More than just another ominous catch-phrase from war in the Big Sandbox, Black Sunday was the day in April 2004 when units of America’s 1st Cavalry Division saw their routine deployment turn into a harrowing and costly fight. Enraged, motivated, and well-armed insurgents crammed the alleys, streets, and buildings of Sadr City. In that fight, a surging mob of militants ambushed one small unit of the Black Knight battalion. The heroic rescue attempt proved fatal for many of the determined soldiers who braved the gauntlet. Cav veteran Matt Fisk—who fought through Black Sunday and survived—gives us a gut-level, over-the-rifle-sights view of a short, violent period when one of the safest places in the war zone suddenly turned into a cauldron of death and destruction.
His rugged deployment with colorful and courageous fellow soldiers resulted in some serious problems when he returned home, testing his coping skills. He turned to the VA for help—and wound up with the same frustration that plagues so many of today’s returning combat veterans.
It’s all here in Black Knights, Dark Days—and it’s all brutally honest.
|Publisher:||Warriors Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.68(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Black Knights, Dark Days
The True Story of Sadr City's Black Sunday
By J. Matthew Fisk
Warriors Publishing GroupCopyright © 2016 J. Matthew Fisk
All rights reserved.
I've just killed a child, and I'm waiting for my conscience to tell me that it was a bad thing. Not just one child but three all at once, gone before my eyes could register that a cloud of red mist floats where three little heads used to be. Didn't I used to be a teacher? Yeah, I'm pretty sure that's true. I taught Spanish to at-risk teenagers. Sure, they were a handful as only pubescent males can be when made to do something they didn't want to do, but I can't recall that I ever blew their heads off for it.
Waiting. Not a peep from my soul, which probably means that I've killed that, too.
I had talked with Sergeant Bellamy and a few other bored soldiers about this moment less than a week before. We lounged on our cots, young lions who had never tasted the kill, discussing what it would be like in the abstract manner of the ignorant. Jokes — gutter humor mostly — floated in the air as though we were passing around a joint in some gratuitous Vietnam War movie scene. Everyone was nervous about crossing the border from Kuwait to Iraq, yet no one would admit it.
"Think you could do it, dude?" I'm as unsettled as the rest, the teacher recast in a post 9/11 mold as a warrior. It's an identity that I'm trying to reconcile, my mind full of questions, speculations, myths about what it would be like to take another human's life.
"What?" Sergeant Bellamy is younger than me and looks it.
"Waste a kid." I can't make my mouth say the word "kill." Using the word 'waste' makes it seem as innocuous as throwing away a piece of scrap paper.
"Don't know." He scowls as if the thought had been just birthed from his subconscious. "Hope I don't have to."
The subject came up as we passed the time away watching Blackhawk Down. We don't know war, not yet, so we grapple with the ineffable questions using the oracle of the day: war movies.
"I'd do it in a heartbeat if they draw down on me," declares one grunt with his nose in the latest copy of Swank magazine. I can't tell if it's bravado or calculated.
"I couldn't do it. No way," said another. He was a big guy with a newborn baby. The parallels struck too close to home.
Some guy from Boston was quick to chide him, "What? You sayin' that some raghead sonofabitch tries to put a bullet in your head, and you'd just let him?"
"Better that than having to live the rest of my life knowing I had killed a child."
More than a few untested warriors laughed and swore at him for being a pussy. I admired him for sticking with the conviction of his beliefs, even if I didn't share his certainty.
Still, I said nothing and mulled different scenarios over in my head. Killing a man didn't seem out of the question. We shot man-shaped targets all of the time, ostensibly to get us used to the idea of putting the shape of a man into our sights. I wore a sharp knife that I had prepared myself to plunge into someone's throat if need be. We had trained daily to use jujitsu both to detain and to kill. The mechanics of the deed were well known to all of us.
But what would it be like? Again, my only yardstick was the Hollywood tome of wisdom compiled by philosophers like Kubrick and Spielberg. War movies portrayed soldiers who killed as full of deep regret and post-homicidal angst. Even cops who took part in a clean shooting routinely checked out of life and into the nearest bottle of booze. Assuming these cliché archetypes bore any resemblance to reality, was it a price I was willing to pay to survive?
My answer came later that week during a routine patrol on my fourth day in Iraq. The proverbial Shiite hit the fan with hurricane force. Our platoon — four Humvees and 19 soldiers — was ambushed by a local militia, estimated at 10,000 strong. Within five minutes, two of our vehicles were disabled. The gunner on my vehicle was killed, shot through a gap in his body armor. His job fell to me, and I didn't want it. Any glamour that my mind attached to combat flew out the window with Sergeant Chen's soul.
I popped up through the turret, expecting to die that moment as a fusillade of bullets struck the armored plate of our vehicle. I looked behind us. No one followed. We were alone.
Left behind in the thickest part of the ambush, two of our vehicles could no longer move and the trail Humvee was trying to help them. Our mirrors had been shot out and no one could hear anything on the radio due to the deafening barrage of weapons — both ours and the enemy's. When he realized that our comrades were still locked in combat, the platoon leader ordered his driver to turn around and drive back into the ambush to get them. The driver wasn't happy about it. I wasn't happy about it. We did it anyway.
