Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Gearing Up for the 18-Hour Roadmarch to Baghdad

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28 May, 2003 1605 Camp Udiari Gate

Well, the wind is blowing strong, with a sandstorm here and there, the sky is a sandy grey, and the heat is baking my skin. My hands are brown and discolored with pink splotches, dry and flaking. In an hour or so, I will be driving my truck with our battalion’s first convoy to Baghdad. Right now, we are just sitting in a holding area waiting for the word to move out. Helicopters are flying overhead, and bullets are clanking here in the cab of the truck, as Sweeny has his machine gun sticking out of the passenger’s window and onto the hood. The drive to Baghdad is going to take 22 hours, and I will be driving most of that. It will be the longest drive of my life.
The past few days have been difficult for me. I have heard so many speeches about this war, and now I am prepared to see it for myself. The most difficult part is being away from Nora, and the thought of being killed and taken away from her. My soul is prepared for whatever happens, but she is the biggest part of my soul, of my heart, and I always want to be there for her, because I know I mean that much to her too. (Sandstorm blowing through.) I’ve never had to consider my own violent death as being likely, but being here and going to Baghdad brings that chance one step closer. I hope though, and I know God hasn’t brought me all of this way and shown me so much, only for me to die in this wasteland. It is a stressful time. I’ve been mean to Nora on the phone, regretted every bit of it, because she is in the Canary Islands right now. I can tell in her voice that she is hurting too, I know that she loves me as I do too. I am so lucky to have her.
1730 – Listening to James Taylor. We should be leaving soon. I have a picture of Nora and me in my helmet, I look at it always for a smile. I was so happy to talk to her today, I cannot wait to go home. As I get ready to leave right now, my Nora is on my mind, in my heart, and I know I am in hers. One step closer to going home. I am concerned about what lay ahead, but I trust God ultimately. I love you Nora. I am coming home to you soon. I’m yours forever.

