Monday, March 31, 2008

Anti-Photo Story

For the next couple of weeks, I don't have much time to dedicate myself to an insightful and dramatic photo story. I'm in the process of moving from Washington State (thank heavens!) back to Texas (not my native Dallas, but rather Austin). Lauren and I are in the middle of packing, and the dreaded top to bottom cleaning will begin shortly. A very stressful time indeed, but these next few weeks will be full of goodbyes for the both of us. I will bid farewell to my remaining friends down at Ft. Lewis, and Lauren will be parting with her lifelong friends as we start a new life together.

So I'll be idle for awhile, but do not fear! I'll be documenting our adventure every step of the way for the sake of posterity (and fodder for future entries).

I'll leave you with one of my favorite pictures taken in Iraq: A frame with a text insert that the unwitting Iraqis didn't remove.


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Family Torn Asunder

I noted in my post yesterday that there are 4,000 families still grieving about their loved ones killed in Iraq. It's shocking to find those who have lost more than one, as chronicled in this piece in Details magazine:

Three A.M., a few nights before Christmas, 2004. The war in Iraq is approaching its second anniversary, and the conflict in Afghanistan is into year four. A soldier sits in a small suburban house. He is a baby-faced 21-year-old but has a look of exhaustion that can’t be concealed. He should feel safe here. But the young man has lost his ability to reason. He closes his eyes as if to tune out the chatter from the other people in the room, and when he opens them, he snaps. “The hajjis are coming!” he screams. “The hajjis are coming!”

To those around him it’s clear that Army Specialist Andrew Velez has been sucked into some dark corner of his mind. “They’re coming!” he repeats. “They’re coming!” Andrew stands up and runs around the house, turning off all the lights. A young woman is standing nearby, and Andrew ushers her into a bedroom, hollering at her to duck for cover. He drops to the floor and slides across the room on his stomach. At some point he produces a rifle, albeit an imaginary one, and squeezes the invisible trigger. “I’m not gonna die!” he shouts. “I’m not gonna die!” Then Andrew runs for the back door. The woman chases him. When she steps outside, Andrew pulls her to the ground to protect her from enemy fire. “I’m not gonna die!” he screams. “I’m coming home to see my babies!”

Read the rest. Utterly heartbreaking.


Monday, March 24, 2008

Photo Story Monday - Stories Cut Short

I was in Baghdad when the number of U.S. forces killed in Iraq reached 3,000. It was New Year's Eve, and we were walking in from a couple of miles to conduct a raid in some shitty ghetto no one ever heard of. It was supposed to be a quick in and out. Except for the two mile hike. It started near midnight and we had been walking for awhile until we halted, Dozer and I taking cover behind a long Iraqi van. I covered my watch with my hand and hit the Indiglo button: 12:27 AM, New Year's Day. I whispered to Dozer about the milestone we reached and we hugged before getting back up to continue the march. We had hoped 2007 would be better than the year that preceded it, but it didn't go exactly like that.

2007 was the deadliest year for American troops in Iraq because of the surge and a new up close and personal strategy of living amongst the Iraqi Army in regular neighborhoods. I've said my piece about how well I think that has worked and how long it can go, but today isn't about that. It was reported that the death toll has now reached 4,000. The media loves big, round numbers and glosses over the fact of 4,000 fallen sons daughters, and 4,000 families torn apart. A good deal of us were fortunate to make it back from Iraq with our lives. Four thousand weren't as fortunate.

Twenty-one men from 5/20 Infantry Battalion and 1/12 Cavalry (First Cav, Ft. Hood) are figured into that. One man died in Mosul and another in Anbar. The remaining nineteen fell in the battle to take Baqubah and Diyala Province from the grip of insurgents. No one disagreed that we were severely undermanned, but we still went out and did what was asked of us. Twenty-one men did more.

Cpl. Casey Mellen - Headquarters
Huachua City, AZ
KIA Mosul, September 25, 2006

Cpl. Billy Farris - Headquarters
Bapchule, AZ
KIA Anbar, December 3, 2006

Cpl. Brian Chevalier - Bravo
Athens, GA
KIA Baqubah, March 14, 2007

SSG. Jesse Williams - Bravo
Santa Rosa, CA
KIA Baqubah, April 8, 2007

All six men from Alpha Company died together on May 6, 2007 in Baqubah. From left to right:

Cpl. Matthew Alexander
Gretna, NE

Cpl. Anthony Bradshaw
San Antonio, TX

Sgt. Jason Harkins
Clarkesville, GA

Sgt. Joel Lewis
Sandia Park, NM

Cpl. Michael Pursel
Clinton, UT

SSG. Vincenzo Romeo
Lodi, NJ

Sgt. Daniel Nguyen - B 1/12 (Cav)
Sugarland, TX
KIA Baqubah, May 8, 2007

Sgt. Jason Vaughn - Alpha
Iuica, MS
KIA Baqubah, May 9, 2007

The three men above died together on May 18, 2007 in Baqubah. Assigned to 1/12 Cav. In order they are:

