Soldier of Misfortune

The New York Times Magazine
April 13, 2003

(The following is an interview I conducted with Lance Corporal Derrick Jensen)

First off I want people to understand that there is more than just combat. We’re not seeing fighting at all times. Sometimes accidents happen. The other night, a good friend of mine, Lance Corporal William White, and I were driving along in a Humvee. We were setting up communication because we were both com guys. It was night. I was driving. I had my night-vision goggles on. You know N.V.G.’s aren’t the best; they’re good, but your perception is not the greatest with them. When I came up on the hole, I didn’t see it. The Humvee pretty much slipped into a canal and tipped upside down into the water. The cab we were in, me and him, completely flooded. Of course, I panicked. We were underwater. It definitely was a scary situation. You’ve got to stop and think, but you don’t really have time to stop and think. You’ve got to be quick about it and decide, What do I need to do here, where do I need to go?

The whole cab was submerged except for a tiny little area. I made it to the air pocket. I kept trying to go down and get White, but he kept pushing me away. I wasn’t even saying anything because he wouldn’t have heard me. But I tried grabbing him, pulling him up, trying to guide him, and he just wouldn’t do it. All at once, I was talking to God at the same time and screaming for White when he was still underwater. I was praying out loud, just hoping to God that I could get out of there. I was screaming his name, “White, oh, White, please no.” I kept trying to get him out, but he wouldn’t let me.

Finally I pretty much just bent the door down. By then, when I got him out, he wasn’t moving or breathing. I gave him mouth to mouth. He coughed up some water. He was breathing, he was conscious, he understood what I was saying because he was squeezing my hand but couldn’t talk. I pretty much told him, “I can’t drag you up this hill because every time I make a step the mud is making us slide down.” It was too steep. So I said: “I’m going to have to hold you, and we’re going to have to swim down until we find flatter ground. You’re going to have to hold on.” He understood, so he squeezed me and held on. Probably swam down a football field and a half until I found flatter ground. He was freezing, so I took off his jacket and took mine off and kind of bear-hugged him and held him for a while.

It was nighttime, and I couldn’t see without N.V.G.’s. I realized that we couldn’t find any help because I didn’t know where we were at. So I said, “I’m going to have to leave you here.” He understood. I went to find help. I was shouting and yelling. We’ve always been taught that you’re never supposed to shout because you’ll give away your position or people will think, Oh, that’s not anybody out there, they aren’t friendlies. But I didn’t have any choice. I didn’t have a whistle. It was submerged; there was no way I would be able to find it.

I just pretty much went the opposite direction I had been driving in the Humvee, hoping I would find somebody, somebody on the way. I had no idea where I was going. I ran over a couple of hills and had some dogs chasing after me. I was just shouting, “Help, somebody help me.” I was probably cursing a little bit. I was drenched. I was naked other than the fact that I had my pants and my boots on. Nothing else. My weapon was submerged. I had no idea where I was. It was all going through my mind: fear, no sense of direction. No one to help, no one to look for. I was pretty much on my own trying to figure out what to do with my friend and find help at the same time. I didn’t know whether I was going to run into the enemy. I was hoping and praying for the best–that we could have found somebody.

I found help finally. I had probably covered about one-half to three-quarters of a mile, at least. I came back with one of the sergeants in the platoon, two corporals and the doctor, on foot. I went back with them to show them where he was at. He was making a noise. The whole time when I was swimming with him he would make a wheezing noise. It was just a God-awful noise, wheezing just as loud as he could do it. I would stop the guys, the marines, every now and then and say, “Shhh, listen.” I could hear the noise as we got closer and closer.

We got him out of there, but the next day he died of hypothermia and drowning. He had water in his lungs. I did everything I could. But I didn’t get it all out. It’s a shock. The situation was combat–we’re definitely in combat right now–but we weren’t under fire or anything like that. It was a complete accident. You don’t expect something like that to happen. It’s not something you deal with everyday. You also don’t expect to save someone’s life, but when it comes down to that you give it your best and hope it works. In my case, it didn’t. I wish it had. You’ve got to be careful; you’ve got to keep your eyes open. You don’t just die in combat. There’s more things to it. But we know we’re here for a reason. We’re definitely here for a reason. This isn’t going to keep me out of the fight.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.