29 May 2009

The Calm Before the Storm

Our pre-mobilization training at Camp Atterbury officially ended at 0600 hours, 26 May 2009, but not before our 1st Army cadre got one last stab at us. At about 0300 hrs, I was jolted out of my sleep by a screeching klaxon horn and the announcement over the compound loudspeaker, "INCOMING! INCOMING! ALL PERSONNEL REPORT TO THE BUNKERS!" This was followed by the loudest and most convincing simulated mortar attack I've ever experienced. "Are you fucking kidding me??", I protested. Soldiers spilled from their trailers in various forms of dress; boxer shorts and tee-shirts, gym shorts and boots pulled on hastily over bare feet, and ACU pants and flip-flops. Some ran for the bunkers while others, including me, cursed loudly at being woken at such an ungodly hour by something as rude as a mortar attack, and walked, zombie-like as artillery simulators exploded around us in two's and three's. I reported to the bunker to await accountability and passed the time by peeing in the corner. I was not in the mood to play war on this particular morning, and my little protest brought me a certain satisfaction of sticking it to the man. It took an additional 25 minutes to obtain accountability for two whole companies. We returned to our racks 40 minutes later, and I lay awake until 0445 when my cell phone alarm signalled that it was time to get up and GTFO (Get the Fuck out).

Having already packed the night before, we quickly got dressed, and with a renewed energy that was in direct contradiction to the previous sleepless night, quickly dragged our gear outside and loaded the HUMVEES. 5 days prior, I had entered FOB Nighthawk with a certain sense of trepidation, uncertain of how I would perform in my role as a gun truck commander. I was, after all, responsible for two other lives in my truck, not to mention the lives of those on the convoy. To say that I was nervous about how I might perform in combat, even in simulated combat, was an understatement. Leaving FOB Nighthawk in the cool morning air 5 days later, and watching it shrink behind us, I was not the same man. Nineteen years of work on the streets of Phoenix and Carson City as Police Officer, responding to homicides, suicides, fatal traffic accidents, domestic violence scenes, countless fights with suspects, and my own first ever officer involved shooting just 2 years earlier, had instilled in me a sense of what it truly means to be a part of a unique group of people whose job it is to run towards gunfire, and not away from it. I had accepted the fact that whatever would happen or not happen over there had already been written. I had no control over it. I was not going to make the same mistake twice and allow myself to be so concerned with my own fate that my performance would be hamstrung by fear. "Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the victory over it". It was not enough to have those words scrawled in ink under the visor of my patrol cap. I had to live them as well.

Finally, I was ready. This chapter of my life was about to begin. I was about to embark upon my own "Great Crusade". For decades, I had been in awe of the young men, born some 80 plus years earlier, who unquestionably enlisted in droves and went off to Europe, North Africa, Italy, and the Pacific to fight and defeat evil. These men had been my heroes. Like them, the young men and women of my generation had now been called upon to ensure that their sacrifices would not be in vain. I thought of men like Don Burgett, a 19 year old paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division who in the early morning hours of June 6th, 1944, jumped into the night over Normandy, France amidst murderous anti-aircraft fire, and wounded twice, fought his way through France, Belgium and Germany. Men like Larry Sutherland, an 18 year old Air Force SP in 1968-1969, who served in Vietnam, and taught me what it was to really be an NCO. Larry died way too early, and I miss him still to this day. Men Like Mark Marshall, my Sergeant at the Carson City Sheriff's Office and a veteran of the Tet Offensive in 1968. I've never met a truer patriot. Men like Gary Denham, a fellow Deputy and a former US Army Ranger, and veteran of the conflict in Panama. One of the bravest guys I've ever known. Men like Jake Sere. A .50 gunner who, with the 1st Marine Division in 2004-2005, was involved in the early days of the war in Iraq and was wounded twice. I look up to Jake and love him like a brother. My own brother Gage. A USAF Security Forces NCO. I can only hope that one day I can overcome my own personal adversity with as much courage as he has his. Men like my Dad.... a man who never gave up on his family. And finally, men like Jason Bueno. Also a fellow Deputy and a USMC Recon veteran of both recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. These are the men who have inspired me, and it's an honor to be counted among them and carry on in their names.

