26 December 2009

Christmas

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

IED...CONTACT RIGHT!!!


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

Thanks

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






02 November 2009

Lunacy!

Third country national flat bed transport trucks waiting in the convoy staging lanes somewhere in Iraq.



Al-Nasiriyah, Iraq
30 October 2009
1200 hrs


After the nightmare on the bridge, I was ready to sleep the sleep of the dead. We didn't get into the FOB until well after sunrise and it was 10:00 AM before we were able to get chow, a hot shower and into our racks. I didn't collapse into my sleeping bag as much as I did melt into it. Driving that humvee for almost 10 hours had taken it's toll on me, and for the first time ever, I actually felt every one of my 47 years.

I laid there in the dark as unconsciousness overcame me and I finally drifted off to sleep. Like a dream, I soon heard someone in the distance quietly whispering my name. Then I felt someone shaking my shoulder. Then I couldn't believe it. I opened my eyes only to stare up at the swollen face of SSG Sanchez. He was saying something that may as well have been spoken in Swahili, because I only caught about every third or fourth word. What I heard was, "...get up...go to FOB...leave now..." I looked at my watch. It was 11:30 AM. I was stunned, and the only response I could muster, making no attempt to conceal my bone weary disgust was, "FUCK!"

As if in a trance, I rolled out of my sleeping bag, pulled on my dirty socks, still damp with sweat from the night before, my dusty camouflaged uniform pants and sweat stained combat shirt. I didn't bother tucking my shirt in as I put my boots on. I laced them up and left my pants un-bloused, too tired to even try, or care. Grabbing my weapon, I shuffled outside to our humvee and began the laborious task of getting it unlocked and set up for whatever mission we had been awakened for. I was soon joined by PFC Mario Nikic, our gunner, and SSG Sanchez. Not bothering to hide my weary disdain for our predicament, I asked Sanchez what the hell we were doing. He explained that we and the MRAP crew would have to escort one of our HET's and a TCN flat bed to a neighboring FOB, so that the TCN truck could pick up a load. Why, I asked, had that not been taken care of when we first rolled in or better yet, before we were supposed to leave later that same night instead of waking up 8 soldiers who were supposed to be on their mandatory rest plan?

As Sanchez explained it, some officer from the FOB MCT (Movement Control Team) which oversees the dispatch of all convoys, decided to take his mid-afternoon stroll through the staging lanes. When he saw the transports lined up and ready for the next nights convoy, he noticed that one of the TCN flatbeds was rolling out without a load. Apparently, the FOB MCT policy is that no trucks can roll south towards Kuwait without a load, so he ordered that we be woken up to escort the truck the several miles to the next FOB to get a load...any load. The trip would take several hours, seriously cutting into our mandatory sleep time, and risking soldier safety should we roll out that night without sleep. This officer however, couldn't have cared less. Policy is policy, and we were not about to risk the very fabric of heaven tearing open and unleashing the wrath of the MCT God's should that policy be violated. Besides, we could sleep when we were dead.

We left the FOB shortly after noon, and rolling down the MSR in broad daylight, arrived at the neighboring FOB approximately 45 minutes later. It took another few hours to find our civilain escort to the container yard which as luck would have it, was located in the farthest corner of the post, on the opposite side of the airfield. The container yard was massive beyond description. As far as one could see in nearly any direction, giant metal seaborne cargo containers were lined side by side. As two of these giant containers were being loaded onto the empty TCN truck, I remarked to Sgt Rosales that the containers looked awfully light. I half-joked that I'd bet him a paycheck that they were empty. As it turns out, I was probably right. A young sergeant, looking more like a nerdy accountant than a soldier, came scampering across the container yard toward us as quickly as his little legs could carry him. He was carrying a clip board which he lifted up and squinted to read through too-thick glasses. In a squeaky,cartoon like voice, he asked who was signing for the containers. Rosales and I both pointed simultaneously to the HET driver, who strangely enough, could have been the container yard sergeant's twin. I asked the container yard sergeant, "Hey, just out of curiosity, what's in those two containers?" He flipped the pages of his clipboard back and forth and pointed back towards the flatbed they were being loaded onto, replying, "Well, if they're from that yard right there, they're empty." The sergeant then turned and without another word tucked his clipboard under his arm and scampered back towards the container yard. I was stunned. This was just too ridiculous for words. I looked at Rosales and said, "Let me get this straight. We cant roll out with an empty truck, so were going to load two EMPTY containers onto it to give the impression that it's loaded? What the fuck?"

