Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Weblog Awards Draw to a Close

Faithful readers,

Earlier today, the 2008 Weblog Awards closed, with Michael Yon once again the winner of the Best Military Blog category. Send your congratulations to him by visiting his fine blog.

A big thank you goes out to everyone that supported my efforts by voting the past week. I placed third because of people sending e-mails, posting threads on message boards and getting family and friends riled up. Hell, there was even a Facebook group started by Lauren's sister to help the cause. Thank you a thousand times over to everyone that read, commented and voted the past week. Though I placed third, I was glad to be in the running with a great group of guys. A special nod goes to Big Tobacco for his great showing as the new kid on the block.

The top three:

1. Michael Yon - 4,318
2. Blackfive - 3,320
3. Army of Dude - 1,650

Thank you all once again. Keep an eye on this space for new posts in the future.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sensing Combat: Taste

(This is the fifth and final part of a series. Scroll down below for the previous entries.)

The high-pitched squeal of the Stryker engines stretched along the dusty back road on the edge of the Diyala River Valley. One by one, the ramps dropped to reveal squads of infantrymen under the strain of heavy equipment needed in counterinsurgency operations: shotguns, bolt cutters, pry bars and shoulder fired rockets. Food and water are transformed into luxuries as assault packs were stuffed with extra ammunition magazines and grenades instead of bottles of water and meal rations. The beleaguered soldiers filtered into the palm groves one by one, gaining a foothold before an all-out clearing mission began to destroy pockets of resistance. Assaults into enemy-held territory in the heart of Baqubah yielded numerous caches and dead insurgents, cut to ribbons by rifle and machine gun fire in the beginning days of the Battle of Baqubah. Intelligence suggested that more caches and insurgent bases were hidden in the dense and humid date palm groves that engulfed the banks of the Diyala River Valley. As I stepped off the road and into the jungle, the hum from the Stryker engines became more distant and muted as I made my way through the bush. Twenty yards in, the Strykers could not be heard at all. Our evacuation, our makeshift homes, our lifeblood - cut off by thick foliage. The wind pierced the canopies of the trees, rustling fiercely in the afternoon sun.

I only had room in my assault pack for two bottles of water. The third sat in my open cargo pocket, sploshing quietly with each lunge over the slippery irrigation ditches etched deep into the ground. The sun hung low in the cloudless March sky, pounding the earth with its merciless rays. The mission was to last from early morning to sunset, so I had to be careful and ration the three liters of water throughout the day. The water bottle in my cargo pocket was accessible but awfully warm. After every security halt I put the bottle to my lips, the torrid water bringing little relief to my quickly overheating body. Despite the revolting taste of near boiling water, I finished my last drop halfway through the day. My dry throat ached for relief as my body sweat out liquids that had no replacement. Dehydration was quickly becoming a threat.

Over the crest of a hill brought heavenly solace. Lush orange trees towered above the afternoon patrol. Low hanging oranges and grapefruits were ripe for the picking as we walked along the occasional dirt path. I filled my cargo pockets with oranges, peeling them as we continued our push into the valley. On a security halt, I gingerly bit into a slice, sending cool, bitter juice into my throat. They didn't taste much like the sweet and crisp Florida oranges found in a grocery store. They were sharp and tart, the juice reminiscent of a dry Chianti rather than Tropicana. The fruit was too sour to eat whole, so I sucked out the juice and flung the leftovers into the tall grass. As the orange trees became less frequent, I stocked up on the last few ripe specimens as we marched slowly to the river.

Some good ones fell into the muck


Combat is a difficult thing to get across in conversation far removed from the battlefield. The hardest part is relating what it feels like, smells like, sounds like to be in a war zone for fifteen months or longer. The gap of understanding between civilians and veterans is a hard one to overcome without an insight into what exactly those in the military are perceiving when they are off in a faraway land. I hope these small vignettes provided, at the very least, a glimpse into what young men and women are experiencing in Iraq and Afghanistan as you read these words. A combat deployment is, among other things, an assault on the senses that carry on long after a soldier returns home. As the years pass, it will be the sights, the sounds and the smells of war that remain most vividly in the memories of those who have taken that long journey to Hell and back again.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Next post on the weekend

Tomorrow morning I have to be at work ridiculously early, so I'm going to hold off on my final post in the sense series until the weekend. Thanks to everyone who has been following the series so closely and voting so diligently.

Speaking of voting, I'm proud to be in a category where everything has remained exceptionally civil. Other blogs are turning the voting into a circus. Though I'm getting curb-stomped into oblivion by Mike Yon and Blackfive, it's good to just be in the running.

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

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Sensing Combat: Smell

(This is part three of a five part series. Scroll down for the previous entries. And vote, damnit!)


Some doors are more stubborn than others. A particular door in Baghdad was the bane of my squad's existence. On a routine clearing mission where every single house had to be searched and searched thoroughly, a reinforced door stood to deny the mission's success. Nothing could bring it down - kicks, shotgun rounds, the old fashioned shoulder charge. The door's metal frame rejected all modes of entry. My squad leader Lee was determined to simply pry the frame out of the cinderblock wall after all other measures failed.

