A guy we call ‘Body Bags’ is filling in for one of our drivers on this next mission. He’s a talker, full of shit mainly. He really did deploy with us in 2003, and spent as much time in Ramadi as the rest of the old boys, but that’s about the end of it, all else fades to fiction. He goes on about the time we took Blackhawks into Syria, to work with Special Forces. Really it was Al-Qaim, and though SF was there, their involvement with our unit was limited; say, if we raided a house and found a high-valued target, we ‘hooded’ them and passed them off. So it isn’t complete fiction, but it is stretching the yarn a little thin. There’s something contagious about a good story, and once you get your mind set on it, it’s hard not to play out what it was like from the days you can still remember.
It was the first time I had ever seen a real AK-47 up close. And it was the first time we had ever conducted a Traffic Control Point too, about a week after we’d taken over the city. The rifle was at the floorboards on the passenger side of a car I had halted. I yelled, “Gun” or “I need some help” or whatever it was, in the next moment an entire platoon had swallowed the area. They were pulling weapons up to the high ready or searching the car on hands and knees and then there were the few who decided to rough up the two nationals we’d snatched from their seats. The search produced nothing but a handful of loaded magazines. And the two men proclaimed to love Bush and our army and our country. Our platoon leader—the rest of us probably too—was still new to war, still naive, still lacking that cynical touch that often proves well in battle. After manhandling them a bit, we gave them back their rifle and sent them on their way. Maybe it was coincidence that we were ambushed moments later. I don’t know.
The ambush started after we had all piled onto the back of a deuce and a half, an out-dated military truck, a troop carrier. We were at our most vulnerable, all huddled together and filling in a tight little bull’s eye of a target. Two or three RPG rounds came at us from right to left. They were poorly aimed, one passing a foot or so from the engine block and the other just above our heads. Then came small arms fire from the same direction. We fired back some but our truck came to a quick stop and most of us flew forward tripping over one another. The platoon was divided when we hit the ground—a squad to assault, another to lay perimeter to the north and the last to complete the perimeter south.
The moment I took to my fighting position along the hasty perimeter, headlights from another motorist grew into the outline of a car, and the outline became bigger and clearer, and the car was just about on top of us. Someone yelled, “Warning shot!” But one bullet became many until the squealing brakes silenced everything. The man stepped out of his car with his hands held high. He was wearing a white dishdasha. He was my father’s age, I imagine. And he had a good scruff of beard growing, it suited him. A Joe named Parker was next to me on the line; he and I rose up and moved in on the surrendering driver. His clothes were white. I thought, when he collapsed, maybe he was in shock, or maybe, he was having a heart attack. There was a single bullet hole in the windshield. I don’t remember which of us called for the medic. His clothes were still white and clean because the bullet had torn into his lung, and what would have become bloodstains was slowly drowning him instead. There was nothing in his car and he had been on his way home from work, I imagine.
I think of that man every time one of the Joes from this deployment complains about the new and strict Rules of Engagement. The guys want to ‘light up’ anything that comes within a hundred meters of us, but they can’t. The most harmless pyrotechnic we have is a pen flare. It’s a small cylinder with a thumb depressor controlling a spring-based trigger. The flare is a tiny blasting cap that, once charged by the spring, will fly at a slow rate of speed for a few hundred meters or so, until it burns out and falls from the sky. The newest addition to our ROE advises that we may no longer use pen flares to warn off local traffic. Any time we fire one of these flares, an incident report must be filed, and an investigation to ensure its proper use will be conducted by an external unit’s officer.
It’s hard to justify the implementation of these new rules to young soldiers, soldiers who still have the means to sleep well at night. Even I have trouble keeping my index finger relaxed in times of high stress or questionable situations. I must try and remember the man in the white dishdasha, who laid at my feet swallowing back his own blood, and the countless other noncombatants, as there were many to follow him, who suffered the fate of being too close to war. And when I think of them, the elderly the women and children, the innocence lost, I must take a small measure of comfort in fighting with one hand administratively tied behind my back.
...when I first heard, almost a year ago, that the 1-124th INF. were going to be doing convoy security in Iraq, I was assuming the missions would be run during the day. To my disappointment almost every mission has been run during the night which makes taking photos without a flash rather difficult. Since I'm plagued by long exposures, I've been trying to make colourful night photos with a heavy emphasis on movement. So here is a handful of frames from the last mission I was on.
