Monday, December 17, 2007

Holiday Break

Most faithful readers! This week I'll be going back home to Dallas for a few days and then I'm off to Nebraska to celebrate Christmas. Being away from my computer means there won't be Photo Stories for awhile, but don't fret! After the new year I'll be back to tell more stories, and I have a few ideas about how to keep this blog fresh. Until then, enjoy my recollection of Christmas in Baghdad, 2006. Happy holidays!

Your favorite phony soldier,


Monday, December 10, 2007

Photo Story Monday - New Beginnings

Sometime in mid November 2006, we started to hear rumors about moving to Baghdad from Mosul, to relieve the 172nd Stryker Brigade, the same brigade we had already relieved when we got to Iraq in July before they were extended four months. Quickly the brass called a meeting with everyone about the subject to stop the ever present rumor mill from spitting out those little nuggets of gossip. Standing before the battalion, our commander told us there were no plans to move to Baghdad, but if there were any in the future, we'd get a notice of a few weeks prior at the very least.

A few days later, we were Baghdad bound. Or rumored to be, I can't be sure.

A Kiowa flew with our convoy, watching out for IEDs ahead of us

Before daybreak we took a straight shot down Tampa, the main road running through Mosul down to Baghdad and beyond. We had already been given our first mission: looking for the pilot of a crashed F-16 in the Anbar desert, and recovering the wreckage. He crashed after losing control while setting up for a gun run.

The convoy never went faster than 45 miles an hour, which made the approximately 200 mile drive a little long. We switched off in the back hatch, watching the huts and houses go by in the crisp winter wind. We had a megaphone in the back for warning cars that got too close, but we found a more practical application: hooking it up to our MP3 players. Nothing was more fitting at the time than Pink Floyd.

Before we would begin our search, we made it to our new home: Taji, twelve miles away from Baghdad. There we stripped down non-essential stuff for the mission (which happened to be a lot, imagine that) and got briefed on the time and location. We would spend about a week in the desert, going from house to house asking if the Iraqi civilians had seen or heard anything about pilots, planes or if they had considered switching to the Mormon faith. After a night in Taji, we headed for that big, empty splotch on the map.

We quickly found that the desert was a sprawling, open, arid piece of land with few inhabitants and scattered houses. We'd load up on Strykers and drive until we saw a cluster of houses, then get out and look through them. These people seemed to be the poorest we'd seen until we patrolled the slums of Baghdad. As always, my life became secondary to the possibility of stepping into a shit stream, so I watched the ground closely as we approached a farm. Speaking to the farmers, we found that there were several mortars that fell in his field. Not knowing the difference between a mortar crater and a hole in the ground, we decided to check them out, spread out far from the farmhouse. Circling back around, we came to a small pond with about two dozen oxen drinking and waddling in the water. They were startled and began to rush toward me. I spelled out my own obituary in my head. "Alex Horton, killed in a shit hole by a stampeding ox." Luckily they ran right past me. We stood around, talking about how much it would take for someone to jump in the hole. After a thousand dollar dare, no one jumped in.

The beautiful scenery of the Anbar desert

After we stalked around the deserts for a day, we found a suitable house to sleep in. Coming into it, we heard gunfire erupt from somewhere near us. We made it back inside to figure out the commotion and to make sure everyone was still there. It quieted down a bit, and we began to sleep in shifts, two guys up at a time. I'd have two shifts before the night was over, starting the day at sunrise.

Out of nowhere, the Snack Master™ manages to conjure a Mountain Dew in the house we stayed in

Another day of trekking through the desert sands, up and down hills and across tilled farm land. No sign of wreckage. He could be anywhere. Occasionally, we came upon tracks from a truck and spent heavy machine gun casings along the path. Finishing up, we took shelter in a big house owned by one of the local big shots. He quickly put on tea for us and later brought out huge trays of flat bread, rice and tomatoes for us to eat. The kids were making us paper airplanes and they soon were zipping across the room as everyone talked, laughed and took pictures.

Apparently I was the only cold one

After three or four days, the mission was called complete. The wreckage was found and remains were identified as the pilot. As a result of our visit in the open deserts, one man in our battalion, Billy Farris, was killed by an IED. A man from our company lost a leg the night before we left, also from an IED. Pulling into Taji for the second time, we got the complete story. This wasn't like Mosul, they're playing for keeps down south. We all took a deep breath and prepared to take on Baghdad.


Monday, December 03, 2007

Photo Story Monday - Peace Out

On August 4, 2004, I turned my back on my family. They dropped me off at a hotel in Dallas so I could begin my Army career. As I walked toward the door, my dad said to me, "You're a man now, Alex." They didn't see that as I checked in, I had tears in my eyes. I had a few jobs before then, but it would be the first time leaving home. Needless to say, my environment was going to change a little.

I signed up for three years and sixteen weeks. The sixteen weeks accounted for basic training and infantry school. The three year countdown started when I graduated on November 24, 2004. I got my orders to go to Ft. Lewis, Washington to be in the "Stryker brigade." Well, what in the hell was a Stryker?

Pulling into Seattle for the first time, I was a little startled. I never saw trees so green and water so blue. I figured I'd like this place.

It took only a few months to find out the Army wasn't for me. I was among a group of new guys that was integrated into a unit that had just gotten back from Iraq. That meant hazing, and a lot of it! Since we hadn't been to Iraq, they had a free pass to do whatever they wanted. They laughed and joked while we crawled down hallways with our faces dragging on the floor, grinding the dirt and dust that came off our boots. I made it a point to stay in my room, even abstaining from using the bathroom.

It was from this treatment that the new guys formed a bond that we would carry throughout the years. Some moved up in the ranks and became one of 'those guys,' others couldn't get past the paradoxical Army life.

To kill time during that first year, we would go out into a field and lay down white tape on the grass to simulate rooms of a building. They would show us how to clear a room and then have us try. Finishing up for the day, one of them said to me, "By the way, that isn't how we clear houses in Iraq, at all."
"Then why don't we train in the real way?" I asked. "Isn't this just a waste of time?"
"Shut the fuck up."

For those of us who couldn't stop ourselves from asking the ever important "Why?", we counted the days until we fulfilled our obligation, resisting the calls to reenlist before, during and after our tour in Iraq. Some fell for the not so subtle coercion and blackmail, sadly. The rest banded together to wait it out.

Dirty mofos

Personifying 'Army of Dude': Long hair and hands in the pockets. From left to right: Steve, Dozer and me in Yakima, 2005

Everyone has heard the saying that war is boring with short bursts of intensity. Imagine how exciting it is to train for one! Making two trips to eastern Washington, we would find out. There were a few intense, realistic missions spread out among two weeks of freezing weather and sitting around.


Attention taxpayers: This is how we spend your money. Ta da!

It was in these moments that made all the unbearable times a little easier to take. Inside jokes were born. Arguments and debates went on without end. Friendships flourished. We were together all the time in cramped quarters, getting to know each other better than our own friends and families back home. Our speech patterns and slang words were interchangeable. We'd be going to Iraq as a family.