In the cramped courtyard, the whole squad stood around the doorway to watch the ongoing madness of the insurmountable door. Jeun, a super quiet Korean guy from the Bronx, stood behind Lee as he put all of his weight into the pry bar and pulled back. The frame gave way and sent Lee tumbling backward. Jeun, seeing 200 pounds of Alabama fury coming toward him, gingerly stepped out of the way. Lee rolled into the corner and stepped right into an open septic tank, drenching his leg up to his shin in jet black tar. My first reaction was to laugh, but with Lee's famously short temper, I stifled my giggles. Instead I gave him a bottle of water to wash his leg off. The smell that carried off of him made me gag almost instantly.

That same sweet, thick smell of shit swirls around just about every street in Iraq. The country has no plumbing infrastructure in place, so citizens have to be clever about waste disposal. From porcelain bowls in the floor, plastic tubes filter waste into the street where it pools with the waste from other houses on the street, creating puddles and streams of liquid excrement that bake and ferment under the desert sun. It takes a while to grow accustomed to a pungent smell that mingles with rotting garbage (surprise: no modern trash collection either).

The smell, overwhelming in the first couple of months, tends to wear away as the days drag on. Digging up bodies that had been rotting in the ground for 42 days brought a smell only marginally worse than the open sewers of the street. The odors were so strong that I have not been able to smell as well since. I feel like I have a permanent head cold when it comes to using my olfactories.

Anyone up for a dip?

If only cameras could capture smell


Putting rounds into an insurgent's body always brought back memories of Fourth of July in my backyard. Lighting Black Cats and M80s and watching them pop in the air. Setting a pinwheel up on the fence and waiting for it to start its furious spin in an explosion of color and sound. The smell of gunpowder would hang in a cloud of lazy smoke long after the fireworks were expended. The same smell from childhood came rushing back during firefights as spent shell casings went flying through the air, ejected from the bolt in a spurt of gas and sent tumbling toward the ground.

When in the confines of a room, the sulfur smell attaches to everything: clothes, armor, gloves. It's not an attractive smell; inhaling too much of the gas coming out of the barrel will send your head spinning. But the smell is addicting. Once it permeates throughout the air, you can't wait for the next time it fills your nostrils and ignites the rest of your senses. The scent of war is remarkably the same as an American childhood in the summer, waiting for the next opportunity to set off explosions in brilliant displays of color and sound while the musk of gunpowder settles on the warm wind.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Sensing Combat: Sight

(This post is part two in a five part series. See the previous post: Hearing. And don't forget to vote!)


"Put your fucking NODS down, Horton."

For the hundredth time, my platoon sergeant whisper-yelled at me to put my night vision goggles back over my eye. I resented every second that I had to peer through the muddy neon green peephole so I could stumble my way through the dark. While boosting the ability to see further in the dead of night, night vision plays a dangerous game with depth perception. When focused on objects close up, things around you (like the ground) appear to be more distant than they actually are. When tweaked to see further, objects up close take on a fish-eye appearance; everything appears rounded and blurry. After being scolded yet again for my reluctance to use my equipment, I shoved the bright green monocular lens into my eye and followed after my team leader.

Walking through a field strewn with garbage and septic waste, it isn't clear what is solid ground and what is a cesspool of festering human feces when looking through night vision. I used my team leader as a pathway guinea pig: anywhere he stepped in shit, I would walk around with boots free of black sludge. Just feet in front of me, Matt walked cautiously along, probing with his foot for stable soil. He made it nearly halfway across the field before he appeared to shrink nearly a foot, letting a quiet "FUCK!" slip out before pulling half his leg out of excremental quicksand. I lifted up my goggles to see where he had fallen prey. A septic wasteland the size of a swimming pool, and he barely slipped into the edge of it. It glistened under the moonlight but looked like ground through night vision. He never saw it coming.

Payday made it through the field, but not unscathed (look at his right foot for the dreaded poop boot)

"Did you fucking see that?"

Sadr City was almost a mythical fortress of pure evil to us. Deadly battles with Shiite militias raged there after the invasion, and by the winter of 2006 it was completely off limits to any coalition force. It was simply too dangerous to walk into. Instead, the higher-ups insisted that we probe the physical boundary of Sadr City by setting up a position across the street from where the neighborhood began. To nestle up to the hornet's nest before throwing a big fucking rock at it.

Staring over the scattered brown houses in Sadr City became a paranoid frenzy. Little old ladies doing their laundry on a rooftop looked perfectly ordinary anywhere else in Baghdad. In Sadr City limits they could have been men setting up mortar tubes and machine gun positions. Kids playing soccer in the street seemed to be giving our position away to insurgents waiting in ambush. Nothing was as it appeared to be.

