30 June 2009

Three legged donkeys.

Eeyore, the three legged donkey

KBR maintenance workers scramble to get our truck fixed in time to make our convoy.

Our continuing first convoy as a squad took us further north into Iraq to a facility called Victory Base Complex/Camp Stryker. VBC, just outside of Baghdad, is a sprawling complex, almost a city unto itself. To put it into perspective, imagine the drive from Carson City proper to Meadowood mall in Reno (minus traffic delays) and you might get an idea of how long it takes to drive from one end of the post to the other. VBC is home to most of the Army Command in Iraq as well as US Air Force Sather Air Base, and Special Operations Command. Smack dab in the middle of it all lies one of Sadaam Hussein's former palatial estates consisting of three gigantic palaces and several smaller homes. By "smaller" I mean the only thing that comes close to rivaling it all is Neverland Ranch. The entire estate surrounds a rather beautiful dark emerald green colored man made lake. As if to add insult to injury, the US military built a sprawling PX, Popeyes Chicken, Burger King, and Taco Bell, almost literally on the palaces front doorstep. I'm relatively certain that Sadaam and his two sons would not have been pleased with their new neighbors. "There goes the neighborhood" never rang more true!

While en route to VBC, my guntruck began experiencing acceleration issues. Whenever our convoy stops, it's my trucks responsibility to prowl the convoy and provide an armed overwatch. While doing so, we began to experience complete loss of power whenever we would make a slow turn or have to backup. This isnt what you want to happen when you come under fire. I like to think that were able to get out of trouble as quickly as we got into it. As soon as we arrived, I got it to maintenance and dropped it off. KBR, the private civilian contractor in charge of all vehicle maintenance in theatre told me to check back by noon that day for an update. As soon as I did, I learned that the problem was more serious than we had thought. My truck needed new fuel injectors as well as a new fuel pump and would be down until at least the next day at noon. I broke the news to the squad that we would not be able to push out that night and would be held up until at least noon if not later the next day. The news was met with claps and cheers. If one is unlucky enough to get stuck overnight anywhere, VBC is the place to be. We now had a 24 hour mini-vacation which meant trips to the PX and Gym, hot showers, and real sleep.

The next day, I checked in with maintenance. More bad news. My truck was still not ready, and there would be no news until at least 5:00 PM. I reminded the Specialist behind the desk that our convoy was scheduled to push out at 8:30 PM and that I didn't have a whole lot of room to play with that time. I was assured that it would be ready and to check back. At 5:00 PM, I did as instructed, and was told that at 5:30 my truck would be ready, and that it would be brought back to me from maintenance, over 40 minutes away. So I waited. Then I waited some more. By 6:15, my truck was nowhere in sight. Just as I was about to get up and go back inside the office to flex my stripes, a silver Ford F150 pulled up driven by another Sergeant. He told me to get in and that he would take me to my truck. As we drove on, he suddenly remarked that I would have to find my own way back to my staging area as he had other business to take care of, but assured me that it was an easy route. We drove on, making "S" turn after "S" turn, right, then left then right again....then through a dusty traffic circle and an old Iraqi Army outpost. I tried to memorize landmarks but soon was hoplessly confused. Oh, well, at least I would finally be re-united with my truck and could get out of here and back on the road soon. Such would not be the case. Why was I surprised?

I met with the KBR Supervisor who told me that it would be about a half hour longer. I looked at my watch and began to sweat....and not just from the heat. My Lieutenant's words rang in my head. "Don't be that guy that makes us miss an SP (Start Point) time! God have mercy on you if you do!" I nervously looked at my watch. 6:45 PM. Two four man crews of mechanics scrambled over my truck, feverishly trying to beat the clock. I looked at my watch again. The time sucker punched me in the face. 8:00 PM. "Holy crap!" I could see my stripes taking flight. I must have looked like I was about to have a stroke, because the KBR supervisor asked if I was alright. "Yeah.......I'm good" was all I could manage to say. He assured me that they were almost done. It was too late I thought. The drive back to the staging area was at least 40 minutes, and that's in the daylight and if I knew where in the hell I was going. I watched in agony as the minutes ticked away. I had no communications with anyone at the staging area and they had no idea why I was delayed. I hoped they were sending somebody back to check on me. At 8:40, the KBR Supervisor told me my truck was ready and running fine. Like a NASCAR pit crew, they put the front wheels back on, snapped hoses back into place, and slammed my hood. I jumped in, backed her out, and pulled out into the darkness. I drove no more than 100 yards when I realized that I was now hopelessly lost.

Being lost in Iraq with no map, no radio, and worse yet, no ammunition feels a little like being the last one to know that you just showed up to work wearing nothing but your wife's underwear, a viking helmet and a little league chest protector. Disconcerting doesn't even begin to cover it. Its not that I didn't stop to ask directions, it's just that there was nobody to be found anywhere. I'm not even sure I was on post anymore. I suddenly found myself driving down a pitch black road, surrounded on all sides by tall reeds, palm trees, and water on both sides. I soon saw small mud huts and shacks and bearded guys in robes who seemed as surprised to see me as I was them. I began to speed up, hoping that if I drove faster, maybe I would catch someones attention...like a friendly patrol or the MP's.....or at the very least, make myself a difficult target to hit. Instead, I veered right, and struck the curb. The HUMMVEE lurched and I smelled burning rubber as the right side tires squealed against the concrete and the right side mirror shredded the reeds. I fought the panic to over correct and struggled to keep my 15,000 lb up armored truck from flipping upside down into the dark water. I was able to regain control and immediately slowed down. Maybe the whole speed up and attract attention thing was a bad idea after all. I drove on, not recognizing a damned thing. I made several more turns in what I was sure was the direction of VBC. I looked at my watch. 9:30 PM. I was sure by now that they were either sending someone to look for me or at the very least, signing my demotion order.

