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Walk in My Combat Boots
True Stories from America's Bravest Warriors
By Matt Eversmann
With Chris Mooney
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Walk in my Combat Boots is a powerful collection crafted from hundreds of original interviews by James Patterson, the world’s #1 bestselling writer, and First Sergeant US Army (Ret.) Matt Eversmann, part of the Ranger unit portrayed in the movie Black Hawk Down.
These are the brutally honest stories usually only shared amongst comrades in arms. Here, in the voices of the men and women who’ve fought overseas from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, is a rare eye-opening look into what wearing the uniform, fighting in combat, losing friends and coming home is really like. Readers who next thank a military member for their service will finally have a true understanding of what that thanks is for.
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A CALL TO DUTY
Mike Levasseur grew up outside Hartford, Connecticut. When he graduated from high school in 1997, he joined the US Army National Guard. He served as a civilian firefighter and paramedic for twenty years alongside his military service. He was deployed eight times, three of which were combat missions. After sustaining multiple injuries, Mike retired at age thirty-eight and went on to earn a master’s degree in emergency management from Georgetown University.
We’re not going to make it.”
This from Jackson, the squad leader of my platoon. He’s referring to the forty-plus Humvees on the base in Kuwait, which in 2004 is nothing but a big mess of tents in the middle of the desert. The vehicles are all soft-shell. Not a single one has armor on it.
It’s 2:00 a.m. I just stepped off a plane.
Jackson opens his duffel and removes two Gatorade bottles—the big thirty-two-ounce ones. He hands them to me, then looks back down at the bag, thinking.
“Better make it three,” he says, and grabs another one. “Follow me.”
Twenty-four hours ago, I was at Fort Drum, in upstate New York, training with the US Army National Guard and freezing my ass off in forty-five-below-zero weather.
I haven’t slept since I was pulled from the field. No soldier does when told you’re going to war.
Jackson finds an engineer. “We’re heading to Baghdad,” Jackson tells him, “and I’d like to make it there in one piece.”
“What do you need?”
“Plate armor. Enough to weld the doors and cover the underside in case we drive over an IED on Military Supply Route Tampa. I also want to line the inside floor of the Humvee with sandbags.”
Jackson holds up a Gatorade bottle. “Brought you one of each. Vodka, gin, and bourbon—the good stuff, not the cheap stuff. We have a deal?”
Five hours later, we’re driving a jerry-rigged Humvee in a convoy heading north on this main highway that goes from Kuwait all the way up to Mosul. The road is flat and blackened from explosives. Smoke from a burning hulk of what looks like a car billows into the hard blue desert sky, taking me back to my time in Bosnia. I was there, working an ER shift at the base hospital, when 9/11 happened. We watched it live on a TV in the hospital’s waiting room. When we saw the second plane crash into the building, right then we all knew we were going to war.
Jackson comes to a stop. We’ve driven less than a quarter of a mile.
“Possible IED ahead,” he says. “Got to wait until the engineers clear it.”
We dismount. Everything is flat and dry and unbearably hot. In the distance I can make out the sound of small arms fire. My adrenaline is pumping, my mouth dry. I keep looking around me.
I worked in Bosnia as a medic. I was also loaned out—pimped out, as we call it—to units that needed a medic for their combat patrols. The biggest worry I had was stepping on a land mine. No one ever shot at me.
It takes well over an hour to clear the IED. I get back into the Humvee. The drive to Camp Anaconda, northwest of Baghdad, is over six hours.
It takes us two days.
The first battle in Fallujah happens three months later, in April. Some Blackwater guys riding in an up-armored Chevy Suburban stop on a road by the bridge at the entrance to the gates of Fallujah when they’re approached by a group of kids selling gum, candy, soda, and fake Rolexes. A guy rolls down the window to buy some candy, and a kid drops a frag grenade into the Suburban.
The burned, charred bodies of four Americans are dragged from the wreckage and strung up by the bridge. The insurgents declare an all-out war against the Americans in Iraq.
They start slicing people’s heads off on TV.
Camp Anaconda, where I’m stationed, is a sprawling military supply base that houses close to thirty thousand civilians, soldiers, Marines, and airmen. Every branch of the service. Even the Navy is there.
Camp Mortarville, as it will become known for the around-the-clock attacks, turns into the most dangerous place in Iraq. Pilots dropping off supplies keep their engines running. Each night when I go to bed in my small A-frame tent, with electricity that works maybe 40 percent of the time and no running water, I wonder, like everyone else, if I’ll be alive come morning.
