22 January 2010

Hijackers Come in Very Small Packages

Alyssa prepares to hone up on her flight skills at Disneyland's Dumbo ride before returning to her career as an international smuggler of cutlery.

I was going to write about my time home for leave and trip to Disneyland with my girls, but honestly, who wants to read about someone elses visit to Dinseyland? Thats about as exciting as a crowbar to the goolies. So instead, I'd like to tell you about getting to Disneyland and exactly how safe we really all should feel about the wonderful people who work for TSA at the airport, especially in light or recent events. Okay, I'm being just a tad sarcastic here.
We were scheduled to fly out of San Francisco International Airport on an early morning flight. To expedite our getting through security, we had only carry-on baggage. We grabbed our boarding passes at the Virgin American Airlines ticket counter and made our way excitedly to the TSA security checkpoint. After nearly stripping to my skivvies and making sure that the girls removed their Hannah Montana jewelry, we placed our bags on the x-ray conveyor belt; my camouflaged Army assault pack, and the girls brightly colored and clip on animal adorned school backpacks. We all passed effortlessly through the metal detector and anxiously awaited our bags to pass through to the other side. I waited...and waited...and waited some more. My bag was no where to be seen. The TSA x-ray tech looked suspiciously at her monitor, then at me, then back at her monitor again. She called a supervisor over who also looked intently at the monitor, then gave me what I can only describe as "the look." The supervisor spoke in hushed tones into his radio and a third TSA officer walked over. This one was wearing a turban and looked like one of the Indian extras from Raiders of the Lost Ark. He retrieved my bag and in a thick accent said, "Please Sir, to be coming with me." I was now just a bit irritated. I followed his holiness to a security table where my bag and I were separated by a chest high partition. "You are having a suspicious item in your bag," he barked. "Look," I said. I'll tell you right now what it is and save us both the trouble. I have a small bottle of lotion in that front flap." The way he looked at me, it may as well have been a kilo brick of Afghani black tar heroin. As I reached over the partition to point at the flap, Ben Kingsley shot back at me, commanding me to stay away from my bag, as he began zipping open zippers and pulling my clothes apart. Thankfully, my taste in underwear is modest (read boring) because now, my clothes were spread out for all to see. He began wiping my clothes with what loooked like a pancake sized cloth patch, which he then inserted into his double super secret TSA ACME explose-oh-meter. Apparently satisfied that I wasnt smuggling a 20 lb fertilizer bomb in my underwear, he directed his attention to my outer flap. I mean, I may have been accused once or twice of smuggling things in my underwear, but never explosives. Just sayin'. But I digress. He opened the flap and inspected my razor. He then pulled out my deodrant stick, removed the cap and took a sniff. I looked for hidden cameras and cheesy reality TV hosts hidden in the shadows, by now sure that this must be a joke. The Rajneesh'es look assured me it was not. He then gingerly removed my 6 oz bottle of lotion with two fingers. He had just sniffed my deodorant and now he was concerned about handling a bottle of lotion? I was beside myself.
"This is a problem," he said. No, I thought. The problem here is that your sniffing my deodorant. Theres just something fundamentaly wrong with that. He began to explain to me, apparently verbatim from the TSA manual of arms regarding skin care, that I was not allowed to transport over 3 ounces of lotion on an aircraft. I pointed out that the bottle was half empty, indeed making it only 3 ounces, and that at this point, he could spare me the word for word explanation. My pleas fell on deaf and turban covered ears. I finally told him to just take the bottle, put my underwear away and stop his love affair with my deodorant. It was only after putting my bag back together and handing it to me, that he saw the velcro tabs on my bag which said UNDERHILL US ARMY. "Have a safe flight and TSA thanks you for your service." I bit my lip, thankful that the little chip in my head that prevents me from blaring out the first thing that comes to mind was operating on full power that morning.
With my girls in tow, we made our way to the gate. It was then that Alyssa, my 8 year old, opened her bag to retrieve something. There in her bag was an unopened 8 oz box of apple juice and a fork from home! I had just been treated like a 9-11 conspirator, sure that if I had reached over into my bag, mid-inspection, that I would have found myself not at the Embassy Suites in Orange county in a few hours, but instead a guest at a luxury suite at Guantanamo Bay, answering questions about my choice of skin care products with jumper cables clamped to my nipples and my head wrapped in a burlap hood and submerged in a bucket of water. Yet my daughter had just passed unmolested through x-ray with a box of juice and a metal fork!
I saw an episode of McGyver once where he thwarted the bad guys by using a box of apple juice, a paper clip, a day old copy of the New York Times and a serving fork to make a powerful explosive. Yet my 3rd grade daughter had just smuggled half of his explosive recipe through the San Francisco International Airport security checkpoint without so much as a sideways glance. Alyssa could have single handedly stabbed a flight attendant in the neck with her fork and clubbed the flight crew with her box of apple juice then taken over the plane and flown us all to my secret vacation home in the Greek Isles. What was I going to do with a half empty bottle of lotion? Make their skin softer?
My faith in TSA has been shattered. I for one am very afraid...at least if I ever have to fly through San Francisco again.

