Taking a long drag on his Camel cigarette and slowly exhaling, he stood there, standing in the shadow of a huge and empty metal ammo container, relieved they had all made it back to their make-shift Marine base in one piece again today. It had been another long patrol as the SAW Gunner of Bastard (3rd) Platoon, stationed in God forsaken, middle of no-where Iraq—a place called Saqlawiyah, between Fallujah and Ramadi—the hot bed of fighting during the Iraqi War, or Operation Iraqi Freedom, as some would like to call it.
Yeah, they were back to their base, had cleared their weapons, and were supposed to be off duty and relaxing, if you could call it that; but standing around outside in required full gear, complete with Kevlar, helmet, boots–the whole megillah–just to be able to smoke a damn cigarette…well, there wasn’t much relaxing to be had, even when you were back from patrol, although you were never off duty. But thank God they were in complete gear, especially and particularly on that day.
This second deployment, coming only a few short months after returning to this hell hole from the first one, was different for CPL. Cheema, all of 21 years old, and known better as PacMan to his Marine buddies. They were the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Division, Golf Company, better known as “Reaper Company” or “God’s Company,” as some would say—and, yes, they were “the Bastards”—and were part of the great brotherhood of Marine Infantrymen, of which few can relate and even fewer understand. For most of those young Marines, this was now their second or third deployment as they stood around smoking and shooting crap with each other on that 2005 November 14th day, despite the war only having begun in March 2003. They were on 8 to 9-month long deployments, and by now the illusion that war was grand and glamorous had worn off, and was replaced with its harsh, weary realities and truths.
To prepare for that day’s foot patrol, they had started in the middle of the night and planned for at least a two-day journey, as they never knew what or who they would encounter. That day was no different. A big guy, Cheema, the squad’s designated SAW Gunner (M249 Squad Automatic Weapon), with the loaded weapon weighing in at 27#s, had to also carry at least 1000 rounds of additional ammo, as well as extra explosives. This was on top of the normal supplies he carried with his gear, like extra water, food, socks, flashlight, batteries, etc., which all totaled about 100#s of weapons, ammo, and gear he hauled around on his large frame on a daily basis, covering anywhere from 5 to 15 miles, in the pleasant 90+ degree weather. It was hot, but at least it wasn’t the excruciating 120+ degree broiling Iraqi summertime temps, as it was cooler in November, with every day being just about the same… sunny with blue skies.
No, this was not nice, clean, straight, level walking/patrolling like TV cops, but rather it involved a lot of stealth—hiding in palm and pomegranate groves, of which Cheema liked being able to snatch a couple of pomegranates once in a while to enjoy later. Crouching and crawling through weedy scrubby brush, laden with rocky dirty terrain, you had to be ever aware of the prevalent camel spiders and other poisonous critters known to inhabit that area.
Their location was in farmland country with irrigation supplied by the mighty Euphrates River, and so they often found themselves traversing up and down its banks while balancing their heavy loads, and wading through rice paddies, hoping their gear did not get wet and become useless. They were often tasked with paralleling the main mobile supply route (MSR) to ensure US convoys could get through, of course, minus any surprises from the enemy.
Walking for hundreds of miles in those conditions was cumbersome, but was nothing compared to continually having to be on your “A Game”—to be ready—to always be mentally alert with eyes in the back of your head, constantly looking, always expecting to come upon an IED (Improvised Explosive Device, of which the enemy disguised in the most ingenious ways), a bomb, indirect fire, a sniper, a bad guy…no, this wasn’t easy…this was war!
The mission of the Marine Corps Rifle Squad: “To locate, close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver, or repel the enemy assault by fire and close combat.” That is what they did, and they did it well!
So, the cigarette tasted good right about then, as he stood there smoking and thinking about all the “what if’s?” What could have happened earlier that day and all the days before whenever they “cleared” a house or structure, whenever they searched many more and questioned terrorist suspects? What if things had been different when they engaged in combat after experiencing enemy fire? What if the IED, lying in wait for them that day, had detonated? After all, those 9 Marine brothers hanging out smoking and talking, were nicknamed “the Boom Squad”—the squad that had gotten blown up more than 20 times so far, which was more than any other squad at that point.
