02 November 2009

Back Across the Bridge

One of the many joint Iraqi Army-Police checkpoints along our route.

Here I am, shortly after after arriving at our FOB just 6 hours after crossing the bridge. I had never felt so tired.

Camp Arifjan Kuwait,
29 October 2009
2300 hrs

The return trip across the Ramadi Bridge couldn't have been choreographed more poorly if we tried. In the end though, we made it across, unhurt and with all trucks accounted for, the only casualties of the night being our frazzled nerves. Approaching the bridge on the MSR, we vowed to do things differently than we had just a week earlier on our first trip across.

Prior to reaching the bridge approach, we began to slow and eventually brought the column to a halt. Another convoy was in the process of crossing the bridge from the opposite direction, and the roads weren't nearly wide enough to accommodate both columns at the same time. Sgt Christopher Rosales in the MRAP made contact with the approaching convoy and told them that we would hold fast, while they completed crossing over. I could hear the stress in the opposite MRAP sergeant's voice as he acknowledged and thanked us for our patience. In the distance, I could see the lights of the approaching column as they appeared from under the main span of the destroyed bridge and made their turn up the dirt road and back towards the MSR.

As the opposite column snaked its way slowly back onto the MSR, we sat blacked out awaiting our turn to cross. A bead of sweat began to slowly trickle down my back underneath my armored vest, and I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat trying to adjust my load. The air conditioner blew with little enthusiasm...barely enough to blow out birthday candle, and my legs began to ache in the cramped drivers seat. I fought the overwhelming temptation to open my drivers door sliding armored window and let in some fresh air, even if for a moment, but knew better than to instead, risk letting in shrapnel from an exploding IED or a maybe a sniper's bullet. I began to feel increasingly claustrophobic as the impatience set in. I looked ahead and saw the tail end of the other column finally appear from under the destroyed bridge as it began making its way up the dirt road towards the MSR and silently willed them to hurry the hell up.

As the last gun truck in the other column finally turned onto the asphalt, we began to move forward. Rosales led the way in the MRAP, with our gun truck following closely behind. It was our job to clear the exit route and make sure that it was safe to bring the entire column down. We bounced our way along the dirt road, past dilapidated and rusting hulks of old cars, dimly lit houses and an abandoned automotive garage until we came to the one lane concrete bypass bridge that we had so gingerly crossed just a week before. I had just witnessed an entire column of HET's and fuel trucks cross that bridge, but it didn't make me feel any better about the situation. I held my breath as we pulled our 15,000 lb armored gun truck onto the one lane bridge, the dark water of the Euphrates river flowing just a foot or more beneath us. As we neared the end of the bypass, we were stopped by several Iraqi soldiers at an army outpost along the far bank of the river. These soldiers all looked like they were living advertisements for the video game HALO 3, as they were decked out in the latest designer special ops gear. One of the soldiers was frantically and angrily waving his arms, directing us to stop and proceed in the opposite direction that we had intended to lead the column. The direction he was insisting that we go however, took us around the north side of the bridge and through the narrow, winding streets of a village. Any thoughts of being out of danger suddenly evaporated with the realization that this village had not been cleared, and we had no idea where the road led us. We only hoped that as long as we paralleled the main bridge, that it would eventually lead us back up and around to the MSR.

With no choice but to move forward rather than bunch up the entire column, we pushed slowly forward and entered the village. My head scanned from side to side as I looked intently for signs of hidden IED's or moving shadows in the alleys. I was burning up in the cab, and my legs were screaming in agony. I desperately wanted out of that truck, and I suddenly found myself hoping that I would get hit by an IED on my side. At least then, I would get a shot of morphine and helicopter ride out of there, no longer having to worry about the pain in my legs, and the unnerving anticipation of awaiting an explosion that might never come. I quickly dismissed the thought as insane, and pushed the truck forward, dodging debris and potholes along the way.

As we exited the village, the MSR came into view, we passed a second outpost just before the MSR. This one, though was manned by the rag-tag looking Iraqi Police. Its pretty well known that these Police Officers moonlight as insurgents, planting IED's in their off-duty time. They watched us pass with the same intensity that we watched them, like two cage fighters exchanging intimidating glares before a match. Our suspicions were confirmed when no sooner had we passed, than the Iraqi Police began suddenly re-directing our TCN (third country national) trucks down an opposite road and away from the column! Sgt Eddie Lauron and his crew, gunner Spc William Frias, and driver Spc Jose Torres, spotted the ruse just in time and sped forward to intercept the misdirected tucks. In order to get them turned around, Lauron and his crew had to lead the trucks back around in a wide arc, through a large lot next to the village. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how one looks at it, its not our job to chase down bad guys, so whatever may have been waiting for those trucks further down the road is anybodies guess.

By the time Lauron got the trucks turned around, the rest of the column had made its way back onto the MSR where we waited. We were no where near being in convoy order, though, but at that time it didnt matter. With all trucks and crews accounted for, we moved out and away from that damned bridge. Approximately 2 miles further we stopped, got back into convoy order and pressed onward towards our next FOB.

I pushed the humvee back down the MSR. Before long, the trickle of sweat returned, my legs began screaming in protest again, and as the inevitable andrenaline dump set in, my eyes began to get heavy, but at least we were leaving the Ramadi Bridge, the crooked Iraqi Police, and those video game soldiers in our rear views.

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