The hospital, one of the largest in Iraq, overflows with casualties, mostly young Marines. The latest casualty is a kid who jumped on a grenade to save his buddies and was KIA. His name was Raphael Peralta, an immigrant from Mexico who came to the US and joined the Marine Corps.
I’m working in the ER on another young kid, his hand hanging on by the skin, when I’m told I’ve been pimped out for medevac. The kid keeps screaming to hurry up and cut his hand off and patch him up so he can go back to his guys.
Flying in the back of the Black Hawk helicopter, my adrenaline pumping, I’m told we’re heading to Samarra. A homemade bomb exploded near an Army guard post. As the Black Hawk lands, I remind myself to be ready for anything.
The bird’s door opens to screaming and smoke and blowing sand and I’m off and running. Someone is depending on me to save his life.
Dealing with trauma on the battlefield, seeing limbs blown off by an IED, the amount of carnage and blood…it’s more surreal than anything from a movie. Two Army soldiers have been torn apart by the blast. One is dead. Later, I’ll learn his name: Specialist Anthony J. Dixon, of Lindenwold, New Jersey. He was twenty years old.
The other is still alive. He’s on his back, blinking up at the harsh Iraqi sun. I drop to my knees and begin to apply a tourniquet around the stump of his missing leg.
His name, he tells me, is Armando Hernandez. “I need you to level with me, Doc.” He licks his lips, his eyes sliding to mine. “Is my junk still there?”
Gallows humor. It’s the only thing that keeps us sane.
“Still there,” I tell him.
Hernandez tells me he’s from a farming town in the desert of California. Volunteered to serve his country. He’s twenty-two and has kids of his own. I’ve got him stabilized. As we fly back, I keep looking at his uniform—he’s Army, like me. I’ve been on that road at his guard post at least one hundred times. This could have easily been me lying here.
Hernandez is alive when we land, and he’s alive when we bring him into the ER.
I’m on my way to clean up when a grave-faced combat surgeon finds me.
“No,” I tell him, shaking my head. “Don’t tell me—”
“There was no way he was going to survive, not with those wounds. I was amazed he was still alive when you brought him into the ER.” He sees I’m not buying it and adds, “Trust me when I tell you that you did everything you could.”
I believe him, and yet some part of me refuses to believe him.
The surgeon sees that the indecision is eating me and says, “Mike, if this had happened on the front steps of Walter Reed, he wouldn’t have survived.”
I try to take some solace in that as I head to the showers. It’s Marine Corps–style, cold water only. You get wet, wash, turn the water back on, then get out. Nothing refreshing or relaxing about it. As I scrub down, washing away the blood of a brother, I have no idea what this war will end up costing me.
In my upcoming year here in Iraq, I will spend half of my time outside the wire. Years from now, I’ll end up with a pretty nasty case of PTSD. I’ll suffer permanent brain injury from having gotten blown up several times. I won’t be able to run, and there will be days when I can barely stand. I’ll have memory and sleeping issues, and my future wife will catch me every now and then clearing the house in my sleep, even kicking in my own closet door. It’s one of the reasons why I won’t keep guns in my house.
But I will never have a single regret. I will think of Armando Hernandez and Anthony Dixon and Raphael Peralta and the young Marine screaming to cut his hand off so he can go back out and fight with his brothers and sisters. I will think of them and all the brave soldiers who served with me in Iraq, and my heart will swell with pride and sadness, and it will haunt me that I’ll never be able to accurately describe their sacrifices to others.
Jason Droddy and his twin brother, Kevin, entered the Army on March 18, 2009. They served six years with 3rd Ranger Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment; deployed six times; and executed more than 150 missions each. Jason got out as a sergeant. His real estate company, the Droddy Group, helps veterans buy and sell their homes.
I’m okay with dying. You have to be okay with it, consciously or subconsciously, to be good at this job. If I’m not okay with it, I’ll hesitate, and I will get killed. There are no second chances.
My Ranger missions involve looking for and capturing certain high-value Iraqi targets. We go out mainly at night. It’s a lot of kicking in doors and rushing into rooms, not knowing who—or what—we’ll encounter. Each time it’s a mystery. I get into a lot of firefights, some of which are pretty intense.
My twin brother, Kevin, who is also a Ranger, is in a different part of the country, doing the exact same thing I’m doing. This is the first time we’ve ever spent any extended time apart.
