Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Listening to Oasis While Flying Over Kuwait, Night Insertion Return to Najaf Desert With Apache Escort, Bad News: LT Kenny and Others Killed

1 June, 2004 1805 FOB Duke, North Najaf

I’m back at FOB Duke waiting to go back to Najaf. We flew in with our UAVs last night on a CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopter with an AH-64 Apache gunship escort. We flew low across the countryside and desert for about 40 minutes out of Baghdad to here. The back door of the Chinook stayed open during the flight. I filmed and watched everything with night vision goggles. At one point during the flight, someone spotlighted us on the ground, and the Apache immediately banked to investigate. During the flight, the cabin stayed pretty hot even though it was midnight. It’s no wonder that Chinook got shot down last year by a heat-seeking missile. Pilots call the desert “the big marshmallow,” and you could see why when looking through the NVGs
Our flight from Kuwait to BIAP actually went well. We did a combat landing that woke everyone up with wide eyes. I would guess we rapidly descended from around 12,000 feet, feeling weightless for a while. Suddenly we began to feel a tremendous amount of g-force on our bodies, exceeding anything I’ve ever felt on a rollercoaster. We experienced this for at least 20 seconds. After 20 seconds, I figured we should experience level flight, but the g-level remained high. Once things returned to normal, I was able to see trees and houses rushing past my C-130 window. We were very, very low. After a pair of tight turns, we made a fast landing, safe and sound.
Nothing notable happened at BIAP, it was just good to get some sleep and relaxation. Now we’re back at Duke and waiting to go to Najaf. I’m not helping Pinto coordinate anything anymore. He tried to get me to coordinate for our property cards from a major in Kuwait, but I told him my job is to lead soldiers and not to tell officers how to do their job. He laid off ever since.
When I got into FOB Duke last night, one of the first things I learned was the names of the two soldiers from 3-32 AR killed on Sunday. Pinto told me it was Emerson and LT Kenny. When I heard Kenny’s name, I froze up in shock, then felt like crying, then felt like yelling. He was a prior service soldier who worked hard to get his commission, but now had been killed. I still can’t believe it. His loader’s machinegun caught a branch, turned towards Kenny, and in a freak accident, fired right into him. Emerson was killed too, but under what duty position, I do not know. I do know that an RPG struck him in the head and took it off. I’ll learn more as time passes. I can’t believe we lost Kenny though. He worked hard, and I know it. He seemed sober lately though, like CSM Francis was before he died, and that’s disturbing to look back on. He’s in peace now, but I feel sorry for his wife. I feel so thankful to have my life and to have you. We lost another good guy. I’ve got to finish school, if only to honor the people I know that have died, and make the world a little better.
Back at Udairi, as I haven’t written much about it, I learned to fly the Raven UAV. We took a night C-130 flight arranged just for us to Ali-Al-Saleem airbase. I listened to Oasis as we flew in over Kuwait City. I could see Kuwait City all lit up at night from my C-130 window (I always try to sit next to one). My goal was to try and spot the observation spires along the north shore, as I’d never seen them before. After orienting my eyes along the shore, we flew past the towers at a close distance. I was excited to see them. I’m going to stop writing now because my pen is going out!

I laughed as I remembered something. One day on Baker, we were told to pick up all the trash in the courtyard, which also happened to be the impact area for some of the mortar rounds that targeted us. That was our garrison instinct showing. We were in combat operations, yet picking up cigarette butts that the Spanish army left there shortly before retreating to Kuwait was a priority. We picked up Spanish butts, picked up loose pieces of paper, and made the place look good. I was just hoping we didn’t get hit by a round. We laughed and cursed as we gathered broken pieces of ugly concrete and picked plastic sheeting from barbed wire.

[1] Night Vision Goggles

Sunday, May 30, 2004

Dreaming of Almost Shooting a Child Gunman, Waiting to Return to Iraq - Unfortunately

30 May, 2004 1400 Camp Wolverine, Kuwait

I’m sitting in a passenger terminal tent in Kuwait, at the Kuwait International Airport. We’re waiting for a flight back to Baghdad and then on to Najaf. We were in Kuwait for about 12 days doing our UAV training in the desert. LT Pinto is lying on the chairs sleeping next to me. We’re all exhausted and no one is looking forward to going back to Baghdad.
The days here have been pretty good, with the occasional bouts of depression from missing you. One of the first things I noticed when I got here, and as time passed, was the absence of mortar fire or gunfire. A few times I would be looking up at the stars and felt like yelling out loud. It wasn’t because I was angry, it was just an impulse to release pressure as I realized there was no threat of mortars landing or gunfire. It’s not that I was scared in Najaf, but here, peace in Kuwait was somewhat liberating. There were times when I would hear a loud noise and my skin would crawl or someone would roll over in their cot, and the creaking of the cot would sound like machinegun fire in the distance and I would wake up. I even found myself expecting mortar impacts at night, and suspicious of the silence. I even dreamt about Iraq several times. One dream had me in a convoy and gunfire erupted. We were going under an overpass and saw some old Iraqi men digging. We shot in their direction as they looked back at us with confused looks. As we continued under the overpass, I saw a kid with an AK-47 firing. He was only about 8 or 10 years old. I went to fire at him and pulled the trigger, only to hear a click. I was out of ammunition in my magazine. It was like a second chance, and I didn’t shoot again. For that I felt relieved. I then woke up. A lot of guys I spoke to were experiencing similar reactions. One of my friends here, Connor, woke up 2 nights ago in his cot holding his M-16 across his chest. He doesn’t know how it got there.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

British Sharpshooter Demands Vegitarian Meal, Listening to the Voice of God in the Desert, Leaving Iraq for UAV Training in Kuwait