Before the loss of innocence. Kuwait 2006

More of those boring moments crept up throughout the deployment with a certain element of danger. We'd stay at an outpost for a couple days at a time away from decent bathrooms, internet and phones. We'd complain the whole time but managed to keep up the jokes and friendly arguments. Chessboards would come out and crowds formed around heated matches.

Our platoon once drew a mission to escort some guys north of Mosul to an open desert. They would be looking in abandoned bunkers for signs of WMDs and weapons material. After a while we decided to get out and walk up a hill overlooking a village in the distance. Realizing we were dozens of miles from anyone important, we took off our helmets.

How high

Dudes on break from left to right: Me, Dozer, Matt and Jesse

The rest of the deployment after Mosul wasn't all fun and posing. In Baghdad and Baqubah, our men lost limbs and minds. Chevy was killed in March, and Jesse (pictured above) was killed in April by a sniper. We spent days shoved into tiny rooms of the outposts we created, carrying on the friendships we had left.

On September 12, 2007, Bravo company returned to the states without two of our own. The guys getting out by the end of November would start the process of paperwork and mandatory briefs. As always, we did this together. On November 30, we would say our final goodbyes.

I spent three years, three months and twenty five days in the Army. I saw the best and the worst of the men this country has to offer. I have seen and experienced every extreme of the human condition. I saw and did things I'm proud of, and other things I would only tell the guys I was with. Fifty years of life experience were crammed into 173 weeks.

I'm often asked if I would ever do it again with the hindsight I have now. I would, only for the people I've met. The other parts of Army life made me leave. I'm just another vet now, full of memories and a shorter temper. However you take the contents of this blog, I'm satisfied with how my short career went down. I just miss my friends, alive and dead.


Monday, November 26, 2007

Photo Story Monday - Groundhog Year

After a year, the days began to melt together. Notable firefights, deaths and strange happenings were the only vivid memories used to recall particular dates. June 12 was symbolic throughout winter and early spring. It was the day the worn and battered would escape. The day that would mark a new beginning of our lives. The day we would return home.

With a clear conscience, Secretary Gates had us extended for three months. June 12 went from a daydream to the Tuesday between June 11 and June 13.

We set out in the early morning toward Chibernot, a small neighborhood in northern Baqubah bristling with mud huts and dense palms. We arrived a little past dawn and already felt the terrible strain of the weight we carried. Instead of driving on roads crammed with IEDs, we walked a good ways through the night, tripping in holes and stepping into streams tainted with septic waste. At one in particular, I heard the guy in front of me miss the jump across a tiny creek, sliding his foot deep into the mud. I put my night vision goggles up and leapt with all my might. With a thud I landed off-balance, my backpack pushing me forward almost onto my face. You know you're miserable when falling knee deep into diluted human shit is marginally worse than the morning you spent walking across open fields in the dark, twisting your ankle and reflecting on how your early 20s were working out.

At nearly seven in the morning we walked down a neighborhood street flanked by the occasional house. Someone spotted spent shell casings from an AK47 along the road. We spread out in the ruins of a destroyed building, looking for anything out of the ordinary. Walking along the wall, I noticed a groove cut out with bright splatters of blood covered on both sides and running down the back into the grass. It looked as if someone was bent over the groove and executed. A few more shell casings were cluttered next to the bricks.

By the way, not spaghetti sauce

Not a good day for some of us

After this find, we decided to look at the area more thoroughly. We headed for the one room cinderblock house across the street. Nothing seemed suspicious until Dozer began to kick around the dirt floor. Sending a cloud of rocks and soil into the air, he exposed a flap of buried plastic. He dropped down on his hands and knees and began to shovel dirt. We quickly realized it was a huge bag full of homemade explosives, a simple powder mix used to amplify air tanks and landmines in the deep-buried IEDs that had been destroying our Strykers with ease. More digging found another bag, at least twenty pounds. Then another. Then some landmines wired together to form a daisy chain explosion. Bags just kept on coming out of the ground. Binoculars. RPG sights. Grenade fuzes. Even more bags of homemade explosives. Hundreds of feet of wire. Batteries. AK magazines. Ammo boxes. A Motorola radio. An American 40mm grenade. Mortars. Dishwashing machine timers. Every insurgent weapon under the sun.

Bombs bombs bombs!

Showing off my organizational skills

So dang sweaty

From left to right: Cache gumshoe, a lot of boom, sweaty Dude

After destroying the stockpile we moved on, searching for others like it. We had with us a source from the 1920s Brigade, attempting to find Al Qaeda safehouses in the neighborhood. We stopped at a house while another cache was being sorted through and prepared for detonation. Slumping on the floor of the living room, we made jokes and laughed, waiting for the explosion to rock the house. I was sitting to the left of the window with four or five people in between. We got the call: one minute until controlled detonation, everyone inside. We put our fingers in our ears. 30 seconds. 10. 5. Then, BOOM! A sliver of glass burst from the window, taking a magic bullet route past the other dudes, completely missing my right arm and striking me in the left wrist. Once I saw blood I said with a laugh, "Man, I'm fucked up!" My medic gave me a routine bandage after I dripped a bit of blood onto the ground. I pointed to the red spots on the floor in the house and said "sorry" to the owner of the house, with a shrug of my shoulders. While we waited for the extraction plan, I sat down and watched the 1920s dude pore over the documents belonging to the people in the house. They weren't supposed to carry weapons, but if we don't arm Sunni insurgents, who will?

Michael Jackson!

Not pictured: Bloody wound

After more than ten hours on the scene, we decided to skedaddle. We were told the trucks were closer than the drop off point, a relief after walking all day in the June desert heat. Helicopters buzzed above us as we snaked through the outskirts of the town.

The heat proved to be a formidable enemy and we had to halt in a house for a moment. I finished the last drops of water and tossed my bottle into a garbage pile. Walking into the courtyard I quickly found a few friends gathered around a car in the shade. We talked about how far the Strykers were in actuality. The Apaches continued to fly low above us, close enough to see the pilots and their hand gestures. Several people came to the same conclusion at the same time: we have to moon them.

In a straight line in the yard, the guys dropped their pants with their asses facing the approaching helicopter, waving and hollering. The pilots waved back and shot flares up into the air in acknowledgment.

Asses and asses galore

Fun in combat is a fleeting moment, and quickly the mooners buttoned their pants to continue on the path, about to trade a summer breeze grazing their asses for a hard Stryker bench. After walking nearly a mile down the road, we heard the distinct whine of the trucks. Getting in, sweaty, dirty, dehydrated and exhausted, we did some good by taking bomb making material off the streets. But for what was supposed to be a special day, it ended like the hundreds before and after it: speeding toward our base, our enemies watching our every move.


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Would You Like To Know More?

Today is the official launch of Vet Voice, a community blog of Afghanistan and Iraq vets, as well as Active Duty, Reserve and National Guard members and their families. Policies that shape the future of our military and the lives of our warriors are at the forefront of discussion, and this should be the epicenter of news and opinion concerning not only the wars, but the fight going on at home for sensible foreign policy and veteran's care.

Below are the entries from several presidential candidates talking about the issues our veterans and country face in the coming months and years. This was a bipartisan offer for both conservative and liberal presidential candidates. Below are the ones who took up the offer to speak on issues that affect veterans. Keep in mind I don't endorse any of these campaigns.

