The previous eight sheets of paper in my note pad are each an attempt to write about the same event. An IED—and a very specific type, meant to pierce our armor and aimed at head height—detonated on our convoy just a few trucks back from me. I’m not shaken up or anything silly like that. A close call is not a hit. And in reference to my combat history, I’ve seen them much closer—too close to consider the other night’s attack as a ‘holy shit’ experience. The trouble, and my difficulty in writing, comes in response to the tone I am accustomed to articulating my point—sarcasm, cynicism and light-hearted hoopla and so on. And whether my desensitized, nonchalant, overall attempt to remain aloof, gives a rat’s ass or not, someone’s intent—and an intent acted on—to murder or maim you is a relative serious incident. Unless you’re watching The Blues Brothers—with Belushi not Goodman, of course—or Looney Tunes, deadly explosions lack a certain amount of comic affect.
Because of the type of IED, I didn’t hear much of a bang or feel much of a shock; what did grab my attention was the illuminating flash, one I could only describe to a non-combatant as a lightening bolt crashing just a little too close. This was twenty minutes out of the gates of VBC, somewhere within the city limits of Baghdad, out in some desert country, during a war that’s managed to dwindle on well past what could be considered good sport and fun.
As the closest gun truck it fell into our hands to make the initial report and secure the impacted area of the convoy. I have always been confident in my abilities of tactical control, and the performance of my crew proved that reacting to contact is much the same as riding a bike—that I have gone the better part of a decade without blood, guts and glory but managed to find my ‘war face’ quick, fast and in a hurry.
My driver is a young private who talks about combat the way most, young privates do. My gunner is a recycled soldier from a deployment just a few years ago—a Tanker, my Uncle Joe would be pleased to hear—which is to say, this ain’t his first rodeo. And in those first few moments, these different shades of Joe had me living out some mockery of Joker’s helmet and the ‘duality of man’. Across from me I was saying, “you’re doing fine,” but up to the turret it was more like, “find that mother fucker.” I felt like two versions of a man trying to meet the same end by different means.
There were no injuries. One of the white trucks—driven by a contracted third-world national—had taken the hit. Along with the spider-webbed windshield and deflated tire, a good chunk—call it the size of a softball or so—had been blown through from one side of the flat bed to the other. That single hit would have been fatal to one of the gun trucks, but fatal in an instant, which is the way to go, I imagine—“How many licks does it take to get to the center of a…”
Earlier that day I had been talking with my new CET leader. We were discussing the latest intelligence brief and the various reports of the bad happenings all along the coming night’s route. We had questioned that the only proof of the continuing war was found in a brief or in reports handed along like in George Orwell’s propaganda war of 1984. That there was no way of telling if any of it was still real, just the trust that reports wouldn’t lie.
After the attack, the convoy was re-routed into another entry point at the far end of VBC. This new route drove us past BIAP, which is secured within the compound’s fence-line. Seeing those airfields had stripped me of some little safety device up in my brain, one that had been filtering out the bad from the good daydreams. And I thought of April 28th, 2003, and the first time I had seen those landing pads. When they still called that place Saddam International Airport. When I was a young little private, and had still thought of war the way most young little privates do. How I stepped off of a bird with my rifle and rucksack, and thought for that first time, “I have found war.”
Today is day two of our ‘validation’ mission to JBB and back. That I have a tag along TC to give a go/no-go on my abilities as an assistant CET leader—especially when you consider that my grader and I have completed the same amount of missions on this deployment, that I out rank her both in position held and time in grade and time in service, that her only previous deployment was to Washington, DC for some POG assignment, and that I’ve more combat experience in my baby toe and so on—is only a moderate nuisance. That it’s day two and we’re still stuck at Buerhing on account of two trans unit trucks breaking down prior to movement is just absurd.
This stay of execution, of sorts, did afford me the chance to welcome back home my old CET, the one I was just yanked from for an exercise in stretching beyond our means. The night before, an IED had detonated on their convoy. No injuries, no damage. But, still. I am unsure of the good luck/bad luck ratio of having not been with them.
