Monday, October 27, 2003

A Day Collecting Abandoned Weapons, Exocet Missles in Iraq, Al-Tuwaitha Hazards and Soldiers

27 October, 2003

“You don’t gotta help dem ‘coons corporal,” Kilpatrick said to me as I helped our Iraqi laborers load 60mm high explosive rounds and loose fuses. There were also 4 missiles that needed to be loaded up. They would go in another truck. The only reason I had to go to this former gun and missile position to get old ammunition from the war was because I’m the only one with a 5-ton license. I didn’t mind going though – it was an opportunity to get out of the command center and it was a beautiful day. Of course, the downside of being able to get out of the command center is that you could very well get killed.
I thought about what Kilpatrick, a country boy with a heart of corn, said to me. ‘Coons,’ I thought, ‘are Iraqis ‘coons? Na, that doesn’t apply to Iraqis. Hmm, Kilpatrick doesn’t know any better.’
At the gun site, rounds were laying around everywhere. 4 missiles too. The EOD (bomb squad) was there with us.
“These won’t blow up easily, they are stable. But, you should handle them carefully,” said the EOD sergeant, who spoke in a manner that hinted a sense of clarity and intelligence. I was so thankful for his information and manner, just because he was a NCO of rare quality. He went on to explain how fin stabilized rounds and rifle-flight rounds are themselves and how this Russian ammo has a two-way safety mechanism and American has 3-way safety measures. So, I was reasonably convinced I would not be blow to bits for moving the rounds.
The gun site was on the eastern outskirts of Baghdad in the countryside. The site was on a large dirt hillside, with gun positions carved out of the earth. There was an Iraqi house near the site, and the owner was grateful that the Americans were there to pick up the explosives. We had some of our Iraqi workers there and a translator. The soldiers we had there were not to do work, but to watch. I looked around the site.
“Did you see those NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) pants laying around?” Sergeant Daniels asked.
‘Yeah, actually I did,’ I responded. I was surprised he noticed the few pairs of dirty and discarded protective trousers laying around partially covered in dirt. I thought that was a bit unnerving. I also thought they could be gunner’s pants, something less sinister.
“I don’t like that shit man,” Sergeant Daniels said. “As for these rounds, I guess if they explode – they explode! Nothin’ you can do. Oh well, fuck it.”
Sergeant Daniels is crazy. He’s country, part Indian (or so he believes, but he believes it so wholeheartedly that you can’t deny him this claim), and an overall good guy – but wild, crazy – howl at the moon wild. This is his second time in Iraq. The first time was in Gulf War I (for lack of a better name).
I went to the back of the 5-ton truck and the Iraqis were already collecting the rounds and fuses. Some sheppards came up with their sheep and goats from the countryside.
“Ishtah! Ishtah!” (rude way to say get lost) Kilpatrick yelled. Kilpatrick was quick on the attack, a well trained ‘coon dog. The sheppards didn’t leave, because they lived there and their sheep were grazing. So, his choices were to shoot them or tolerate them. He chose the latter and actually started joking a bit with them.
Our workers were disorganized loading the truck, so I showed them how to make a chain and soon the truck started filling up. Sergeant Daniels reminded me that I didn’t have to help. I figured they get paid $4 a day, and I get around $80 a day – so I should help out. A lot of these same rounds are picked up by children and explode – killing them. All these rounds laying around also supply the crazies with bomb material so they can kill or wound us in our convoys – or blow up places like the U.N. So, I didn’t mind helping out, or doing my part – because it benefited Americans as much as Iraqis. The soldiers just looked on.
“Corporal, you don’t have to do that,” another soldier said. I didn’t feel like explaining myself, so I just said,
‘I know, it’s OK.’
“Well, whatever you want,” Kilpatrick said.
Once the truck was loaded up, the other 5-ton was loaded with 4 missiles. The Iraqis brought me a bread wrap with palm dates inside. It was very crude and simple. The farmer on the land there gave the workers something to eat. “Hey dawg, I wouldn’t eat that if I were you,” Sergeant Daniels said. I had doubts myself about eating the thing. “Hey, it’s your call, you gonna get the shits!”
