27 July 2009


SSgt Greg Sanchez

Specialist Jake Sere

For those soldiers who have never tasted combat, all that it is; the smells, the sights, the sounds.....they're just foggy film clips in ones imagination. For most, war is something you see on the news or in the movies from the comfort of your sofa. War is something you always played as a small child, not something you go off to do as you surpass middle age.

I remember my first exposure to war. It was late February 2002. I was standing post at an entry control point at Bagram Airbase, about 40 miles from Kabul in Afghanistan. Operation Anaconda had just begun. It was the U.S. military's first real large scale sustained contact with the Taliban, and things were not going well. Taliban troop strength and their unyielding will to stand and fight had been grossly underestimated. The young men of the 101st Airborne and 10th Mountain Divisions, men that I had watched just two hours prior climb aboard dozens of CH47 Chinook helicopters and climb into the morning sky towards the mountains and the enemy, were slowly coming back on those same helicopters in two's and three's. Those same helicopters were now full of holes and struggling to get back in time to off-load wounded and get back to the fight.

My radio crackled to be ready to clear my ECP for vehicles to come through and off-load several wounded paratroopers. The first humvee to come through my ECP contained a seriously wounded US soldier and a young Afghani soldier of the Northern Alliance. The two men had been hurriedly thrown in the back for transport to the aid station. A U.S. medic was frantically tending to the wounded U.S soldier whose screams could be heard above the rumble of the humvee's diesel engine. The Northern Alliance soldier was already dead. A steady trickle of blood flowed from his head and shoulders and spilled off the tailgate, splattering into the dusty earth, leaving a dark, wet rusty brown trail behind. I stood staring in shock. I had seen dead bodies before on the job. Homicides, suicides, fatal car wrecks, shootings, and stabbings. These were fellow soldiers though, guys that I had never met, but brothers and family nonetheless, and this was happening here and now. I could not contain my emotion, and the reality of it all struck me like a donkey kick in the kidneys.

Later that same afternoon, I stood and talked to a young USAF Para Rescueman outside the aid station, a converted, bombed out former Russian air traffic control tower. "PJ's" as they're called, are highly trained special forces medics, who specialize in rescuing downed pilots and evacuating wounded under fire by helicopter. This particular PJ told me that he had stood by waiting too long for his call to get out there. He had heard the radio traffic from the battlefield and had heard the wounded calling for help. He was incredulous that he had been told to standby, and told me, "I just want to get out there and do my job". Twenty minutes later, I watched him finally run to a waiting Chinook and disappear into the mountains. An hour later, he was dead, cut down by murderous enemy machine gun fire and mortars as he tried to shield a wounded soldier with his body. I heard a year later that he was recommended for the medal of honor, but instead received the silver star for valor...posthumously.

Ever since, I've wondered how I would perform in combat, under the same conditions. Would I honor my own heroes by my actions? Would I act bravely when I needed to? Would I be that rock for my crew when our own humvee is hit by an IED? Since arriving in Iraq, I've gone over a thousand different scenarios in my head, and I hope that the answer to each of those questions is a resounding "yes". For inspiration, I look to one of only two soldiers in our platoon to have previously seen combat. Spc Jake Sere from Stagecoach, Nevada, and SSgt Greg Sancehz, from Las Vegas.

Jake, a 30 year old former Marine, served with the 1st Marine Division during the initial invasion in 2003. Jake was wounded and refused the purple heart when his humvee was struck by an IED. He told me once that he didn't feel as though he deserved the award, because his own grandfather, a WW2 veteran, had been wounded under much worse circumstances. Jake was a .50 gunner then and he still is today. Jake is the gunner for gun truck Wolpack 4. Wolfpack 4 is our "back-door". The last gun truck in the convoy, charged with the responsibility of providing rear security. "Covering our 6" as we call it.