We were surrounded on both sides by three- and four-story buildings. Helplessness engulfed me as the enemy continued to pound our vehicle with unrelenting fire. Riddell drove so fast that I couldn't see a target.
Movement! A blur of motion caught my eye. I looked up to my right and glimpsed three small figures dressed in black. They huddled together on the roof of a four-story building. Children. Yellow-orange flame exploded from their midst. Muzzle flash.
Now I would answer the question posed five days and a lifetime ago.
This was wrong. Where had everything gone so wrong? I used to be a teacher. I love kids. Almost a year ago I was on a youth ranch in Arkansas. By day I taught Spanish in their on-site high school. At night, six of the children lived in my home. Sometimes I would play tag with kids. Sometimes we would play war. Bang, bang. I shot you. You're dead.
I put all three small figures within the iron, unforgiving circle of my front sight post. The gun roared. There was dust and there was blood.
I continued to scan for targets as we raced to save what was left of our platoon, engaging anything that moved. Bullets snapped and whined past my head and careened off of the vehicle's armor. I didn't care. It no longer mattered. In dealing death, I had died. Blood was the price of life. It always is. There is no question.
SO note by Weekes, Jennifer
The chief complaint is: Memory loss, possible TBI.
Patient reports difficulties with concentrating, memory loss, increasing irritability and possible TBI. Patient reports being in several IED explosions in 2004/2005 during his deployment. He recalls an incident in which a mortar round landed very close behind him. After the incident he reports feeling dizzy for 3 days, hearing loss, and difficulty walking. He reports that after the incident, he consulted with a medic and was given time to rest. Patient reports another incident in which a rock [hit] him in the back of his head. Patient reports that he now feels withdrawn, has difficulties with his sleep patterns (waking up 3-4 times per night), having nightmares once a week or sometimes monthly. Patient reports his plans to write a book. He expressed noticing worsening symptoms as he tries to recall incidents from the past. He stressed "I will write this book if it kills me."
Assessment: 1. ADJUSTMENT DISORDERCHAPTER 2
ACT I: INNOCENCE
IRAQ — 2004
The Iraqi man is tied to a chair with his legs stretched out in front of him and fastened to an iron bar. A soldier removes the unfortunate captive's shoes as he pleads for mercy. The soldier begins to strike the bottom of the man's feet with a bamboo baton. Fascinated, I never blink as the man whimpers in pain. I take a shallow sip from a soda can covered in Arabic writing. The scene cuts to an older Iraqi woman in a hijab, perhaps meant to be the prisoner's mother. She is weeping as she speaks to a pair of sympathetic men and gestures with B-film quality to a picture of the captive hanging in her living room.
With only a few shopping days to Christmas of 2004 I found myself, as I often did at two in the morning, watching Iraqi soap operas with mouth agape and mind 1,000 miles away. I could be watching one of a handful of British channels or even the Armed Forces Network, but I usually gravitated toward the Arabic networks after spending half an hour flipping aimlessly from one station to another. They are horrible, no matter which language you speak, and like watching a Special Olympics version of the running of the bulls. I lie to myself and say that I'm trying to sharpen my language skills. The truth is that I can't sleep. Most of us can't without pills or illicit alcohol. Sometimes I find Rollings or Puppet or Briones in the barracks TV room with the same expression on their face that I wear for such an occasion. We will sit together silently watching shows that put Telenovelas to shame with the magnitude of their schmaltz.
But on that particular night in December, I sat alone contemplating the future. Sergeant First Class Swope had gathered us NCOs a few hours earlier for the evening huddle to pass command information. "You can put out to your soldiers that anybody who wants to become an officer," he said, "can shoot for the slots they're offering for an ROTC Green-to-Gold scholarship. You can sit there and attend college while still on active duty and get your butter bar." I dutifully copied down the details in my green notebook without much thought.
Later I thought plenty about it, even as my mind wrestled with the concept of a McDonald's — McArabaya — commercial where the male Arab employees wore glowing white robes and desert head gear. When I first joined the Army in 1997, my recruiter noted my high ASVAB scores and college credits asking why I didn't want to be an officer. I told him that it wasn't for me. I wanted to be a Special Forces weapons expert. After I finished my first tour and volunteered to come back in after 9/11, the recruiter asked me again why I wasn't applying for Officer Candidate School. Not my style, I said. I just wanted some payback. And it really didn't seem to fit my personality. I came from humble means out of rural Arkansas and would never be the kind of guy comfortable around a West Point crowd. Plus, I didn't think I could do it, that it was beyond my ability.
But it's now December 2004, and I'm different. That other guy, the eternal optimist and slayer of dragons, died in a godforsaken alley on the 4th of April. He was the one who wanted to experience battle, to see if he had what it takes. The guy who took his place is one scary son-of-a-motherless-goat. He's the guy who, in the span of six months, has been on almost 200 missions outside of the wire. He has been shot at, shot, blown up, blown down and struck point-blank in the chest with a frozen chicken, among other indignities. He's the guy who laughs too hard at body parts littering the street after a gun fight. I don't recognize him when I catch his crazy eye in the mirror.