Sgt. Anselmo Martinez
Robstown, TX

Spc. Joshua Romero
Crowley, TX

Spc. Casey Nash
Baltimore, MD

Sgt. Iosiwo Uruo - B 1/14
Agana Heights, Guam
KIA Baqubah, May 24, 2007

Spc. Francis Trussel - B 1/12 (Cav)
Lincoln, IL
KIA Baqubah, May 26, 2007

Sgt. Andrew Higgins - Alpha
Hayward, CA
KIA Baqubah, June 5, 2007

PV2 Scott Miller - Headquarters
Casper, WY
KIA Baqubah, June 9, 2007

Cpl. Darryll Linder - A 1/12 (Cav)
Hickory, NC
KIA Baqubah, June 19, 2007

Cpt. Drew Jensen - Headquarters
Clackamas, OR
Died in Seattle on September 7, 2007 from wounds suffered May 7, 2007

It's easy to forget the names and the faces of those fallen since this war started five years ago unless your life was touched by them. I only knew or talked to a handful of these men - Chevy, Jesse, Higgins and Captain Jensen. All of them and the rest of our twenty-one comrades died protecting us in harm's way. It's an insurmountable tragedy that we couldn't do the same for them. Those of us who came back from Iraq have either left the service to continue our own stories, or have stayed in to add more chapters of war when they deploy sometime in the future. For twenty-one men and their families, their stories have ended, but have not been forgotten.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Different Kind of Anniversary

Media outlets are bursting at the seams with hard numbers this week: five years of war in Iraq and nearly 4,000 soldiers killed since March 2003. But for the few Americans that have seen action in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a number that is more somber and reflective than any body count: one.

Some of us were lucky to not have friends die, others had many comrades killed in action. My battalion suffered twenty-one KIA in our fifteen month deployment, but many in my platoon and company were affected by the loss of Brian Chevalier the most. We got him a few months before our deployment and like all new guys, he was treated like shit for a good while before he was accepted into the 'crowd.' We poked fun at him for his badly drawn tattoos and his thick Georgian accent. Unlike most of us, it rolled off his back and he took it in stride.

It pains me today that in the year that I knew him, I didn't get to know Chevy as well as I could have. He was sarcastic and quiet, qualities we both share. We would've gotten together great if we had the time.

This past Friday my old platoon got together to honor the man that was Brian Chevalier. I wrote about the events that night earlier this week. Accompanying us was a reporter from CBS News who was interested in a story of soldiers transitioning back to civilian life, post combat, and all the roadblocks we endure along the way. Her writeup of the night captured the essence of what we felt: a tangible loss that transformed our lives. While in country, we debated the merits of war, our reasons for staying and the effects of leaving. But that didn't affect our dedication to the mission. It wasn't a free democracy in the Middle East or the quelling of sectarian violence. It was to bring everyone home alive.

There were twenty-one failures in that mission, and Chevy was the third but the hardest to take. The two deaths before him - one in Mosul and one in Baghdad - happened in another company. We sat and mourned them at their memorials, but few of us knew the deceased. Chevy's death not only ended the life of a father but shattered the notion that we'd all make it out of Iraq alive. It was a wake-up call for us, not only in the realm of safety and awareness, but our mortal presence and the friendships that were forged in the states and strengthened in war. It was becoming clear that anyone could be next, any moment could be your last. We tread carefully, not forgetting the sight of Chevy put into a body bag as rounds zipped and cracked overhead.

It's been a year since that moment, and Chevy's death, along with 3,990 of our countrymen and women, are counted like vertical slashes in a tragic tally in the media to mark five years of war. The only Americans who see more than milestones and figures are the 3,991 families that shoulder the burden of loss, where the number one represents their sacrifice more than anything else.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Photo Story Monday - A Celebration of Life

Last week I mentioned that the original members of second platoon would get together to honor Brian Chevalier, our friend that was killed in Iraq a year from last Friday. There had been enough mourning that day and the subsequent weeks and months, so we decided to celebrate the honor of being a part of the short life of our friend Chevy.

The night started like so many before it: with beers in hand and Guitar Hero on the TV. Dozer was out back grilling burgers as familar faces arrived by ones and twos. Conversation spilled into the kitchen as beer bongs were filled and caps came off bottles. The apartment renter, Ponch, lamented how there was a penis drawn on his refrigerator every time he has guests over. Bryan responded with a huge drawing of a purple, veiny member. We were assured it was not an accurate portrayal.

Before leaving for the karaoke bar, we gathered together for a moment of silence in the living room. Kyle, one of Chevy's closer friends, gave a heartfelt speech about why we were getting together. I thought about the events that day and how it had changed me. I remember Kyle on the roof, picking insurgents off with his powerful M-14. He came back and wrote 'Chevy' on the magazines for his rifle. I had a different way of remembering; every time I shot someone after that, it was Chevy's image that was seared into my conscious, not the crumpled frame or distorted face of an insurgent that just exhaled his last breath.

After our reflection, we piled into cars and trucks and headed to the bar. One guy bought a brand new Hummer after winning $15,000 in a scratch off game. I piled in with Dozer and Dodo as we listened to the best of hip hop all the way to the bar.

I hadn't realized the karaoke bar we were going to was a bar I had been once before,the last night in town for Steve. It look about ten minutes for everyone to make it in as pitchers of beer found themselves on our long table. The always wet and sticky song selection book was being passed around as potential singers looked around for a good partner to join them on stage.