The day that we left was an eerie one. We were contemplating our own fates as word came in that a convoy that left before us came under RPG attack south of Baghdad. It reminded us that we weren’t going on vacation. When we finally did leave Camp Udairi, we drove along a rough paved road that winded through some of the most wild looking desert landscape I have ever seen. It was hill after hill, wadi after wadi, and wind carved gullies. I imaged the desert to be completely flat, not rugged badlands.
About one hour into the drive towards the Iraqi border, Sweeny, Sergeant Smith, and I noticed that the armored plates inside our vests, combined with the rudimentary 5-ton truck bench seats, caused an unnatural curving of the backbone. The pain caused by the unnatural position began to creep up on us all, and it was clear we were in for a long, uncomfortable drive. There was a break though. I can’t remember why, but we stopped along our desert journey shortly before linking up with the main Kuwaiti highway that lead north. It was dusk, and along the softly glowing horizon, you could see the glow of highway lights leading forever north. A cool breeze was blowing. I brought along a “near beer” from the chow hall that I planned on drinking while crossing the Iraqi border. The smell of that near beer filled the air, as I looked under my seat, only to find that the can had exploded. No parties tonight.
Night was fast upon us as we pulled onto the main, modern highway and headed north. Several Kuwaiti soldiers at checkpoints casually looked at us without paying us any mind. Highway signs warned of camels crossing the road, and several signs read messages like “Allah is Peace.” They were obviously intended for the present audience. The three of us in that 5-ton truck began to relax a bit. We still had some time until we would reach the border. It would be late at night though when we would cross. I threw a CD in my stereo and we listened to James Taylor as our miles-long convoy roared north.
You could tell we were approaching the border of Iraq when we diverged from the main highway and followed arrows spray painted on concrete traffic barriers. We began to roll along a sandy path, winding through the dusty haze and glow created by our convoy in the sand. James Taylor continued to sing. We then came to a narrow passage that was the border entrance of Iraq. It was late at night, but you could see a few earthen houses with televisions glowing inside. Then, like an eerie echo, you could hear “I LOVE YOU! I LOVE YOU!” The cries grew louder and more frequent. They were the cries of Iraqi children running to our convoy. It caught me off guard, but a burning emotion rose from my chest and filled my eyes with dignified tears, tears nobody else could see. I had crossed the threshold. These children were here, they needed me, and now I would have to do my best.
The first thing I remembered about Iraq was the highway system. It looked modern enough, following the same design principles as the German autobahn system. Rolling on these highways, we couldn’t see a thing, only the glowing horizon where Basra was. It was an empty space, a vacuum. I would look up at the stars occasionally and think about Nora. There was nothing else to do. After a very long time driving, we needed to stop and get some more fuel. We pulled into a combat fuel stop. It was eerie. We were in blackout conditions, and raggy, oil stained soldiers walked around dragging heavy fuel hoses around in the darkness. It reminded me of our training in Germany, only this time it was real. In the distance, you could see Nasiriyah. I fueled up and then pulled forward to check my engine fluids. The other guys in my convoy and I talked and joked around a bit. There was a slight chill of apprehension in the air, but nothing out of the ordinary. I just couldn’t believe I was walking on Iraqi soil. We still had many hours to go.
It was Sweeny’s turn to drive. That would allow me to get some sleep. Sergeant Smith had been sleeping the entire time, protecting our right flank. With Sweeny driving, our convoy continued its push north. This part of the road march would take us across a 100 mile stretch of unpaved road. As we bumped violently down this road, I was able to get some sleep somehow, even as my Kevlar helmet beat continuously against the rearview window with each bump. I would fade in and out of consciousness during the jarring ride, only to see that we were surrounded by a thick cloud of dust – visibility only being about twenty feet. I would glance over at Sweeny and see his worried face droop and struggle to stay alert. Then he fell asleep. I don’t know for how long he was asleep, but as I drifted back into consciousness, I looked at him through a cloudy, sleepy haze. His eyes were shut, but his hands were on the wheel. I rustled him a bit and he immediately woke up as if nothing happened. I promised to keep him awake, and that is exactly what I did. We worked as a team. He would drive, and I would poke him when his eyes shut. That was about every five minutes. That was all we could do. There was no stopping to take a break. We had scheduled stops and a strict timeline to follow. Our next stop wouldn’t be for several hours.
I was glad to see the sun come up. It was early in the morning when we hit real pavement again. The smooth ride and the softly glowing sunlight had a soothing effect. We made it through the nightlong hurricane. The Iraqi country side was rough. I noticed the square shaped houses, the date trees, the salt flats where women in black gathered salt. I noticed the children waving, whole families waving, people dancing underneath overpasses. Orange and white Taxis loaded with suitcases and people were racing north. It was an amazing sight, something totally new to me. It looked a lot more inviting that Kuwait, that was for sure. There was a celebratory atmosphere among the Iraqis, and a slight bit of unease on our side.
I remember my first encounter with an Iraqi. It was a boy, one of many, who immediately swamped our truck as we stopped next to the road. Sergeant Major Fleischmann drew his pistol and yelled for the kids to get back. Our training was to keep the people away, but that proved impossible – short of putting your rifle in their face. No one wanted to do that, and thus the boys came. It was awkward, that first encounter. We had to keep our guard up, but at the same time they were so happy to see us. They wanted to sell Iraqi money, and we wanted to buy it. With a rifle in one hand, I grabbed through my pocket for a few bucks and quickly bought up a few Iraqi dinars. I looked around as everyone was trading and buying from these kids. SGM Fleischmann looked on in disgust. He was right to do so though, we didn’t do as we were trained. I’m not sure if we were naive though. I remember one kid asking for a writing pen from Sweeny. Sweeny gave him a pen, and then the kid immediately tried to sell me the same pen. We learned early that the Iraqis knew what the soldiers wanted. I was amazed to see village people holding up blocks of ice, insulated drink coolers, and bottles of Pepsi cola. I thought this was a poor, oppressed land! It didn’t take long before some MPs (military police) roared up in their Hummers and dismounted their trucks, chasing the kids away with batons. As we pulled away, kids would run alongside the trucks asking if we wanted any hashish.
We fueled up again at very small Army outpost. I saw the carcass of a 5-ton truck, stripped to the absolute bone. So was the fate of vehicles that were abandoned along the Iraqi highway. The Iraqis would strip down abandoned equipment like piranhas.

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