24 September 2009

Fate, Chance, or Just Dumb Luck?

The littlest faces of Iraq. (Photo courtesy of Spc Jake Sere)

The Wolpack after completing 15 days on the road. Back Row L to R: PFC "Doc" Madden (our medic), Sgt Mike Frazer, Cpt Derek Imig, Spc Sean Canfield, Sgt Charles Clark, PFC Joel Martin, Sgt John Baum, Spc Jake Sere. Front Row kneeling L to R: SSG Jake Roberts, Me, Spc Tyler Miller-Cobb, Spc Humberto Gamboa.

Northern Iraq
23 Sept 2009
1737 hrs

As I climbed up into my turret, I had a great feeling about this mission. That feeling wasn't going to last very long. Tonight, we would be pushing farther north towards the last leg of what would turn out to be 15 days on the road. This push would take us past the outskirts of Baghdad, and the neighboring cities of Balad and Tikrit. Tikrit was the home of former Iraqi dictator Sadaam Hussein and loyalties to him still run strong there. Still, I was excited to see the cities of Iraq for the first time, instead of just featureless desert. Even if it was from my turret at 45 miles an hour.

Our troubles that night started when we left the staging yard. The mile long column of trucks snaked slowly out of the dusty yard towards the ECP (Entry Control Point). Ideally, the entire column of military and civilian transports should all leave together, with each individual convoy taking it’s turn falling into place. Somehow, though, our convoy became split when someone in the marshalling yard allowed several trucks from another convoy to leave at the same time, and intermixed with ours. Cpt Imig told Gamboa to turn back and we returned to the marshalling yard to try and find the tail end of our convoy…no easy task in the choking and blinding dust. By the time we found the last dozen or so of our trucks, the main column had already left to stage just inside the ECP. Playing catch-up, we now had to follow the last military HET (Heavy Equipment Transport) and dozen or so civilian tractor trailers as they tried to negotiate the unfamiliar roads of one of the largest Coalition FOBs in Iraq. What made this task even more difficult was that we were now just out of radio communication range from the rest of the gun trucks. In the confusion, the lead HET driver, Pvt Nardy, took a wrong turn and drove towards where he thought the rest of our column had headed. It wasn’t long before we realized that we were headed in the wrong direction. We halted the column as Imig studied the BFT (Blue Force Tracker navigation computer) trying to locate the GPS signatures for our gun trucks. If he could locate their signatures, we could at least navigate our way back to where they were waiting for us. What made matters even more frustrating, was that now, we also had to find away to turn a dozen 60 foot long, several thousand pound trucks around on a narrow gravel road. As our gun truck blocked traffic, Imig got out and began directing the trucks in the delicate task of changing direction. For a rookie traffic cop, I thought he did pretty well, and 30 minutes later, Imig had the entire column turned around and headed back in the right direction.

In less than an hour though, we would come to realize how much this delay just might have saved three lives. With the column re-united we made our way slowly out of the ECP towards the outlying neighborhoods of Baghdad and eventually onto the MSR. As we exited the ECP, I pushed my turret joystick forward and rotated my turret 180 degrees so that my .50 was facing the rear. The narrow two lane asphalt road was bordered on either side by dense reeds and palm tree groves, old mud and concrete buildings and an occasional house. I slowly swung my turret randomly from side to side, trying to cover both sides of the road and present a “hard target”. At the same time, I flipped the safety off my gun and turned on the flood lights on either side of my turret shield. As we pushed deeper into the neighborhood, the densely packed houses on either side were separated from the roadway by ten foot tall concrete “T-walls”. The T-wall prevented people from rushing coalition forces or planting IED’s on the side of the roadway. What they didn’t prevent was anyone with a little league grade throwing arm from hurling a grenade over the wall at passing convoys, and then running away unseen back into the neighborhoods.

