Thursday, April 10, 2003

Last Thoughts Before Deploying to Iraq and Reflection on Deployment


April 10, 2003

I am weak – but strong
I am soft – but hard
I am brokenhearted – but full of love
I am sad – but I am faithful

This is how I feel as I face deployment to Iraq. I feel utterly as if my nation has gone mad. I even see it at work. The Army doesn’t make sense to me anymore, in any way. I think I understand it too well.
Yesterday was one of the hardest days of my life, no, it was the day before (I am really tired right now). I had to tell Nora that they are sending us away to Iraq. I saw her, and could only smile a little, and hated the news that I brought, like a bomb waiting to explode. I have never felt so sad in my entire life. I still feel close to death, like someone you don’t trust (like Bush) is holding a gun to my head while ripping out my heart. She is so precious to me, and I was seriously reminded of that when the thought of leaving turned into the reality of leaving. I am bitter. I feel like a slave, and the bitter calm I was feeling then was only my submission to the fact that my unit is leaving, the beginning of the end is near. I despise it though, I pray for all who have died senselessly, and hope for true justice for all involved. I cannot live without Nora, and the thought of being away is so sorrowful that I know I must focus on the positive – that we will be safe, and that she and I will have our own life too, and that is what is most important in my life – making her happy. I know the truth about this war, I believe, despite all the focus on the smiling Iraqi faces. I am ashamed that we are allowing our minds to be cheaply rented by illiterate liars and war mongerers. People have been killed, human suffering on a wide scale, but we’ll forget all of that, look, Iraqi’s are smiling. What should they do? Revolt? Just another armed presence in their land. War is wrong, it is satanic, and this war strikes my conscience clearly and unmistakably. I will not let this fade from my memory or lessen in absurdity over time. Something is going wrong in America. I don’t like the implications, but I hope for the best, I really do. I love you Spatzi. I will come home to you, and there will we truly begin.

