Sunday, October 16, 2005
Back to Iraq
• The rotor wash of the UH-60 Black Hawk tossed dead weeds and sand around us like a warm tornado as we sped to gather ourselves and our gear off the dependable bird. We were greeted by our company XO at the airfield. A stout, bright-eyed first lieutenant with a slight Northeastern accent, he greeted me with a firm handshake: “Welcome to your FOB [forward operating base]. Go ahead and load up your bags, and I’ll escort you to your new home.”
The second my feet touched the Iraqi earth, I felt as I often did when I’d return home for an overdue visit during college. A comforting feeling of the familiar, only without the reassurance that the visit would be short-lived.
The brief journey ended at the doorstep of an old Iraqi ammo bunker. A concrete hangar was fortified by steep mounds of sand and rock, much too small to house 24 grown men. I grounded my gear and immediately reconnoitered our new home. KBR had been busy the last year. Electric outlets, a big-screen television with satellite, air- conditioning units, outhouses, and portable showers. I was happy as a pig in shit.
I eventually began talking to members of the National Guard unit we were to RIP [relieve in place]. Their eyes were heavy with the burdens of combat they never thought they’d have to endure. They were tired, homesick, and ready to wash themselves clean of this place. I could tell the sight of us and our energy disgusted them. Thus far, their battalion had suffered fifteen KIA and over two hundred wounded. Killed by IEDs, indirect mortar and rocket fire, and snipers.
The majority of poop we received from the Guard ran along the lines of how worthless the IA [Iraqi army] company was. They entertained us with stories about how the IA has no reliable support system; their commander steals from the company; they run when they’re engaged; they’re always late, never want to train, lie, cheat, steal, have no honor, no integrity, and are related to the insurgents. “Our condolences to you guys. It’s going to be the longest year of your life.”
Music to my ears.
At night I went on top of our bunker and looked at a city lying five hundred meters away in a blackout. The night is incandescent, and a luminous moon casts shadows onto the coarse ground, turning it into a still, gray lake. It’s beautiful. Speakers from a dark mosque break the quietness of the evening and fill it with prayer. Right on time. Two neon green lights powered by an independent source light up its tower. We hear they use the lights to orient their rockets and mortars in the direction of the FOB. How ingenious.
Monday, November 7, 2005
Home of Civilization
• Time has flown by. It’s hard to believe, with all the frustrations. Because we are a specialty platoon, we are only authorized a certain number of soldiers, which makes us one of the smallest platoons in the battalion. We are very competent, and I am blessed with the most dependable squad leaders and soldiers. We consider it an honor to be a part of this group, and if one cannot pull his weight, he is removed from our platoon and sent to the line companies without haste.
I made my way out of the wire for the first time Monday morning. I was a bit apprehensive but exhilarated nevertheless. After hearing all the horror stories for a week, I was ready to see what this part of Iraq was all about. When I was last here, for my first deployment, we didn’t worry about IEDs and land mines; we worried about RPGs and AK-47’s. We headed out the gate and made our way on a southern route through the desert. Our M1114 up-armored Humvee hummed down the blacktop, and I immediately felt like a cowboy back on his favorite horse.
The pace has been frantic. My platoon has already been hit by an IED. A 155mm artillery rocket, remote-detonated by the side of the road, covered our truck in shrapnel and a cloud of black dirt and smoke. My heart sank until the debris settled, and I got the word no one was hurt. We were the first hit in the battalion. In the ten days since, our battalion has been hit with over twenty IEDs and roadside bombs, found and destroyed a dozen others, had ten wounded and one KIA. Our battalion commander walked into an ambush—we believe it was planned by the town mayor and senior sheik—and on top of everything else, we take indirect mortar and rocket fire daily.
We spent the last eighteen months training for a deployment, with the promise we’d be aggressive. We haven’t. It feels like we’ve done little but shoot some innocent civilians who appeared suspicious in some very tense moments. There’s little hope that our commanders will make any significant difference or that any real good will be done here. Yet.
Saturday, November 19, 2005
• We headed out to search a neighborhood where several IEDs have been found or detonated. Army intelligence believes the weapons are made, bought, and sold there. My platoon was to cordon off an assigned portion of the area, roughly five square blocks, and I was to escort the IA through the area, searching and seizing anyone or anything that was suspicious.
We arrived to our blocking positions in time to find the area all but deserted. I suggested to my platoon leader that we chain the doors of the shops and pull them open with the trucks. He agreed. We’d pulled open and searched about five stores when we were ordered by one of our commanding staff officers to stop destroying the doors.
Standing a good head taller than me, his breath stinking of Berry Blend Skoal, he spoke to me like a child he had just spanked.
“Is this necessary, Sergeant?”
“It’s either chain them up and get them open fast or spend ten minutes a door trying to cut the locks. We do that and we’re going to lose the attention of the IA fast.”
“Use your shotguns.”
“The doors are metal, sir.”
“We were issued bird shot, not slugs. It will ricochet everywhere.”
“Well, you just can’t pull off doors. Eighty percent of these people are innocent. You’re just going to have to search the open shops.”
“So much for being aggressive.”