The silence was suddenly broken by Sgt Baum’s obviously alarmed voice over the radio from the MRAP at the head of our column, “Break, Break, Break…STANDBY!” Imig and I remarked almost simultaneously, “Oh, that’s not good,” as we waited for what seemed an eternity for Baum to return to the radio. Baum’s voice came back, and it was obvious that something was wrong. “Someone just threw a grenade over the wall at the Humvee in front of us. It bounced off the windshield and didn’t detonate. I’m talking to an E-6 (Staff Sergeant) now…standby.” “Shit,” I thought. Our column was now halted and it couldn’t be in a worse place. With T-walls on either side of us, we were stuck in the perfect choke point. We couldn’t go forward, couldn’t back up and couldn’t turn around. I scanned from side to side hoping that I would be able to see over the T-wall enough to see someone approaching before they could hurl a grenade over the wall for a three point shot directly into my turret ring. Imig reminded me to stay low in case there were snipers. I did so reluctantly. Lowering myself into my turret reduced my ability to look over the walls. “Oh well. Better to have a head to look over with,” I thought and stooped just low enough so that I could at least peer over my turret shield.

Baum’s voice returned to the radio, interrupting the agonizing silence. “Someone threw an RKG over the wall. It’s laying in the street and were waiting for EOD to show up and dispose of it.” The RKG3. A Russian hand-held anti-tank hand grenade that resembles the old WW2 era German stick grenade. We call them Giant Green Dildo’s of Death. When armed and thrown, a small parachute deploys from the stick end of the grenade, stabilizing it in flight, and ensures that it strikes it’s target explosive-head first. The grenade can penetrate several inches of armor with deadly results. No sooner did Baum end his transmission, then there was a flash and accompanying sound of an explosion from the head of our column. “Nevermind. It just blew up on it’s own,” Baum said, this time, matter-of-factly.

The coalition patrol ahead of us, who had been the target of the grenade attack, cleared the road and we were allowed to proceed. We rumbled slowly along into the neighborhood and past the site of the attack. Soldiers were everywhere, trying to clear the chaotic scene and make room for us to pass. I stood in my turret and looked over the walls. Everywhere were groups of Iraqi men and teenage boys who were staring menacingly at us as we passed by, and I wondered if one of them had been responsible for the attack. Just then, Wolfpack 3’s gunner, Jake Sere came over the radio. “Wolfpack 4 Golf, this is Wolfpack 3 Golf, over.” “Wolfpack 4 Golf, go ahead,” I replied. “Hey,” Jake said. “About a hundred meters ahead of you on the right side of the road, just on the other side of the T-wall, is a group of about 10 to15 Iraqi males acting suspiciously. Keep your eyes on them as you pass.” “Roger that,” I replied. I swung my turret to the right and began scanning over the walls until I saw them. There were a dozen or so Iraqi men who suddenly began approaching the wall as we passed. I swung my turret in their direction and dropped the elevation of my .50 to point the barrel just over their heads. They immediately turned, and staring over their shoulders at me, quick-stepped back to a courtyard and into the house. Whether they were just curious or getting ready to hurl another grenade, I don’t know. Either way, I wasn’t about to give them the chance.

Our column finally made it’s way through the neighborhood and onto the MSR. We pulled onto the freeway that makes it’s way through downtown Baghdad as we picked up speed. As we drove along I had time to think about a lot of things. For Imig, who is on his second tour here, and has survived numerous ambushes and IED attacks, I’m sure that what had just occurred was just a minor footnote for him. For me, it’s as close as I’ve come so far in my tour here to enemy contact, and the possibility of combat. I knew at that moment that when I returned home to the streets of Carson City that I would never again look at the potential dangers of police work the same.
Then, it struck me. Had such a minor event as our convoy getting separated leaving the staging lanes not occurred, or had Pvt Nardy not made a right when he should have turned left, and our convoy been delayed 45 minutes as a result, it would have been us that was attacked instead of the other army patrol. More specifically, it would have been Spc Miller-Cobb, Sgt Baum and PFC Martin in the MRAP who most likely would have been targeted. It would have been their windshield struck by a Russian anti-tank grenade, and maybe, just maybe, it might have detonated instead of bouncing off, and we might be mourning the loss of three brothers instead of laughing about it later that same night. Laugh about it we did, too. Hours later in the barracks, tired, hungry and unshaven, we made fun of Baum’s “Oh shit” voice on the radio and Martin joked that he didn’t think his butt hole could pucker any tighter.

