Trauma #3, The War, Part 3--Lost
After we left the "Scud Hotel" in Riyadh, it was time for us to be assigned to our field units we would fight in combat with. I was attached to Charlie Battery, 3/8th Field Artillery, a unit who'd been in the desert for six months at this point. The unit was based at Ft. Bragg, NC, as part of the XVIII Airborne Corps.
It was difficult and a little awkward at first. I was the "newbie," even though I was a sergeant. I knew not one person in the unit. Another sergeant, the gunner of the cannon, offered to let me sleep in the tent he'd put up for himself.
The time had come for me to begin pulling duty. I was named the "Sergeant of the Guard." (SOG). It's a position that makes one responsible for the security of the whole unit. SOG is in direct command of all the guards posted around all the big guns.
My shift started at 10 p.m. local time. I was asleep in the tent when I was awakened by the SOG. "Time for duty, Sarge," he whispered to me. I got up slowly and grabbed all my gear, put on all my equipment, and set out to Guard Post One. When I arrived, I found one of the two guards asleep. Not a good look to an SOG. I woke the soldier up and chewed him out a bit for sleeping while on guard duty. I asked the two soldiers where they were from and had a short conversation with them. "Stay awake, man," I urged them, and set out to Guard Post Two.
Our unit was located in the most northern point of Saudi Arabia and right on the Saudi/Iraq border. The desert was flat all the way around. Almost no landmarks. And the desert was dark. Darker than the most dark you can imagine. Combine the dark with the flat earth and navigation becomes difficult.
I walked toward Guard Post Two. As I walked, I became aware that I should've reached the post by then. Where was it? I'll run into it shortly, I told myself. I walked and kept looking for the post but was not able to find it. I began to get a bit concerned, because there were six guard posts in total and I needed to visit each one.
The night was black. Surely I'd run into one of them shortly. I kept walking. It was then I realized I was no longer in my unit's area. I was completely lost in the dark desert. I felt panic rising within me. I felt a huge responsibility for the security of my unit. I had to get back. "Just keep walking," I told myself. Why didn't I just stop and shelter in place and wait for the sun to come up? It's because of the weight of the responsibility I felt. My unit was counting on me. So, I kept walking, trying desperately to find my way back.
The night was thick with darkness and the sky was overcast, which made it even darker. The moon was barely visible, not giving much light. I began to think about something I'd been told when I first arrived to my unit. Our unit was in close proximity to a French Marine unit. "Watch out for the French," I was told, "they have orders to shoot on sight." "Oh my God," I thought. "What if I run into them?" They might light me up." My heart began to beat faster and my blood was pumping through my veins. But it was the next thought that set me to pure panic. "What if I run into the enemy? I have no idea where I am, I could be walking straight into the enemy's location. I might be captured, or worse." The anxiety and fear were in full throttle now.
At that time in the war, the Air Campaign was developing night after night. We would lay on the ground in our tent and listen to the "Big Ones," explosions so powerful they moved the entire earth back and forth. And this night would be no different. As I walked aimlessly, the bombs fell. The earth shook under my boots. I prayed. I asked God to please bring the moon out more so at least I could see. The moon did actually appear a bit brighter and I could see a little better. What did I see? Nothing but flat desert. The added moonlight made no difference.
I walked and I marched and I hiked. Nothing helped. I prayed some more. Every little sound set me off thinking it was the enemy. Hours went by. Losing hope. Suddenly, I froze. I heard humans talking. I couldn't hear what they were saying or what language they were speaking. I stood there breathing hard and barely breathing at the same time. I heard them laugh. One of them got loud. It was English! But...that didn't really mean anything. I stood there perplexed. What should I do? If I identify myself, I could be killed. But if I don't, what else is going to happen? After one more prayer, I yelled out, "Don't shoot, I'm American!" There was silence for a moment. Then, one of them said, "Come forward" in what sounded like a southern American accent.
Oh thank you, God. I went to them. They were a guard post for my battalion. I told them what happened. They showed me a radio wire. "Follow that wire and it leads right back to your battery." I thanked them and took up the wire in my hand. I followed it across the desert and came to my battery. The sun was coming up now. I'd wandered in the desert for nearly six hours.
Nobody was awake yet. When I got back to my tent, I through my gear off and got under my sleeping bag and wondered just what the hell had happened to me. I learned later I wasn't the first one this had happened to, and a few days later, a soldier from my gun wandered back into our area after having spent the night wandering. His eyes were open wide. He looked like he'd seen a ghost. He looked traumatized.