Only three months before, during a particularly grim and extended defensive action, he was knocked unconscious by a mortar round that landed a few feet behind him. It was not just a lucky round but had been directed there by a small child who had been sent in to scout their location. He hadn't killed the child, though he wished after the fact that he had. The blast evaporated a small puppy that he had been feeding only minutes before. They picked him up and sent him back to base to recover for a few days. When he rejoined his team, he left behind the last remnants of humanity and mercy that he had been guarding like childhood keepsakes.
Within minutes of assuming his post in the middle of hostile territory he was screaming at children who gathered below begging for schokolata. He began to shoot at the ground near them and was contemplating a center of mass shot when the company XO put a gentle hand on his shoulder. First Lieutenant Clay Spicer took five minutes to remind the young sergeant about who he was as an American and a human being. Five minutes and a calm tone of voice kept that young man from going to prison — or worse.
Though I have come to rely on that guy when the fit hit the shan, he also worries me. He's a guy I need to survive, a beast that enjoys his job perhaps a little too much. The X-O was right when he reminded me that other guy wasn't me. However, if I stay in this job, I will always need that other guy in certain situations and in desperate times. He will accompany me on every deployment with the rest of my gear. I had no illusions back then that the insurgency would end as soon as our yearlong tour was complete. We would be back, again and again, most likely facing off against the children whose parents we had dispatched on previous deployments. And every time, that other guy — that beast — would be rattling the bars of his cage, demanding to be let out to hunt.
So I sit up late watching Iraqi soap operas and contemplating my options. Lieutenant Fisk? Captain Fisk? General Fisk? I laugh out loud at that. Why not? I could sell it to my wife as a bump in paygrade, more family income. I sell it to myself as a way to honor Sergeant Chen and First Lieutenant Aguero. I suppose it is a way to escape what I am becoming. While contemplating this career change I had peppered Lieutenant Aguero with endless questions about what officer life was like, having only a glimpse into their world that I suspected was less glamorous than the war movies made it out to be. I am correct-a-mundo. Aguero himself is dreading his next promotion which will take him farther away from the rank and file. All the really high-speed door kicking, lead slinging, snatch-and-grabbing hooah-hooah type stuff was done at the junior NCO level or below. Ascending higher in rank, he explained, took you farther away from the troops and farther away from combat, the two things which I enjoyed most about this profession. While our officers are unusually involved in combat, that was generally the exception to the rule which declared that if a Lieutenant or above is pulling the trigger, something has gone dreadfully wrong.
This bit of knowledge is actually a two-edged sword for me. On one hand, I will have to bid a bitter farewell to the life I love. On the other, I can escape this ravenous war dog that I am becoming before it is too late to go back. At least, I so dearly hope that it isn't too late.
Amid the babble of Arabic actors emoting on TV, I close my eyes and run a different movie in my mind. It opens with a platoon of soldiers preparing for their first combat mission in Iraq.
* * *
"Fisk! Get over here!" I ran to the front of the convoy where the leader of each vehicle had gathered around a map laid across the hood of the Lieutenant's High-Mobility Multi-Purpose Vehicle, pronounced the world over as Humvee. Sergeant Lovett had his Kevlar helmet off and didn't look at all pleased. What now? I wondered. It was April Fool's of 2004, so I was wary of a prank. Two days ago, Sergeant York had filled Sergeant Bourquin's mouth with cheese-in-a-can as he slept while we waited to leave Kuwait and drive into Iraq. College fraternities drew their inspiration from Infantry guys, so I wasn't taking any chances.
"Specialist Fisk, you are going to be the L-T's recorder."
Had to be a joke. I stood there blinking for a second, waiting for the punch line. "You mean he wants me to be his flute-like wind instrument?"
"No, smart-ass, you're going to be the L-T's battle-buddy. Wherever he goes, you stick with him and write down whatever he tells you to. Can you handle that, Grandpa?" I had just turned 31 in Kuwait, making me his senior by five years. I was older than most of the guys in the platoon. The senior citizen jokes just came with the territory.
"Yes, Ser-gent!" I peppered his title with a little extra basic training lilt at the end, grinning all the while.
"All right, then. Grab your gear and move to the lieutenant's vehicle. Step it out, Gramps — we roll in five mikes."
I double-timed to the third vehicle, grabbed my helmet and water bottle, and slugged Deaver in the shoulder. "Catch ya later, ol' bean. Big daddy's movin' to the head of the class."
"What do you mean?"
"Sergeant Lovett ordered me to babysit the L-T. Let me know how that tan's coming." The two vehicles in the middle had no top and very little in the way of armor, so the crew got baked by the sun. The gunner stood in the vehicle's bed behind a makeshift Mad Max-type gun turret. The vehicle in the front and rear were M-1114 fully armored Humvees with tops that could withstand a fair amount of punishment. I felt a momentary twinge of guilt for leaving my buddies out in the open while I rode in a veritable armored Cadillac.
Excerpted from Black Knights, Dark Days by J. Matthew Fisk. Copyright © 2016 J. Matthew Fisk. Excerpted by permission of Warriors Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.