28 October 2009

The Bridge at Ramadi

Iraqi Army soldiers inspect the eastbound span of the Ramadi Bridge after it was destroyed by a suicide bomber.

Al-Asad Air Base, Iraq
27 October, 2009
1102 hrs

There is a monstrous 4 lane concrete and steel re-enforced bridge that spans the Euphrates River between the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in central Iraq. Two weeks ago, that bridge was intact, until a suicide bomber drove a truck loaded with 10,000 lbs of bulk explosives onto the eastbound span and detonated it. It blew a hole roughly the size of a football field in the eastbound span, and significantly damaged the westbound span, sending what was left of them both into the river, below.

Up until that point, the Ramadi Bridge, as it is called, was the only bridge over the river on the main highway that connects Syria and Iraq. This highway serves as a major commerce route between the two countries as well as a former escape route into Syria for refugees fleeing the violence here. For the U.S. military, this bridge also served as a crossing point over the river for convoys transporting troops and materials out of the country as part of the overall drawdown in Iraq. That all changed when an insurgent blew himself up.

This mission would be the first to have to bypass the bridge and find a new way around it since it had been destroyed. During our convoy brief in Kuwait, the gun truck squad leader, SSG Greg Sanchez, said that there was an alternate way around the bridge but that we would have to use a smaller and much narrower, one lane concrete bridge that parallels the main span, almost at water level. Intel on how to get to that smaller bridge was spotty at best, and it would be a learn-as-we-go process. To make matters worse, we would be crossing the bridge in the very early morning hours during a no moon period, with only headlights and spotlights to guide us.

On the night we crossed the bridge, I had been driving our gun truck northbound on the MSR from FOB Victory for almost 7 hours. Sanchez was the TC (truck commander) and PFC Mario Nikic was the gunner. I was exhausted and keeping my eyes open was a real chore. It was my first time as a driver, and up until this point, I had either been a TC or a gunner. I was completely unprepared for exactly how physically taxing it is to push a 15,000 lb truck for hours on end. At the end of this mission, I would have a whole new respect for our drivers.

Sanchez radioed ahead to Sgt Christopher Rosales in the MRAP to notify us when we were about 2 miles out from the bridge. There was supposed to be a 1 lane dirt road that broke off from the MSR that would take us under the destroyed east and westbound spans and to the smaller bypass span. Several minutes later, and just as instructed, Rosales radioed back that we were just about 2 miles out. All eyes began looking for the unmarked dirt road that should have been on our right. We missed it, and soon, the MRAP on point was halted at the destroyed span with no where to go but back…along with our gun truck, three 50 foot, almost 93,000 lb HET’s and eleven third country national tractor trailers. Sanchez told me to turn around so that we could back track and look for the dirt turnoff. I muscled our gun truck into a three point turn and got us headed back in the opposite direction while the column waited on the bridge approach. About 100 meters back from the approach, I saw the turnoff. It was not quite as described. It was a narrow, 1 lane dirt road that cut off at a sharp angle from the MSR and headed downhill into the dark and towards a village. We didn’t see it because the entrance was almost completely concealed behind a pile of rubble. Sanchez radioed to SSG Frank La Spina’s gun truck to follow us down the road so that we could conduct a quick recon before taking an entire column into the unknown. If I wasn’t awake before, I sure as hell was now! I cautiously pushed our tuck forward, looking from side to side for signs of hidden IED’s. I soon gave up, because there was nothing around us but large piles of dirt, rubble and trash. If there was an IED hidden there, we’d never see it until it hit us.

The road zigzagged down towards the village until we came to an intersection with an asphalt road. I was glad to be away from the piles of trash and dirt until I turned onto the hardball. There, I stopped the truck dead in it’s tracks. Directly in front of me, about 30 feet away, was an opening to an alley between two concrete and brick buildings at the entrance to the village. Lying in the opening to the alley was what looked like a 155 MM artillery shell. My heart stopped as I called out over the intercom, “I’ve got an artillery shell in the alley, 12 o’clock, 10 meters.” Nikic in the turret, Sanchez and I all grabbed our rifles and in the cramped confines of the truck cab, tried to look through our telescopic sights for a better view. Seconds passed like hours as we stared and scanned the surrounding area, looking for tell tale wires. My heart began beating again after we all three confirmed that it was just a large pipe that with the naked eye would have looked to anyone like a partially concealed artillery shell.