When I’m having a weak moment, tired, anything like that, I think of Kevin. Back at basic training and during Ranger school, we never showed weakness because we wanted to be strong for each other, always. I have to be strong and focused so I can return home to my family.
And there’s no question in my mind that Kevin and I are coming home together.
One night I’m given a mission brief about a high-value target hiding inside a compound. Our guys have been watching this compound all day long, and certain individuals who appear to be guarding the compound walk back and forth from the perimeter to a wood line that is basically facing the compound. From comm chatter, we find out there’s a heavy World War II–era Russian machine gun sitting somewhere in the wood line.
“Protect the machine gun,” we hear these guys say. “Don’t let it get wet. Make sure someone is watching it at all times.”
That night we do a landing within three hundred meters of the compound. I run off the back of the helicopter. The rotor wash is intense, and the brownout is bad; I can’t see anything, and it’s loud, chaotic.
The bad guys don’t know we’re here. They’re staying low in the poppy field as we creep toward them. I see one guy hustling away from the compound to the wood line, and because of all the radio chatter I know he’s going for the big machine gun. I can’t let him get to it. I need to protect the force at all cost. Now.
I fire with my squad automatic weapon (SAW), a machine gun that fires long six-to-nine-round bursts, and end up trading shots with the bad guys. It’s the first time I initiate combat.
The guys I’m with—we’re tough, trying to be manly men and acting like we’re not scared or worried, but they know how close I am with my brother. Anytime the leadership finds out Kevin is in contact with the enemy, they always invite me up to the Joint Operations Center (JOC) to watch the intelligence surveillance reconnaissance (ISR) feed from the drones so I can keep an eye on what’s going on, watch what’s happening. It’s tough to watch Kevin in a fight but there’s also a relief in being able to see him and know he’s okay.
We start doing some remain over day (ROD) missions, where we infiltrate one night and then move to the target compound and set up shop right before sunrise. We remain over day in a compound and then fight, pick fights, or just wait for a fight. The next night we move on to another target, or move through some trench lines and into some really bad areas.
I’m with a private, the two of us walking point on a trench line running from one fighting position to another fighting position. We’re walking along the interior edge when he says to me, “Hey, keep your eyes open. We saw some movement here during the day.”
I work my way down the trench system. Then it makes a little shape, like an S. I look down the trench, but I can’t see all that much. I move, trying to stay as quiet as possible.
I hear talking. I’m thinking it’s one of my guys just being loud, like telling everyone to back off, try to spread out more. Then I listen a little closer and hear the voices speaking Pashto, the Iranian language of Pashtuns—and they’re close, really close. I have an adrenaline dump and stop dead in my tracks.
I jump on the radio. “I’ve got voices around this corner.”
A first sergeant responds. “Get over the wall. Keep it between you guys and see if you can spot where these guys are at.”
I back off a little bit. My squad jumps the wall and then I continue toward the S turn. As soon as I get around it, I hear machine-gun fire open and pepper the wall the squad is ducking behind.
We basically get up on this wall, throw the machine gun up over the top, and press fire. We shoot two of the guys who are trying to flee. I know there’s a third one somewhere. Every time I peek over the wall, I see a muzzle flash from below, where this third guy is shooting up at us.
My SAW jams. I take every grenade I have and throw them over the wall so I can buy myself enough time to fix the jam.
The bad guy stops firing. I wait.
“Push over the wall,” the first sergeant says. “Make sure you have support.”
We set up support. The guys in 3rd Squad push over the wall and begin to clear the trenches.
We jump over the wall. Right in front of us is a dirt walkway that drops down into a six-foot trench. We stand topside, looking down into it. As I walk, I find a little mud bridge that crosses the trench. Down to my right, my squad leader sits down on the edge of the trench, looks underneath the bridge to make sure the third guy that was shooting at us isn’t there.
I cross the bridge. On the other side I find a stockpile of guns the enemy tried to cover up. We’re in a bad area for IEDs, so I leave the stockpile alone, come back across the bridge, and start working my way down toward my squad leader. He drops into the trench, and I see gunfire coming from underneath the bridge.
I immediately turn and go to jump the wall to get cover. Then I hear my squad leader scream, and, knowing he got hit, I turn and run back to the trench line, where I see my private pulling my squad leader out of the trench. I jump down and give them suppressive fire, focusing on the area underneath the bridge. I can’t really see where the shooter is, so I just shoot everything to give them time to pull out my squad leader.
