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.

1 comment:

  1. Again, well written. Glad to see you are back on the road. Keep in touch