26 December 2009


Authors note: I will be on leave in Reno from January 3rd, 2009 until January 21st, 2010. I will post again after I return and resume missions.

Gingerbread houses made by Camp Arifjan soldiers.

Nativity scene made out of butter. "I can't believe it's not Jesus."

Left side, front to back: Danny Ulino, Jake Sere, Christopher Rosales, and William Frijas.

Right side front to back: Scott Lynch (not pictured) Joel Martin, and me.

Camp Arifjan, Kuwait

25 December, 2009

0730 hrs

Christmas morning in Kuwait dawned clear, cool and bright. It was an absolutely beautiful morning as I stepped outside the barracks in my flip-flops and sweatpants to survey my holiday morning away from home. As I did so, I promptly tripped on a sand bag and went sprawling. "Perfect," I said as I swore under my breath. I picked myself up and quickly looked around. No witnesses. My pride intact, I dusted myself off and quickly went back inside to grab my shower gear. As I shuffled carefully to the showers, I noticed that strangely enough, there was hardly a soul around. Usually, the outdoor smoking area at the end of the barracks is packed with soldiers sucking down their 1st or 10th cigarette of the morning. It was empty. Arifjan was like a ghost town.

It was a pretty lonely feeling as I made my way to the shower trailer. The only person out this morning was a lone Pakistani man wearing the typical tan jumpsuit of the third country nationals employed to clean up trash and maintain the latrines. He moved head down, in slow motion, and looking up, just stared blankly at me as we passed each other and our eyes met. For a moment, it seemed as though we were the only two people in the world. I had never seen eyes more empty and devoid of life. I wondered if this was the pinnacle of his Christmas morning. Shamefully, I'd been feeling pretty sorry for myself lately. Being away from my girls for so long, and knowing how much they wished that Daddy could be with them on Christmas morning had taken its toll on me...and them. If I could have slapped myself without appearing like every crazy homeless guy I ever dealt with, I would have. What the hell was wrong with me, I thought? So, I was away from my girls. I was going home soon. I wasnt cleaning toilets and picking up trash on Christmas morning for $400.00 a month, or sitting on a mountain FOB in Afghanistan dodging rockets and small arms fire, trying to open an MRE with trembling fingers. I suddenly felt very ashamed and undeserving of how well we had it here.

I stood under the hot water and let it cascade over me. For one reason or another, mostly due to my own poor, selfish choices, the past few Christmases for my family had not been one for the scrap books. I had called home a few days before Christmas eve, and told Robbie how all I wanted was for her to make Christmas special and fun for the girls. She assured me that she would. We planned then for me to video call when it was Christmas morning in Nevada and I could share in the opening of presents. I was bound and determined to make the best of this holiday, no matter where I was and break the cycle. It was time to quit feeling sorry for myself and start living for today.

I walked back to the barracks feeling better about the day ahead. The chow hall had a feast prepared for lunch, and several of my closest buddies and I were going to go together. We were going to be for one another the family that couldnt be with us today, and for a little while anyways, forget about war, and Iraq, and long, lonely nights on the highways. The sun had risen higher in the morning sky, and I dont remember it ever being this crisp and clear in the Kuwaiti desert. The air smelled clean for once and you could actually make out the high rise office buildings and tightly clustered residential area of downtown Kuwait City and the coastline in the distance. Usually, this view was totally obscured by dust and smoke, making it seem as if we were almost imprisoned at Arifjan behind a hazy cell door that stretched from horizon to horizon. But not today. Today was going to be different. I just didnt know it yet.

The clock in my stomach told me that it was time to eat. I was as hungry as a hostage as we all made our way to the chow hall. The smell of Christmas dinner came washing over us as we neared the chow hall. As we opened the door and walked inside, I didnt recognize it. The cheap, cardboard santas, tattered and ancient red and white crepe paper streamers, and haphazardly placed decorations had been replaced by streams of colored lights, green and red linen table cloths, placemats and an atmosphere of Christmas cheer so thick, you almost had to brush it out of your face. Slabs of prime rib, sliced ham, real roast turkey, fresh, crisp steamed green beans, sweet potatoes with marshmallow, and real savory bread dressing and mashed potatoes were being served to us not by the usual emotionless Indian or Pakistani food service workers, but by Lt Colonels, and Command Sgt Majors! By the end of the line, my plate was as big as a hub cap and seemed nearly as heavy as a manhole cover. At the salad table, a small bar had been set up where egg-nog and sparkling cider were being served. The entire front area of the chow hall had been decorated with a gigantic gingerbread house display, colored ice sculptures, and a large nativity scene made out of butter. "Hmmm. I cant believe its not Jesus," I remarked in my best margarine commercial imitation. (I hoped God shared my sense of humor)

The chow hall was packed with Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines all enjoying what was hands down the best and most enjoyable meal we have yet had in theatre. For an hour at least, the world outside didnt exist. There was no war, no Iraq, cramped gun truck or dark cold, lonely highway. No strange cot or dusty tent on some distant FOB. No muddy boots or unshaved faces. Just Christmas morning spent with my brothers, and the promise of a new year and a better life awating us when we returned home.

