Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Last Patrol

It had to end, someday.

We had been at Combat Outpost Battle II for a few weeks, trying to leave it in the best shape possible for our beautiful, wonderful relief unit, our sister brigade from the other side of Ft. Lewis.

Operation Arrowhead Ripper was the cherry on top of a grueling five month adventure in Baqubah, a place we didn't know of in 2006 but one we'd get to know all-too well toward the end of 2007. After that big offensive, there was one last hurrah: the clearing and holding of the neighborhood of Old Baqubah.

It proved to be the most dangerous of neighborhoods, one left relatively untouched during the massive clearing operation in June and July. While elements from our brigade held ground on the west side of town, we began clearing operations in Old Baq' in the hopes of setting up a new outpost. For my twenty-second birthday, I read a book cover to cover inside a Stryker in between guard shifts. It was a gift from my platoon to not go on patrol.

We quickly found a suitable outpost, an abandoned two story whiskey distillery. To make enough room for a motor pool, we blew up a man's house that had been in his family for decades. For days, he came by our front door to collect the bricks, sprinkled over dozens of yards. He wanted to rebuild.

The days felt longer than any other point in the deployment. It had a lot to do with the heat; the building had no electricity and poor ventilation. The high ceilings gave way to several windows that let in plenty of sunlight. The concrete building and floor held the heat during the day and released it during the night. Most of us slept outside on the roof to escape the dreadful, choking air that filled the building. Half the time was spent stealing and re-stealing cots the Iraqi Army took upon themselves to grab when we were on patrol.

It was three days at the outpost, three days off. "Off" was a relative term. We spent that time on the FOB rearming and regrouping in between supply runs to the outpost. Time evaporated during our off periods, but came back with a vengeance back at COP Battle II.

Day in, day out. Going through the motions of scheduled patrols like the good ol' days of Mosul. It was all building to the inevitable. Our replacements were ready to show up near the end of August to effectively relieve our positions. Soon, we'd be going home.

By the luck of the draw, my squad was the last from my platoon to conduct a foot patrol during the day.

Right out the door, we came upon a group of sheep rummaging through one of the trash piles next to the outpost. One in particular was gnawing on a sheet of plastic. As we walked past, they momentarily stopped to watch us. The one with the plastic kept on gnawing.

Rounding around the block, we came upon a huge gathering in the street. Evidently there was a wedding going on, as throngs of people were singing, clapping and chanting down the street. We were bookended by kids riding bicycles and shouting slogans to us.

The most boring video of Iraq you'll find on the internets

Before heading out, we got the ubiquitous word that our BFFs, the 1920s, was possibly going to ambush us for old times sake. We were told to keep an eye on them, to not turn our backs to them even once.

We passed a couple of their checkpoints along the way, stopping to remind them to wear their reflective belts so they don't get shot in the face with a Hellfire missile. Walking in between us - a group of women under black head dresses, paying no heed to the American squad on either side of the street.

Matt gives Last Patrol 2: Insurgent Boogaloo two thumbs up!

You'd think that simple, vital things like smoke grenades would be in endless supply to the most senior unit in Iraq at the time. You'd be wrong. When our white screening smoke ran out, we were forced to use colored smoke (usually reserved for signaling). When our colored smoke ran out, we used training smoke grenades. The biggest concern wasn't that we were using smoke that barely lasted ten seconds, it was that we had training smoke in fucking combat. After the training smokes were gone, smoke grenades shot from grenade launchers were used. Imagine shielding yourself from machine gun fire with what amounts to fine colored chalk floating in the air. It'll definitely put some pep in your step.

On this patrol, we had managed to scrounge up enough smoke grenades. They were casually tossed to get rid of them, as they would be useless to us in ten minutes. Our platoon leader tried to play kick the can with an Iraqi kid, but he wasn't sure what to do with it.

Sure, NOW we get them...