I dont know how, but eventually I found my way back on post, although I still had no idea where I was. I flagged down a passing SUV driven by a young Sergeant. I sheepishly explained my predicament. Luckily he knew exactly where I was and gave me directions back. Soon, I began to see familiar landmarks and at last knew where I was. I pulled into the staging area, spinning the huge tires on my HUMMVEE and spitting gravel as I ground to a halt. I was home. I got out and prepared to face the music. I explained my tale of woe and misadventure to whoever would listen, hoping to gain a bit of sympathy and save at least a couple of my stripes. Instead, I was greeted with hugs, slaps on the back, and uproarious laughter. Our SP time had been pushed back to 11:30 PM long before my being missing became an issue. It took me a bit longer than the rest to find the humor in it all, but eventually, I came around, my life and stripes intact.

Three Legged Donkeys

The drive back to Kuwait would take us approximately 9 hours. There had been no significant terrorist activity in our area for at least 24 hours, with the exception of two IED's which had been found on our route the day prior. Fortunately those were behind us and we would be heading south. Still, I was nervous and eyed every pothole and patch of discolored concrete with suspicion. Just as we neared the Kuwaiti border at Khabari Crossing, the sun began to rise. We slowed as the convoy reached the border, and one by one the trucks began to cross back into Kuwait. On my right, just off to the side of the road, was an old shack occupied by three or four Iraqi men who stood watching us as we passed. Then, like some out of this world, LSD induced, surrealistic painting, I saw it. The Three legged Donkey. So old was this donkey, that I was sure it was probably the same one that Joseph used to ferry Mary in to Bethlehem. It hobbled along on three of its good legs, head hung low. It's left front limb horribly mangled form some long-ago injury. This donkey made Eeyore look like a cackling village idiot. I was both saddened and amazed at the same time. Saddened at this animals continuing suffering, and amazed that no one had fired a belt of ammo into this poor thing to put it out of it's misery yet. Maybe on our return trip I thought.......

We crossed back into the safety of Kuwait and made our way back to Arifjan. The June 30th deadline to pull all US combat forces out of the cities had now passed. Celebrations throughout Iraq began as Iraqi's declared that day a national holiday, "Soveriegnty Day". The celebrations didnt last long. First an IED detonation on route Tampa North of Baghdad, and then a truck bomb that detonated during a celebration in a market in Kirkuk, killing 33 people, just hours after US forces pulled out. My hopes for an early end and maybe real peace in this region faded.

25 June 2009

Deeper into Iraq

2nd Squad L to R: "Doc" (our medic) SSgt Albert "Sergeant Vee" Viens, Spc Tyler Miller-Cobb, Sgt Mike "Cool Breeze" Frazer, SSgt Jake Roberts, Sgt Rudy Cabulong (standing), Me, PFC Joel "Stay-Puff" Martin, Spc Sean "Captain Jack" Canfield, SSgt Krebbs, Sgt John "Bomber" Baum.

Nevada Soldiers conduct a safety brief before pushing further North into Iraq after our first stop. Facing camera L to R: Spc Mike Frazer, Sgt John Baum, Spc Tyler Miller-Cobb (partially obscured) and Ssgt Jake Roberts

We'd been driving for several hours, escorting a convoy further North into Iraq. It was a no moon night, and our route, Route Tampa, stretched out before us into the blackness. Tampa had previously been one of the most dangerous roadways in Iraq for US convoy operations, but years of military efforts here had obviously paid off. Attacks were down considerably. One NCO on our convoy had likened the chances during his past year here of being hit to winning the lottery. The only problem is, another soldier retorted, was that somebody ALWAYS wins the lottery.

The first checkpoint on our route was the Romanian Bridge over the Euphrates River. This bridge is so named because it had been guarded by the Romanian Army during the early days of the war. Prior to that, it had been guarded by the Italians. Now it was barely guarded at all. Crossing the Euphrates River, I was reminded off how young soldiers must have felt in 1945 crossing the Rhine River and pressing forward into Germany. We passed a lone Iraqi Police outpost at the entrance to the bridge. The Policeman assigned to man the entrance to the bridge that night was dressed in the light blue uniform shirt and dark blue pants of the Iraqi national Police Force and was armed with an AK47. He stood stoically and looked almost comical in a uniform that was obviously 5 or 6 sizes too big for him. We passed over the bridge, and I envied Martin and his view up in the turret.

We continued along route Tampa, and the landscape slowly changed from barren desert to the much greener Euphrates River valley. I began to notice something about the highway we were on. It seemed as though that along nearly the entire route, it was in a constant state of construction and disrepair. Freeway overpasses were left unfinished and curbs were never installed. The roadway simply dropped off at both sides into the desert or abruptly ended and turned to dirt road before the hardball resumed again. Obviously, his country's transportation and infrastructure had not been a priority on Sadaam's to-do list. I bet the driveway to his palace had curbs. For nearly 200 miles, there was not a guard rail in sight. All 200 miles of guard rails had been removed to prevent insurgents from concealing IED's behind them. All that was left were the posts. This had not prevented the insurgents, though, from chipping out 3 or 4 feet of concrete along the side of the roadway in various places and concealing explosives under fresh concrete. Evidence of recently detonated IED's were visible along most of the route. Every time we passed a section of concrete that was not the same color as the roadway around it, I would sink just a little deeper in my seat and clench my teeth, hoping that tonight, I would not be the first to win the lottery. The same happened each time we passed a dead dog. As the convoy would pass the carcass, we would swing wide, right or left, trying to give ourselves enough distance, just in case Fluffy was stuffed with explosives.

The farther north we pressed, the more populated the area became and before long, small mud huts and villages dotted the hills and palm groves on either side of the highway. Soon, we began to see small shacks painted in broad green and white stripes with large letters that read "S-O-I DONT SHOOT". Next to the shacks sat two or three local Iraqi men dressed in the ankle length robes. They sat in the sand on cardboard or rugs staring at us as we passed. None waved. These men were "Sons of Iraq". Most were all former insurgents. Instead of being paid by local Taliban or Al Qaeda operatives $35.00 to $100.00 to plant and detonate roadside bombs or ambush US convoys, they were now being paid even more by the pro-American Iraqi forces to make sure that nothing happened along the route and that we could pass in relative safety. Apparently, I thought, money talks, no matter what the language. I only hoped that these guys had been paid this week.

We continued into the night as the eastern sky began to lighten, silhouetting the villages and palm groves. Morning traffic began to increase as Iraqis got on with the business of their daily lives. Our convoy pushed through the traffic. The Iraqis had grown use to the sight of 70 plus heavy transports lumbering down their dilapidated highways, and were only too eager to get out of our way and let us pass. As the morning sun crept pumpkin orange into the sky, we made our turn towards our next stop, Camp Stryker, a sprawling multi-national military complex not far from Baghdad.