My father and I had the boat out last summer, drifting down Boca Ciega Bay, and he was trying to teach me about a jib or a boom or some other nautical jargon for ropes and pulleys. My stepmother, bless her heart, was lounging on the deck and reading off some fun facts about reincarnation and other little ‘could-happens’ of the afterlife. I had been drinking, as usual, and had decided to ask her, “Do you know what I think happens when you die?” And, as she typically shows genuine interest in my opinion, she asked, “What’s that?” I said, “It’s a lot like laying in a hammock on a secluded beach…except, you’re not laying down, there’s no hammock and no beach.”
It’s not that I don’t necessarily believe in God, but if He is out there, I find it extremely unlikely that any of my prayers or sins would determine which corner of the ant farm He’d focus His magnifying glass. I believe the world is arbitrarily unfair, and that, if something, anything happens when you die, it will be a surprise. However, much like all ex-catholics—practicing ones too, I imagine—my suspicion of an omnipotent being grows exponentially when I feel scared or guilty or think that I may have mocked Him with just a little too much blasphemy.
This week’s guilt was over something silly I had said during a phone call home. In an attempt to calm my father’s worries regarding my proximity to danger, I told him, “It would take an act of God for them to get me.” It was bold, arrogant, naive and a very ‘me’ thing to say. It did nothing to ease my father’s mind; it was able to raise a distracting level of paranoia for fear of being smited by a super-being, who may or may not exist, let alone give a damn about my own existence.
This was hardly bothersome for me—it was just a tiny notation somewhere in my subconscious, waiting for the right chance to re-emerge back into a level of awareness—until the convoy brief the following day. The brief is a last minute check to ensure the trans unit and gun trucks are all on the same sheet of music: how many personnel and vehicles, the order of movement, route, significant activity on that route, what to do in the event of and so on. The brief is always immediately followed by a prayer—as if begging our imaginary friend for protection will somehow harden our armor more so than as designed by the manufacturer. I imagine our enemies do the same and that they pray for the same sort of success in battle. I do not find it ironic. It would be ironic if we knew God was real. I find it idiotic. I always walk away from these prayer circles and I hope there’s some Iraqi insurgent out there who walks away as well. I hope he’s out there doing this for love of country, rather than blind conformity to some false hope gathered from doctrine that holds no more validity than the Iliad or Beowulf or The Sirens of Titan or last week’s print of MAD magazine.
But, on this last mission, as I walked away from bowed heads and muttering pleas, I thought of my loose lips letting out God’s name the way I had the night before. Not that I feared a well-aimed lightening rod thrown my way. I feared that I had set-up the comic relief of reality for the perfect punch line—you prepare yourself for zig but then the world zags, and seemingly, it does so just because you didn’t expect it.
The mission had a number of curve balls, maintenance halts and poor radio connections and longer than normal pushes from one FOB to another. Each hiccup sparked a ‘tisk-tisk’ moment where I thought, “Maybe I shouldn’t have said that?” But the second-guessing vanished soon enough, as each problem turned to an easy, or at least manageable, fix.
Actually, the one serious incident that laid in our laps the longest, didn’t have its turn at being considered irony’s revenge, it had to settle for a more self-involved concern for lost opportunity. The southern entrance to Taji, apparently, is not the correct entrance for convoys. This was the discovery made after two-thirds of our trucks had turned in, only to be re-routed out. This left my small group, along with the rear gun truck, alone on a major highway during the rush of mid-day traffic. After a half an hour of attempting to block traffic, the Iraqi motorists took to the streets. The people were walking all through our trucks and assembling in masses. It was a failed attempt on our part to herd a hundred stray cats, stray cats that posed more than the threat of rabies and painful abdominal injections. I didn’t think of my blasphemy or my tempting Murphy’s Law or the potential catalyst of one act of aggression turning a mob into a riot; I thought, “Too bad Nigel’s not here, that’d make some great day photos.”
It wasn’t long after the mob had risen that we began to push forward to the next gate. And that no seas boiled or locust thickened the air, I again felt comfortable in doing and saying as I please in matters related to the unseen puppet master, the man behind the curtain. On that final leg, when sleep was getting the better of us, and the cargo drivers began to tire off and sway their trucks, I managed to blow one final raspberry at the man upstairs. Pulling along side one of the haulers, I flipped on my loud-speaker and forewarned the nodding head at the wheel, “I am the voice of God, awake my son, and drive.”
