It was a scorching summer day in one of the most sweltering places on earth, Iraq. We had been on multiple missions looking for three 10th Mountain soldiers who were considered missing in action (MIA). We had been searching for over a month with no information but we were determined to find them because they were our brothers in arms and it was our job to protect our own. We had received news that morning that a boat of Iraqi military forces had located one of the soldiers’ dead, floating in the middle of Euphrates River. We loaded up the trucks and moved out to the area of which he was found. We started from the exact location and headed opposite of the river current in hopes of finding at least clues as to the other two whereabouts. The temperature read about a 123 degrees Fahrenheit and the man hunt was not looking like it was going to be easy.
I was parched and it seemed like there was not enough water in the world to keep me hydrated. I was exhausted from the heat and the miles of walking while carrying at least a hundred and fifty pounds of equipment that continuously dug into my shoulders causing immense pain. I was strapped with about a hundred pounds of body armor, an M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon that weighs twenty-two pounds and twelve hundred rounds of extra ammo. I was prepared for a battle that would never come but in the world that I lived in, it was better to have it and not need it then to need it and not have it. We had walked two miles down the Euphrates River when we had our first hot weather casualty due to the 120 degree hell we were marching in. Corporal Davids collapsed from the heat and was lying unconscious on the ground. He was brought up to the Humvee and checked by our medic where he was diagnosed with a heat stroke and was sent back to our Forward Operating Base (FOB) with a small convoy for further medical treatment. I was concerned that he would not be the only casualty, but my leadership was not taking any precautions to prevent them. Regardless of my concern we continued to press forward into what continued to be a struggling march for us all.
As I had walked down the river I realized the vegetation growing by the banks and thought that it was a nice little scenery change compared to the miles of endless sand I was used to seeing. I believed that the Euphrates was adding ten degrees to the temperature due to the humidity, which made that expedition that much more severe, even though the greenery was beautiful. I started to feel light headed so I grabbed the nozzle of my camelback and took a sip of water; there was still no sign of the missing soldiers. My squad leader, a short ill-tempered man, approached me and said, “Ferguson, do you need to take a break?” I knew this man very well, for I had been working under him beforehand for the past two years and I knew there were no such things as breaks in this man’s eyes.I replied, “No sergeant let’s keep marching.” He looked at me with a puzzled face for a few seconds then walked off. I told myself that I would take my break only after he took one first. He was a predator that was always looking for a reason to belittle his men and embarrass us if we showed an ounce of weakness. So in my stubbornness I always looked to push myself harder than him so that he felt insubstantial instead.
The weight was becoming a burden on my shoulders so I began to focus on putting one foot in front of the other and tried to keep my mind off the pain. All of sudden Private First Class Marquez passed out and started falling towards the river. I ran up and grabbed him quickly before he had completely submerged into the water. I pulled him up on the bank as my squad leader rushed up and said, “Ferguson take him to the trucks immediately for Simpson (our medic) to look at.” Great, I thought, another hefty load to add to my already hefty load. I picked him up and threw him over my shoulder and walked about a hundred yards uphill to the trucks. I continuously had to take breaks between the river and the trucks because I was already extremely fatigued. I reached the truck with our medic and said, “Where do you want him doc?” He responded, “Take him to truck four, make him eat some crackers and drink water slowly.” I headed towards truck four, which was about another fifty yards and set him in the back passenger side. I told the driver to make sure he drank water slowly and not to guzzle it down; then I ran back to my spot along the river. People wanted to make jokes of the situation but the truth was everybody was feeling the sun and it was no laughing matter.
To help ease the insufferable heat I began to think of home and all the goals that I planned for my life after Iraq and after the Army. I did this usually to escape from the reality of the current situation I was facing. How I wanted to go to school, how I wanted a career that was less bearing than my current profession and how I wanted to travel all over the world. These thoughts had brought comfort to me every time I day dreamed about them which was better than nothing given my situation at the time. I then had looked up and noticed my fellow comrades headed for a few trees with some nice shade underneath them. I then thought to myself, finally a break. I sat down under a rather large palm tree which I had specifically chosen because it provided the most cover from the sun. I ate a little bit of peanut butter and sipped on my water while the trucks were providing a three hundred and sixty degree protection of our surrounding area. Everything that did hurt was numb now and I didn’t feel light headed anymore. After about thirty minutes or so we continued on and I never once thought about allowing myself to give up; finding those soldiers was important to me. Finding the soldiers would have meant that I being there was worth something but unfortunately that was not the case.
The truth was those soldiers were found months later, dead in a house in Jurf Al Sakhar. We didn’t find them and we couldn’t save them and it was a crushing defeat for all of us. We tried and tried every day walking down that river and into the surrounding towns. I felt like everything I did was pointless but I did learn something new. I learned that I am capable of doing anything when my mind is set on it. We might have not located the prisoners of warbut I know I pushed my body and mind farther than I ever dreamed they could go. Fourteen miles in a barren wasteland that was over 120 degrees and it never took mercy on any of us. I never give up on something I care about and I never will.