Fate, chance, or just dumb luck?

15 September 2009

Ready to climb into my turret!

Somewhere in Northern Iraq

15 Sept 2009

1220 Hrs

We arrived at the Kuwaiti/Iraqi border to await the rest of the convoy just as the sun was setting. Sept 11th, 2009. The date that I would cross the border, not riding in the rear seat, but instead up top in the turret, charged with protecting the back door of our convoy with deadly force if necessary. A protector...the role I was most comfortable in. The sun hung in the sky over the western Iraqi desert not looking at all like the blazing white hot orb that it was only a few hours before. Although still uncomfortably hot outside, the sun now looked like a dying ember, filtered through the red-brown dusty sky. The resulting glow made it look more like those photos of the Martian surface, red, barren and rocky, than it did a foreign desert a world away from home. Still, as I sat atop my turret, lost in my own thoughts, there was something strange and peaceful about it.

I plugged my I-pod in and quit thinking about sunsets. I turned my attention instead to the mission ahead. I climbed down from my armored perch and wrestled the .50 cal receiver and 4 ft long spare gun barrel from the back of the humvee. As I lifted the .50 into the turret, I began rehearsing in my head everything I needed to remember to make my gun functional. I locked the heavy gun into its cradle with the two large pins that keep the receiver in place, and lifted the feedtray cover. I grabbed the barrel, slid it into the barrel shroud, and screwed it into place until I heard the familiar "click-click" sound, telling me that it was in. Now I began to sweat, and not from the heat. NCO's are supposed to be "technically proficient", and I was feeling anything but that at that moment. I hadn't set up a .50 or even fired one since Camp Atterbury, last April. Now was not the time to look like I had no clue what I was doing in front of the rest of the squad or worse yet, my commander, whose truck I was going to be gunning for in just a couple of hours. I knew that if I could just get through setting it up this once, and get through the test fire, that it would all come back to me. "Psst...psssst!" I whispered to our driver, Specialist Humberto Gamboa. He was busy loading our bags into the back of the humvee. "Come here a sec." I whispered. Gamboa climbed up on the back of the truck and met me in my turret. "Hey, bro. Can you give me a hand?" I asked. "It's been a while since I set up a .50." I was a bit embarrassed, but swallowed my pride for the sake of making sure that my gun would fire when and if I needed it to. "Sure." Gamboa said. Gamboa then walked me through the process of setting head space and timing. This is a delicate process that will ensure that the gun fires as it should and doesn't jam or worse yet, blow up in your face. I silently wondered if John Moses Browning, who designed the .50 in the early 1900's could possibly have made it more complicated. I charged the gun and inserted the timing gauge between the barrel and bolt face. This was the moment of truth. When you hit the trigger, you should hear a metallic "click". This sound tells you that you have properly set your timing and that your gun is now ready to fire. I grabbed the spade grips on the back of the gun and pressed my thumbs to the trigger, or "butterflies." I depressed the trigger, and rejoiced in the resounding symphony that rang in my ears...a simple, little metallic click. To veteran machinegunners, that sound is like any other sound in the world, but for me, at that moment, it was as joyous as my child's first words.

