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.

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