Being so close to a military base will quickly tip off patrons of the bar that a table of loud, obnoxious 20-something drunks were in the service. It got out that we got together for our fallen friend, and a nice lady bought a shot for every man there. Others came by to shake our hands and tell their own Army or Iraq stories. Bryan and Josh were the first to get on stage and sang one of their favorite country tunes as the others laughed and recalled their favorite Chevy moments.

I was at the point of being drunk enough not to notice half the table get up to sing another song. I had been joking around with Dodo when I looked over to see everyone on stage crying. Instantly I snapped out of it and tried to listen over the conversations going on around me. I couldn't make out the words and turned to watch the monitor behind me. The text scrolling down made me realize the song. It was Arlington by Trace Atkins, the song that played at Chevy's memorial. I could finally hear the words. "And every time I hear twenty-one guns/I know they brought a hero home to us...."

Afterwards, there was a toast. To Chevy.

Drunken banter only escalated throughout the night. We freaked out when a guy was wearing a baseball cap with the words CHEVY written across it with a Chevrolet logo on the back. We couldn't believe it, of all nights. Dodo offered to pay twenty bucks for it, and the guy agreed that if he got to sing his song, he'd sell him the hat. It was a proposal that didn't make sense to even my inebriated friends, but he still didn't follow through with it.

Chevy's squad leader walked on stage to deliver a slurred yet heartfelt speech about him, and even though he didn't make a lot of sense, we gave him many cheers for the effort.

After quite a few hours of drinking, laughing and stories we've heard a thousand times before, it was time to go home. It wasn't March 14 anymore, but the beginning of March 15. A new day. Only time has diminished since March 14, 2007; memories of our friend and hero, Brian Chevalier, have been strengthened and refined with each passing day. His loss doesn't get any easier, just a little more bearable.


Josh and Bryan, Guitar Heroes

Moment of silence

Josh and Bryan trade in their plastic guitars for microphones

Singing "Roadhouse Blues" by The Doors. 3/5 of the people on stage knew the words, and it showed

Chevy's squad leader SSG Kellar when he was still sober

Dodo deep in thought as I smile about something or other

Singing "Arlington." Not a dry eye in the house

A toast

All pictures courtesy Cami McCormick.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Of Love and War

This week is full of milestones. Some good, and some bad (see the post below on our fallen comrade Brian Chevalier). Yesterday was a duel anniversary: six months together with my girlfriend Lauren and six months since I returned home from Iraq.

After coming back from our final leave in April 2006, we came to a realization very quickly: Iraq was lingering two months into the future. We had done most of our last minute training and spent a lot of our time cleaning weapons and packing up equipment. What sounds like hours and hours of busywork is in reality a lot of sitting around and meetings high above my level of responsibility. That led lower enlisted types like me to two activities to kill time during the work day: videogames and the internet.

Daily I was at a crossroads. Did I want to jump into on online game of Counter-Strike, or fulfill my other cyber habit of perusing local Myspace pages? Perhaps it was the voyeur in me, but I got a kick out of looking into the lives of people living in Seattle. Locals in the Tacoma and Seattle area were a bit uptight and even rude to those in the military. Their imaginations ran wild with the notion that we were all ignorant and violent rednecks, the worst of society had to offer. My hat is off to anyone who could score a date with a woman that didn't actively seek someone in the military, which is not the kind of lady I'd associate myself with for various health reasons.

I suppose deep down inside I was looking for a penpal. I didn't have a girl waiting for me back home in Texas (as wonderfully cliche that would have been) to send me packages and letters when I reached Iraq. I was told my standards were unreasonably high when my scant dating history and average looks were taken into account. It kept me from settling, but it also kept me alone.

Back to mid-April and my habit of thumbing through Myspace accounts. I had seen many but the women in them were a They seemed to be interested in fashion and Paris Hilton more than anything. After nearly giving up, I found one a bit intriguing. Dark hair, glasses, excellent movie taste. It was really too good to be true. Nevertheless, I sent her off an email proclaiming my admiration. Hours later, she sent back a response with her name: Lauren.

Lauren and I became penpals after that. Curious in nature, she wanted to know what I did in the Army. Her questions along with others inspired this blog to be created. She holds the honor of being one of the original five readers with a comment on my second entry:

Alex, i am so glad you started writing this blog! I can't wait for more to come. you grow more and more interesting everyday.

p.s. be all you can be ;)

April 26, 2006 12:50 AM

Needless to say, I was ecstatic. She was a reader before I had gained any notoriety. Any writing opened a window her to get to know me better. I had tried calling her a couple of weeks before we deployed, but she ignored my call. Hmph. Even still, she vowed to be my intercontinental friend.

She was a busy young woman with school and a bustling social life, but she still made time for me. It was happenstance if I ever caught her online after coming back from a patrol in Mosul at the start of our deployment. I'd send her a message, hoping she'd see it before leaving, and if I was lucky, we'd talk over instant messenger for as long as she could stay on the line. The internet cost five dollars for an hour and a half, so I'd bring extra money with me just in case I ran out of time.

One of the first things I did when I got to Iraq was compose a letter to her. She was excited to get it, and told me a reply was on the way. It came in the shape of a package, bursting with books, candy and a long letter. I was hooked. Everyone wanted to know who the mystery girl sending me packages and letters was. I told them simply, "Her name's Lauren. She lives in Seattle."

