Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Moving Again, Digging Through Coalition Provisional Authority Junk, Kill 300 and Call the Wife

14 April, 2004 1830 Al-Kut TV Station

After many tired days and a move to Al-Kut, 3-32 has gotten word we may have to move again to another location north on the Tigris. The situation in Iraq has become critical. Our supply trains have been slowed by bridges being blown and steady attacks on KBR convoys and coalition convoys in general. I miss you Nora, I hurt inside for waiting to hear your voice and talk to you and tell you I love you. I love you so deeply Nora, I only live for coming home to you. I miss you Nora, so much.
The Friday before Easter or so, rumors were spreading that orders were being drawn up to send us to Fallujah. Our camp was under random mortar fire for the past 5 days. One mortarman even drove up on the other side of the river behind our perimeter and started firing at will on our base. He fired two rounds that overshot us, and no one really paid attention to the blasts. The mortarman then adjusted his fire from the first two rounds and fired about 5 more rounds 8 minutes later that landed along our fence line. Some guys on the roof of the HHC barracks calling on their satellite phones watched the rounds impact and couldn’t return fire because the mortarman was firing from a residential area. They watched as the man packed up his mortar equipment in the back of his car and drove off.
“I CAN’T BELIEVE THEY ARE FIRING AT WILL ON US!” Captain Nash yelled in the TOC, furious we couldn’t do anything to counterattack. I’ll go into details about the events of the week of the battle of Sadr City.
The LTC called us in for a meeting to tell us we weren’t going home. I couldn’t believe it. I was shocked. Right when we thought we were going home, we were told we weren’t going home and we were going to conduct combat operations. Sadr’s army had pretty much taken southern Iraq and full scale combat was raging in Al-Fallujah. We were told we had to go south to Al-Kut and take control of the city.
Foley and CPT Smalls left on Friday to go back to Germany as part of the advance party. Foley was bragging that he was leaving early even thought I told him that was less than an honorable thing to do given the situation.
[1] He and CPT S left and I worried for their safety. After we got word that we were to be extended, we were told advance party would not fly to Germany and would return from BIAP the next day. We would leave for Al-Kut on Easter. I had been fasting for Lent and eating no meat. I considered getting one good meal in before Easter at the DFAC, but decided not to break my fast. If Jesus could face a painful fate and go through so much suffering, I could go without meat or candy or soda for another few days.
I was worried about going to Al-Kut. I was concerned about Iraq falling apart, and I felt ashamed to be a part of it. Remember, I do think we were doing a good thing here at first, but it became clear how we were doing it was flawed severely. And our decisions since Sadr City have been mind boggling. I must detail this later though. There is so much to detail, but things are busy right now, and I am limited on time.
Our road march to Al-Kut lasted 3 hours, but it seemed like 15 minutes to me. All I could think of was you. I miss you terribly. I was expecting an ambush or IED attack, thought Easter would be a particular day to die. I had faith I would live though.
1-7 IN had fought into Al-Kut and AC-130s pounded the CPA complex that was held by Sadr’s army. When we arrived in Al-Kut, things were relatively calm, some people waved, most just looked blankly at us. I didn’t wave too much, I was watching the alleyways and rooftops. Al-Kut looked beautiful though, with lush, green marshes and a placid-looking Tigris.
We were going to an airbase south of the city occupied by the Ukrainians. Those same Ukrainians were the ones that fled the CPA compound and left it open to Sadr’s militia to overrun. It was a symbolic victory for Sadr. “Through these arches pass Iraq’s finest,” read a sign at the ICDC building our battalion occupied. ‘Bullshit,’ I thought. Iraq’s finest were nowhere to be seen. I started unloading my truck and then prepared for our recon of the CPA complex across the Tigris.
I put Coldplay’s A Rush of Blood to the Head CD in and we drove into Al-Kut. It was eerie. I felt like I was in South Carolina because of the way the marshes and rivers looked, but there were indications violence had taken place a short time before our arrival.
We pulled into the CPA compound, a hotel, and noticed it was partially destroyed. It was pounded by an AC-130 gunship. Many CPA employees’ things were still lying around the grounds, suitcases, clothes, beer cans, among other things. Ali (laundry) scavenged around picking up the items. ‘Put that shit down, it isn’t yours,’ I told him. He was getting on my nerves. He’s a brownnosing, double-crossing Iraqi you can’t trust.
“But maybe you ask Sergeant Major and he’ll let me,” Ali said like a twitching coward, a snake.
‘Put it down, it doesn’t belong to you,’ I told him again. He sighed and put it down and pouted. I couldn’t believe it, it was a year after I deployed, and I felt like someone flipped the hourglass over on me. It seemed like the first day I got to Baghdad, walking through abandoned buildings again, walking through rubble, ash, burning plastic and wood. ‘I can’t believe this,’ I thought, ‘we’re starting all over again.’
We went to the Ukrainian barracks next to the CPA, and it was abandoned too. We went inside and found the place ransacked. Uniforms lay all around, food still sat on dinner tables, family photos and maps of Ukraine hung on walls next to bunk beds. It was a mess, and you could tell it was abandoned frantically. SGM Walker and I walked around a corner and found a sergeant major and a first sergeant stealing uniforms and other items from the barracks. They were obviously caught off guard and started fumbling with their words.
“What’s that?” SGM Walker asked.
“Um, we’re stealing shit,” the other sergeant major said pretty frankly, but nervously. They were embarrassed. We continued to look around the building, not taking anything. Ali stayed back with the truck after figuring out he wasn’t going to be allowed to loot anything.
I need to go to sleep now, but briefly, here is our present situation. We don’t know what is going on day to day. We are living in an occupied TV station. The situation outside is unclear and rumors are circulating that we are moving again. I can only pick up bits of news from Vatican Radio and Chinese Radio Service on my $10 shortwave radio. A general feeling of being forgotten is shared by a lot of soldiers, feelings of disbelief. We don’t know when we are going home, and we’ve done a year – almost. We trusted our service would be used in a way that wouldn’t require us to stay for undetermined amounts of time. It’s a big sacrifice for this country – Iraq. Hopefully we’ll find out when we will go home soon. I love you Nora, when I think of coming home to you, I can’t believe how much like heaven it seems. How we live, where we live, our love, our faith. I’ve really come to realize here, and more over the past few months, that you bring me closer to heaven than I could ever imagine, and I won’t forget that when I get home to show you how thankful I am for all you are sacrificing and doing for me. I love you with all my heart. I will not let you down – not after all of this. I love you Nora, always.