26 May 2009

Training For Reality

Choking on Dust behind a HET

The chiming of my cell phone alarm came much earlier than expected. I squinted through 46 year old eyes that refused to focus. "There's no fucking way it's 4:45 AM already!". I muttered several other various four letter words under my breath, most beginning with the letter "f", a few beginning with the letter "Q" that just came to me, and stepped barefoot onto the cold linoleum floor of the barracks trailer. I was sure that I had only gone to sleep an hour ago. In what I was sure was slow motion, I got dressed, and slid my boots on. I grabbed my M4 and went next door to the enlisted trailer where I made sure that Frazer and Martin were up and ready. I found them in various stages of dress and reminded them that chow was from 0500 to 0530 and that they had better hurry their asses up. Confident that I had sounded gruff enough to pass for an NCO and not a den mother, I shuffled off to the chow hall. The uneven, rocky ground sent knife blades of pain shooting through my left foot with each step. "I gotta get the Doc to look at that thing as soon as I can." I silently reminded myself. I had a tumor surgically removed from my left foot following my first tour in Afghanistan in 2002, and the surgical scar and resulting nerve damage was being aggravated by my boot. I entered the chow hall and was greeted by the all to familiar smell of scrambled eggs and bacon. This mornings fair was accentuated by french toast and oatmeal, as well as a variety of dried cereals, ice cold milk, and orange Gatorade. Not bad for Army food. I made my way through the chow line, grabbed two cartons of milk from the cooler and a cup of Gatorade. I found an empty space at one of the many long tables and began to eat in silence. Not really being a morning person, I preferred to simply eat and go, rather than socialize. Today's mission was going to be a long, hot one, and my mind was elsewhere.

We had been at FOB (Forward Operating Base) Nighthawk for 4 days now, running convoy escorts for a HET (Heavy Equipment Transport) Company out of Arizona. Today's mission would consist of providing gun truck security on a route that would take us to 4 other Patrol Bases where the Arizona unit would be dropping off, then picking up several pieces of armor. Along the way, we would babysit these giant armored behemoths, ensuring that no truck would be lost to an IED or other complex ambush. The morning air, although cool, was unbelievably humid, and I could tell that it was going to be a vicious afternoon, with humidity percentages in the high 90's and temperatures in the upper 80's. By the time I had walked the hundred yards back to my barracks trailer, I was already sweating like Barry Bonds at a congressional hearing on steroid use in Major League Baseball. I grabbed my body armor, helmet, gloves and chest rig and headed back outside. Frazer, like clock work, already had the truck prepped and ready. Martin was mounting his M240B in the turret, as the rest of our squad's gun truck crews prepped their trucks in line.

By now it was nearly 7:30. The sun was coming up and the air was already beginning to swelter. We wouldn't roll out until 11:30, but we still had a safety brief and movement drills to complete with the Arizona unit. Frazer and I took advantage of our down time and climbed up on the hood of our HUMVEE. Leaning against the front windshield, I plugged in my IPOD and soon the soothing country sounds of Carrie Underwood filled my head. Carrie Underwood sang "Just a Dream", a song about mourning the loss of her fiance in Iraq. "Inappropriate", I thought...and quickly clicked through to the next song. The screaming guitar licks of Social Distortion soon replaced Carrie. "Much Better", I smiled and leaned back.

"ALLRIGHT. GEAR UP...LET's GO!" I was jolted out of my alternative rock music haze by Sgt Roberts, our squad leader. "No fucking way it's 11:30, already!", I thought. My little De-ja-vu moment passed quickly, and I clicked off my IPOD, stored it in the cargo pocket of my right sleeve, and hopped off. I donned my armored vest and chest rig, settled my helmet onto my head, and buckled the chinstrap. I told Martin to get up into his hidey-hole and get his gun ready. Frazer climbed behind the wheel and hit the ignition switch. The diesel motor rumbled to life as I climbed into my seat and pulled the 250 lb armored door closed behind me. HUMVEES are not known for their spacious leg room. Add a 45 lb armored vest, a tactical chest rig with canteen, aid kit, and seven M4 magazines, and I was literally pinched between my door and the radio console. "Alright", I said. "Let's go", and Frazer rolled forward into position. Today, we would be the last gun truck in the convoy, providing rear security. I suddenly envied Martin up there in his turret. He, at least would have a breeze, even if it was a hot and humid one. Our HUMVEE's air conditioner was broken, and maintenance had yet to fix it. Frazer and I were locked away below, with the 2 inch thick armored windows rolled up to protect us against shrapnel and small arms fire. Even in a training environment, I was none to eager to catch a paintball in the face, fired by an overzealous, Hadji clad instructor hiding in the bushes.