We bumped and chugged down an un-improved dirt road that skirted several villages and neighborhoods. They reminded me of many a south Phoenix neighborhood that I had patrolled as a Phoenix Police Officer many years before. The only difference being the random herds of goats, and sprawling grape vineyards. Groups of Iraqi children ranging in age from 7 to 12 came to the side of the road in groups of twos and threes. They stood waving and begging treats and food from the truck drivers. We called these children "rapscallions" and they were not to be taken lightly. At the first opportunity, these little waifs would jump unseen onto the flat bed trailers and steal chains, gas caps, cases of water, or whatever they could grab and then run victorious into the cover of the reeds and vineyards. These little kids had cost the US Government thousands of dollars in lost equipment. Occasionally, they would stand and throw rocks at the passing trucks. As our truck followed slowly along in line down the bumpy, dusty road, I saw a small boy about 7 years of age. He was standing by himself begging food from the passing trucks. His little arms were filled with various treats and sodas, tossed down by the drivers. As we neared, Martin tossed him a bottle of water from the turret. He caught it in his arms without dropping a single one of his sugary treats. He took one look at it and then looked at us with a look on his face that said, "A bottle of water? That's all you've got? A bottle of water? What....are you frigging kidding me??" He tossed the bottle away and ran off down the road in disgust. So much for winning his heart and mind.

As we neared the front gate, I noticed a second group of children. They were older and appeared to be roughly 13 or 14 years old. My experience had taught me that nothing good can come of that many 13 or 14 year old boys gathered in one place. There was just something different about this group of kids that didn't look right. Not one of them was begging food, and one of them stood off to the side away from the others as if he was watching something. I told Frazer to pull out of the convoy and speed up to where they stood. As soon as they saw us coming, they fled into the village, but not before one of them turned and thrust a middle finger high in to the air at Martin up in his turret. Our entire truck erupted into laughter at the little would be thief's bravado. Flipping off the cops translates no matter what the language.

We entered the gate and with the transports safely inside, proceeded to our staging area where we parked and stripped off our armored vests and ammo. We would spend the night at Camp Stryker before proceeding to our next stop on the convoy the next day. I had played the Iraqi lottery for the first time and lost....and that was just fine with me.

Crossing the Border

Gearing up. Spc. Jake Sere dons his body armor as Mike Frazer lends a hand

Our First Mission. L to R: Me, Mike Frazer, and Joel Martin posing in front of our truck, "The Gentle Hammer".

1300 hours, 23 June 2009. The day was finally upon us. The wind was howling furnace-hot and the blowing sand stung my face as we walked to our trucks from the barracks. Today we would be escorting a mile and a half long convoy of trucks, consisting of both Military Heavy Equipment Transports and private contract vehicles, known as “whites” deep into Iraq. “Whites” were generally local civilian flatbed tractor trailers driven by Indian, Pakistani or Filipino nationals who were paid by the US government to assist with transportation duties.

I noticed that today’s trucks would be leaving empty, and I could only assume that this meant that we would be picking up loads from various stops along the way. I wondered if this was part of the whole draw down in troop strength in Iraq. Maybe this WAS finally ending over here, I thought. But the news that there had been 7 attacks today along Iraqi roadways as well as a rocket attack on one of our FOB’s and a recent suicide bombing in Baghdad that killed 31 people, quickly convinced me that my hope was just foolish, wishful thinking. The Commanders and politicians would say that comparatively, the number of attacks against US forces and the number of combat related deaths had drastically decreased. This might be true, but that’s little consolation to the soldier, far from home, still dodging rockets, mortars, RPG’s and small arms fire. Soldiers don’t care much about statistics when they’re wondering if the next dead donkey they pass along the side of the road is stuffed full of artillery shells and a remote controlled detonator, or if the next pothole they drive around contains several hundred pounds of explosives, jellied gasoline and ball bearings.

I brushed the thoughts from my head and thought instead of home and my family. I loaded my rucksack and body armor into the turret and helped Martin and Frazer with theirs. The hot Kuwaiti winds continued to blow and I wrapped my souvenir black and white checkered Afghani head wrap tighter around my face to keep the sand out. We loaded our cooler with ice, Gatorade, bottled water and energy drinks, and secured our rifles and ammo. We then climbed into our truck, completed our commo checks, and the convoy of gun trucks pulled slowly out of the staging area and headed north towards Khabari Crossing on the Iraqi border where we would meet the transports.

The drive to Khabari took only 40 minutes. By the time we got there, the sandstorm was bad enough that we were told to stand by indefinitely until the roads were clear enough to drive on. Even if we could drive, the MEDEVAC helicopters couldn’t fly in such weather which meant that wounded could not be evacuated. So we waited. I tried to make my self as comfortable as I could in the cramped crew quarters of our truck. Even with the air conditioning running, it was stifling hot. Despite the heat, I napped. I’m not sure for how long, because I was snapped awake by Martin who yelled, “Let’s go. Were moving out!” The roads had cleared enough to allow us to drive and the MEDEVAC helicopter to fly should it have to. I threw on my 35 lb armored vest. I had left it sitting on the front bumper of our truck and instantly regretted it. It was like donning a tanning booth set on high. I snapped my chest rig full of ammo on and adjusted my load, put on my helmet, and grabbed my rifle. The 5 gun truck crews as well as all of the Army HET drivers gathered in a tight circle where we were lead in prayer. Then, prior to climbing into our trucks, the gun truck crews were summoned to the side by Staff Sergeant Jake Roberts of Reno, our squad leader. Ice cold cans of “RIP IT” a popular energy drink, were handed out. On cue, we snapped open the pop tops and each of us slammed our drink down, then threw the can to the ground, crushing it under our boot. “Ahhhhh…Liquid crack in a can”. Now we were ready.

