19 June 2009

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!