A Rain That Never Ends

clip_image002.jpgAfter another roadside bombing in Iraq, CEXC responded to the call.

CEXC (pronounced “sexy”), the Combined Explosive Exploitation Cell, is comprised of approximately forty men and women, ten of whom are part of response teams, broken down into two teams of five, consisting of Federal law enforcement agents, branches of the military and members of the coalition.

One of the men in the unit was Special Agent Mitchell Wido, a 20-year veteran with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“Anytime our phone’s ringing, it’s going to be bad,” said Wido. “Almost all of our calls involved multiple KIAs. We constantly saw death and destruction.”

On this day, it would be no different.

untitled.jpgAs the convoy arrived, the destroyed vehicle was still smoldering. Accompanying armed forces quickly set up a security perimeter so CEXC could do their job – inspecting the scene, recovering evidence and conducting interviews to help find the manufacturing source of the IED (improvised explosive device).

An investigation of that magnitude – had it been back in the US on a pipe bombing, for example – would normally take all day. But in a war zone they never had the luxury of time. When an area was particularly hot, CEXC would sometimes have to complete their work in as little as fifteen minutes.

“Otherwise, we risked losing more lives,” Wido said.

But however long it took, that’s how long they stayed. Sometimes hours. And always in the middle of an extremely dangerous, highly volatile area.

People would gather, coming out of their homes, from around corners and behind alleys to get a closer look at the carnage and to watch the response team. CEXC always felt those eyes upon them, never knowing which of the onlookers might be insurgents. Every second they spent there subjected them to mortars, rockets, and snipers.

“When you’re in work mode, you put that out of your mind,” Wido said.

But there was one image Wido couldn’t shake – that of a soldier’s hat, his armor and some personal belongings in an open body bag. But there was no body.

“That’s when you think the worst,” said Wido, whom so often had seen the horrendous devastation the IEDs would inflict on the vehicles and on the troops inside.

Along with his principal duties as an explosives specialist, Wido was also his team’s photographer, documenting the investigation in pictures. Several of those shots included the GI’s hat on the body bag. It was a strangely horrific image of absence.

scan0003.jpgCEXC followed leads and searched through houses, looking for the makeshift munitions lab that made the IED. And while being away from base camp – Camp Victory – to satisfy their hunger they had to rely on MREs – Meals Ready to Eat, or, as the troops call them, Meals Rejected by the Enemy.

Included in the MRE bags are chemical heaters, as the military’s days of using flame heat are long gone. And the troops drank so much water in the desert that it would get boring drinking nothing else. So they carried packets of flavoring to add to the water just to change the taste.

This was a far cry from the way they ate back at the base, where meals were made-to-order and prepared by contractors, not military cooks – where each meal’s menu selection was vast and eclectic – and where every Friday night was “Steak and Lobster Night”.

But that kind of eating would have to wait until their return to Camp Victory. For now, they would be spending the night in the desert.

ordnance-2.jpgThe next day, CEXC located the house that had been taken over by insurgents and used to make IEDs. They also discovered cache after cache of ordnance – bombs and rocket propelled grenades.

“There’s ordnance everywhere,” said Wido about so much of Iraq. “It’s like a rain that never ends.”

A year had passed since that roadside bombing, and Wido was back home in Chicago, eight months after completing his assignment. And on a day not unlike any other day, save for an impulse or a whim or a particular mood, he turned on his computer and went to Google. And he typed in the name of that missing soldier.

He paused for a moment, and then hit “Enter”.

Several sources of information instantly appeared on the screen.

Wido found a story from the soldier’s local newspaper, revealing that after the bombing, the GI had been airlifted out before Wido and his CEXC unit had arrived.

The soldier had survived the blast.

And as Wido read on, the news got better.

After a brief stay in a military hospital in Germany, the GI flew back home to his small Midwestern town, where he was greeted with a homecoming parade. He had made a full recovery from his wounds. It was a far better outcome than Wido had ever imagined.

And with that bit of information, Special Agent Mitchell Wido turned off his computer and closed the most difficult chapter of his life on a good note.

This was the second assignment Wido had volunteered for in Iraq. In 2004, he trained Iraqi police in explosives and bombing investigations.

Today, Wido is still working as a special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.


Robert Keats is a screenwriter and humorist.