We mounted our trucks and as the HET’s pulled forward, found our place in the convoy and headed North. The 1864th Gun Truck Company/1st Platoon/2nd Squad officially crossed the Iraqi border for the first time at 1639 hours 23 June, 2009. We’d broken our cherries. The landscape changed immediately. Endless desert that spread out in all directions was spotted with small scrub brush, and littered with years of trash. Papers and empty plastic water bottles danced ghost-like pushed on by the wind. This is where some of the main tank battles of the first Gulf War took place between US and Iraqi forces in 1991. Charred and rusted Soviet T72 main battle tanks, their huge cannons lying lifeless, turrets blown upside down, disemboweled tank tracks spread out in the sand, sat where they had died. We drove through the featureless desert for several hours, content in the fact that this stretch of empty roadway was probably going to be the safest of our journey. Looking out at the Iraqi desert, I couldn’t help but feel that this truly must be the Valley of Armageddon. The weather began to worsen until radio chatter confirmed that MEDEVAC would not fly tonight. Our convoy would be stopping at FOB Cedar for the night.

Once we arrived, we were all too happy to peel ourselves from our seats and stretch our aching legs and backs. Body armor was quickly removed and the relief was instantaneous. Martin climbed down from his turret, and for the first time in several hours, I saw his face. His boyish face was covered in dust and grime, except for his eyes which had been protected by his goggles. He smiled a goofy grin, which gleamed bright white behind the grime and said, “I’m officially a veteran, now!”, proud of this milestone in his young life. I was proud for him as well, but felt very old. We made our way to the transient tent compound where we would stay until the next day. We were all bone tired, sweaty, gritty and hot. We grabbed our racks, dumped our gear and headed for the showers. I climbed in and turned on the water. As the hot water cascaded over me, I stood and stared at my feet, lost in the wet euphoria. The water running off of me was brown and muddy, and I chuckled to myself. “Funny”, I thought. “Every little boy always plays army and wonders what it’s like to go to war. Then when you’re finally here, all you want to do is go home”.

0130 hours. I climbed into my sleeping bag and began to drift off to sleep. I thought of Robbie and my girls and wondered what they were doing right now. My half awake, half asleep dream was shattered by a shrill siren signaling incoming mortar or artillery fire. I waited for the announcement that this was only a drill, but none came. I then remembered that a U.S FOB had been hit earlier in the day by three Iraqi rockets. Nobody in the tent moved. We were all too tired to even run to the bunkers. Instead, we quietly waited for the sound of explosions. None came, and there was no explanation for the alarm. “Welcome to Iraq” I muttered, and gave way to sleep.

19 June 2009

The Highway of Death

A Kuwaiti sandstorm blots out the sun and envelopes the compound

We were only supposed to be at the Udari Range for 3 days.......3 days of sleeping on hard floors in a quonset hut, 3 days of no showers or running water, 3 days of hot-box latrines that smelled like a petting zoo. We were there for 5. Training ran us well into day 4, and the plan was to pack up our trucks and make the 4 hour return trip back to Arifjan. No such luck. A vicious sand storm blew into Udari, completely blotting out the sun for nearly two days and rendering the roads impassable! Kuwaiti sand storms are nothing like the summer monsoon season dust storms I remember from my youth in Arizona. Kuwaiti sand storms laugh at Arizona in mocking disgust! The sand blown by the hot, fierce winds is more like abrasive talcum powder than sand. If one is unfortunate enough to get caught in one, as we were, walking back from chow, ones best defense is to bury your face in your arms as best as you can, and press forward to the nearest shelter, squinty-eyed. The sand blasts at any exposed skin, gets in your mouth and nose, and burns your eyes like pepper spray. As if that weren't bad enough, the swirling, blasting sand particles collide with each ohter in such a way that they create their own static electricity and resulting lightning. The lighting is totally unlike any thunderstorm lightning that you might expect to see, but rather resembles a lightning storm on the dark side of Mars. It doesn't end when the winds die. The remaining silt hangs motionless in the air until it settles to the ground. This particular settling took two full days. In the mean time, we waited for the word that the roads were clear enough to drive. No such luck on day 4. Day 5 broke with little hope that we would be leaving. Although a bit clearer, the sand still hung in the air like a thick fog, blocking out the morning sun. So we sat on our trucks, parked in their order of march, and waited.

6:30 AM. Word is passed that the roads have been declared clear enough to drive, but with no guarantee for how long. Soldiers lept from their trucks, started engines, and completed radio checks with lightning efficiency seldom seen. We wanted to get the hell out of Udari! I had personally run out of clean socks and underwear 2 days ago and was quickly growing tired of my own stench.Our convoy made it's way to the front gate, and past the private security contractors who manned it. The Kuwaiti highway spread out ahead of us, fading into the dusty morning. We drove south, deeper into Kuwait and away from Iraq...if only for a few days. The farther south we drove, the clearer the air became until we left the dust behind. It was then that I realized where we were. This stretch of highway we were traveling was the very same roadway that thousands of Iraqi troops had used as they tried to flee Kuwait and the American forces after Iraq invaded Kuwait during the first Gulf War in 1991. I had read about and seen photos of the Highway of Death. The United States Air Force had caught the Iraqi's in the open as they fled on foot, in buses, cars, and carts, in trucks, and in tanks, anything that would carry them. The Air Force annihilated them. The resulting carnage was apocalyptic. Vehicles and human bodies turned inside out by bombs, and rockets. Untold numbers of Iraqi soldiers never got out of their vehicles and burned to death in the wreckage. Ahead in the distance, grotesque shapes started to emerge in the sand and grew larger and thicker as we got closer, until we were upon it. The convoy slowed as we passed. The wreckage was still there. Simply bulldozed off to the side of the road and into the sand, left as a mute testament to the carnage and hell of war. Vehicles of every shape and size poked from the sand in mutilated shapes. The Iraqi's stole from the Kuwaiti's whatever they could to get away in. Buses, construction vehicles, military trucks, Soviet era tanks, even luxury cars. The pilots of the Air Force A-10 Warthogs must have had a field day as they made pass after pass over the Iraqi forces, stalled on the highway in a miles long traffic jam. Rockets and 37mm depleted uranium shells tore into the Iraqi column, literally shredding them from one end to the other and turning vehicles inside out. I saw a full size bus that had been torn open length wise and looked like a canoe. Hunks of metal and engine blocks with a single steering wheel protruding that were unrecognizable as the vehicle it used to be. I wondered how many human remains were still out there. I doubted that the Iraqi's were in any shape in the months following the Gulf War to recover many of their dead.

