Sunday, June 22, 2008

Final Salute

I just finished a book called "Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives," a book by Pulitzer Prize winner Jim Sheeler. It centers around a Marine casualty assistance officer and the stories of the families most affected by the war. It'd behoove the nation to read it. I wrote a little something about it on VetVoice. Please do take a look!


Monday, June 16, 2008

Photo Story Monday - Burning Sensations

I was kind of lucky going on leave when I did. We arrived in Diyala Province just ten days before my scheduled day to go. My friend Steve and I decided to go to Europe together, and we were the very last in the platoon for a much needed break. Everybody knew it, too, and if you were ever in the military, you know that anything that could be made of, will be made fun of. My leave date was no different.

"Hey dude, when you going on leave, two weeks before we go home?" Some would ask.

"It must suuuuck not to go on leave yet," said others, regaling me with stories of their two weeks at home that came months prior.

I gave them all a quick fuck you and playfully told them I wished they would have twice the work to do while I was gone. Sadly, that came true.

In the near month I was gone, my company saw some of the most intense fighting of our deployment. Firefights became more routine than patrols, and for the first 45 days of operations in Baqubah, 40 of them were spent outside the wire, sleeping in abandoned Iraqi houses as the summer slowly crept on.

By the time I got back, my former team leader was killed and my squad leader was shot in the arm by a sniper. I had missed a lot, but was a bit anxious to be back in the mix. There was no point in looking forward to home. When I left for Europe, it was only two months away. When I came back, it was five.

I wasn't placed gently back into missions but thrown violently into a new phase of our deployment. Before my departure, it was standard operating procedure to call EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) any time we found a cache or an IED. We didn't find many in Baghdad, but they kept popping up in Baqubah. Imagine a road where every few yards, a bomb buried deep in the ground was waiting for you like a starving predator waiting for the next meal.

It was too much for the EOD guys to handle, bless 'em. They were overloaded, and that meant that blowin' up stuff was going to be a new addition to our endless list of side jobs.

I was stunned the first time Matt uncovered an IED wire, picked it up and followed it to a HUGE FUCKING BOMB in the middle of the road. It eviscerated every rule I knew about IEDs, which all amounted to 'don't go near them.' It was all too routine for Matt and others in my company to simply find the bomb, mark it and wait for EOD to come.

You just follow that wire. I'll be back here

The culprit: Underneath our metal can marker

We left some guys to watch it and continued on our patrol. We got word later that EOD had placed charges on it, so it would be in our best interest to take cover.

On our way back to COP Battle I, we passed by the crater the blast had left. We had to run by it, actually. To our left was a huge open field with scattered palm trees - a perfect hideout for snipers. Everyone was running in pairs past the hole, except Bill. Bill wanted me to take his picture inside of it. Matt decided to join him. I accepted the invitation to take the picture as my fellow platoon mates sprinted ahead of me.

It took me awhile to wrap my head around that. Before, we didn't go near IEDs. Now we were walking directly to them to give it a once-over. Let the EOD team know, hey, you got some land mines taped to a can of gasoline. Good luck.

Pretty soon after that, we were finding so much bullshit that we could take things a step beyond and blow stuff ourselves. A couple of guys carried C4, detonation cord and all the other goodies necessary for homemade boom.

Dozer was always finding caches, like it was a sixth sense. In one particular courtyard, he uncovered a buried water tank filled with RPGs, launchers and machine gun ammo. In other words, a lot of shit.

If you spend enough time on the ground in Iraq, you're bound to come across a screaming, hysterical woman that will cry and yell right in your face before she slaps herself over and over. It's one of those things that transcend culture and human dignity; women striking themselves in fits of rage.

I caught one of those moments from across the street. I was standing in the courtyard with a bunch o' weapons while the people in the houses near us were told to leave while we destroyed the cache, for their safety.

Obviously, the lady in the blue wasn't going to go quietly, but we managed to get her family to take her away to a neighbor's house.

The guy who laid the charges on the cache let us know it was going to be, for the lack of a better term, a big one. We moved several blocks, took off our helmets, and waited.

One minute.

Thirty seconds.


For the truly impatient, go to 1:00

The explosion threw so much shit into the air that I heard chunks of concrete falling near us, several blocks away. The house that contained the cache was completely destroyed, as was the house next to it.

Winning hearts and minds

The force of the blast was great enough to destroy the courtyard gate across the street and start a small fire on the roof.

The oozing septic pond next to the house was thrown all over the neighborhood as bricks from the house are strewn about

I learned quite a bit in my first week back in the game. It was okay to approach a massive IED like an injured bunny and place other bombs on top of them. It was okay to tug on its wires and hack at it with a crowbar to get a better look. It was at one time profane, but eventually it became nothing more than ordinary.