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.