 55-gallon drum, and the slapping was now a determined banging. I opened my eyes to see only darkness around me. An instant later it sounded as if someone had put the drum over top of me and was pounding away on it.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
In one move, I unzipped my sleeping bag and dove under my bunk. The floor of the large tent felt dirty and cold against my bare chest. A second later, I felt the sudden hard hairy warmth of another person next to me. I couldn’t see him as it was still pitch black, but I could hear him drawing in deep breaths of darkness.
KABOOM-BOOM!! KABOOM-BOOM!! KABOOM-BOOM!!
The rounds were impacting closer and closer to our 60-man sleep tent. Now I was wide awake and thinking about the thin piece of canvas that made up our roof. The beams of the tent were shaking, and the clattering of people’s personal belongings falling to the floor could be heard all around. Outside, coming from the area where the vehicles were parked, was the sound of busting glass and snapping timber. Though I couldn’t see a thing, I imagined front windshields shattering and date palms snapping like matchsticks.
My anonymous companion had rolled away somewhere. I tried to get my entire body under my bunk, so that neither my feet nor my hands were sticking out. It was the most vulnerable I’d ever felt in my whole life. There I was, in complete darkness, lying face down on the floor, wearing just a pair of boxers, with nothing but a two-inch foam pad and a two-millimeter flap of canvas overhead to protect me from destruction. There was nowhere to run and no one to shoot back at. Our attackers were lobbing rounds on us from a few kilometers away, most likely from the other side of the Tigris. We could only wait and hope that the rolling barrage would crest immediately and not advance to where it would come crashing down directly on top of us.
Abruptly the shelling ended and there was silence. Complete silence. We all held our breath and listened for the encore. When none immediately came, I reached out from under my bunk and felt around on top until I located my flashlight. Then I scrambled over to the switch that controlled the light set for the tent. Luckily the fluorescent bulbs still worked and in an instant the darkness was replaced by living, moving color. Men in various states of undress were turning around looking at each other to make sure everyone was okay. A few guys in tighty-whities and unbuttoned Kevlar helmets worked with a sense of urgency to complete their ensemble so they could hustle over to the relative safety of the office building nearby. That we weren’t allowed to sleep there in the first place now seemed criminally foolish.
We dressed quickly and silently. No one said a word until one guy, realizing the date, cracked, “Happy Easter.”
An hour later I was shaking salt and pepper over ham and eggs in the mess hall, working through some details of a project with a colleague. “Did you hear the mortar attack?” I asked. “Yeah,” my friend said as he rotated a cup of coffee back and forth in his hands. “And on Easter Sunday of all days,” he added.
“How uncouth,” I replied.
Another day of rebuilding Iraq was in motion.