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.