I was honored when Nigel asked me to write a little something about a group of people that are increasingly being despised by us in the convoy escort business. This group, being the contracted Ugandans, who are the cheap labor force protection throughout the Iraqi bases. Friends, family, or anyone that knows me, knows I love to gripe with fervor and passion about anything that upsets me. The Ugandans do upset me. They upset a lot of people in this company. They seem to think Nigel should starve to death. But as I sat and tried to collect my thoughts about how the Ugandans do random, stupid shit, seemingly just to piss me off, more recent events crossed my mind. A bigger and more evil group was responsible for my shift in attention. This was the no-bid contract award winning company called Kellogg Brown & Root, or KBR. So with apologies, Nigel, KBR and contractors in general is where my passionate griping is aimed.
I am in charge of the lead escort vehicle in my squad. Part of my duties, as I am first in the gate to any FOB, are to draw billeting for the military members of the convoy. So after arriving at the gate, telling the Ugandan gate guard five times how many trucks I have in the convoy, as he does not understand much English, then repeating this again three times to the next Ugandan guard two hundred yards down the trail, who also does not speak English, I make my way to the billeting office. Billeting is run by KBR, who is contracted to provide logistical support throughout Iraq. Two recent events involving KBR billeting have shaped my ugly views of these contract employees, and their greedy, bloated rich employers.
The first event occurred on a base called Cedar II, in the southern portion of Iraq. We had quite a long push that particular night into morning. About seven hours was our drive time from a FOB in Taji, Iraq to here. It was 7am, and our convoy was ready for some sleep. I made my way to the KBR billeting office, and walked through the door. The room appeared empty. I waited a few minutes, until I heard a faint noise. I walk closer to the counter, and see two men with ear buds on, eyes affixed on a portable DVD player beneath the tall counter. After staring at them for a good fifteen seconds, one of them had the good manners to ask what I wanted. Gosh, what could I want in a billeting office? I asked if I could draw tents for our road weary soldiers. He simply replied, “Can’t, we’re full.” Before he could finish this short utterance, his eyes were reaffixed to the small DVD player’s screen. A tad upset, I asked jokingly if we were supposed to sleep on the ground outside. What would shock and surprise me the most is that he actually suggested we do just that, pointing to the tent assignment board. I could not believe my eyes when I saw a convoy was penciled on the board, NEXT to an existing tent. KBR made them sleep outside. After explaining this to me, he once again rejoined his coworker in what must have been a captivating movie. I wonder where he slept that night.
The second event happened at a base called Kalsu. After driving five hours to the base from Al Asad, and spending two more hours waiting to get into the gate, as the Ugandans had made a complete mess of entry control, I arrived at Kalsu’s KBR billeting office. I speak to the attendant, draw two tents for our convoy members, and return to the tents to inspect them as I typically do. This particular morning, I would for the first time be stunned by what I saw during my inspection. The first tent had only 5 cots, when they are supposed to have 12. It had trash on the floor, and a rotting meal in a Styrofoam box with a delicious looking five day old milkshake on top of a cot. The second tent was a disgrace. It only had 3 cots. The air conditioner was broken. The floor looked like someone had emptied and entire trashcan onto it. Among the various items I had to throw away were flip flops, 10 drink bottles, two of them filled with urine, and empty food wrappers. Before emptying the trash, fixing the AC, and acquiring cots from other tents to make due (all duties that KBR is responsible for accomplishing), I returned to the billeting office with fury. All the above atrocities were explained to the billeting representative in a less than calm manner. He seemed contrite. He told me how he couldn’t believe it and that “This was getting ridiculous.” Gee, I guess that wasn’t the first time this happened. How shocking. After shaking his head, he said, “Let me see what’s going on.” He strapped on his combat helmet, mounted his ATV, and rode valiantly into the heart of the tents, to what I assumed at the time was to find a solution to the problem. I was wrong. After waiting twenty minutes for his return, he simply had confirmed everything I had just told him. He literally just went over there to “see what was going on”. He removed no trash, acquired no cots, and simply told me, “I don’t even know what to say man, I’m sorry.” I stared at him blankly for an unknown amount of time. In shock, I simply turned and walked out of the office. I had no words to offer.