- Senator John Edwards
- Congressman Ron Paul
- Senator Chris Dodd
- Senator Hillary Clinton
- Senator Barack Obama
- Senator Joe Biden
- Governor Bill Richardson

The best way to support the troops is to arm yourself with information. Sign up with Vet Voice today to return the favor to the countless veterans wanting their voices to be heard.


Monday, November 19, 2007

Photo Story Monday - Whoops!

It was a week into February of 2007 and a little over a month into the surge, which began with a unit from the 82nd Airborne coming into Baghdad. Since November we had no clear goal in the capital. We were the scoundrels and tramps of the city: we went from slum to slum, clearing and securing it from Sadr's Mahdi Army and handing it over to American and Iraqi forces. We had no area of our own.

Petraeus' main focus of the surge was to get us out of the big bases and into the neighborhoods of Baghdad, rubbing elbows with the locals and giving them enough confidence to assist us in rooting out the bad guys. Given that, we had to find a building big enough for a company of both Americans and Iraqis, a parking lot able to hold many vehicles, and enough standoff from major roads to prevent someone from driving a bomb right through the gate. It was decided that an abandoned shopping mall would do.

When we arrived, all there was to prevent a full on attack was a couple strands of wire around the building. The cement walls would be going up during the night but it would take a few days. We were scheduled to be out there for nearly a week. Luckily, outhouses were being constructed outside. Unluckily, they were in plain view of passing cars and high buildings. Anyone could toss a grenade or shoot an AK out the window as they drove past. I decided to hold it in.

The outpost being built up was called Callahan, hopefully named after my favorite hard-boiled cop.

The clearing missions were routine for the most part. We walked into houses and searched them, dug through courtyards and trash piles and looked into sewage drains for any signs of weapons and bombs.

The number one cause for arthritis: backstanding

And we looked on top of houses, too.

For a few days it was going well. We were going into neighborhoods that held dangerous reputations, wondering what all the commotion was about. Patrolling through the streets and not a peep from the enemy!

One evening we were freezing our asses off inside the outpost, getting by with no heat or electricity. I had just returned to my cot after taking out the garbage when I heard a commotion coming from third platoon's area. My former squad leader was rousing everyone awake. I gathered from his hurried speech that he was walking through the parking lot when a round struck by his feet. We were under attack!

Immediately, several men threw on their gear and took positions in the windows, hoping to catch a muzzle flash or RPG streak. The 82nd guys were particularly excited, this being among their first chances of action. Machine guns opened up on a house, starting a fire. Following the tracers, everyone fired in that direction, assuming it was an enemy position. Grenades were dropping in front and in back of the house. In the parking lot, guns were firing toward the same house. All of a sudden, a fuel tanker inside the wire started to burn.

Fuzzy combat

My best Robert Capa imitation

Making a mad dash for the Strykers, I find mine in a huddle of vehicles. It's too dangerous to lower the ramp, so I open the door in the back and climb in. I caught a glimpse of David, the AFP photographer with us for the duration of our Callahan adventure, snapping shots of people running to and from cover. Our vehicle is a little close to the burning fuel tanker, making me a bit uneasy.

Burning sensations

Later we would learn that it wasn't ignited by enemy fire, but from a grenade thrown by one of our lieutenants. He didn't make it over the wire to hit the imaginary bad guy.

After everyone made it back to the Strykers, we tore off for the buildings being ravaged by flames. We dismounted and started up the street, nearing the flames and feeling the heat of the fire in the February night. Across the street was a man carrying furniture from the building. He was shouting in very good English, "Thank you for your security! Thank you for your security! This is what you call security?" We had fired on this man's house as he was taking a bath.

Pressing on, we looked all around for enemy shell casings, weapons, anything. We left with a smoldering building to our backs.

Later that night we received a mission to raid a few suspected insurgent houses. Crawling through the grass, we heard the rumblings of tanks out in the distance. We got down low in the weeds so they wouldn't open fire on a group of strange men hiding in the bushes holding guns. We held our breath until they passed.

Don't shoot!

We stood up and moved toward the small collection of buildings surrounded by palm trees and knocked the door down to old man with information. About mortars that fell. A month prior. Waiting for this valuable information to filter down to the appropriate level, I leaned up against a desk in the house and dozed off. Standing in the moonlight shining through the open door, I didn't care if a tank shot me in the face. I just wanted a nap.

"The white building that's on fire right there"

The view of Callahan - from one of the buildings we shot up the day prior. We pulled .50 cal rounds out of the walls with pliers


Monday, November 12, 2007

Photo Story Monday - Goodbyes

On May 30, nineteen days before the start of Arrowhead Ripper, we were well into a groove of regular patrols and the occasional raid. Our relationship with the Sunni insurgent group 1920 Revolution Brigade was improving. They identified potential Al Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq members and pointed us in the direction of cache sites, which going to always felt like buying a Powerball ticket: you could win, but not likely, stupid.

The beginning of our work with these American soldier killers concerned citizens was spotty at first. They'd walk or drive around with AK-47s, and we'd kill them inadvertently (I use that term loosely). There really wasn't a way for them to identify themselves as our ally. A uniform could easily be copied by the bad(der) guys and defeat the purpose. It was finally decided that they would wear brown t-shirts with a certain letter combination after they kept on dying by our hand.

We got a couple of calls one day: one, an Apache laid waste to a carload full of gunmen, and they were all killed. Shortly afterward, the 1920s let us know it was their members that the helicopter killed. The second call was about a mass grave out in the boondocks of the city, in a big field. We had the approximate area, but we had no idea how many bodies were buried under the ground, or why.

We set out from our outpost for quite a walk across town, taking a lot of side streets and avoiding the main ones. On a long stretch, we spotted the car that was destroyed by the Apache helicopter. The passenger door was open, but the bodies were gone. Closer to it, the only thing left of the men in the car was blood and one pair of shoes with the heels shot off. The wall showed the signs of automatic cannon fire, as did the windshield and the seats.

Better call Maco

The destroyed car. Note the bullet holes on the wall next to it


If he survived, I'm willing to bet his shoe size is a tad smaller

Walking a little past the car, I noticed a small Motorola radio on the ground. I picked it up,
wanting to hear the chatter on the other side of the radio. I decided it was a bad idea, since
it could have been the trigger for an IED somewhere. I really didn't believe the 1920s stopped
their insurgent operations against us. We often wondered if the "Al Qaeda" members they pointed
out were simply victims of in-house cleaning.

We continued on the road, reaching an intersection with the purported mass grave field. Looking down to the right, I recalled a day when half our platoon was pinned down by dueling enemy machine guns (but that's a story for another Monday). My squad was sent up to a roof overlooking the field where the supposed bodies were to provide cover for the other squads meandering in the open, kicking over rocks and looking under weeds. The hour slowly dripped away as the squads below turned up nothing. We decided to call it a day and headed back to our outpost. Apparently I didn't get the word that was a deep buried IED in the middle of the road on the way back. We halted our movement and Josh said "How many times in your life have you stood on top of an IED?" I looked down at my feet and saw a groove cut into the road with a fresh patch of concrete. I said, "One more." On the way back we passed the car again. A few kids were hanging around the corner, watching us pass by.