Now I was ready. The rest was all down hill. I grabbed my helmet, body armor, chest rig and weapon and set them on the hood. I then climbed back up top, double checked the electronic turret controls to ensure that the battery was charged, opened a 100 round can of .50 caliber armor piercing incendiary ammunition and placed it into the feed box next to the gun cradle. The squad then spent the next hour or so waiting for word to jump off, joking and grab-assing. I sat in my turret with my I-pod, blaring "Daughtry's" new album in my ears, and returned to my thoughts

With SSG Robert's words, "Alright, let's go." I jumped down and grabbed my gear. I pulled on my armored vest, snapped my chest rig on and placed my helmet on my head. I climbed up in the turret and broke off 25 rounds from the 100 round belt of ammo for our test fire. Capt. Imig climbed in, double checked our communications and began loading data into the humvees navigation and messaging computer. Gamboa fired up the humvee and we pulled into line waiting for the last of nearly 50 huge transports and private contractor flatbed tractor trailers to pull out ahead of us. We pulled into place in the convoy and slowly drove towards the chain-link and coiled concertina wire fence line that separates Kuwait from Iraq.

We crossed the border and drove into that all too familiar black curtain of night. I rotated the turret 180 degrees so that my gun faced the rear and revelled in the view. Even in the blackness of night, I was amazed at the vastness of the desert. The cooling wind blowing past my face was heaven compared to the stale air conditioning that couldn't blow out a birthday candle that Capt. Imig and Spc. Gamboa, seated below me had to contend with.

As we neared that familiar spot in the desert where we conduct our rolling test fire, I heard Sgt Baum's voice crackle in my headset. "Wolfpack 1, test fire, test fire, test fire." Over a mile ahead of us, I heard Wolfpack 1's gun bark out 25 rounds and turned to see red tracers streak across the night sky.

As I turned back to face the rear, I saw 3 sets of headlights quickly approach and begin to flash their high beams at us. I immediately turned on the two flood lights on either side of my turret shield, lighting up three vehicles and blinding the driver, who was aggressively trying to pass us on our left. I recognized the trucks, three tricked-out Ford F350 pickups, as armored gun trucks belonging to a private security contractor, KBR. Their gun trucks are the epitome of hill-billy armor and resemble something from the post-Armageddon movie Mad Maxx. I tried to communicate to them that they couldn't pass because we were conducting a test fire, but at 35 miles an hour, and with no radio communication with them, that was impossible. Seizing the opportunity, the lead KBR gun truck accelerated and sped past us, quickly followed by two others. "Well," I thought. They'll find out in about 30 seconds." Just as I watched them speeding towards Wolfpack 2 about a quarter mile ahead of us, Wolfpack 2's gun fired, sending 25 rounds of .50 caliber armor piercing incendiary ammunition streaking across the desert. With plenty of room to spare, the sight of tracer rounds a quarter mile ahead must have spooked the driver of the lead KBR guntruck because he hit the brakes and quickly swerved into an open spot in our convoy and disappeared from view. "Ha! Told you so, jacktard!" I muttered.

Now it was my turn. We approached the spot of open desert where I would test fire my gun. I knew we were there, because I could see empty shell casings and links littering the roadway. I fed the belt of ammo into the gun and pulled back on the charging handle twice. "Okay, Sir. Gun's hot." I said into my headset to Capt. Imig. "Go ahead." he replied. I swung the turret around to the 9 0clock position, gripped the spades and depressed the butterflies with my thumbs. The gun rocked in my hands as I fired the gun in 7 to 10 round bursts. The muzzle flash lit the night, and red tracers streaked into the darkness, exploding into the desert floor like fireworks a hundred meters away. Several rounds ricochet off the rocky desert, glowing red and spinning wildly off into the night sky until they petered out. Empty brass casings and metal links rained down on the turret roof until the gun went empty. "Good test fire." I calmly said into my headset, like I had been doing this forever. Inside my head, however, I was laughing hysterically and doing a victory dance, as I cleared my gun and loaded a fresh belt of ammunition.

I'd cleared my hurdle, and as we drove off into the Iraqi night, the cooling air rushing past my headset in a low roar, I suddenly felt at peace about a lot of things...Not to mention ten feet tall and bullet proof.