At this point, we were all too tired to care, or get upset. We just collectively chalked it up to the abject lunacy and ridiculousness that seems to be so pervasive at times amongst those who never leave the wire. It was 5:00 PM by the time we rolled back to our FOB and got back to our racks. I didn't even bother to shower, I peeled off my sweaty, dusty uniform, dropped it in a ball at the foot of my mattress, and collapsed. As I lay waiting for sleep to rescue me, I realized one thing...The air conditioner had seized up. Perfect!

Back Across the Bridge

One of the many joint Iraqi Army-Police checkpoints along our route.


Here I am, shortly after after arriving at our FOB just 6 hours after crossing the bridge. I had never felt so tired.




Camp Arifjan Kuwait,
29 October 2009
2300 hrs



The return trip across the Ramadi Bridge couldn't have been choreographed more poorly if we tried. In the end though, we made it across, unhurt and with all trucks accounted for, the only casualties of the night being our frazzled nerves. Approaching the bridge on the MSR, we vowed to do things differently than we had just a week earlier on our first trip across.




Prior to reaching the bridge approach, we began to slow and eventually brought the column to a halt. Another convoy was in the process of crossing the bridge from the opposite direction, and the roads weren't nearly wide enough to accommodate both columns at the same time. Sgt Christopher Rosales in the MRAP made contact with the approaching convoy and told them that we would hold fast, while they completed crossing over. I could hear the stress in the opposite MRAP sergeant's voice as he acknowledged and thanked us for our patience. In the distance, I could see the lights of the approaching column as they appeared from under the main span of the destroyed bridge and made their turn up the dirt road and back towards the MSR.



As the opposite column snaked its way slowly back onto the MSR, we sat blacked out awaiting our turn to cross. A bead of sweat began to slowly trickle down my back underneath my armored vest, and I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat trying to adjust my load. The air conditioner blew with little enthusiasm...barely enough to blow out birthday candle, and my legs began to ache in the cramped drivers seat. I fought the overwhelming temptation to open my drivers door sliding armored window and let in some fresh air, even if for a moment, but knew better than to instead, risk letting in shrapnel from an exploding IED or a maybe a sniper's bullet. I began to feel increasingly claustrophobic as the impatience set in. I looked ahead and saw the tail end of the other column finally appear from under the destroyed bridge as it began making its way up the dirt road towards the MSR and silently willed them to hurry the hell up.



As the last gun truck in the other column finally turned onto the asphalt, we began to move forward. Rosales led the way in the MRAP, with our gun truck following closely behind. It was our job to clear the exit route and make sure that it was safe to bring the entire column down. We bounced our way along the dirt road, past dilapidated and rusting hulks of old cars, dimly lit houses and an abandoned automotive garage until we came to the one lane concrete bypass bridge that we had so gingerly crossed just a week before. I had just witnessed an entire column of HET's and fuel trucks cross that bridge, but it didn't make me feel any better about the situation. I held my breath as we pulled our 15,000 lb armored gun truck onto the one lane bridge, the dark water of the Euphrates river flowing just a foot or more beneath us. As we neared the end of the bypass, we were stopped by several Iraqi soldiers at an army outpost along the far bank of the river. These soldiers all looked like they were living advertisements for the video game HALO 3, as they were decked out in the latest designer special ops gear. One of the soldiers was frantically and angrily waving his arms, directing us to stop and proceed in the opposite direction that we had intended to lead the column. The direction he was insisting that we go however, took us around the north side of the bridge and through the narrow, winding streets of a village. Any thoughts of being out of danger suddenly evaporated with the realization that this village had not been cleared, and we had no idea where the road led us. We only hoped that as long as we paralleled the main bridge, that it would eventually lead us back up and around to the MSR.



With no choice but to move forward rather than bunch up the entire column, we pushed slowly forward and entered the village. My head scanned from side to side as I looked intently for signs of hidden IED's or moving shadows in the alleys. I was burning up in the cab, and my legs were screaming in agony. I desperately wanted out of that truck, and I suddenly found myself hoping that I would get hit by an IED on my side. At least then, I would get a shot of morphine and helicopter ride out of there, no longer having to worry about the pain in my legs, and the unnerving anticipation of awaiting an explosion that might never come. I quickly dismissed the thought as insane, and pushed the truck forward, dodging debris and potholes along the way.



