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.