The next afternoon we had more reliable information. Not only did we have the exact area, but someone was going to point it out to us. Hoping it wasn't going to be an ambush, we set out again. This time we had a military camera crew with us to take pictures of the scene. Winding through a power station, we entered the large open field from the left side, some of us using a trail, the others stepping on huge dirt clumps and cussing the tall grass. We reached a tiny collection of buildings some distance from the road we were on the previous day. They were simple one-room mud huts. Almost immediately you could smell the decay. We took off our helmets and vests, set our guns down and began digging. Near a wall, a body was quickly found. It was not buried very deep. Bill began to dig deeper and found the skull, split in half from a bullet wound. Though not experts on the matter, we determined she was executed by gunshot at a very close range. Bill tried to lift up the remains, but the skin slid right off the flesh. He had to stop often because the smell was so great, so we traded off.

To the left of the woman we found more bodies, but of two children. The man who pointed out the grave was the husband of the woman, and the father of the two daughters. He explained they were taken 42 days prior and that the dudes had threatened him too. As he told his story, the Iraqi Army soldiers laughed and smoked, watching Americans dig up the bodies of their slain people.

In more rooms, we found more bodies. We were there to merely confirm the graves being there and call in the proper local authorities to recover them. Instead we dug them as we waited, and the Iraqi Army watched on. Payday threw up after awhile. The man, stone-faced and emotionless so far, began to weep as he touched the skull of his wife. The blindfold she was wearing was matted to the skull but began to come off. Into the evening we waited until we got the word to head back for the night. We said goodbye to the man still standing there by the hole, and turned our backs to him as we slowly made our way through the field once again.

A man says his final goodbye to his wife. The Iraqi Army guy takes back the shovel he brought


Sunday, November 11, 2007

Savor This Day

Whether a brother or sister, father or mother, grandfather grandmother, friend or foe, go out there and thank a veteran today. Do your best to understand what they had to do for the country and the comparative ease in which you live. Ask about their good friends they still keep close to their hearts. Don't approach the subject of what they did and saw in combat. It is the ultimate insult to the memory of our fallen. I write about those things because people ought to know what is happening to our men and women in a far away land. I can't write or talk about such horror without shedding a few tears. So please don't ask about the gruesome details. Rather, ask them their most cherished memory during their time in the service.

I recall convoying on the highway through eastern Washington on our way to Yakima for training. Standing up in the back hatch, I watched as people drove by in their cars, honking and waving. Some even braved the wheel with one hand and took pictures with the other. Classic rock blared through the internal speakers, and we played air guitar for the confused passing motorists. When a Stryker broke down, Dozer and I sat on top of the hatches and lazily chatted for hours as the convoy was stopped on the side of the road. Like kids, we would make the motion for pulling the string for 18-wheelers as they went by. They gladly replied with long, thunderous honks of their horn.

While on leave from Iraq, I opted to go to Europe with my friend Steve instead of going home. We figured it would have been more bitter than sweet to see our family so briefly. We made our way through Holland to France, arriving in Caen after a brief stay in Paris. We decided to take a tour of the Normandy beaches and with it, the American Cemetery that lay next to one of the invasion beachheads. Everyone buried there was an American soldier killed during the invasion of June 6, 1944 and subsequent fighting to break Hitler's Atlantic Wall. It was moving to be in that place, at that time, while my friends were fighting for their lives and each other in Baqubah.

Despite what I think about the war, the administration, and the policies that shaped our lives, I can't help but feel incredibly lucky to serve with the finest men this country has ever produced. The memories and experiences we have will forever be seared into our memory for the rest of our lives. I am always grateful to have this ever growing forum to tell the world what happened in those fifteen months. So while I have your ears, go now. Tell a veteran you are proud of their commitment, service and sacrifice, and that you're forever in the debt of the men we couldn't bring back home alive, and the men who came back forever changed.

In Flanders Fields
By: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918)
Canadian Army

IN FLANDERS FIELDS the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

If you're a veteran, leave a comment telling your favorite story of your service, in war or in peace.


Thursday, November 08, 2007

You Can't Give Me Second Place, I Quit!

Dearest of readers! The 2007 Weblog Awards are now over, and Michael Yon has won the award for Best Military Blog! Congrats to him. If you're not familiar with Michael Yon, mosey on over to his site for an independent journalist's view on the war.

The top three:
Michael Yon - 4,932 - 42.2%
Army of Dude - 3,386 - 29.0%
Blackfive - 1,409 - 12.1%

Polls are subject to change after certification of votes, but I'm sure no fraud was committed for this particular category.

Thanks to everyone who voted for me, and thanks to the Weblog Awards volunteers for not only sifting through countless blogs, but for conducting the voting process. I'm happy with simply being a finalist, but second place is spectacular! Again, congrats to Michael Yon, Blackfive, and all the nominees. It was a good race.


Monday, November 05, 2007

Photo Story Monday!

Today marks the beginning of a new weekly series. Every Monday I'll bring to you a riveting story from my tour in Iraq with pictures I've taken, unless otherwise noted.

This week's story:
The Firefight of March 24, 2007

Ten days after
arriving in Baqubah, we hadn't had a break in mission tempo. We went into Al Qaeda's Alamo without an understanding of the tactical importance of the city, but in the first hours we realized very quickly. We set out into the dense palm groves that blanket both sides of the Diyala River Valley without the support of our Stryker vehicles and a limited amount of visibility for Apache helicopters. We spent nearly five days walking through the groves, hopping over streams and slippery ditches. Given the large distance from our vehicles, we couldn't resupply food and water at whim. What we could carry is what we got, until we made our way back to an abandoned house on the edge of the groves every night. Carrying a backpack full of propaganda fliers, chemical detection spray, binoculars, signal panels, shotgun shells, extra ammo, grenades, 7-10 key locks (!), shotgun and disposable rocket launcher, I didn't have much room (or strength) to carry a lot of water. I opted for two quarts a day, one in my backpack, the other in my cargo pocket. I didn't even attempt to carry food rations. I'm pretty good at conserving water, but we'd start at daylight and I'd be sucking the last drops before noon. Our only option was to pick the oranges off the trees and eat them as we walked by. They tasted like a cross between sauerkraut, horseradish and evil, but biting into those oranges on the brink of heat exhaustion felt incredible.

Sooo thirsty

Sweet, sweet hydration falling into septic waste

After nearly a week of channeling Vietnam in the foliage, we got a break from the jungle and started regular patrols. On March 24, we ventured out into Mufrek, the little hamlet of doom on the west side of the river. Steve and I were the only ones in the platoon who hadn't been on leave since the tour started, and we were leaving the next day. Normally everyone got a few days off beforehand to get cleaned up and ready, but we were shorthanded. There was a chance to get out the 24th instead of the 25th, but it was only going to be a routine patrol beginning in the early morning and ending around 2PM, enemy action permitting. I would go, come back and get ready in a flash, hoping a helicopter would take me away to Baghdad that night.

Just past dawn our company was convoying down a road preparing to get out and start our foot patrol. A certain anxiety fills the air as you're about to dismount and spend your morning and afternoon with the mission of inciting an enemy reaction. You face IEDs in the vehicles but snipers and machine gunners on foot. The best of both worlds! The convoy continues on, heading toward an intersection down the road from where Chevy was killed when the all too familiar sound of a bomb hitting a Stryker fills the ears, minds and hearts of everyone behind the lead vehicle.