As we exited the village, the MSR came into view, we passed a second outpost just before the MSR. This one, though was manned by the rag-tag looking Iraqi Police. Its pretty well known that these Police Officers moonlight as insurgents, planting IED's in their off-duty time. They watched us pass with the same intensity that we watched them, like two cage fighters exchanging intimidating glares before a match. Our suspicions were confirmed when no sooner had we passed, than the Iraqi Police began suddenly re-directing our TCN (third country national) trucks down an opposite road and away from the column! Sgt Eddie Lauron and his crew, gunner Spc William Frias, and driver Spc Jose Torres, spotted the ruse just in time and sped forward to intercept the misdirected tucks. In order to get them turned around, Lauron and his crew had to lead the trucks back around in a wide arc, through a large lot next to the village. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how one looks at it, its not our job to chase down bad guys, so whatever may have been waiting for those trucks further down the road is anybodies guess.



By the time Lauron got the trucks turned around, the rest of the column had made its way back onto the MSR where we waited. We were no where near being in convoy order, though, but at that time it didnt matter. With all trucks and crews accounted for, we moved out and away from that damned bridge. Approximately 2 miles further we stopped, got back into convoy order and pressed onward towards our next FOB.


I pushed the humvee back down the MSR. Before long, the trickle of sweat returned, my legs began screaming in protest again, and as the inevitable andrenaline dump set in, my eyes began to get heavy, but at least we were leaving the Ramadi Bridge, the crooked Iraqi Police, and those video game soldiers in our rear views.

28 October 2009

The Bridge at Ramadi

Iraqi Army soldiers inspect the eastbound span of the Ramadi Bridge after it was destroyed by a suicide bomber.



Al-Asad Air Base, Iraq
27 October, 2009
1102 hrs

There is a monstrous 4 lane concrete and steel re-enforced bridge that spans the Euphrates River between the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in central Iraq. Two weeks ago, that bridge was intact, until a suicide bomber drove a truck loaded with 10,000 lbs of bulk explosives onto the eastbound span and detonated it. It blew a hole roughly the size of a football field in the eastbound span, and significantly damaged the westbound span, sending what was left of them both into the river, below.

Up until that point, the Ramadi Bridge, as it is called, was the only bridge over the river on the main highway that connects Syria and Iraq. This highway serves as a major commerce route between the two countries as well as a former escape route into Syria for refugees fleeing the violence here. For the U.S. military, this bridge also served as a crossing point over the river for convoys transporting troops and materials out of the country as part of the overall drawdown in Iraq. That all changed when an insurgent blew himself up.

This mission would be the first to have to bypass the bridge and find a new way around it since it had been destroyed. During our convoy brief in Kuwait, the gun truck squad leader, SSG Greg Sanchez, said that there was an alternate way around the bridge but that we would have to use a smaller and much narrower, one lane concrete bridge that parallels the main span, almost at water level. Intel on how to get to that smaller bridge was spotty at best, and it would be a learn-as-we-go process. To make matters worse, we would be crossing the bridge in the very early morning hours during a no moon period, with only headlights and spotlights to guide us.

On the night we crossed the bridge, I had been driving our gun truck northbound on the MSR from FOB Victory for almost 7 hours. Sanchez was the TC (truck commander) and PFC Mario Nikic was the gunner. I was exhausted and keeping my eyes open was a real chore. It was my first time as a driver, and up until this point, I had either been a TC or a gunner. I was completely unprepared for exactly how physically taxing it is to push a 15,000 lb truck for hours on end. At the end of this mission, I would have a whole new respect for our drivers.

Sanchez radioed ahead to Sgt Christopher Rosales in the MRAP to notify us when we were about 2 miles out from the bridge. There was supposed to be a 1 lane dirt road that broke off from the MSR that would take us under the destroyed east and westbound spans and to the smaller bypass span. Several minutes later, and just as instructed, Rosales radioed back that we were just about 2 miles out. All eyes began looking for the unmarked dirt road that should have been on our right. We missed it, and soon, the MRAP on point was halted at the destroyed span with no where to go but back…along with our gun truck, three 50 foot, almost 93,000 lb HET’s and eleven third country national tractor trailers. Sanchez told me to turn around so that we could back track and look for the dirt turnoff. I muscled our gun truck into a three point turn and got us headed back in the opposite direction while the column waited on the bridge approach. About 100 meters back from the approach, I saw the turnoff. It was not quite as described. It was a narrow, 1 lane dirt road that cut off at a sharp angle from the MSR and headed downhill into the dark and towards a village. We didn’t see it because the entrance was almost completely concealed behind a pile of rubble. Sanchez radioed to SSG Frank La Spina’s gun truck to follow us down the road so that we could conduct a quick recon before taking an entire column into the unknown. If I wasn’t awake before, I sure as hell was now! I cautiously pushed our tuck forward, looking from side to side for signs of hidden IED’s. I soon gave up, because there was nothing around us but large piles of dirt, rubble and trash. If there was an IED hidden there, we’d never see it until it hit us.