Radio checks completed, and precisely as scheduled, the convoy of 12 trucks, 9 HET's and 3 up- armored HUMVEE gun trucks, rolled out of the gate and onto the MSR (main supply route). The MSR was an improved gravel road. The nearly half mile long line of HETs and gun trucks ahead of us chewed up the gravel and filled the air with choking clouds of dust that hung like a blinding shroud in the windless, late morning air, reducing visibility at times to a mere 10 feet. Comparitively, being sealed inside our sweltering little coffin, seemed like a helluva better place to be than up in the turret choking on dust and diesel fumes. We rolled along at 15 miles an hour for nearly 3 miles until we hit the paved road. At least on the paved road, there was no threat of an ambush, so the armored windows quickly came down to allow a breeze and fresh air inside. Even if only for a while. We pulled into patrol base Grant and waited as the HETs up-loaded the first of three 5 ton trucks. I took advantage of the lull and only half-drifted off to sleep, propping my helmet- clad head against the roll bar behind me. The blistering humidity made it impossible to get comfortable. I was literally soaked through and the morning had only just begun.

Once loaded, the convoy rolled out again. Windows open, I rode along with my head hanging out of the window, like some drooling hound, trying to get as much cooling breeze as I could before we hit the dirt road and threat of ambush again. The radio handset crackled in my ear as Sergeant Lauron, in Gun truck #1, announced that the convoy was leaving the hardball and entering a Tier 1 hot spot. Previous convoys had all been hit here, and if they failed to react as they should, the 1st Army instructors, clad in Iraqi "man dresses" and headwraps, tore them apart like hyenas feasting on a fresh kill. We were bound and determined not to suffer the same fate. I yelled up to Martin in his turret to keep his eyes open. So far, so good as the convoy rolled into Camp Essayons, our next stop on the mission. Here, the HET crews would off load an M88 tank recovery vehicle. Camp Essayons was a half moon shaped turnaround, with one single entrance and one single exit, cut into the thick Indiana woods. As such, it was a perfect spot for an ambush. Suddenly, explosions rocked the earth and jolted me out of my heat induced stupor. Even in our closed up HUMVEE, the sound was deafening. Artillery simulators, thrown by concealed Hadji/instructors in the woodline, punched into the dusty soil around us. Acrid white smoke and the putrid smell of gunpowder filled our cab. The radio screamed to life, as crews began calling out "Were taking indirect fire!". Some HET drivers, perhaps the more experienced, instinctively dove for cover, as those yet untested by combat, stood in place and watched the spectacle unfold before them. As soon as it began, it was over. With the M88 off-loaded, we got the hell out of the kill zone and headed out to our next destination.