19 May, 2004 1800 Baghdad Air Force Terminal

Here I am back in Baghdad. I thought I would never return here, but alas, here I sit. I am going to Kuwait to receive unmanned aerial vehicle training and bring back the new “Raven” aircraft back to Najaf and fly it for our battalion. I would much rather go home, but this is a vacation nonetheless.
Yesterday was our 3rd anniversary! I thought about the day I flew up to meet you in Boston, how incredibly happy I was (and still am). Time goes by so fast, but even though I am in Iraq, I would do it many more times if it meant I still had your love. I love you Nora, and this will be over soon.
Yesterday I departed our camp with Apache Blue Platoon as my escort. The Raven “team” consist of three soldiers, but unfortunately, a fourth person was added: 1LT Pinto. I suspect he was sent here by those not wanting him or those that share the same sudden impulses that I have come to experience of wanting to punch him. My other two companions are annoying, but I can make excuses for them. There is no excuse for Pinto. Dyke and Manson are going, those are the two I was speaking of. Dyke is truly exceptional, and infamous in my mind as being the only person I’ve ever heard Major Stanton raise his voice to. Hearing Major Stanton yell is like hearing a tree fall in the forest with no one around to hear it, or hearing the pope sing the Rolling Stones at mass – it never happens. But, Dyke is exceptional, and a clumsy, poor fellow who thinks everyone around him is a fool even though he epitomizes the word. Even as I write this, he is staring at his rifle that just fell over into the gravel. Even though it fell without any apparent reason, and I must say it fell quite on its own, just his being within three feet of the fallen object is reason enough that it fell. I will try to befriend him anyways, because it does no good to simply ignore him because he’s retarded. It is only difficult to do when the person is so energetically dumb and dismisses all our emphatic pleas that he humble himself a bit.
Manson is a saint.
[1] He is not lacking intelligence, but he is a child. He is even more notorious for being clumsy and almost every act of locomotion is accompanied by some small destruction. He doesn’t mean it, but it always happens. It really is amazing, and leads you to wonder if his fate is to be forever afflicted with uncanny clumsiness. Should he brush his teeth, he would drop the toothbrush. Should he walk across the room, he would trip over a cord. Should he drive, he would drive off a bridge, and that is exactly what happened in a dream of mine months ago. That’s another story though. He’s big, chubby around the edges, the majority of the time unshaven, unclean or unmotivated. He’s a Wicca, a gadget guy, and Goth. Society has rejected him, or him it, and I can’t think of an explanation for either possibility. He has a messy appearance, like he’s just woken up from sleeping. He is a target of constant admonishment from NCOs and frustrated officers, frustrated that he seriously doesn’t realize his shortcomings are shortcomings (such as going on a cigarette break and coming back an hour and a half later). I’ve gotten on to him a few times long ago (before realizing it was futile and so futile any more words to him would only hurt him and make me the bad guy) to take a shower at least once every three days, change socks, do laundry, stop farting so loudly at night and stinking up our sleeping area in the field. Despite all of the verbal abuse and constant corrective training, he still asks, in a kindhearted way, how you are doing. He always offers anything he has to you, and he still laughs. He’s a big kid, it’s amazing, but it’s even more amazing he still has heart. Over time, I’ve learned to accept him as is and not try to change him, because it is futile. And, because I lack the patience required to do so.
I will detail Pinto, I refuse to call him lieutenant, as I write. All of us came up in a convoy early yesterday morning. The ride out of Najaf was quiet, and no one spoke the entire way. I felt safe though, I was with the legendary Blue Platoon and Sergeant Grey (our battalion British guy) was sitting opposite of me with a machinegun. Najaf is no joke, it’s a snake den, and you could tell by the expressions and movements of the soldiers, peering eyes scanning every alley, every rooftop, weapons level and trained on even the least suspicious places or people. They sky was grey, the air was cool, and it was the eeriest morning. Dogs ran out to attack our trucks as we rolled by, people looked on as we passed and didn’t wave, and far in the distance the orange sun began to rise above the square houses and palm groves, a new day. Some time after driving along HWY 9 out of Najaf, we turned left and into the open desert for FOB Duke. It was like a journey into space and to Mars. Everyone relaxed a little bit and lowered their weapons and you could tell those peering eyes looking over the vast desert weren’t looking for the enemy – out in those white sands they were seeing their wives, kids, girlfriends, and the day they would come home.
The desert is beautiful, especially when driving across it early in the morning on a paved road that seems to go forever. The Najaf desert evokes the same feelings in my heart as the sea does. It’s not completely flat, it actually has small patches of vegetation and very small dunes (like big anthills) along the way. It’s barren and peaceful, open and free, offers space and meditation. I wondered if that is why this region is known for religion. All the time people spent alone in the vast open spaces. Maybe it was easier to hear God’s voice back then – before industry, noise, TV, radio, and cars. Maybe. It was a Martian landscape though, and easy to fall in love with before the temperatures would later rise and become harsh and remind you the desert is to be respected as much as loved.
Our trucks rolled in a column across the open space as the sun hung low over the horizon behind us, sleeping but waking. To see our trucks on that sandy sea really amazed me. It reminded me of old photos you may see of the British crossing some similar looking place during the Victorian age. Here we are now.
We arrived at FOB Duke and swiftly passed through the gate. I cleared my weapon and the ranking sergeant removed the grenade round from his rifle’s grenade launcher. We pulled up to the regimental TOC area and started unloading our bags. I talked to SSG Cole and Barns, and SSG Monroe. Stuart showed up out of nowhere too. He was going home on leave. Our CNN cameraman, Mr. Kay, quietly put his gear up against the 5-ton truck parked next to us. He is always so quiet, but very nice. He looks like Michael Stipe from R.E.M. He was on his way to Baghdad and then the U.S.A.
Pinto approached me and immediately began to ask questions. “Thompson,” he asked in a feeble and cartoon-like frog voice, “what time does our flight leave? Where is the regimental HQs?” He had been at FOB Duke earlier for a week just like me and seemed to have noticed nothing around him.
‘Sir,’ I replied patiently, as he hadn’t got on my nerves yet or given me a reason to detest him, ‘We leave out of here at 0800. The regimental HQs is right over there though.’ His head bobbed and his lips stuck out more absurdly as he contemplated what little I said. ‘Don’t worry, Sir, I’ll make sure the manifest is good to go,’ I said. He mentioned earlier he would be the rankingest person on the trip, so I almost expected him to take the lead and go speak with all the captains and field grade officers we needed to speak with. I was specifically told by our HQs that I was to “baby-sit” Pinto. I thought that was a joke, because he is an officer and one would assume he was perfectly capable of behaving and handling himself. I slowly realized I had to watch him and constantly guide him along. I went to the RTOC and spoke with a LTC there who was extremely helpful and showed me the manifest. Only three people were scheduled from 3-32 AR to fly. I knew Mr. Kay would have to hitch a ride on a free seat, that was a given. But, our Raven team consisted of 3 people, PLUS Pinto. He wasn’t manifested for the flight, and it was then I got a hunch the battalion was getting rid of him for two weeks. I didn’t say anything though when I went back to our group.
‘OK, we’re good to go,’ I announced, ‘we just need to walk to the helipad in a few minutes. Our flight leaves at 0800.’
“Thompson,” SSG Cole yelled, “are you going to BIAP?”
‘Roger,’ I answered.
“Can you do me a favor?” he asked. Can you do me a favor missions are always difficult, because they usually require a moderate inconvenience to the volunteer, if they are possible to complete at all.
‘Sure, what do you need?’ I’d give it a shot.
“Can you pick up some jewelry I ordered for my wife and kid at BIAP?”
‘I can’t promise, but I’ll try my best,’ I answered. I really doubted that I would be able to do it, but I took his receipt and money. It turned out I was able to complete the mission and I got the jewelry. I’m happy for it. Apache Blue Platoon left and it was our group, the CNN guy, and Stuart waiting for a flight. Dyke and Pinto struggled with their overstuffed bags and carry-on bags.
‘We need to go to the helipad now,’ I said as I got all my things together. Everyone else followed suit and we made a small desert hike in the sands to the pad. Pinto and Dyke kept dropping their things. Pinto looks like a frog-faced infant and walks like a toddler. His torso swings side to side at his hips and he walks with his little wrists canted outwards. He has a large, misshapen head. The TOC refers to him as “Waterbaby.” His torso is disproportionate to his lower body, a body belonging more to a sickly 14 year old rather than an officer of the United States Armed Forces. He constantly squints his eyes, licks his lips, bites his bottom lip, involuntarily contorts his face impulsively, and widens his frog, bespectacled eyes constantly as if to refocus them. Just speaking to him requires a great deal of concentration because his face is constantly transforming before your eyes, and none of those faces hint one bit of intelligence or clarity. That would explain why he is an artillery officer. He does not have a military appearance, and he does not lead at all. The problem during this whole trip is that he is the ranking person, so people speak to him first or expect him to know everything, and I have briefed him on everything, but he always messes up. Always.
“I may have to make two trips,” he wined pitifully as he struggled to carry his things, his Kevlar tilted to one side and his feeble legs stumbling along in the sand.
‘Sir, if you can’t carry all your shit, you must have brought too much,’ I told him as he gasped for air. Mr. Kay and I spoke as we walked.
“Yeah, my replacement just arrived. I’m going back to Baghdad and then to America, hopefully.”
‘How long have you been here?’ I asked.
“This time, several weeks. I keep getting extended, like you do, just not for so long,” he said. He seemed like a good guy, and it was good to speak to some civilian people.
I was tired, and I probably looked awful. The previous night we were attacked and I couldn’t sleep. I just laid on my cot and rolled around in the night, and prayed for my safe passage to Baghdad. I was a little nervous.
Mr. Kay and I decided to sit in the shade of some barriers by the chopper refuel point. Stuart came over too. Stuart played Gameboy, I watched some Blackhawks fly in, and Mr. Kay fell asleep immediately. I went to go check the choppers out that landed to see if we could get a ride. I saw Pinto talking to one of the crewmen. The crewman was yelling over the sound of the chopper rotors. I ran up to see what was going on. The crew chief wasn’t impressed with Pinto’s helpless composure. “We need to go to BIAP!” Pinto yelled. The crewman looked him up and down in confusion, not exactly because of his words, but rather the retarded appearance that seemed to conflict with the 1LT rank he wore.
“You and everyone else, Sir!” the young man in the flight suit and oversized bug-like helmet yelled back. “My ship is full!”
“But we have to be there at 1000!” he explained several times like a child.
“Not my problem, Sir!” the young man yelled. I stepped up,
‘We’re part of the UAV team going to Kuwait!’ I yelled. His facial expression showed he knew exactly what I was talking about.
“UAV crew!” he yelled, “YOU ARE PRIORITY! Your bird is coming back from Baghdad to get you! We’ve got to get you up there!”
‘Thanks!’ I yelled back with a thumbs up. These choppers were waiting for a 10th Mountain Division brigade commander to come out to the choppers. Almost an hour later, he came out. His uniform looked like Spandex and we all remarked at how exceptionally large his ass was. We’d never seen a fat colonel before – ever. We were told our flight would be delayed another hour, so we all decided to go to breakfast.
Breakfast was in an Army-run chow tent, and it was good too! Mr. Kay ate quietly, laughing occasionally.
“I can’t wait to get home,” Stuart said, and we all agreed.
“Well, to tell you the truth,” Manson said with pieces of food stuck to his chin, “I’ve got nothing better to do with my time.” Mr. Kay lowered his fork and seemed to choke a bit on his food. He looked over at Manson and smiled,
“Surely you could think of something better to do with your time,” he laughed, as did we all. We talked about the war a bit. “You wonder sometimes if this is going to be a perpetual war,” Mr. Kay said.
‘Well, I think we need to reevaluate things and we need some change,’ I said. ‘Change would be good for America.’ Everyone nodded. ‘I’m not sure Bush is going to get reelected.’
“Hmmm,” Mr. Kay said cautiously, “You can’t really tell. It seems like they are neck and neck. Kerry really isn’t saying anything new. I mean, look at the last election.”
‘No kidding. It’s true though, the choices are disappointing. It’s sad, because it is an important time in history,’ I said.
“On behalf of Texas, I apologize for George Bush,” Manson said.
“Hmm,” Mr. Kay laughed, enjoying the conversation, “those same words got the Dixie Chicks in trouble!” Manson shrugged.
“Where are you from?” Mr. Kay asked.
“New York, the Bronx, the bad part!” Stuart said joking.
“Nah,” Mr. Kay said, “I live in Manhattan, but everyone is moving to the Bronx. It’s good now! Manhattan is too expensive.” Stuart agreed. Mr. Kay asked me then.
‘I’m from Charleston, South Carolina,’ I answered.
“Charleston, I think I’ve been there before, to cover a hurricane or something.”
‘That sounds right,’ I laughed. ‘I was in Hurricane Hugo long ago.’
“So you in the Army for the long haul?”
‘Nah, I’ve got to do something else. I’d like to work for the State Department.’
“Yeah, it seems like the ex-military people had the right idea about Iraq from the beginning. They were all for giving the State Department more power in Iraq from the beginning.”
‘That’s something I supported from the beginning too,’ I answered. We all walked back through the sand to the helipad. ‘We all had a feeling things weren’t good in Iraq just based on conversations with Iraqis. You could tell something was about to give. No one seemed to want to admit it until Sadr City exploded,’ I said. He nodded his head in agreement.
“Yeah, I know. CNN stateside wouldn’t air any of our reporting if it sounded negative at all, only CNN International. Then, when the U.N. was bombed, everyone in the States was shocked,” he said.
‘1st Cavalry is really messing up too,’ I said. ‘They fired all our trusted Muslim laborers that we had a close relationship with in Baghdad and replaced them with Christians. They set up traffic control points on main freeways with one car getting checked at a time and holding up traffic for miles, getting Army people stuck in traffic too.’
We kept walking and went up to our bags next to the helipad. We all sat in the sand. “Who’s bag is this?” Pinto asked. Stuart looked at me.
“They’re mine,” Stuart said.
“Do you mind if I sit on them?” Pinto asked. Stuart rolled his eyes,
“I don’t want you sitting on my bags, there’s stuff that can break in there. But, you can sit on my armor, Sir.”
“Yeah, I don’t want to sit in the sand,” Pinto said shamelessly as he situated Stuart’s vest so he could sit on it, even though he had his own bags and vest sitting next to him. I shook my head,
‘Sir, why don’t you just sit in the sand?’
“I enjoy the creature comforts,” he replied while rolling his lips and sticking his tounge out. Air Force guys began to congregate near us. Stuart began to doubt if he was going to get a seat to BIAP at all.
Two helicopters flew in. We all scrambled to get the crew’s attention. The Air Force guys came up too to get seats. Everyone was in a frenzy to get on a bird. “We’ve got a maintenance issue on our chopper, so we’re going to be down for a while,” the crewchief said. We went ahead and put our bags on the chopper. The chief noticed all of Pinto’s bags. “You know, we’re backlogged on seats because people keep bringing too much shit.”
