Before my time in Special Operations Forces (SOF), I was mechanized infantry. We rode on these large armored personnel carriers known as the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

The Bradley, with its armor protection, is designed to transport infantry or scouts while providing covering fire to suppress enemy troops and armored vehicles. The Bradley holds a crew of three (a commander, a gunner, and a driver) and six fully equipped soldiers that are commonly referred to as dismounts.

I was a Bradley gunner, having gone “true blue” in my most recent gunnery qualification, meaning a perfect score and the best in the company. Much goes into true blue: it requires teamwork from the driver, gunner, and commander. All must be in sync with each other, and then the gunner must shoot perfectly. It’s a huge deal and a great honor to carry.

In early 2003 we deployed to Iraq, and my crew was going to be point and lead the ground force commander, LTG William Wallace, to Baghdad.

It was cold at night, enough to make you put on a jacket, and hot during the day. Sometimes it was so hot that the armored vehicle burnt you. We’d joke about putting eggs on it to fry, but well… no raw eggs in MREs.

We drew our brand new vehicles from the war stock and got them ready for battle. I was issued a massive roll of giant maps. I was 21 years old, a specialist, with a huge responsibility. Having been at it for a few years, I was comfortable with the task and knew my team had my back.

We got to the gate, and the gate guard stopped us. “You can’t leave!” Yelled the sentry. “We aren’t coming back,” I yelled in response. The look of confusion on his face was priceless, and we exited the camp and headed to the border.

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We were lined up in lane 10 on the border and waited. One hundred eighty thousand troops were lining up for the race to Baghdad. We learned that SF Teams had gone in before and would be in Tacoma trucks so we had to be careful.

The sky was bright with artillery, rockets, and everything else we were sending over the border. The smell of freedom and a tremendous force of power, like a huge eagle in the sky attacking its enemy, was in the air. You could only watch in awe.

This was serious now. Everything we had been training for had come down to this: to overthrow a terrible man, Saddam Hussain.

May 1, 2003 – President Bush on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, off California. (Vincent Laforet/The New York Times)

In the middle of the night, things got soft. I wondered what my dad was doing and if he was thinking of me. At the time, we weren’t talking as much as I would have liked. I missed him and wish I could have said goodbye. Then, SNAP! A loud noise came from under the armored hood of the vehicle, and we stopped moving.

“FUCK!” I knew immediately that we had just broken a fan belt.

I had the driver hop out. The huge 900 cubic inch twin-turbo diesel was hot and had to be accessed from the driver cabin and through the hood. Yep, I was right; the damn belt had broken.

This was usually something that had to be replaced with the motor out. Fuck, fuck, fuck. My boss began to search for a spare, and luckily a neighboring unit had one.

We were in our Mission Oriented Protective Posture (MOPP) Gear and we couldn’t get petroleum on it. So I had to take it off. Great…

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Petroleum products aren’t supposed to get on your MOPP gear. It can be dangerously degraded if an area is wet through the inner lining with petroleum products, sweat, urine, feces, or many common insect repellentsAlso, Antifreeze and petroleum products will cause false-positive reactions if tested.

So there I was, on the border of Iraq, butt naked, climbing in and around our vehicle, rockets and artillery lighting up the sky, struggling to get a new belt on our Bradley.

The room to get the massive belt on was only inches wide. The large 900 cubic inch turbo diesel motor was also backward with the transmission up towards the vehicle’s front. This was because the front sprockets drove the vehicle. We had no mechanic with us. It was up to me to get this done, and fast! We were moments away from invading the country, and we were supposed to be the lead vehicle.

Within an hour, I had it replaced. The midnight sky still lit up from the ordinance, and just a couple of hours later, the engineers had opened our lane. Now the sprint to Baghdad was on. The whine from the large turbo got louder as we approached the berm, all senses were maxed out with a deep conviction to save the Iraqi people from a cruel dictator.