The road zigzagged down towards the village until we came to an intersection with an asphalt road. I was glad to be away from the piles of trash and dirt until I turned onto the hardball. There, I stopped the truck dead in it’s tracks. Directly in front of me, about 30 feet away, was an opening to an alley between two concrete and brick buildings at the entrance to the village. Lying in the opening to the alley was what looked like a 155 MM artillery shell. My heart stopped as I called out over the intercom, “I’ve got an artillery shell in the alley, 12 o’clock, 10 meters.” Nikic in the turret, Sanchez and I all grabbed our rifles and in the cramped confines of the truck cab, tried to look through our telescopic sights for a better view. Seconds passed like hours as we stared and scanned the surrounding area, looking for tell tale wires. My heart began beating again after we all three confirmed that it was just a large pipe that with the naked eye would have looked to anyone like a partially concealed artillery shell.

With my heart now pounding at what I was sure was an unhealthy rhythm, we pushed forward, skirting the edge of the village. Sanchez reminded Nikic to stay low in his turret in case of snipers. In a few minutes, a three and a half mile long column of trucks rumbling down the village road would not be hard to miss. Soon, I came upon an Iraqi Army outpost at the rivers edge manned by four very high-speed looking soldiers. Up to this point, I had been used to the rag-tag Iraqi Police, most of whom spent their off-duty time as insurgents. These four though, looked like they meant business. We pulled along side and two of the soldiers approached. I saw that one of them was armed with an AKM…A type of long barreled AK47 typically used as a sniper rifle, and not the usual fair for an Iraqi foot soldier. Sanchez asked if this was the way around the bridge and back onto the MSR. In surprisingly good English, a young soldier told us that if we followed the road, that it would take us under the main bridge and onto the bypass span. I got the truck turned around and we went back through the village to link back up with the column. La Spina and his crew had already proceeded back to the MSR and was attempting to oversee the arduous task of getting the column backed up enough so that we could lead them onto the dirt road and across the river. Getting those trucks turned around was like herding cats. The stress of it all, having to proceed through an unknown village and taking 93,000 lb trucks across a narrow,1 lane concrete bypass that we weren’t even sure would support the weight, was soon taking it’s toll. With two Staff Sergeants possessing two completely contradictory leadership styles trying to control the turnaround from two different locations, tempers flared and soon both Sanchez and La Spina were yelling back and forth over the radio and control of the situation quickly began to deteriorate.

Enough was enough, I thought. I told Nikic to turn off his headset intercom so he would not have to hear what I was about to say. I turned in my seat and looked back at Sanchez. “Greg,” I said. “Look. You need to relax. Let La Spina take care of it. He’s up there and you two yelling back and forth isn’t going to get us out of here any sooner. We have a whole village of unknowns right in front of us, and we need you to stay focused. The two of you losing it like this is only going to undermine everyone else’s confidence in your ability to get us out of here. I know it’s stressful, but we have to focus on staying calm right now.” I stared at him, making sure that he knew what I was saying. Twenty years on the street as a cop had taught me one thing, and that is to force yourself to stay calm when everyone else around you is falling apart. I waited for Sanchez to have an aneurysm over my correcting him the way I did. Instead, he took a deep breath and said “I know what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to get me to re-focus.” “Exactly. Now, are you good?” I said. Sanchez said nothing, but I could tell that what I had said had worked.