There would be more missions. I knew that, and with them the risk that comes with being in the unfortuante position of being the last of an occupying army trying to withdraw from a country wracked by 7 years of war. No one wants to be that last casualty in the closing days. No one wants to be that big lottery winner. But for today at least, none of that mattered. It was Christmas, we were family and we were together.

20 December 2009

Nothing Says Christmas Like Poo and Fireworks

Tyler, Jake and I with the Christmas tree at Scania in Central Iraq.

Jake Sere, top, me, Cassie Roach and Scott Lynch before leaving Taji, Iraq, on our way to Talil and the "Big Nothing" for Christmas fireworks.

Talil, Iraq
19 Dec, 2009
0325 hrs

War, or what passes for war in Iraq these days isn't pretty, and men are often driven to do things that they might not normally do in a civilized society. (This statement will become more clear as you read on)

Unlike the heartfelt cards, letters and gift boxes from friends and family at home, the constant visual reminders of this time of year instill in us little that resembles a festive yuletide spirit. The twenty foot Camp Arifjan aluminum and plastic Christmas tree that stands outside the Zone 6 event stage makes Charlie Brown's pathetic little Christmas tree look like the tree at Rockefeller Plaza in comparison! Every time I walk into the chow hall and see faded cardboard Santas stapled to the walls, or the cheap green and red and white crepe paper decorations (I'm sure theyre the same ones that double for the Cinco De mayo celebrations) that hang from the ceilings and have probably been in continuous use since the Nixon administration, I want to strangle the food services NCOIC with a string of popcorn, or beat him to death with a glitter coated styrofoam reindeer. Don't get me wrong. I mean, it's not like we don't really appreciate the effort. It's only that there's something just fundamentally wrong with watching Pakistani and Indian food service workers hanging up Christmas decorations with about as much enthusiastic gusto as standing in line at the DMV.

The only respite from the constant reminder of a holiday that none of us here will really celebrate is work. Going on missions and risking small arms fire and IED's is far more desirable than being forced to endure a cheap imitation of what to most of us is our favorite time of year. Besides, what better way to spend the Christmas season, than on the road, with the closest thing we all have to family. That's how it was this last weeks mission to Taji, Iraq. It was probably the most fun we've had since first arriving here, a lifetime ago.

People, like SFC "Bobby" Hahn, SSg Mac Nelson, Sgt Scott Lynch, Sgt Cassie Roach, Sgt Lawrence Johnson, Spc Tyler Miller-Cobb, Spc Jake Sere, Spc Jason Frogge, Spc Sean Canfield, and Spc "Doc" Cho our medic. A quiet unassuming young guy, originally from Korea....This was our family for our Iraqi Christmas Holiday. It all started the first morning at Camp Beuhring, a sprawling US Army post just a stones throw from the southern border of Iraq and Kuwait. Lynch and Roach had gone to the small Starbucks, nestled in the Kuwaiti sand amongst a Nathan's Hot Dogs, the chow hall and a smattering of Hadji souvenir shops and brought us back latte's and donuts. I'm a cop, so right away, free donuts and the smell of a steaming mocha latte was all it took to put a smile on my whisker-stubbled, puffy-eyed face.

I went to Sere's area to try and wake him and offer him some of our "breakfast." Mistake. Sere is not what one would describe as a "morning person." Imagine Nick Nolte after an all night bender when he wakes up to find that he is not in his Brentwood mansion, but rather the drunk tank at L.A County Sheriff Central Booking smelling of vomit and cheap hookers. Not a pretty sight. I thought better than to pursue waking Sere for at least another hour. I couldn't resist. I nudged him none too gently and waved an apple filled doughnut under his nose, the likes of which was making sounds not totally unlike that of the wife of a Russian beet farmer with one of those throat cancer voice box thingys. Sere let out a low growl and threw an elbow. How was I to know he didn't like apple filled donuts? I returned to my area and figured to try again in an hour. I sat down on my rack, and savored the last of my free coffee and donuts, smiling wickedly to myself.

We would depart earlier than usual this morning for the Iraqi border to meet our convoy. It's the winter rainy season in Iraq and Kuwait right now, and the night before had seen a torrential downpour. The desert can only absorb so much water before it spits the rest back out of the ground creating an obstacle course of small, muddy lakes and ponds. The mud is like glue, and sticks to everything; boots, weapons and vehicles. Combine this with boredom, and four wheel drive armored vehicles driven by grown men who are reduced to 5th graders by the presence of muddy puddles, and you've got the makings of some first class mud-boggin'.