With my heart now pounding at what I was sure was an unhealthy rhythm, we pushed forward, skirting the edge of the village. Sanchez reminded Nikic to stay low in his turret in case of snipers. In a few minutes, a three and a half mile long column of trucks rumbling down the village road would not be hard to miss. Soon, I came upon an Iraqi Army outpost at the rivers edge manned by four very high-speed looking soldiers. Up to this point, I had been used to the rag-tag Iraqi Police, most of whom spent their off-duty time as insurgents. These four though, looked like they meant business. We pulled along side and two of the soldiers approached. I saw that one of them was armed with an AKM…A type of long barreled AK47 typically used as a sniper rifle, and not the usual fair for an Iraqi foot soldier. Sanchez asked if this was the way around the bridge and back onto the MSR. In surprisingly good English, a young soldier told us that if we followed the road, that it would take us under the main bridge and onto the bypass span. I got the truck turned around and we went back through the village to link back up with the column. La Spina and his crew had already proceeded back to the MSR and was attempting to oversee the arduous task of getting the column backed up enough so that we could lead them onto the dirt road and across the river. Getting those trucks turned around was like herding cats. The stress of it all, having to proceed through an unknown village and taking 93,000 lb trucks across a narrow,1 lane concrete bypass that we weren’t even sure would support the weight, was soon taking it’s toll. With two Staff Sergeants possessing two completely contradictory leadership styles trying to control the turnaround from two different locations, tempers flared and soon both Sanchez and La Spina were yelling back and forth over the radio and control of the situation quickly began to deteriorate.

Enough was enough, I thought. I told Nikic to turn off his headset intercom so he would not have to hear what I was about to say. I turned in my seat and looked back at Sanchez. “Greg,” I said. “Look. You need to relax. Let La Spina take care of it. He’s up there and you two yelling back and forth isn’t going to get us out of here any sooner. We have a whole village of unknowns right in front of us, and we need you to stay focused. The two of you losing it like this is only going to undermine everyone else’s confidence in your ability to get us out of here. I know it’s stressful, but we have to focus on staying calm right now.” I stared at him, making sure that he knew what I was saying. Twenty years on the street as a cop had taught me one thing, and that is to force yourself to stay calm when everyone else around you is falling apart. I waited for Sanchez to have an aneurysm over my correcting him the way I did. Instead, he took a deep breath and said “I know what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to get me to re-focus.” “Exactly. Now, are you good?” I said. Sanchez said nothing, but I could tell that what I had said had worked.

As La Spina finished getting the column backed up, I drove away from the village and back to where the dirt road exited out onto the MSR. There, I met the first of the trucks, and began slowly leading the column back down the dirt road and towards the village. We made the left turn onto the hardball road, and crept along at 5 miles an hour as the column slowly followed. I looked back and forth from the road ahead of me to the village on my right, scanning for moving shadows behind walls or on rooftops, or for signs of concealed IED’s along the roadway. We approached the Iraqi Army checkpoint and they waved us forward and towards the lower bridge bypass. As I looked at the destroyed spans slowly passing overhead, I was amazed at the extent of the destruction. four-foot thick sheets of concrete and asphalt, some the size of a small house, and held together by steel re-bar that was bent and twisted in surreal shapes, hung like torn Christmas wrapping. We passed under the main bridge and I saw the lower bypass ahead of us on the right. The bypass span was nothing like I had expected it to be. It was miniscule in size compared to what was left of the Ramadi Bridge, and looked like it was meant to handle nothing more than donkey carts, not large civilian traffic. It was a narrow 1 lane concrete bridge, that was secured with steel beams sunk into the river bottom, and smaller beams running perpendicular and attached to the main bridges concrete support columns. There were only 12 inch tubular metal rails-nothing more between the edge of our wheels, which seemed dangerously close to the side of the span, and the blackish-green water of the Euphrates River a mere few feet below us. I’m pretty sure I held my breath as we drove slowly across. It was like one of those deep-sleep nightmares, where you’re running towards something but your feet feel like they’re mired in mud and you just cant move. The closer we got to the end of the bypass, the farther away it seemed to get. I instinctively unlatched my seat belt, disengaged the combat lock on my armored door, and felt for the quick release on my vest. If we were about to go into the water, I wanted to make sure that I could get out before I drowned.