I wondered what made a man volunteer to do this again, especially after having been blown out of his turret by the concussion of an exploding IED once already. I wouldn't blame anyone for choosing to sit this one out after having come so close to death once before. "Why not someone whose done this before instead of someone whose never done this at all"? Jake told me. "Why deny them my experience"? "I've been here before. I've dealt with the people and know the area". Jake still carries the reminder of that day when his gun truck was struck by an IED. He has several small stones still embedded in his left check, when he was struck in the face by debris from the explosion. I asked Jake if he ever thinks about the moment his gun truck was struck by an IED in 2003. "Not really", Jake said. "I just try to put it out of my mind and think about the job I have to do". Jake saw nearly continuous combat during the main invasion from Mar 19th, 2003 to the following June. "We pushed farther north into Iraq after that and did what the Marine Corps calls SASO (Security and Stabilization Operations). We conducted mostly vehicle mounted patrols and reacted to any anti-coalition forces that we would run into" . "That's when I got hit. Fortunately, IED's weren't as sophisticated then as they are now, so it could have been a lot worse than it was". "It was hardest after I came home. I would wake up at night with night terrors".

Jake has been in invaluable asset to this mission. His knowledge of combat operations and his expertise with the .50 caliber heavy machine gun have been unparalleled. Why does he do this again? "Hell, I've got nothing else goin' on right now," he told me.

Ssgt Greg Sanchez, 29 formerly served with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, stationed in Vicenza, Italy. Ssgt Sanchez, now the squad leader for our platoon's 3rd squad, has over 100 certified parachute jumps with both the U.S. Army and the Tunisian Special Forces. "The only one that counts for me is my combat jump", Greg told me. It's rare in today's Army to see any soldier wearing that coveted little gold star on his jump wings, signifying a jump made under combat conditions. Greg earned his gold star when he jumped into Northern Iraq during the early morning hours of March 26th 2003. "I was the 6th jumper back from the door", Greg told me. "The only thing going through my mind at that point was what my actions were going to be when I got to the ground....putting my weapon into action. Everybody's rucksacks were so heavy. We all carried extra ammunition water and mortar rounds. Our rucks were so heavy that we didn't wear body armor to cut down on our jump weight. All I wanted to do was get out that door. I was amped. As we approached the DZ (drop zone) we could hear the rounds being fired at us from the ground ticking off the belly of the aircraft and see the tracers flying up past us. It looked like something out of Star Wars. After I jumped and hit the ground, I sank because it was nothing but mud. There was no moon. It was totally black". Greg spent the night in his muddy fighting position staring into the blackness and waiting intensely for an enemy that never came. "We were at the farthest end of the drop zone, securing a runway at this airfield. I held my position until morning when I was relieved by members of another squad. When they (the insurgents) found out we were coming, they got out. I wasn't really scared. I don't know if it was because I was so young or just so confident in my training and my squad mates".

Greg's first taste of combat was when his squad pushed into Kirkuk in Northern Iraq. For the remainder of his tour, Greg fought from street to street and building to building. "I remember an old man that offered me a glass of water while I was on patrol. At first I was put off, because this old guy came up wanting to hug on me. He had tears in his eyes as he offered me the water and repeatedly thanked us for freeing him. Right then and there I knew that we needed to be here. Since then I've volunteered to come back here twice. The culmination for me is to come back here as many times as it takes so that my kids or anybody else's kids never have to come here. Even if it means giving my life to do it. When this is finally all over, my goal is to bring ALL of my soldiers home".

I don't know of a single soldier, sailor, airman or marine serving here that craves glory, or medals or accolades. There is not a single one of us that isn't a bit embarrassed by thanks and hugs and handshakes. Soldiers volunteer to do this two and three and four times, despite their demons because it has to be done. The famous British statesman Edmund Burke once said, "The only thing necessary for evil to thrive is for good men to do nothing
". I don't know if we're good men, but none of us here can stand by and just do nothing.

24 July 2009

Some Random Photos

Gun Trucks!

Walking to chow in Iraq. L to R: "Doc", Jamaal Uzziel, and Tyler Miller-Cobb

Ssgt Frank La Spina loads ammunition into a magazine prior to a mission.

See the "52" on the rim of that .50 cal round? That's "52" as in 1952! That's Korean War vintage ammunition in Jake's gun.