We continued south and back to Arifjan, leaving behind a part of history. Tired, hot, sweaty and dirty, we turned in our trucks to the motorpool and our weapons to the arms room and shuffled back to the barracks. Training was over. A year of preparation and planning had come to an end. Ahead lay nearly another year of putting all of that training to the test. In just a few short days we would pull our first mission and cross the Iraqi border. We were finally ready.

The Udari Range, Five miles from the Iraqi border.

Preparing our trucks for the days Combat Patrol training mission. L to R: Me and Pfc Martin.

Pfc Jamaal Uzziel of Las Vegas, gunner for Wolfpack 1, reading the Stars and Stripes before our mission.

En route to Udari, as seen from the front seat of Wolfpack 3.

Our first convoy as a complete gun truck platoon took place on 13 June. The stifling hot Kuwaiti night air was thick with excitement as we were issued our gun trucks at the motor pool. The M1151 up armored HUMMVEE, gun truck #207, which we nicknamed "The Gentle Hammer" would be our home on the road for for the next ten months. My crew, Pfc Joel "StayPuff" Martin, Specialist Mike "Cool Breeze" Frazer, both of Reno, and I set about inventorying all of our trucks equipment prior to our mission, which would kick off in just a few hours. We then familiarized ourselves with our weapons stations. Frazer, my driver, would be responsible for programming our communications and maintaining the truck. Martin, my gunner, was responsible for the top turret mounted .50 caliber heavy machine gun, and more importantly shooting and destroying those bent on shooting or destroying us. It would be my job to communicate via the on-board computer, much like the one in my patrol car at the Sheriff's Office, with the other gun trucks, and call out targets to my gunner.

There is very little room to maneuver inside the truck itself. Every bit of available space is taken up by communications and navigation equipment, as well as cans of .50 caliber ammunition and our own personal gear. My view to the outside world would be seen through two inch thick transparent armored windows all around. I reminded Martin to keep his eyes open and his head down as his view from atop in the turret would be far better than mine. If Martin was at all nervous about the tremendous responsibility he bore for our lives, he didn't show it. I watched him with a certain sense of pride as he set about meticulously setting up his weapons station in the turret, and was glad he was my gunner.

By 11:30 PM, we were ready to go, and the convoy of of 16 gun trucks rolled out of the motorpool, like an armored python, snaking its way toward the main road and out the front gate onto the highway towards the Udari Rrange, 4 hours away, and just 5 miles from the Iraqi border. Udari would be our home for the next five days as we honed our skills as a crew, practicing combat patrols and machine gunnery. A half moon lit the night sky and bathed the Kuwaiti desert landscape in an erie orange, dusty glow. Even in the moonlight, it was surprising to see exactly how desolate this part of the world was. The farther north we travelled, the more desolate the desert became, until there was not a single piece of evidence that anything green has ever grown here. "Hey, Frazer" I yelled into my headset staring out into the desert night. "What's up Sarge?" he replied in his usual slow drawl. "You know what? On the seventh day, God didnt rest, he just gave up. He looked at this place and said 'I've hit a wall.......I'm done'. I guess even God gets writers block". Frazer chuckled as we drove on into the night.

By 3:30 AM we arrived at our stop off point, Camp Beuhring, a FOB located just 10 miles from the Iraqi border, and rolled though the gate. We parked our trucks, grabbed our packs and shuffled, sweaty and bone tired to our barracks tent. Bed was just a cot, but the tent was air conditioned and that was good enough for me. I peeled off my dusty, sweat-stained camouflaged uniform, kicked my boots off and collapsed onto my cot. In moments I was asleep. Wake up was 11:30 the next morning. Chow was an MRE, Meal, Ready to Eat. Chili and beans is never good first thing in the morning, and today was certainly no exception. But, it was food, and it filled the void in my stomach, left empty from not having eaten in almost 24 hours. We re-packed our gear, loaded our trucks, and headed north towards Udari, closer to the Iraqi border.

Our first drill of the day would be a simulated combat patrol consisting of 16 guntrucks. Our mission would be to patrol through several towns, encountering IED's and Insurgents along the way. Occupying these makeshift plywood "towns" would be nearly 400 Kuwaiti and Iraqi locals, convincingly playing themselves. Most would be friendly, some would not, but all were here to help train us. We were warned that we would encounter snipers, rock throwers, and suicide vehicle bombers. This would prove to be the most realistic and frighteningly eye-opening training I had ever been through. My truck was "Wolfpack 3", and third in line in the convoy. It was our job to block intersections and traffic circles as we moved forward, ensuring free movement of the rest of the convoy. Its not safe to stop, as you then make yourself an easy target. I would soon find out just how easy a target I would become.

As we rolled through our first town, I was amazed at the number of locals playing the part of the towns people. They all flocked to the side of the road and stared, glassy eyed at us as we passed. Some waved and others simply glared. I wondered if it was really all an act. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I caught movement off to the left of our truck and turned just in time to see a local hurl a large rock at my truck. It struck the side armor with a surprisingly loud thunk, just behind Martin's turret. Martin responded just as he should and maintained his gun at the three o'clock position, and ducked down when he heard the noise. Frazer sped up just a bit, driving away from the hostile crowd. "Asshole", he muttered. As we passed through the edge of town and approached a freeway overpass, Wolfpack 1, driven by Specialist Tyler Miller-Cobb and commanded by Sgt John Baum, both of Las Vegas, halted. Wolfpack 1's gunner, Pfc Jamaal Uzziel, also from Las Vegas, had spotted an IED partially concealed behind a center divider on the roadway. The IED was unmistakable. A single 155 mm artillery shell with a command wire running across the roadway to a building across the street. For a moment, I almost forgot that this was a training scenario, and I shivered as a cold trickle of sweat ran down my back under my shirt. Sgt Baum notified Wolfpack 6, commanded by Sgt Jake Roberts, of Reno who called up the IED's grid coordinates and description on the radio to EOD (Explosives Ordnance Disposal). Suddenly, small arms fire erupted from an upstairs window of a house across the street. Pfc Uzziel spun his turret as his machine gun cut loose, annihilating the insurgent in the window who was kind enough to cooperate and play dead. Several more agonizing minutes passed until EOD arrived and detonated the IED in place. I stared through my front armored window in awe at the explosion and for a moment felt very alone in the world. I forced myself to shake the feeling as we moved forward and proceeded to the next town.

