Southwest of Baghdad in the cooling dusk of late November, a blue, Korean-made Bongo truck, commonly used by Iraqis to haul everything from goats to cinder blocks, was barreling toward Specialist Michael Ayala’s four-Humvee convoy. Though two football fields away, Ayala felt the vehicle was accelerating with bad intentions. His thoughts were confirmed when he saw muzzle flashes from the back of the speeding truck. His body and mind went through the natural physiological responses to imminent battle. His central nervous system’s hardwired “fight or flight” response was activated: adrenaline was released into his bloodstream, and he began breathing deeply to provide more oxygen to his body’s vital organs while blood was shunted away from the digestive tract to the muscles, providing them with the fuel for physical reaction. Ayala’s pupils dilated to give him a broader range of vision, his senses were heightened and his threshold for potential pain increased. This is the point for a civilian where the rational mind subsides and instinct takes over, but Ayala was a trained soldier. While biology could amplify his physical response, he couldn’t let fear overtake his mind. The thousands of muscle-memory repetitions of his training had to now give him the confidence to make rational choices even while his body was focused only on survival. He steadied himself and readied his weapon.
Seeing the rifle fire, the Humvees immediately took defensive positions, deploying like hidden bat wings; the two in the front pulled off at forty-five-degree angles to opposite sides of the road. The two in the rear did the same. It was how they trained, it was how they fought, and it was no longer a drill but a unit combat reflex. The forward vehicles prepared for a frontal assault; the back Humvees covered the unit’s six. Ayala, sitting in the rear passenger seat of the second Humvee, pushed open the heavy armored door, took cover behind it while aiming his M4 assault rifle at the oncoming truck. The soldier in the turret behind the Browning M2 .50 caliber machine gun did the same, as did the turret gunner in the lead Humvee with his M249 SA W light machine gun.
Ayala braced himself. It had only been a little more than a month since his unit arrived in Iraq, but the nineteen-year-old soldier had already seen plenty of war’s unyielding violence. A roadside bomb killed a friend of his from their mutual hometown in East Texas, ripping both his legs off in the blast. Ayala nearly lost his own life in another incident when a bomb exploded on a rooftop where he was standing.
Now, in this moment, there was more to come. The Bongo was getting closer, with the driver showing no indications of slowing down.
“That’s when the fifty-cal gunner on our vehicle opened up on it,” says Ayala. The M249 SA W gunner did the same. The windshield on the Bongo exploded into hundreds of shards as the thumb-sized .50 caliber rounds, able to penetrate solid engine blocks, pierced through the glass, followed by a string of 7.62s fired from the SA W, which can unload at a rapid-fire rate of two hundred rounds per minute. The truck careened off the road and slammed into a nearby tree, which might as well have been a brick wall. It was an instant and irreversible stop. Ayala, with a good angle on the Bongo, aimed his M4 and fired a few shots into the smoking vehicle. Keep them contained, he thought to himself. He was feeling good, believing they might have gotten the insurgents who had been dropping mortars and harassing fire into Camp Striker for weeks.
“But then my PL [platoon leader] started yelling, ‘Cease fire, cease fire,’ after a guy in the bed of the Bongo truck slipped over the side rails and tried to find cover in a ditch,” says Ayala.
When the platoon leader moved to take a closer look he called for the medics. Ayala, one of the unit’s combat first responders, trained to assist in providing lifesaving medical care in tandem with medics or until they arrive, grabbed his trauma kit and ran toward the carnage. What he saw there haunts his dreams even now, years later.
* * *
I first met Michael Ayala in early November 2005, a few weeks before this incident and almost exactly a year after Operation Phantom Fury in Fallujah in 2004, in which I had recorded the mosque shooting. I had returned to Iraq as a part of my Hot Zone project for Yahoo! News and was embedded with soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division out of Camp Striker, a support base for the large Camp Victory complex near the Baghdad airport. Ayala’s unit, 3rd Platoon of Alpha Company, had just spent a week combing through the potato and onion fields just south of the airport when Staff Sergeant David Crispen saw something on the ground: a raw potato that someone had been hungry or bored enough to chew on. Crispen also noticed some loose dirt next to the potato that “just didn’t look right.” They borrowed a shovel from one of the nearby houses and hit metal with the first spadeful of dirt. Along with some belt-fed ammunition, they dug up forty 155 mm artillery shells, all wrapped in plastic to protect them from corrosive sand and moisture.
