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.