As we approached the edge of town, I shuddered at the number of people that flocked to the side of the roadway like zombies. Nearly 400 civilians occupied both sides of the street, operating makeshift roadside markets and driving junk cars along the roadway. As we passed the first intersection leading into town, I saw a green Mercedes speed past us down a side street on my right and dissapear behind a building. I called it up as suspicious as we moved slowly forward. The crowds closed around us and I yelled up to Martin in the turret to keep the civilians away from our truck. I was worried about someone tossing a grenade through our open turret, or attatching a magnetic mine to the side of my truck. Suddenly, our entire truck was rocked by a flash and deafening explosion, as white smoke filled the cab. I yelled to Martin and Frazer, asking what the hell had just hit us. Martin yelled back that we had been blindsided by the green Mercedes I had seen only moments earlier. Simulating a sucide vehicle bomber, the Mercedes struck the side of my truck and detonated a small explosive that sounded much larger inside the cramped confines of my cab. The training observer, advised us that our truck had been hit, and that Martin sustained critical shrapnel injuries to his face and neck. I had sustained shrapnel injuries to both legs and my right arm. Frazer was unhurt. Both Martin and I would have to be evacuated. As I tried to pop my ears and bring my hearing back to normal, my armored door opened and I was pulled from the cab. We had been reminded at the start of our training that if we were "wounded" to play the part so that our rescuers could gain some convincing experience. Always the actor, I was more than happy to comply, and I went limp as two fellow soldiers wrestled me from the cab and onto a stretcher. Pulling Martin from his turret was not so easy. Martin is a sizeable human being, and with his added body armor and ammunition, pulling him from the turret and out of the truck is like trying to pull a tennis ball through a garden hose. Fortunately, this was our last scenario for the day. As we gathered around to critique our performance, The instructor, Mr. Taylor, a retired Army Master Sergeant turned private contractor, reached behind the spare tire of the gun truck in front of ours and pulled out a single, magnetic mine, placed there, unseen by one of the locals. He silently held it high for all of us to see, and my heart sank. "This is as real as it gets!" He yelled. "This is how quickly things can turn to shit if youre not watching. This is why its so important to keep these people away from your trucks when you come to a halt! You people are four miles from the Iraqi border and in three days, youre crossing it! There are people there who want to kill you. Dont forget it!" Hell, How could I? In that instant our training was over and the reality sunk in. In three days, my crew would cross the Iraqi border and travel some of the most dangerous roadways in the world........and I was mad as hell!
L to R: Sgt Currie, me and Sgt Nelson at the zero range. Its about 128 degrees in the shade in this photo!

Day 5....Somewhere in Kuwait, on the Iraqi Border. Our first few days here, have consisted mainly of in-process briefings on such riveting topics as sexual harassment and sexual assault awareness ( I wasn't even aware that this was a problem. It's too damned hot to even think of such things), rules of engagement and rules of force, and convoy movement. None of us were too eager to sit through one more briefing, as we were all eager to get down to the business of doing our jobs. Our Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment briefing was presented by a 1st Lieutenant from the unit that we were relieving. We quickly dubbed him Lieutenant Christmas. Lieutenant Christmas must have been the kid in school that everyone picked on...the kid then never quite fit in.....the kid that everyone punished in dodgeball. He has a certain sadistic streak to him where he finds it necessary to fill the enlisted mens time with meaningless, repetetive tasks, often with no thought or planning involved. Lieutenant Christmas constantly sought out and harrassed our Platoon Sergeant, at all hours of the day and night. Our Platoon Sgt remarked, "That guy's worse than my five kids on Christmas. He just wont leave me alone". Hence, the nickname, Lieutenant Christmas.

Late nights, and early mornings, coupled with temperatures in the 130's makes it extremely difficult to stay awake in the classroom, and the Z monster hit us all, making the audience of several hundred soldiers look like a bobble-head convention. Bottled water is consumed almost continuously to stay off dehydration. When the day time temperature hits 133 degrees, something as simple as walking the hundred yards to the dining facility will literally suck the air right out of your lungs and soak you through your clothes. The base will fly a black flag when temperatures reach dangerous levels. This means that soldiers, and by soldiers, I mean the back office, chairborne rangers we commonly refer to as "fobbits" (Soldiers that never leave the comfort of the FOB) take the day off. But not us. After all, there's still a war on.

By day 7, we were advised that we would be heading out to the range to "zero" our weapons. That is, make sure that our sights and zoom optics were accurate. We awoke at 4:00 AM and were bussed out to the range a half hour away. The line of thought here being that we would shoot in the relative cool of the morning. Relative cool for Kuwait at 5:00 AM was about 105 degrees. By 8:30 it was nearly 128 degrees. The RSO's (Range Safety Officers) gave us each 18 rounds of ammunition to zero our weapons with, and implored each and every one of us to do it with just six rounds. The faster, we got our weapons zeroed, the faster we could get off the range and back indoors. Zeroing a Colt M4 Carbine is no easy task. To do so, the shooter must put a six round shot group into a target roughly the size of a silver dollar at 300 meters. That's nearly 900 feet! Fortunately, I had zeroed my weapon in Indiana before leaving the United States, and was hopeful that neither my optics nor my shooting skills had deteriorated since then.

Wiping the sweat from my eyes with a towell, and pouring a second bottle of ice water over my head, I picked up my rifle and ammo, and made my way to my firing lane. The loudspeaker barked as the RSO instructed everyone to lock and load our rifles with a single 3 round magazine and engage out targets. I peered through my rifles optics, an ACOG tritium scope that magnifies the target three times its normal size at 300 meters with a 42 foot field of view. My 300 meter sillouhette target, which normaly would appear to the naked eye to be no bigger than a blurry dime, popped into view as if it were only yards away. I centered the red, glowing reticle on the center of the sillouhette, carefully squeezed off three rounds, removed the magazine, and set my rifle down. The RSO moved forward to check my target and moments later came back, instructing me to load three more rounds and fire again. "Damn!", I muttered under my breath. "It's gonna be a long day." I repeated the process, but despite my initial dissapointment, was confindent that I had zeroed in my first six rounds. This time the Lieutenant in charge of the range came back with my target in hand. "Sergeant Underhill?", he asked, smiling. "Yes Sir", I replied. "Youre good to go. turn in your target and get the hell off my range'. He then handed me my target. There in the center of my imaginary silver dollar was a 6 round shot group the size of a quarter. Target in hand, I jogged off the range to the ammo tent and turned in my remaining 12 rounds of ammunition before catching an air conditioned bus back to the barracks. "Now", I thought. "If only I can get the enemy to stand still like that while I shoot at him"............