‘I think my immune system is built up now,’ I responded unsurely. I ripped a piece of bread and used it to pick up a gooey date and ate it. It was actually good! There was a seed in the middle of the date, and I spit that out, but it was good!
“Man, I’m starving! I wanna eat, but not in front of these guys,” Sergeant Daniels said.
“Go ahead, sergeant. I told dem dey ain’t eatin’,” Kilpatrick – Private First Class said.
‘Come on, give them 5 minutes to eat and we can eat too,’ I said.
“They ain’t eatin’; we ain’t got time,” Kilpatrick said. We decided Kilpatrick was determined to dutifully oppress our “coons” so we told the Iraqis to eat on the way to the drop off site. That was an hour drive away.
The drive went well, but it’s always dangerous. You never doubt that you’ll be attacked. You expect it, you just know when it happens, you’ll know. In fact, the entire time you are scanning the roadsides and overpasses. The route we took took us past BIAP and into new territory. Along the way, we noticed Iraqi police on the overpasses and below the bridges with AK-47 rifles and radios. They were at nearly every overpass along the way. This was comforting, as there’s the very real threat of bombs or falling grenades at these points. There was also new construction going on all the bridges putting fences – tall and with barbed wire – on all vulnerable areas and areas with over road access. It’s about time someone did that. It takes time. They are also painting murals on the concrete supports in bright colors depicting the Iraqi flag and doves and images of peace. That was nice to see.
Driving out to west Baghdad, out in the country, reminded me so much of Germany. The day almost felt like a fall day in Germany – big blue sky, lazy clouds, sunshine, flat land (reminds me of the west of Heidelberg) and tall grass. I could pretend I was at home, and it was refreshing. Only you weren’t there by me! It was however good, even though the truck was loaded with explosives.
Our destination was in the main ammo dump out near the north side of the airport. When we turned from the highway to the road leading to the ammo dump camp, the little children came out to greet us. They’re always so cute, in their brightly colored clothes and big, genuine smiles. They look like little gnomes. We arrived at the camp and started downloading shells. Again, I helped organize the download while the other soldiers (except for Sergeant Daniels) kept their distance. The Iraqis were tossing some of the shells, so LT Kid ran over.
“NO JOB! You have no job, no more job, money, with U.S. Army if you throw!” The Iraqis apologized and went back to work. Some shells we had to download at a different part of the explosives yard. We drove to the other side of the yard and saw all kinds of missiles, rockets, bombs, everything. I went to look at all the captured munitions while the Iraqis downloaded more ammo. You learn in Iraq that ammo tells a lot about who supported Saddam. I walked to a set of missiles labeled “Linkpanzerabwehr” made in Germany. They were manufactured in 1982. They are HOT missiles (anti-tank) made for the MB-105 (I believe) helicopter – also sold to Yugoslavia. I also found plenty of Russian (rather Soviet) missiles of all kinds that could travel over 90 miles – I believe that to be the restriction set by the U.N. Laser guided missiles could be found. Air to air missiles, cruise missiles. All the Soviet missiles I knew from building model airplanes as a kid. All of these weapons were in brand new condition or still in crates. China, eastern bloc, France, Germany – all sitting there to see. Several crates of Roland missiles, looking very new. The EOD sergeant in charge pulled up in his Hummer. He was a big, bulky black sergeant wearing a helmet and shades – looking like he just stepped out of a Vietnam movie. He and Sergeant Daniels started talking.
“You got any SCUD missles?”
“Yeah, those are SCUDs, and over there,” the EOD sergeant pointed to some missiles. “Those over there are the Chinese version.”
“Find any weapons of mass destruction?” Sergeant Daniels asked.
“No, and we never will,” the EOD Sergeant responded. I was surprised at his answer. “We don’t think they have it. Even all this stuff is old. We only have one rocket that may possibly be chemical. I tell you though, everyone had their hands in this cookie jar – France, Germany, China, and Russia. Hell, even the U.S. Everyone was making a little money on Saddam. The U.S. gave him a lot of stuff for the Iran-Iraq War. Saddam just had us thinking he had WMD,” the sergeant said.
One of the mortar soldiers and I found a large metal case, in gloss white, slightly open. We tried to open the case so we could view the contents. The lid was too heavy though.