Instantly, shots ring out on the three sides of the intersection, hoping to hit the culprits in the abandoned neighborhood. All the vehicles stop and my squad dismounts, running into the immediate building on the corner of the intersection. Clearing from bottom to top, we reach the roof as rockets and machine guns shoot down the road. There are injured men in the Stryker that were hit: one with a missing leg, one missing a leg up to the knee, a dude with a shattered leg and pelvis and other guys with assorted minor injuries. We had no idea what platoon was hit at that point but figured it out to be our third platoon. We followed the lead of tracers shooting down the road in an effort to suppress while the injured were being carried out. I pulled out my camera and set it down on the edge of the rooftop, pointed in the general direction of the carnage.

Dozer set up his machine gun, a few feet from my delicate eardrums, and held down the trigger for all of eternity. After my hearing was reduced to a high pitched squeal, I did what I always do when everyone is shooting at nothing in particular: shoot at a fixed object to make sure my weapon sight is accurate. I was shooting at a water tank when Bill said "Get some HE out there!", which meant for me to shoot a high explosive grenade down the block. I saw lots of things exploding and impacting in the intersection down there, so I looked for a rooftop where a bad guy would most likely hide. Victor shot a grenade, sending it into the intersection. I launched another, impacting the roof I targeted. I didn't consider it then, but later I wondered if there was anybody on that rooftop, good or bad.

From the rooftop. At -0:36, my grenade impacts on the roof in the distance.

We got the call to move across the street and take the building overlooking a large open field. Kicking through expended brass and pieces of concrete in the road, we make it into the gate and head for the flight of stairs leading to a landing. At the top, an Iraqi Army machine gunner with a helmet three sizes too small grins at us as we make our way up. We have to cross in front of his barrel, so I tell him, "no shoot, no shoot." He's practically empty on ammo as we make our way up to the roof.

I kick over pieces of scrap metal to reach the edge of the roof and set up for a look over the field. At some point the company snipers join us and begin to locate targets in the buildings about 200 yards from us. With dueling grenade launchers, Victor and I set our sights on the building that housed the insurgents and put grenades over the courtyard wall and into the back door. The roof saturated with dudes watching the field, I turn to look at our previous position and the road we were shooting toward, now covered in smoke. A squad from another platoon had the building now, though the building is not as tall as ours. Down the road I see a few guys running from one side to the other. Before this, the streets were completely empty of cars and people. The one in the front had something long in his hand but I couldn't shoot him before he disappeared out of view. He was making his away
toward us, not away. His friend that was trailing him wasn't as fast. I shot twice, over the heads of the squad below, hitting him somewhere in the hip area. His body lurched forward into an awkward dive, and he vanished behind a wall like his nimble friend. I don't know what happened to him after that. The squad below yelled "What the fuck!" at me and I shouted back "There's fucking guys over there!" pointing over their heads. They didn't understand a word.

Hello, Dominos?

Shane searches for targets while Josh is monitoring the radio. Not pictured: Ken Jones fighting an epic battle with the Sandman

Not wanting to scare the hell out of anyone, I decide to go back to the field, where grenades and .50 cal rounds are destroying another building in the distance. Apaches begin strafing a building so close to us that we can see the brass falling from the helicopter. His wingman poises in the air and with a flash of light, sends a Hellfire missile into a building with suspected fighters. Everyone lets out a cheer. The roof collapses as the Apache circles back to shoot another missile. Sailing through the air, it completely misses the intended target and goes spiraling into the distance, never seen again.
Oh, shit. It circles back again and delivers yet another missile, this time hitting the building, completing the hat trick.

Our attentions turn to a building with columns a little farther being shot up with every caliber weapon imaginable. I'm not sure why it was being targeted, but I didn't see the point of shooting at a building with a puny rifle and opted to record the action. With enough practice now, the Apache lets loose with another missile. With a flash and a puff of smoke, the missile crashes into the roof of the building.


Hopefully this guy had occupation insurance

In the foreground to the right, the building with the collapsed roof

le tired

My squad leader resting after the firefight. The next day, he would be shot in the arm by a sniper

After the barrage of Hellfire missiles, the action died down and we held our positions for several hours before we started to clear the buildings in the neighborhood. The injured dudes were evacuated and made it back, less a couple limbs. After sprinting down the road, we discovered a few houses set up with wire and batteries connected to IEDs, positions set up to ambush us. Luckily we didn't make it that far. Iraqi Police went into the house Victor and I shot with grenades and claimed there were about seventeen dead insurgents with weapons, which is likely an outright fabrication.

We set out to clear the neighborhood at about the time we were supposed to go back to the base. So much for routine.


Thursday, November 01, 2007

2007 Weblog Awards

The full list of nominees:

Michael Yon
Long War Journal
American Soldier
Jeff Emanuel
Badgers Forward
The Sandbox
Army of Dude
Spouse Buzz

The 2007 Weblog Awards

Good luck guys! Polls close close Thursday November 8, 2007 at 10:00 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), which is 5:00 p.m. (EST) and 2:00 p.m. (PST).


Friday, October 12, 2007

Coming Home, Part Two

Lauren told me recently, "you're the most sentimental person I know." If you're one of the faithful few that have read my blog in its entirety, you're most likely to agree with her. I'm a sucker for milestones. I wrote about how it felt to be exactly one year away from getting out of the Army, and a fictitious account about coming home the day we were scheduled to, before being extended three months. A week after we returned on September 12, I described what it was like to be back. You can find it three entries below this one, under the Rush Limbaugh hootenanny.

Now it has been a month since I've returned to the states, but this week I've come back to my actual home. At some point in Baqubah I developed a hernia and waited until I made it back to Ft. Lewis to have it properly diagnosed and treated. I went into surgery last week and am recovering just fine. It still hurts to laugh (which is bad news for someone who giggles at their own jokes.) They gave me two weeks for recovery and I decided to take that in my hometown. Far away from a military base, the question arises with ferocious intensity: what does it feel like to be back? My usual short answer is, "it's nice to have a warm bed again." But that's not quite how it is. It almost feels like it gets harder, not easier.

Last week I was invited to a dinner hosted by Lauren's mother. Joining us would be Lauren's sister, her cousin who I had already met, another cousin I hadn't, and her fiancé. I retained my 'quiet with a few clever puns' persona and as such, didn't contribute much to the conversation. It felt like I had nothing of relevance to say about the topics that came up. My grasp of news and politics was more than a year old; only the biggest stories made their way across the ocean. By taking part in the biggest thing happening in our culture, I sacrificed being in the culture itself. I refused to be that guy who starts off every sentence with "this one time in Iraq..." But my options are slim. I could recall stories of my trip to Europe in April, but then it would be, "Dude, this one time in Amsterdam." There's only so many times you can regale people with stories about aggressive transvestite prostitutes.