We left the front gate, our three 15,000 lb armored Humvees, being led out by Sgt Lynch and his crew in the 50,000 lb MRAP. We bumped and splashed along the muddy road, and past the low concrete jersey barriers that define the exit lane. Just past the front gate, there was a break in the jersey barriers just wide enough for our trucks to pass through. Beyond the break was the old exit road that had been closed due to deep potholes and ruts, now filled with rain from the night before. The temptation was too great. Besides, combat vehicles are supposed to be dirty...it's part of the the image. Miller-Cobb, driving the MRAP, suddenly pulled right and drove through the break down the old exit road and towards what looked like Kuwait's version of Lake Michigan. It was time to play in the mud. Like a formation of of WW2 fighter planes, we each peeled off and barreled down the road towards muddy oblivion. Lynch's MRAP hit the muddy water first. The lake exploded as the MRAP dove into it nose-first. The water parted as a geyser of mud exploded 30 feet into the air. Moses himself would have been proud. We quickly followed suit, followed by Roach's truck, and when we came out on the other side, laughing and howling like kids, our once desert tan war wagons were covered in thick brown-red mud. There was only one problem. The nearly hour long drive to the border, had a funny way of blow drying the wet mud until, by the time we reached the border it resembled the hardshell coating on an M&M. SSG Nelson, our gun truck escort commander, had elected not to play, and pulled up last, his vehicle nearly spotless and looking only slightly out of place. He good naturedly endured the jeers and ribbing for not playing along. But at least he didn't have to clean dried mud off of his lights and windshield.

There is a stretch of Iraqi highway in South Central Iraq that we refer to as "The Big Nothing." Its roughly two hundred miles of open, featureless desert. Even on a moon lit night, all you can see is mile after mile of absolute nothingness. Not a single bush, or rock, not a single mud-hut...just pure emptiness. On a no moon night like tonight, at 35 miles an hour, minutes pass like hours. Except for the vibration of our big diesel engines, there is no sense of movement, and no visual cues in the inky blackness. The silence, the boredom, the inevitable claustrophobia, and the obvious lack of road-side port-a-johns will eventually take their toll on any soldier. Especially if you're one Spc Tyler Miller Cobb and you're suffering from some mild gastric distress.

The hours of silence were broken by a HET driver, announcing that we would have to halt the convoy due to engine problems with his truck. "Sweet Freedom," I mumbled. "Lawdog's got boots on ground," I announced dryly into my headset as I stepped out to relieve myself. I took a few minutes to stretch the cramps out of my legs, then stuffed my 6 foot 195 lb frame back into my seat and slammed the armored door behind me. "Lawdog's boot up," I said, as I keyed my headset. "Roger that. Man-Bits is slow rolling," Lynch announced over the radio. "All Nomad 3-2 elements, this is Man-Bits," Lynch continued. "Keep eyes open for debris in the roadway and shift right. It'll be marked by a green chemlite sticking up like a birthday candle." "What the hell?" I thought. It took several minutes for my truck to reach Lynch's former location on the MSR. Several hundred feet away, in the dark, I saw it approaching. A single green chemlite, glowing brightly, and sticking straight up. As we came upon it, I could not believe my eyes. There, surrounded by a sea of baby wipes fluttering lazily across the highway in the night breeze, was a large brown, steaming mass with a green, glowing chemlite standing up in the middle of it all. At first, I thought that a perhaps a huge Mastiff must have relieved itself, right there in the middle of the MSR.

Funny thing, though. There are no Mastiffs in Iraq, and all the dogs I've seen in this country combined, couldn't have left as large a pile. "Miller-Cobb had to poo," Lynch announced matter of factly to the convoy. Miller-Cobb, God bless him, had held on as long as he could, but the demon living in his bowells had other plans. So during the halt, Miller-Cobb hurriedly climbed out of the MRAP, dropped trow, and right there in the middle of the Iraqi highway, with Sere covering him from the turret with the .50 cal "dropped a deuce." At that moment, Miller-Cobb instantly became the stuff of legends. If I remember nothing else of this deployment, I'll always remember the night that Spc Tyler Miller-Cobb, mild-mannered investment broker from Las Vegas, Nevada, braved the Iraqi night, and dry-docked one in the middle of MSR Tampa.

My sides aching with laughter, we drove on. I had been laughing so hard that I was cramping. Until a HET driver, obviously not paying attention, announced over the radio that he had just run over Miller-Cobb's little contribution to Iraq's eco-system. I wondered if he hydroplaned as I laughed myself into a convulsion.

With the approaching dawn just starting to turn the night sky a dull black-blue, our convoy began its turn onto ASR Aspen and the road back to Kuwait. On cue, Lynch announced "All Rebel elements...Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas," and in near unison, Jake Sere, my gunner Sean Canfield, and Roach's gunner, Christopher Lambert, shot up red and green star cluster flares. With one exception. A little slow on the uptake, and insisting on being different, SSG Nelson announced, "Happy Hanukkah," as his gunner, Sgt Lawrence "Velvet Larry" Johnson fired off his green star cluster flare, not into the air as prescribed, but instead mis-aimed his flare and fired it 90 degrees from the turret and directly into the desert floor where it impacted into the sand and burned itself out. "You...Bring...The...Fail." Sere called into his headset, and we all laughed ourselves into a fit as we watched our Christmas celebration unfold before us.

