Fred Dickey's Island of Human Drama
Volunteer "Adventure" in Iraq Still Haunts Derek Coleman
Volunteer "Adventure" in Iraq Still Haunts Derek Coleman
By Fred Dickey June 19, 2017 San Diego Union-Tribune
Last week, ex-machinist Derek Coleman told of abandoning the comforts of North County for the “adventure” of war. In 2015 at age 25, he joined volunteer medics and spent a year and a half treating Kurdish and other Iraqi casualties of the war against the Islamic State.
Derek Coleman is a steely guy. His emotions are masked by an even tone and a straight-ahead gunfighter gaze. He spends words like a cheapskate does tips, but the things that happened to kids he can’t let go of.
“There’s one that haunts me the most. I ran up to the back of a Humvee and an entire family had been wounded, I think by a car bomb. There was a small boy who was dead and his brother was injured. So I climbed into the back to pick the wounded boy up.
“I put my arm behind his shoulders under his armpits. Then I put my other arm under his knees to carry him like you would. I didn’t realize at the time that his legs were only attached by bits of skin. So when I picked him up, his legs actually slid out from my arm and I almost dropped him.
“His femur actually scraped my arm. He was screaming in my ear, and he’s waving around, and his legs are flailing. I put him on the table and we started immediately treating him with tourniquets. Very quickly we loaded him into an ambulance. My clothes were covered in his blood.”
What happened to the boy?
“He died a few minutes later.” The shrug is in his voice. “What can you do?”
Derek spent a year instructing the Peshmerga (Kurdish) forces in basic battlefield first-aid and treating casualties of their battles with ISIS near Mosul. He and the other volunteers then found themselves out of work.
He says the Kurds backed off the fighting last November, having achieved their objective of freeing Kurdish villages from ISIS.
Derek’s group gravitated to the Iraqi army in its heavy fighting to free Mosul.
It was decision time for Derek and his friends. He says, “Do we go home? Do we join with the Iraqi army? We were very nervous about that because we had heard bad things about the Iraqis. They don’t like Americans. We don’t like them. We heard nobody was treating civilians, so we were like, ‘Well, **** it. Let’s do it.’
“We just pulled up one day. We said, ‘Hey. We’re here to do medical for you.’ There was one Iraqi officer who spoke a little English and he was just looking, like, ‘Who are you guys? What is this?’ They were standoffish.”
Occasionally, Derek’s group would run into U.S. military units that were there to advise and assist the Iraq army. He says with a grin, “I saw them ‘advise and assist’ the **** out of some ISIS fighters a couple of times.
“When we’d run into American units, they’d be amazed because we'd be driving our pickup trucks around. Of course, they’d be in giant vehicles that are 20 feet high and huge convoys and stuff. So us running around saying, ‘Hey, see you guys later. Thanks for the MREs’ (meals ready to eat)’ and we would just kind of drive away.”
The volunteers threw themselves into the battle for Mosul. At one point, they were with units farthest into the city, knowing they would be prime targets for ISIS fighters wanting to deny medical help to their enemies. That was especially true because Derek rarely carried a firearm.
The medics were treating up to 60 casualties per day; many were civilians, the flotsam of war.
Derek says, “Yeah. I mean, one bomb goes off to kill a soldier and there’s 30 civilians nearby, you know? There’s just simple math there.”
He says about 25 percent of casualties were soldiers, 25 percent were children and the remaining 50 percent were adult civilians.
“This is the way it would happen: A vehicle would pull up with injuries inside and we never knew what the cases were, or if it was, you know, a truck full of dead bodies, or a truck ‘full’ of one guy who broke his thumb.”
Is life cheaper there? Does death simply have to be accepted?
“Yeah, it is. I met people who were my age who were young during the first Iraq War. They’d talk about having bombs go off right outside their schools, sometimes daily.”
Derek would decompress his personal tension by trying to bandage spirits as well as limbs. “Every once in a while, I’d buy a bag of candy and just hand it out. I’d hand out water to refugees and have them look like, you know, their faces would light up.”
Doing little things when big things aren’t around.
Derek says, “We dealt with lots of female injuries. Bombs don’t discriminate. There was a family that had a newborn baby. The woman was carrying the baby and the husband was carrying all their belongings. The woman looked terrified.