My mini waking nightmare finally came to an end as I felt the road beneath me turn to solid dirt again and the village disappeared from view. I followed the road as it paralleled the opposite approach end of the bridge and made it’s way back uphill towards the MSR. I wheeled the truck onto the highway and led the rest of the column away from the river and back down the highway again, where we came to a halt and got back into our regular convoy order.

As we sat blacked out on the MSR waiting for the rest of our column, I silently hoped that none of our company would have to cross that bridge again. I was sure that it was only a matter of time before the insurgents figured out that it was our only way across and took advantage of the situation. It was an ambush just waiting to happen. On the return trip we would come close to finding out just how right we were.

14 October 2009


Talil, Iraq
14 Oct 2009
1533 hrs

Home...family...friends. When we return home, will it be they who have changed, or will it be us? I remember when I came home from Afghanistan after a tour with the Air Force in 2003. The war and the effect that it had on soldiers then was still new and virtually unknown. There were no briefings then about how to re-establish yourselves into the lives of those who had gone on without you. Nobody told us what to expect, or how to deal with what was to come of our new lives. I came home and just assumed that things would pick up where they had left off. It wasn't that easy. I soon found myself frustrated that my wife had become so independent of me. I had missed out on my newborn daughter's first several months of her life, and had to learn how to be a daddy all over again, and I felt like an intruder in my own home. Then there was the job. After more than a year away from the Carson City Sheriff's Office, I could'nt wait to get back into my patrol car, doing what I did best.

Until that night on July 4th, 2003. I was parked at Lompa and Menlo as the fireworks started to explode over Mills Park. When the first concussion reverberated in my chest, I started to panic. I didn't know why, I just did, and I couldn't control the crushing feeling of fear that overcame me. It took a few minutes of hyperventilating before I was able to get a hold of myself and tell my brain that they were just fireworks, not exploding landmines, or distant artillery. I couldn't believe what had just happened to me. I was Gary Underhill...a nearly two decade veteran of law enforcement! This wasn't supposed to happen to me. I had just returned from Afghanistan. I had faced gunfire before. I had spent an entire career running toward chaos when everyone else ran away. And I was scared. To death. By something as innocent as July 4th fireworks, and I didn't have a clue why.

It only got harder as the months went on. My wife saw changes in me that I could not or did not want to see. I know I scared her. Most of the time, I didn't care. I was too wrapped up in my own self pity, putting other things ahead of her and our newborn child to worry about how anybody felt but me. In time, I plateaued and eventually, I forgot all about Afghanistan and my time spent there.

Those feelings, fears and insecurities that I experienced when I returned home were simply buried in a time capsule somewhere in the pit of my stomach, to be ignored, and ideally never faced again. Until now. How will I be different when I come home? Will I suddenly swerve instinctively, every time I drive under an overpass, hoping to avoid an IED over my head? Will I hold my breath and duck down in my seat whenever I pass a pile of trash, or an old tire along side the roadway? Will I become uneasy, impatient and claustrophobic stuck in traffic at a red light? Will I be quick to anger again? Or will I be a better man and a better cop for my experience, more compassionate for the poverty and hardships suffered by others that I've seen, or more suspicious of anyone but those closest to me?

The hardest part about being over here, at least for me, is two-fold: We've yet to see any combat. We've had a few close calls, some found IED's, two IED detonations, and some recent small arms fire, but every time we go out, we're aware of what MIGHT happen to us. Sometimes the anticipation is almost too much. Then there's the boredom of hours on the road that can lead to complacency if left unchecked. But we go on anyway, concentrating on the mission ahead of us and put all of that out of our minds. Second to that, is the absence from those whom I love the most. I really miss the daily face to face contact. I miss how warm and soft my girls are when they cuddle with me. I miss holding their little hands. I miss my wife's smile. My wife is my rock. I have yet to find anyone whom I have ever felt closer to. I just wish that I had done things differently for us in the past.