It took only twenty minutes for a brave yet dumb insurgent to climb to the roof of a house across the street and open fire on us. With a spray of AK-47 rounds he shot up the wall below our position, eliciting a measured response of rifle and machine gun fire that peppered the doorway he stood in. It wasn't clear if he had died in the initial wave of fire, so we kept shooting until either blood or body became apparent. I glanced down to street level to ensure the shootout wasn't a distraction for something bigger while we were distracted by a single guy with an AK . Out of nowhere, an elderly man came walking out of his house with a plastic chair in tow. As rounds crackled thirty feet above him, he positioned his chair at the midway point between Baghdad and Hell and took a seat as the firing continued unabated.

"Dude. Did you fucking see that?" I yelled to Bill over the din of semi-automatic fire.

"See what?" he shouted back.

"Some old dude...just watching this shit."


In flashes of combat, one sees very little of what is actually going on. The most anyone can perceive is tiny flickers of human motion caught in a whirlwind of sensory overload. But if you look in the right place at the right time, you might see something that no one ever noticed.

The man quickly walked back into his house after the firefight ended. There was nothing left to see that morning. Surrounded by spent shell casings and the smell of gunpowder swirling in the air, our eyes went back to Sadr City to watch for anything else the fortress might have in store for us.

Monday, January 05, 2009

The polls are open!

Voting has begun for Best Military Blog in the 2008 Weblog Awards. Please go here to vote! Remember, you can vote once per 24 hours, so come back every day this week to vote again. Don't forget to spread the word to your friends and family as well.

New posts will be added early in the morning every day this week, so stop by often to check out new material. Thanks, and happy voting.

Sensing Combat: Hearing

(Author's note: Voting for the Best Military Blog begins today. Go here to vote.)

"So, what's Iraq like?"

For the number of times that question has been asked since I've come home from Iraq, it remains one of the great unanswered questions of my life (Why are we here? and Why did they cancel Arrested Development? are up there as well). I have to closely consider my audience before I answer. Most people pose the question to confirm their suspicions or bias about the war and the military. If they lean right, they want to hear how many Iraqis thanked me for their new found freedom, or they want to find out if Iraq is safer than the inherently evil media portrays it. If they lean left, they want to hear about how much it sucked being a tool in George Bush's war for oil. In nearly all cases it leads to the same place: getting a leg-up on their friends in a discussion of the war by saying, "I know a guy in Iraq who said..."

Thankfully some are genuinely interested in what it was like being in Iraq at the height of the surge. Yet I still find it difficult to describe it beyond seven words: It's hot and it smells like shit. A million little things need to be described before one thing is explained, especially to a civilian that knows very little about combat and the military. It is this disconnect where a good description of what actually goes on in Iraq fails. I intend to remedy this. For the next week I'm going to describe in detail the feeling of being in Iraq using the five senses as a guide. As rockumentary director Marty DiBergi might have put it, I want to capture the sights, the sounds...the smells of deployed life.


The most awful sound in Iraq is what we would hear five times a day like clockwork. From the mosques and high, cylindrical minarets all over the city, megaphones boomed with prayers. Often they reflected the mood within the city itself. If things were going well and firefights were at a minimum, the prayers would be said with a neutral voice. If a lot of violence was flaring up, the voice became angry and belligerent, almost like a call to action to fight against us. If anything the prayers were bewildering and a bit scary to young soldiers thrust into an entirely different culture. The droning voice blanketing the city could be anyone; an imam lobbying for peace or an insurgent sending out a war cry. We couldn't tell the difference.

The prayers at night were particularly unsettling. In Mosul we developed a strategy to insert small teams to watch areas where IEDs were typically planted. No more than ten men infiltrated a house in the middle of the night to set up a position. We effectively immersed ourselves in the city hoping to remain undiscovered. At night the prayers went on as scheduled, but I could never sleep through them. To me, the prayers sounded like the ramblings of the undead.

Hat-tip to Dozer for the video


"Is that a dude?"

"I think it's a dead dude."

On a patrol through Baqubah, someone spotted a couple of guys dressed in black running around on a rooftop. Black is the color of choice for insurgent attire, and it was apparent they were up to no good. Our platoon set up shop in an abandoned school about 300 meters away and quickly positioned machine guns in the open windows before the insurgents had a chance to set up weapons of their own.


The machine guns erupted, sending a volley of rounds that crashed into the brick building and blew apart the previously sharp-dressed men. It was unknown if the house they were in contained any more nefarious characters, so a helicopter was called in to level the house with a Hellfire missile. Before they could fire, they had to be certain what house to destroy. The machine guns continued to rake the outside of the house to confirm the insurgent's location, setting it up for the missile:

The video shows a proportionate amount of action versus bullshitting that you're likely to hear during a deployment. Short bursts from a pair of machine guns and a Hellfire missile slamming into a house give way to a casual conversation about dead insurgents hanging out of a hole on the roof.

I have a feeling my hearing won't be so great in twenty years. Almost daily a sharp piercing tone will overtake my left ear (my firing side) for a minute or so. Earplugs are recommended but unacceptable for the common grunt to wear. Hearing is perhaps the most valuable sense to a soldier on patrol or in a firefight, giving the ability to pinpoint incoming enemy fire or an approaching enemy's footsteps. In less extreme cases, however, your ears can be used to enjoy Pink Floyd while watching the desert endlessly drift on.