Specialist Dudley, a former S-3 soldier, ran to me after seeing me in the battalion building. He had been transferred to a tank company before we deployed to Iraq and I seldom saw him. I was thankful for that. He was dumb, spoke with a slurred country accent, and lied compulsively about almost everything. He once claimed to have a commercial pilot’s license. I was hard on him when he was in my shop, so he was eager to show me he was succeeding in his tank company. “Guess what Thompson!” he yelled, out of breath.
‘What is it?’ I answered, wondering what it could be.
“I got me one in Sadr City! I hit ‘em right between the eyes with my 240 (M240) and saw his head explode!” he proclaimed excitedly, waiting for a response.
‘I’m glad to see you finally found something you’re good at, Dudley,’ I told him. He looked at me with a confused look on his face. I walked off, and felt like everyone was going insane. It wasn’t the first confession I would hear. Sergeant Albert was another S-3 flunky who would go on to do great things. He explained to me, in a tone of confession, that he would “play” with the enemy gunmen with his tank. The tanks have thermal sights which allow the gunner to see warm objects (like Sadr thugs) in the night. Apparently, Sadr’s men didn’t respect this technical detail. They would creep around the dark streets with weapons, thinking the tanks couldn’t see them. Albert would sit patiently behind his gunner’s sight and wait for the opportune time to pick one off.
“They would sneak around with weapons and hide behind donkey carts in the road,” he explained. “The whole time, they thought we couldn’t see them! So, we let them take up their positions in the road. I would fire a burst of coax to the right, and then to the left of them. They would hide behind the carts and play dead. So, I would wait and wait. Sooner or later, one would move from behind the carts. That’s when I nailed them with coax. It was fucking crazy. Then some men would run from the alleys and drag the bodies away – one after another.”
‘You didn’t shoot the guys dragging the bodies away?’ I asked.
“Na, they weren’t a threat. We would only take guys out when they had big weapons,” he replied. There were all kinds of stories about the militia men running past the tanks, only feet away, to stay out of the tank’s firing range. One redneck Staff Sergeant openly bragged about killing over 300 people alone. In line at the morale phone, he bragged that he shot everyone he could see through his scope. He then went on to call his wife.

[1] This was an emotional time in the deployment. I felt like Foley was abandoning me when he should stay the course. I would miss him. When he and Smalls went to the airport, they had to return to base a short time later, coming under RPG fire while sitting in the back of a 5-ton truck riding along the infamous stretch of freeway that links the airport to Baghdad city. They had to run a gauntlet in one of the worst times we had seen in Baghdad. Flags symbolizing Shia pride flew from every housetop.


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