As the we pulled into the outskirts of Mosul I began seeing indicators that something was very fucking wrong. Pick-up trucks with masked men carrying weapons seemed to show up on every corner. The stress was rising… Even though we were traveling in a local vehicle, had beards and were wearing local clothes, the never ending sense of death and danger was palpable in the small, four-door sedan. If stopped, I could pass as a Jordanian or Palestinian, Bob however, could not. We had rehearsed the ruse of him pretending he was deaf and dumb but this cover was only surface deep and couldn’t be relied upon in truly dangerous encounters.

I told him to cover his M4 as we pulled up to the first police checkpoint coming into the eastern edge of the city. Being a fluent Arabic speaker, negotiating checkpoints was a little easier for me than some of the other guys in the unit but, the pucker factor always high. We slowly inched forward, my left hand on the steering wheel and my right hand clasping the loosely concealed 9mm pistol on my lap. I always pointed my Sig towards the driver’s side door at the Iraqis manning the checkpoints, always ready to kill if things went south.

I engaged the tired looking Iraqi Police (IP) Officer with a thunderous Assalamu Alaykum ya akhi, shlownuk? (Peace Be Upon You my brother, how are you?) The IP Officer mumbled something back in Mosul dialect and waved us through. If only he had known I was aiming my pistol at his balls perhaps his demeanor would have been less nonchalant. But nonchalant was good, and lazy Iraqis meant less interaction with us while we were on the street.

As we were pulling away from the checkpoint, we both noticed that the policeman appeared to immediately get on his mobile phone and stand in the middle of the road looking at our vehicle as it was pulling away. “Fuck…” I said. “I wonder if he’s a spotter and calling us out to his boys down the road for an fucking ambush?”

Bob mumbled something in Spanish as he was prone to do when under a lot of stress and grabbed his M4 from under his dishdasha. As we continued forward into the bowels of the beast my intuition continued to tell me that something bad was going to happen. The trucks of masked men with weapons everywhere, the policeman making a call on his cell phone, the lack of kids on the streets, it all meant something. All the sights, sounds, and smells of that morning would indelibly be etched into my mind forever.

“Looks like we made it in pretty good time. I didn’t notice any surveillance coming from Kirkuk and other than the insurgents running around like they always do I think we’re gol…” I couldn’t even finish my sentence before Bob began screaming in his Puerto Rican accent, “Back up fokker, back up, it’s a fokking riot!!”

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As I looked over the crest of the four-lane divided road heading north towards the back side of Mosul University the car in front of us came to an abrupt halt. Instinctively, I slammed on my brakes and brought the shitty four-door Toyota to a complete stop. I immediately surveyed left and right and felt a sickening feeling overtake me. We had driven into the middle of an anti-coalition riot that had started at the University and had begun spreading throughout the city. The immediate action drills that I had learned at the offensive driving and shooting course in rural Virginia instantly came to mind. “Get of the X, get off the X, get off the X…”

I kept repeating this to myself as I frantically looked for a way to turn around and exit the debacle of epic proportions into which I had just driven us. In many Iraqi cities, two-lane roads were often divided by a tall cement median that precluded normal civilian vehicles from driving onto or over them. Hummers and other military vehicles had no issues but the trusty Toyota would not make it and would potentially expose us if we got stuck. As Mother Fucking Murphy would have it, there was a large median that early April morning in Mosul as Bob and I prepped for some gunplay.

I thought about what had happened to the Blackwater contractors in Fallujah and I realized that this was probably not going to end well for us. I started sweating profusely and looked over at Bob whose face was all contorted and shit; his eyes big as fuck. I felt my heartbeat begin to increase rapidly and felt the beginnings of an adrenaline dump into my body as my legs tensed up and I gripped the wheel like a stripper on a dance pole in Vegas. The fight or flight reaction almost overcame me as my field of vision began to dim and I felt lightheaded.

I strained for what felt like a brief moment in time, to remember my ex-wife’s face and thought about what had led to our untimely divorce just as I was going to war for the first time in 2003. Her image eluded me as my brain was overwhelmed with all the sensory data being taken in from the impending shitstorm about to go down. As my sight began to return after what seemed like an eternity, I saw masked insurgents waving their AK-47s, walking in and out of traffic and looking into all the cars in front of us.

Bob said in a low voice “Come on muthafukka, I dare you,” as his M4 was dangerously pointed right over my legs in the direction of the insurgents walking towards our car.

I immediately told him to cover up his weapon because if anyone saw it they would surely know we were American. As the insurgents and the crowd began to grow and migrate across the street, I placed my 9mm in my crotch, muzzle down, so I could dislodge my AK-47 from between my door and seat.

“Bob, cover your sector and let me know if we’re going to get hit, I got this side. Get ready my friend it’s gonna get loud and nasty in this bitch. . .fucking shoot me in the head if they pull me from this car, I don’t wanna end up like Fallujah…”, I said in a low whisper as if to avoid letting the insurgents hear me speaking English.

Bob responded accordingly with his normal throaty grunt and kept whispering something under his breath, probably a hail Mary or some shit. By this time, as our car slowly crept forward with the other cars caught in the demonstration, masked insurgents and rioters were gliding in and out of the near-parked cars like a swarm of angry bees. Their movements were not smooth and they were moving left, then right, and then would spin around with their weapons pointed in every direction looking into cars and banging on people’s car windows.

We are fucking dead…but, I’m gonna kill some motherfuckers before I go out, I thought to myself.

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Each time the traffic would move slightly, a small glimmer of hope that we could drive through the riot would bubble to the surface, then every time, it would come to a complete stop and the whole scene would play itself out again. As we finally crested the hill behind the University and looked down the road, we realized that we were about to pass through what appeared to be the center of the mayhem and that the situation wasn’t getting better.

Almost as soon as I called out the group of masked men headed in our direction from the 12 o’clock position, Bob quietly muttered five words I will never forget,

“Masked Hajji at the window…”

I turned to my left and prepared to shoot through the window point my 9mm at the guy from under the dishdasha on my lap. I couldn’t hear what he was saying but he obviously wanted me to roll down the window. He kept rapping his knuckles on the side window as I gave him what I call “the gesture.” This gesture, made by putting all your fingers and thumb together and pointing them upwards while slowly shaking your hand had been very useful in other situations so I tried it here. I stared into his eyes for a brief second, and then, for some reason, he turned and walked to the car behind us.

“Holy fucking shit…I was one god damn second from killing that bitch!” I said, as I steadily fingered the trigger on my Sig.

After fifteen minutes of masked and unmasked men, gunshots, and screaming, we finally exited the other side of the storm and continued towards the base. It only took about another ten minutes to arrive at FOB Freedom but it seemed like an eternity. I flipped a bitch on the highway into oncoming traffic, drove the wrong way up the exit ramp and crossed the overpass towards the front gate. As we approached, Bob placed a VS-17 panel on the front dash to alert the Iraqi and American guards that we were friendlies and not a suicide car bomber. As we neared closer, I decelerated to about 5 mph to avoid spooking the guards.

We pulled up to the front of the house where we worked and I placed the car in park; Bob got out and immediately walked up the stairs towards the door. It was only then that I realized I was holding a live grenade under my dishdasha. I have no memory of pulling it from my go-bag sitting on the floor in front of me. Luckily, I never pulled the pin.

I woke up the next day after sleeping 26 hours. I felt like shit, was hungry, dehydrated and all I could hear was the faint whisper of Masked Hajji at the window…

Then we got mortared. I often argued with myself about whether the mortars were worse than the gnats. The first time I saw a soldier sliced by the shrapnel from an 82mm mortar I reconsidered…