10 September 2009

A Long Road Ahead

Gun trucks of 2nd Platoon/1864th Gun Truck Company passing a southbound convoy somewhere in Northern Iraq.

Camp Arifjan, Kuwait
11 Sep. 2009
0924 hrs

Another mission. After several days of rumors that no missions would be allocated for at least two weeks, our squad was surprised and excited to find that we were back on deck. This would probably be our longest mission to date, taking us farther North into Iraq than we had ever been before. But due to a few non-combat related injuries (Spc Joe Keith had been airlifted to Germany for a torn ligament in his foot, and Spc Jamaal Uzziel had a shoulder injury) we were short on men. Both Keith and Uzziel were gunners. As it worked out, I would be filling in as a gunner on this mission for our Company Commander, Captain Derek Imig, who was going to be commanding one of our trucks.

I greeted this new assignment with a sense of both excitement and trepidation. I had been wanting to take a few missions as a gunner anyway, and looked at the chance as not so much something new, but as a really great photo-op. On the other hand, I hadnt fired the .50 since Camp Atterbury last April, and I was gunning for my Commander's truck. To make matters even worse, we would be Wolfpack 4 on this trip. The last gun truck in the convoy, and for some reason, the insurgency had been known to target the trail gun trucks with IED's. No pressure, there.

In the few days we had before our mission left, I had time to think alot about things I could control and things I could not control. To say I was a bit rusty on the workings of the .50 caliber machine gun was an understatement. I mean, if you break it down into it's simplest terms, the .50 cal hasnt really changed in design or function since it was first developed in 1913. It's the original "point and click." I knew it would all come back to me in time, and in a pinch, I could always rely on Spc Jake Sere, or PFC Joel Martin, two of our top gunners to bring me up to speed.

What I could not control was what happens out there beyond the safety of my armored turret. What had been on my mind most of all, was the increase of reports of bombings and unrest throughout Iraq. I dont think it's the possibility of death that scares me as much as the mechanics of it. In 20 years as a Police Officer, I've seen more homicides, suicides, and fatal car wrecks than I care to remember. I've seen time and time again what a bullet does to a human body. Through it all though, other people's trauma never seemed to bother me. When I was 12 years old, I smashed my finger in my dad's car door. My finger swelled up and turned black and blue as the blood pooled under my nail. My Dad, a former US Army medic, heated the tip of an un-bent paper clip and melted a small hole in my nail to release the blood and the pressure. The sight of my own blood oozing from my finger nearly caused me to wet myself.

I've tried not to think about the possibility of dying, and although the overly-brave and phony-tough amongst us will probably read this and give me good natured hell for it, I know that they think about it too. It's just not something that we discuss, as though discussing it will somehow reveal vulnerabilities within oursleves that we dont want others to see, or make what is a only a slight possibility an inevitablity.

Courage is not charging your enemy with a fixed bayonet while running into a hail of gunfire, cigar clenched in your teeth, as you clamber over the trench wall into battle yelling "Follow me, men!" Courage is knowing that your scared, but going anyway. Courage is putting the possibility of dying out of your mind and giving your situation over to a greater power and letting Him handle the rest. In the past several days and weeks, that's what I've tried to do. I told someone recently that whatever will happen or wont happen while I'm over here has already been written, and theres little I can do to affect the outcome.

It doesnt matter whether we or anybody else agrees with the war or not. After 8 years of war at the cost of nearly 5000 American lives on two fronts, it's safe to say that were all tired of it, soldiers as well as those at home, and just want to come home. But, agree or disagree, we have a mission here that we've been asked to complete. Were here, and we have to finish the job.