Returning home this time will be different, and the jury's still out on exactly how. First, we will have been gone for just over a year. That doesn't take into account the several months of training that we went through stateside that took us away from home for weeks at a time prior to our deployment. The Army is much more acutely aware in 2009 than they were in 2003 about the changes soldiers go through when they deploy. We all bitch and complain as our deployment end-date draws near about the countless briefings that we will have to endure before we will be allowed to go home. Those briefings, meant to ease the trepidation for both soldiers and their family's are invaluable and have come to fruition as a result of the US Military ignoring for too long the danger signs. I tried telling my commander and senior NCO's in the Air Force of my problems shortly after coming home the first time. No one cared. Instead, I was ostracized and ridiculed.

For me, I look at the mistakes I made and the danger signs I ignored when I came home in 2003, and I look to that time as a frame of reference, making a mental note now and again not to repeat the mistakes of my past. I look forward to returning to life after Iraq. This time, I will to treat every single day as a gift and a blessing. I want to get up every morning and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for my girls' school lunches like it's the most important thing I will do that day. I want to be a husband and a best friend to the woman who has meant everything to me, but whose presence in my life, I always took for granted.

This deployment will eventually end, and in a few months we'll all board that big, chartered jet that will take us home. That's when the adventure really begins. We will all be changed to some degree, and that doesn't have to be something to fear. For some of us this is our second, third, even fourth deployment. For others it's our first. Either way, it has been the opportunity of a lifetime and concentrating on coming back better than when we left is the key.

As I get ready to go out on another mission soon, I realize that there are things far more precious to lose than my own life.

03 October 2009

A Long and Deadly Night

Destroyed Iraqi Armor along the road outside Fallujah

Jake Sere, Me, Cedric Johnson, crew of Wolfpack 3, in front of our brand new guntruck, The Iron Bitch 3
A bullet riddled concrete memorial that formerly displayed Sadaam Hussein's image at the entrance to what used to be an Iraqi Airbase, now occupied by the United States Marine Corps.

Western Iraq
01 October 2009
1910 hrs

It was supposed to be a 4 hour trip to somewhere just outside of Fallujah. Instead, it took just over 10 hours! The MSR was crowded with convoys heading both North and South, which didn’t help, and the intel that we had received at our convoy brief a few hours before, indicating little threat or recent insurgent activity was about to prove a bit off-base. Tonight, we were escorting a platoon of HET’s from an Arizona unit. It would be more like escorting the Bad News Bears…or an unruly pre-school class.

It all started just as soon as we left the FOB. One of the third country national’s trucks blew a transmission and went down just 100 yards from the ECP. The convoy became separated as a result, and had to halt while they swapped out trucks. During the delay, we sat blocking an intersection at the corner of a dark neighborhood. Waiting on an adjoining dirt road was a lone car occupied by a single Iraqi male driver. He waited patiently to proceed for more than 40 minutes with his flashers on hoping to get on with his night. I flashed my light at him to get his attention and hollered from my turret to go ahead, waving him towards me. He must have misunderstood me because, instead, he waved back and putting his car in reverse, backed quickly into his neighborhood and out of sight. I thought of how fed up the Iraqi people must be with lumbering convoys and armored military vehicles of all shapes and sizes clogging up their roads and highways. The “share the road” policy that we currently operate under is far different from the way things used to be here. Gone are the days when Iraqis faced being shot for coming too near to a convoy, or for not stopping when approaching an army checkpoint or roadblock. The Iraqi’s have not completely embraced the new policy and for the most part, want nothing to do with approaching or passing a convoy. Winning hearts and minds isn’t always so simple.

Forty minutes later, the broken down TCN truck had been towed into the FOB and back to the bone yard. We then drove slowly down the pothole dotted dirt road towards the MSR to link back up with the rest of the column. Once on the MSR, Cedric Johnson pushed our truck north and slid back into our slot about midway in the column. We drove along silently, Johnson, Sere, Travis “Doc” Madden our medic, and I, until the silence was broken by the static-laced announcement from a HET (Heavy Equipment Transporter) driver that he had blown 5 trailer tires while exiting the FOB when his trailer struck a concrete barrier, and he needed to halt. The HET trailer is equipped with 5 bogeys on each side. Each independent bogey supports 4 tires and wheels for a total of 40 tires and wheels per trailer! The HET driver stated that 5 outside tires on the passenger side had all been blown and would need to be changed.