Bringing a little bit of law to Iraq. L to R: Jake Sere, Me, Joel Martin.

Me, posing next to an abandoned Russian made 12.7mm quad gun somewhere in the Kuwaiti desert.

19 July 2009

Tip of the Spear

Spc Jamaal Uzziel, gunner for Wolfpack 1, reading The Stars and Stripes on the rear deck of the MRAP before a mission.

Sgt Baum, Foreground and Spc Miller-Cobb inside the cab of Wolfpack 1 during a night mission.

The MRAP....Best place to be in a convoy!

Running convoys in Iraq is dangerous business. Our job is made even more dangerous by long hours of tedious driving through featureless desert, a political climate and policy that has shifted from combat operations to winning hearts and minds, and a growing insurgency that is slowly gaining momentum again in Iraq. Recent restrictions placed on US forces by a fledgling Iraqi military that is all too anxious to flex its new muscle, prohibits any daytime convoy operations at all. That's all well and good, unless you're smack dab in the middle of a 4 mile long lumbering steel column creeping along at slightly more than a turtles pace, and lit up like Times Square on New Years Eve. None of this, though equals the danger and loneliness of being on point, over 300 meters in front of the rest of the column, waiting to hit an IED or trigger an ambush.

That's the sole job and responsibility of the MRAP and her three man crew. The MRAP: Mine Resistant Ambush Protected. A monstrous, 35,000 pound up-armored fighting vehicle specifically designed to survive IED attacks and ambushes. MRAP crews have taken hits from IED's in both Iraq and Afghanistan that would have killed most any HUMVEE crew. Still, theirs is not an enviable job. Our MRAP, Wolfpack 1, is crewed by Sgt John Baum, (truck commander) Spc Tyler Miller-Cobb, (driver) and Spc Jamaal Uzziel (.50 gunner) all from Las Vegas, Nevada.

This is Sgt Baum's second tour. He served once before in Balad Iraq in 2003, Sgt Baum, 27, a former Semi-Pro football player for the Darmstadt Diamonds in Germany, is now a Customer Service Rep for Bank of America. Sgt Baum volunteered for the MRAP assignment. "I wanted to be on point and lead the convoy. It's the most challenging job out there", Sgt Baum said. "The downside of the MRAP, is that were the first ones to get hit in an ambush. The up-side is that I have confidence in my crew and the ability of my vehicle to take a hit". That confidence is not ill-placed. In June 2008, it was reported in USA TODAY that IED attacks and fatalities were down nearly 99%, in part due to the use of MRAP's on convoys and combat patrols.
Comforting, unless you happen to fall into that remaining 1 percent.