In the three and a half months we spent in Mosul, I can count the amount of times we talked on one hand. In late November when we were ordered to move to Baghdad, everyone was very nervous. We had great living conditions in Mosul. We knew the city well and had a reliable schedule. With the exodus to Baghdad, everything was up in the air. Rumors began that the base we were going to didn't have the internet, phones or even a gym. We'd likely be living in tents or worse. We couldn't tell our friends and families where we would be going for security reasons. All they knew is that we were going somewhere, at some time. Two hours before we left in the early morning, I had vehicle guard with Dozer. I realized that I had to get word to Lauren somehow. I remembered her phone number was in an old email from months prior, but I didn't have an internet access card! Shit!

I tried several cards that were collecting dust around the keyboard. I finally found one that had a few minutes left. I barely found the email before time ran out. Schoo, a close one. I dug out my neglected phone card to give her a call. It rang, and rang, and voicemail. I left her a quick and nervous message telling her not to worry, and I'd talk to her soon. It was the first time she ever heard my voice.

We got to Baghdad the next morning, only to eat, change uniforms and go back out on our mission to find the F-16 that had crashed in the Anbar desert. A week later we came back to see how accurate the rumors about living conditions were.

We were delighted to find the new base in Taji surpassed every expectation. We were living in bays, separate from our leadership. Everyone had enough room to set up a TV with an X Box. The base PX was huge and accommodating and the chow hall was magnificent. Most important of all was the internet access. There was a cafe with thirty computers within walking distance, but there was also an Iraqi service that gave you a dedicated line for $60 a month. Most of us shelled out more money than we would ever pay Comcast for a connection that would rival AOL in 1994 for speed and disconnections. But it was what it was: no more waiting an hour to use a computer for thirty minutes at a time.

This was not only a boon to this blog but my relationship with Lauren. When I wasn't on five day clearing missions or raids in Baghdad, I was back in Taji talking to her or hoping she'd get online, checking in between matches of Call of Duty 3 on our networked X Boxes. I also bought an Iraqi cell phone, which was less reliable than the internet connection and cost nearly a dollar a minute to call the states. Between the phone and the internet, we'd talk for hours. I famously had an hour conversation with her over the phone, only to jump online and talk for five more hours. What followed was the longest one day mission we ever did: fifteen hours of clearing. I slept for 45 minutes before we left and later felt the consequence of that. I was hallucinating near the end and couldn't recall what certain people said to me during the day. But I was happy: I talked to Lauren longer in one night than in the first three months in Mosul.

It was in those long Taji nights that we began to develop feelings for each other, though both of us neglected to tell the other person. It took me to say something incredibly stupid for her to be offended and tell me how she really felt, which goes to show that sometimes it pays to be a dumbass.

On top of being home and getting out of the Army, I was looking forward to seeing Lauren in June 2007 when we were scheduled to come home. I had the option of going back home to Texas to see my family, to Seattle to see Lauren or someplace else when I went on R&R leave at the beginning of April. I chose to go to Europe with my best friend Steve, as it was my only chance in life to go there for free. Besides, I'd be seeing my folks and Lauren two months later.

Coming back to Iraq from Europe meant going through the Frankfurt International Airport in Frankfurt, Germany. I stopped by an internet terminal to send a quick email to my friends and family that I was on my way back to combat. Signing out, I saw the headline that Kurt Vonnegut had passed away. My heart sank. Vonnegut was one of Lauren's favorite authors and introduced me to his work. I sent her an email with the link to the news article and coincidently, she was on the other side to receive it. She quickly sent me a response saying she was glad the news came from me, another fan. It was almost time to board. I signed out of Hotmail, which brought me to the news of the day. The first headline:

Tours in Iraq and Afghanistan Extended from Twelve to Fifteen Months

With a lump in my throat, I read the news to Steve. I barely had enough time to send an email to everyone saying I wouldn't be coming home in two months but rather five. I sent another email to Lauren letting her know that despite us never meeting, I missed her more than ever.

As I stepped onto the plane bound for Kuwait, my platoon back in Baqubah was called into a courtyard during a patrol and told the news of our extension. And so began the longest plane ride of my life.

I had only spent ten days in Baqubah before I went on leave, but the extension would give me ample time to stroll in the lush palm groves and trash filled streets the city had to offer. There was a reverse trend in living conditions and access to the internet. In Taji we peaked, but in Baqubah we took a nose dive. Forty of us lived in a tent made for twenty without insulation to shield us from the imposing sun. Even with the A/C running, it was always incredibly hot with the greenhouse effect lingering. Generators turning off like clockwork added to the shared misery of forty sweating bodies breathing and cussing in tight quarters. We were like dogs in a locked car.

There were three internet cafes sprawled out over the base, each distinguished by their incredible ability to draw huge lines of waiting soldiers. In many cases, we came back to the base for a few hours to eat, shower and change uniforms before heading back out. I'd abstain from any two of those so I could try and catch Lauren online. I had a success rate of about 5%, but that didn't keep me from trying every time. I might have been sweaty or hungry, but I'll be damned if I was going to miss an opportunity to talk to her for half an hour!