After some time, the crew told us we were good to go. All the metal chips in the rear transmission had been removed. Stuart was upset because it seemed he wasn’t going to get a ride to BIAP. Just then, two more Blackhawks flew in. ‘Stuart, you’re going to make it out of here,’ I reassured him. ‘Make sure Mr. Kay gets on one of those birds out of here.’ We all walked over to our chopper. As I strapped into the seat, I looked over and saw Stuart and Mr. Kay get into one of the Blackhawks. Minutes passed, and we were still sitting on the pad with the engine running. Suddenly, the engine shut down.
“Everyone off!” the chief yelled. “We’re not going anywhere anytime soon.” We all got off the chopper and ran over to the remaining three choppers. We had to wait for Pinto to get his bags together and stuff a sleeping bag that had fallen out of his bag and was flopping around in the rotor wash of the nearby helicopters. I watched as people boarded other helicopters. Manson simply disappeared and left his bags. He got on another helicopter.
“We need to find Manson,” Pinto wined as he tripped over himself in the sand, and half of his sleeping bag dragged behind him in the sand as he walked. Helicopters surrounded us with their rotors rotating. I checked one chopper and then stopped because the chief said not to walk around the LZ. After all was said and done, a crewman found Manson stuffed in a Blackhawk. Manson, Dyke, Pinto, and I all stood in the sand with our bags while helicopters roared all around us. I was tired of intervening in Pinto’s conversations, he’s a lieutenant making a lot more money here, so he should be competent enough to figure this out. A young crewman came over to us.
“What’s up?!” he yelled over the noise of the choppers. Pinto got right on his neck and showed difficulty speaking, and spoke in a normal tone of voice. The crewman moved his head away from the intruding face. “I can’t hear you!” he yelled. “You have to speak up!” he repeated a few times. “BIAP?” he finally recognized Pinto say. “Well tough shit, Sir! Everyone wants to go to BIAP! I’ve got two seats free!”
‘We’re manifested!’ I yelled.
“CPT Fielder said we need to go to BIAP,” Pinto yelled.
“CPT Fielder isn’t here. He always overbooks!” the crewman yelled.
“We’re manifested!” Pinto replied.
“Your manifest is for three people, and we can make room for three, but not four!” he yelled. I looked over and saw one of the pilots look over at us and throw his hands up angrily, asking what the holdup was for.
“Who can I talk to?” Pinto asked.
“The pilots, but look,” he said and pointed to the broken Blackhawk, “that’s a broken helicopter! That’s your problem, not mine, Sir! Your bird broke, and we’ve got to go!” he yelled impatiently.
He left us and all the crew boarded their choppers and lifted off, leaving us four behind in a blinding, sandy windstorm. We just stood there as the dust settled. A female staff sergeant came out to us. “How long you been in country?” she asked me.
‘What?’ I could tell she had an attitude, most service pouges do. I heard her the first time, but thought it amusing to hear her repeat herself.
“How long have you been in country?” she repeated.
‘A year,’ I answered.
“Long enough to know to keep your muzzle pointed down!” she yelled at me.
‘What the hell? You support pouges schooling combat soldiers now? OOOOH, you need to come to Najaf!’ I said to myself. I had my rifle slinged over my shoulder muzzle up to keep the sand out of the muzzle when squatting. When riding in a chopper, I always keep it muzzle down. She walked back to her tent. ‘Wow, I felt honored that she walked all the way over to correct me. Must be PMS,’ I thought. ‘Freakin’ POUGES!!!’
Pinto mumbled to himself, shocked that the crewchief disrespected him and flew off. We walked over to the tent the female sergeant went to. It was the fuel office. “I can’t believe they just left us,” Pinto said.
‘Who you going to call, Sir?’ I asked, curious as to how he planned on fixing this problem. I couldn’t help but realize out of all the people standing around that morning, even people flying on space available seats, only us four remained. LT Pinto failed his mission to get us to BIAP. Lacks initiative, assertiveness, and leadership.
“I’m going to call CPT Flake (our Air Liaison Officer in Najaf),” he replied.
‘Why don’t you call regiment? They tasked us to go to Kuwait and then left us here, so it sounds like a regiment problem,’ I said. It only made sense.
“Yeah, I guess I should,” he answered. He tried to call on a phone in the tent. The female soldier came up to me again,
“Do you want any MREs or water for your soldiers?” she asked implying that it would be a good thing to do.
‘No thanks, they’ll be OK. They just ate,’ I answered. What I would like to say is, ‘No, they can suffer for all I care because they are spoiled rotten and need to develop some soldier-like qualities.’
Pinto came up to me. “We need to go to regimental HQs,” he said crestfallen. “I don’t know where it is,” he continued.
‘We were there earlier, Sir. You didn’t notice it? Weren’t you here a few weeks ago?’ I said, agitated.
“Yeah, but I never saw the regimental HQs,” he wined.
‘Do you know where the Hajji store is?’ I asked.
“Yes,” he answered.
‘Well, HQs is that big building a few feet from it with the antennas all over it and the big radar dishes,’ I said.
“We should go to the Hajji store and buy some sodas for the guys,” he explained.
‘No, Sir,’ I answered as we walked back towards the regimental HQs, ‘they need to drink water.’
We found the expando-van office we were looking for and went inside. Major Simpson, a black, dismissive and skeptical-looking man greeted us coldly. “How can I help you lieutenant?”
“Um, yes Sir, we got bumped from our flight to BIAP by some specialist, I didn’t get his name. We need to get to BIAP and we were priority,” he said like a crime victim explaining events in a police station.
‘It’s not a question of priority, its about communicating a sense of urgency and convincing others you need to get to BIAP in accordance with Frago 23 which specifically tasks and manifests us,’ I thought.
“Well, lieutenant,” the major said while looking at Pinto in disgust, “there’s no such thing as priority, as you’ve found out,” he said smirking. “So that’s it? You need to go to BIAP?”
‘Sir,’ I spoke up. Pinto didn’t explain the why or how, only complained and that didn’t stir any sympathy by the looks on the faces in that office. ‘We are manifested specifically to go to BIAP at 0800 to catch a connection to Kuwait. We’re part of the Raven team. I talked to a lieutenant colonel this morning and he was very helpful and reassured me we were to fly out. Our helicopter broke and we were left behind. Frago 23 details the tasking requirement we are here to meet.’
“He knows more about it than I do, he memorized the Frago,” Pinto interrupted. “I didn’t have a chance to read it.”
‘That’s bullshit,’ I thought, ‘he’s known about this for over a week, and the Frago sat on the Frago table for over a week in our battalion.’
“Well, we don’t have anymore flights out today,” the major said. “But don’t worry, we’ll get you out of here eventually. You’ll probably have to spend the night.”
Some helicopter pilots standing in the office overheard our dilemma. A lanky, Barney Fife-looking pilot spoke up. “Well, a lot of our birds are breaking down. We can try to get you to Al-Kut with us. We’ve got a maintenance issue, and we’re not supposed to take passengers, BUT, you know…”
‘I’m not sure I want to fly on a helicopter with a maintenance issue,’ I thought. The pilot got on the phone to see if we could fly with him.
“Yeah, I’m not sure he should fly, he’s not as experienced,” he said on the phone. “The bird’s got reduced torque and I’m not sure he should be flying low and slow across open desert.” After some more chatter, he hung up. “You can go on this bird to Al-Kut. It has only one engine though, and you’ll be flying slow, about 80 miles an hour. It will take an hour and a half to get to Al-Kut,” he explained.
‘Fly on a broke helicopter with an inexperienced crew, hmm, I don’t think so!’ I thought. I began to wait for some discouraging detail that would allow us to politely decline the offer to fly on the crippled bird. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long.
“But once you get to Al-Kut, we can’t get you to BIAP,” he continued. I pretended to be disappointed.
‘Well,’ I said in fake sadness, ‘thanks anyways.’
“Well go find a place to sleep at Knight rear command post,” the major said.
“Let’s go to Knight rear and check in,” Pinto said after I called CPT Flake in Najaf to let him know what was going on.
‘We should go get our bags and the guys first to get that part over with first,’ I advised him.
“Yeah, let’s do that,” he answered. I noticed some guys sitting outside regiment HQ that I had seen earlier get on an earlier flight and wondered why they were there. We walked up to the helipad and saw a few choppers, two with engines running. I could see Dyke waving his hands wildly. He ran up to us panting heavily,
“We’ve got seats! We’ve got…seats!” I looked on the helipad and gave Manson a thumbs up. He returned with a thumbs up. We were good to go. We ran and got our bags. Pinto struggled to carry his overstuffed bags and handbags. Manson and I only had one rucksack and a small handbag, just like all the other solders. I went to the chopper and immediately saw Stuart inside.
‘What are you doing here?’ I asked, happy to see him. He would make his flight home now for sure.
“We had to turn around and come back!” he yelled over the engine noise, “One chopper lost an engine on our way to Babylon, had to make a hard landing! Something’s wrong with the other one too, so they kicked everyone off!” Manson saw the other chopper with the engine out make a hard landing on its tail and said it came down hard.
I couldn’t figure out why no one filled Stuart’s chopper or why there was suddenly room for us, but there was. We all climbed in and I sat on the left side next to the slide door, which the crewchief shut for the flight. Pinto struggled to put his seatbelt on, insisting on bringing the harness up between his legs. “Sir! Have you ever flown before?!” a soldier yelled laughing. He bit his lips. “It’s not a racecar harness! Bring it across your lap!” We all looked at each other and chuckled. It was an honest mistake, but we all figured he’s flown before.
Soon, the engine roared and I felt my body become heavier. It was liftoff, and I loved it! Flying again, and helicopter flight in Iraq is an experience like no other. I was grinning ear to ear. All of us looked at each other and laughed. Some other sergeants cracked smiles through nervous-looking faces. I was glued to the window, and soon we were flying (no exaggeration) about 30 feet above the vast desert going over 150 miles per hour. It’s awesome. You feel like you’re in a car, you are so low. We all fly low and at maximum speed to avoid taking ground fire and missiles. The speed is just amazing.
We flew over desert farms, olive green patches of cultivated shrubs in places it seems nothing could possibly live. In some places, the desert people have dug holes that look like missile silos. They are actually water wells in the sand that go down several meters. Farmers pump water from these wells into their sand fields. It’s amazing. The houses out there are mud huts. We were flying so low you could see the expressions on people’s faces as we flew over. Women, kids, shepherds and farmers all stopped and watched us as we flew over – rather past – them. It’s an amazing contrast, our high technology flying over this desert landscape that probably hasn’t changed much in at least 100 years. The women worked the fields in their dresses of brilliant colors, old men looked up and simply observed us, children waved. I always waved back, and we were low enough for them to see us for sure. Reactions varied towards us in different parts of the south along our path.
Soon, we were flying at tree top level, or even lower at times, across fertile, lush, and radiant green farmland, fed by a complex web of irrigation channels from the Euphrates river. The area is one of the greenest and most fertile places I’ve ever seen in my life, and it was a pleasure to see it. There was dense vegetation and very dense palm forests that went for miles. It was amazing, really. We were flying only feet away from the canopy of the forest, but we did dip down to only a few meters above the fields. I distinctly remember flying lower than the palm tree canopies on the horizon and some telephone poles. Even though this was all captivating, you examine the groves and dense areas not only for their beauty, but for armed men or missile strikes. At some points along the trip, we would suddenly climb above power lines and then immediately drop like a rock back to ground level. “I HATE THAT!” Stuart would yell out laughing.
We started slowing down and went into a hover. I looked over and saw Babylon, the entire complex. It was amazing, I never thought I would see or go to Babylon, yet here I was hovering right over it, and with a great view. We slowly began to land right at the site. It was now a military base. I noticed Polish helicopters on the pad below us. I couldn’t get over seeing Babylon! It was smaller that I thought it would be, and plain-looking, but still quite large and sprawling. It’s not a huge tower as you may imagine it to be from the Bible.
[2] It’s relatively low and made of dried earth bricks with pointed ramparts. It’s situated in a wonderfully green and lush area, and there’s no doubt that contributed to the area’s prosperity thousands of years ago. I thanked God for letting me see Babylon, that really was a blessing. 3 years ago I was flying up to Boston to meet you, the love of my life, and 3 years later, I was flying into Babylon. It’s amazing. Life is amazing, but you have to see the beauty in the details.
We departed Babylon after sitting there a few minutes. We continued to make our way low and fast towards Baghdad. Reactions to us were mixed at this point. We were incredibly low, so I could understand some people gesturing angrily at us. I even saw some children attempt to throw rocks at us as we flew past. Some mothers ran to gather their children in a hurry, some covered their ears, some held up their sandals at us, and some gave us the less exotic middle finger. Most of the people we passed waved excitedly or jumped up and down cheering and laughing. Men looked up and winced while waving as we flew feet above them as they gathered bright orange fruit in a field. Iraq was flying by my window. It’s so rich and fertile, you wonder how it can stay so poor at times. Flying over Iraq, especially near Baghdad, the landscape tells a sad story you can’t help but notice. Factory after factory is closed, run down, and rusting. Many had to have been operational before the war. Rusted industrial equipment litters industrial parks, rusted hulls sit in fields. Many of these sites are factories that must have employed many people. Where are those people now? What are they doing? It seemed almost every major industrial complex we over flew was abandoned and left in ruin. It looks hopeless. You wonder how it will all come to life again, if at all, and if this is merely an indication of a crippled economy that will recover over time or an indication of things to come.
We also over flew several military complexes that were reduced to rubble. Some vast expanses of land were nothing but sheets of drooping concrete slabs with steel rebar poking out like bones poking out of decomposing road kill. Useless concrete rubble and rusting army equipment and bomb craters. At one destroyed base, I could see two perfectly intact murals of Saddam Hussein. One in full military dress, looking somewhat British in style, and then a stately-looking portrait of Saddam in a business suit coat. Now, he’s sitting in a prison cell and Iraq is in ruins. I pondered this for a while, about Saddam and the condition of new Iraq. Sometimes you wonder if the only way to control the naturally rebellious segments of the population was to use his methods. We soldiers sometimes say that in jest, that Saddam actually did a good job controlling Iraq. Even our Iraqi friends say that Saddam did a better job of securing Iraq than we do, but of course, that is nonsense. He squandered Iraq’s wealth and sent Iraqi men to fight in pointless wars. Some of the brutality Saddam was famous for is now being used by the Army to control parts of Iraq.
At one point in the flight, I could see the lead chopper in our two chopper formation flying low and fast over the green Iraqi landscape. It was absolutely amazing to see how low we were flying – mere feet above roads and houses. Rooftops and watered fields and palm forests flew past me as I gazed out, now thinking about how the images I was seeing before me resembled those of Vietnam. It felt like we were transformed back in time to that era, and I wondered how the hell I got there.
We arrived at BIAP safe and sound and came to hover over the left runway before coming to rest slowly on it. I enjoyed the flight so completely, so naturally I was disappointed to have it end. We got off the bird and I noticed a sleeping bag snaking around wildly in the rotor wash. It wasn’t long before I saw LT Pinto frantically trying to collect his sleeping bag before it could blow away. His rifle was slinged across his elbow and dragging on the pavement as he struggled to clear the chopper. All of us gathered together as the choppers taxied away. “Now where do we go?” Manson asked.