“Nothing, sir. Roger, sir.”
We searched the rest of our designated area, targeting only open shops and cafes. The IA quickly lost interest in the mission, and their searches turned into conversations with merchants and store owners. I’d get one squad into a shop to search and find another squad getting food from a cafe. I’d have the interpreter explain that we had a mission and that they could eat later, finally getting them to continue, only to find the other squad smoking and drinking tea. One of our interpreters made his way to another cafe, giving up on the mission and getting himself some lunch. F—ing laughable. Not a weapon was found, and no one was detained. Dry hole. Again.
As the sun goes down and the city lights up, our trucks secure avenues of approach, shooting at cars that get too close. A VBIED [vehicle-borne improvised explosive device] wounded five this morning, two of them doubtful, a few miles from here.
The mosque sounds off behind me in prayer. The tower stands tall, marked by the crescent moon and neon lights. I call for an interpreter to tell me what the message is today.
“God is great,” he translates. “The coalition forces continue to occupy our holy lands, torture our people, and insult our women. We must stand up to the injustices. We call to everyone to stand up in the faces of the infidels. Justice will be served. God is great. … ”
Thursday, December 15, 2005
• Three in the morning, and we’re sitting in the parking lot of some tire shops just north of town, committed QRF [quick reaction force]. I’m so tired, and I know I look it. The IP [Iraqi police] and IA have been out patrolling for the last 24 hours, doing God knows what. The goal was to let the Iraqis handle this election themselves, including security, but we just can’t keep our hands out of the cookie jar, can we?
At first light we begin our patrol, hitting four or five of the twenty-odd polls freckled around the city and surrounding area. No signs of life yet. I ask our interpreter where everyone is.
“They will be out soon, Sergeant. It is a great day for Iraq. I must be out today to see.”
“Who do you think will be voted president?”
“You know Allawi? He will win. George Bush loves him. He called him a very strong man.”
“Do you like him?”
“Yes. He is a doctor and has culture.”
His excitement makes my neck tingle; I haven’t felt that in a while. He is my age, and we’re so different. His heart and soul are so much richer than my own, and he makes me feel guilty for hating these people so much. He calls me his brother and forgives me for anything I hastily say or do. He loves me like family, and he knows I would do anything for him.
It’s around 1600, and the polls are all but closed. Three reports of suspected IEDs have come over the net. I stare at my map, pondering the safest way to return to the FOB, when a distant boom echoes across the desert. A frenzy of voices fights through the speaker: Charlie Company has hit a land mine and requests an immediate medevac. The initial report states that there are two priority, one ambulatory, and one urgent surgical. The truck has been destroyed. We await our instructions. We head back south into the city, where we’re to wait at the IP building until all polling stations have brought in and consolidated the ballots.
Waiting in the dark, I’m standing in the middle of the street in front of the IP station. The distant sound of gunfire pierces the quiet night, probably celebratory. The Iraqis made history today, and I was here for it. God, I hope there’s no runoff.
Monday, December 19, 2005
• “They got us good today,” groaned my platoon sergeant.
Five killed in two separate attacks, if you want to call them attacks. Anti-tank mines and one thousand pounds of explosives buried next to the road. The casualties came from Bravo Company; I knew them only by face. We were immediately stood up as the QRF platoon, anxiously awaiting a chance for retribution. Fear ran coarsely through our blood, intoxicating us with anger.
“Stop by the aid station. Pick up as many body bags as you can. We’ve been tasked for the recovery mission.”
But in the end, we’re spared from the recovery mission. Five a.m. and I’m anxiously waiting by the quiet radio to be called for an operations order I hope comes. I can see it now: Operation Holiday Cheer. Clean out the city. Kill them all. Static. A voice cracks through the green plastic speaker box.
“Net call, net call, net call. This is Leader X-ray. All maneuver elements return to your normal patrol schedules for the next twelve hours. Respond in sequence.”
I guess we’re not in the holiday spirit.
Tuesday, December 27, 2005
• Christmas Eve, and we’ve drawn the worst patrol; everyone is feeling a bit homesick, and our stoicism is plummeting like a certain German dirigible. It’s cold and wet, and I’m trying to remember how I spent the last four Christmas holidays: Korea, Iraq, hospital, now Iraq again.
2230, and we’re overseeing an NAI [named area of interest] infamous for IED emplacements. My truck is roughly fifty meters off the road, sandwiched between two piles of dirt, giving us good concealment from the shiny stretch of highway, the quiet city lying dark behind us. Pop, crack, snap. The pile of dirt next to my door moves slightly.
“Shooter Six, this is Shooter Five. We have a shot fired to our southwest. Sounds close, about two hundred meters.”
“Roger. I heard it. Did anyone see exactly where it came from?”
Negative. We quickly reconsolidate and move through the neighborhood. The streets encompass lots filled with half-built mansions and gloomy shanties. I assemble a handful of soldiers, and we move into one of the homes.
“Get down! Get down!”