Artillery shells like the 155 were a favorite of Iraqi insurgents, who usually daisy-chained them together for greater explosive power when building roadside bombs. Ayala and the other soldiers were pumped by their discovery. Roadside bombs caused more deaths and injuries in Iraq than any other insurgent weapon. With a little old-fashioned detective work, they found the cache, and because of it, knew they had saved lives. For me, it was a solid story, frontline grunts following their own instincts and disrupting insurgents without shedding a drop of blood, complete with video of a massive “controlled det,” military jargon for blowing up enemy weapons in place.
Ayala and other members of Alpha Company provided security for the two members of the Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit and watched as the bomb experts removed the pointy tips from the artillery shells, where the detonators were, then packed the openings like snow cones with handfuls of white C4 plastic explosives.
After plugging their own detonators into the C4, one of the EOD guys took a telescoping metal baton from his belt and threaded it through a spool of det cord, walking until the spool played out, a thousand feet away. Behind a wall the pin was pulled on the fuse, sending an explosive charge down the line toward the cache, which would create the heat and pressure necessary to trigger the C4.
A soldier shouted the warning out loud while another recited it more calmly over the radio.
“Fire in the hole, fire in the hole, fire in the hole.”
The field erupted in bright orange and red flames, followed by a thunderous explosion. Clouds of black smoke billowed on the horizon. The finale was the whizzing sounds of small metal pieces raining down on the field around us. There were rebel yells and high fives from the men of the 3rd Platoon as explosives destroyed other explosives, all canceling out each other’s killing potential.
Ayala walked up to inspect the blast site. What was left was a crater thirty to thirty-five feet in circumference and at least twenty feet deep. There were no fragments left, no evidence the artillery shells ever existed, but the violent force had exposed a patch of potatoes on the left, onions on the right, and the elephant grass behind the explosion had been mowed flat.
I snapped a photograph of Ayala, doing what he later will call his Captain Morgan pose, one foot resting slightly higher than the other on the crust of the hole. In this picture he’s smiling, but not all his days in Iraq have been as good as this one, nor will many of those remaining.
* * *
Ayala wanted to be a soldier since he was six after watching American soldiers on TV during the 1991 Gulf War. For the adopted kid from East Texas, the soldiers seemed an unstoppable force, rolling through the desert in their Abramses and Bradleys, wearing the distinctive “chocolate chip” camouflage and striking fear in the hearts of the Iraqi invaders while signaling hope for the Kuwaitis held captive in their own country.
“Even though I was so young I knew I wanted to do what they were doing,” Ayala tells me by telephone from his base at Fort Campbell near Clarksville, Tennessee, headquarters of the 101st Airborne Division.
It didn’t seem quite so glamorous thirteen years later, when as a U.S. soldier himself, he was blown off a rooftop by an insurgent bomb left inside a water barrel. At the time, Ayala and another soldier were doing overwatch, assuming an elevated position, this time on the roof of a house, and providing covering fire if needed for soldiers on the ground on patrol. When the bomb exploded, his first thought was that they had been mistaken for insurgents and rocketed by their own Apache helicopters.
“I was knocked out for a couple of minutes. My buddy shook me and said we just got hit with an IED. We were covered by rubble and I caught two pieces of shrapnel in the shoulder. I was obviously pissed off for a good while after that.” Those who saw what happened were surprised they weren’t both killed.