‘You’d think they would have someone here to pick us up,’ I answered, looking around at the passing SUVs, ‘but we’ll wait a few minutes.’ Pinto stood by repacking his bags and the items that fell out on the helipad, his Kevlar crooked on his head. We waited for a few minutes before realizing no one would be coming for us. ‘Sir, I think we should go to the soldier support center and figure things out from there,’ I said to him. It was extremely hot outside, and figured that would be a good place to go since it was well known on BIAP, close to division HQ, and air-conditioned.
“I think we should find a phone,” Pinto wined.
‘There’s a phone at the soldier support center,’ I told him.
“We should call base and let them know we are OK.,” he continued.
‘O.K., there’s a phone over there, I’ll call,’ I answered. He said nothing, but as I turned around and headed towards the phone. He spoke up.
“Hey!” he said loudly, “don’t just leave me here,” he cried, panting in the heat.
‘I don’t know what it matters, I’m doing all the coordination anyways. You want to take initiative and then push me out in front of you when you feel overwhelmed at the smallest question or encounter,’ I thought. ‘Actually Sir,’ I told him sternly, but professionally, ‘this is what we are going to do, we’re going to the soldier support center.’
“But it’s hot, we’re going to have to put a guard with our bags and make two trips,” he wined like a child. “Can’t we just hang out at the commo company building?”
‘No, we’re not going to avoid the inevitable, let’s get to D-main and get this over with,’ I told him directly.
“How far is it?” he began to concede to the fact we needed to go there.
‘About 200 meters,’ I answered with a false distance. It was actually about 300 meters or so away. Before he could complain about the distance, I interrupted him. ‘We’re soldiers, we can walk it. Now, everyone get your shit.’
Stuart and I looked at each other and shook our heads. The guys started gathering all of their things clumsily as Stuart and I waited. Pinto’s winter sleeping bag was on the verge of falling out again. I wondered why he was bringing a winter sleeping bag and poncho liner quilt to Kuwait. One soldier asked him about the pink pillow he had brought. “I enjoy the creature comforts,” he replied.
We started our small ruck march towards the soldier center. The guys looked like they were about to die. “I wonder why they don’t have enough rooms on flights if there is a manifest,” Pinto asked.
‘Well, 3-32 AR was only manifested for 3 people. The regiment tasked our battalion to provide only three people of enlisted rank,’ I told him.
“Well, battalion decided to send the FSO because they needed someone capable enough to field the information, and I am quite capable of that,” he retorted defiantly. I didn’t feel like explaining to him that CPT Berlin wanted to kill him and no one else would take him, or that I was specifically told to babysit him, or that he was being sent to make him disappear for two weeks. He walked along dragging his stubby feet, carrying all his excess load for which he had only himself to blame.
We got to the soldier support center and dropped our bags in the air-conditioned area with couches. Manson and Dyke complained about the loads they had to carry so far, and in such heat. “There’s a phone over there,” Pinto said observantly. “You can call battalion now,” he said.
‘O.K., Sir, listen to me,’ I said agitated he wouldn’t take initiative for once. ‘We need to call battalion, yes. BUT, CPT Flake is not the point of contact, regiment is. CPT Flake is only air liaison, not plans. So…to find out what to do next, we need to call regimental plans after we talk to Flake because they wrote the Frago.’ I tried to use the phone and it didn’t work, so LT Pinto, sensing my irritation with him, used his rank to go call on an unseen phone behind a wall. After several minutes, he reappeared.
“I called battalion and let them know we made it,” he said proud of himself. “CPT Flake wasn’t there though,” he added quickly.
‘So did you call regiment and find out who the point of contact is?’ I asked, honestly thinking he couldn’t be so stupid to forget that.
“Um, no,” he answered confidently. “I don’t know the number,” he replied.
‘YOU INSOLENT BASTARD!’ I yelled in my mind. ‘How can he be an officer?! He wouldn’t even make a good private!’ I swallowed my tongue and calmly explained, ‘You should have asked the TOC when you called the TOC, did you not think to ask them for the number, you know, we need to find a POC
[3], and regiment knows who that is.’
“Um, I, I,” he said like a child found guilty of something. Just then, SFC Pepper showed up.
“HEY, WHAT’S UP?!” he said, surprised to see us. “3-32 dogg! You are famous now T, most famous battalion in the Army. Ya’ll are killing some shit, I know. Nah, no joke, everyone is talking about you all!” he said excitedly as we all shook hands. He went to division last year and missed out on all the fighting going on lately. “I see tha tanks on TV all the time.” It was good to see him, because he could help us out. “Who are you, Sir?” he said abruptly after joking around with Stuart and me.
“LT Pinto, the FSO from Charlie Company,” he answered. He always mentions to people “Charlie Company” even though he’s only been there a week. It makes him sound more like a combat soldier and leader – instead of the wimpy, crying, and insolent office pouge he is.
“What do you need Thompson?” Pepper asked.
‘Regiment sent us up here for UAV
[4] school in Kuwait and we need to find a POC,’ I answered.
“No problem, let’s go to Division Main,” he said, moving his eyes covertly to the direction of Pinto as if to ask “Who is this wierdo?” We walked over to Division and waited at the security desk to get entry badges. A plump white girl chewed openmouthed on some gum and spoke in some ghetto accent.
“I.D. playz,” she said as Pepper joked with her. Her face was caked in makeup and heavy eyeliner painted by design like an Egyptian queen. She wore an I.D. badge holder on her arm that displayed a photo of a half white, half black toddler with a fuzzy afro.
People passed by in PT uniforms, soldiers flirted and joked around. We waited for our badges. Pinto, Stuart, and I followed SFC Pepper into the 1AD HQs. “Shhh. This is the general’s house,” Pepper said with a sly grin as he opened the door to division TOC. We walked in carefully.
The division TOC was pretty big, and large plasma flat screen TVs were at the front of the room. Row upon row of officers worked on computers and chatted quietly. At the front of the room, majors, colonels, and Lieutenant Colonels carried on serious-looking discussions, flopping their one hand in the air and the other hand resting on the seats of their rear leaning captains chairs. The plasma screen TVs displayed infrared images of Hussein and Abbas mosques from a UAV and one whole TV was dedicated to FOX “news,” while CNN was one of 4 small images (to include the UAV image) on the other screen.
Chairs at the front of the TOC had rank insignia taped to them, and General Townsend’s chair could be seen as the chair with two stars crudely taped to the back of it. Our TOC in Baghdad looked better.
An artillery officer, captain, walked up to us. “May I help you?” he asked in a snotty manner which I have seen a thousand times in the Army in relation to young officers. I knew it was only a matter of time before he would have to speak to me, seeing LT Pinto knew nothing. “So how is Dan Nash doing?” he asked Pinto while closely examining his face for any reaction to the question. I had a feeling he was trying to get a negative response from my frog eyed companion, but failed to get a response of that kind.
CPT Nash is a good guy, I guess, or become more careful about watching his mouth when talking about sexual topics or watching porno on his government computer in conspicuous places – like our TOC. He doesn’t do that anymore. He wanders around the TOC singing soul music out loud and trying to make himself useful handling ICDC issues, which is respectable enough, but he doesn’t have an officer air about him, and he gets confused easily. Our TOC calls him our “special” captain, but he and I get along just fine as of late, especially since I don’t work directly for him anymore.
The artillery captain then went on, seemingly dulled after the somewhat embellished, positive performance report given by Pinto about Nash. “And why are you here then?” he asked.
“We’re here for UAV training,” Pinto answered.
“Hmmm,” he paused (the snotty one), “I think you missed it. It was upstairs today.” I was pretty sure he was mistaken, not only because the training was to be in Kuwait, but he seemed too pleased with delivering bad news, so I discredited it.
“Aw, we thought it was in Kuwait,” Pinto said confused.
‘It is in Kuwait,’ I answered. The snotty captain looked over at me immediately with a surprised smirk. ‘We are to fly to Kuwait and continue to Camp Virginia and remain there until 30 May. This according to 2ACR Frago 23.’
He suddenly became suspicious of me. You get used to that as an enlisted person with some civility. At first, officers are snotty towards you. Then, they become suspicious once they realize you’re not a common moron, and finally they speak to you on equal terms. ‘I believe I should meet with the 2ACR LNO,’[6] I added.
“Yes, um, certainly so,” the captain responded. “He isn’t here though, he’s out to lunch.”
‘We’ll wait,’ I answered. The captain then totally shed his stuck up attitude and became extremely helpful.
“Well, we can see if the 1AD flight manager can schedule a flight for you,” he said. We walked over to a LTC and the captain explained our situation to him.
“UAV team?” he asked us. “You don’t need to schedule a flight, one has already been arranged for the UAV guys and they fly out tomorrow. You need to go see the civilian coordinator.” That was good news! So, we walked over to see the civilian rep, a bright-eyed, short, bearded fellow who greeted us enthusiastically. He spoke with us about the Raven and offered to let us stay in his tent until the flight the following day. This was nice, but we had two other guys with us. He told us we should wait for 2ACR LNO for housing arrangements.
As we left the civilian’s office, we found the 2ACR LNO, a gangly, tall, pale-skinned captain who seemed passive and apologetic. We told him we needed lodgings for the night.
“Ah yes,” he replied quickly, “but I wasn’t expecting you in yet, and I frankly haven’t scheduled billets for you yet. It’s been a busy day! Follow me, please.” We followed him to another office where the captain peered into the office door window. “The billeting sergeant isn’t here, but the major is. It looks like he’s talking to a Hajji right now,” he said nervously. “Just wait here for the sergeant. I’m not sure where he is, but I’m sure if you wait in the hall long enough, he’ll pass by.” I noticed the Iraqi leave the major’s office.
‘I think I’ll talk to the major instead of sitting around all day hoping someone will show up,’ I told Pinto. He shrugged as I knocked on the door. The major called me in and looked at me confused, as he’d never seen me before. I explained our situation to him. He exhaled briefly and got up, and helped us right away. We followed him to a back room.
“That 2ACR captain sent you here?” he asked.
“Roger,” we answered simultaneously.
“I hate that guy,” he grumbled as he got us a key to a tent. “Here you go, you’ve got cots in there and everything.” We both thanked him and left to get our things.
We moved into our tent. It was quite nice and situated next to the MWR
[7] tent where we had internet access. I talked with some specialist who had a friend in 3-32 AR, and he wanted to know what was going on in Najaf. I told him a bit.
“Man, I wish I was down there with 3-32 AR, you guys are always talked about on the news and in Division Main,” he said. “Do you want to see that video of that Berg guy getting his head cut off? I’ve got it on my laptop in my tent,” he explained enthusiastically.
‘No, thanks,’ I said plainly.
“They don’t cut his head off, they saw it off with a knife,” he went on. “That guy screams for about 15 seconds before they get his head off.”
‘That’s horrible,’ I said plainly again. I excused myself and went to go get lunch at Burger King. When I came back later to the tent, Pinto was sitting up in his cot watching porn and sipping on Diet Coke. I came in and he quickly closed the porno on his screen and shuffled, indicating he was startled that I came in. ‘This guy is just an all around piece of work,’ I thought as I walked by. I could tell he sensed my irritation with him. I actually detested him at that point. He was not a gentleman, not a leader, and ultimately uninspiring. ‘That Army is going to shit,’ I thought.
“We’re leaving at 1530 tomorrow,” he said feebly, I guess perceiving that I detest him.
‘Thanks,’ I replied. I went and found a phone and called you. It almost felt like I was coming home to you. God, I miss you so much Nora! I love you, and I miss your company so dearly! I can’t believe how low society is in the Army, but it’s the nature of the organization.
I then laid down in my cot and went to sleep…and woke up the next morning. I was exhausted, and that was the first good sleep I had experienced since being at Camp Golf. When I awoke, Pinto began speaking to me.
“Our plan is to leave at 1330,” he said, proud that he had a plan of his own for once. He then left the tent.
“I thought he said 1530 yesterday?” Dyke said as he walked over to me.
‘He did say that, you’re right,’ I answered. ‘He must be confused or something.’ It turned out he meant 1530. This morning some guys came into the tent. They were the soldiers I saw the day before that got off the broke helicopters the second time. I guess we took their seats. I don’t know what happened.
At 1600 we all got in two trucks and headed towards the Air Force passenger terminal. We downloaded and checked in to flight operations. Behind the desk, a delicate-looking, tall, rosy cheeked airman in a brand-new-looking armor vest daintily ate strawberry ice cream with a tiny spoon, while absentmindedly staring at the floor. Also behind the service desk, a fat, young female airman wearing a t-shirt was getting hit on by some black lieutenant who gazed dreamily into her eyes and spoke softly to her. She was oblivious to this, as she tapped on the computer. “You know,” she said in a frank and unintelligent way, “I’m getting out. I helped the KBR vice president on the plane yesterday and he gave me a card. He told me to give him a call when I get out and he’ll hire me right away. He’s a retired two star.” She then helped us out, and the lieutenant excused himself. As she helped us, a tall, dashing, Brad Pitt-looking character came up alongside us and spoke to the round girl. “Can I get a vegetarian MRE, please?” he asked. She grabbed an MRE and handed it to him. “Um, excuse me. This is turkey, I asked for a vegetarian,” he said hinting agitation. She gave him another one and he left.
I bought a copy of Foreign Affairs and was excited to get the latest copy. I went to the waiting room and began to read. Pinto set up his computer and Manson and Dyke sat by his side. Manson dropped one of his speakers, “SON OF A BITCH!” he yelled. Everyone in the passenger terminal, mostly civilians, turned and looked at him in shock. He didn’t even notice, and I was embarrassed for him.
Some young woman dressed in a tight tank top and fashion pants then glided past and sat right in front of me. The guys found this extremely entertaining. I found her to be an irritating exhibitionist and paid her no mind. Just another lonely tramp from CPA. I don’t know why many CPA women dress so provocatively. I ignored her and continued to read. She eventually got up and didn’t return, much to my relief. I could now see the live Senate hearings on Abu Ghraib on the TV now.
I noticed the Brad Pitt guy walk by. He had his vegetarian MRE in one hand and an AK-47 in the other, and an Iraqi AK-47 magazine harness across his stomach. ‘These OGA
[8] guys confuse the hell out of me,’ I thought as I contemplated the paradox before me. He caught the flight to Basra.
Some Brown and Root and KBR guys sat around looking like bikers and truck drivers – which they probably were. They have long beards, wear bandanas and shirts saying “Who’s your Baghdaddy!” and “Harley Davidson, Iraq” and some other patriotic style shirts referencing Operation Iraqi Freedom. One shows an attractive-looking topless blonde with her back to the viewer holding a sign saying, “Operation Iraqi Freedom! This time we went all the way!”
‘Yeah, we did alright,’ I said to myself. I watched the Senate hearing closely, with Mark Warner as chairman. I just wrote him a second letter a few weeks ago. Senator Lindsay Graham did a great job questioning General Poncheeze and General Abdulla and the others sitting before him.
I’ll continue with this story tomorrow. I love you Nora, and I can’t wait to get home to you! I am so in love with you, and can’t wait until we’re married!