As La Spina finished getting the column backed up, I drove away from the village and back to where the dirt road exited out onto the MSR. There, I met the first of the trucks, and began slowly leading the column back down the dirt road and towards the village. We made the left turn onto the hardball road, and crept along at 5 miles an hour as the column slowly followed. I looked back and forth from the road ahead of me to the village on my right, scanning for moving shadows behind walls or on rooftops, or for signs of concealed IED’s along the roadway. We approached the Iraqi Army checkpoint and they waved us forward and towards the lower bridge bypass. As I looked at the destroyed spans slowly passing overhead, I was amazed at the extent of the destruction. four-foot thick sheets of concrete and asphalt, some the size of a small house, and held together by steel re-bar that was bent and twisted in surreal shapes, hung like torn Christmas wrapping. We passed under the main bridge and I saw the lower bypass ahead of us on the right. The bypass span was nothing like I had expected it to be. It was miniscule in size compared to what was left of the Ramadi Bridge, and looked like it was meant to handle nothing more than donkey carts, not large civilian traffic. It was a narrow 1 lane concrete bridge, that was secured with steel beams sunk into the river bottom, and smaller beams running perpendicular and attached to the main bridges concrete support columns. There were only 12 inch tubular metal rails-nothing more between the edge of our wheels, which seemed dangerously close to the side of the span, and the blackish-green water of the Euphrates River a mere few feet below us. I’m pretty sure I held my breath as we drove slowly across. It was like one of those deep-sleep nightmares, where you’re running towards something but your feet feel like they’re mired in mud and you just cant move. The closer we got to the end of the bypass, the farther away it seemed to get. I instinctively unlatched my seat belt, disengaged the combat lock on my armored door, and felt for the quick release on my vest. If we were about to go into the water, I wanted to make sure that I could get out before I drowned.

My mini waking nightmare finally came to an end as I felt the road beneath me turn to solid dirt again and the village disappeared from view. I followed the road as it paralleled the opposite approach end of the bridge and made it’s way back uphill towards the MSR. I wheeled the truck onto the highway and led the rest of the column away from the river and back down the highway again, where we came to a halt and got back into our regular convoy order.

As we sat blacked out on the MSR waiting for the rest of our column, I silently hoped that none of our company would have to cross that bridge again. I was sure that it was only a matter of time before the insurgents figured out that it was our only way across and took advantage of the situation. It was an ambush just waiting to happen. On the return trip we would come close to finding out just how right we were.

14 October 2009

Changes

Talil, Iraq
14 Oct 2009
1533 hrs


Home...family...friends. When we return home, will it be they who have changed, or will it be us? I remember when I came home from Afghanistan after a tour with the Air Force in 2003. The war and the effect that it had on soldiers then was still new and virtually unknown. There were no briefings then about how to re-establish yourselves into the lives of those who had gone on without you. Nobody told us what to expect, or how to deal with what was to come of our new lives. I came home and just assumed that things would pick up where they had left off. It wasn't that easy. I soon found myself frustrated that my wife had become so independent of me. I had missed out on my newborn daughter's first several months of her life, and had to learn how to be a daddy all over again, and I felt like an intruder in my own home. Then there was the job. After more than a year away from the Carson City Sheriff's Office, I could'nt wait to get back into my patrol car, doing what I did best.

Until that night on July 4th, 2003. I was parked at Lompa and Menlo as the fireworks started to explode over Mills Park. When the first concussion reverberated in my chest, I started to panic. I didn't know why, I just did, and I couldn't control the crushing feeling of fear that overcame me. It took a few minutes of hyperventilating before I was able to get a hold of myself and tell my brain that they were just fireworks, not exploding landmines, or distant artillery. I couldn't believe what had just happened to me. I was Gary Underhill...a nearly two decade veteran of law enforcement! This wasn't supposed to happen to me. I had just returned from Afghanistan. I had faced gunfire before. I had spent an entire career running toward chaos when everyone else ran away. And I was scared. To death. By something as innocent as July 4th fireworks, and I didn't have a clue why.

It only got harder as the months went on. My wife saw changes in me that I could not or did not want to see. I know I scared her. Most of the time, I didn't care. I was too wrapped up in my own self pity, putting other things ahead of her and our newborn child to worry about how anybody felt but me. In time, I plateaued and eventually, I forgot all about Afghanistan and my time spent there.

Those feelings, fears and insecurities that I experienced when I returned home were simply buried in a time capsule somewhere in the pit of my stomach, to be ignored, and ideally never faced again. Until now. How will I be different when I come home? Will I suddenly swerve instinctively, every time I drive under an overpass, hoping to avoid an IED over my head? Will I hold my breath and duck down in my seat whenever I pass a pile of trash, or an old tire along side the roadway? Will I become uneasy, impatient and claustrophobic stuck in traffic at a red light? Will I be quick to anger again? Or will I be a better man and a better cop for my experience, more compassionate for the poverty and hardships suffered by others that I've seen, or more suspicious of anyone but those closest to me?

