Thursday, July 01, 2010

Spoils

The amount of stuff a soldier brings home from war can be limitless. Books, bootleg DVDs, letters, pictures, memories, post traumatic stress, TBI - without fail, everyone comes home with more than what they left with. The worth of some of those things can be easily determined, but others carry a more intrinsic value. Go on a backpacking trip through Europe and you might collect train tickets or pub coasters for mementos, but grabbing a keepsake from the battlefield earns an entirely different description: war trophy. Look in a thousand houses or rummage through a hundred caches and you might find something worth stuffing into your pocket.

There are strict guidelines that describe what can be taken and what should be left alone. Nothing can ever be taken from a civilian, but enemy equipment (limited to non-firearms) is mostly fair game. I kept my bayonets but had to get rid of a zip gun and an insurgent ammo bearing vest punctured by bullet holes and stained with blood. During my mid tour leave in Europe, I picked up a rock from Omaha Beach and a piece of concrete from a destroyed bunker at Pointe du Hoc, only to throw them into a patch of gravel outside of customs in Kuwait. Tangible pieces of history were lost to conform to the strict no soil policy. Brass shell casings from my first firefight were stuffed into a amnesty bin. Thousands of those ejected casings burned our necks and rolled around the floor of our vehicles, but they had to be discarded like common aluminum cans. I wanted to save a few to show my grandchildren, maybe tell them the story about how they were left behind. They'd roll them around in their hands and stick their pinkie into the top of the casing. I'd tell them, "It was in these moments that made me who I am."

Mostly everyone came back with at least one interesting thing. Al Qaeda flags were rare and treasured while bayonets produced yawns; everyone seemed to have one (I brought two home). Another common souvenir was an ammo vest. They were essential to any enemy cache and easily stuffed into a cargo pocket. I managed a unique find; a camouflage ammo vest with an Iraqi flag printed on the back, stuffed deep in a box in an insurgent safe house.

Somewhere in Baghdad, Dodo found a rare gem: a pistol holder with a golden seal of the Republican Guard affixed below a stamp reading "1984," which was about the midpoint of the Iran-Iraq War. It was attached to an ammo belt more suitable for the Old West than the Middle East. When he showed them to me, I couldn't believe those things were found together in what can only be described as a trailblazing attempt at insurgent chic. He offered them to me and I declined, but he insisted, true to his selfless and giving nature. With his generous donation to the Musée d'Dude, I put together a tiny space for war trophies centered around the concept drawing of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Memorial statue.





The sword is perhaps the most storied item in the platoon's war trophy collection. In a house littered with insurgent accoutrements, I uncovered the weapon hidden underneath a pile of blankets. I was already carrying a heavy folding litter on my back and jammed two AK47s into the carrying case. The sword barely managed to fit. Along the blade were dried streaks of blood, a peculiar fact considering it wasn't very sharp. Across the street, another platoon discovered a torture chamber utilized by insurgents operating in the area. We openly wondered if the sword was used for sadistic purposes.

My squad leader determined it was critical to mission success and took it to headquarters during my post mission shower. I had carried it for several days until we came back to base, and it was mine based on the international rules of Finder's Keepers. The battalion staff was less than impressed with its story and sent it to be blown to bits in a hole alongside dozens of captured weapons. The Snack Master just happened to be walking by the collection and just happened to spot the sword, and in a rare moment of thoughtfulness, grabbed the weapon and brought it back.





Bringing home weapons from war is a tradition as old itself, but that doesn't mean all war trophies are of death's construction. I consider myself lucky for finding not one, but two gems. After clearing an abandoned house, I looked through piles of books and papers on the floor for any important documents. I uncovered a curious portrait of one of the world's most hated dictators:





GQ Saddam now hangs on my bathroom wall. A piece of history saved.

26 comments:

Alex said...

Which brings me to a question: do you guys have any unique war trophies? I had to leave behind one of those weird metal self-flagellation tools after the wooden handle broke. It would have made quite the conversation piece.

Saif said...

Alex,
Great read, as always.
I have a few war mementos, but nothing quite as unique as either of what you found.
An SKS bayonet that just happens to fit in a scabbard (found separately)
A russian training grenade body. I think I told the customs guy it was a can.
An old Iraqi Army helmet, still had the webbing.
I did find something I would have loved to keep, a mint condition Binelli over and under shotgun, with an inlaid seal in the buttstock. Never did find out what it was; kinda hard to decipher Arabic when you still have 4 rooms to clear :)
Didn't really pick up anything in Afghanistan.

Thanks for your service, thanks for writing about it, brother

Alex said...

Saif,

Pretty good haul nonetheless. Can you imagine if they let us keep weapons like in WWII? I'd have my own AK-47 arms depot with a few RPGs and Dragunovs in the back for special customers. A squad leader I knew found a (Bulgarian?) pistol that looked identical to an American M9. Could've easily been smuggled back but he got rid of it.

CI-Roller Dude said...