My phone reception fared far worse in Baqubah. When our equipment wasn't interfering with the signal, I was standing on concrete barriers trying to get a signal. Even with a few bars, I could make a call for only a few minutes before losing her completely. It was beginning to be like Mosul: having the chance to talk to her for very brief moments every so often. I brought my phone to our outpost deep in the city to get better signal. The only place I could make a call was on the roof, standing in plain sight of enemy snipers and machine gunners. The con of being shot in the head was outweighed by the pro of getting to speak to her for more than ten minutes. The base didn't allow cell phones, so $30 phone cards would sell for $35 on the black market. It was a scam, but they had idiots like me to buy them at a marked up price.

Our last few months of combat crawled by. Any kind of routine was changed on the fly for new missions to clear and reclear other neighborhoods. That meant walking all day and sitting around at night. Staying up during guard on the rooftop of the house we took over, I asked the guys if it was better if I met Lauren and my parents the day I got back, or meet my parents at Ft. Lewis and see her the next night. It was split down the middle. Lauren and I decided I'd meet her the next night to spare the awkwardness of my parents being there. She'd still meet my parents a couple of days before I flew in. On the day we were supposed to come home, I wrote a short story about what could've been. The real thing would have to wait.

On September 12, we embarked on a day long journey back to the states. I could think of nothing other than her as I was wedged up against a six foot tall cajun and someone I'd never met before. My thoughts were my only comfort on the shoulder-to-shoulder ride over the ocean.

We touched down on American soil in the evening, but we made the error of arriving too early; our buses weren't scheduled to arrive for another hour and a half. Most of us changed socks and brushed our teeth in front of a television camera. Five miles away at Ft. Lewis, our families were watching us sit around in high definition.

The buses finally came and dropped us off at the Sheridan Gym on the grounds of Ft. Lewis. It felt like we hadn't been there for years. We removed our hats and straightened our uniforms in formation so we could march onto the basketball court. As soon as we walked in, the crowd erupted into a frenzy. I couldn't help but smile. After the shortest speech ever by an officer, we were released to our families.

Imagine a single piece of raw meat thrown into a tank of pirahnas and you can understand what kind of frenzy ensued.

My parents didn't spot me in the crowd before hell broke loose. I was wandering aimlessly in the crowd of crying wives and yelping kids. I found the wife of one of my friends who asked me, "Have you seen my husband?" with her baby in tow. I said we could look together for the other half of Team Destructon.

In between crowds of people, I saw my dad running up to me with my mother closely behind him. But my attention was focused on the girl behind her. It was Lauren. I pretended not to notice as I hugged my dad tight.

She had come on the behest of my parents and like in my fictional story, her deep brown eyes were the first things I noticed. I embraced her with the emotions and feelings that had waited fifteen months to manifest.

It has been six months and one day since that moment and we're still together. She contributed infinitely to my ability to reintergrate into society when I got back and left the Army four months ago. Without her, I'd likely be back home, lonely and without much direction. This entry would have never existed, and my blog would be nothing like it is now without her. She's my inspiration, my muse. We'll be moving to Austin, Texas next month so we can go to school. We're both going ot be writers someday. She won't have a problem with that; she already has an associate's degree. I haven't taken an hour of college in my life. It'll be a big change to go back to school, but with her next to me, nothing is impossible.

Us in the gym, and me the color of a beet, for obvious reasons

On the Pacific Shore. From Left to Right: A bearded hobo and a beautiful girl

The namesake of my short story: Somnium on her ankle

Here's to six months, and beyond.


Monday, March 10, 2008

Photo Story Monday - One Year Later

After being in Baghdad for a few months, it started to feel easy. Routine. We'd clear hundreds upon hundreds of houses and walk a few miles collectively and go in for the night to sleep. And do it all over again the next day. Glancing up at the fortress of Sadr City was a normal day at the office. Strolling through Arab Jabour could only be described as boring. Apart from a few firefights and the downing of a Blackwater helicopter, Baghdad was a bust.

We had suffered two deaths in ten months, both in other companies. I didn't know them except for their names. In that regard we were luckier than most other units. I thought to myself often, this isn't bad. We're going to make it out of here okay.

It was still routine in March 2007, but we were in Baqubah instead of Baghdad. On March 14 we started searching through abandoned houses and dirt lots. Two Army combat journalists were with us to cover the story of Strykers in Diyala for the first time since the war began. We searched through one house and were preparing to move to another next door. It had a padlock on the other side. I shed my backpack and climbed over to cut the lock. I was just about there when my squad leader called to me, "Fuck it, fuck the lock. We gotta mount back up." I jumped back over the gate and sprinted back into the Stryker to join our three other vehicles.

The only picture taken that day

What followed in the next several minutes shattered the belief that we'd be okay, when Cooter, his faced covered in dust and grime, said to me "Chevy was killed on impact."

Brian Chevalier was one of the newer guys. He came to the platoon right before we did our training in California in February of 2006. He was quieter than most, a Georgian father of a little girl he was raising with his mother. His late introduction to the platoon made him the driver, the less coveted position in a squad. Almost immediately he earned the nickname of Chevy, a shorter version of his last name.