These are the Joes I’ve been with for the better part of a year, involved in the training for and running of combat missions. Their well-being and performance of their duties are still a great concern for me—proved by my inability to walk away from the Ops center, monitoring their movements until they reached the border safely. It was a mistake to worry so—a result of the small amount of Irish blood in me, my Father might say—I had my own mission and sleep is a must.
Any Infantryman will tell you, when you can sleep you do sleep. I know a guy from my first deployment, whose intent was to sleep every spare second of the day. His theory was, for every hour of extra sleep he had, was an hour less spent in theatre. When we flew home in 2004, I remember he claimed, strictly according to his theory in practice, that he’d spent two months less in country than the rest of us. I am fairly certain he was paid his full year’s wages. Someone might want to look into this.
As I suspected, my new CET suits me just fine. My boss—and this is not well-marketed ass kissing—turned out to be one of the few NCOs here I feel could teach me a thing or two. He’s quiet. And a combat veteran of multiple tours with similar experiences to my own, just more of them I imagine. If he has any of the issues I carry around for Uncle Sam, he hides those better than I do too.
The soldiers below us are fine enough Joes. I had pictured them to be more disgruntled. These are the additional men, flown in after our work had started, to make the efficiency of our backwards production line to disassemble Iraq’s recalled American parts run a little smoother. They are inactive reservists, deployed to their own little war of paradox, suffering from the irony of a catch-22, fine print under the dotted line of enlistment papers. I had expected them to be black and white, Quick Stop clerks, and thinking, “I’m not even supposed to be here today.” But they are here, and as it turns out, neither bad soldiers nor grumpy company.
One small line of sarcasm is all that I’ve been able to recognize concerning a disinterest in being here—aside, of course, from what could be considered usual bitches, gripes and moans of the average soldier. We have been dubbed a handful of names: the New CET, Fourth CET, the Infinity CET and so on. The title that really sticks though, is the Floater CET. And our design and purpose, as it seems in this first short week, is to fill in and make ready any pre-existing CET required to be ‘combat effective’—which is to say, give a man here and a truck there for lending. We’ve also been tasked with riding as ‘armed escort’ for Joes going to and from the airfields of Kuwait on two weeks leave. We have, it also seems, taken on the responsibility of range cadre for the local training areas. It is in response to these assignments, as we looked around discussing the possibilities of nothingness, one of the new Joes said, “Man, I’m so glad the Florida Guard needed the extra men for this.”
I am not upset with my new agenda, as I’ve said it suits me just fine. Our convoy missions had become boring and familiar and quite monotonous. The change of scenery—I imagine you could call it that—was needed to break the slow grind of redundancy. Other changes to the custom—a complete and most likely irrelevant side-note—I have decided to grow out my hair, to the very limits laid out by army regulations. It has been inching its way out for some time now, so I imagine what I mean to say is, now I have made the conscious decision to let it be so. I hope it will be good for my morale. So far, however, the only change in me I’ve noticed is that there is less hair up there than memory expected. And, I imagine, this suits me just fine too.
To be honest, I’m still not sure what my brother did on his last deployment. I know it involved an office and a desk and paperwork and such, but beyond that, it’s a mystery. And I felt, because my brother was Infantry too, that I had a certain level of bragging rights being that I got to kick in all those doors and do the kind of army stuff you see in commercials; where he had to worry about things like the new cover sheet for those TPS reports. The same cannot be said for this deployment. What I do know about his mission this time around—even though it’s still a less than rugged assignment—is that he’s permanent party in Iraq, he’s out of the wire often, and he’s doing some kind of high speed, low drag training to build up the Iraqi police or army or secret ninja squad. Where now, I am permanent party in Kuwait, making a few hand-full of trips in-and-out of Iraq per month, doing things that amount to America’s big disappearing act finale. The bragging rights have passed.
Speaking of disappearing and re-assignments and the passing of things, this was my last mission in the rear gun truck. I am being moved into a new CET with a new boss and new Joes. The move is not political or punitive; we simply had the means to create a new group in effort to reach the desired effect of decreasing everyone’s workload. I am indifferent to the move. I liked the rear truck but I imagine wherever I end up in the order of march will suit me just fine.
