Soldier Stories: ‘All I wanted was a cool drink of water’
By Jeanne McKinney
America was designed by its Founding Fathers to offer wellsprings of hope. Implanted deep in her history, are liberties and freedoms that foster American dreams, goals, and opportunities. I think of our soldiers as our most patriotic keepers of the wellsprings. They fiercely protect our nation’s refreshing waters of hope.
Hope is what Corporal Joseph Diomede, a 3531 Motor T Operator with Combat Logistics Regiment 1, hung onto on Dec. 6, 2010. This tall, dark-haired Marine remembers the day clearly. “It was a bad day for the whole platoon. We were on our way back from a Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Northern Helmand, Afghanistan, coming back down to Camp Leatherneck.”
Diomede was Vehicle Commander (VC) of the military’s newest defense against the metallic dragons of the desert — hidden in the dirt and ready to deliver explosive destruction.
His Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) 7-ton truck was equipped with a 240 Bravo Medium machine gun, providing security for the convoy. The truck looks like something built to survive an alien attack. Three vehicles in front and behind his MRAP were strictly for transporting supplies – with no offensive or defensive weapons.
Outside the truck, it sounded like a cannon, magnified, when the dragon released its concussive power. Inside the armored shell, Diomede vividly recalls, “It sounded like a loud clap. The truck shook and slammed to a halt —the explosion blowing the front tires off its sled-like body, so the extended front axle dug in the ground like a spade.” It wasn’t until Diomede saw the dust and smoke — water bottles exploding, and his ears started ringing – that he realized they’d been hit by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), even though the truck ahead had gone safely over the same spot.
The first thing Diomede did was check on his Driver and then his Gunner, who stands with his head out of the truck. Diomede recounts, “We’re all pumped up, adrenaline rushing and we’re screaming at each other – Whew! I’m feeling myself to make sure everything is still connected. Then right away I got on the radio, let my Convoy Commander know we got hit, saying “We’re going to need a sweep team to come up and rescue us.” Later, they discovered a skid mark on the turret from a tire that blew off – missing his Gunner’s head by inches. “Nobody got hurt, thank God.”
I asked Diomede how he kept his bearings. With tough resolve he offers, “Goes down to the 14 leadership principles they learn from day one in Boot Camp. The phrase ‘JJ did tie buckle’ helps them remember Judgment, Justice, Decisiveness, Integrity, Dependability, Tact, Initiative, Enthusiasm, Bearing, Unselfishness, Courage, Knowledge, Leadership and Endurance.” Following those principles for over four years has helped Diomeade be a better leader, helps him maintain a combat stance, so when he gets blown up – he’s “prepared and ready — in the chute” to engage in combat, and to do whatever he has “to do to protect his brothers and bring them safely home.”
“Even though the Mine Rollers and hand-held metal detectors sweep for IEDs multiple times, they’re still not finding all of them,” Diomede laments, “causing the pucker factor to kick in.” These buried destroyers “blow up when topical pressure forces two points of contact to meet and complete the circuitry. When a vehicle is hit, after 35-40 seconds, if there is no visual signal, you pull up and see what’s going on. Outside the truck tracks, there can still be more pressure plates 6 inches one way or another.”
“Before the MRAP, we were still driving around unarmored Humvees. Trucks were getting hit with roadside bombs and cut in half or turned inside out.” MRAPs have knocked the casualties down.
To Joseph, it’s frustrating to fight an invisible enemy that hide their dragons of war night and day, “especially when you see your buddies get blown up – you want to find out who did it. You can be in the middle of nowhere – no one around for miles. Even if we wanted to shoot at someone, we couldn’t because we don’t know who did it. These things might have been there forever. You get the rainy seasons passing, the wind and sandstorms — it’s going to cover up any track” that would warn of being near the metallic dragon’s lair.
Complicating the never-ending threat of IEDs, they are ambushed by small arms fire. “You have to respect the enemy as combatants. They are a lethal enemy. In the seven months we were there, we saw them progress from not being able to hit us from 100 meters with small machine guns and AK-47’s, to being able to hit us from 1000 meters.”
Asking where the insurgents get the technology, “There are some creative minds working for them that develop trigger mechanisms for the IEDs and the chemical makeup of the explosive.” They’re getting a great deal of help.
IED’s leave a trail of destruction, death, and sorrow for our soldiers and native Afghans. “These people – they’re drinking muddy water out of a river, making maybe $400 a year, eating half a bowl of rice a day.” They never know when death lurks under their feet. Fear and uncertainty overshadow hope.” Diomede reminds us: “Don’t take anything for granted.”
“When I was in Boot Camp, the only thing I wanted was to sit down with a cold glass of ice water. But for three months, I couldn’t have that. We have Americans crying about a fancy car – it’s the wrong color. If that’s the worst problem you have to deal with today, I think you’re leading a pretty good life.” Diomeade suggests. “Even if you don’t support the war — support our troops. If you have the opportunity, take 10 seconds and give them a friendly handshake and a thank-you. You’d be surprised how it makes someone’s day.”
Driving in Motor T (transport) is a dangerous Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) — a far cry from Parkridge, New Jersey and Joe’s closely-knit Italian family he talks to every day he can. When he first came home and said “I signed the papers” his dad realized his son wasn’t a boy anymore: “I was a man making my own decisions.” He threw himself completely into the Marines. Trekking the mine-ridden roads of foreign lands, he has never looked back.
Diomede wears a bandana with a favorite Psalm written on it. He reads it before and after every mission. He remembers being asked by a shaken Marine who had just gotten blown up.”How do you get back in the truck?”
“You just kind of do it. I’ll pray with you real quick.” Diomede collects Bibles from care packages and hands them out. For those who don’t want a book, he offers this,” I’ll look out for you – I’ve got your back. No worries.”
People looking out for each other. There’s great hope in that.
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