With my Texan accent sticking out like a Dutch hooker's crotch, it was only a matter of time before Lauren's cousin asked where I was from. I told her I had lived in north Texas most of my life and went back to poking around the sausage in my spaghetti. Lauren's mother then gave an updated biography, saying I had just gotten back from Iraq and that I chronicled my deployment in a blog (wink!). After she asked what I wrote about, I launched into a tirade about applying personal experiences of the war to the larger aspect that isn't in the mainstream media. I must've looked silly, talking with urgency and saying more words in one minute than the whole evening prior. I realized the conundrum I was in. The subject I didn't want to come up was the only one I can apply myself to. An elephant in the room that only I could see.

After a month I'm still not quite comfortable with being in small, crowded and loud places like bars. My senses are more refined now. I'm a more attentive driver and I can see and hear things a lot differently. A club with a thousand different conversations used to be collective noise. Now I hear an endless amount of distinct voices and every note coming from the DJ. I'm agitated by people coming too close or brushing up against me like never before. I don't jump, twitch or moan when I hear an expected loud noise. You know the feeling you get when you narrowly avoid a car crash? That's what I get. I'm perfectly fine at first glance, but the blood drains from my face and my scalp tingles. I may or may not break into a sweat at this point. I don't recall many dreams while I was in Iraq, but now they flood my subconscious. In one I'm riding in a bus and hanging out the window. Another bus in the opposite lane passes by, and Jesse Williams is waving to me from inside. I wave back. Another has me on a routine patrol when I find half a body on the side of the road. It's Chevy. His face is twisted but recognizable. His lower half is gone, despite his body being intact when he died.

Despite the hardships we face alone, I feel incredibly lucky to have my family and friends here for me, who understand the best they can. It was fitting I started this entry with Lauren, wise and empathetic beyond her years. A month with these challenges seems minuscule when compared to the month of joy I shared with her.

For everyone else, the nature of this war prevents the public from a full grasp of understanding. In the wars of past generations, soldiers volunteered or were drafted by the millions. In the case of World War II, families endured rations and donated to the war effort. Almost every single American contributed to victory. In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, the war is squeezed into a half hour of prime time television. In WWII, in Korea, in Vietnam, we were a country at war. Now we're a military at war, with less than 1% of the population in uniform. Unless you have a friend or family member in the military, it's a separate reality. In airports and in living rooms, you can see for yourself the effect in the eyes of a soldier at war for fifteen months at a time, hidden behind a smile that conceals a secret: you'll never quite understand what we did there.

Like Atlas, we carry the immense burden of the country on our shoulders, waiting for the day seemingly long into the future when the American people say, that will do.


Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Rushing Deeper Into The Hole

Well this Rush Limbaugh controversy certainly stayed around longer than I thought, even getting bigger as time goes on. Vote Vets, the group of anti-Iraq War veterans that help get former soldiers elected into office, put up a new ad that will be airing on CNN and Fox News tomorrow and Thursday:

After watching that, check out the details about the video from Brandon Friedman, vice chairman of

We learn that the man in the ad was wounded in a suicide bomber attack while convoying in Mosul in 2003 and suffered traumatic brain injury as well as shrapnel to the head. As you can imagine, he has since become a vocal critic of the Iraq war.

Of course Rush got wind of this ad (a radio version will run during his show in some areas!) and had this to say about it:

"This is such a blatant use of a valiant combat veteran, lying to him about what I said and then strapping those lies to his belt, sending him out via the media and a TV ad to walk into as many people as he can walk into. This man will always be a hero to this country with everyone. Whoever pumped him full of these lies about what I said and embarrassed him with this ad has betrayed him, they aren't hurting me they are betraying this soldier."

People have been writing in en masse to tell me how I got the story wrong, and Rush supports the troops and so on. But this is what he has been accused of the whole time: holding veterans in superhero regard if they support the war to appeal to the patriotic senses of his listeners while simultaneously putting down dissenting soldiers, to appeal to the angry, resentful senses of his listeners. In 2005 when anti war veteran Paul Hackett ran for the Ohio Senate, Rush called him a military "staff puke," saying he volunteered for Iraq simply to pad his resumé so he could run as a war veteran. A liberal hiding behind a military uniform! I'm sure if he was a pro-war, pro-Bush candidate, the praises would never stop. This strengthens the latest debate on his phony soldier remark last week. Rush's reactionaries and defenders have been telling me the liberal media (namely Media Matters) has taken his 'phony soldier' quote out of context in a smear campaign designed to make Limbaugh appear to be against any soldier against war policy. The article goes on:

The problem with the exchange, say critics, is that Limbaugh refers to multiple "soldiers." He gets to a conversation about Macbeth about two minutes after referring to "phony soldiers." In subsequent radio shows, Limbaugh attempted to clarify his position, but muddied the waters by editing out a portion of it, prompting outrage from the liberal media watchdog Media Matters, which has been driving this latest controversy.

Now where did this reporting come from? Daily Kos? The New Republic? Why, none other than Fox News, the last refuge of information for the Rush elitists. How's that for bias?

Apparently Rush has no shame left, comparing Brian McGough to a suicide bomber on behalf of liberal jihadists. I am surprised, however, that he acknowledged someone who was phony in the first place. Thanks for your service, but you obviously have no independent thought Brian. You parrot leftist views while Petraeus, representing the political arm of the military, gives no BS assessments without ulterior motives to pad his resumé.

Now you know how Rush stands, here are some letters from his fans:

How does the old saying go:
Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.
Do your homework or pass on the subject. Simple, eh?
Now go kill an Iranian for me.

If Rush and people like you put their money where their mouths are, you could kill plenty yourself and we would have no problem with troop levels in Iraq.

You are such a phony. Oh, the things you can do with Photoshop these days. You can even make a sniveling, liberal hippy peaceniks look like soldiers on the front lines. Good try, but your mom accidentally stepped out from behind the garage in one of the shots.
--Anonymous Douche

It's almost like this guy is accusing me of being....false? Bogus? Quick, what's another five letter word for a fake?

Unfortunately you should have listen or read the transcripts instead of believing second hand accounts and rushing to conclusion soldier. He is the biggest supporter of the military and family members and just a little bit of research would have revealed that. Semper Fi

Unless you're an Iraq war vet running for the Senate! Then Rush calls you names. Again, thanks for your service Paul Hackett! Shitheel!

Read the comments yourself. Some can disagree politely while others are not as good as Rush Limbaugh at hiding contempt for someone who opposes the war.


Friday, September 28, 2007

The Real Deal

Blue Girl directed me to a very interesting story about Rush Limbaugh, who called veterans opposed to the war phony soldiers. Of course, this is the same Rush Limbaugh who threw a fit about the Petraeus ad, calling it "contemptible" and "indecent." Apparently anyone in the military is above criticism as long as they agree with Rush's brave belief that we should be in Iraq "as long as it takes." And I use the term 'we' loosely, as I believe the closest Rush has ever gotten to combat was watching We Were Soldiers with surround sound.

When I was a kid I watched Rush with my dad every morning when he was still on TV and always found him pretty funny and clever. Over the years I didn't have a very concrete opinion about him, I just knew him as the kooky conservative radio host who defended Bush at every turn (and hey, so did I). What did Rush and I have to lose when the war in Iraq started in 2003? I didn't have any family in the military, and all my friends were too young to even enlist. Why not go kick the shit out of a country, as long as someone else was doing it?