It was hard to tell how clever he really was. Introverted and sporting a southern drawl, he was brighter than most perceived. I fancied myself as one of the best debaters in the platoon, as debates and arguments were frequent in tight living quarters. But he could always poke holes in my positions when I faced off against him.

He was a lover of poker. He rarely won but always was willing to play. In the barracks and in Mosul, games of Texas Hold 'Em were almost as common as debates. Once, Chevy and I were facing off in a massive pot. I held a King of Diamonds with five diamonds out there. The board read 3-4-Ace-10-7. I had the best flush with my king. Chevy had an impossibly wide grin on his face the whole time. When the seven came out, he shouted, "Ohhh, shit!" Once he collected himself, he pushed all his chips in. He couldn't stop smiling and his face grew red hot. He put his hand to his mouth and bit his thumbnail, showing overwhelming nervousness. Seeing his not so subtle poker face, I folded the King-high flush. He rolled over 5-6 of diamonds, revealing the straight flush. I couldn't believe it.

The only solace I found was that Chevy was killed instantly when the IED exploded beneath him. He went like he lived: quietly. His impact on us was not as muted. Every single person that knew him cried at his memorial service. Our emotions were bottled up after he was killed; we had no time to grieve in between missions. For two hours, we reflected on his loss. And we went back out into the night.

This Friday, the remaining members of second platoon will get together on the anniversary of his death to celebrate his life.

The memorial commissioned for those lost in both deployments of 3rd Stryker Brigade, 2003-2004 and 2006-2007

We miss you, Chevy.


Monday, March 03, 2008

Photo Story Monday - The Home Stretch

He was walking down the street in the middle of the night, AK-47 in tow, without a care about curfews or carrying an automatic assault rifle in the open, strolling along like it was the most natural thing in the world. He didn’t likely hear the Americans infiltrating into the city, walking from a mile away as to not alert anyone with the hum of Strykers growing louder and more ominous. He certainly didn’t hear the sizzling crack that ended his life a split second before he hit the ground in a tangled mess of limbs; the only thing uttered posthumously about him said over static radio waves. One enemy KIA.

It had only been twenty minutes into Operation Arrowhead Ripper, the first large scale ground offensive in Iraq after the surge, and already one insurgent was leaking his fluids into the street. We expected a final stand, a decisive battle, a moment of reckoning where hopefully our dead wouldn’t stack as high as the enemy. Our battalion had been holding Baqubah for three months, sustaining high casualties in a town that al Qaeda declared their central hub in Iraq. Holding it with us was 3rd Brigade of 1st Cavalry, a unit that was taking a considerable amount of casualties since they had arrived several months prior. We would fall under their command but would soon take control of the area, giving them a rest by giving them the job of securing main roads in and out of town. A company of Cavalry Strykers was with us for the same purpose, and our snipers and scouts were inflicting their fair share of enemy deaths with their long scopes and small teams, pairing with a mortar platoon at times. For regular infantry, there were two companies, Alpha and Bravo. In just a couple months, our numbers dwindled so drastically that we could combine both companies to form a proper textbook infantry company.

Daily firefights and ordinance falling from the sky kept the routine and mundane at bay. We held several of the neighborhoods on the east side, creating combat outposts continually manned by rotating platoons within the company. Two smaller, dangerous neighborhoods stood on the west side, Mufrek and Khatoon. Chevy was killed the first day in the city, and ten days later (and a few blocks away) was the scene of a vicious IED that took several limbs from the Stryker occupants and left a burning hull. West of the Diyala River was the bad side of a bad town that we cleared and recleared but never held permanently. There simply weren’t enough men to control the entire city with the shrinking manpower we had.

Operation Arrowhead Ripper was the overdue answer of desperate calls for reinforcement. In mid June our sister battalion, 1/23, along with a company of 82nd Airborne and another out of Hawaii arrived at FOB Warhorse. We were grateful about their arrival but not the growing lines at the internet and chow hall. The offensive was going to be huge, with air assaults and ground infiltration happening in the middle of the night. It would last for weeks, with full support of helicopter gunships and planes dropping bunker busters. There was a new rocket system called a glimmer that we had never heard of being used, where recent digging and bombs were identified in the road by helicopters or satellites or some damn thing. Rockets would them fire straight down, creating a huge crater and destroying any IED in its wake.

With Baqubah’s bloody past, it was expected that this offensive was going to rival Fallujah in terms of destruction and casualties. The insurgents knew it was coming and had ample time to prepare their deep buried IEDs that had been lying in wait for months for just one American convoy to pass, justifying countless hours of waiting. Gates leading to courtyards were locked and chained shut so that no one could take cover behind a wall as machine guns lay in ambush, firing volleys down the avenue. As the insurgents prepared, we prepared. Rifle magazines and belts of machine gun ammo were changed out with armor piercing rounds to penetrate ceramic plates and make sure anyone shot would be down for the count. We had found countless vests in caches and on the bodies of insurgents killed, making us aware of how well they protected themselves. Nearly everyone was filling backpacks with extra ammo, extra grenades, shotgun rounds, crowbars, bolt cutters, smoke grenades, batteries, knives and stickers used to identify cleared houses. We were cleaning our weapons, checking sights for accuracy and putting fresh batteries in night vision goggles. We were calling and emailing family and friends, letting them know we’d be gone for awhile, and that we loved them.