Mosques became the hiding place of choice for terrorists. They would camp out in mosques, turning them into extremist youth hostels. The problem for us was, entering or attacking mosques was almost out of the question for many reasons. We had to respect the religion of the people, or risk losing their support (and yes, we did have much support among Iraqis). So how do you respect their religion and fight the enemy at the same time? Other than going in with guns blazing, there were few options. Instead of constant standoffs with the fighters, I thought about the application of noxious gasses and sedative chemicals being introduced into the mosques. Some would call this chemical warfare and utterly inhumane, but I believe it’s more humane that shooting a thumb-size piece of steel into someone’s abdomen. I believe we need to develop “soft” weapons for applications such as mosque standoffs. Enemy controlled mosques posed an unnecessary threat to both Iraqis and Americans, and when they were eventually retaken by force, the anti-American media would capitalize on the brutality used.

[1] He later slept with his best friend’s wife when he returned from Iraq. I did not think he was that kind of person, but life is full of surprises.
[2] The site was rebuilt by Saddam Hussein and is a very simple complex.
[3] Point of contact
[4] Unmanned Aerial Vehicle
[5] Fragmentary Order issued by 2ACR tasking soldiers to go to UAV school.
[6] Liaison officer
[7] Morale Welfare and Recreation provides recreational activities for troops.
[8] Other Government Agency, term often used to describe special armed groups.