The hardest part about being over here, at least for me, is two-fold: We've yet to see any combat. We've had a few close calls, some found IED's, two IED detonations, and some recent small arms fire, but every time we go out, we're aware of what MIGHT happen to us. Sometimes the anticipation is almost too much. Then there's the boredom of hours on the road that can lead to complacency if left unchecked. But we go on anyway, concentrating on the mission ahead of us and put all of that out of our minds. Second to that, is the absence from those whom I love the most. I really miss the daily face to face contact. I miss how warm and soft my girls are when they cuddle with me. I miss holding their little hands. I miss my wife's smile. My wife is my rock. I have yet to find anyone whom I have ever felt closer to. I just wish that I had done things differently for us in the past.

Returning home this time will be different, and the jury's still out on exactly how. First, we will have been gone for just over a year. That doesn't take into account the several months of training that we went through stateside that took us away from home for weeks at a time prior to our deployment. The Army is much more acutely aware in 2009 than they were in 2003 about the changes soldiers go through when they deploy. We all bitch and complain as our deployment end-date draws near about the countless briefings that we will have to endure before we will be allowed to go home. Those briefings, meant to ease the trepidation for both soldiers and their family's are invaluable and have come to fruition as a result of the US Military ignoring for too long the danger signs. I tried telling my commander and senior NCO's in the Air Force of my problems shortly after coming home the first time. No one cared. Instead, I was ostracized and ridiculed.

For me, I look at the mistakes I made and the danger signs I ignored when I came home in 2003, and I look to that time as a frame of reference, making a mental note now and again not to repeat the mistakes of my past. I look forward to returning to life after Iraq. This time, I will to treat every single day as a gift and a blessing. I want to get up every morning and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for my girls' school lunches like it's the most important thing I will do that day. I want to be a husband and a best friend to the woman who has meant everything to me, but whose presence in my life, I always took for granted.

This deployment will eventually end, and in a few months we'll all board that big, chartered jet that will take us home. That's when the adventure really begins. We will all be changed to some degree, and that doesn't have to be something to fear. For some of us this is our second, third, even fourth deployment. For others it's our first. Either way, it has been the opportunity of a lifetime and concentrating on coming back better than when we left is the key.

As I get ready to go out on another mission soon, I realize that there are things far more precious to lose than my own life.

03 October 2009

A Long and Deadly Night

Destroyed Iraqi Armor along the road outside Fallujah

Jake Sere, Me, Cedric Johnson, crew of Wolfpack 3, in front of our brand new guntruck, The Iron Bitch 3
A bullet riddled concrete memorial that formerly displayed Sadaam Hussein's image at the entrance to what used to be an Iraqi Airbase, now occupied by the United States Marine Corps.



Western Iraq
01 October 2009
1910 hrs


It was supposed to be a 4 hour trip to somewhere just outside of Fallujah. Instead, it took just over 10 hours! The MSR was crowded with convoys heading both North and South, which didn’t help, and the intel that we had received at our convoy brief a few hours before, indicating little threat or recent insurgent activity was about to prove a bit off-base. Tonight, we were escorting a platoon of HET’s from an Arizona unit. It would be more like escorting the Bad News Bears…or an unruly pre-school class.

It all started just as soon as we left the FOB. One of the third country national’s trucks blew a transmission and went down just 100 yards from the ECP. The convoy became separated as a result, and had to halt while they swapped out trucks. During the delay, we sat blocking an intersection at the corner of a dark neighborhood. Waiting on an adjoining dirt road was a lone car occupied by a single Iraqi male driver. He waited patiently to proceed for more than 40 minutes with his flashers on hoping to get on with his night. I flashed my light at him to get his attention and hollered from my turret to go ahead, waving him towards me. He must have misunderstood me because, instead, he waved back and putting his car in reverse, backed quickly into his neighborhood and out of sight. I thought of how fed up the Iraqi people must be with lumbering convoys and armored military vehicles of all shapes and sizes clogging up their roads and highways. The “share the road” policy that we currently operate under is far different from the way things used to be here. Gone are the days when Iraqis faced being shot for coming too near to a convoy, or for not stopping when approaching an army checkpoint or roadblock. The Iraqi’s have not completely embraced the new policy and for the most part, want nothing to do with approaching or passing a convoy. Winning hearts and minds isn’t always so simple.