The week leading up to the deployment was a one of nonsense and aggravation. In my operations section, we were required to stay in our meeting room office until the evening hours, even though there were no tasks to complete. All of our vehicles had been moved to port, most of our equipment was already on a boat headed for Kuwait, but we had to sit around in an empty office. When we would ask to go home, SFC Smith would simply say, “I don’t give a shit if you all stay here all night! I have no family to go home to. What do I care, I’m divorced.” We sat around staring at each other until 1900 hours everyday. That was about two hours longer than we stayed in the office during a busy day. No reason was ever given as to why we had to sit around. I decided I would bring home with me if we weren’t allowed to go home. For several days before I left for Iraq, Nora came to work with me. It was hard for my sergeants to tell a woman to leave the office, so she was allowed to stay. She came to work with me and sat with me during those longer than usual afternoons. It was in that operations office that we spent the most time together during the week before my deployment.
I remember the day that we deployed very well. All the wives and children were waiting along with their soldiers while the soldiers scrambled to collect last minute uniform items. Soldiers waited for hours for their sensitive items (night vision goggles and weapons) in long lines accompanied by patient wives and girlfriends. It was like Chinese water torture, each slowly passing minute reminding you that you were about to cross into a great abyss, a great unknown, and you were about to pass into it very soon.
Soon came. I stood in the parking lot of my battalion building and hugged Nora for the last time. We cried tremendously, my heart ached as never before, and I could feel my soul being ripped out of me. I ached, I tried to collect myself, I had promised myself not to cry. It’s a sign of weakness. No, I could not hold back. I picked up my things, my rifle, my rucksack, my armored vest, my two duffel bags, my 6-pack of water, my helmet bag. It all weighed a ton. Nora’s mom commented that there was no way I could carry all that weight, that it was to heavy. Nothing is too heavy in the Army. Sometimes civilians don’t understand that. I just nodded and slinged my rucksack over my back and felt my knees buckle until I locked them steady. I caught my balance, and then began to walk with Nora towards the parade field where we would gather without our families before boarding busses. I felt like I was walking with the weight of the world on my shoulders. “You’re gonna have to say goodbye here, Thompson,” my company commander said. He was right. Nora and I kissed and hugged desperately, passionately, until I had to go. I remember turning away like a dead man, turning again once more to wave goodbye, and then one last time. I saw Nora being held in her mother’s arms, totally devastated. I told myself to stay strong, to get this job done, and get home safe. The resolve was there. My heart wasn’t.
A few hours later, in the late evening, several busses came to take us to Ramstein Air Base. I boarded my assigned bus along with the others, only to find that the bus was overcrowded. I didn’t mind. I, along with some other soldiers, laid on the isle of the bus, on the floor in the dark night. It was like a dream, laying there on the floor, listening the whining of the diesel engine shifting gears, feeling the rumbling of the autobahn along my back, looking at soldiers falling asleep with stereo headphones on. It was so dark.
We arrived in the early morning at Ramstein Air Base. We were put into a formation and told that we needed to load up our gear into several containers that would be emptied into the plane carrying us to Kuwait. Soldiers stood in the dark, on the gravel lot we were parked, smoking cigarettes while standing in circles talking quietly. Many talked about the weight of our gear being too much for the plane. Some talked about the desert adventures and sun tans they were going to work on. We went over to a hangar and loaded our gear. We had been awake for some time, but that wasn’t affecting us.
I remember boarding the plane that would take us to Kuwait. It was a Lockheed L-1011, a wide body civilian jet owned by ATA. I remember the side of the plane, emblazoned with the words “SUNNY HAWAIIAN VACATIONS.” The atmosphere on the place would have you think we were on the way to Hawaii. We boarded the plane. I settled back in my seat with all of my gear and stared out of the window. It was a beautiful day. We took off from Ramstein after a long roll down the runway. Our weight was certainly immense. We climbed across the beautiful German countryside and towards the east. I stayed glued, as usual, to the window, watching the world below. Where were we going? What was it going to be like? Soldiers napped and listened to their CD player or watched the movie that was playing. Flight attendants walked around and served drinks with friendly smiles. It was like a normal trip, only our guns and armored vests looked out of place. This was a business trip, and our desert fatigues were our business suits.
We landed in Cyprus to refuel. I remember noticing the automobiles driving on the opposite side of the road, as they do in Britain. Several Arab-looking men fueled the plane. The plane crew opened the doors of the plane to let some fresh air into the aircraft. I remember feeling the humid, warm air fill the fuselage. I knew it was only a taste of things to come. After some time, we were airborne again. Following the live map on the screen before me, I could see that we were flying towards Israel, then on to Egypt. I tried my best to see the ground beneath, but once we left Cyprus, the air over the Mediterranean Sea turned into a soupy, sand colored haze. Even at 33,000 feet. It wasn’t until we crossed Saudi Arabia and lowered our altitude over Kuwait City that I again saw land. I saw the desert for the first time. It was vast beyond imagination. It looked out of this world, barren – lunar. There was no urban sprawl, there was, well, nothing. Except for some scattered oil facilities here and there. I couldn’t help but ask myself what was so important about this place, and why we were there to liberate it. I was remaining hopeful about the virtue of our mission the entire time, but when I saw the desert, I felt like I had been duped.
Signs of civilization appeared when we approached Kuwait City. It looked modern from the air and quite large. I was familiar with the layout of the land from a flight simulation program I used quite often. I was able to determine that we were headed for the main airport, and not the military airport. We landed after a long journey. It was late afternoon. It was a warm afternoon. We had to file past a control point, where two fat females sat in an air-conditioned SUV. We would hand them our I.D. cards through their passenger windows and they would scan them into their system. We then went into a large Bedouin-style tent full of reception personnel who briefed us on our schedule for the next few days and about some of the dangers of the desert. I noticed the sergeant giving the brief was wearing a combat patch. War is hell for reception personnel.