My job in the rear truck had its moments. Most of the real work focused on my little GPS-free text message-mission tracker toy, built right into the truck; sending in reports and herding together the back half of a three-mile line of trucks. The fun back there was the common interaction with the civilian traffic and my attempt to adhere to this new ‘share the road’ policy. Before, for US forces in Iraq, traffic laws did not exist; we did not obey signs, proper lanes, right-of-way, nothing. It was all in effort to maintain a higher level of security and tactical control. Now, we must go with the flow of things, so to speak. The majority of my time in the rear was spent deciding whether or not I’ll allow traffic to pass—in the event of two-lane roads, security halts, maintenance issues, suspected IEDs and so on. The catch being, we can no longer use bullets or pyrotechnics or the weight of our own trucks to stop them. On top of this, the wonder that is Iraq’s media, told all their citizens to drive right on past us.
So whenever I did want to hold up traffic, we’d have to try spotlights in windshields—moderately effective—and swerving back and forth between each lane—slightly more effective but horrible on gas consumption—and a number of other things just short of getting out and banging on hoods. Needless to say, the motorists of Iraq are none-to-pleased with me. I can never figure out why it bothers them so much to wait in line. I think of the hundreds of miles on a two-lane US 1, heading down to Key West, FL. There’s an accident just about every few minutes. My friends and I would just hop out of the car with cooler and chairs and have a little impromptu tailgate. No need for worries or horns or stress.
I couldn’t have asked for a better ending to this mission and farewell to my friends in 1st CET. We had our convoy pulled into the border lanes before 0400, a first for us. After we downgraded the heavy weapons and had our end of mission brief, my driver set up his iPod and speakers for some traveling tunes for the short-leg back to Buerhing. Three songs deep into the play-list and Flogging Molly jigs started tapping everyone’s feet and bobbing everyone’s heads. I instantly thought of Lilly Coogan's, a bar in the city on the corner of 6th and 14th. It’s as dive as a bar can be in that part of the world, but the bartender kept the drinks coming and all the while there was live entertainment. It was a talent night/open mic night of sorts. The final act, the one that made me think of Lilly Coogan's out here in the desert, was some sort of cover-band whose members—I think all of them but you can never be certain—were all transvestites. They had the place going wild—all six or seven patrons—with everyone running around yelling and toasting and when their set turned to Irish punk we thought it fitting to make pretend our best Lord of Dance impressions—our asses planted in stools with dangling feet suspended in air like uncoordinated puppets. I think how pleasant it is that a song in your ear can remind you of so much drunken foolishness you’d be hard-pressed to recollect any other time.
There are no brake pads in Iraq. I find this difficult to believe, as I assume you do too, it was certainly difficult for SGT. Whos’it, desk jockey for the maintenance shed at FOB Adder. This last mission had already brought me to Scania, Taji, and VBC—which is where I decided brake pads no longer exist—and at each stop I went along with these motor-pool guys to seek out some of these pads but came to no luck every time around. So when I walked into that shed at Adder I gave the guy behind the desk a song and dance that went something like, “Let me ask you, I’ve got an 1151, up-armored Humvee, with a Frag 7 kit. It needs brake pads. Now I’ve heard this rumor that there are no brake pads in theatre, and I’m starting to believe it. Is any of that true?” He didn’t think much of the rumor, called it silly and tried to give off the impression that I was stupid for asking. So I said, “Well, do you have any?” And I gave him the stock number and he made some phone calls to sort it out. But his tone was only slightly apologetic—it was more of an as a matter of fact—when he said, “Well, we don’t have any…” So no, there are no brake pads in Iraq. And I couldn’t help but to think, if I were to break into one of our loads on the back of these trans trucks, it would be nothing but wall-to-wall stock full of fucking brake pads.