The patrol didn't last longer than 45 minutes, but I had a tremendous sense of finality walking back to the outpost. As I looked around, I realized it would be the last time I'd have my feet down on hostile territory, the last time I peered habitually to rooftops and doorways, looking for anything out of the ordinary. It'd be the last time my sense of smell would be subdued by the intertwined smell of human waste and garbage (and the last time I'd have the privilege of stepping in both). But it was the first time I realized that our deployment was finite, that the end was drawing near toward an uncertain future of civilian life, with all its beautiful complexities we weren't afforded for fifteen months. We were going home.



Anonymous said...

I have a full-time job, and go to school 4 nights a week. then I try to read your babbling, and it doesn't change but once a month. Write more often, or I'll send you back over there like Colby Buzzell.

David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 08/25/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Alex Horton said...


Don't worry, I have another post coming up in a couple of weeks that will evaluate the phenomenon of apathetic grease spots like you.

News update: Colby Buzzell got that beautiful "non-deployable" stamp on his paperwork. He's home-free.

Anonymous said...

Nicely written blog!

Victor said...

"Watch out, this kittens got claws"- Peter Griffin

Anonymous said...

That was probably your best post in a long while, but my twin Anon seems to have hit a nerve.

Glad to hear Colby Buzzell got the get out of jail for good stamp. Hopefully you'll get the same if they recall you.

Alex Horton said...

Nicer anon,

The nerve has been struck a couple times by these guys who seek to belittle military service (that Colby Buzzell comment was embarrassing coming from a fellow American). I'm all for discourse and people having friendly disagreements, but that kind of asshattery has no place except in the minds of scoundrels.

Anonymous said...

Really like your blog Alex! I check it out a couple of times a week at least. Updates a little more often would be nice though...

Keep up the good work!

/Emil the Swede

Anonymous said...

Jeez what a dick mean anon is.
Karma's waitin' for that dude.
"I'll send you..."
He's probably on disability with a permanent lip-lock on an old, greasy bong.

Mike said...

I love your "babbling" and have been dropping in here since I discovered it over a year ago.

I've just been too cowardly to post...until now.

In wars past, I would've been the old fart in front of a map, complete with pushpins. trying to folow the action best I could. Thank God for the 'net, and I can rely on something else other than newspapers for the front line news.

I gave up - a long time ago - on the MSM to give me the "straight poop" on the war, instead depending upon Blackfive for one perspective, this blog for another, and Michael Yon for an unbiased "outsiders" view.

Thank you for the laughs you've provided, thank you for the personal stories you've shared, and mostly I thank you for the tears I've shed from being so proud of you guys for the thankless jobs you have done and continue to do.

I don't care about the reasons you went and for which you were sent; I am just so glad you're now home and pray that the rest of your comrades-in-arms soon follow.

From a fellow Texan.

Anonymous said...


I have been reading your blog for a long time and I find your writing quite enjoyable. I like to keep up on what is really going on over there. I have nothing but respect for the men and women who are stuck over there doing a very dirty job. Being ex-military I'm aware of how stupid things can be, such as having to use training smoke grenades.

I'm glad to hear you are finally getting to come home. Good luck and keep on posting.

Old Navy Dude

Anonymous said...

I read your blog from time to time and am overall unimpressed, particularly when you assert that anyone disagreeing with the military's actions are engaging in "asshattery"

I refuse to bow down to the "benevolence" of America's military, especially the small group of service members who see it fit to criticize the bulk of American citizens for their "lack of support/sacrifice, etc." for the war effort. Is it a lost concept that our quest for worldwide militaristic hegemony is *somehow* contributing to our looming bankruptcy?

Excuse me if I'm not willing to bow at the altar of supreme military might - some of us are aware that our pockets are being picked.

Regardless, travel home safe. And stay home forever.

Alex Horton said...


When you read my blog from time to time, is there actual, uh, reading going on?