As soon as I know he’s out and clear, I jump out and jump back over the wall. Immediately we back off enough so the birds can drop fire.
I catch my breath and think to myself, I don’t think I can walk anymore.
I fall over.
I’ve been running on straight adrenaline, it was the only thing keeping me going, and now I’m starting to come off of it and my body realizes how tired it is, and I collapse.
I lie on my back in between rows inside a grape orchard, waiting for the fire to come, and I start thinking about Kevin. I pray he’s okay, wherever he is. Safe.
We’re going to go home, together, I keep telling myself.
The birds arrive and destroy the trench line from one end to the other.
JODI MICHELLE PRITCHARD
Jodi Michelle Pritchard’s father was in the Air Force. She was born in Ohio, and when she was six months old she moved to Berkeley Springs, West Virginia—a one-horse town that had one stoplight. An only child and a self-described tomboy, Jodi loved playing in the dirt with G.I. Joe figures, and at an early age she fell in love with the military. Her great-grandfather served in World War I, her grandfather in World War II, and her father volunteered to go to Vietnam. Jodi wanted to continue her family’s military legacy and, like her father, joined the Air Force. In August of 1998, with a certification as a national registered paramedic, she attended basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. She’s a flight nurse in the West Virginia Air National Guard. Her current rank is major.
My turn comes in 2003. I’m going to Iraq, as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
We board the C-141 military transport plane with our medical equipment bags, flight gear, and chemical gear. IV pumps, cardiac monitors, and all the critical medical equipment we need are already all laid out, but we have to configure the space by hanging straps and putting up poles for our litter stations.
I also have my personal bag with me. It contains my death letter, my final message to my loved ones. I hope to God I don’t need it.
I’m a senior airman but, at twenty-three, the youngest of the group.
Tonight, we’re flying to Baghdad, which is not only the safest, most secure spot for us to land, it’s also the most central location to collect our patients: wounded soldiers, children, even prisoners. We’ll load them up and make the six-hour flight back to the Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
Our pilot briefs us before we take off. “Listen, when we get into Iraqi air space, we have to go dark.”
“What does that mean?” I ask.
“We kill the lights and go in under night vision. You guys will have to use your goggles. Then we’re gonna do an assault landing.”
Oh, my gosh. I’ve done a practice assault landing on a C-130. A 141 is a completely different plane. A 141, I’ve heard, has to basically do a spiral in order to get to the ground.
When we hit Iraqi air space, everything goes black—no lights, just night. I’m buckled in. The loads block all the windows, and we can’t get up and see what’s happening outside.
I put on my helmet and flak vest.
The loadmaster looks at me and says, “You have to sit on it.”
“Sit on what?” I ask.
“Your flak vest,” he says. “When we spiral down to land, they’ll shoot at us, and the bullets can potentially come through the plane. Because of their direction, if you’re sitting on your vest, you’ll have a much better chance at not getting shot.”
“Well, why do I gotta wear a helmet then?”
Everyone starts laughing, including the loadmaster. It’s a comical moment, but I’m thinking: What the hell did I join?
We’re all sitting on our flak vests when we go radio silent, though we can hear our strapped-down loads clattering against the plane floor.
There’s no chatter among us, but on our headsets, we can hear the pilot, copilot, and engineer synchronizing, going through their checklist. “Okay,” I hear the pilot say to the copilot, “we’re starting our descent.”
The plane starts a hard-left rudder turn.
Starts to bank.
Then we start to do a spiral. It’s like a huge corkscrew—a roller coaster from hell.
And it keeps going and going and going.
The pilot says, “Gunfire, eleven o’clock.”
I can hear it, the gunfire happening outside.
They’re shooting at us.
The copilot says, “Gunfire, two o’clock.”
Even if the windows weren’t blocked, I couldn’t see the gunfire because I’m not on night vision. But the pilots can see it, and the plane is spiraling and spiraling—
Bam, we’re on the ground, pulling back the engines.
I have no idea what’s about to happen next.
They lower the ramps. A representative from the hospital and one from MASF—the Mobile Air Staging Facility—come on board, hand us paperwork, and start talking, only we can’t hear them because the plane’s engine is still running. Why haven’t they shut down the plane?
I quickly find out why: the airport is hot. The base is getting hit by multiple mortars.
“I can’t hear you—we can’t hear you,” I shout. “Just bring them on board, we’ll deal with it.”