We halted the column, while the crew of the HET was assisted by the wrecker crew in getting 5 tires swapped out. We pulled our truck up alongside to provide security. The city lights of Fallujah, formerly one of Iraq’s most violent cities, were shimmering brightly just 4 miles to the east. Not a hundred meters off the highway sat several small houses and buildings. The MSR we were on was at one point not long ago, a very unfriendly place to be, and one could not swing a dead cat by the tail without hitting an IED here. I took comfort in knowing that there had been very little if any insurgent activity reported in recent memory, but was aware that anything was still possible.

While I covered down to the east with my .50, Sere got out to assist with providing security on the west side of the disabled HET. What he saw was unbelievable! None of the Arizona soldiers working on the truck had bothered to set up any security. Additionally, not one of them had a magazine in their weapon, and some had'nt even bothered to take their weapons with them when they exited their trucks! The one soldier with the M249 SAW didn’t even have a belt of ammo in the feed tray, much less have it loaded! When Sere asked in disbelief why no one had set up any security, or much less assumed anything that resembled a defensive posture just 4 miles from Fallujah, he was told, “Well, isn’t that why you’re here?” Not one of them had the slightest situational awareness of where we were. Even in my headset, over the noise of both the HET’s and our own trucks idling diesel engines, I could hear Sere, a USMC veteran of the initial invasion in Fallujah, completely losing his mind.

45 minutes later, with all 5 tires changed out, and with Coach Morris Buttermaker’s Bad News Bears back in their trucks, we got back under way again. We had only driven a few more miles, until Sgt Baum in the MRAP advised over the radio that the column would have to halt for a found IED in the median, just before the bridge over the Euphrates river. It took EOD nearly 4 hours to respond. When they finally detonated the IED in place almost an hour later, it was anticlimactic. Instead of large explosion and fireball, there was a sudden bright flash, followed by a dull “whump” sound. The road was opened back up and we were on our way again, as the sky began to lighten in the east with the approaching dawn.

With at least 4 hours of driving still ahead, the silence was broken by a transmission from the Convoy Commander, a guardsmen from Arizona, that one of our platoon’s gun trucks had been struck by an IED on the MSR just a few hours south of us. Our hearts sank as all of us gasped at once and muttered, “Shit...oh hell no!” SSG Roberts in Wolfpack 2 asked for clarification on who had been hit and what their condition was. The reply he received over the air was stunning. “I’d better not say,” came the reply. All four of us in the truck shouted into our headsets in disbelief. We could not believe that the Convoy Commander had put something like that over the air about our own people, and then left us hanging with “I’d better not say,” when asked for more information. The Convoy Commander, finally conceded to SSG Robert’s insistence and could only say that it was one of our MRAP’s and that all three crew members were being medevac’ed by helicopter. We began going over in our heads who it could be…who was assigned to the MRAP and which of our two other squads it might have been. We finally narrowed it down to one squad and realized painfully, who their MRAP crew was. I said a silent prayer for them and sat in my turret feeling gut-punched and helpless. I wanted to know, but at the same time was furious at the Convoy Commander for putting something like that over the air for all of us to hear when he only had partial information.

Hours later, we pulled into the FOB as the sun began to burn bright in the morning sky. As I broke down the .50 and we wrestled our gear out of the truck, Spc Donald Hill, a fellow .50 gunner, came out to greet us. He told me that it wasn’t any of our people that were hit, and that everyone was ok. It was another gun truck platoon from a different unit. Our sister squad had been mis-identified. All three MRAP crew members from entirely different unit had been injured, but fortunately, none seriously. I greeted this news with both relief and sadness. I was relieved beyond words that it was none of our guys, but still stunned at how close to home this news struck me, and felt pain and sorrow for those who had been hit. We had just driven past that very spot just two days before, and would have to drive past it again on our way back into Kuwait.

A veteran of the early days here in Iraq, who I serve with now, offered to me once their take on my writing and said that they felt that I wrote from a “minute” viewpoint on the dangers here. This person told me of how dangerous it used to be here compared to now, and how it’s comparable to “Candyland” throughout Iraq these days. Maybe so. I wasn’t here then, and I have yet to experience combat or survive one IED much less several. I would agree though, that these days, attacks are indeed rare here…until they happen to you.