But we weren’t hauling out connexes of brake pads, or any connexes for that matter. The trans unit had hauls of HEAT trainers loaded onto flatbeds. A HEAT trainer—actually I think the ‘T’ in HEAT stands for trainer so it isn’t right to call it a ‘HEAT trainer’, it’s like calling it a ‘blanket-tee-blank-trainer trainer’ and so on—is the body of a Humvee or MRAP on a giant rotator, think of a chicken rotisserie. It’s meant to help soldiers experience a vehicle rollover and train them on how to egress and establish aid and security in the event of accident or explosion. It’s a good system, I imagine, and whenever I see one it helps me to smile. You see, my Uncle, Uncle Joe—not Joe because he’s a soldier but Joe because that’s his name, well, he was a soldier too, but let’s move on with it—works with some fancy-pants DoD office that manages or over-sees or helps develop or something with all these private contractors that the army pays to make toys for training and fighting. The trainers on the flatbeds were one of those toys Uncle Joe had bought or built or managed or something. And it always makes me feel a little less lonely when I see my family is involved in the army version of myself.
The trans unit, the one I spoke of last week with all those super soldiers and so on, did their part to drag out this mission with blatant acts of unorganized foolishness. I don’t mean to complain, it all actually gave a certain role of comic relief, making me half expect a dozen clowns to hop out of their truck cabins each time we halted—peddling unicycles and juggling flower pots and going on make-believe to be stuck behind walls (I think clowns do that, if not, eleven clowns and one mime). I think of the one friend every group has, who walks into every conversation screaming, “That’s what she said,” or some other cliché of supposed comic relevance. The best example of their misdirection could have been our second attempt to push from Taji to VBC. Their lead truck took off from the staging lane with the choice of a hardball road to its left and another to its right. Instead, they tore off between the two, deer-in-the-headlights style, and managed to sink their truck into the only mud puddle we’d seen in days. And then there were massive U-turns and jokes on the net, but I liked the puddle of mud best.
I was actually quite relieved not to make the push that night. There had been a full moon over a cloudless sky. Which isn’t to say I worry for hoards of werewolves attacking the lines, I worry that the ‘enemy’ had clear line of sight and calm conditions for mounting an offensive. I worried for this in memory of the old days—2003—back when we were still doing all that fighting and crazy movie scene combat and so on. The enemy can be very predictable at times; certain weather, day of the week, time of day, terrain and other little things could have been converted into likelihood of attack. And there was some little tingling on the back of my neck that night, seeing that full moon, a paranoia picked up and stored away years ago just coming out to say hello.
My Father does his best to remind me those days are over and sets himself in parrot-mode-repeat, saying again and again, “I’m glad you’re bored over there, it’s better this way.” It must be unnerving to have two sons deployed. Oh, yes, my brother Stevie is out here too, off being a Captain somewhere and doing officer-type things, I’m still not certain what.
...I realize it has been quite some time since I've put anything new up; photos or written, and that's not about to drastically change. There are a few things in this entry I would love to talk about that involve the last two weeks of my life, but I can't. What I will say is this, I'm slowly developing PTSD of Ugandans and 90 day Visas.
During my last mission I spent most of the time pissed off sleeping and reading since I was fighting to get a 90 day visa renewed and arguing with Ugandans to allow me in the chow halls. Eating food was a battle I gave up on due to a 15 minute argument I had the first night. It would appear my memorandum isn't a memorandum and CENTCOM isn't a trustworthy individual. On the plus side, an American soldier working the chow hall finally came out saying I didn't look like a terrorist and allowed me to eat, which resulted in one pissed off Ugandan and one bitter photojournalist.
SSG. Lubin, I shall rejoin you all on another mission and take some more snaps next time around.
I have started back up on the portrait series, so in a couple days I'll have new ones up. As for now, here are a few photos from my last mission. - The Exodus
Imagine a desert. Do you have it? I’m guessing you pictured loose sand and rolling dunes, maybe with some random camels in the distance, or one of those snakes that fumbles sideways all of the time like it’s always dizzy. None of that is Iraq, at least not like the Iraq of memory. This has been like visiting a childhood home, and though everything is just as it was, nothing seems the same. I remember dirt and grit and burning trash everywhere; some palms and brush along the river’s edge; shambles of homes and shacks over-shadowed by small lots of marble structures with thick metal gates; and all of this was covered with a fine powdered dusting—like watching the foot prints on the moon—but no sand. This was the pesky annoyance of thought fluttering about as our convoy drove north to grab this week’s haul of downgrade. I lost my thoughts in a gaze to the road as the wind-blown sand crawled over the asphalt to the east as we trucked along north until I felt bent and sideways and dizzy.