Friday, May 14, 2004

We Reject Al-Jazeera Interview; Seek Friendlier Press - The Sadr Lie: Militia Attacks Holy Sites to Incite Violence

14 May, 2004 2340 Camp Golf

It’s a quiet night, but it won’t be for much longer. A palace once belonging to Saddam is being occupied by Mahdi Army fighters on the west side of the Euphrates. At around 0200 our task force will launch an artillery and missile strike on the palace, completely destroying it. Normally that would arouse a great deal of excitement, but moods have been subdued and tense as the standoff between us and Sadr seems to be going nowhere. Over the past few days, street fighting has occurred, sometimes street battles between our troops and Sadr’s gangs.
The situation is confusing, because one report says Sadr is considering a ceasefire, and the next he is endorsing the kidnapping of female soldiers to be had as slaves. Sistani is supposedly negotiating a demilitarization of Najaf, the senior Shia leaders are against Sadr, and deadlines are set. Then, Sadr’s militia goes and loots IP stations with impunity and preaches violence against Americans today. That may be why the Army has chosen to conduct operations as normal. “Normal” meaning movement to contact, and until recently, deliberately trying to instigate fights in order to kill fighters. This is the Pancho strategy, move out and find trouble, start shooting, use overwhelming force, and leave before the fight gets too big. I’m just a bit upset we do this in neighborhoods, kill maybe 3 guys, but destroy property and wound or kill more innocents that fighters. It’s almost a form of mass punishment, as in Fallujah. Something deep inside says it’s wrong.
Today’s battles took place near the Ali Shrine and parts of the expansive cemetery. Of course, all of these “sacred” places are refuges for Mahdi fighters, so when these sites are even slightly damaged, it is our fault. I remember watching on the 6th of May as mortar rounds exploded in the town of Kufa. I saw it with my own eyes. Mahdi Army, or some other force other than U.S. Army, was dropping mortars on their own people, fellow Muslims at least (since the distinction is so important to them), so they could blame the Americans. Arab media, politicians, and religious figures – although not all – have tried to exaggerate and sometimes absolutely lie about what is going on here. What’s their goal? What is the end state? Even if the U.S. left today, they would still have the same problems. It’s almost as if there’s an Arab conspiracy to sink Iraq into chaos, and how that would benefit the Middle East, I do not know.
I do wonder how this came to be. Arab media is clearly against us, but in all fairness, we are clearly against Arab media (the chief outlets anyhow, like Al-Arabia and Al-Jazeera). I know there’s a near hatred of Al-Jazeera by the U.S. government, but I remember in Operation Enduring Freedom, we bombed their buildings in Kabul. I also remember their office in Baghdad was curiously bombed as well, by the U.S. Surely it was one of those unfortunate accidents under Bush’s vigilante-style leadership. Then, Al-Jazeera came to our compound and asked to speak with LTC Jagger for an interview here in Najaf a few days ago. We told them no, and to go away. I began to wonder if Arab media has a problem with us, or if we have a problem with it. Al-Jazeera is a major news outlet, very popular, and a good medium to communicate to the Arab world. I, personally, would have spoken to Al-Jazeera had I been LTC Jagger. You can’t blame a news agency for being anti-American if you refuse to talk to them or if they broadcast images from the terrorists’ perspective. That’s just as newsworthy as CNN riding around with the U.S. Army. FOX News could easily be viewed as anti-Arab. LTC Jagger not talking to Al-Jazeera was disappointing, but not because Al-Jazeera is a great news channel, but it’s a way to communicate to the Arab world. Talking to CNN is fine, but the West already knows what the Army is doing here, the Arabs may not be so sure. By turning powerhouse news media away, we left them insulted and more likely to report against us. And maybe I’m drawing a false correlation here, but I can’t help it. And when I see the same men that turned Arab media away complain that the same Arab media isn’t reporting fairly, I shake my head in frustration. They can’t see the forest for the trees.
“Hey,” Knight 6 said, “We need to get with PAO (Public Affairs Office) and have them arrange some Arab press to come to Najaf so these people understand what we are doing.” He said this today after Jane Sharif of CNN told him people in An-Najaf don’t really know why the U.S. Army is rolling around the city and getting into fights. Now the battalion wants to talk to Arab media. It seems we have a general disregard for relationship building and an inability to realize the benefits thereof. Now, some small media outlet will visit us, and we will have checked the block on another worthless, token gesture. Yeah, you can argue Al-Jazeera shows our soldiers getting attacked and dead, but our media does the same thing and did it as we rolled into Baghdad – live on TV. Who can forget the Marines shooting Iraqi soldiers down and cheering, or charred bodies on the “Highway of Death” from Gulf War I? It’s just reality, so let’s deal with it.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Reflecting on a Year in Iraq: Hawkish "Christian" Leaders, Democratic Bolshevism, and How it Feels to be Genuinely Stuck in Iraq

See original video never seen before or learn more about the book at www.American-Interrupted.com.

11 May, 2004 2300 Camp Golf

It’s been a year ago today that I left home and everything dear to me for the Middle East, having put aside my skepticism of the war in the genuine hope of doing something good for these people and building friendships. There was the mission of the U.S. Army, and then my personal mission, and these two missions were often in disagreement. The Army’s mission is yet to be accomplished, but my mission has been successful, and although most of this deployment has been exceedingly stressful, morally draining, and violent…the ties I made with this country have deepened my understanding of the world and confirmed many of my hypotheses.
This has been a year of loss and sorrow, of death and paranoia, of dark days you before thought only existed far away, to other people, or Hollywood plots. A year spent with disappointing men, with only a few exceptions, and serving under a disappointing president during a disappointing time in American history. It was a year the mask of excellence was lifted from Washington D.C., from Capitol Hill, from the White House to reveal our extraordinary leaders are anything but. It was a year that saw the CIA and the FBI and U.S. Army and U.S. Marines lose its prestige and reputation to armed gangs and cheap explosive devices and Islamic murderers hiding in hills. It was a year the world lost faith in our policies, not exactly at difference over why the U.S. was doing what it was doing – but how.
This was a year of realizing exactly how precious life is, of dodging bullets and corruption, and egos and flaws, of good people dying. It was a year that proved principles and doing the right thing does matter, because it’s the few that do the right thing and strive for human excellence that quietly carry the burden of hope in a world of chaos, ensuring our fragile world doesn’t slip into total chaos.
It was a year when I saw the worst come out in people on both sides of the conflict. I also saw a lot of good from the soldiers too. I saw soldiers scared, but confront that fear and go into Baghdad when it all fell apart in April, knowing they would face certain contact. They made it back home to base. It was a year of playing Russian roulette every time I left the base. It was a year of placing my life in the hands of others, and often times having no faith in those hands. It’s a year I learned that it’s time to trust my judgment and intuition, because it’s proved to be a trusted friend, proven, and reliable friend in Iraq.
It was a year that I realized officers really aren’t intelligent as I thought they were. I learned the military and the defense folks need to be constantly scrutinized and controlled, because the very characteristics of real military culture promote pride, self-congratulation, righteousness through strength, excess, and exaggeration. It empowers many people of the lowest quality and protects them. When afforded too much or absolute protection or shelter, people misbehave. The military must be controlled strictly and independently. Currently, it is afforded too much space for mischief.
It was a year of stepping into the blackest night, not knowing what to expect and not being able to see. It was a year of trusting God, of believing He’s protecting your life, of feeling guilty for not thanking God enough for my life, or feeling distant from Him because of the senseless violence all around. I’ve never lost faith though, and I never will. I just grew sad over this year, because I realized evil is as real as God, and sometimes evil can prey on good and sometimes it just doesn’t make sense. But, God is peace, and even though we may lose some good people in this world, we should be happy they are resting in peace.
It’s true, what life has taught me, you are either a human beast, or a human being. We’re capable of learning from our human past, and we should be moving forward. Every time we enter into warfare, greed, exploitation, and other evils, we stain our collective human soul, poison it, and become sick. Improving quality of life should be our main concern, building relationships and dialog. Inclusiveness. We live in a world of haves and have-nots and something must be done before they turn our world into a hell where populations suffer each other’s sins. In any case, war is not the answer, it’s only a quick fix and rejection of diplomacy. We should be ashamed of war, and shun those to engage in it. Perhaps the U.S. is experiencing that now.
I wonder sometimes if the industrial military complex, not just in the U.S., but around the world, is meeting legitimate defense requirements, or using its influence in government to create a demand. These hawkish forces can be found in any country. Dick Chaney, Berlusconi, Robert Mugabe, Saddam Hussein, Sharon, Bush, Chavez, Arafat, Kim Jung Ill, and others…they all share several characteristics, foremost being hawkishness and a lack of respect for subtle diplomacy and diplomatic strategy. If you think about it, the world isn’t at war, it’s individuals, it’s the hawks of the world at war with each other. They control armies because they are hawks, they are aggressive, they are calculating, they intimidate others, they accumulate wealth through exploitation and use that wealth to attain deeper influence. Good people don’t behave this way, in any part of the world. Sensible people with a rich understanding of a wide variety of people and classes aren’t aggressive or arrogant, intimidators, con-men, greedy, or dubious. Unfortunately, every society has hawks in it, and it is no mystery why, they arrogantly push and shove their way to positions of authority and good people yield to them rather than be like them. These same hawks have always been around. They made their fortunes using slave labor, exporting missile technology, oil, supplying war machines and services, stealing land. Good people don’t behave like that. A hawk sees opportunity everywhere a good person does not. The money earned through exploiting these immoral opportunities translates into power which secures hawks and future generations of hawks. The world still has many warlords, and some wear suits and ties.
Common people around the world and those interested in improving their quality of life are caught between the battles of the hawks or sent to fight in wars for them in exchange for money to improve their quality of life. Common people yield to hawks, generally. They work for low wages, or none at all.
Maybe hawks, these enemies of good and peace, these sadists and self-styled warriors, champions of master causes…maybe it’s all just a fact of life that they exist. It probably is just a fact of life. Good people exist too though, and they are many and possess power and influence in government as a reward given by the people for their service to improving the lives of people. Hawks attract support from people who imagine themselves as soldiers of the hawk’s army, of contributing force to a conflict, in being raised in social status through association with the hawks. Hawks promise grand rewards and conquests, and their support base follows along, never realizing the reward will only go to a few, and these few hawks at the top take the largest portions of the reward, leaving a small residual bit to the support base (middle America) in an act of mock generosity. Good people don’t behave like this.
Since this will probably always be the case, it is so important good uses its authority to exert control on the hawkish elements in government and society, and draw hawks into the open for scrutiny and debate, for in this respect, good people are better suited to handle hawks because good has little to hide, while hawks must craft deceptions. Good can exert moral authority.
Hawks and sincere elements must coexist. As an imperfect society, we can only hope to exercise moral authority in the face of hawks by showing an absolute reluctance to use force. Blanket support for war is not acceptable for wars such as Iraq. The hawks needed to make their case to the people in America, Congress should have scrutinized it and the plans for postwar Iraq. Congress failed America, and even Americans failed themselves.
This Friday, over 150,000 protesters will peacefully march from An-Najaf to Al-Kufa, right past our camp, to exercise their moral authority and right to demand Moktadr Al-Sadr and the Mahdi Militia leave Najaf and Kufa. Common people will stand up to the hawk and tell him to fight elsewhere. Should they succeed, it would be a great milestone in a “new” Iraqi history.
[1] This is a time in world history when men of violence, hatred, religion, ideals, have intimidated everyone from rural Pennsylvania to An-Najaf to Bejing to Bali. Good, common, working people are not found only on one continent. They are found all around the world. They are an authority, and should face these men and let them know their violence and deception is not wanted. The world’s psychological balance is disrupted in these times, negative psychology prevails, and leading nations seem more adversarial in their approach to each other. We need to heal as a world, and key world leaders will need to be voted out of office to facilitate a shift in focus.
The war alone is a horrible thing for many, but despite all the violence and frustration, one of the greatest sorrows was being away from you. You step into such uncharted territory, such uncertainty, where no matter how much you wish to be in another place, in another time with you, you realize this isn’t “The Wizard of Oz” and you can’t simply click your heals and go home. Never before has faith been so vital to survival and death so close.
Sometimes this does feel like a bad dream, and it only makes it worse that it’s a nightmare orchestrated by Bush – although inadvertently – through sloppy planning and wishful thinking. I would never have imagined I would be in such a situation, where I would be part of an organization I fundamentally disagree with.
This year I’ve spent away from you, my best friend and soul mate, and being gone for a year was unimaginable before I came here. I never want to do it again. There’s nights when you just can’t suppress the feelings of loneliness, when you lay in your cot and tears suddenly fill your eyes and you’re reminded that you are nothing without love. I’ve laid in the night, sometimes in a pool of my own sweat, dying inside, feeling I would fade away or dry up like a flower without water, because I missed you so. As time went on, I realized at any given time, I was holding back a flood of emotion back, behind a gate wired shut, where the mere thought of being gone from you would break that thin wire, and I would break down wherever I happened to be. To be away from you and your wonderful love was to be cast into an abyss, and no amount of socializing among other soldiers could compensate for that. Usually, they only troubled my mind further with their shallow and vulgar minds. No one understands our love the way we do, and nothing could replace it.
Your heart is broken when you are away like this. It’s a physical pain you can feel in you chest, in your heart. I long so much to be relieved of that feeling and love you once again. I live for you completely.
Despite all of this heartache, we stay strong, and we keep each other strong. We’ve deepened our love, our faith, and our trust. Those three elements can pull love through any challenge, and any length of time. It’s amazing how we care for each other though – countless letters, countless hours on the phone, so many packages you’ve sent. You’re always there for me, I can always count on you.
I look up at the now familiar Arabian night sky and gaze at the stars, my close friends over this past year. Those same stars will ever hang in the sky and endure – like our love. Under those same points of light we’ll lay not too long from now, and those stars will smile just for us, because they know how long we’ve wished upon them to be together again. I love you, I’m so thankful for you, and I can’t wait to spend forever with you.

