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.’
[5]
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.