“You need a crane to open that,” the EOD sergeant said.
‘What is it, sergeant? It looks brand new,’ I said.
“It’s an Excocet missile from France,” he said.
I looked inside and saw the brand new missile – glossy and neat. The case had a placard on it, and I was able to place its date of manufacture as 1990. It was strange seeing the Aerospatiale logo appearing so clean and civilized. It looked as if the French company made some money from Saddam too. An Exocet missile? That’s the world’s best anti-ship missile. The only real ships in the Persian Gulf at the time were U.S. ships. So you can draw your own conclusions. I thought of Pope John Paul II’s words about arms trade being immoral, and it’s true. Arms are sold for money, and once sent out into questionable parts of the world, can do all kinds of harm. And someone in France, Germany, Russia, China, or the U.S. is making money on the sale of these weapons – sitting comfortable at home, paying for their kid’s college, driving a luxury car, and enjoying life. All this when young people are being killed and maimed around the world. It’s on the same par as international drug trade.
We got all of our cargo downloaded and were quick to head back to our camp clear across Baghdad. On the way out of the countryside and back to the highway, we went over a railroad overpass. On the way to the compound earlier, a passenger train was passing below as we crossed. I waved and it honked its horn a few times in return. I didn’t even know passenger train service was restored. It was added to the German feel to the place. I was happy to see the railway functioning, it’s a sign of life returning to normal.
As we were leaving and passing some homes, the children ran out in their school uniforms to greet us and cheer. One kid held up a dead pigeon with its wings spread out and its head missing. I imagined this to be a typical boy displaying something “cool” to us or showing off – or some Arabic warning we don’t know of. You never know here. We arrived safely back to camp, and I went straight to work at the command center.
It turned out to be a busy day. The Al-Rasheed hotel was attacked successfully in a rocket attack. I go there all the time – it’s a luxury hotel. Luxury surrounded on all sides by filth and lawlessness. It’s no wonder it was hit. One night, Conroy and I were sitting on the top of our Hummers and I was looking at the stars and listening to AK-47s shooting nearby and singing “I say a little prayer for you” over and over again.
“Shut up! You’ve lost your mind,” Conroy said to me grinning. “I wonder if you could hit the building from here,” he said.
I had been wondering the same thing. It was dark, so Conroy got his rifle so that we could see if anyone was near their window. His rifle has a sight on it. Sure enough, on the 10th floor or so, you could see a man pacing by his window.
“What an idiot,” Conroy said.
We had the guy in our sights, our friendly sights. Had we been terrorists, that guy would have been killed. In this morning’s attack, one colonel was killed. It’s an example of wishful thinking that you can sit in such plain view of Baghdad in a high rise luxury hotel and not get shot at.
During the day, there was also several suicide bomb attacks in Baghdad, including the International Red Cross. It makes no sense. Baghdad is divided into several zones. Our zones are 14, 23, 11E, 70. One interesting thing happened. One suicide bomber attacked our police station in zone 23, BUT was shot and wounded by the Iraqi police. The bomber tried to drive the car, loaded with explosives, into the police station. He failed because we put up concrete barriers around the station. So the bomber crashed into a wall, got out, threw a grenade, and was then shot and wounded. It was the only failed attempt in Baghdad – and it was in our battalion’s zone. We’ve been so lucky in our battalion – very blessed. The bomber is believed to be from Yemen – and that would indicate outside influence from Al-Qaeda. That would explain why these bombers are killing Iraqis in these attacks too.
The bomber was taken to our American hospital for surgery and the FBI showed up. They are now investigating. So, in our sector, we have had amazing luck. Our units also conducted a raid last night that resulted in the capture of two brothers who were stirring up trouble at a local mosque in zone 23. Well, it turn out detonators were found in their homes and evidence of Al-Qaida membership. So we may have foiled another attack. The local Iraqis tipped us off – so that is encouraging. We’ve had some problems in sector 23 since one of our soldiers shot a teenage boy in the leg. The boy threw a rock at the sergeant (a big rock) and hit him in the face and chipped his tooth. The soldier actually shot at the ground and the bullet ricocheted into the kid’s leg. Since then, the battalion has been visiting the kid and talking to the parents. The father wasn’t angry about it. Since then, our patrols have been pelted with rocks and dirt clods as they pass through the area.