Sometimes I wondered if we were not unintentionally promoting anarchy because of this war on terror. I mean, we were encouraging and supporting rebellious elements of the population in their struggle against Saddam Hussein – thinking their struggle was one to free themselves of his rule. Sometimes I wondered if the struggle was to free themselves of all rules so they could establish a Shia theocracy. That would explain why Americans were in the crosshairs of Shia rebels. Many of them comprised the poorest and worst educated parts of Iraq, but it was these very people who we were making the masters of Iraq in the period of a year. This belief in empowering the weak and oppressed is noble, but it has to be done carefully. Sometimes it seemed the transfer of power bordered on a form of Bolshevism.

[1] The march was later canceled and never took place.

Friday, May 07, 2004

Colonel Strangelove: How Our Operations Center Came to Love the Bomb; Mazin Suddenly Shows Up At My Door

7 May, 2004 2350 Camp Golf, Najaf

Our first major assault on Najaf was yesterday. I wasn’t able to write about it right away because of the operations tempo and mortar battle later that night.
[1] had visited the TOC, so I figured something was going on. I then read the operations order for operation “Knight Face-off,” which verified an operation in Najaf was ready to kick off on order. I surrendered to the fact that we were going deeper into Najaf and focused on what would be needed on my part to help. That would mean running the radios and tracking the battle and passing info to the brass. LTC Jagger would be running the operation to take back the governor’s palace from his tank. CNN would go along in one of our up-armored Hummers. The operation would kick off at 1645 on 6 May.
Crusader tank company, or elements of it, along with Apache troop scouts rolled into Najaf, while Iron Troop (attached to us) approached Kufa from the east, across the Euphrates in a fake attack posture that successfully lured Al-Sadr into believing we were attacking from the east. Sadr’s militia came out of the woodwork near the Kufa Bridge, with RPGs and AK-47s. Iron reported 28 dead enemy, and continued to draw fire and return fire without being decisively engaged. Iron was under a lot of fire, and mortar impacts, but not long after calling in the 28 enemy KIA, they killed an additional 12 Mahdi Army dead.
About this same time, SSG Siegel asked for help on the radios because he was stressing out. I jumped on the radio in time to monitor the takeover of the governor’s palace and the ensuing firefights in the surrounding areas’ alleyways and side streets. CPT Berlin responded very well to all the attacks on his company. It’s hard to believe he is a seasoned combat tank commander now – probably seen more combat than 3rd Infantry ever did invading Iraq. “Knight X-Ray, Crusader 6,” he called. “We’re taking heavy RPG fire to the west! I’m going to attack to the west and neutralize the threat,” he announced while small arms could be heard firing in the background. I had one of my radios listening to his company frequency too, so I heard everything going on on the streets. He was given permission to attack, and he did under heavy fire. He identified a small side street where some fire was coming from. They went to the south side of the neighborhood street. A machine gunner was set up on the far end of the street on a curb and opened fire on CPT Berlin’s tank.
“The rounds were flying right past my head,” he later told me. He was up in his TC
[2] hatch when the Iraqi gunner fired on his tank. “(Berlin’s tank gunner, name I can’t recall) opened up on him with coax and just tore him up.” CPT Berlin got off his tank to recover the Iraqi’s machinegun, AK-47 and ammunition. Digital photos were taken of the corpse to show the man behind the machinegun, in case there was any doubt.
At some point around the same time, a Mahdi Army militiaman came around the corner with an RPG, and then ran away. Crusaders regained contact with the fighter and shot him with coax, but he ran away wounded. I heard the crews on the radio (company frequency) trying to shoot the dropped RPG warheads to disable them. They succeeded.
CPT Berlin found the wounded man not long after the man was shot. He drove up in his tank and dismounted. “The guy was mortally wounded,” he explained later in our TOC as we reviewed the digital photos taken of the KIA, “By the time I ran up to him, his eyes kept rolling in the back of his head,” he said. “He understands democracy now.” CPT Berlin is a good guy, a good guy in a bad situation. His character is unquestionable.
We looked at the pictures and came to the one of the RPG fighter. “Yeah, this guy is riddled with holes,” CPT Berlin explained while pointing things out on the laptop computer screen. “Here you see some wires (you could see wire around the body), an RPG warhead was wired to the body, almost with a death switch-looking configuration. It looked like his buddies were trying to rig him up for detonation before we got him.” He pointed to the green headband laying in the human mess (trademark of Sadr Mahdi), “Here’s his, ‘I’m a Sadr asshole’ headband,” he said dryly, but in a tone of honesty and cold reality. He didn’t rejoice, he just told what happened without any showing of emotion or glamour. As he spoke, I noticed dried blood splattered on the inside of his right pant leg and several blood stains at other points on his uniform.
LTC Jagger and CPT Peters of Apache troop seized the governor’s palace with support from A Co. and C Co. The operation went well. At the Ministry of Culture and Agriculture, as well as the palace, the soldiers were greeted by Iraqi guards from the Iraqi Protection Service or Facility Protection Service. They were cooperative and worked with the Army to help secure the area. The operation was a success. The Kiowas spotted an RPG fighter in the Ali Shrine graveyard, but other than that, the city appeared calm.
“CRACKBOOM!!!” I felt a shock of compressed air slap my face. I noticed the windows in front of me in our command post fly open and dust was hanging in the air. People were running out of the TOC (Major Ramirez was one of the first to run away) as soon as the blast went off. Ferrello, my assistant, sprinted away instantly at the explosion’s extremely loud blast. I jumped up immediately too and got three feet away from the radios when I felt the tug of the microphone in my right hand. CPT Smalls was the only other soldier who stayed at his station.
‘What am I doing?’ I thought quickly, ‘I can’t just leave the radios!’ I scolded myself. When you are in a blast like that, your senses and thoughts are stunned for a few seconds – I know this all to well. I got under the table, ‘Knight Log, this is Knight X-Ray, initiate battle hand-off procedures on order, Knight X-Ray is under indirect fire at this time,’ I said with a clearness and calmness even I found surprising later. A mortar round landed outside of the building on the other side of the wall facing me. On the other side of that wall was also the signal truck. It’s like a small RV that is always manned. It carried equipment related to running our digital phone network, our military internet as well.
“Someone check the sim (signal) guy!” someone yelled as they slowly began to come back into the TOC. He was OK, the generator took some shrapnel, flattening the trailer tires and chipping holes in brick and plaster wall.
Everyone came back into the TOC and thought it was funny I was under the table. I thought it was funny they all ran away. We laughed and went on with what we were doing before the blast. Our artillery team picked up the enemy mortar launches on radar, and the decision was made to fire artillery on the area where repeated mortar attacks had been launched. Iron Troop was also taking some limited mortar fire from the same place. 3 rounds of devastating 155 millimeter artillery were fired.
“ROUNDS OUT!” SFC Capone announced. Moments later, “DOOM, DOOM, DOOM!” echoed all across the place. “ROUNDS COMPLETE!” SFC Capone announced to let everyone know the fire mission was complete.
“Knight X-Ray, Knight 6,” LTC Jagger called in a few seconds later. “Yeah…the IPs hauled ass when they heard the 155 go off.”
Down at the governor’s palace, most everything was under control and the objective was seized before sunset. It would be a major blow to Al-Sadr’s militia. There wasn’t much resistance to the attack. I talked to Haider, our translator, about the public reaction. “It’s really a surprise,” he said to me in great English as he exhaled cigarette smoke. “All the people say they’ve been waiting for a big U.S. attack and that they want Sadr gone. At one checkpoint we had set up, an old man started yelling at the soldiers. I thought he was angry at them, but what he was saying was, ‘Why do you just sit here? Sadr is in Kufa now! Go get him! We want him gone!’”
Later, Major Stanton asked if I thought our base would get mortared that night. ‘Yes, Sir,” I answered. ‘They have to hit us after a defeat like today, or else they’ll look too weak.’
“So you think they’ll lose face if they don’t?” he asked.
‘Roger, exactly,’ I answered. He nodded with his good-natured grin, hinting that he was thinking the same thing.
“THUD…..CRABOOM! CRABOOM!” started going off, several times while I was sitting in my room. Many times you can hear the mortar launch in the distance, even if you are sitting indoors. It sounds like a muffled “THUMP.” You stop what you are doing and count to three or so – then CRACKBOOM! Usually it lands in the distance, about 200 meters away, but the mortarmen adjust and each “CRACKBOOM” gets louder as it gets closer to our building – their main target, which also happens to be where I sleep. Usually, at least one round gets within 75 meters of our building or somewhere close to it. That’s when you say to yourself, “Goddamn it!” not because you are scared, but because you are angry.
About 14 rounds hit us, and they sounded louder that the usual 60mm rounds. They were probably 82mm. One round fell next to one of our armored personnel carriers (an M113) that was set up waiting to fire mortars at the enemy mortaring us. It actually landed between the track and the large, multistory building next to it. Just minutes before, soldiers had been standing there smoking cigarettes. CPT Nash was on the other side of the wall where the blast went off. He later recalled, like an AME preacher, how loud it was. Lord have mercy! SFC Rocker later told us what happened:
“I shit you not gentlemen,” he said in his strong, military-but-non-threatening voice, “that mortar almost scored a direct hit on us. There was nothing but smoke. I looked at the other side of that aluminum alloy armored vehicle and could see big thumb-sized chunks taken out of it from the shrapnel. That mortarman is getting extra frisky. Had those smoking soldiers stayed there a few minutes, they would have been Swiss cheese,” he confided.
Not long after those very impacts, we were able to determine where the rounds were coming from. “Acquisition!” one of the fire support (field artillery) guys yelled. The Q-36 radar interface screen displayed a grid showing where the enemy rounds were being fired from. In the TOC, grids were being yelled and our mortar team was ready to fire back. At about the same time, two Air Force F-16s were conducting combat air patrol when they noticed the flashes of light below in the night. Our regimental air liaison people began talking to them. We also had a Hunter UAV in the air that identified a mortar tube in a field that was still hot from being fired. It was abandoned because our mortars fired a few rounds at the point of origin grid location and apparently the enemy mortar team ran for cover.
“The F-16s have eyes on the mortar tube and our rounds impacting,” CPT Nash said as he spoke to an ALO person on the land line (telephone) to our regimental HQ’s at Camp Duke in the desert. “If you want, the F-16s say they can adjust our fires,” CPT Nash said.
“Adjust fires with F-16s?” LTC Jagger reflected amused, “That’s a first, they don’t teach that one in school. Do Air Force pilots even know how to adjust fires?” Major Stanton grinned widely. “Well, if they think they can do it, let’s do it,” LTC Jagger said. “This shit has got to end before someone gets killed.”
So our mortars fired several salvos of mortar rounds, and CPT Nash stood with the telephone up to his ear as he relayed adjustment data to our arty guys who relayed it to our mortar guys outside in the parking lot. The pilots talked to the ALO guy in the desert HQs who talked to CPT Nash on the phone.
“UP 80!” CPT N yelled. “LEFT 20!” and several subsequent adjustments, until we fired over 30 120mm rounds into an open field in Kufa. “F-16s reporting mortar tube still standing!” CPT N announced.
“Call Assassin and have them fire and try to take that tube out – they get one shot,” Knight 6 (LTC Jagger) said. Assassin is our artillery battery sitting outside An-Najaf, they fire 155mm.
“Regiment also reports F-16s are armed with 500 pound bombs,” said Captain Nash. Everyone looked at each other and laughed,
“500 pound bomb? For what?” Everyone agreed that the pilots we could hear flying overhead must have been itching to drop a bomb. You could also sense unseen forces pushing the Knights to request a bomb drop from regimental TOC.
“I think a 500 pound bomb is a little too much,” Knight 6 said as he sat by the phone. Everyone stood around him wide eyed with excitement, and silently chanting “DROP THE BOMB, DROP THE BOMB” Stiller, Pedro, and I looked at each other with the same expressions, we all agreed everyone around us had gone crazy.
“I can’t believe this,” Stiller said in a way indicating his disgust, “they can’t wait to drop a bomb on a freaking mortar tube.”
“They’re like little kids playing Army,” Pedro went on, “they have their plastic soldiers knocking over the bad soldiers, this is all it is,” he chuckled at the absurdity.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘I guess little boys who play soldier sometimes grow up to be big boys who play soldier. Some people never outgrow the pulling-wings-off-insects stage or burning ants under a magnifying glass stage.’
“I mean,” Stiller went on, “why are they going to drop a freaking 500 pound bomb? Look, they can’t resist the temptation. Do you think they’ll drop it?” he asked.
‘Actually, I think they will. It’s too enticing, and I think Colonel Leroux is crazy. When we first got to Iraq; I believed our leaders were intelligent. Now, nothing surprises me – not even dropping a 500 pound bomb on a mortar tube,’ I responded.
“No shit,” Stiller went on, “after Sadr City, everything changed, everyone’s gone crazy, human beings don’t even exist anymore.” Pedro and I agreed.
Stiller killed an RPG gunner firing on his truck on April 4 when Sadr City exploded into urban warfare. He was with Foley and SSG Newsome. He took him down with an M240. That next night when he returned, I left him alone, gave him some space, let him be. I knew he had killed someone, and since he’s a good guy at heart, I figured he would take it hard, regardless if the guy he killed was trying to kill him. People kept walking up to him that night trying to shake his hand and congratulating him. He looked like he wanted to vomit, and he stared at the floor, disturbed look on his face. I wished everyone would give him some space. I never talked to him about this, but he began talking about it when we were talking about dropping the bomb. “You know what happened with me and Sadr City, right?” he asked. We nodded. “Well, everyone kept coming up to me and wanting to shake my hand and patting me on the back and shit. Telling me what a good job I did. I though, ‘What the hell is wrong with these people?’ Yeah, the guy was trying to kill me, but you don’t have to celebrate that shit.” My notions earlier about Stiller’s state of mind following Sadr City were confirmed.
“Well, what would a 500 pound bomb do?” Knight 6 asked nobody in particular.
“Sir,” Major Stanton answered, “it has a 100 meter kill radius. Other effects occur at different distances, such as hearing loss, etc.”
“Well,” Knight 6 said, “I’m not going to drop it unless the old man says so. A 500 pound bomb is overkill, like swatting flies with a sledgehammer.” Knight 6 left the room, “Come get me if anything else happens.”
We weren’t going to drop the bomb? The excitement in the TOC fizzled a bit. The artillery already fired, but the F-16s continued to circle and reported the tube was still in the field.
We got another phone call from regiment. CPT Nash answered. “So Rider 6 (Colonel Leroux) gives the go-ahead if Knight 6 wants to use the bomb?” he repeated. This later turned into the message, “Rider 6 is giving the go-ahead to drop the bomb.” Excitement began to grow again. Someone went to go get Knight 6 from his room. As he came into our HQ, he said, “OK, now what is going on?” I spoke up as he came in,
‘Sir, I think there is some confusion over the colonel’s words…,’ and then I stopped. I could feel eyes in the room telling me desperately to stop talking and stop interfering with the inevitable bomb drop. I just wanted him to know the truth. He walked past. CPT Nash handed him the phone. It was a little frustrating hearing all the confusion. Knight 6 then talked directly to the regimental commander (Rider RTOC).
“What’s going on?” Knight 6 asked the other person on the other end of the phone. “Well, you’re giving everyone here a woody,” Knight 6 said skeptically. “What does the old man say?” There was a pause. “Well, go wake him up and find out.” Knight 6 wasn’t too thrilled about the prospects of dropping a bomb.
“It sounds like Rider 6 wants Knight 6 to take responsibility for dropping the bomb.” Stiller said.
After some chatter, it was decided to drop the bomb, but it would be dropped at a safe distance from the nearby houses and still be able to destroy the seemingly indestructible mortar tube.
Everyone went on top of the roof to get a view of the bomb drop. I stood on the roof and listened to the F-16s circle Najaf. After a few minutes you could hear an F-16 coming in fast and low from the west heading east towards Kufa. This would undoubtedly be the attack bombing run. Off in the target area, we saw a dim ribbon of flame – nothing spectacular – rise from the horizon. Seconds later we heard the “BOOM” from the explosion. You could hear the jets continue circle. “That’s it?” Sergeant Gonzales asked. “That was weak!” Everyone agreed that the MK-82 500 pound bomb was no more exciting that a common mortar blast. The excitement fading, everyone left the rooftop soberly.
‘Well, now it will be safe to call Nora,’ I thought. I figured the Mahdi Army had enough for a night. I went to the phone and waited for quite a while for quite a while for Serano to get off the phone. He got off the phone after a mortar exploded behind the building, followed by a few more.
I didn’t mind the mortars, because no one was on the phone then! I got on the phone and called you. It was so good to hear your voice, but how to explain what was going on? We talked for only a few minutes before a loud explosion sounded and I had to get off the phone abruptly. I thought it was incoming, but it was actually outgoing. I determined it would be smarter to go indoors for the rest of the night. Sometimes you have to tell yourself you must go inside, no matter what.
I love you Nora, I can’t wait to live normally – peace is such a luxury. You are the greatest source of peace for me on this earth, and I am so grateful to you for all you’re doing! MUAH!

