"Nothing can prepare you"|
The Iraqi road had been quiet for weeks,
and then the shooting started
December 29, 2003
They weren't expecting to run into any resistance on the way to Al Kut in late April. American convoys had gone back and forth along the road through southeastern Iraq for weeks without trouble, as far as they knew. It began with the ping of the bullets riddling the Marines' three Humvees. "They all seemed to open up when we stopped," Lance Corporal Michael Appleton, who grew up in Gloucester, Mass., says of the incident. The ambushers opened fire with assault rifles from behind sandy dunes on the right side of the road, perhaps 100 feet away. It was broad daylight, in the afternoon, and they were about halfway between Baghdad and Al Kut. Marines poured out of the vehicles and fired their rifles. Some shot from the open backs of the trucks. The attackers popped up from behind the dunes and fired at the Americans. Appleton, who was driving the last Humvee, says he got out and leaned on the hood and shot his M-16 toward the attackers. The gunfight lasted maybe 10 minutes. The Americans saw one man run off and then noticed their attackers stopped popping up, so they stopped firing. They heard nothing, so they sent a few people into the dunes to check. He says the Marines found they had killed about a dozen people -- men, women and some children, perhaps as young as 10 years old. It seemed the children had picked up weapons from their parents, he says. The windshield of one Humvee was cracked but none of the Americans were injured. The war, Appleton says, "changed me in some ways because I can connect with people who have been through a war and understand what they've been through emotionally and physically ... the physical fatigue, the stresses, the pressure that's on you and the mental aspects. There's so many things about seeing bodies on the ground. Nothing you can do can prepare you mentally for seeing
that on the ground."
Along the border Out across the rolling desert hills, across the Kuwait boarder, over in southern Iraq, Appleton saw Iraqi SCUD missiles lifting off and climbing into the night sky. The SCUDs began coming in around 6 p.m., while it was still light, and by 4 a.m. when they stopped 15 to 20 had been fired toward the American lines. American Patriot missiles flew overhead the other way in vain attempts to knock down the SCUDs. Appleton could hear, but not see, the SCUDs explode behind him, maybe 50 miles back. It was mid-March, the start of this spring's war in Iraq. Two days before the 70 or 80 Marines had moved closer to the Iraqi border from a base in northern Kuwait, some 60 miles from Iraq, where they had been since about Feb. 10. Beginning around 8 the next night, the Americans fired an artillery barrage into southern Iraq and then the Marine infantry units started north into Iraq in a long line of hundreds of Humvees and armored vehicles. Appleton's unit followed behind. He had graduated from Gloucester High School in June 1999 and left for boot camp the same day. He served as a postal clerk and then performed general clerical work at Camp Pendleton, Calif., before being assigned to a mortar platoon in the new 1st Security Company for the First Service Support Group around the start of 2003 in the run up to the war.
Pushing north Appleton drove his Humvee day and night along paved roads and over open desert. His group's convoy of 75 Humvees and trucks crawled north, stopping, usually once a day, when ordered to set up camp, but each time they were ordered to move out again before they were done. He was filled with adrenaline in anticipation of what might happen, even though they didn't expect to run into much resistance. They figured the infantry troops in front of them would clear the way and they were right. They drove past burned out cars, trucks and buses left in the wake of the infantry, but their journey was quiet. After 74 hours, they finally stopped to set up camp at an airstrip in southern Iraq and Appleton slept for four days straight. He and the other three Marines from his platoon who hadn't slept at all during the push north were fed fluids intravenously to rehydrate them while they slept. A Navy medic monitored their recuperation. Appleton's next month was guard duty and patrols. One time his team was called on to fire mortars from the gully he was in to a spot about 200 yards away where lookouts thought they saw someone moving. He didn't know if they hit anything or anyone but the lookouts reported no more movement. Sometimes he went out with intelligence units to provide security while they conducted searches. They investigated a trailer perched on a highway overpass and found diagrams of American helicopters and vehicles, logs of the Americans' movements and radio equipment. They investigated another trailer on another bridge and found weapons, ammunition and uniforms abandoned inside. "It looked like they just up and left when they heard us coming through," Appleton says. Iraqis he passed along the roads smiled and cheered at the troops, giving them the thumbs up. The atmosphere grew more tense when the Marines went to provide security around a college about 20 miles south of Baghdad. Iraqis would run up to the military vehicles seeking food, sometimes trying to make off with the Americans' equipment. The troops found it difficult to decipher the Iraqis' intentions.
Back home Appleton says he turned white when he returned to Gloucester and first saw television broadcasts about American troops being killed. "When I was over there you never actually heard about it," Appleton says. He'd hear about troops being shot at and he figured people were probably hurt or killed, "but they never really tell you about that." Admittedly, he says, "a lot of us didn't want to know about the casualties." At the end of May, Appleton had returned to Kuwait from Al Kut, where he helped provide security for a supply unit, and then flew back to the United States on June 10. Before the war the military had instituted a "stop loss" order to maintain troop strength by temporarily preventing military men and women whose contracts were up from leaving the service. But by June it had been lifted, so he could head home to wind up his contract with the Marines. He arrived in Gloucester on July 1 on a leave that ran through the end of his service on July 20. This will be Appleton's first Christmas at home since 1999. The 23-year-old is living in Essex and working the door at the Lobster Trap Pub. He wants to become a teacher and physical therapist. The war in Iraq, Appleton says, has successfully freed a poverty-stricken nation from a sadistic dictator. He hopes the capture of deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein on Dec. 13 will help stabilize the fledgling Iraqi government. "I don't think we should be having the problems we are having now. There are more casualties now than there were when we were actually fighting," Appleton says. "...We need to start bringing the boys home because right now it's just a senseless waste of life and really not for any reason. They say it's to protect peace but it could be years away before peace is really resolved in that country." Appleton changes the television channel when he hears about troops being hurt. It somehow feels unfair to him that he got to come home from Iraq without a scratch while others remain in danger there. On July 21, he began a year in the Massachusetts Army National Guard. He signed up to keep his military status, make some money and get funds for college. There are rumors his unit may be
called to active duty.