Forty minutes later, the broken down TCN truck had been towed into the FOB and back to the bone yard. We then drove slowly down the pothole dotted dirt road towards the MSR to link back up with the rest of the column. Once on the MSR, Cedric Johnson pushed our truck north and slid back into our slot about midway in the column. We drove along silently, Johnson, Sere, Travis “Doc” Madden our medic, and I, until the silence was broken by the static-laced announcement from a HET (Heavy Equipment Transporter) driver that he had blown 5 trailer tires while exiting the FOB when his trailer struck a concrete barrier, and he needed to halt. The HET trailer is equipped with 5 bogeys on each side. Each independent bogey supports 4 tires and wheels for a total of 40 tires and wheels per trailer! The HET driver stated that 5 outside tires on the passenger side had all been blown and would need to be changed.

We halted the column, while the crew of the HET was assisted by the wrecker crew in getting 5 tires swapped out. We pulled our truck up alongside to provide security. The city lights of Fallujah, formerly one of Iraq’s most violent cities, were shimmering brightly just 4 miles to the east. Not a hundred meters off the highway sat several small houses and buildings. The MSR we were on was at one point not long ago, a very unfriendly place to be, and one could not swing a dead cat by the tail without hitting an IED here. I took comfort in knowing that there had been very little if any insurgent activity reported in recent memory, but was aware that anything was still possible.

While I covered down to the east with my .50, Sere got out to assist with providing security on the west side of the disabled HET. What he saw was unbelievable! None of the Arizona soldiers working on the truck had bothered to set up any security. Additionally, not one of them had a magazine in their weapon, and some had'nt even bothered to take their weapons with them when they exited their trucks! The one soldier with the M249 SAW didn’t even have a belt of ammo in the feed tray, much less have it loaded! When Sere asked in disbelief why no one had set up any security, or much less assumed anything that resembled a defensive posture just 4 miles from Fallujah, he was told, “Well, isn’t that why you’re here?” Not one of them had the slightest situational awareness of where we were. Even in my headset, over the noise of both the HET’s and our own trucks idling diesel engines, I could hear Sere, a USMC veteran of the initial invasion in Fallujah, completely losing his mind.

45 minutes later, with all 5 tires changed out, and with Coach Morris Buttermaker’s Bad News Bears back in their trucks, we got back under way again. We had only driven a few more miles, until Sgt Baum in the MRAP advised over the radio that the column would have to halt for a found IED in the median, just before the bridge over the Euphrates river. It took EOD nearly 4 hours to respond. When they finally detonated the IED in place almost an hour later, it was anticlimactic. Instead of large explosion and fireball, there was a sudden bright flash, followed by a dull “whump” sound. The road was opened back up and we were on our way again, as the sky began to lighten in the east with the approaching dawn.

With at least 4 hours of driving still ahead, the silence was broken by a transmission from the Convoy Commander, a guardsmen from Arizona, that one of our platoon’s gun trucks had been struck by an IED on the MSR just a few hours south of us. Our hearts sank as all of us gasped at once and muttered, “Shit...oh hell no!” SSG Roberts in Wolfpack 2 asked for clarification on who had been hit and what their condition was. The reply he received over the air was stunning. “I’d better not say,” came the reply. All four of us in the truck shouted into our headsets in disbelief. We could not believe that the Convoy Commander had put something like that over the air about our own people, and then left us hanging with “I’d better not say,” when asked for more information. The Convoy Commander, finally conceded to SSG Robert’s insistence and could only say that it was one of our MRAP’s and that all three crew members were being medevac’ed by helicopter. We began going over in our heads who it could be…who was assigned to the MRAP and which of our two other squads it might have been. We finally narrowed it down to one squad and realized painfully, who their MRAP crew was. I said a silent prayer for them and sat in my turret feeling gut-punched and helpless. I wanted to know, but at the same time was furious at the Convoy Commander for putting something like that over the air for all of us to hear when he only had partial information.

Hours later, we pulled into the FOB as the sun began to burn bright in the morning sky. As I broke down the .50 and we wrestled our gear out of the truck, Spc Donald Hill, a fellow .50 gunner, came out to greet us. He told me that it wasn’t any of our people that were hit, and that everyone was ok. It was another gun truck platoon from a different unit. Our sister squad had been mis-identified. All three MRAP crew members from entirely different unit had been injured, but fortunately, none seriously. I greeted this news with both relief and sadness. I was relieved beyond words that it was none of our guys, but still stunned at how close to home this news struck me, and felt pain and sorrow for those who had been hit. We had just driven past that very spot just two days before, and would have to drive past it again on our way back into Kuwait.