His commander tried to call in a medevac, but Ayala waved him off, thinking the chopper would become a target. Later in the day, his unit captured what they thought were the two insurgents who had placed the bomb in the barrel and manually detonated it from another rooftop across the street. Despite his injuries, Ayala says he didn’t take it out on the captives; he was relieved just to able to see their faces, rather than being on the receiving end of their infuriating invisible guerrilla tactics.
“I made them sit down but I wasn’t kicking them in the face. I’m sure their zip ties were a little too tight, but I wasn’t going to beat them up. I also wasn’t going to make them any more comfortable than Geneva Convention required,” says Ayala dryly.
While Ayala earned a Purple Heart for the rooftop explosion, it was an incident two weeks earlier that had begun his true initiation into what kind of bloody carnage the insurgents were capable of inflicting on the world’s most powerful army.
It was October 31, 2005. Halloween. Ayala’s unit had just arrived in Iraq in the middle of the month. The standard procedure was to go on patrols with the unit they would be replacing until they were familiar with their area of operations. This night they’d be on their own for the first time. The mission was a route clearing, to make sure the roads leading into and out of the base were clear of roadside bombs. Three or four miles southwest of Baghdad they found one—or it found them.
“The truck that got hit was second in convoy,” Ayala says, recalling the incident. “I was out in front looking for wires and then heard a really loud blast. A cloud of smoke covered everything. I could see the front of our truck, but nothing behind it. I thought the whole convoy had been blown.”
Ayala ran into the smoke plume, finding behind it a Hieronymus Bosch–like scene of hellfire, anguish and destruction. As the smoke cleared it revealed mangled, smoldering metal and dead and dying comrades. The men were from Alpha Company, same as Ayala’s, but a different platoon. The first man Ayala saw was a private missing a leg at midthigh and had been spurting bright red blood from his femoral artery, a bleeding emergency that could end in death within just four minutes. A medic had already applied a tourniquet, so Ayala began a head-to-toe check for secondary injuries, examining the private for contusions, hidden punctures, broken bones, anything that could further compromise his chances of survival. Ayala had so much adrenaline pumping he thought his hands might have been shaking had he not needed them to help the soldier. While the private seemed stable for the moment, the condition wouldn’t last. He would die from internal injuries while waiting to be evacuated.
Nearby, another private, the turret gunner of the Humvee that took the full blast of the roadside bomb, was already dead, and a first sergeant would die of his wounds while in the medevac helicopter heading for a CSH , or combat support hospital. But the casualty that affected Ayala the most is actually someone he knew, a specialist from the same part of East Texas where he grew up. The soldier had both of his legs blown off by the explosion. By the time Ayala reached him, the medic had already sedated the soldier with morphine.
“There wasn’t much I could do,” says Ayala. “I just held his hand and reassured him we got the birds on the way.” The soldier, Ayala would learn later, died from his injuries. Just two weeks into his Iraq tour and Ayala had already had his first combat baptism by blood and fire. He thought that if it had been a firefight it would’ve been okay, but this was different. They were fighting an enemy who wreaked deadly havoc without being seen. How could you fight someone like that?
Ayala didn’t sleep that night.
“I just sat in my bunk,” he says, replaying the aftermath of the attack. “I thought to myself, It will be a miracle if the rest of us make it out of this [the war] intact. I was worried that it was all going to be like this.”
He was anxious and jumpy as the weeks went on, every time he went out on patrol.
“I just had to suck it up and do what I was doing. IEDs and small-arms fire kept me on my toes.”
What increased Ayala’s anxiety was the fact that aside from the other soldiers in his unit, there were few people he felt he could talk to about what he had already seen in Iraq. Neither his girlfriend nor his brother, a Marine at that time, seemed to understand when he tried to explain what was going on inside his head. And he didn’t want to worry his parents by sharing details about how members of his own company were already being killed in the first month of his deployment.