Weighed down with armor and extra equipment, we set out in the early hours of June 19. The task force was starting in the south and clearing up in unison as one unit. We had the privilege of clearing Khatoon, the toughest nut to crack and our most unfamiliar area. Though 1/23 had their whole battalion, we were given the neighborhood because of experience. They’d take Mufrek, the smallest section of the west side. We pulled up along a main road and filtered out of the Strykers and into the black abyss of a huge field. There was a road running parallel to us that we didn’t take out of concern for small IEDs targeting dismounts. Instead we had chosen the less beaten path, a garbage and sewage strewn open area dotted with wild chickens pecking the trash at their feet. We would find, clear and hold a tall building until daybreak and begin clearing in the morning sun. Before getting there, our first platoon spotted a man walking down the street with an AK 47 slung over his shoulder. Muffled shots filled the air, no louder than the tin cans sent flying with awkward kicks from fumbling soldiers in the darkness, tink-tinking against rusted scrap metal. Over the company radio the report came in. One enemy KIA. Well, shit. Now they know we’ve arrived.

We found a house high enough to see the landscape surrounding us and decided it would be home for the next couple hours. It was abandoned like countless houses in the ghost town of Baqubah. On the floor in the living room was a pile of bootleg DVDs, the kind sold at the bazaar on our base. On top was a box set of 28 Clint Eastwood movies over four discs. Once the building was cleared and security was on the roof, I trotted down the stairs to rummage through the neglected treasures of entertainment. My backpack was tightly packed with chemical detection spray and 40mm grenades, but I found some room and crammed in the DVD set. So far, this mission wasn’t so bad.

I joined the rest of the squad on the roof, replacing a guy that took my spot as I was pillaging on the floor below. It was still dark and oddly quiet, muted whispers and a gentle wind the only sounds to be heard. Dozer was behind me facing the other direction, watching the road for any movement as I looked over a swath of houses and fields. In a low voice he suddenly calls out that he sees something. Four men run across the road to a small shack, one of them holding a bag that is quickly tossed in the weeds. He’s not the only one to see them; infrared lasers dance on the figures from another area, quite possibly our third platoon or the scout platoon. Dozer makes the call and opens fire, cutting down a couple of the men with a burst of his armor piercing rounds as Dodo fires alongside him. The other guns burp in perfect harmony, sending sparks on the road as God knows how many rounds are being fired at these four guys. One of them tries to climb a wall to safety and is shot in the back, making him drop like an anvil to the cracked pavement as blood streaks and splatters on the wall. I watch the whole thing unfold from over my shoulder, wanting to get into the fight but holding my position on the opposite wall. All four men lay in varying degrees of death. We’d wait until the sun to rise before going down to survey the damage. We didn’t want to take the chance of walking into an ambush set by any unseen figures.

Dawn came, and with it, glimmer rockets and bunker busting bombs. There was intel on several explosive-rigged houses and IEDs before the operation started, and they were being destroyed en masse as birds sang their morning tunes.

At dawn, this is probably the last thing I want to see besides Hillary wearing a robe

It was daylight, and another squad was sent down to check out Dozer's handiwork. They walked up to the guy who should have been the first one dead and saw he was still holding onto life by a thread, literally. His bottom half was almost completely sawed off from his torso, and he was throwing up his legs and twisting them like a freakish sideshow. He kept demanding water but no one had any, other than their backpack reservoirs with a personal hose. When his demand of water wasn't met, he threw rocks at the soldiers surveying the area. A pistol was found on one of the bodies, and a grenade not far from the half-man. When they came back to check on him, he was dead.

As we we watched what was happening below, figures in a building 300 yards away started moving. Dressed in white robes and carrying AK-47s, they're frantically pacing up and down stairs. Everyone locks on them. I load a grenade and flip up the sight, ready to send one sailing into the congregating group in the house. My squad leader calls it up, saying we're ready to engage. It comes back, negative. Don't shoot. They're Iraqi special forces.

There was a lull in action after that. The big, theatric battles imagined days before had dissolved into routine clearing. This street, that street. On and on.

We went into one side of the palm groves and came out the other, leading right into the backyard of a house we knew well. A few weeks prior, after getting sniped at and held down by a machine gun, we cleared a section of houses where one held a shitload of money, and one held insurgent gear. We found a huge roll of pistol belts, a ski mask, bayonets, AK 47 magazines and documents. No one was home at the time, but walking up to that exact house again was close to divine intervention. What were the chances?

We ransacked the house for a second time as the owners watched without expression. We told the man of the house that we were going to arrest him for possessing those materials we had found weeks ago. He claimed he wasn't holding them by choice, as some men stashed it there and told him to be quiet. We were bluffing, and we really had no way to take this guy with us, but he wasn't too convincing either.

Waiting to move on

It was back to the ordinary. We were taking extra precautions with doors, gates and floors with the danger of wired houses in the area. They had first been used years ago but were coming back in Diyala. Every door would be checked for wires leading up to it from inside, and we tiptoed across carpets or moved them out of the way.