The convoy snaked it's way back onto the dirt road, and we repeated the whole, windows-up-choking-dust-sweating-our-asses-off ballet. The road ahead curved to the left and for a moment, as the dust cloud broke, I could see the lead truck in the convoy and Sergeant Lauron's point gun truck start to enter the curve. As soon as they came out of the curve, the ambush began in earnest. Two daisy chained IED's exploded simultaneously, taking out the HET directly in front of Sergeant Lauron's truck. Like a well choreographed dance, the heavy wrecker pulled around the rest of the convoy, and under punishing small arms fire and RPG's fired from both sides of the roadway, hastily hooked up to the downed HET as Sergeant Lauron's gunner provided suppressing fire from the .50 cal. Once hooked up, the heavy wrecker chugged away with the HET and trailer in tow, followed by the rest of the convoy. The sounds of the ambush faded away into silence as the attackers melted back unseen into the woodline. Not convinced that our attackers had satisfied their bloodlust, I yelled up to Martin to keep his head on a swivel. As we entered the curve, I looked out my side window to see a Hadji clad instructor aiming an RPG at my door. Simultaneously, I yelled into the radio handset and to Martin in the turret, "CONTACT RIGHT. 3 OCLOCK. RPG TEAM!!" At the same time, Frazer yelled out to me, "CONTACT LEFT. 9 OCLOCK. SMALL ARMS FIRE FROM THE WOODLINE!!" Martin's turret whined as he spun around to our 3 oclock and let loose with a long burst from his gun. Empty brass casings and links rained down on the turret roof as Martin cut loose with several long bursts of automatic fire. The RPG team crumpled into the grass without getting their shot off. Martin then spun to the 9 o'clock and cut loose again, shredding the two Hadji clad instructors as paint balls splattered into the drivers side of our HUMVEE and buzzed past his head. Frazer sped through the ambush and we quickly rejoined the rest of the convoy.

After nearly ten hours on the road, the return drive to FOB Nighthawk, and the promise of a hot shower and chow, proved uneventful. We pulled into the staging area, and greeted each other with high fives and hugs. Our training and our time at Camp Atterbury, was finished. In the next two days, we would all be going on leave. When we returned, the day for which we had been preparing for over a year would be upon us, and we would be going to war. Some for the second or third time, others for the very first. Knowing that what we had just accomplished in training would soon become our reality, we now felt pretty goddamn good about our odds. Time would only tell if the gamble would pay off.

20 May 2009

All About Me

My story could not possibly be told without first knowing a little about me. I could not adequately tell my story as well as my own Son. My only spawned man-child, Mark, animator, writer, ladies man, and the envy of the free, industrialized world, has seen fit to write for me, nay for all of you, the story of my humble beginnings. I post it here, and not in my profile, as this sites program only allows 1200 characters maximum. I could not bring myself to butcher such artistry as follows here in order to make it fit such silly paramaters. Enjoy.......

In the beginning, there was nothing. . .then it exploded, but before it did, a man was born. This man, birthed from the mighty womb of the universe, made only of light, sound, and a tickling sensation at the bottom of his feet, looked out at the darkness and said to himself "This will not do," and so set forth on a journey of self exploration and creation, or would have, if not for that exploding tid bit.

This man, was named Gary Hopkins Underhill II (the universe was the first).

Several billion years later Gary settled himself down on a humble little planet he dubbed "Earth" (as this is the name he saw to be fitting). On this planet he birthed four children, and took another under his wing (as this is what he saw fit to do). Mark, the balls, was by far his favourite child, and to him he gave his good looks (sparing none for himself, as he no longer needed them), and his talent. Having parted with these gifts (as he saw fit to do), he set forth on a new mission, a mission of ass kicking, of love making, of pure, unrelenting, awe inspiring, midget tossing, misadventure the likes of which the world had never seen (and the universe will not see again for another seventy-three thousand years, on a distant planet yet undiscovered which will likely be named Slorbidorf). He lives out this mission this very instant, in a distant place. Some people may ask him, "What makes you think you have the right?"

The answer, my friends (though few who ask live to hear it), "Because I, am the balls."

It is said you cannot look upon the face of Gary, but only upon his feet. You ever see that Indiana Jones movie where they open the Ark of the Covenant and that dude's face melts off? You know what was in that Ark? Now you do.

19 May 2009

The end of days, the beginning of an adventure

PFC Joel "Stay-Puff" Martin. My .50 gunner

Preparing to call out targets to my gunner in the turret behind me. That's Mike Frazer, my driver, in the background.

Training at Camp Atterbury was unlike anything that we had expected it to be; early days passing seamlessly into longer nights, little sleep, bad food, and short tempers brought on by spending way too much time together in enclosed areas with little outlet for frustration. Okay, the bad food and short tempers part was pretty much right on the money. Camp Attebury turned out to be more like the boy scout Camp Geronimo that I remember from my youth, except with explosives and live ammo. Any time that you get to shoot holes in things, and blow them up is a good time. Atterbury was woefully ill-equipped to handle the 5000 plus soldiers that it suddenly found itself inundated with on the eve of the largest Nevada National Guard mobilization in that states history. The army did its best I suppose, with the resources it had at hand. I mean, Atterbury had been scheduled for closure just two years prior until an Indiana Congressman convinced the Base Closure Committee to spare his state. Thus, I'm sure, ensuring his re-election for years into the foreseeable future.