So, in a few hours I'll put on my uniform one more time. I'll grab my helmet and my ruck, my weapon, my ammo, and my body armor one more time, and I'll walk out to my truck and get to work. I'll mount my .50, climb into my turret and enjoy the best view in the house. As we cross the border soon and dissapear behind that black curtain of night into the Iraqi desert, I have no idea whats on the other side. What I do know, is that if we are called upon to fight, that I can see myself getting mean real fast. Like I told my 23 year old daughter Ashley last night on-line when she told me to please be careful and that she worries about me..."Dont worry, baby. I'm too mean to kill that easy".

03 September 2009

Village of the Wolves

Spc Tyler Miller-Cobb, of Las Vegas, Nv and PFC Joel Martin, of Sparks, Nv assembling the .50 cal machine gun in the MRAP turret before our mission.

Camp Arifjan, Kuwait
28 August, 2009
0110 hrs

For the first time in a long time, I was excited about something. It had been over a month since my last mission and I was starting to get stir-crazy. Volunteering to serve a tour in Iraq, only to end up sitting on my chevrons for a month or more was not what I had planned for. I had fought against being bitter about my predicament, sometimes unsuccsessfly. When word came that we would finally be going out, I was filled with a sense of purpose again.

This mission, however, I was going to fill in as the MRAP Truck Commander. The regular, TC, Sgt John Baum was on leave back home. Spc Tyler Miller-Cobb would be my driver, and PFC Joel Martin was assigned as my gunner. Together, we would be taking point on this mission. No problem, I thought, a short three to four day turnaround and then return to Kuwait until the next mission. A nice way to ease back into it. No sense in overdoing it our first time back out after all. Besides, it had been a while since my last mission out and I was feeling a bit rusty.

My excitement, though, quickly turned to something else and I suddenly had a really bad taste in my mouth, kind of like I'd been sucking on an old penny, coppery and acidic. During the convoy intel brief we were warned about specific threats of attacks that were planned for where we would be going. It doesnt take an intel briefing to know that things have gone from bad to worse in certain parts of Iraq. You can figure that much out reading the paper. Most of the really organized insurgency have been assisted on their path to the infernal regions by allied forces. What's left are mostly a disconnected, half-assed group of hillbilly moonshiners. The only problem, is that these same hillbilly's were all taught how to set up ambushes and make IED's by their former al-Qaeda mentors, and they still pose a sizeable threat. Attacks were still occurring on roads throughout Iraq, and our destination was no exception.

Hope For the Best, Prepare for the Worst

Mission day started like all the others. At 1600 hrs, the squad reported to the arms room to draw our weapons and ammo. Cans of .50 caliber armor piercing ammunition were strapped inside the MRAP and our bags and personal weapons were loaded on board. Miller-Cobb wrestled the big M2 .50 caliber machine gun receiver and extra barrels into the back and chained them down. No sense in having 25 pound cans of ammo or a big machine gun flying around loose in the cab in the event we rolled over for some reason.

While loading and securing our gear, I was distracted by the sound of something that reminded me of a riding lawn mower pulling up behind me. I turned from what I was doing to see a Rhino, a kind of four-wheel drive off road go-cart come to a dusty halt. The soldier driving, stepped off and removed his helmet, replacing it with his patrol cap which I could now see was festooned with a set of Captain's bars. Just above the US ARMY tab on his camouflaged uniform top was a black velcro crucifix, identifying him as our Battalion Chaplain. I came to attention and saluted. "Good evening, Sir," I said. "How 'ya doin', Sergeant?" he replied, and returned my salute. "Just fine, Sir," I replied. "Were just getting ready to head out tonight." "Well," the Chaplain said, "Why don't you gather everyone around for a second?" I did as the Chaplain asked, and had the rest of the squad gather around in a rough semi-circle. The Chaplain started by telling us how proud he was of us all and wished us a successful mission. He reminded us that things were still rough out there and to keep our heads down. He then opened up a cooler that he had in the back of the Rhino, and passed out iced Gatorades and bottled water, which were consumed with gusto in the late evening heat. The Chaplain then led us in prayer and made sure to shake each of our hands, wishing us each luck by name as he did so. I was suddenly reminded of a line from the WW2 based mini-series, Band of Brothers, in which a soldier replies after being given communion before a combat patrol during The Battle of the Bulge, "Rest easy, boys. If we die now, we die in a state of grace." I surprised myself by suddenly repeating the line aloud.

