03 December 2009

Sunrise Over the Euphrates

Sunrise over the Euphrates

The view from the turret of the deserted Iraqi highway, looking over the top of the .50 cal, as seen through night vision goggles.
Taji, Iraq
29 November, 2009
0230 hours

We had been on the road for only a few hours, and the bitter, cold wind of the Iraqi night beat against me as I tried to take advantage of what little heat made its way up into my turret from the crew compartment below me. I soon forgot all about the cold, though as we neared the congestion of the city. At 45 miles an hour, we cruised along the Iraqi highway, which could easily have passed for any large, American metropolitan freeway, with one exception. It was completely deserted. I mean, post-apocolyptic deserted. The kind of deserted that makes you wonder if the end had really come while we were sleeping, and maybe we were the last inhabitants on earth. There was not a single car, no sounds of dogs barking in the distance, no people. Only darkened stucco and concrete buildings, occasional dimly glowing lights behind curtained windows, and blowing trash. It was both unbelievably lonely and un-nerving at the same time. Except for the smell of rotting garbage and burning trash, it was complelety devoid of any signs of life at all.

The convoy made its way onto an off-ramp and pushed slowly downward into the emptiness of the city center. Against all my instincts to stay low in my turret, I stood up as we turned left onto the main city artery of northern Baghdad. Holding onto the spade grips of my .50 cal with my left hand, I flicked the safety off with my thumb, and with my right hand moved the turret joystick to the right, swinging the turret to cover down on the darkened buildings and alleyways as they moved slowly past. The ghetto-like neighborhoods of northern Baghdad looked eerily surreal. Iraqi flags, and faded, tattered banners hung from overhead wires and fluttered silently in the wind as we passed beneath them, creating strange, living shadows that danced on the pavement in the moonlit night. Every sense in my body; smell, sight, touch, was hyper-sensitive. It was then that I realized, I didn't feel the cold anymore. I wasn't warm, but I wasn't cold either. It was as though I existed in a vacuum. I was suddenly very aware of my own heartbeat. We bumped along the pot-holed asphalt as my breathing echoed rythmically in my headset.
I scanned every window and darkened alley for signs of movement as I felt the truck turn beneath me and roll back onto the highway. I moved the turret left in rythm with the turn, finally settling the gun back into the three o'clock position as we continued south away from the city. The smell of burning garbage intensified until my eyes began to burn and tear. I could literally taste the smoke from burning tires and styrene, and God knows what else was on fire. I pulled my headwrap tighter around my face, but it didnt help. The smell began to burn in my throat and I wished that I could throw up. The taste would have been refreshing in comparison. I reached up for my ballistic goggles and pulled them down from my helmet, placing them over my eyes in hopes of blocking out the smoke. It did little good. I reminded myself to note the date for my inevitable V.A. claim, certain that in a few years, I would probably be diagnosed with some never before known form of lukemia from whatever I was breathing....either that, or suddenly wake up one day with a third arm growing out of the middle of my back.
We suddenly came to a stop on a large, sweeping freeway overpass. The convoy had halted because an Army route clearance team was up ahead dealing with a possible found IED. The huge, armored mine clearing vehicle, known as a Buffalo was using its infrared camera and robotic arm to investigate a suspicious looking object along the guardrail just ahead of us. We sat blacked out with no choice but to wait. Should anything suddenly happen, oh...like an attack, we had no where to go. We were in a perfect choke point with no escape, forward, backwards or sideways and no choice but to stand and fight it out. Beneath the overpass, some 60 feet below us, was the largest garbage dump I had ever seen. Fires burned everywhere. Some were no bigger than campfires, others the size of large SUV's. The smoke rolled up over the overpass in billowing clouds until it was nearly impossible to see around me. The only good thing about the smoke, was that if it concealed any insurgents, it concealed us as well. I welcomed the concealement. Just two nights before, two of our HET's from another platoon had been struck by nearly simultaneous IED's and small arms fire on the very same overpass. Both trucks were severely damaged, but fortunately there were no injuries. Still, I waited anxiously for the route clearance team to finish their work so that we could move on, and get the hell off that overpass and out of the smoke. I didnt want to wait around for Hadji to come back for seconds.
Several more long minutes passed before the silence was broken by the voice of Sgt Scott Lynch at the front of the column in the MRAP, announcing over the radio that the route had been cleared. The Buffalo, using it's robotic arm, had simply picked up the suspected IED and dropped it over the edge of the overpass into the garbage dump below, never to be seen again. Like toppling dominoes, truck lights came on all down the column, cutting through the darkness and smoke as we began to slowly pull forward and move off the overpass and back onto the MSR. As Baghdad faded into blurry lights behind us, the MSR stretched out ahead of us and the landscape turned from smokey ghetto, to palm grove-dotted river valley, and finally, to inky, black open desert.

The next several hours were spent staring into the darkness until the sky began to lighten with the approaching dawn. The cold returned, but now it was refreshing. I stood up again in my turret, this time to stretch my aching legs and take in the view of the Euphrates river in the daylight. The morning sun burned red-orange as it creeped slowly above the horizon and rose into the morning sky. As the sun rose above the dusty haze, it flickered almost pure white off of the river, until it was too painful to look at. The sun shone on my face, and I removed my head wrap and tilted my face skyward, closing my eyes and revelling in the warmth. I was amazed at how lush this part of Iraq can be. The desert was dotted with wetlands and green-carpeted grazing pastures. Two shephards moved a large herd of goats slowly across the highway between our truck and the truck ahead of us, not even bothering to look up as they passed in front of us...almost completely oblivious to our presence. Up ahead, a dozen camels plodded slowly along the side of our column of trucks, looking almost cartoon-like. Children ran along side of us on either side of the roadway in two's and three's, waving and shouting out in Arabic as they begged for bottles of water and treats. I reached behind me in my turret where I keep a case of bottled water. I grabbed two bottles and tossed them like a hook-shot in the direction of two small boys who couldn't have been more than 8 and 5, respectively. There's a reason I never played basketball. I under threw both large, plastic bottles of water which skipped off the highway and bounced and skidded at nearly 30 miles an hour towards the two boys, striking them in the ankles. The impact took both boys off their feet and planted them solidly on their butts. They took the hits like a couple of NFL pro lineman, jumped back up, and retrieving their bottles of water, waved and laughed with glee as they ran towards the next truck to beg more treats. Despite being laid out by my poor aim and failure to accurately judge distance and speed, those two bottles of water and some errantly tossed plastic wrapped muffins made those two little boys' mornings.
The mission had started shrouded in poverty and despair, and the choking smoke and stench of burning garbage. It ended ten hours later in the clear, chilly morning air of the Euphrates River valley, amidst goat herders, packs of lumbering camels and small, happy little children, who were all too glad to get knocked down by an American Soldier throwing muffins and bottled water. As we pulled into the FOB to bed down for the morning, I felt excited about the weeks ahead. In less then 30 days, I would be going on leave. One more mission to go before I could see my own little girls, and get back to making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for their school lunches instead of throwing muffins and bottled water from my gun turret to someone elses children.

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