The sizzling brightly burning parachute flares, floating slowly to the ground hundreds of feet above us, bathed acres of desert in the colors of Christmas. As the flares hung suspended above us, swinging slowly back and forth under their parachutes, shadows created by the glow made the desert floor come alive. Miller-Cobb later told me that it was an absolutely magical moment...a moment, that did more to rescue our Christmas spirit than any cardboard Santa or aluminum tree ever could.

08 December 2009


Sgt Justin Haws, and just some of the small arms and shrapnel damage to his HET. Note the baseball size hole in the fuel tank at the lower right, and the exploded armored window in the upper right. (Photo courtesy of Justin Haws)

Taji, Iraq
30 November 2009
0500 hrs

Twenty six year old Army Sgt Justin Haws mission this night began like any other. After 8 months in theatre, the routine had become dull and repetitive. Like any soldier here, Haws thought about the possibility of getting hit, but quickly dismissed the idea as an event that happened to somebody else...if at all. So far, Haws, from Las Vegas, Nevada, and the rest of the soldiers of the 1864th Transportation Company had been lucky.

Up until this night, the 1864th had so far dodged a few minor scrapes with danger, but definitley nothing to worry or write home about. It's safe to say, we had become bored. Some of us hoped and even longed for contact. If for no other reason than to prove to ourselves and our buddies that we could be more dangerous than the insurgents when we had to be. No major League ballplayer wants to play in the World Series and never get to bat. It's the same in war. Not everyone will admit it, but most here hope to go home with the C.A.B, or Combat Action Badge. That little black, wreathe-wrapped bayonet badge, worn over the left chest, that signifies involvement in some sort of combat action. It means that we stood up, faced death and walked away...Hopefully.

Haws was the truck commander of a HET. A giant, multi-wheeled transport that hauls the heaviest of armor. These lumbering beasts, weighing in at nearly 100,000 lbs, are lucky to hit 45 miles an hour top speed when loaded. Haws' and his driver were in the lead HET in a 50-odd vehicle convoy headed north from Baghdad. The column was making its way slowly over a sweeping freeway overpass that spans Baghdad's largest municipal open air garbage dump. Fires burn almost continuously and sporadically throughout the dump, blanketing most of the area in choking, burning smoke that smells like death itself. The smoke-shrouded darkness of night, made visibility a challenge at best. The convoy slowed to avoid bunching up and keep a safe distance in the limited visibility. Haws sat quietly staring out the 2 inch thick armored window until it was nearly impossible to see. Then, without warning, his world exploded.

The IED detonated just a few feet from Haws side of the HET, throwing him from one side of his seat to the other. His head slammed against the armored glass and the air was sucked form his lungs by the concussion and pressure change of the explosion as he was simultaneously kicked in the chest by a Budweiser Clydesdale. Haws barely heard himself yell "SHIT!", over the screaming in his ears. Shrapnel and pulverized concrete tore into the side skirts of the trucks armor, the fiberglass hood and engine block, and shredded the 500 pound right front tire. Shrapnel punctured the passenger side tool boxes and storage compartments, and tore into Haws rucksack which was strapped on the rear deck. Several small pieces struck the Bradley Fighting Vehicle which was chained to the HET trailer. Like pissed off hornets, shrapnel zinged past and ricocheted off the truck's armor plate, leaving gleaming, silver dents the size of quarters and as deep as a marble. Two large pieces of shrapnel, both as large as a baseball punched into the 2 inch thick armored glass of the passenger door. The glass shattered and exploded into an opaque, milky white sheet, but held, saving Haws and his driver from most likely being killed.

Just as we had been trained, nearly a lifetime ago at Camp Atterbury, the rest of the column pulled around Haws bleeding, dying truck, and pushed ahead and out of the kill zone to re-group. Just then, a second HET, trailing Haws several truck lengths back, was suddenly struck by a second more powerful IED just as it was attempting to reach the rally point. This IED, more powerful than the first, drove a softball size chunk of shrapnel through a space between the drivers side front fender and the hood, punched through the thick steel truck frame just behind the front tire, and tore through the engine block itself, stopping the HET dead in it's tracks. The drivers side of the truck was punctured by large, burning chunks of shrapnel, tearing into fuel and oil lines, the drivers armored window and front tire. The truck, lurched and smoked, bled to death with an oily groan, and stopped. Several rounds of glowing green tracers fired from behind nearby concrete walls by an unknown number of insurgents, tore through the night, slamming into the front windshield and hood. As quickly as it had begun it was over. Both Arizona Guardsmen in the second HET, drivers from the 1404th Transportation Company, miraculously survived unscathed, despite the hell they had just been through. The HET's, large, armored, Jurassic trucks that they are, gave their lives for the mission and in the process saved all four crew members.

With the attack over, and the insurgents now beating feet for the nearest neighboring Baghdad zip code, Haws dizzily shouldered open the 250 pound armored door and spilled out of the truck. Haws world fell silent, his right ear deafened by the explosion. Luckily for Haws and the other HET crewmembers, a nearby STRYKER Brigade Combat Team had heard the explosions and rushed immediately to the scene. Haws and his driver were tended to by the Combat Team medics and loaded onto the heavily armed and armored STRYKER's, where they were transported to the nearest FOB.