Well, this is the coolest thing I've seen all week!
I sort of kept a few things from my deployments...AK mags from the "Battle of Fallujah" and a few odds and ends from Bosnia.
When customs went through my foot locker I went home from Iraq, the dude didn't even look cause he knew I was such an honest guy. I should have stuff some good things in there...dang it.

mmmgoode said...

You already know what Karl has, but in WA, he had his haul set up like an altar, like you do. Now there is no where in our house that would be appropriate for it. Maybe I should get him a shadow box so he could easily display his stuff. Then he wouldn't be able to touch them though if he wanted. I don't know. What do you think about the shadow box idea?

Alex said...

You got away with that CI! For some reason AK mags were forbidden, which sucks because I found a cool one with a wooden outer casing.

Marie,

A shadowbox is a good idea, especially to keep away the kids. I'm sure he wouldn't be too tempted to take it out of the box.

CI-Roller Dude said...

I put the AK mags in with my extra M-16 mags and made it easy for the REMFs checking them by having them all facing up. for some reason they were worried that we might ship home a few rounds of live ammo....hell, I can get all the ammo I want at work for free and throw away the brass!

Rick said...

You guys deserve those few spoils of war.

Mun said...

Interesting aspect of deployment I never thought about.

Good read, thanks!

Laurel said...

So, that explains why I've never been able to get a troop to send me a few specks of sand. What possible harm could that do? I consider specks of sand from the desert as unique as rocks from the moon. A great bit of writing, Alex! I always enjoy reading your stuff. ; )

J. said...

Definitely no grenades allowed, though.

Anonymous said...

I have some of the typical stuff from Desert Storm - Iraqi and French bayonets, ammo vests, half of a hollowed out CBU unit, that kind of thing. I had AK's that I traded away, I never saw the need for one back home even though I live in LA.

The story of getting it back is a good one though. They had postal units that would inspect what you mailed back, slap a sticker on it that it was OK, then you mailed it out. I put all my stuff in one bag at the bottom of the box and sought out the youngest, female postal soldier that I could smooze. I was going to do three card monty with the goodies, but she saw a French MRE in the box I was mailing and wanted one. I asked her what she had to trade and she said "I just won't inspect your stuff", so I told her I didn't have anything that wouldn't pass. So in trade, she gave me a couple of the inspection stickers that I could slap on a box and mail back whatever I wanted.

It was about two hours before we flew home. I ran, not walked to the Amnesty cans.

They had all just been cleaned out. Every one.

I went to the 450th CA where some friends where, they had a couple of more days before they flew back. Their 1SG Top Parker was a great guy who was later a military advisor on the movie "3 Kings". I got there with about an hour before our formation to fly home. I came running in and asked for Parker but the only guy there was a 1LT who we called Coppertone because he really did look like a Coppertone advertisement.

When I asked for Parker he said he was out and wouldn't be back until late that night.

Long pause.

I tell him what's up and ask him if he will give the inspection stickers to Parker.

Long pause.

"Sure, I'll make sure he gets them". (Translation: "I can mail back a tank!")

I'm absolutely certain Coppertone has a half dozen sniper rifles at home right now and tells people the story about my dumb ass walking into their TOC that day.

Walter Knight said...

Check the AK-47 on the drawing of an alien on my website.

I was just trying to be funny, so the alien is smoking and drinking Starbucks.

Ron said...

Alex, my brother in law was a medic stationed in Baghdad, near or in one of Saddam's palaces. I have pictures of him bathing in Saddam's gold tub, and pissing on Saddam's roses...and from that palace came the small round coffee table in my living room. A priceless gift.

Pattie Matheson said...

Great article, as usual Alex.

Don't forget Korea - my Dad came home with an AK-47 and a "bunch of other stuff". One rifle he came home with is an American rifle that was recovered from the field. I didn't ask but since he was a jet pilot I'm guessing he had to trade for them both.

schmal said...

I personally didn't bring anything home, but while exploring some old barracks and buildings on Taji, my friend, Bear, found a rare gem. It turned out to be a report written by a student about the man he most admired...Saddam Hussein.

Beernecklace said...

Wouldn't it have been great to be there in 2003 when the National Museum got looted? You could have got your hands on some of the earliest examples of art and literature on the planet.

A stone cuneiform tablet would look great in your bathroom. I'd probably make a coffee table out of it. Of course, it would probably be hard to clean drink rings or cigarette burns off of it. Probably need a tablecloth.

B said...

Dog,

Why you being all ghey and not posting fo'? Sheeeit. As an OIF vet just out of the Army and going into college, I can tell you that the 9/11 GIB process seems to have been streamlined-you might have some credit in that. So regale us with some writing already.

We brought back a bunch of shit-a turban belonging to a bad guy BDE commander, wanted posters of the most wanted guy in the province, whom we caught (oh, snap, son!) and a dozen printouts of where we made the internet papers. We pinned the turban up in a z-pattern in the team room, where it took up half the wall. Our colleagues, who had spent their tour raiding the KBR chow hall, looked on in envy. There's a time for everything, even vainglory. When I left, all I took was one of the wanted posters-everything we did over there was a team effort, and no one of us could have done it without the others, so how could we split up the spoils? Most of us have moved on, but the team is still there, and I hope that the new guys will be inspired to go out and kick ass by the stuff on their walls. Fortunately, our goatfucks resulted in no mementoes on the walls.