The asshattery I alluded to is in the first post, where someone believes military deployments and combat are a big joke for their personal amusement. That person suggested he'd "send me back over there," like this is a reality show. From what I can tell, these people are the antithesis of those like you, those that live in war vicariously in hopes of seeing something sick and gruesome. When that need is not met, they say something asinine like "I'll send you back over there like Colby Buzzell." (Colby was recently involuntary recalled for a deployment to Iraq but was deemed non deployable by a medical evaluation.) The kind of people who leave comments like "now go kill an Iranian for me." It's nothing new around here.

You've pegged me completely wrong, fella. I believe it's a shame so many Americans are hugely ignorant of the goings-on in Iraq, but not for the reasons you suggest. I don't think the war in Iraq is a worthwhile endeavor, but the effort and sacrifice of soldiers in it should not be overlooked and marginalized. It should be known to those who agree with the war and those who do not. Despite your feelings about the conflict, those are still your countrymen over there. We are still citizens of this country. Soldiers should be separated from the war, not attached to it. We're not mutually exclusive. We have faces.

"Excuse me.." The smugness about you is no different than the people who cross their fingers for war and send others to fight it. Though the asshats I referred to are on the opposite side of the political spectrum from you, you're cut from the same apathetic cloth.

Demeur said...

Eddie is mislead. He seems to think that the military is just another branch of the government. It is not.
War is the result of a failure of communication and diplomacy. The Iraq war was pre planned long before any ultimatums. It was not the result of a last ditch diplomatic effort to resolve an issue. War should always be the very last resort not the first.
Have the folks here at home made any sacrifice to the troops over there? No.
And we now barely get any information except through blogs like this one.
Keep posting, stay safe and I hope you make it home soon.

Anonymous said...

"Have the folks here at home made any sacrifice to the troops over there? No."

I beg to differ, Demeur, but I think Alex would agree with you.

"War is the result of failure of communication and diplomacy"

American "diplomacy" consists of negotiating at the point of a gun. You cannot possibly be serious - in case you are, however, I'd like to hear your reasons supporting this assertion. Please elaborate.

Fact is, everyone here is making sacrifices whether you realize it or not. I made that point on another blog about a month ago, and I'll repeat it here: everyday citizens are sacrificing every time they go to the store and pay higher prices for everyday necessities. Their tax dollars pay the salaries of government thugs sent overseas to kill people. No sacrifice? Puh-lease - you can't be serious!

From endless "Support the Troops" drives to commercial spots to non-stop media coverage to tireless campaigns to paint troops as "heroes" I'd say America has done more than enough to breathe life into what has always been a wildly unsuccessful campaign to rid the world of "terror" ... whatever that means.

And Alex, spare the the "I like knowing I can go to the store and not have my car being blown up by an IED" argument that you used in the other blog. How did you manage to make it to and from the store before this ridiculous "War on Terror" started?

The other points you made on the other blog were equal in their intellectual vacancy. You even called for draft, calling it a sacrifice. If you're so intent on "sacrificing" and believe this war is worth it, why did you stop fighting it?

Anonymous said...

What a great post! its really great you keep a blog like this,


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the pic of the creepy plastic-sheet-eating sheep. I miss you guys, and I'm glad to see you're doing well, hope the same is true of all of the platoon. As always, thanks for taking the time to write all this down.

Anonymous said...

Yep, I knew you were a liar, and you proved it your self by saying you were going to "have another post in a couple of weeks that will evaluate the phenomenon..." blah blah blah...You said that on the 25th of August, yet it's now September 24th...

Alex Horton said...


Glad you keep coming back! Please refer to my latest post as that evaluation. It was intended to be an indictment on how people get downright testy and complain like children when people like me don't churn out stories of death and destruction every other day. I decided to have a less accusatory tone and went with advice for coming back from a deployment. You can see some of that original intention under "The Public" on my current post. Enjoy, and please don't think you'll get me that easy (or at all).


Anonymous said...

What a liar...Enjoy your make-believe world, with your make-believe life. Life is much simpler than you make it out to be...So is death.