I ran into Haws at the FOB the next morning when our convoy caught up with his just outside of Taji, Iraq. Up until that point, the rumor mill had it that Haws had been helicoptered out with unknown injuries. When I saw him walking towards me as I made my way to the shower, he had his typical ear-to-ear goofy smile splashed across his face. I clasped his outstretched hand and wrapped him in a bear hug. "What the fuck, Bro?", I yelled in disbelief. "I thought you got hit!" Haws then regaled me with his tale, like a kid who had just hit his very first little league home run. I swear he never took a breath between sentences.

Haws had been offered the chance to climb aboard our convoy, instead of continuing his mission, and head back south towards Kuwait with us the following day. Haws, despite the ringing in his ears, declined, saying, "I started this mission, and I want to finish it."

THAT's why I love these guys!

03 December 2009

Sunrise Over the Euphrates

Sunrise over the Euphrates

The view from the turret of the deserted Iraqi highway, looking over the top of the .50 cal, as seen through night vision goggles.
Taji, Iraq
29 November, 2009
0230 hours

We had been on the road for only a few hours, and the bitter, cold wind of the Iraqi night beat against me as I tried to take advantage of what little heat made its way up into my turret from the crew compartment below me. I soon forgot all about the cold, though as we neared the congestion of the city. At 45 miles an hour, we cruised along the Iraqi highway, which could easily have passed for any large, American metropolitan freeway, with one exception. It was completely deserted. I mean, post-apocolyptic deserted. The kind of deserted that makes you wonder if the end had really come while we were sleeping, and maybe we were the last inhabitants on earth. There was not a single car, no sounds of dogs barking in the distance, no people. Only darkened stucco and concrete buildings, occasional dimly glowing lights behind curtained windows, and blowing trash. It was both unbelievably lonely and un-nerving at the same time. Except for the smell of rotting garbage and burning trash, it was complelety devoid of any signs of life at all.

The convoy made its way onto an off-ramp and pushed slowly downward into the emptiness of the city center. Against all my instincts to stay low in my turret, I stood up as we turned left onto the main city artery of northern Baghdad. Holding onto the spade grips of my .50 cal with my left hand, I flicked the safety off with my thumb, and with my right hand moved the turret joystick to the right, swinging the turret to cover down on the darkened buildings and alleyways as they moved slowly past. The ghetto-like neighborhoods of northern Baghdad looked eerily surreal. Iraqi flags, and faded, tattered banners hung from overhead wires and fluttered silently in the wind as we passed beneath them, creating strange, living shadows that danced on the pavement in the moonlit night. Every sense in my body; smell, sight, touch, was hyper-sensitive. It was then that I realized, I didn't feel the cold anymore. I wasn't warm, but I wasn't cold either. It was as though I existed in a vacuum. I was suddenly very aware of my own heartbeat. We bumped along the pot-holed asphalt as my breathing echoed rythmically in my headset.
I scanned every window and darkened alley for signs of movement as I felt the truck turn beneath me and roll back onto the highway. I moved the turret left in rythm with the turn, finally settling the gun back into the three o'clock position as we continued south away from the city. The smell of burning garbage intensified until my eyes began to burn and tear. I could literally taste the smoke from burning tires and styrene, and God knows what else was on fire. I pulled my headwrap tighter around my face, but it didnt help. The smell began to burn in my throat and I wished that I could throw up. The taste would have been refreshing in comparison. I reached up for my ballistic goggles and pulled them down from my helmet, placing them over my eyes in hopes of blocking out the smoke. It did little good. I reminded myself to note the date for my inevitable V.A. claim, certain that in a few years, I would probably be diagnosed with some never before known form of lukemia from whatever I was breathing....either that, or suddenly wake up one day with a third arm growing out of the middle of my back.
We suddenly came to a stop on a large, sweeping freeway overpass. The convoy had halted because an Army route clearance team was up ahead dealing with a possible found IED. The huge, armored mine clearing vehicle, known as a Buffalo was using its infrared camera and robotic arm to investigate a suspicious looking object along the guardrail just ahead of us. We sat blacked out with no choice but to wait. Should anything suddenly happen, oh...like an attack, we had no where to go. We were in a perfect choke point with no escape, forward, backwards or sideways and no choice but to stand and fight it out. Beneath the overpass, some 60 feet below us, was the largest garbage dump I had ever seen. Fires burned everywhere. Some were no bigger than campfires, others the size of large SUV's. The smoke rolled up over the overpass in billowing clouds until it was nearly impossible to see around me. The only good thing about the smoke, was that if it concealed any insurgents, it concealed us as well. I welcomed the concealement. Just two nights before, two of our HET's from another platoon had been struck by nearly simultaneous IED's and small arms fire on the very same overpass. Both trucks were severely damaged, but fortunately there were no injuries. Still, I waited anxiously for the route clearance team to finish their work so that we could move on, and get the hell off that overpass and out of the smoke. I didnt want to wait around for Hadji to come back for seconds.
Several more long minutes passed before the silence was broken by the voice of Sgt Scott Lynch at the front of the column in the MRAP, announcing over the radio that the route had been cleared. The Buffalo, using it's robotic arm, had simply picked up the suspected IED and dropped it over the edge of the overpass into the garbage dump below, never to be seen again. Like toppling dominoes, truck lights came on all down the column, cutting through the darkness and smoke as we began to slowly pull forward and move off the overpass and back onto the MSR. As Baghdad faded into blurry lights behind us, the MSR stretched out ahead of us and the landscape turned from smokey ghetto, to palm grove-dotted river valley, and finally, to inky, black open desert.