At this stage in the fight, unofficial estimates put the death toll at 1,400 fighters killed. The number of wounded was estimated at 4,000. Force protection on the base became an increasing concern, especially with the probable brownouts (sand storms). Some were worried that a crack team of Sadr special forces would penetrate the compound and blow up our TOC building. Whenever the weather or visibility deteriorated, guards were posted on the TOC entrances.
The mortar attacks had become so routine, that people began to sleep through them. I always jumped out of my cot and ran into the operations room to see what was going on. Foley would always roll on his side and curse me for getting up. I had to laugh as he kept his eyes shut and pulled his sleeping bag over his head even while rounds were landing next to our building. Many of the doors in the TOC building had to be padded to keep them from slamming shut. Many times, a door would slam and make a sound similar to that of a mortar exploding. The sound would send some from the command staff running from their rooms and into the TOC. Sometimes people in the TOC thought the noise was a mortar exploding. After a while, people would say “DOOR!” out loud to let all those around know that we weren’t under attack. It became funny after a while.

It was around this time that I had an Iraqi visitor show up at my door. I was shocked. It was Mazin, Assad’s brother from Baghdad. He came all the way from Baghdad to see me, despite the fighting in Najaf. I was worried about his safety. I thought the Mahdi militia would be watching the base to see who was coming and who was leaving. Mazin has a poor wife and several kids. He was living in some abandoned Iraqi Army buildings when we left Baghdad. The Army was his only source of income, and after we left Baghdad, his future looked bleak. The Army paid him very well. Some of the mechanics from our battalion donated a refrigerator, bags of clothes, and other items to his family. His wife was overjoyed. The unit that replaced us in Baghdad wasn’t interested in hiring him. So, he came to Najaf looking to work with his American friends again. It was extremely risky.
I opened my door, and there stood Mazin. I thought I would never see him again – but there he was in front of my door. I immediately jumped up and gave him a big hug. We walked down to my truck so I could smuggle him a case of my MREs. He was staying with Haider (Assad’s cousin), who was a translator for Apache Troop. The day that Mazin arrived, we were hit hard by mortar fire. Mazin was worried. He talked to me about the situation in Baghdad. I don’t know if it was true or not, but he told me that all of the laborers we had once employed were fired. He said they were replaced with Christian Iraqis, because they pose less of a security threat. He said the Army wasn’t hiring in Baghdad, and he needed a job – it didn’t matter what job.
I asked around and talked to a few in the leadership about his situation. The problem was, we were frequently under attack, and there were no tasks for general laborers. We had some laborers off and on, but no permanent ones. I wasn’t able to help Mazin at all. I would be in the TOC all day and then come outside to speak to him periodically. He waited for good news, but there was none. He would have to go back to Baghdad empty handed. I really felt like I let him down.

[1] Assistant Division Commander Maneuver
[2] Tank commander’s hatch (positioned on top of the turret)