Next week: The Udari Range, and the famed Highway of Death. 5 miles from the Iraqi border.

08 June 2009


Barracks Row. Somewhere in Kuwait on the Iraqi Border.

Flying into Kuwait City at midnight, is a lot like flying into any other large, Western metropolitan city. If that city happens to be Beverly Hills infused with trillions of dollars worth of oil money. Kuwait city from the air at midnight makes the Las Vegas strip look like a public housing project. Downtown Kuwait City and the accompanying developed coastline is absolutely beautiful from the air. Imagine a futuristic Hollywood movie set designed by the worlds best special effects artists, and you get an idea of what it looks like. Kuwait city fom the air at midnight, however, is about as close as I would ever get to seeing it's beauty up close.

After landing, we climbed aboard several large buses that were waiting for us on the tarmac. We quickly boarded and were told to keep the blinds closed for the duration of our ride to where we would be stationed, "somewhere near the Iraqi border". Sneaking a peak through the closed blinds, I could see that our convoy was accompanied by several unmarked, black SUV's and large up-armored gun trucks with .50 cal machine guns and flashing red and blue LED light bars. Even in the relative safety of Kuwait, I was reminded that this is a region at war and that despite our best efforts, we are not a popular people.

We arrived at our destination shortly after sun-up. The desert sand and distant horizon blended seamlessly. The morning sky was dust colored and rose skyward like a dirty curtain blocking out the sun and reducing it to nothing more than a weak lightbulb. By 0830, it was already nearly 90 degrees. Two hours later, it was 101 degrees and rising. Imagine sticking your head in your oven after removing a freshly cooked pizza, and thats just about what it felt like. Fortunately, a lifetime of being raised in Arizona had prepared me better than some for the effects of the heat, and I was suddenly grateful for those summers during high school in Scottsdale spent working as a landscaper for movie money. As strange as it may sound, the only other relief, other than the air-conditioned barracks is a visit to the latrine. The latrine resembles the "hot box" that Burt reynolds character, Paul Crewe, in the movie "The Longest Yard" was placed into for punishment....just a bit larger, but no less smelly. The latrines arent air conditioned, and as such the heat inside is indescribably intense. After just a few moments inside, youre almost ready to swear off eating or drinking anything at all just to avoid ever having to got the bathroom again. After spending just a few moments inside, stepping outside into the desert heat is actually a relief. Comparitively, it feels like stepping from the fiery pits of hell and into a cool breeze....if only for a few moments. Still, I remember our only ameneties in Afghanistan being a single 6 foot deep by 3 foot wide by 8 foot long open trench to straddle over to complete one's morning glory. War is hell.

Our "base in the desert" will only be temporary. Once we acclimate ourselves to our new home, finish up last minute training and relieve the current unit who is anxious to get home to their families after a year of duty, we'll take over the mission and get down to the job of escorting convoys, literally from one end of Iraq to the other. But before we can start to earn our pay, theres more training and range time to accomplish. The 1864th Gun Truck Company is almost ready to earn our place in history.................

05 June 2009

After a year of preparation and training, we are ready to deploy. I close out this chapter, and begin a new one with the words of General Dwight D Eisenhower in a letter to the soldiers and sailors as they set out to liberate fortress Europe from Hitler's Germany on June 6th 1944:

"Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force. You are about to embark upon the great crusade toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you.
The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you!.........Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely!.........I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory!..........God luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God on this great and noble undertaking."

Dwight D Eisenhower.

My thoughts are with all of you, the true heroes, supporting us back home. Stay tuned for more reports...this time from the front.

Sgt Gary H Underhill
1864th Transportation Company
1st Gun Truck Platoon

04 June 2009

Peanutbutter and Tears

Top R to L. Joel Martin, David Harris, Me and Mike Frazer. I'm holding my 4th tall Guinness of the hour!

May 28th, 2009. The date on the calender, highlighted in bright orange marker, smiled back at me with a Cheshire cat grin that was rivaled only by my own. In just a few short hours I would be getting on a plane that would take me home for 6 days of leave; home to my two little girls and to the woman to whom I owed my life and future. I had hurt her deeply for too long. Against every instinct in her body, and for reasons that I may never understand, she had forgiven me. In spite of my own selfishness over the years, her love for me never wavered. I swore to be the man for her that I had always promised I would be and to finally give her the life that she had always wanted. Sadly, I only had 6 days to do it in.

On the eve of deploying to war, I had been feeling lately a bit like a man on death row, awaiting the order for execution. Like many others, I questioned my future, and if, for me, there would even be one. I tried not to think about it, but the thoughts kept haunting me. I fought them back, telling myself that I had so many reasons to come home. My girls and my son needed me, my wife loved me, and I needed them. I had been without them for too long, and for six days at least, I had the promise of hope, and a bright future. I smiled even bigger and went back to eagerly packing.

