20 December 2009

Nothing Says Christmas Like Poo and Fireworks

Tyler, Jake and I with the Christmas tree at Scania in Central Iraq.

Jake Sere, top, me, Cassie Roach and Scott Lynch before leaving Taji, Iraq, on our way to Talil and the "Big Nothing" for Christmas fireworks.

Talil, Iraq
19 Dec, 2009
0325 hrs

War, or what passes for war in Iraq these days isn't pretty, and men are often driven to do things that they might not normally do in a civilized society. (This statement will become more clear as you read on)

Unlike the heartfelt cards, letters and gift boxes from friends and family at home, the constant visual reminders of this time of year instill in us little that resembles a festive yuletide spirit. The twenty foot Camp Arifjan aluminum and plastic Christmas tree that stands outside the Zone 6 event stage makes Charlie Brown's pathetic little Christmas tree look like the tree at Rockefeller Plaza in comparison! Every time I walk into the chow hall and see faded cardboard Santas stapled to the walls, or the cheap green and red and white crepe paper decorations (I'm sure theyre the same ones that double for the Cinco De mayo celebrations) that hang from the ceilings and have probably been in continuous use since the Nixon administration, I want to strangle the food services NCOIC with a string of popcorn, or beat him to death with a glitter coated styrofoam reindeer. Don't get me wrong. I mean, it's not like we don't really appreciate the effort. It's only that there's something just fundamentally wrong with watching Pakistani and Indian food service workers hanging up Christmas decorations with about as much enthusiastic gusto as standing in line at the DMV.

The only respite from the constant reminder of a holiday that none of us here will really celebrate is work. Going on missions and risking small arms fire and IED's is far more desirable than being forced to endure a cheap imitation of what to most of us is our favorite time of year. Besides, what better way to spend the Christmas season, than on the road, with the closest thing we all have to family. That's how it was this last weeks mission to Taji, Iraq. It was probably the most fun we've had since first arriving here, a lifetime ago.

People, like SFC "Bobby" Hahn, SSg Mac Nelson, Sgt Scott Lynch, Sgt Cassie Roach, Sgt Lawrence Johnson, Spc Tyler Miller-Cobb, Spc Jake Sere, Spc Jason Frogge, Spc Sean Canfield, and Spc "Doc" Cho our medic. A quiet unassuming young guy, originally from Korea....This was our family for our Iraqi Christmas Holiday. It all started the first morning at Camp Beuhring, a sprawling US Army post just a stones throw from the southern border of Iraq and Kuwait. Lynch and Roach had gone to the small Starbucks, nestled in the Kuwaiti sand amongst a Nathan's Hot Dogs, the chow hall and a smattering of Hadji souvenir shops and brought us back latte's and donuts. I'm a cop, so right away, free donuts and the smell of a steaming mocha latte was all it took to put a smile on my whisker-stubbled, puffy-eyed face.

I went to Sere's area to try and wake him and offer him some of our "breakfast." Mistake. Sere is not what one would describe as a "morning person." Imagine Nick Nolte after an all night bender when he wakes up to find that he is not in his Brentwood mansion, but rather the drunk tank at L.A County Sheriff Central Booking smelling of vomit and cheap hookers. Not a pretty sight. I thought better than to pursue waking Sere for at least another hour. I couldn't resist. I nudged him none too gently and waved an apple filled doughnut under his nose, the likes of which was making sounds not totally unlike that of the wife of a Russian beet farmer with one of those throat cancer voice box thingys. Sere let out a low growl and threw an elbow. How was I to know he didn't like apple filled donuts? I returned to my area and figured to try again in an hour. I sat down on my rack, and savored the last of my free coffee and donuts, smiling wickedly to myself.

We would depart earlier than usual this morning for the Iraqi border to meet our convoy. It's the winter rainy season in Iraq and Kuwait right now, and the night before had seen a torrential downpour. The desert can only absorb so much water before it spits the rest back out of the ground creating an obstacle course of small, muddy lakes and ponds. The mud is like glue, and sticks to everything; boots, weapons and vehicles. Combine this with boredom, and four wheel drive armored vehicles driven by grown men who are reduced to 5th graders by the presence of muddy puddles, and you've got the makings of some first class mud-boggin'.

We left the front gate, our three 15,000 lb armored Humvees, being led out by Sgt Lynch and his crew in the 50,000 lb MRAP. We bumped and splashed along the muddy road, and past the low concrete jersey barriers that define the exit lane. Just past the front gate, there was a break in the jersey barriers just wide enough for our trucks to pass through. Beyond the break was the old exit road that had been closed due to deep potholes and ruts, now filled with rain from the night before. The temptation was too great. Besides, combat vehicles are supposed to be dirty...it's part of the the image. Miller-Cobb, driving the MRAP, suddenly pulled right and drove through the break down the old exit road and towards what looked like Kuwait's version of Lake Michigan. It was time to play in the mud. Like a formation of of WW2 fighter planes, we each peeled off and barreled down the road towards muddy oblivion. Lynch's MRAP hit the muddy water first. The lake exploded as the MRAP dove into it nose-first. The water parted as a geyser of mud exploded 30 feet into the air. Moses himself would have been proud. We quickly followed suit, followed by Roach's truck, and when we came out on the other side, laughing and howling like kids, our once desert tan war wagons were covered in thick brown-red mud. There was only one problem. The nearly hour long drive to the border, had a funny way of blow drying the wet mud until, by the time we reached the border it resembled the hardshell coating on an M&M. SSG Nelson, our gun truck escort commander, had elected not to play, and pulled up last, his vehicle nearly spotless and looking only slightly out of place. He good naturedly endured the jeers and ribbing for not playing along. But at least he didn't have to clean dried mud off of his lights and windshield.