Stay-Puff and the big .50

Overall, I have an exceptional crew on my gun truck. My Driver, 28 year old Specialist (soon to be Sergeant) Mike Frazer, is quiet and reserved, and mature beyond his youthful years. His purpose is to maintain our truck and drive us from point A to point B, and back again, hopefully in one piece. I need only to point Mike in the direction of our HUMMVEE every morning, and know that it will be out in front of the barracks, staged, gassed and ready to go. Mike is a great comfort to me behind the wheel. My Gunner is 20 year old PFC Joel Martin, affectionately known to the rest of us as Stay-Puff. Joel is a mountain of a man, and its hard to remember sometimes that he's only 20 years old and younger than both of my older children. Joel weighs in at nearly 300 lbs! Add to that his body armor, and assorted pouches and extra ammunition, and Joel resembles an entire weapons system with a pulse, not a young soldier on his first deployment ready to rain down death and destruction with our .50 caliber machine gun. To put it simply, Joel is shit-hot behind that gun! Our first day on the gunnery range, Joel hit not only 10 out of the 10 targets at distances of 600 meters, but he flat tore them up! Not an easy feat with a weapon system as large as a .50 caliber machine gun. You don't so much shoot the gun as you do make love to it. The .50 cal is a massive weapon, capable of tearing down entire structures, and reducing vehicles to shredded wrecks and people to misty pink clouds of DNA. In free-gun mode, that is, the gun is free to swivel and traverse as you please, it tends to shoot low and climb, so the trick is to "walk" your rounds up to the target, then, watching your tracer rounds race towards whatever you're shooting at, hold the gun on point, until you have destroyed and/or killed it. Not having much experience with the .50 cal, I was totally unprepared for its awesome power. Our first day on the live fire gunnery range had been long awaited. Our training would consist of driving slowly along a prepared path as I was directed via radio to various pop-up targets. As the targets presented themselves, I would yell up to Joel in the turret and call out the target, distance and direction. "Joel! RPG team and enemy truck, 300 meters, your 9 o'clock!" What happened next could only be described as both a religious and simultaneously erotic experience. Joel reacted instantly, swinging the turret around, and hit the butterflies, or trigger. The gun exploded in a staccato cacophony of sound. The entire 15,000 lb up-armored HUMMVEE rocked to the rythm of each 7 to 10 round burst. Loose links and empty brass shell casings, each 6 inches long, spilled into the space next to me from the turret, bouncing off my left shoulder and clattering to the steel deck. Others rained down on the roof, spilling onto the hood. I watched as angry, glowing red tracer rounds shrieked towards the target, knowing that between each set of tracers were 4 other unseen rounds. Each round slammed into the earth in front of the target plowing a trench towards the imaginary enemy until they found their mark. The earth exploded in geysers of dirt and sod, and the imaginary enemy RPG team was sent packing to Allah. I gasped uncontrollably in both awe, and respect for what I had just been a part of. The 9 remaining targets suffered the same fate as the first as Joel became Death. No longer would I ever again look at him as just a 20 year old kid on his first deployment. He was now my own personal instrument of chaos and mayhem, and after watching him in action, I knew that nothing could touch us.

15 May 2009

Camp Atterbury, Indiana. April 2009

Ssgt Greg Sanchez and I at the always rain-soaked rifle range at Camp Atterbury, Indiana shortly after zeroing our newly issued M4's.