There was one thing that I wanted to snag for myself on a raid, but it disappeared. It was one of the double-thumbed good luck hands with the blue eye in the middle that they hang on the walls. Probably a good thing that I never found it before we unassed the OBJ-it brought no luck to the previous owner.

Had I wanted to bring back a crate of Iraqi grenades, it would have been easy. We had an ISU between the 3-4 of us each time, and the MPs inspecting us in the hot sun were, literally, struggling with congenial neurodefficiencies. You know when you look at somebody's dome, and it looks all misshapen? And then they open their mouth, and you can tell that the dome's contents aren't quite right, either? All you gotta do for a guy like that is be his buddy, and he'll look the other way if there's a motherfucking PTERODACTYL hanging out of your toughbox.

Alex said...

B,

Been busy with a new job in a new time zone, so haven't had time for new stuff. But expect a major announcement and exciting changes very soon. By the way, you need to start your own blog as soon as possible. I was laughing my ass off even before you got to the pterodactyl.

B said...

Beernecklace,

That's cool, I built my coffee table out of the desiccated corpses of all the infants that we skullfucked to death. What's cuneiform? Is that some kind of freaky sex shit? I think it says not to do that in the Bible. Now if you excuse me, my battalion is doing a formation run to the poll booth, where we'll all vote for Sarah Palin for President For Life.

Alex,

I like my anonymity. A blog is a bit too much of a temptation to start taking myself seriously and pontificating.

Alex said...

Once again, I see deep wells of potential. Someone needs to keep the self righteous, morally indigant jokers of the world in check (I'm looking at you, Beernecklace). I was anonymous for more than a year before I got stupid and put my name out. You can do the same. Hell, plenty of people follow Schmedlap's example and continue to post from the shadows. Don't let that be a reason!

Greegor said...

Hey, Alex.

Just wanted to tell you how enlightening and inspiring I've found your blog. In some ways I can absolutely and totally relate, while the writings about combat and the desert... well, a real education.

I can relate because I was a terminally sarcastic Navy journalist back in the late 80s (there was no way in Heaven, Earth or Hades they were going to get me to reenlist). I went into the military, like yourself, because I was a serious underachiever in high school and was quite patriotic: my stepfather fought in the Pacific during WWII and my mother's young uncle was KIA in April of '45 during that war.

After my hitch I went on to college and turned my academic game around completely... reading your entries about that whole process brings back memories.

Of course, as I did not serve during wartime, I can only imagine how hard the loss of comrades like Chevy hit you and your brothers. Another eye-opener... while reading your entries it dawned on me that you could accurately describe the sound of a bullet whizzing by your head before you had been on a pubcrawl. Wow.

I've recently become a qualified high school English teacher and you can rest assured that some of your entries will be required reading.

Anyway, keep up the good work online, in the community of veterans and in academia. And thanks to you and all the other vets out there.

Jenna Arnold said...

I have family in the army and now my husband and we are about to go through our first deployment and I have seen some really amazing things come home to my family and friends. Its amazing to see the worn out flags that were flying and the prayer rugs and the clothing and things that the men and women wear. Its such a different place over there. Thank you for your service, always much appreciated.

tausha said...

1. I have been a follower of yours since I found your blog about my friends, Todd and Jordan, that we lost last year in Iraq. I never told you that your blogs are a s interesting to read as Jordan's were...

2. I have that same memorial poster framed and hanging in my house lol

take care!

fm2176 said...

We were forbidden from bringing bayonets home; one SSG got hemmed up for trying to smuggle a modified VCR full of bayonets through the mail.

In Baghdad during the invasion I filled my MOLLE ruck full of goodies from an abandoned Special Republican guard compound. Most of it got discarded. I still have a Republican Guard uniform and a picture of Saddam secured from the airport terminal. We were prohibited from "looting" that as well, leaving most of the stuff for the REMFs to secure and take home to show off and tell their war stories. I had a selection of cartridges up to 14.5mm but got rid of those as well. I wish we were allowed to bring home weapons still. AKs and PKMs would be cool, but as I am into historical weapons I'd have been perfectly happy bringing home the Persian Mauser we captured or one of the arsenal new 1955 dated Tula SKS'.

Kold_Kadavr_flatliner said...

Wonder if that picture was take'n before or after he rolled over the prisoners in his dungeon with a steam roller, starting with their feet so Saddamn could hear them scream?? Or howsabout the women that his guards raped and then killed with a fetus inside?? Looks like he's a young whipper-schnapper there, he's black and disgusting now. God WON'T stand for that, dude. They're in the Abyss o'Misery now. My point is, soldier, don't git so caught-up in this passing world you lose your immortal soul. Lookit ‘peace-de-resistance' first. God blessa youse -Fr. Sarducci, ol SNL.