Normally, I'm a meticulous packer, but not today. I hurriedly stuffed that last of my civilian clothes into a dusty olive drab duffel bag and snapped it shut. I padlocked it with the satisfaction of knowing that the next time I removed that lock it would be at home under the watchful, curious eyes of my two little girls. I looked at my watch. Eleven o'clock, "Shit". The bus to the airport wouldn't be here until three, and we wouldn't be allowed to sign out until one. I had at least four hours to kill. I walked over to the All Ranks Club and bought a soda. I checked my watch. Twenty minutes had passed. "Dammit!". I walked back to the barracks and pulled out my i-pod, crawled onto my rack and propped my head up on my pillow. I silently tried to calculate in my head how many songs I could go through to pass the 3 hours and 40 minutes left to go. Never having been very good at math, I gave up after three tries when I kept running out of fingers. I spent the time instead, walking around the barracks, laughing and joking with the guys, peed 5 times, and re-arranged the contents of my locker. I then re-checked my watch. Two-thirty. Close enough. I grabbed my duffel bag and went outside to await the bus. The sound of distant thunder and the smell of rain quickly gave way to a steady spring drizzle. Perfect. I grabbed what little shelter was left under the overhang of the roof, as everyone else apparently had the same desire to stay dry and freshly coiffed. It had been two months since we had worn anything remotely like civilian clothes, and everyone looked like a walking Benneton commercial. Male and female soldiers alike, in anticipation of removing those civilian clothes as soon as arriving home and feverishly getting down to the business of doing the no-pants dance with their significant other, had drowned themselves in perfume or cologne. After smelling sweat and dirty socks for two months, the pungent mix of aromas was a actually a bit refreshing.

Just as the rain began to increase in intensity, the three buses that would take us to the Indianapolis airport pulled up. I had strategically placed myself in a position to be first on the bus and first out of the rain. My gamble paid off. I wrestled my duffel bag onto the bus and took a seat in the front row. Jake "The Jake" Sere got on right after me and joined me. Jake is not so much a person as he is a walking, talking theory. You see, all women love "The Jake". To prove this hypothesis, one need only ask a few simple questions. 1) Is he not "The Jake"? 2) Is the admirer a female? 3 ) Is she conscious? If the answer to the first question is "Yes", then all other questions become moot because all women love "The Jake". Question number 3 is really not necessary. Consciousness is not a requirement to love "The Jake" because all women subconsciously love him. Thus the hypothesis is proven by simply asking oneself, "Is he not The Jake"?

Jake and I bullshitted (girls chat, guys bullshit) all the way to the airport. The difference between chatting and bullshitting is that chatting implies a mutual exchange of meaningful information. I don't remember a damned thing Jake and I talked about. Hence, the art of bullshitting. I bid Jake goodbye as he headed off to meet his girlfriend who had flown into see him. I wasted no time. Besides, I was in too big a hurry to get checked into my flight and get to the airport bar so that I could enjoy a frosty beverage....or two. Sergeant Eddie Lauron and I checked in together and made our way through security. We proceeded directly to the airport sports bar. I swear I could hear an angelic choir singing "Hallelujah!" as a heavenly light illuminated my bar stool. This was it. A short stop in Mecca before heading home. I ordered a tall Guinness and drank deeply. "Ahhhhh. This grog is truly the nectar of the Gods" I whispered lustily as I shamelessly wiped foam from my lips. "Wench" I called out to the female bartender. "Another round, and bring one for my Asian companion here as we have traveled many miles and are thirsty!". Apparently, the dog tag chains visible under our shirts and short cropped haircuts gave us away as soldiers, and she smiled slyly, excusing my poor attempt at humor as the ramblings of a soldier who was anxious to get down to the business of drinking with friends and making memories while we still could. In no time at all, Eddie and I were joined by Sgt Frank La Spina, Pfc Joel, "Sta-puff" Martin, Pfc Jason May, Sgt Jon Baum, Spc Erin Bell, Spc Mike Frazer, and Sgt David Harris. Soon, the whole bar knew our story, and people were lining up to buy us drinks and thank us for our service. It was a humbling experience, and for me at least, it was I who was grateful for people who cared.

Our time together passed quickly and soon it was time to head to the gate and board our flights. I settled into my seat next to the window, plugged in my ever-present i-pod, and tried once again to calculate how many songs it would take until we landed. Apparently, the amount of alcohol I had consumed had not significantly improved my math skills as I had hoped, and I quickly gave up. "Who Says You Can't Go Home" by Bon Jovi and Jennifer Nettles, thumped away in my head, and I was joyous. Whether or not I fell asleep, I'm not sure, but I was suddenly snapped out of my giddiness and back to reality by the wheels of our 737 touching ground as the roar of the engines reverse thrusters drowned out the music in my head. I knew that in just a few short moments, I would be re-united with the my reason for breathing. This time, however, I was not so lucky to grab a seat up front as I was on the bus several hours earlier. Being at the rear of the plane, I first had to wait an eternity for elderly grandparents, young couples with small children, and weary businessmen in rumpled suits to grab their carry-ons and slowly make their way off the plane before I could hold her in my arms again.

I half ran-walked the short distance from the gate through the terminal to the security checkpoint. From a hundred feet away I saw them. There was Olivia, her short stubby little legs propelling her 5 year old body as high as it could as she jumped and squealed "Daddy, Daddy!" My 8 year old Alyssa, tall and lanky, jumping in rhythm with her sister, a mouth full of brand new braces shining like the grill on a new Buick. And there in the crowd, I saw her. My wife of 11 years, Robbie. As beautiful as a dream. My girls ran to me and jumped into my arms. Olivia buried her face in my neck and inhaled deeply. I was grateful I had not drowned myself in cologne earlier in the day. Alyssa squeezed me cheek to cheek. None of us wanted to let go. I stood up and faced her. I forced back tears of joy as I saw in her eyes the love I had always remembered. And then she hugged me. Her embrace required no words, and at that moment, any doubts as to whether she had forgiven me were laid to rest. I slept better that night than I had in two months, curled up with my babies who, nestled on my bare chest, breathed slowly and deeply. I was home.

The next few days were spent playing, laughing, and joking. Robbie and I took what little time we had together to begin the process of healing and getting to know one another again...to become best friends, again. My final night at home, before returning to Atterbury the next morning, I made my girls lunches for the next day at school. I stood at the kitchen counter spreading peanut butter and jelly onto the bread, as I had so many nights before, and started to cry. The simple act of making my girls peanut butter and jelly sandwiches filled me with an incredible sadness that I could not contain, and the emotion poured out of me in stifled sobs. What if these were the last peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I would ever make for them.? I vowed, then and there, that when I came home, I would never again take for granted an act as simple as making my girls lunches, which I had complained about so many times before. It wasn't just a sandwich. It was an act of love. Suddenly, little things began to take on a renewed importance, and I couldn't wait to get home again and start making sandwiches.