A veteran of the early days here in Iraq, who I serve with now, offered to me once their take on my writing and said that they felt that I wrote from a “minute” viewpoint on the dangers here. This person told me of how dangerous it used to be here compared to now, and how it’s comparable to “Candyland” throughout Iraq these days. Maybe so. I wasn’t here then, and I have yet to experience combat or survive one IED much less several. I would agree though, that these days, attacks are indeed rare here…until they happen to you.

02 October 2009

That Ugandan Stole My Towel!

Western Iraq,
01 October 2009
1436 hrs


Let me tell you how my day started. We weren’t quite half way through what was the first half of a back to back 10 to 15 day mission. “Turn and Burns” we call them. We had just returned to Arifjan from 15 days out, and had just enough time to conduct maintenance on our trucks, get laundry done, catch up on our sleep and then head out all over again.

The nights drive had been plagued by minor maintenance issues. Nothing major, just the kind of delays that result in frustration and short tempers when you’ve been on the road for as long as we had. By the time we pulled into our next FOB, I was exhausted. I wasn’t just tired, I was the kind tired that makes your bone marrow ache. The kind of tired where you just don’t care anymore.

I had just walked the 300 or so yards to our tent from the staging lane after we parked our trucks. The weight of the .50 cal receiver on my shoulders, coupled with my ruck, my rifle, and my assault pack was crushing and my back and feet were screaming in protest. I dropped my load on a cot and sat down with a sigh that sounded like what I might imagine my last breath would sound like. I unrolled my sleeping bag, shed my dusty uniform and peeled off socks that held their shape when I dropped them on the floor with a dull slap. I collapsed and surrendered to unconsciousness.

Phase 1 of my day

I awoke in disbelief and stared at my watch through bleary eyes. It was only 11:15 AM! I had been asleep for exactly 4 hours, and just been awakened by one of our squad members stomping, stomping back and forth mind you across the wooden floor of our tent, like Sasquatch during mating season! Until this unidentified clown, I had no idea you could slam a tent flap, but somehow he did…repeatedly.

Thankfully, I fell back asleep only to awaken 5 hours later feeling like my bladder was about to implode. As if that suffering wasn’t sufficient enough, my back and my skull throbbed in agony. I needed a hot shower like a heroin addict needed a fix. I grabbed my shower gear, and walked the walk of death to the shower trailer, anticipating languishing in the hot torrent that I knew would soon greet me. The shower trailer was like a steam room and the relief of my own little stall of hot, wet, heaven beckoned me like a sirene’s song.

Phase 2

I hung my brown military issue towel on the hook next to my shower stall, and set my things on the bench. After treating my bladder to much needed relief, I returned to my shower and began to shed my PT’s only to look up and see that my towel was missing. At first, I thought that maybe I had just hung it on another hook, but my superior police investigative skills soon revealed that my towel, was in fact no longer where I had placed it just moments before. I was beyond incredulous. I was tired, dusty, smelled like fermented death, and was feeling just short of ready to commit genocide if it meant delaying my shower just 1 more minute!

Phase 3

Then it happened. The curtain next to mine opened and I was greeted by the alarming vision of a 6 ft 3 Ugandan national, an employee of one of the private security contractors, drying his nether regions with my towel, cotton, brown, US issue, 1 each. I was speechless and stared in disbelief at how blatantly, and violently my towel was being violated before my very eyes. My response was born out of stunned silence. “Bro…did…did you just take my towel?” I sputtered. A young Nelson Mandela on steroids stared back at me, equally shocked. His towel, identical to mine, hung on the opposite hook. “Oh, my. I AM sorry,” he replied quietly, obviously embarrassed. He sheepishly reached out to hand me my towel, not bothering to cover up. After all, what else could he possibly do to shock me at this point? “Well, I sure as hell don’t want it back now!” I shot back. The young Ugandan, hung my towel back up without a word, and hanging his head, retrieved his own towel and pulled his curtain closed to resume drying off.

Phase 4

I stood there, staring at my now useless towel, hanging wet and lifeless on it’s hook. I wanted to mourn it’s passing. I longed for its dry, cotton, terry-cloth wondrousness, smelling of dryer sheets and soap, and knew that it would never be again. I had lost a friend. I climbed dejected and near suicidal into my shower and got on with my life. I dried off with my t-shirt, but it wasn’t the same. The moment I had longed for had been stolen from me.

I don’t remember much from the rest of the day. It’s all a blur at this point. I have to go now…group therapy starts in an hour and I need a shower first.