The Convoy Commander is from the Trans unit and even though our gun trucks are charged with the convoy’s security and movement, the CC is by and by the boss of things. So far we’ve had asshole CCs and clueless and lazy and all sorts of other CCs. This one, though competent surely, I believe is on drugs. When I met him at Buerhing, an hour late to the appointment he set, he was all stumbles, mumbles and fumbles. Each point he addressed was cut off mid-thought and abandoned for something more shining and tantalizing. A kid in a candy store comes to mind. At our convoy briefing at the border, he passed off his duties to one of his Joes under the premise of ‘not feeling well’. Maybe he’s just lazy and prone to illness and suffers from an equilibrium off its keel and so on.
His men were a bunch of super soldiers too. They rolled into country with a burnt out alternator—and I had flash backs to empty cans of 10 weight. We halted the convoy and the CC had the wrecker pull up to tow the down truck, and its crew got out to hop in an empty seat here and there. One of his homeless Joes asked, “Should we take our sensitive items with us?”—he meant their weapons, ammunition, night vision goggles and such. And this, somehow, was a hard question for him to answer but by and by he was able to mutter off an, “Um, roger.” When they called up to say they were all in this or that truck and ready to go, one of them said, “Yea, we have all the SI, so-and-so took all the NVGs and I have all the ammo.” Silly POGs.
But it wouldn’t be fair to point—as I do so often—fingers at these Trans units and say how they’re all ate up like soup sandwiches—a popular army saying that shouldn’t hold so much merit; when I think of a soup sandwich I think of bread bowls, and I love bread bowls—if I didn’t mention our own mishaps. For instance, just a few days ago my driver merged in behind the wrong convoy, separating us by about fifteen miles from where we should have been. If it hadn’t been for luck alone we may have followed them off into nothingness till morning. So, there. Equality.
You might call this a mishap too: I spoke to my wife—ex that is, I imagine it’s the last bit of catholic in me that would rather not say ex-wife—on this mission. We were held up at one of those FOBs and had all been turned away from the internet/phone center. Anytime a soldier dies in theatre, they try to blackout the area, so the family doesn’t hear about it on Facebook or whatever first. I am unfamiliar with the details of the incident, was even told it was a rumor, then truth, then a rumor again and so on. But it did make me think a little. Nothing important, I guess, just wondering how they notify the families now-a-days—I find it hard to imagine some high ranking brass still knocks on doors. Naturally, I thought about my own death, which, I imagine, is a perfectly healthy thing to do. And this made me realize it would probably be a long time after the fact that my ex-wife would hear the news. I guess it made me sad or one of those other silly little feelings so I wrote her to say hi. Didn’t mention any of the sad, sappy, self-pity whatever feelings to her, which was probably best and all.
I wish I hadn’t mentioned death like that just now. I don’t want to give the wrong impression about our task and purpose on this mission, which is a joke; that I’d probably rate it at a ‘2’ on a ‘1-10’ HOOAH scale. So let me remind you of the absurdity that is our time spent here with a little help from Cupid and board games.
The New Guy, my driver, the one who got us lost a few days back, had struck up a conversation with a female soldier at one of the staging lanes. I saw no harm in a little innocent flirting and thought it might be good for morale so I let him blabber away like a chatty Cathy. They went on about how silly and easy convoy security is and all, and then typical army small talk lead to the question, “So what MOS—army speak for job—are you?” When the New Guy said 11B—more army speak for Infantry—she was blindly confused and asked, “What are you guys doing here?!” We didn’t roll out that night because of a sandstorm or a broken truck or some other unfavorable circumstance, so the boys retreated to a friendly game of Risk to pass the remaining night hours. They fought and squabbled over two-dimensional countries and made a good time of things. But I can remember telling myself in the middle of it all, “This is the most combat any of you will ever see.”
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