Not all dangers facing the MRAP come from IED's and RPG's, however. The MRAP is incredibly top heavy. This makes vehicle rollovers a very real possibility. Additionally, 72 percent of the world's bridges, that's right 72 percent of the WORLD's bridges, cannot support the MRAP's tremendous bulk and weight! Iraq is not known for its superior bridge design. I've seen bridges in Iraq that I wouldn't ride a bicycle across! Likewise, Iraq's roadways are nothing to brag about. The soft shoulders of Iraqi roads will literally suck your vehicle into a rollover if your unlucky enough to veer into it in a panic maneuver. Having been through the MRAP rollover simulator in Kuwait, I can attest that I would not want to experience the helplessness and horror of being strapped inside a 35,000 pound rock tumbler as it careened down a hill and into a river. My experience in the simulator resulted in my getting caught in my harness, upside down and totally disoriented. Pinned against the roof under the weight of my body armor, I couldn't find the harness quick release. As all of my blood began to pool somewhere behind my eyeballs and the weight of my body armor pressed against my chest, I fumbled clumsily to find the quick release and almost passed out because I couldn't breathe. And that was just at half speed! It was an eerily eye-opening experience to see how quickly and easily it is to drown if your vehicle rolls over into a river as has happened to too many soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Spc Tyler Miller-Cobb, 25, a full time Admin Tech with the Nevada Army Guard's 1864th Transportation Company in Las Vegas, is Wolfpack 1's driver. Specialist Miller-Cobb and Sgt Baum have been friends together in the Army National Guard for two years. They met after they were both ordered to sweep rocks from a half mile long dirt track that was to be used in a Nevada Army National Guard Soldier of the Year competition. Once selected for the gun truck mission before deploying overseas, Spc Miller-Cobb naturally followed his friend and mentor and unquestionably agreed to be Sgt Baum's driver. Spc Miller-Cobb's biggest fear is the EFP (Explosively Formed Projectile), a sophisticated type of IED that strikes fear into the hearts of any gun truck crew. "It's nerve wracking when you're driving down the road," Spc Miller Cobb told me. "Everything looks like an IED to me. The worst part is not knowing which is just a pile of rocks or trash or which is an IED or maybe an EFP". If Spc Miller-Cobb is ever nervous or hesitant on a mission, he is yet to show it. Spc Miller-Cobb has an ever-present grin that makes you wonder what it is that he's so happy about all the time. Driving MRAP's on Iraqi roadways is a far cry from his previous jobs as a casino dealer in Las Vegas, or stock-broker. This is Spc Miller-Cobb's first tour overseas. "I wanted to earn the respect that wearing the uniform commands", he said. "I didn't want to go my whole career like some other soldiers and not serve in a war zone, but get the credit anyway that was earned by those who did." Spc Miller-Cobb added, "When people shake my hand at the airport and thank me for my service, I want to know that I've earned it".

The best view, and probably the most dangerous job in the convoy is the MRAP .50 gunner. Wolfpack 1's gunner, Spc Jamaal Uzziel, 27, sits nearly two stories high in an armored, electronically controlled turret. Spc Uzziel, an amateur songwriter and actor, hopes one day to be a successful music producer. He has been in the Nevada Army National Guard for 3 years. "It was never my intent to go overseas when I joined the Guard" he told me. Spc Uzziel said that as soon as he was called up to deploy, he didn't hesitate to heed the call to serve. "I made a commitment and I stuck with it. Soldiers never want to go to war, but it's like a marriage. If you commit, you need to follow through". Towering above the rest of the convoy, Spc Uzziel's biggest fear is "Failing my team". "Being the gunner", he said, "is like being the angel that flies watch over the rest of the convoy". Being the .50 gunner on an MRAP is no small responsibility. Almost certainly, Spc Uzziel will be the first to draw fire, and the first to have to identify an enemy hidden in darkness and return fire. When not continuously scanning in nearly all directions for tell-tale signs of hidden IED's , Spc Uzziel has to be especially conscious of the danger of sitting two stories high in a vehicle that just begs to roll-over on the slightest slope. Even with his gunners restraint harness securely fastened, Spc Uzziel has to be ready in the blink of an eye to pull himself inside the vehicle, when every instinct screams to hang on as the MRAP begins to roll, or suffer being crushed in his turret. "As an MRAP gunner, I have the lowest survivability percentage in the whole convoy. I have to remain diligent and aware of the situation at all times. I'm the first guy to get shot at in an ambush. But with time and experience, we learn to accept all that and become more confident".

A bank Customer Service Representative, an Admin Tech, and an amateur songwriter. These are just three of the thousands of Nevada's citizen soldiers who volunteered to put their lives on hold and answer their country's call to service. Three young men who volunteered to be the tip of the spear and place themselves in the line of fire so that we all can come home in one piece.

10 July 2009

Murphy's Law

Three time Iraqi war veteran Jake Sere in his turret somewhere on Route Tampa in southern Iraq.

Murphy's Law states that whatever can go wrong, will. Now, I dont know who this "Murphy" character is, but if I ever run into him, he's got an ass-beatin' comin'! Murphy hitched a ride on our convoy this week. It should have been a milk run.....an easy 3 day there-and-back trip from Arifjan, Kuwait to Camp Adder in Talil, Iraq. It started out simply enough. Spirits were high, and it would be a relatively short run on roads that hadn't seen any attacks in months. We were optimistic. But only for a little while.