* * *
Christine McDaniels wasn’t ready to be a mother. She was young, just seventeen and still in high school. When her son, Michael, was born, she did what she thought was right for everyone involved. She immediately gave him up for adoption. Bob and Pam Ayala were told that it wasn’t likely they’d be able to have children of their own, so they were eager to adopt. Michael would be their first. They would eventually adopt four children as well as having one boy of their own. Bob was a successful contemporary Christian music singer/songwriter who had lost his eyesight to retinitis pigmentosa when he was just twenty years old. Despite his handicap, he made a solid living touring churches and revivals around the country and appearing on albums for the rapture-influenced Christian music band Last Days Ministries. Michael Ayala was brought up as an Evangelical Christian, being homeschooled, marching in Christian pro-life rallies with his family and even accompanying his adopted father on guitar during some of the worship services. But since Bob was often on the road, Ayala grew closer to his adopted mother.
When Ayala was fifteen, Bob moved the family from Texas to New Hampshire to take a job as a worship coordinator at Grace Fellowship Church. The young Ayala missed Texas but wasn’t going to let the move derail his plans. As a high school junior he joined the New Hampshire National Guard in an early-enlistment program that would allow him to finish school before beginning active duty. As a senior he trained with them. After completing high school in 2004 he went straight to basic training. Ayala knew what he wanted, infantry, but not the mechanized divisions. Tanks and Bradleys weren’t his style. He was going airborne. After basic training at Fort Benning in Georgia, he was sent to Fort Campbell in Kentucky to become part of the 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles, renowned for their bravery and high casualty rate during their World War II D-Day parachute drop behind German lines in occupied France. In October 2005, Michael Ayala would be in Iraq with the history-making division.
* * *
When Ayala reached the blue Bongo truck he felt sick to his stomach. The front end was lodged in the tree and black engine smoke and white radiator steam mixed in a hissing gas double helix. In a moment of cognitive dissonance, Ayala couldn’t believe it was all real. The men they had just shot weren’t Iraqi insurgents. They were fellow American soldiers. But how did this happen? It’s the thing soldiers dread most in the heat of battle: accidentally killing your own men. In formal military parlance it was called a “blue on blue” incident, or the weirdly ironic “friendly fire,” but for those in the middle of it, this kind of situation was also referred to by another commonly used military expression, FUBAR , “fucked up beyond all recognition.”
The men they had fired on were now either dead or wounded. The one who had slipped from the Bongo truck trying to escape, a lieutenant and the platoon leader, was lying in a ditch on the side of the road. Three others were still in the bed of the truck, an Iraqi interpreter who had been grazed by a round from Ayala’s unit, a radio operator whose left arm had been shredded by another and the unit’s own medic, hit in the leg by a ricochet.
“The medic was screaming at us,” Ayala says, “‘What the hell were you guys doing,’ while still hobbling around trying to treat the other two men even though he was wounded too.” But as Ayala approached the door to the truck’s cab, the medic’s voice became distant in Ayala’s mind, almost as if he was shouting from the inside of a thickly insulated room. Ayala’s hand reached for the passenger-side door handle and pulled it open. Inside there was blood splattered everywhere, but the two men were still sitting upright in their seats. They were dead, riddled with high-caliber rounds. Despite the fact that their faces had sunk into the indentations in their skulls, Ayala recognized them as two sergeants he’d seen around almost every day back at Camp Striker, Sergeant Adam Crain, the driver, and Staff Sergeant Phillip Nardone (their names have been changed to protect the privacy of their families) in the passenger seat. Despite his shock, Ayala knew there was nothing he could do for the men and he moved on to the survivors he could help. The medic from Ayala’s unit was already tending to the lieutenant who had tried to take cover in the ditch. He was the only member of the group who had not been hit by the “friendly fire.” He had been shot earlier during an engagement with insurgents, the very firefight the men in the speeding blue Bongo truck were trying to flee. He had been struck by a rifle round from an AK-47 that entered above his body armor through his upper left shoulder and exited his back. In the process, it collapsed his lung, a life-threatening emergency if not treated immediately. With plastic and tape, the medic fashioned a rectangular occlusive dressing, sealed over three ends with one side left open. This field dressing keeps outside air from being pulled into the lung cavity by forming an airtight seal when the officer breathes in but also allows air to escape when he exhales. Ayala spiked an IV bag filled with water and saline while the medic inserted a needle in the man’s arm.