The next several hours were spent staring into the darkness until the sky began to lighten with the approaching dawn. The cold returned, but now it was refreshing. I stood up again in my turret, this time to stretch my aching legs and take in the view of the Euphrates river in the daylight. The morning sun burned red-orange as it creeped slowly above the horizon and rose into the morning sky. As the sun rose above the dusty haze, it flickered almost pure white off of the river, until it was too painful to look at. The sun shone on my face, and I removed my head wrap and tilted my face skyward, closing my eyes and revelling in the warmth. I was amazed at how lush this part of Iraq can be. The desert was dotted with wetlands and green-carpeted grazing pastures. Two shephards moved a large herd of goats slowly across the highway between our truck and the truck ahead of us, not even bothering to look up as they passed in front of us...almost completely oblivious to our presence. Up ahead, a dozen camels plodded slowly along the side of our column of trucks, looking almost cartoon-like. Children ran along side of us on either side of the roadway in two's and three's, waving and shouting out in Arabic as they begged for bottles of water and treats. I reached behind me in my turret where I keep a case of bottled water. I grabbed two bottles and tossed them like a hook-shot in the direction of two small boys who couldn't have been more than 8 and 5, respectively. There's a reason I never played basketball. I under threw both large, plastic bottles of water which skipped off the highway and bounced and skidded at nearly 30 miles an hour towards the two boys, striking them in the ankles. The impact took both boys off their feet and planted them solidly on their butts. They took the hits like a couple of NFL pro lineman, jumped back up, and retrieving their bottles of water, waved and laughed with glee as they ran towards the next truck to beg more treats. Despite being laid out by my poor aim and failure to accurately judge distance and speed, those two bottles of water and some errantly tossed plastic wrapped muffins made those two little boys' mornings.
The mission had started shrouded in poverty and despair, and the choking smoke and stench of burning garbage. It ended ten hours later in the clear, chilly morning air of the Euphrates River valley, amidst goat herders, packs of lumbering camels and small, happy little children, who were all too glad to get knocked down by an American Soldier throwing muffins and bottled water. As we pulled into the FOB to bed down for the morning, I felt excited about the weeks ahead. In less then 30 days, I would be going on leave. One more mission to go before I could see my own little girls, and get back to making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for their school lunches instead of throwing muffins and bottled water from my gun turret to someone elses children.

21 November 2009


For most, the holiday season is a time of joy, a time of family and a time of thanks. Since the earliest days of our country's history, soldiers, sailors and marines have had to spend their holidays far from home. Away from the comforts of a warm, familiar bed, the smells of a home cooked Thanksgiving holiday meal, carving pumpkins with their children, and the joyous anticipation of Christmas morning.

It's easy to fall victim to lonliness and depression when youre far from home and the only reminder you have of family is a bent and crinkled photograph or a notoriously on again-off again internet connection. When you feel so far away and detatched that memories of what used to be, become harder and harder to recall, until pretty soon you dont remember at all.

It's times like this, when we feel at our lowest, that I think of the young men at Valley Forge, shivering and dying alone in the snow with no food in their belly. Or the young men who spent Christmas 1944 huddled together for warmth in shallow, frozen foxholes in the Ardennes, shivering with equal intensity from not only the cold, but from the horrors of repeated German shelling, while the Allied commanders sat around a large table, well behind the German lines and away from the shelling with a blazing fire in the fireplace, enjoying their Christmas feast.

Valley Forge 1777. Ypres, Belgium 1914. The Ardennes, Belgium 1944. Korea 1952. Khe Sanh, Vietnam 1968...Iraq 2009. Only the years and the uniforms have changed. The faces of the young men and women remain the same as does the lonliness. But as I write this, I sit instead in my camp chair beside my bunk, with a large, steaming Starbucks coffee in front of me-not in a frozen or muddy foxhole short on food, winter clothing or ammunition. Except for one time since I've been here, nobody has lobbed an artillery shell or mortar round in my general direction in recent memory. That one struck close enough to me that it felt like I had been punched in the chest. It was close enough that I could see the smoke and dust plume and hear the rocks falling. But it was just one, not hundreds, striking close enough that I wouldnt be able to hear my own screams.