We load the patients and take off. We have to corkscrew up for the same reason we had to corkscrew down—to avoid the antiaircraft threat.
Ten of our twenty patients are stretched out on litters. Good God, these poor things—some of them are all shot up, and some have lost limbs. One soldier is in a torturous-looking metal traction device locking together the ball of the hip to the femur bone. The contraption looks straight out of the horror movie Saw.
We run around with rolls of white medical tape, tear off an inch or two, and stick it to each pillow. On the tape, we write the patient’s pain scale, the wound location, the medication and dosage he receives.
We have to treat the patients while also dealing with the stresses of flying—like the g-forces which can be a detriment to a patient’s IV bag. We’re constantly adjusting IV bags—and we’re constantly looking in on the man in the traction device. His leg bones, held together by pins, rattled during takeoff, and they rattle every time we hit turbulence, causing him massive pain even though we’re trying our best to keep his leg as padded as possible.
Someone screams to use the rest room. He wants to get off the litter but can’t because he’s missing a leg.
Someone screams for narcotics. Beside him, another patient sits quietly, staring. With all that’s going on inside his head, he can barely answer our questions.
I check on a soldier who is missing half of his face. He looks up at me and says, “Ma’am, I need to know when this plane’s going to land. I need to know when I can get back to Iraq.”
“You’ve been shot, honey. Why don’t we give this some time, okay? You’ve been through a lot.”
“No, I want to go back.”
“I understand that. I get it. And I want you to go back. I do. But first we’ve got to get you to Ramstein so the doctors can take care of you. Let your body heal, and then we’ll get you back.”
“I’m good, I want to go back, I’m ready.”
He’s not the only soldier who says this to me during the flight. All the guys on board want to go back. Every single one.
That same year, our commander brings us into a room to explain our next mission.
“Your crew has three critical care nurses, and you’re one of the most highly qualified teams we have here at Ramstein,” he tells us. “We have three patients who are pretty sick.”
“How sick?” I ask.
“They’re going to die. They’re going home to die. We need to fly them to Bethesda, Maryland. You need to keep them alive until you get to Walter Reed.”
You can do this, I tell myself. “Okay,” I tell the commander. “We’ve got this.”
We’re given the plane’s tail number. The crew—all five of us—get out of our car and find the plane without a problem. I step on board.
What the hell is going on?
The front half of the plane is filled with caskets. Six of them.
Soldiers are draping an American flag on each one.
- "Up close war is a tapestry of individual stories, as painfully raw, improbably funny, and completely human as the soldiers themselves. James Patterson and my former Ranger comrade Matt Eversmann, have brilliantly woven together an image that is as compelling as it is entertaining." —Stanley A. McChrystal, General, US Army (Ret.)
- "This book will take your breath away, break your heart, and leave you in awe of the hard work, raw courage, ingenuity and resilience of the men and women who wear the boots. You'll hear them say why they do it, and how they deal with triumph, tragedy and living with the legacy of their service. Every American should read it." —President Bill Clinton
- "James Patterson is one of America's great storytellers. He is a also a first-rate reporter. He and Eversmann have collected stories of brave men and women who have defended our country. Each one is a profile in courage. Read this book and you will have even greater respect for those who serve in our military." —Chris Wallace, anchor, FOX News Sunday
- "Combat is hard to make sense of. Probably because, in many ways, it makes no sense. James Patterson and Matt Eversmann's unvarnished portrayal of soldiers is right on. Each of these stories of the personal experience of combat is unique, homespun, and honest. God bless them, one and all." —Brigadier General Peter Dawkins, US Army (Ret.)
- “A vivid and authentic portrait of life in the modern military … Powerful. This edifying collection captures the highs and lows of the military experience.”—Publishers Weekly
- “Urgent and full of suspense. . . In this wide-ranging, consistently absorbing collection, the authors cover the entire spectrum of American military action during the last 50 years, from Vietnam to the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq . . . A gripping account of American military members’ experiences before, during, and after wartime.”—Kirkus, starred review
- “Extraordinarily well-written . . . Walk in My Combat Boots should be mandatory reading for every American citizen. These stories demonstrate that ‘the greatest generation’ is not confined to the World War II era. Those who currently wear the military uniform are worthy successors to those American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who have shed their collective blood on the altar of freedom throughout our nation’s history.”—Army magazine
- On Sale
- May 10, 2022
- Page Count
- 448 pages
- Grand Central Publishing