A young teen falls to his stomach; his sisters and mother cry and cover their faces, their eyes blinded by our tact lights. We clear the house and search it, finding a pistol and some suspicious electrical equipment commonly used to detonate IEDs. The boy tells us his father is a colonel with the IP and is at the home of his second wife. We keep a guard on the family and move back outside. Pop, crack, snap. A round ricochets off the street just feet from my truck again.
“Six, this is Five. Another shot fired. Location unknown, but it sounded close and to the west.”
“I’m right next to you!” Another soldier is hunkered low, kneeling behind the tire of my truck, his head bouncing around like a pinball. I look down at him, bewildered by his reaction and muddled by my lack thereof.
“Get down. Goddam! Someone is shooting at us. Everyone get down!”
I ignore him and search rooftops and windows through my night-vision goggles. Nothing.
“It came from one of those houses to our west.” I point.
“No, it didn’t! It came from over there. That house right there!” He points east to a two-story house.
“Are you sure?”
“Take your men and clear that house! I’m staying here to link up with the IP patrol. Now!!”
You’re wrong. You’re so f—ing wrong. I’m wrong too. No one knows where he is.
We sprint quietly through an empty lot and reach the wall encircling the house. There’s only one entrance gate, and it’s locked. I kneel as low as I can, making myself a stepladder for my squad leader to ascend the wall. We link back up at the gate and rush through as he opens it. The house is empty. I report it to Six, and we set up an OP [observation point] on the roof, marking our location with strobes.
The roof is comforting. The city is conquerable from here. Mosque towers hovering over the city glow soft-green through our night-vision devices. I smile. Where are you? Shoot again. I’m daring you. The third shot never comes, but I welcome our new friend and the element of excitement he’s brought us tonight.
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
Thomas and Clark*
• 1300. A perfect blue day. We’re halfway through an uneventful patrol with our IA sisters, sitting in front of a restaurant on the northeast side of town. I sit still in my seat, staring innocuously through an impenetrable windshield at the back of Little’s truck thirty meters in front of me. Garcia’s truck is twenty meters off the road, waiting to pick up the rear of the convoy. In my peripheral I can see his gunner, Hernandez, waving at the IA to move their ass. Little’s gunner, Thomas, pops up too …
The ground just meters from Little’s truck explodes, sending shrapnel, smoke, and dirt into and on top of our trucks like a nuclear hailstorm.
“Everyone okay? Matty?”
The speaker is exploding with situation reports. “IED! IED!”
“Anyone see a triggerman!?”
“Find the f—er!!!”
“Six, this is Five. I’m up.”
“Two, this is Five. You guys okay?”
“Negative. Thomas is hit.”
“Roger. Four, this is Five. You guys okay?”
Son of a bitch. I stop to check myself. I’m fine … Don’t get out of your trucks … We have to … There might be a secondary … We need a medevac. I don’t know how bad they are. Request urgent surgical anyway. …
We sprint to Little’s truck and pull Thomas out as gently as we can. He lies motionless on the ground, a pool of blood forming under his fleshy neck. Hernandez is back up in the turret, scanning with his M240B. With the exception of a known few who hurried to assist us, the IA remained in their trucks, cowardly, conspiratorial benchmarks in a bloody topographic survey.
“Six, this is Five. We need you back over here now. My truck has a flat, and Two’s truck can’t roll.”
“Okay. Roger. We’re on our way back. We’ll have to go split section. I’ll call in the nine line. Get them ready to move.”
“Roger. And tell Baker to get the IA out of their trucks and pull some security for us.”
“Five, this is Two. Thomas is gone.”
“What? Are you sure?”
“Six, this is Five. Report one Eagle KIA, one wounded.”
We position our remaining guys behind some defilade inside the IA’s lazy perimeter and listen for the QRF on the radio. Little hands me some Copenhagen and paces around. His uniform is covered in blood; the stains will never wash out. Back home, in my mother’s house, under old sweaters in a dresser drawer I used in my youth, rests a similar uniform. It’s stained with the blood of two friends we lost in Operation Iraqi Freedom 1. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about them, feel my blood-soaked hands slip into their insides when we pulled them out of the trucks two and half years ago.
Later that night, I attended a meeting with my battalion commander at the aid station. He’s a genuine person and an excellent leader whom I hold in the utmost respect. We were joined by my company commander, battalion sergeant major, platoon leader, and platoon sergeant. We hesitantly leaned down and unzipped Thomas’s black body bag. It was packed in ice and contained another black bag enclosing the body. We unzipped the second and pushed the sides away, revealing his still body. We stood quietly for a minute. We spoke about what we could’ve done differently, external indications of danger we might have missed, standards, and complacency. Underneath our words lay the inadequacies we feel as leaders, the blame we put on ourselves for the unfortunate events simply out of our control. Thomas died because that’s the nature of combat. He did what he was trained to do. We zipped the bags back up and saluted him.
Thursday, January 26, 2006
• I’ve been here almost five months—a rough five months at that—and the patrols seem to blend together. We’ve done a lot of good things here, but tragedies often make it difficult to see the forest for the trees. I think I speak for many when I say that my biggest fear is leaving this place in no better condition than we found it. But whether we say it or not, in between our bitching and bellyaching lies a purpose and a promise to each other. When we leave, this place will be better than we found it.