Lonliness, and isolation translates identically, though, no matter where you are or what your circumstances. Still, as Thanksgiving approaches in just a few days, I search to find things to be thankful for. I have friends, here and at home. Friends that I can depend on unquestioningly. Friends that have been here for me and with me through some very difficult times, and continue to do so without ridicule or judgement. My Dad once told me that some of the closest friends he ever had were those he made in the army. The strength and resiliency of some of the men and women I serve with is inspiraional to say the least, and I only hope that I have honored their friendship by living up to their example.

I have two beautiful little girls waiting for me at home that are healthy and happy. There isnt a phone call that passes that I dont laugh and laugh at something Olivia, my precious little 5 year old says to me. Like the other day when she announced in her adorable sing-song voice at the end of our phone call, "I love you Daddy. I miss you...oh, and I have BUGS in my hair!" announcing to anybody that would listen that she brought lice home from kindergarten. I pray thats the worse that ever happens to her. My 8 year old daughter Alyssa is a blessing to my heart. She's wise and grown up beyond her years. I have never been more passionately in love with another human being as I am with my three daughters.

I'm thankful for my two adult children, Mark, age 20 and Ashley, age 23. Mark is an aspiring animator and writer. Ashley is nearing the completion of her degree in Paralegal Studies and has just gotten hired on at a new law firm in Illinois. Both of them have overcome unbelievable hardship and emotional trauma in their lives and I couldnt be a prouder father. And to my fellow soldiers that may read this...No, she is not single and dont even think about it! My other "daughter" Hannah. I've been in her life since she was 4 years old. She's nearly 18 now, and I've watched her grow into one of the truly happiest young women I have ever known.

I'm thankful for the opportunity to serve my country and my state. Although I've only lived in Nevada since 1998, Nevada is my home and for the first time in many years, I feel settled and content. I am still amazed, as if gazing upon it for the very first time, at Nevada's wondorous beauty. I'm thankful for a successful career. Law enforcement, and the opportunity to serve the people of Carson City has been one of the greatest priveleges of my life. I look forward to returning a far better man and a far better Deputy Sheriff than the day I left.

In a few days, I will likely head out on yet another mission and spend Thanksgiving on a dark, lonely stretch of Iraqi highway. Thanksgiving dinner will be eaten in a chow hall on one of our distant FOB's amonsgt my buddies. For now, they are the closest thing I have to family, here, and I am thankful beyond words for them.

Lastly, I am thankful for all of you back home. Those of you who support us and even those of you who dont. You are the true heroes in this nearly ten year long saga. You make up everything that is great about this nation. You see, it's you all who are living representations of the freedoms that so many of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines died to protect throughout our nation's history. So when you sit down to dinner with your familes this week, when you head out to the stores and the malls to fight the crowds and do your Christmas shopping, do it for those who never will again. Live your lives with all your heart. Honor those who arent with us anymore, who gave their lives in this struggle by living for them. Honor their courage and sacrifice by living and loving to the fullest!

That's all we want for Christmas...

17 November 2009

A Photo Essay

For the past several months, I've been writing about our combined experiences here. Hopefully, I've given you all just a glimpse, through word and thought of what we do and see. This time, I thought I might share some photos of just some of our experiences and give you a glimpse of what it is that we see and do. Until technology catches up with the internet, however, I cant share with you the smells. This will have to do for now. Special thanks to Spc Jake Sere and SSG Mack Nelson for the use of some of these photos.

An M1A1 Abrams main battle tank on it's way out of Iraq as part of the U.S military's drawdown.
Me...The Jihadists worst nightmare.

Me, playing "chem-lite" golf on the Iraqi border as we awaited word to cross.

Some more "down time". Sgt's Danny Ulino and Scott Lynch playing "Guitar Hero."

Sadaam Husseins palace under construction with French assistance, on his private lake. He was was hung before he could ever occupy it. Sadaam shut off Baghdad's entire water supply for three days so he could fill his private lake.
Another of Sadaam's residences. Bombed on the opening night of the invasion and watched live by millions on CNN as part of President Bush's "Shock and Awe" strategy.

This is what happens when a 2000 lb bomb falls through your palace ceiling.
SPC Tyler Miller-Cobb carrying spare .50 caliber machine gun barrels to be loaded onto the truck at the start of a mission

Here is what happens when a 15,000 lb up-armored gun truck fails to negotiate a turn and enters it at too high a speed. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured

Three of the reasons we're here

Loading ammunition into magazines prior to the start of a mission

SPC Jake Sere Poses next to a four-barrelled Russian anti aircraft gun somewhere in the Kuwaiti desert.

Concrete blast walls and tangled concertina wire line most of the MSR within the Iraqi cities. This one is just outside the city of Balad. They're supposed to keep insurgents from planting IED's along the road. If people can get through to glue posters to them, I dont think IED's are that much more difficult.

One of our FOB's in Central Iraq. The palm gorve and a small village are just outside the perimeter.

Camels on the MSR

Surplus Iraqi tanks baking in the sun, never to be used again.

The Iraqi's want nothing to do with passing our convoys!

An Iraqi camel herder begging for water from a passing convoy