It wasn’t a great statistic to brag about, let alone to have experienced, but it had earned them the unwanted illustrious “Boom Squad” title. You better believe there was no one else trying to compete for that record! Considering it all, he wondered when their luck would finally run out.
Cheema knew his mom would never quite understand why he had tattooed his torso and every limb of his body, and, yeah, he liked tattoos anyway, but it sure made it easier to find it all after an explosion. Sadly, he had been tasked with that job before, and it was nothing he wanted to remember. As horribly logical as was his reason for tattooing his body, it was the honest to God truth, but it certainly didn’t make it any easier for his mom in knowing their true purpose.
So, there he was standing next to the large empty ammo container with his “Boom Squad” Marine brothers, having a smoke and talking, and glad the day was finally coming to an end.
Then it happened! Cheema looked up from the ground not knowing how he had gotten there—not understanding what had happened! Not understanding that enemy fire from a 98 mm mortar round had just exploded inside the empty ammo container, and had blown it to smithereens, creating a deafening cascade of pummeling deadly shrapnel, and dust…. there was just so much blasted dust—clouds of it—he could barely see, and his ears were ringing from the reverberating sound of the explosion. The overwhelming smell of dust laced with the pungent smell of gunpowder, and who knows what else, was absolutely sickening. At that point, he didn’t understand the concussive force from the blast had blown him to kingdom come and showered him and his buddies with its destructive aftermath.
Staggering upright, and trying to gather his wits, he heard everyone screaming and yelling, but his focus was on Colley. Colley was down and down hard! He was bleeding! He wasn’t moving! He had just been talking to Colley and now he was lying there bleeding and unresponsive! Cheema rushed over and picked up Colley. It was like picking up a limp ragdoll. He carried his wounded buddy to cover—carried him to the medics—carried him to safety! Little did Cheema know at that time, while the adrenaline was flowing, that he had been hit as well—that he was bleeding and needed attention.
Ultimately, the mortar attack injured 75% of the squad, including Cheema, but thank God no one was killed in action. Colley and another Marine buddy were medevac’d out to the military hospital in Germany, as their injuries were substantial, but thank God they survived. The rest were patched up, and they healed and were sent back out on patrols to finally finish out their second deployment. He knew his mom had been called after the mortar attack and could imagine she must have been frightened and upset, but at least it hadn’t been worse. At least it hadn’t been two uniformed officers showing up at her door.
CPL. Zachary Cheema was the recipient of the Purple Heart Medal, as were the other Marines injured in the explosion that day. Purple heart medals are a combat decoration and are given in recognition for those servicemen and women wounded by an instrument of war in the hands of the enemy.
A newspaper article was written in Colley’s local newspaper in which he described his Marine buddy, Cheema, as being an angel who saved his life that day.
No one really knows or understands why the huge ammo shipping container, standing about 10’ high, was empty that day. It had been scheduled to be restocked the previous week, but, for some unknown reason, it wasn’t. They all continue to ask themselves, “What if…”
Cheema deployed for yet a third time before the end of his 4-year commitment with the USMC—completing 3 deployments in 4 years.
Reaper Company has yearly reunions in November and remain true to the USMC motto of Semper Fidelis…Forever Faithful.
Boom Day was written in story form by Cheema’s mom, and was her interpretation from their conversations surrounding events of that day and his life in the USMC, particularly during deployments.
Perhaps this isn’t a traditional Thanksgiving topic, but with the 245th birthday of the USMC on November 10th, with recognition of Veterans Day on November 11th, and with the fact there were no fatalities to the Boom Squad on November 14, 2005, it is truly a reason to give thanks for our country, for our freedoms, and for the courage and sacrifices of our military.
I am especially thankful and grateful 15 years ago on that fated day, Boom Day, that another angel protected my son, CPL. Zachary Cheema, from being mortally wounded, and despite his injuries and repercussions from war, he is alive, he is well, and he is still able to ask the question… “What if…”
Zachary Cheema is current owner, President and CEO of Grand Aire, Inc.
Grand Aire, Inc., is a Service-Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business.