We were put in a dusty camp tent with hardwood floors. I didn’t mind. We all laid around and chatted about what we were thinking at the moment. Many sat around and ate MRE after MRE out of boredom. I noticed the British flags waving on a few tents not to far from us. I went outside and stood in the night, and thought about Nora. I couldn’t believe I was in the Middle East. It was amazing to me.
Eventually it was time to go to our camp. Our camp was Camp Udairi, in the northern desert of Kuwait. It was quite a drive from where we were at the Kuwait International Airport. Little minibuses driven by imported Sri Lankans picked us up in the night. These busses were tiny, but we crammed into the seats with all of our gear. My neck was craning to the left as my head was pushed up against the window to my right. At least this time I had a seat. It was dark outside, mysterious, and the curtains that were drawn to protect us from being seen from outside of the bus added to the feeling of being transported in a container truck. I could see through the windshield though. We were driving across the desert, across nothingness. The visibility was very low, the headlights providing only a bright glow before us in the cloudiness of the sand. We were in a convoy. At some points, the driver would run off the path we were driving on, then yell, gesture angrily, and then realign himself with the dim red taillights in the distance. All was dark, cloudy, and gloomy. Soldiers slept, some cursed, others watched every move the driver made, fearing that those dim red taillights before us in the haze could come crashing through our windshield.
Udairi was a barren place. There was nothing but a few ragged tents, an airstrip, and a large chow hall. There was an outdoor theater in the evenings. The screen consisted of several shipping containers stacked on top of each other, with a light-colored tarp hanging from the top containers. The chow hall was well appointed, and we ate well there. That justified standing in the 200 meter-long lines in the blazing heat for a meal. Once inside though, the air-conditioning was refreshing. It was in that chow hall that I saw brands like Pepsi and Coca-Cola written in Arabic for the first time.
The heat was like nothing I had ever experienced. We were ordered to wear our full “battle rattle” (ballistic vest, helmet, essential gear) whenever we left our company area. That added a good twenty degrees of heat to already burning temperatures. Many people cursed this order, saying that they saw the commanding general of 1st Armored Division driving around in an air-conditioned SUV and walking around without his gear on. Soldiers tend to say such things when they feel slighted, and you never know if the stories are true or not. In hindsight, it was a good thing that we had to wear our gear. It made us more accustomed to the heat and stress that was to come. It was only a matter of time before we were drinking no less than nine liters of water a day, sometimes more. As soon as you drank it from the 1.5 liter plastic bottle, many times hot, you could almost immediately feel it seeping out of your body as sweat. So intense was the heat. We walked around drenched in sweat, and we got used to it. I learned to love water, to need it, to like the way I felt after sweating profusely. It felt healthy. You would think that you would stink after sweating so much, but the reality was that we were pumping water out of our bodies, and after a long day, I could hardly notice a difference in smell.
When we showed up at Udairi, one behavioral pattern emerged that would continue to manifest itself in Iraq: the transposing of garrison life and habits onto the new reality of wartime. This ultimately led to early morning physical training (at 0300) in the sand, picking up cigarette buts in the desert, and fussing over what type of sunglasses were authorized and not authorized. During the day, there was little to do but sit around under some shade, panting and sweating like an old hunting dog on a Texas front porch in summer. We laid around, arms and legs spread out, in a daze, like lizards. There was nothing else you could do in the heat, despite many attempts by our most assertive star leaders to conjure up some kind of activity. Even they succumbed to the heat eventually. I tried to write, but the paper would get immediately soaked in sweat. I tried to read, but it was too hot to concentrate. I tried to listen to music, but I lost interest. This was the desert daze.
Everything slowly sprung back to life in the evenings, once the temperature lowered a bit. At night, we would retreat to our drafty cotton tents with wooden floors and lay on our dusty sleeping bags. Several nights passed when we woke to sand storms that would blow straight through our tents and deposit a small bit of sand in the back of our throats. Not a nice breakfast. Everything would be dusty. We would sweat through the night. Many times I would go to the morale phone and wait in line for three hours just to talk to Nora for fifteen minutes. I brought my shortwave radio along. I remember one night listening to Islamic prayers in Arabic, turning the volume up on the speaker, and watching as the soldiers sitting under the starry Arabian night looked skyward in thought. We were in a new world.
There was a lighter side of life at Udairi. Foley, Conroy, Sweeny, and I created our own vocabulary. It was a redneck vocabulary and way of talking that expressed an ignorant distrust of all things Arab. The water that we drank was labeled in Arabic. “I ain’t drinkin’ no Ayyy-rabik watur! Goddamned Judaic shit! Got dat dem dar Judaic writin’ on it! It’s goddamned poisons what it is!” We laughed until our sides hurt. Foley and I would wash laundry in buckets by a shower cesspool while listening to Cat Stevens on my stereo.
In the headquarters tents, the leaders were planning shooting range recons and piecing together bits of information about the imminent road march to the north. We weren’t sure where we were going in Iraq, but we were pretty sure that we would be in Baghdad. Baghdad sounded like a good place to be. Helicopter pilots would tell us in the phone lines about the lower temperatures there, the bombed-out palaces that were now party pads for soldiers, and the great availability of empty buildings that were waiting to be occupied (better than tent living). The downside was the lack of sanitation infrastructure, the lack of real food, and the lack of direction the units there had. Post-war Baghdad sounded relatively calm and relaxed. We didn’t realize the war was just beginning.



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