Thursday, January 08, 2009

Sensing Combat: Touch

(This is part four of a five part series. Scroll down for the previous entries.)


I'm a left hander living in a right hand world. I learned that the hard way in elementary school when, in the big box of scissors for the class, only one or two left handed scissors could be found. Most of the time they were loose and coated with rust, practically unusable anyway. When I scribbled out words in a pathetic attempt at handwriting, it would smear across the page and on the underside of my hand. In gym class when we played baseball, everyone got a baseball glove to fit their appropriate hand. I had to catch with my left hand, take off the glove and then throw the ball. Needless to say, I wasn't the first one picked on the team.

My abnormality followed me all the way to Iraq. As a private I was handed an M4 and a 203 grenade launcher attached to it. It became my weapon for my entire enlistment. Sadly, the Army does not issue ambidextrous rifles. Shell casings fire out of the ejection port on the right side of the weapon, which is an unfortunate trait for someone that likes to put their face up close to the sight. During firefights, piping hot shell casings would eject into my cheekbone, leaving circular marks on the side of my face. The sting subsided after awhile, but the marks remained for hours.


"Get ready to dismount!"

The Stryker came to a stop in a muddy Baghdad intersection. I had been in the airguard hatch on the half-hour ride up. Half of my body was exposed to the cold, biting wind that rolled across the top of the vehicle. A light drizzle started the morning off, but as we approached our dismount point, the rain began to subside, leaving behind massive mudholes and puddles everywhere. I asked Payday to attach a crowbar to my back by slipping it into jerry rigged zip-tie rings on my armor. He slid the whole thing into the bottom ring, leaving the crowbar hanging down to my knee. There was no time to fix it; the ramp was already dropping.

As the first one out of the vehicle, it was my job to lead to the first house to gain a foothold in the area. That meant jumping over a rather sizable shit stream. It looked doable - I jumped over plenty bigger in my day. I backed up to get a running start, stepped forward and lept-

As I left the ground, the crowbar lifted up and slammed into the back of my leg, sending me off balance and into the shit river.

I miserably crawled out of the muck, everything below my shins covered in freezing sludge. I prayed that it wouldn't seep into my boots as I got up in shame after my epic fall. As I walked down the street, my worst fears were realized: my feet started to become soaked in the cold septic water. Each step carried a loud squish squish as my socks sopped up the excremental liquid. My feet began to freeze. It was only 45 seconds into the mission and I was already miserable.

As my squad walked along courtyard walls down the street, I trailed behind, dragging my left leg up against the wall in an effort to wipe away the sludge that stuck to my pants and boots. The rough, uneven concrete scraped my wet skin through my pants. It hardly did anything. The black muck remained on my leg as a pungent reminder of my fall.

We rounded the corner and made our way into a dress maker's factory, where I had a brilliant idea. A heap of cloth scraps were kept in the corner ready to be tossed out. While the factory was being searched, I held a scrap tight and ran it down my leg like a squeegee to get the biggest chunks off. But there wasn't enough time to take off my boots and wring out my socks. Even as the hours ticked away, the crisp winter air didn't allow my feet to dry. Throughout the day I carried my wet and wrinkled feet as a frigid reminder of one wrong misstep.

Some shit rivers were too big to jump


Kelsey said...

That sounds absolutely miserable. Must have been a long, long day.

I've only recently found your blog and became an instant fan. Keep up the good work, if you keep writing like this you'll be a top-notch journalist soon!

Dr Dan H. said...

Here's an idea: if you want to score big kudos points with the locals, and make the insurgents seem like complete arseholes, start on a sewer-building project.

This doesn't have to be anything big; in Brazil, in some of the slums, the locals got the idea of putting in local cess-pits and fairly small, shallow drains to shift just the water component of the sewage; the cess-pit catches and holds the solids.

That'd work in Iraq, and even if you had to put in solar-powered or otherwise powered pumps (a few donkeys and a small boy with a pointy stick springs to mind) to shift the liquids about, it'd still be better than the miserable fuck-up of a system they have there now. Plus, of course, it creates work for cess-pit cleaners...

bigD said...

Hi Alex,
I am a lefty too! I knew there was something I liked about you. It is funny how all us lefties have the same problems created by living in a right-handed world. I had that same gym class problem, only with the softball glove! I got so sick of doing the catch the ball, take the ball out of glove, put glove under armpit of opposite arm, switch ball to left hand, throw ball, I went as far into the outfield as I could and never touched another ball for the rest of the unit. HA!!

The thing about the M4 is crazy too. Are you saying they only have M4 for right-handers and if the shell casing are coming out the wrong side of the gun and hitting you in the face because you happen to be left-handed...oh well? That is so not right!

The story about your "leap of faith" over the sewage that was nasty! If you need some help perfecting your leaps, I can help you out there. I'll have you flying over those nasty, smelly, ditches in no time.
All kidding aside, that whole experience sounds horrible. Cold, wet feet sound miserable, without the whole added bonus of shit contamination. While the story seems humorous now, I am sure it was not so "funny" at the time.

The picture of all of you picking your way across the rocks in order to avoid the sea of sewage is sad! :( Why is it that plumbing is such a big issue in these countries? Obviously plumbing is still in the Dark Ages in these areas. Have you ever heard of this book..."The Big Necessity. The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters," by Rose George
It is all about the importance of dealing with human waste and what happens when we don't. Great research for a term paper. :)

Anyway, Alex, I am really glad that you don't have to leap over any more shit rivers. You can cross that one off your bucket list. Still voting for AOD every day...take care, Alex

james said...


Found your blog through the blog awards. Nice work. Quality.

It is utterly amazing that a country with billions in oil revenue can literally steep in its own feces.

I get what you guys are trying to accomplish. It is a tough job and I for one am thankful you are doing it for us.


Alex said...


Thanks for your continued support! The M4 spitting casings into my face is likely a unique problem. I wasn't the only left hander I knew, but I was the only one that had the marks. It must have been the way I held my rifle, closer to my face than others.

Gene Ha said...

The Sensing stories are fantastic. It really does project the images into my head, in a way that even documentary footage doesn't. You've got some serious writing chops.

Having such vivid memories of raw sewage lakes must make you appreciate life in Texas! Hope you're having a great new year.

I can't imagine life as an Iraqi.

David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 01/13/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Patty Peyton said...

Dude, your blog should be required reading for our legislators. Better yet, A DAY IN THE LIFE should be required. Not a day where the muckity mucks make life convenient but a flat-out-for-real-kick-ass-day in the life of a foot soldier.

Yeah, I know. Never happen. But it should.

Anonymous said...

I got you beat... abdomen deep not 5 min into our patrol the day after the riot/demonstration in the Middle of F***ing No Where Baghdad. Its ok though, I think we all did our time with the poop boot or in my case poop lower torso.

Regulars Forever Forever Regulars

Winton, Bryan SGT USA