Later tonight our Bravo Company reported they found a dead body shot twice in the face and once in the neck. It was an assassination. The initial call reported it was the mayor of Baghdad. Baker and I sat there and looked at each other, as if to say, “There goes another one,” while shaking our heads. As minutes passed, it turned into the “self-proclaimed” mayor of Baghdad. Hedger got up and walked to the front of the map board,
“Attention in the TOC, I am the new mayor of Baghdad,” Hedger announced proudly. All 4 of us in the TOC stood up and clapped.
“Mister Mayor, may I have your autograph,” CPT Diamond asked joyfully.
‘Congratulations, your honor,’ I yelled. Baker took a bow,
“Thank you, thank you!”
It was a moment of theatrical joy, almost spontaneous, that seemed so funny – even though a man lay in the street shot to death. Laughing about this was the only way to handle the insanity of the whole situation. It wasn’t funny, just unreal. How many times are you just talking to someone and get interrupted with, “the self proclaimed mayor has been killed.” Just another day in Iraq.
I talked to Tariq about progress in Iraq. We talk a lot in the afternoon or when he and I are translating Arabic police reports. Tonight we talked about freedom, the schools, Iraqi police, etc. We also talked about his love situation.
He and his cousin are in love, and want to get married. I am mentioning this to show how tribes work. It’s a lot like the book Things Fall Apart, only modernized. He said he and his cousin want to get married – but her father won’t approve or disapprove one way or the other. He said the tribal leader won’t approve it, because she is reserved for someone else! He said sometimes the couples aren’t in love, and the man can take 3 more wives. The woman can’t divorce – because no man will take her. He said he thinks all of this is stupid and primitive (actually a lot of Iraqis have told me the same thing). I don’t believe Americans understood the role of tribal life in Iraq.
I joked with Tariq and told him they should flee to America. He started laughing. We also talked about new freedom in Iraq, about the Baath party. He said the people aren’t afraid of the new Iraqi police. He also said many of the students at his college are threatening teachers, verbally assaulting them, or showing totally no respect. Many teachers are former Baath.
[1] He also said freedom means doing and saying whatever you want without consequence. This is their understanding of freedom. Of course, that is not freedom as we see it in an American sense.
He talked about Baath Party too. Even teenagers were involved. It seemed to be a discussion society though for young people at the lower level. Talking about social issues, politics, and the greatness of Saddam. Not everyone was “party,” but later in life you’d have to display some contact with the party to get privileges. Just like in East Germany. Finally we talked about the teachers getting rocks thrown at them. A lot of people in authority or part of the old system are associated with Saddam – so venting some frustration on teachers has become a bit commonplace.

Going to the weapons dump reminded me of a curious incident that happened almost as soon as we got to Baghdad. There was a nuclear facility south of the city in Tuwaitha. It had already been damaged by Israeli air strike in 1981 and again in 1991 by coalition forces. We called it the “Yellow Cake Factory.” It was surrounded by a high earthen wall. Some of our units were at the nuclear site earlier in the deployment. There was a report of a Nuclear Biological and Chemical expert – a young Army officer – and his enlisted counterpart becoming ill after coming too near to the contaminated site. They were both rushed to Landstuhl, Germany for “ear infections.” Several days later, remote controlled bomb squad robots were sent into the factory to conduct reconnaissance with their cameras. The first robot malfunctioned once inside of the facility. A second robot was sent to recover the first robot. The second robot failed as well. This was due to the large amounts or radiation. Perhaps the wildest twist to the story is that Iraqis from surrounding villages entered the compound and looted the facility. Little did they know they were exposed to lethal radiation. It has been documented that locals actually emptied barrels that contained yellow cake uranium and used them as water collection barrels in their homes. There were reports of many local Iraqis showing symptoms of radiation poisoning.

[1] Tariq explained that many of the teachers who once preached the goodness of Saddam had a difficult time conducting classes in new Iraq. Some were stoned or assaulted while others were verbally disrespected.


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