By this time, our own Commander, Captain Derek Imig, had joined us. Captain Imig had stopped by to say a few words and pass on some updated intel...none of which was very promising. Before leaving, Captain Imig told me that when we got back, he could show me some pictures of what an EFP (Explosively Formed Projectile, a type of sophsiticated IED) can do to an armored vehicle. I told him that I could do with out that for now.

Leaving the Wire 1 August, 2009/2100 hrs.

After a safety brief and last minute hands-on check of all of our equipment, we mounted our trucks and pulled away from the motor pool. As we pulled away from the gate at Camp Arifjan, I wondered for a moment if it would be for the last time. I shook the thoughts from my head like a pesky insect buzzing around a light bulb, and told myself to snap out of it, that we were going to be just fine. We drove on through the night, past the bright lights and industrial areas of Kuwait City, until civilization gave way to open desert and blackness. We reached our first FOB several hours later, and bedded down for what would be a few hours of sleep until we had to meet up with the rest of the convoy the next afternoon.


The next day, we stood in a large group in the blistering mid-afternoon heat as the convoy commander, a 1st Lieutenant, briefed us on the order of march, destination, and load-off load plan for the mission. We then climbed into our trucks, and drove towards our final stop on the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border before crossing into Iraq.

We crossed the border at 2035 hrs and led the convoy into the blackest night I had ever seen. The two lane MSR (Main Supply Route) stretched out in front of us and faded away as if shrouded in a blackish, crude oil- colored curtain. Spc Miller-Cobb steered the MRAP into the night, aided by a drop-down video display that allowed him to see through the darkeness. As we neared previous known danger areas, I sat fixated, staring excitedly into the night, hoping that my eyes would somehow adjust, and wating in anticipation for the first explosion or tell-tale "ping" of a round striking the side of our truck. I was surprised to find myself now hoping, wishing that it would happen. I was tired of the anticipation and wanted to just get on with it. My only hope was that if we were to be struck by an EFP that it would at least penetrate my door low enough that I would only lose my legs. That, I told myself, was a survivable wound, and I could deal with it. Besides, look at all the money I'd save on socks from now on!

As we neared our first FOB of the night, the MSR gave way to a rough dirt road. We pressed ahead of the main convoy, with Staff Sergeant Roberts and his crew in Wolfpack 2 covering us. About 600 meters further down the road, we suddenly found that our path was blocked. The roadway had been blocked, piled from side to side with large pieces of metal wreckage, several large metal truck wheels, and a 50 gallon propane tank. I radioed up that we had been stopped by a makeshift road block, and immediately told Martin up in his turret to keep his eyes on several buildings and large dirt birms off to our left. I knew that we were being watched, and was sure that if we were going to be ambushed, that it would be from either side of the roadway, where insurgents had plenty of cover. In the mean time, we backed off a safe distance and waited. I knew that the MRAP posed a sizeable target, but also knew that we were protected from RPG's and small arms fire by our armor. Still, it's a very uneasy feeling being all alone in the middle of a road like that, knowing that, somewhere in the darkenss, there's someone probably watching, waiting to pull me out of my truck and make off with me into the night so they can cut my head off on the internet. I took comfort, though in knowing that if we were attacked, that Martin would be VERY generous with his return fire.