This was the last time Rush and I would agree on the war, so here's my opinion of you, Rush: you're as smart, selfless and courageous as I was as a 17 year old high school senior.

You make a good point that people who joined the military during the war knew they were going and shouldn't be against it. As I've seen since I joined in 2004, everyone in the military is gung ho to a certain extent, at least in the beginning of their career. I was part of a large group of new guys who got to a unit that just got back from a year long deployment. After our hazing sessions became less and less frequent in the following months, we listened to the stories all of them were telling, of vicious firefights and rescue missions. We all wanted to do our part, we all wanted to get some too. We were going to see what it was like to take a life. Too bad Rush missed his chance to do so, or maybe he'd be singing a different tune. In 1992, ABC newsman Jeff Greenfield posed a question to Rush, asking if he had ever served in the military during the Vietnam War. Here is what Rush had to say:

I had student deferments in college, and upon taking a physical, was discovered to have a physical- uh, by virtue of what the military says, I didn't even know it existed- a physical deferment and then the lottery system came along, where they chose your lost by birth date, and mine was high. And I did not want to go, just as Governor Clinton didn't.

As a phony civilian hoping to be a phony soldier, I tried to enlist in the military after I graduated high school in 2003. In 2002 I had a Nissen fundoplication operation to repair a hiatal hernia caused by severe acid reflux, preventing esophageal cancer later in life. I was immediately flagged on my attempt to enlist because of this surgery, as there was a chance that a physically stressful job such as Army infantry would complicate it. I had to be cleared by the surgeon general before entering the service. As the war kept on, so did I. I waited for a little over a year to get my results back: I would finally be able to join despite the surgery I had two years prior. As Rush found after dropping out of his first year of college at Southeast Missouri State University in 1969-1970, he found himself on draft status. Nothing that a claim of an old football injury or a boil on the ass can take care of, though! The medical deferment he was referring to was a pilonidal cyst, which apparently is a clump of severely ingrown hairs. That barred him from enlistment, and I'm sure he was ecstatic. After all, there was a war on. Here's a first hand account of the surgery that was done to correct it. She claims that in eight weeks, it was perfectly healed. Rush is willing to sacrifice the lives of Americans in Iraq but not his own ass (literally) in a simple surgery. I waited a year to get in, and he didn't try. Boy, do I really give an effort at being a phony soldier!

Speaking of phony soldiers, I wanted to show Rush a few that I know:


This was taken on a rooftop during a firefight on March 24 in Baqubah. One guy lost a leg up to his knee and another lost a foot in an IED blast that day. Talk about sacrifices! Out of seven Americans on that rooftop, one is going to reenlist! The rest decided to get out to avoid going to Iraq again, despite what Mike from Olympia, Washington said on your show about what real soldiers say, like "they want to be over in Iraq. They understand their sacrifice, and they're willing to sacrifice for their country." All I see is a bunch of phonies!


This is Matt tugging on a buried wire connected to a massive IED underneath the road. In Baqubah they were so prevalent that the explosive ordnance disposal dudes couldn't take care of them all in the city, so we started finding them and blowing them up ourselves. Matt just finished his second tour, in which he was deployed a total of 27 months. This coward that followed wires to huge bombs in the road is getting out in a few months. And that's a good thing, as this military could use a lot less phony soldiers.


Here's Bill, digging up a grave containing a woman with her two daughters in a field in Baqubah. They were executed by gunshot and buried in the same hole. We took turns digging as the brave men of the Iraqi Army watched and joked. Bill also served 27 months in combat and like Matt, will be getting out of the Army in a couple months. Good riddance, phony!


I'm not above self-criticism. This is me on the last patrol we did in Old Baqubah on August 20. Like a coward I stayed in Iraq only fifteen months. We heard rumors that the 1920s might ambush us on our last patrol. Too bad they didn't, or they would've sent a lot of phonies home in body bags!

Get your ass back to Iraq phonies!

This picture makes me sick to my stomach. I photographed a bunch of cut-and-runners boarding a plane during a pit stop in Ireland on our way back to the states on September 12. Hello, don't they know there's a war going on? These phonies left Iraq before the job was done! Seriously, we need soldiers who want to be in Iraq for as long as it takes.

And finally:

This is Chevy in Baghdad. Brian Chevalier was going to reenlist but decided against it before he was killed on March 14 during our first mission in Baqubah. His phony life was celebrated in a phony memorial where everyone who knew him cried phony tears. A phony American flag draped over his phony coffin when his body came home. It was presented to his phony mother and phony daughter.

I would be in awe if I ever met a real life soldier, and not a phony one like Bill, Matt or Brian Chevalier. Thank you, Rush Limbaugh, for telling me the difference. I hope your ass is ok.


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Do Not Adjust Your Television Set

It has been a week since our triumphant return to the states, to America, the first world. And as it wasn't quite like I imagined in June, it was every bit as wonderful and surreal as I thought it would be. Every moment leading up to the march to the gym was met with cheers and hysterical laughter. Getting off the plane, turning in our guns, getting on a every step we got closer to seeing loved ones. You could feel it in your face and hear it in the voice of anyone you talked to.

We took a bus to the base gym, where our friends and family waited for us. We stopped short to get lined up nice and neat so we could march in with our backpacks and laptop cases around our necks. Near the entrance there were people already holding signs and clapping. Someone yelled, "hey, Horton!" but luckily I wasn't met with a barrage of cabbage and apple cores. A few more steps and we entered the gym. By the crowd's reaction, it's as if we won the Superbowl. We stopped in the center and it was still so loud no one heard the shortest speech of all time given by a general. "Good job etc, proud of you all yadda yadda, be safe and so forth." On that note, it became a mad house as people rushed from the bleachers and into the scattered formation. Foregoing all military discipline, I looked around the room while at attention to locate my family. As the gym started to clear out I found Bryan, also family-less, and we agreed to look together. Suddenly I caught a glimpse of my dad running up, with my mom not far behind and with her, Lauren.

One of the first things I said to my dad after a big hug was, man, that was a long twelve months.

Seeing my mom get teary-eyed almost made me let loose, but I held my composure by making a point to. Lauren told me she wasn't going to be there, as to make it a family event. But she decided to come and we're both glad she did. A beautiful moment with a beautiful woman. Yes, this is what I've been missing.

Now that things have settled down a little (ha!), I keep getting the same question: what does it feel like to be back? Well, imagine a kid tweaking on Ritalin and Mountain Dew IVs and trying to sit still in church.

In Iraq it feels like the rest of the world is another isolated planet. News came in bits and pieces and often by word of mouth. Our only connection to our own culture was from magazines a few months old and bootleg movies taped with a camcorder in some dank Indonesian movie theater. As much as we didn't want it to, the world kept on turning without us. Anniversaries, births, deaths, all kept happening despite our situation.

Back in the states, everything moves fast. Really fast. Traffic never exceeded about 45 miles an hour in combat, but on the highway it feels like your blood is going to boil at seventy. Every minute, tiny thing seems huge and at once, hilarious. Driving down the interstate I saw a piece of trash caught in the grass by the shoulder. Look at that! I said with a giggle. It's stuck!