After treating the lieutenant, Ayala and the medic moved down their triage line, next applying a tourniquet to the arm of the linebacker-sized radio operator whose very bulk may have helped him to survive his wounds. They patched up the medic’s leg and finally put a bandage where a bullet had grazed the head of the interpreter. When the soldier who had manned the M249 SA W in Ayala’s convoy learned what had happened he began to vomit. The .50 cal gunner wept. Their days of service in these or other wars, no matter how remarkable, no matter how brave or heroic their actions, would now be forever overshadowed by this moment, this honest but irreversible mistake. “If we had just come across them and the terrorists shot them up, it might not have affected us so much. But we were the ones who shot them.”
* * *
Since they didn’t have any body bags, Ayala and another soldier moved Crain’s and Nardone’s bodies from the truck cab and covered them with ponchos. To get to Crain’s body Ayala had to crawl across the blood-soaked front seat because the driver’s-side door was obstructed by the tree. When they moved Nardone, his hand, severed by bullets, fell to the ground. Ayala’s platoon leader called in a medevac to move the four wounded men first. Because of a delay with the second medevac, Ayala sat up all night with the two remaining bodies. A sad and eerie feeling came over him as he looked at the dark shapes lying on the stretchers at his feet. When the chopper finally arrived before sunrise the next morning, Ayala and his fellow soldiers pulled on their night-vision goggles so they could see the terrain as they carried the bodies a hundred meters away to the landing zone.
It would be a month before all the testimony was given and the investigation into the incident concluded. Ayala’s unit, 3rd Platoon of Alpha Company, was found to have acted appropriately given the circumstances of the incident. But the details of what actually happened to the men in the Bongo truck are like a veritable Rube Goldberg device in which every action led surely but implausibly to the next, culminating in a tragedy of the absurd. It began with the unit’s 2nd Platoon going on a foot patrol through a nearby village. One of the teams made contact with insurgents and exchanged fire. Their lieutenant was wounded in the firefight. But because their radio had also been hit, they had no way to call for an evacuation. Staff Sergeant Nardone took charge and commandeered the Iraqi Bongo truck, loaded in the wounded lieutenant and the rest of his men and headed for friendly lines. Hearing reports of a clash, Ayala’s unit was called out as the Quick Reaction Force to provide support to the units under attack. That’s when Ayala’s convoy and the Bongo truck began their deadly collision course. Nardone’s men covered their retreat by firing their M4s from the back of the Bongo truck. When Ayala’s unit saw the flashes, they believed they were being fired on and did what they were trained to do when encountering a hostile enemy—destroy them.
Before the report exonerated the soldiers for the “friendly fire” killings, tensions were high between Ayala’s 3rd Platoon, responsible for the shootings, and 2nd Platoon, whose members were the casualties in the incident.
“Everyone thought it was our fault. That we got trigger-happy,” says Ayala. “But after the report we all kind of breathed a sigh of relief.”
But the troubles wouldn’t end there. Immediately after the incident, Ayala and other members of his platoon had difficulty getting back to the business of war.
“I was really hesitant to pull the trigger, but luckily we weren’t in any ‘shoot or you die’–type deals,” says Ayala. “I really didn’t want to shoot unless I had to. I didn’t want to make the same mistake twice.”