There is a stretch of Iraqi highway in South Central Iraq that we refer to as "The Big Nothing." Its roughly two hundred miles of open, featureless desert. Even on a moon lit night, all you can see is mile after mile of absolute nothingness. Not a single bush, or rock, not a single mud-hut...just pure emptiness. On a no moon night like tonight, at 35 miles an hour, minutes pass like hours. Except for the vibration of our big diesel engines, there is no sense of movement, and no visual cues in the inky blackness. The silence, the boredom, the inevitable claustrophobia, and the obvious lack of road-side port-a-johns will eventually take their toll on any soldier. Especially if you're one Spc Tyler Miller Cobb and you're suffering from some mild gastric distress.

The hours of silence were broken by a HET driver, announcing that we would have to halt the convoy due to engine problems with his truck. "Sweet Freedom," I mumbled. "Lawdog's got boots on ground," I announced dryly into my headset as I stepped out to relieve myself. I took a few minutes to stretch the cramps out of my legs, then stuffed my 6 foot 195 lb frame back into my seat and slammed the armored door behind me. "Lawdog's boot up," I said, as I keyed my headset. "Roger that. Man-Bits is slow rolling," Lynch announced over the radio. "All Nomad 3-2 elements, this is Man-Bits," Lynch continued. "Keep eyes open for debris in the roadway and shift right. It'll be marked by a green chemlite sticking up like a birthday candle." "What the hell?" I thought. It took several minutes for my truck to reach Lynch's former location on the MSR. Several hundred feet away, in the dark, I saw it approaching. A single green chemlite, glowing brightly, and sticking straight up. As we came upon it, I could not believe my eyes. There, surrounded by a sea of baby wipes fluttering lazily across the highway in the night breeze, was a large brown, steaming mass with a green, glowing chemlite standing up in the middle of it all. At first, I thought that a perhaps a huge Mastiff must have relieved itself, right there in the middle of the MSR.

Funny thing, though. There are no Mastiffs in Iraq, and all the dogs I've seen in this country combined, couldn't have left as large a pile. "Miller-Cobb had to poo," Lynch announced matter of factly to the convoy. Miller-Cobb, God bless him, had held on as long as he could, but the demon living in his bowells had other plans. So during the halt, Miller-Cobb hurriedly climbed out of the MRAP, dropped trow, and right there in the middle of the Iraqi highway, with Sere covering him from the turret with the .50 cal "dropped a deuce." At that moment, Miller-Cobb instantly became the stuff of legends. If I remember nothing else of this deployment, I'll always remember the night that Spc Tyler Miller-Cobb, mild-mannered investment broker from Las Vegas, Nevada, braved the Iraqi night, and dry-docked one in the middle of MSR Tampa.

My sides aching with laughter, we drove on. I had been laughing so hard that I was cramping. Until a HET driver, obviously not paying attention, announced over the radio that he had just run over Miller-Cobb's little contribution to Iraq's eco-system. I wondered if he hydroplaned as I laughed myself into a convulsion.

With the approaching dawn just starting to turn the night sky a dull black-blue, our convoy began its turn onto ASR Aspen and the road back to Kuwait. On cue, Lynch announced "All Rebel elements...Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas," and in near unison, Jake Sere, my gunner Sean Canfield, and Roach's gunner, Christopher Lambert, shot up red and green star cluster flares. With one exception. A little slow on the uptake, and insisting on being different, SSG Nelson announced, "Happy Hanukkah," as his gunner, Sgt Lawrence "Velvet Larry" Johnson fired off his green star cluster flare, not into the air as prescribed, but instead mis-aimed his flare and fired it 90 degrees from the turret and directly into the desert floor where it impacted into the sand and burned itself out. "You...Bring...The...Fail." Sere called into his headset, and we all laughed ourselves into a fit as we watched our Christmas celebration unfold before us.

The sizzling brightly burning parachute flares, floating slowly to the ground hundreds of feet above us, bathed acres of desert in the colors of Christmas. As the flares hung suspended above us, swinging slowly back and forth under their parachutes, shadows created by the glow made the desert floor come alive. Miller-Cobb later told me that it was an absolutely magical moment...a moment, that did more to rescue our Christmas spirit than any cardboard Santa or aluminum tree ever could.

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