It seemed like an eternity before the four QRF (Quick Reaction Force) gun trucks from the FOB arrived to assist us. "Cowboy Overwatch, this is Wolfpack 1," I called into my head set. "Wolfpack 1, this is Cowboy Overwatch, go ahead," came the reply. "Roger. Keep your eyes on that long ditch on the left side of the roadway. Theres also a building and several large birms off to your left. So far, we haven't seen any movement, but Wolfpack 4 reported seeing several Iraqi males off in the field at their location." Two of the trucks then took up flank security and called for the Iraqi Police to assist with removing the roadblock. It only seemed fitting that the Iraqi Police do it. After all, it's their country and what better time for them to learn how to take care of it on their own than now. The Iraqi Police showed up about 10 minutes after being called, not too shabby a response time I thought, and hopped from their rag tag pick-up truck to begin dismantling the roadblack. While two AK47 armed IP's provided cover for their comrades, the other two began tossing bits of wreckage off to the side of the road, where I was sure it would eventually be used against another convoy. "Hell," Martin said as we watched the drama unfold in front of us. "Those guys are probably the ones who put that roadblock there!" At the very least, they most likely knew who did, considering that their outpost was only a few hundred meters back down the road. As soon as the roadblock was cleared, we were joined by the rest of the convoy and together we proceeded back down the dusty road and through the safety of the FOB's front gates. Staff Sergeant Robert's decision for our MRAP and his guntruck to push ahead of the convoy prevented the entire column from getting hung up on that road. It also undoubtedly threw a wrench in the Iraqi's plans and prevented our convoy from being attacked or looted. Despite the success of what would go down in history as the "Wolfpack Maneuver," a part of me was just a bit dissapointed that we had not been ambushed...but not too much.

A Haunting Sight

After a fitfull nights sleep in a tent with typically broken air conditioning, we loaded up to continue onto the second leg of our mission. We were to proceed to a nearby FOB, pick up another load, then escort the convoy back to Kuwait. This was the first time that we had really driven during the day time, and I was suprised by how different Iraq looked in the light of day. We drove slowly down a rough dirt road. Miller-Cobb was carfeful not to hit too many dips and potholes, because the rough road was tossing Martin around in the turret like a gerbil in a blender. Martin was having a hard time holding onto the turret and his gun at the same time, and given Martin's ample girth, I was afraid that he might bend something up their slamming around the way that he was.

As we neared the front gate, we passed a small group of Iraqi tents and mud huts. There on the side of the road ahead of us, I saw something red standing out amidst the overall sand and dried mud-colored landscape. As we got closer, I could tell that whatever it was, it was brightly colored and about 4 feet tall. As we came upon it, I saw her; a little Iraqi girl, no older than my own daughter, maybe 7 or 8 years old. She was dressed in a beautiful, bright red flowing Iraqi dress and customary head wrap, adorned with small brightly colored beads. She was holding tightly onto the hand of who I assumed was probably her little sister, a child of maybe 4 or 5 years old, dressed in a dirty, tan colored one piece neck to ankle cotton dress. She had short, bobbed hair, just like my 5 year old daughter. They stood staring in awe and waving at us as we passed. Standing there alone in the desert in the noon day heat, they were two of the most beautiful little girls I had ever laid eyes on, and they immediately reminded me of my own. The only difference between my daughters and these two desert angels, was that these girls had known only war in their lifetime. I wanted to tell Miller-Cobb to stop the truck right there. I wanted to climb down, take these two little girls in my arms and take them somewhere where they would never again have to stand alone by the side of the road in the dusty heat. I wanted to protect them from all that they had seen or ever would see. But I could'nt do any of that. Instead, I watched in helpless sadness as they disappeared from view, and faded away into the dust cloud.
The rest of the mission, passed uneventfully, and we left for Kuwait later the next night. As we drove silently through Southern Iraq towards the Kuwaiti border, my thoughts were of little girls in red dresses, and how lucky my own girls were to have never been witness to so much horror and devastation. I thought of lost childhoods, and of little lives and memories forever marred by war. No matter how hard I tried, I couldnt shake those two little faces from my head. The helplessness I felt at not being able to make their world right again was just too much, and I stared out my window and thought of home.