Checking every gate meant peering over to make sure nothing was behind it. At one particular house, something caught my eye. See if you can spot it:

Guess what's wrong with this picture and win a free iPod

Whoever was there left in a hurry. They didn't even try to hide the staples of IED building, air tanks and artillery shells. A quick sweep of the house netted a sizable cache of all types of goodies, just sitting in a box for us to find. Anti-tank mines were stacked alongside like a tower of Jenga blocks, wobbling to one side. RPG shells were placed at random in the house, as were vests and ammo belts.

"Do you think the Americans will find this?"
"Naaaaaah. Just throw that shit in the box."

With the paranoia of a huge firefight swirling around, we had used all of our HC screening smoke grenades within the first few days of the operation. When we were resupplied, we were given colored smoke to use. Screening smoke puts up a solid white cloud that you can't see through, given you the ability to mask movement across roads, fields and any kind of open area. Colored smoke was for signaling; each color meant something. At the time, the colors only meant one thing: half-protection from the eyes of anyone watching.

Soon we ran out of colored smoke and were down to using training colored smoke. They were colored, but scaled back to use in training, so some 18 year old kid at Ft. Benning knows what happens when you pull a ring on a can of smoke. Why they were even sent to Iraq, I could never say. Why we got them, I could only guess.

It got so bad that we were throwing the last of the training colored smoke, but we still had more running, dodging and diving to do. We had been taking fire, and we were directed to move toward the mosque two hundred meters down the street. I was on the roof watching over a squad moving toward it. They had one final block to move across, but it was about fifty feet long. They yelled at me to shoot smoke grenades from my 203 to conceal them. It was a ludicrous idea. 203 smoke was chalky and abrupt and would do nothing except attract enemy fire. That, and there was a lower building right in front of me. It would be an almost impossible shot, near and low to the point where I had to forgo my sights and eyeball it.

I launched a grenade right over the edge, impacting the wall, the wind sending the smoke the opposite way intended. One of the machine gunners yelled, "COVERING FIRE!" and sent a burst down the street as his squad moved. One of them yelled for another. I loaded a red smoke, aimed at the same thing, and fired.

CLUNK...CRACK. The grenade smacked the edge of the building and went tumbling end over end. I sighed at the miss, but it took a favorable bounce into the street and did a better job than the first one.

As they moved into the mosque, we left the roof and the building to join them. It was my first time in a mosque, as they were usually off-limits to us because of their religious value. Dozer and I looked around for the microphone that lets you talk to the whole city but couldn't find it. Oh well.

White men sitting in a mosque is worse than any Mohammed drawing

We were getting close to finishing the clearing mission. It had been several days without adequate sleep, little food and less water. Headlines blaring about a big offensive in Diyala Province were seen and heard back home, without word from us. No one knew what was going on. But we hadn't been in firefights every day like we had expected. It was pretty much a bust.

The roads were still dangerous to tread on. When we finished up for the day, we returned to a house we took over as a makeshift base. The Strykers had a point where they had to stop or risk more IEDs. They held well short of our house, so we had to find a way to transport the necessities. Someone came up with the idea of using donkey carts.

We're Spending Our Money On What Now? - Moment #352: Using stolen carts to transport food and water over potential IEDs

Pushing the cart over pieces of rock and concrete made by falling glimmer rockets

The final day, we had pushed all the way to our stopping point: a large, open field right in front of us. We were waiting on the whole task force to get to that point on both sides. We stood in the blazing heat on the wide open rooftop, taking thirty minute shifts in the shade. As soon as I walked downstairs and took off my vest for a break, an explosion rocked the area right next to us. Smoke and dust billowed from what used to be a house a split second ago. We called up, "What the fuck happened?!"

The house just blew up. Simply put. Could've been a bomb maker with a trembling hand, or it could've been wired and blown to intimidate us.

It was quickly my shift, and I made my way up the stairs to replace Matt and Dozer. There were a few people out and about, strange for that part of town. Bill and I were shooting the shit and cursing the sun when another house erupted in a fireball, collapsing the roof and throwing bricks into the air like confetti. We both looked at each other with the most confused 'what the fuck' look on our faces. It seemed like any house could be next.

Soon after the explosion, we heard moaning and screaming coming from the house. Bill used his telescopic sight to see a man crawling out of the rubble, a blindfold hanging off his face a little. His skin was coming off and the lower half of his body crushed. He was yelling for someone, anyone to help. I don't know if he saw us there, helpless to his plight for water and care. There was only five of us and it was too risky to cross that field. He'd have to lay there.

We thought he was dead. The moaning stopped. No more screams. But he was soon alive again, resurrected to have his revenge against us. He tried to sit up only to fail, again and again. His blindfold kept sliding off his face a tiny bit at a time. He didn't have the strength to take it off.

A woman and her young daughter went walking down the street, approaching the house with the broken man hanging on to dear life. His saviors. Once they got to the house, they turned to look at the destruction and the pleading man. And they kept walking, as if they were window shopping on Park Avenue. Soon after that, he stopped crawling and yelling for good.

The street in front of us had more foot traffic throughout the day as people walked to the market and bicycled to other houses. I saw something on that street I would see in the next several weeks. It was a family, walking together, with a white flag held high. A sign of good faith.

On they strolled, past us, past the dead man and past the other destroyed house. Once they were out of danger, the little boy dropped the flag to his side as they walked out of view.