The trauma of the event invaded Ayala’s sleep, giving him picture-for-picture nightmares of what happened, sometimes as often as several times a week. Eventually, the images followed him from the end of his deployment in Iraq all the way back home. In an effort to outrun them, he married his girlfriend, his best friend’s little sister, who was just eighteen years old. Ayala was twenty. It was not an easy time for the young couple, as Ayala’s very identity had become entwined with the terrible things he had seen and been part of. The memories of the blue-on-blue incident were like vines wrapped around a tree, both squeezing the life out of him and holding him in place, tethering him to that November day in 2005. He avoided crowds, nearly jumped out of his skin during a Fourth of July fireworks display and kept a loaded shotgun leaning against the bed, paranoid someone would break into the house. At night, believing he was still in Iraq, he would sometimes roughly shake his wife awake and tell her it was her turn for guard duty. Other times she would wake him, telling him he was shouting out random phrases in Arabic. His life became a mixed bag of corrective medications. He began taking lorazepam for depression, Celexa for anxiety, Ambien to sleep. The Ambien led to sleepwalking and episodes where Ayala would turn on all the lights in the house and toss the towels and bedding on the floor, almost as if he were searching for weapons in Iraqi homes during his deployment.
Even with all the medications, he would still sometimes wake up covered in sweat and hyperventilating. Despite all the challenges of his return, Ayala’s wife became pregnant and gave birth to a baby girl they named Kyleigh. But the happiness of having a new daughter couldn’t assuage the pressures presented by the couple’s youth and Ayala’s post-traumatic stress. The marriage ended after just two years. Ayala knew he needed help and the medications weren’t working. He wanted to talk to someone about his issues related to his deployment, but still being in the military, he knew that could be a tricky path that could hamstring or end your career by getting you labeled mentally unfit for service. Ayala was willing to take the risk, especially since his burden was compounded by a personal tragedy. His adopted mother, Pam, was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Her condition deteriorated quickly and she died on May 13, 2008, while Ayala was on a plane from Fort Benning in Georgia to New Hampshire, on his way to see her. Now the person he probably trusted most would no longer be there for him.
“A lot of guys don’t want to be seen as weak,” he says. “But my feeling is, if you need help, you need help.”
Ayala found it through an Army Family Life chaplain at Fort Benning who had just been training in EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy. The technique induces rapid eye movement in the patient, who follows the therapist’s finger or a light bar with their eyes, theoretically opening up a channel of the brain to help the patient to neutralize the negative thoughts or memories that plague them.
“He just kept asking me a series of questions that took me from that place in my mind where I was a screwup to ‘I’m a good guy, just bad things happened to me,’ ” says Ayala. After a series of these sessions he began to improve and eventually stopped taking the antidepressants and sleep aids that had been prescribed for him. He says he still has the occasional nightmare about the friendly-fire incident, especially as the anniversary of the date it happened draws near. But he’s in a better place.
While time and therapy gave him some healing and perspective on the harrowing events of his first combat deployment, in the spring of 2010 he was sent to war again, this time to Afghanistan. No longer the innocent child watching Gulf War soldiers on television, he felt as if he’d seen enough war in this lifetime and was not eager to go. Before he left, he wondered how the new memories and trauma of this war would stack against the old. Would there be room for it or would the burden of another year of killing and watching others die once again become too much? He also questioned whether he would actually survive himself. At the very least he felt satisfied that he had done his best to reassemble the jumbled pieces of himself that he was left with after Iraq and was prepared to do the same if he had to once again, after Afghanistan.
“I know what I’m getting into. I’ve experienced war,” he says. “Going to Afghanistan, I’m hoping to get some closure from it, where this time nothing happens—we leave with all the guys and come back with all the guys.”
Ayala sent me an e-mail after he got back from Afghanistan in the spring of 2011.
I got back from Afghanistan about three weeks ago. Definitely not quite what I was expecting. They will stand and fight you much longer and harder than the Iraqis, but they also, for the most part shoot at you from a longer distance. I got promoted to SGT re-enlisted for another five years and I reunited with my ex-wife shortly before I deployed to Afghanistan. It was a struggle over there, I lost some good friends, but all in all, I’m doing ok, despite everything.
An e-mail from Ayala a few months later tells me he’s separated from his wife again, but . . . still doing okay.
Excerpted from the book “The Things They Cannot Say: Stories Soldiers Won’t Tell You About What They’ve Seen, Done or Failed to Do in War” by Kevin Sites. Copyright © 2013 by Kevin Sites. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.