“They look at me as, you know, blonde hair, blonde beard, blue eyes, wondering who the hell I was. Once they realized I was there to help, I saw this kind of relief wash over them.
“We put her into the cab of this big truck and I handed her things up. She was just staring at me and smiling. I was smiling back at her. She started saying stuff, in Arabic, and our translator was like, ‘Oh, she’s saying you’re an angel. Thank God you’re here.’
“I’m standing at the bottom handing her, you know, a blanket, with a smile on my face. … Yeah, that was cool. Every once in a while, I needed a pick-me-up after some tough times there.”
There was one time in particular when Derek might have thought that maybe going to Iraq wasn’t a good idea.
“I ran to treat a wounded soldier and while we were loading him into a vehicle, people started running and driving away. A car bomb was (being driven) toward where I was. I just ran because I didn’t know what to do.
“I remember I see this big armored vehicle going as fast as possible past me, driving away terrified, and I’m thinking, ‘OK, that thing’s booking it as fast as it can and I’m on foot. I’m dead. There’s no way I’m going to survive this. I’m just going to disappear any second now.”
The bomb detonated, but he had gotten beyond the blast.
None of his group became a casualty during his time there, but that was because of luck, not lack of opportunity.
Do you have flashbacks?
“Yeah, injuries I’ve seen. Children that I’ve seen wounded or killed. So many burned people and people who were literally blown up. It smelled like burnt hamburger to me.
“I walk down the street and smell a restaurant and it’s like, ‘Oh, wow. That reminds me of pulling out some charred dude, thinking he’s alive, but he’s not. It’s weird. Very gory (images).”
How did that change your view of war?
“How horrible it is. I didn’t actually realize how many civilians are just destroyed by it.”
Derek knew his time was winding down when the work his group was doing started to be smothered by bureaucracy, especially the United Nations and its World Health Organization. That wasn’t what he signed up for.
“Someone like myself was not as needed anymore.”
Bureaucracies give Derek a psychic itch, so in late April, he came home for good.
How did the experience change you?
“I don’t know. It’ll take a long time to see permanent effects. I’m more self-confident: 30 wounded people bleeding and screaming and it’s my responsibility. I pleasantly surprised myself. Hey, even when I get shot at, I can cut it.”
Derek says he went to Iraq with almost $10,000 cash and came home owing about $6,000. That’s an amount he calls “quite a bit.” Everything was gone, spent on living expenses and medical supplies.
He says, “Not too bad for your average 27-year-old American with no college loan. However, I was never a penny in debt before I left for Iraq, so it weighs on me.”
He plans to become an over-the-road trucker to repay his debts, but also — and perhaps more important — to roll down the window and feel the winds of the Great Plains on his face, and have his boss 1,000 miles away and out of cellphone reach.
How about police work? The San Diego Police Department is looking for people.
“I’m actually a staunch Libertarian and so most police work to me would be bureaucratic.”
A lot of life is.
“Yeah, and so I want to do my best to avoid that.”
You’re a lone wolf.
“Yeah, definitely. I don’t like being put into a box. I kind of like to stay home. I don’t go out on Friday nights and get wasted and this kind of thing because there’s nothing crazy I really want to do anymore.
“I like helping people. I like the idea of conflict resolution.”
Any thought of going back to school?
“No. I love to learn, but I hate school. I would always say I’d never let school get in the way of my education.”
Derek has seen what weapons can do to flesh and bone, but he still loves his guns and hates bureaucracy — not a crowd-favorite combination for a Californian. To Derek, the line might be: If I can’t carry, I won’t tarry. Or something like that.
He plans to leave California soon, perhaps for Wyoming, Utah or Idaho, where guns are household utensils.
There’s no doubt in his voice when he says, “My goal is to be happy. I don’t know how I’m going to do that, but I don’t care how. I just know that’s what I want.”
There’s a lot of throwback in Derek Coleman. And yes, I can see him in an earlier time — maybe as a cowboy, not the myth variety but for real. A rootless Civil War veteran or a freed slave trying to find a place that fits.
He wouldn’t be the trail-herd hand who jumps to the straw boss’ orders, or would be content to choke in the dust of riding drag.
He’d be the lone fence rider, spending his days repairing barbed wire and rescuing calves from mud holes.
He’d have a pistol in his bedroll, but only rattlesnakes would need worry.