02 October 2009

That Ugandan Stole My Towel!

Western Iraq,
01 October 2009
1436 hrs

Let me tell you how my day started. We weren’t quite half way through what was the first half of a back to back 10 to 15 day mission. “Turn and Burns” we call them. We had just returned to Arifjan from 15 days out, and had just enough time to conduct maintenance on our trucks, get laundry done, catch up on our sleep and then head out all over again.

The nights drive had been plagued by minor maintenance issues. Nothing major, just the kind of delays that result in frustration and short tempers when you’ve been on the road for as long as we had. By the time we pulled into our next FOB, I was exhausted. I wasn’t just tired, I was the kind tired that makes your bone marrow ache. The kind of tired where you just don’t care anymore.

I had just walked the 300 or so yards to our tent from the staging lane after we parked our trucks. The weight of the .50 cal receiver on my shoulders, coupled with my ruck, my rifle, and my assault pack was crushing and my back and feet were screaming in protest. I dropped my load on a cot and sat down with a sigh that sounded like what I might imagine my last breath would sound like. I unrolled my sleeping bag, shed my dusty uniform and peeled off socks that held their shape when I dropped them on the floor with a dull slap. I collapsed and surrendered to unconsciousness.

Phase 1 of my day

I awoke in disbelief and stared at my watch through bleary eyes. It was only 11:15 AM! I had been asleep for exactly 4 hours, and just been awakened by one of our squad members stomping, stomping back and forth mind you across the wooden floor of our tent, like Sasquatch during mating season! Until this unidentified clown, I had no idea you could slam a tent flap, but somehow he did…repeatedly.

Thankfully, I fell back asleep only to awaken 5 hours later feeling like my bladder was about to implode. As if that suffering wasn’t sufficient enough, my back and my skull throbbed in agony. I needed a hot shower like a heroin addict needed a fix. I grabbed my shower gear, and walked the walk of death to the shower trailer, anticipating languishing in the hot torrent that I knew would soon greet me. The shower trailer was like a steam room and the relief of my own little stall of hot, wet, heaven beckoned me like a sirene’s song.

Phase 2

I hung my brown military issue towel on the hook next to my shower stall, and set my things on the bench. After treating my bladder to much needed relief, I returned to my shower and began to shed my PT’s only to look up and see that my towel was missing. At first, I thought that maybe I had just hung it on another hook, but my superior police investigative skills soon revealed that my towel, was in fact no longer where I had placed it just moments before. I was beyond incredulous. I was tired, dusty, smelled like fermented death, and was feeling just short of ready to commit genocide if it meant delaying my shower just 1 more minute!

Phase 3

Then it happened. The curtain next to mine opened and I was greeted by the alarming vision of a 6 ft 3 Ugandan national, an employee of one of the private security contractors, drying his nether regions with my towel, cotton, brown, US issue, 1 each. I was speechless and stared in disbelief at how blatantly, and violently my towel was being violated before my very eyes. My response was born out of stunned silence. “Bro…did…did you just take my towel?” I sputtered. A young Nelson Mandela on steroids stared back at me, equally shocked. His towel, identical to mine, hung on the opposite hook. “Oh, my. I AM sorry,” he replied quietly, obviously embarrassed. He sheepishly reached out to hand me my towel, not bothering to cover up. After all, what else could he possibly do to shock me at this point? “Well, I sure as hell don’t want it back now!” I shot back. The young Ugandan, hung my towel back up without a word, and hanging his head, retrieved his own towel and pulled his curtain closed to resume drying off.

Phase 4

I stood there, staring at my now useless towel, hanging wet and lifeless on it’s hook. I wanted to mourn it’s passing. I longed for its dry, cotton, terry-cloth wondrousness, smelling of dryer sheets and soap, and knew that it would never be again. I had lost a friend. I climbed dejected and near suicidal into my shower and got on with my life. I dried off with my t-shirt, but it wasn’t the same. The moment I had longed for had been stolen from me.

I don’t remember much from the rest of the day. It’s all a blur at this point. I have to go now…group therapy starts in an hour and I need a shower first.