What I remember most about the Midwest is what I liked the least about it; bugs, humidity, an abundance of poison ivy, and weather that changes more frequently than Charlie Sheen's love interests. The Bible says that God promised that he would never again destroy his wondrous handiwork by flood. I'm beginning to think that God has a rather acute sense of nostalgia. Camp Atterbury's weather is more like Seattle than Seattle is like Seattle. Walking across the PT field is more like walking on a giant sponge that cannot possibly hold another drop of water. The rain was almost constant, broken only by an occasional day of sun that would warm things up just enough, to bring out the swarms of gnats like Banzai crazed kamikazes. Atterbury has been a US Army training site for deploying soldiers since 1942. Ironically enough, that's the same year that they apparently stopped doing any improvements on the facilities. Soldiers, however, are experts at invention and adaption, and it wasnt long before our barracks began to look like home.....that is, if your home looks like a post-Katrina trailer park. All manner of personal accoutrements hung from walls and bunks; girlie posters, bath towells, laundry bags, and various pieces of uniforms. It was almost as if someone had projectile vomited digital ACU camouflage in a wide and neverending arc. Specialist Scott Lynch, who we affectionaltely refer to as "Scotty Too Hotty" for his Hollywood good looks and chiseled Spartan physique, insisted on covering every square inch of his living space not with posters of the latest Hooters girls or Playboy centerfolds, but with posters of various boy-bands. Not that Scotty is gay, he just thought that it was funny as hell.

After our arrival at Atterbury in a pouring rain, we quickly got ourselves settled into our barracks. Training for war however, would not begin for several days. First, we had to endure hour after endless hour of in-processing. Visits to medical, dental, vision, and legal had to be taken care of. Wills and powers of attorney, life insurance and financial matters all had to be addressed. Each line seemed longer and more tedious than the one before. Many of us swore that if we had to endure one more fucking briefing on combat stress or suicide prevention that we would rather drink a Reverend Jim Jones Koolaid cocktail than continue on with this torturous existence that was cruelly masquerading as our daily life. A death in combat is a death with honor. Washing ones mouth out with buckshot out of the desperation borne from standing for 6 hours in line, only to be poked and probed by a nurse who looks far less like the naughty nurse of my teenage fantasies and more like the wife of a Russian beet farmer....not so much.

Mercifully, our baneful existence would soon come to pass, and in a few days we would get down to the business of training to do our jobs......
Publish Post

14 May 2009

The Long Road to War

Walking across the tarmac to the chartered jet that would take us to Camp Atterbury. We would not return to Nevada for almost a year.

Following my son's lead, I've chosen to begin a blog detailing the past year and the year that lies ahead as I count down the final days and few short weeks before I head to Iraq. My son is an incredibly gifted and creative writer and animator, and I can only hope to come close to his wit. I'm proud as hell of this kid...hell...."kid"....he's 20 years old now and I wish like hell that I could claim credit for what a fine young man he's turned into, in spite of me, not because of me. In short, he's pretty much "the balls".......but that's another story entirely.

June 2008

I remember like it was 5 minutes ago, standing in my kitchen after grabbing the afternoon mail. It was a typically beautiful summer day in Reno. Very warm but not too hot. The kind of day best spent on a beach at Lake Tahoe, killing my 5th margarita and watching my girls frolic in the water, instead of staring at a letter from the Commanding General and Command Sergeant Major of the Nevada Army National Guard, "strongly" suggesting that I consider volunteering for duty to Iraq. The wording left me little choice. The news hit me like an all too familiar kick in the crotch. The memories of Afghanistan in 2001 came rushing back into my head like annoying static. I stared at the words on the paper in disbelief. I swore in 2003 that I would never do this again. But what little personal honor I had left compelled me to go. Maybe this was my second chance. Hell, maybe this was my LAST chance to redeem myself and finally put my demons to rest! Everything I had ever stood for, everything I had ever held dear.....words like honor, loyalty, duty, sacrifice, personal integrity...words I had dedicated my life to and lived by....had all been laid to waste by years of selfishness and bitterness. I had kept a dark secret for too long. A secret that had eaten away and continued to eat away at my very soul like a cancer....and I was terminal. Here was my chance at life again. Ironically, I had to go somewhere where I might be killed to find it. Despite suddenly having to confront my own mortality in a very real way, I committed to go. Little did I know that the greatest personal challenges of my life lay in wait like a monster in my closet, waiting to strike, tear my still beating heart from my chest and devour my eternal soul as soon as I closed my eyes. Insurgents with AK-47's and roadside bombs would have nothing on this organ eating, soul devouring bastard!