It all started in the staging lanes. We had been issued our weapons, ammunition, and night vision goggles from our supply section. We were loading .556 mm ammunition, one round after another into 30 round magazines when several of us noticed that instead of the usual 210 round combat load that we were supposed to have, we had each been shorted anywhere from 10 to 20 rounds of ammunition. I mean, how hard could it be to issue out 210 rounds of ammunition to each soldier, especially when they're in pre-counted clips of 10 rounds each, three clips to a box? It's not quantum physics. The supply section had to be called out of their racks, which they had quickly retreated to after issuing our needed equipment, to retrieve the needed ammunition. That problem remedied, we finally got down to readying our trucks and stowing the rest of our gear.

The drive to Camp Beuhring just south of the Iraqi border would take only three hours. We would stay the night at Beuhring where we would meet the HET's and third country national truck drivers the next day and then proceed to Khabari crossing on the Iraqi border and finally into Iraq and onto Talil, another 6 hours away. Once the convoy linked up, we were on our way. We crossed the border uneventfully and started to gain convoy speed. On the way, each gunner picked out a spot in the desert to test fire the big .50 caliber machine guns. Pfc Martin's voice crackled in my head set announcing that he was ready. I called over the convoy radio net, " WOLFPACK 3. TEST FIRE, TEST FIRE, TEST FIRE" Instead of the usual loud staccato thump of the gun sending armor piercing rounds screaming down range, I heard only two rounds and a muffled click, followed by "Shit".....Martin's gun had sheered a round off inside the barrel, leaving a large chunk of brass casing jammed in the chamber. We had to stop the convoy, while I jumped out and grabbed a spare barrel from the hatch in back. Five minutes later, Martin had done a complete barrel swap, checked the head space and timing on the gun and was ready to fire again. This time, the gun spit out the remaining nine rounds flawlessly. Few other gunners in our Company could have diagnosed the problem and had it fixed in as little time as Martin did and had us back up and combat ready. "That's why I love you" I chuckled, and we were back under way........Until the next gun truck in line, manned by veteran heavy machine gunner Specialist Jake Sere also experienced a complete malfunction of their gun. Now, I said that few gunners besides Martin could have fixed his gun and had it back up as quickly. Jake is the exception. Jake served two previous tours in Iraq with the Marines as a .50 gunner during the initial invasion and is the only gunner in our convoy to have seen combat, and to have been wounded doing so. I still wonder why he's here, doing this again. With both guns back up and functioning, we were on our way......again.

Until.........Just ahead of us, the convoy suddenly stopped, the road blocked by one of the foreign flatbed tractor trailer trucks sitting motionless in the middle of the two lane highway. We pulled up alongside to find out what was wrong as the rest of the convoy began to shrink in the distance. The Pakistani driver in broken English said simply, "Battery....no good". "Yeah...that happens when you dont put water in them", I replied. He just looked at me quizzically. As several other Pakistani and Ugandan drivers scrambled over his tuck, swapping out batteries, I got out and stood overwatch, cradling my M4 and checking my watch. Forty five minutes later, we were on our way.....again. It was dark by the time we finally caught up with the rest of the convoy. Hot, frustrated and hungry we drove on. The night air cooled and I cracked opened my window a bit to allow in some fresh air. Just then, Martin called over my head set that he had just observed a single glowing tracer round that had been fired in our direction from somewhere behind him. He told me that it had passed roughly 15 meters above him and petered out about 100 meters past us on my right side. I asked if he knew where it had come from or if he had heard the shots, knowing that either ahead of or behind that glowing bullet were usually 4 others that were unseen. Martin stated that he had not heard it over the rush of wind going past his headset, but that he was sure it had been a tracer round. Maybe it was just some ballsy Hadji under the cover of darkness I thought, who by now was probably hightailing it the hell out of there. I called it up to the the convoy commander who in turn called it up to our Battalion in the rear who in turn had a collective aneurysm. Never mind asking if any of us were hit. They wanted to make sure that we didn't fire back and ventilate someones mud hut or vaporize a camel. I assured the Convoy Commander that we had not engaged anybody, and oh by the way, we were Ok too. In the end, Martin's mystery tracer was simply a very bright shooting star. It would be days before the guys let Martin live that one down. I tried reassuring my very embarrassed gunner that he did his job, and to feel good about it. I don't think it worked, but at least I was grateful for a little excitement, and I made a mental note to have a star named after him when we got home.

