Marines on Trial for Haditha Murders Massacre for a Fallen Comrade?
Part 3: 'You Can't Understand the Iraqis'
Miguel, a good-natured man, wrote that he would have liked to break through some of the mutual mistrust -- if only he could have talked to the Iraqis. But they didn't speak English, of course.
"You just can't understand the Iraqis," he wrote.
Most of his fellow soldiers were less forgiving. To them, the Iraqis were nothing but crazy, stubborn Arabs who should have been overjoyed to be liberated. And those ridiculous traditions. There was a rule written on the blackboard at Camp Sparta: Be nice and be friendly. But seriously, the Marines thought, be friendly? Respect their tradition, their culture? All the fuss about their women, the constant fiddling with codes of honor, and those ankle-length nightshirts the men wear -- women's clothing, really. It would all be so ridiculous, they thought, if it weren't so dangerous.
Miguel Terrazas wanted to be a good Marine. And he had a knack for cheering up his fellow soldiers when morale was poor.
The bomb exploded under the fourth Humvee in the convoy. Private First Class James Crossan, 20, from North Bend, Washington, was in the seat next to Terrazas. Salvador Guzman, a 19-year-old, sat in the rear of the vehicle, which was open to the back. Guzman was one of the more sensitive, nervous members of the company. It was his first time in a combat zone. He had originally been assigned to drive the vehicle that morning, but he asked Terrazas to take over for him. Miguel told him: No problem, Sal.
The bomb-makers use mobile phones, the remotes for toy cars or garage door openers as detonators. If a bomb doesn't go off, they simply re-solder the wire that may have come loose and reuse the bomb. The Improvised Explosive Device, or IED, is the emblematic weapon of this war.
On the morning of Nov. 19, the IED consisted of an empty propane gas bottle. The head had been unscrewed and the bottle filled with TNT, and then hidden under sand or dust. The men who set off the IED were probably nearby. Perhaps the insurgents had observed the convoy on its way out and calculated that the Americans would return. This is typical of ambushes in Iraq, where the return trip is often the most dangerous.
The explosion broke windowpanes nearby. Dishes fell out of cabinets and light bulbs burst. At the explosion site, the force of the bomb was directed against the floor plate of the Humvee, which is in the front of the vehicle.
The combustion process lasted only fractions of a second. A huge, white-hot flame shot up and the Humvee was thrown into the air, its upper half blown off. Rocks and gravel came crashing down on nearby roofs, and then a cloud of dust.
There was a burning smell and the sound of moaning. It was approx. 7:15 a.m.
According to estimates by the British medical journal The Lancet, more than 600,000 Iraqis have died violent deaths between March 20, 2003 and June 2006. During the course of the day on Nov. 19, 2005, between 64 and 96 Iraqi civilians (depending on which source you go by) were killed, as well as nine US soldiers.
The explosion catapulted the occupants from the vehicle. Guzman, who was sitting in back, was literally swept across the road, breaking his foot and suffering abrasions. Crossan, the man sitting in the passenger seat, was pushed through the door into a hail of debris, breaking several bones and suffering internal injuries.
Miguel Terrazas was ripped in two. His legs remained in the vehicle, under the steering wheel. His upper body was thrown into the air with the top of the Humvee and landed on the side of the road. It's unlikely that he suffered more than a momentary, blinding pain before death.
The rest of the convoy followed the standard procedure for situations like this. The three remaining Humvees drove back. Frank Wuterich, the sergeant in command, shouted out his orders to overcome the temporary deafness that follows an explosion. "Dismount, secure attack site. Where are Guz, Cross, T.C.? Get Crossan out from under that wreckage! Orderly Whitt: Administer first aid, radio for backup." The orderly obeyed, and someone radioed in the code word for an attack: "Viper Chestnut."
Perhaps Viper Chestnut was only the beginning? Perhaps they would all die that morning?
At some point they discovered what was left of Miguel Terrazas. He was their brother, even if he was from a different mother.
"Dear Aunt!" Those were the words with which Miguel Terrazas began the last letter he wrote home, on Sept. 29, 2005. He wrote on thin paper and his small handwriting was tilted to the side, almost as if the letters were about to fall over. "I have to admit that I don't like it here much. But sometimes I think that if we weren't here fighting, all those terrorists would come to us in the States. But then I have the feeling that there are other reasons for this war. Maybe we're here because Bush wants the oil. Or because he wants to impress his daddy."