I returned to the tents to find my squad mates moving cots from a neighboring tent into the cot deficient tents we were assigned to. The soldiers occupying the neighboring tent were leaving Kalsu for another base, and were kind enough to allow us to use their cots to fill the two tents that we occupied. So our soldiers took the cots to our tents, cleaned up all the trash in the tents, and fixed the air conditioner, so we could actually rest for our next push to another base that evening. That got me thinking about my last deployment to Iraq in 2003. There were no contractors. We made or bought our own beds, supplied our own food, built our own showers, and made the best of our situation. But we did it our way, and put care and pride into it. Soldiers taking care of soldiers. That’s what that Kalsu morning was. In 2003, that was how every day went. KBR represents everything that is evil and wrong with contractors being involved with our military and this war. The fact that a company, that in 2008 had revenue of 11.58 billion dollars, can’t provide my soldiers with a cot to sleep on, despite that very duty being their contract responsibility, is a disgrace. An utter disgrace. It pains me now to know in my heart that, at this moment, a soldier making $40,000 a year is sleeping on the ground in the desert heat, put there by a KBR scumbag, who sleeps on a mattress in his one man, air conditioned dorm, “earning” cash somewhere in the six figures.
Two men from our company were awarded the Combat Infantry Badge this afternoon. An IED had detonated at what could be considered a relative close distance to their gun truck. No one was injured. The damage to the truck, they say, was limited to what we call ‘peppered’ by shrapnel. They had not been directly exposed to the blast. They saw no enemy, and returned no fire.
By deduction of ‘Combat’ and ‘Infantry’, one would suspect the awarded would have performed their duties as an Infantryman under terms of combat. This may have been the case, once upon a time, during a war with a known and visible enemy—as I, and many others, believe to have been so during the course and aftermath of the invasion. But no more. This war has become silly, and the army with it.
Until this morning, when I heard of the award ceremony, I had only noticed the small changes, ones that would irritate on the scale of a fly in my soup. Nine years ago, when I enlisted, a helmet was a ‘K-pot’—a pot made of kevlar for wearing on your head—but now it’s an ‘ACH’—an Advanced Combat Helmet—and other silliness of the sort. I had gone on pretending to be grandfathered in, and I was one of the Good-ole-boys set in his ways—an old dog refusing to learn new tricks. And this was the same shrug of shoulder I gave the first time I read the 3-21.8, cover-to-cover. It is the army’s new field manual for Infantry tactics and applications.
Back when chinstraps still dangled from K-pots, the Infantry took its guidance out of the 7-8; or, the Infantryman’s bible. It was a short read. It began by explaining a battle drill: A collective action rapidly executed without a deliberate decision making process—that’s a paraphrase but I’m close to the money on it. The next eight chapters are each a direct focus on one of the eight answer-alls to combat—react to contact, enter and clear building and so on. The 7-8 was a coach’s playbook on how to take the fight to the enemy. This new text is some kind of lame excuse for the philosophy of gunfights, but without the philosophy. Fire suppression weighed against fire control. The table of contents reads off what has remained or been removed in the translation of tactics. The battle drills fall under the removed.
The concept of our ‘new army’ was on everyone’s mind during the ceremony; even the Commander hesitated for a moment, trying to decide whether or not to make a crack at the depreciated value of this once respected honor. He did not, it would have lacked a certain amount of class he thought, at least I imagined he thought. Luckily however, I have limited and sometimes even no class.
When the dog-and-pony show ended, Nigel asked me what he missed—he never goes to that kind of nonsense. So I told him, “Well, they blindfolded two Joes and spun them around in tiny circles until they were good and dizzy. Then they gave each of them a stick and had them swing away at a jackass shaped piñata. When the papier-mâché broke open, badges fell from the sky, and there were free CIBs for everyone.” So it goes.
...I turned twenty-four a few months ago and I spent my birthday in Al Asad, Iraq. Four days passed as the CET I was with searched frantically for a lost "sensitive item". When I got back to Buehring I had a package waiting for me from my folks. Along with a card and book, I received a neat little patch that I've been carrying around with me in my helmet as I travel through Iraq. It reminds me of what awaits when I finally take leave with Giunta and Barnhardt. Almost six months of sobriety, broken up by a four day pass before flying over here, makes you miss the little things: like Guinness.
I just got back from a mission and Giunta should be shortly: more writings and photos to come so stay tuned.
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