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.