Our only danger on the route being an errant meteor, we finally pulled into Camp Adder. Once out, we had to pull out our "sensitive items" for accountability. This included our night vision goggles, green tactical lasers, and thermal imagers. Night vision goggles (NVG's) allow a soldier to see in complete darkness as if it were daytime, viewed through a green filtered lens. You can imagine the tactical advantage they provide over the enemy and the need for accountability. Plus, they cost roughly $4000.00 a piece. My driver, newly promoted Sgt Mike Frazer unzipped his green canvas night vision goggle bag and was horrified to find that his goggles were not there. He had thought that his bag was a little light when it was issued that night, but like anyone else, thought, who issues an empty bag? Besides, he verified that they were in the bag when he turned them in after our last mission. All the same, they were not there now. Someone had taken them from his bag and they were nowhere to be found. This had to be reported to the rear, and at that moment they forgot all about Martin's mystery tracer round. This is when three peoples' role in the squad changed forever. Our convoy was instantly grounded until further notice, we were told. A search of the barracks back at Arifjan, a complete search of the weapons connex, as well as a complete search of the sprawling dusty motor pool grounds would have to be conducted until those NVG's were found. In the end, they were nowhere to be found and the reality began to sink in that they had been stolen. How or when was unclear. Frazer was devastated. He felt as if he had let the squad down by not physically checking the contents of the NVG bag when it was issued to him. I too was a wreck and felt responsible. Had I checked my soldiers' gear before we left, the missing NVG's would have been discovered back at Arifjan and the whole situation might have ended differently. Had SSgt Roberts re-checked the whole squad....well, you get the picture. What we now faced was a highly rare case of shit rolling UP-hill. Frazer was told to pack his gear and report back to Arifjan. A replacement driver was sent out for me to finish the convoy, and SSgt Roberts would eventually be grounded for at least two missions and pulled from the road temporarily. I was moved to the gunners position for a "time yet to be determined" is how it read on the paperwork. My Platoon Sergeant, SFC Henning of Las Vegas, assured me that my re-assignment would only be for a short period of time. I looked at it like an opportunity to hone my skills on the .50 caliber machine gun, but more importantly, an opportunity for some really great photographs!

Once our gear was stowed and our vehicles locked, we shuffled off to our tent, a cramped, dust filled GP medium. I walked inside, brushing past the flap and clicked on the lights. The floor was covered in little berms of dirt and sand, as well as the remnants of the previous occupants. Empty water and Gatorade bottles, papers and an old sock littered the floor. I grabbed a cot, flipping it back onto its legs and brushed off the dust which floated up in a cloud, only to settle back down on my cot again. It was 1:00 AM when we settled in for the night. I awoke at 10:00 AM drenched in sweat. The air conditioner had stopped working. I laid there, my own breath whispering over my bare chest being the only cooling breeze in the now stifling tent. Twelve soldiers were not the only occupants of our tent. We were just squatters. We had apparently occupied a tent already occupied by large flying ants and lizards. I was certain that by now, Murphy was getting off to our suffering. Ants and lizards, I thought...Perfect. At least the lizards had something to eat. Normally, I would have just chalked it all up to "war is hell" and accepted our conditions begrudgingly, knowing other guys have it a hell of a lot worse than I do. But there's a reason that at nearly 47 years of age, I volunteered for guntrucks escorting convoys and not special forces searching caves in Afghanistan.

Late that afternoon, we were told that we would be leaving that night and return with the rest of the convoy to Kuwait. The 9 hour drive back would be uneventful. I rode in silence, contemplating how I would do things differently when I got back and wondered when my next mission would be.