Somewhere in Northern Iraq
15 Sept 2009
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.