Though I've related some pretty gruesome stories in earlier editions of this blog, I never provided much insight to how I felt about my own safety and mortality. I didn't want my family and friends to know that aspect while I was still in danger so their fears and anxiety weren't compounded any further. There is said to be three stages of clarity about one's life in a war. I didn't come up with the theory, but I sure have felt it. At the beginning, you feel like you're invincible and if anything bad happens, it's going to happen to some other guy. Then when people start to get hurt and killed, you think to yourself, I better look out or I'll be next. The final stage comes after the second one wears on you after awhile. Your thought is, I'm going to die next unless I make it out of here as soon as possible.

I entered the final stage on March 14, and there it remained until August 25.

There were times when many of us weren't killed due to good ol' fashioned luck, a soldier's best friend. Bullets missing heads by quite literally an inch or less (and even a couple dudes got grazed on the dome). The IED that killed Chevy was blown at the very front of the Stryker. If the guy set it off just a half second later, it would have blown under the troop carrying compartment. I don't believe in miracles, but I saw a lot of them.

From boots to Pumas, to sweat soaked and shit smelling trousers to Guess jeans, we're trying to rejoin society the best we can. But not everyone who left in June of 2006 was able to make that transition. These are the names of the fallen of Task Force 5/20:

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

SSG. Vincenzo Romeo - Alpha
Lodi, NJ
KIA Baqubah, May 6, 2007

Sgt. Jason Harkins - Alpha
Clarkesville, GA
KIA Baqubah, May 6, 2007

Sgt. Joel Lewis - Alpha
Sandia Park, NM
KIA Baqubah, May 6, 2007

Cpl. Matthew Alexander - Alpha
Gretna, NE
KIA Baqubah, May 6, 2007

Cpl. Anthony Bradshaw - Alpha
San Antonio, TX
KIA Baqubah, May 6, 2007

Cpl. Michael Pursel - Alpha
Clinton, UT
KIA Baqubah, May 6, 2007

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

Sgt. Anselmo Martinez - B 1/12 (Cav)
Robstown, TX
KIA Baqubah, May 18, 2007

Spc. Joshua Romero - B 1/12 (Cav)
Crowley, TX
KIA Baqubah, May 18, 2007

Spc. Casey Nash - B 1/12 (Cav)
Baltimore, MD
KIA Baqubah, May 18, 2007

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

So. What does it feel like to be back? It feels great, but it hurts, too.


Wednesday, August 29, 2007


I must say, this past week has been quite exciting. On the morning of August 25, half my company convoyed in filthy and battered Strykers from Baqubah to Taji, our final mission of the deployment. Taji was our second home in Iraq and our springboard into Baghdad during the winter months. Now it acts as a staging area to get equipment, vehicles and men home next month.

Every trivial action was exhilarating when you realize it’s the last time you’ll ever do it. Loading a magazine, chambering a round, catching a warm desert breeze in your face going down the road for the final time. The air of finality is intoxicating, and you can feel it in your bones and see it in the face of everyone around you. A great burden was lifted as soon as we pulled into the wire and safety of Taji. We flew from Kuwait to Mosul on July 21, 2006, 72 hours after my twenty-first birthday. We ended operations on August 25, 2007. For exactly 400 days we held onto our humanity the best we could, sometimes forgetting we had it. The day we got to Baqubah and a Stryker had already been destroyed by an IED, I was on a rooftop with a bird’s eye view of everything around. Rockets and tracers were going overhead and buildings were catching fire. I looked at the carnage happening below, with my heart in my throat, and repeated in my head, how are we going to get out of this? How are we going to get out of this? I didn’t even know my friend was dead yet.

But everything that has a beginning has an end. After 400 days, we’re done. Over with! For my French readers, Le Fin. In a few short weeks we’ll return home with happy, yet heavy, hearts. Thanks to the recent L.A. Times article that quoted me and likely brought you here, my readership has grown exponentially. And with it, come the doubters and naysayers who question the accuracy and integrity of my writing (a soldier who doesn’t spew administration talking points? Has the whole world gone bonkers?!). All this attention is new and strange to me, so I googled myself to see what is out there. I came across a message board thread on a military website titled: Army of Dude: Is Alex Horton a real person? Why, yes. Yes I am. I am not a figment of someone’s imagination and I’m not a fiction writer. I wish I was that creative. In light of Beauchamp’s recent adventures, some have sneered that I should write for The New Republic (a shot at my supposedly doubtful credibility). I’m not sure my word means anything on the internet, but if you’re really adamant about busting me, blogosphere, give it a try!

I’m glad to have a bigger forum than a week ago, regardless of the critical fallout. The intention of this blog from day one was to chronicle my experiences in a way for people to understand and interpret what was going on beyond what was being filtered, distilled and spat out of the mainstream media. When the deputy prime minister came to Baqubah for the first time a few weeks ago, an envoy of officers followed. Captains, lieutenant colonels and generals all took part in the tour of the local shops and visits with the residents. We were ordered to stay out of any pictures taken. Why? To falsely show that the Iraqi Army was in charge and we were on the sidelines.

In the last month of the deployment, on one of our few days off, we risked our lives so the Army, at some level, could throw a rose colored lens onto a news camera for the benefit of...I don’t know who.

Later on that day, a two star general got on our truck to be escorted back to the base. The captains and colonels around him talked about how Diyala was really shaping up and that Baqubah would be a shining example of the surge in no time, thanks in part by the 1920s! This was great for me to see and hear, because I finally got it. It took me fifteen months, but my epiphany was complete. Generals see Iraq in a unique way for two reasons. One, they take the word of anyone under them, which will almost always be positive no matter what. I doubt many have the guts to tell a general that things aren’t going exactly as planned. And two, they view Iraq in quick spurts with over-the-top security measures. I took a picture of the mob next to the deputy prime minister’s SUV, and there was an entourage of no less than fifteen American and Iraqi soldiers in a span of ten feet. Needless to say, the two star was well protected. We’ve walked the most dangerous streets on planet earth with less people. Surprise, some of us have a different perspective on the way this country is going.

I’m not a radical or an extremist, as you might think. My biggest fans are in my platoon. The most common thing I hear from them is, this is what I’ve been thinking the whole time. So my thoughts and ruminations aren’t entirely unique. I just simply have the attention of people to tell it to in the country we left behind fifteen months ago.

President Eisenhower warned of the growing military industrial complex in his farewell address. Since Dick Cheney can now afford solid gold oil derricks, it’s safe to say we failed Ike miserably. After losing two friends and over a dozen comrades, I have this to say:

Do not wage war unless it is absolutely, positively the last ditch effort for survival.

I was a struggling senior in high school when the invasion took place, and I supported it. I was mesmerized by the way we raced across the desert and took Baghdad in less than a month. War was a sleek, glossy commercial on TV, and we always won at the end. It’s easy to be for a war when you have absolutely no connection with it. Patriotism lead me to believe what we were doing was right and noble. What a difference a deployment can make.

The public can do something about this. It doesn’t have to be a hopeless cause forever. Write your Congressmen, go to a rally, read as much as you can about Iraq to see it for what it is: a place men go to lose their minds and their lives. And most importantly, love your children. Teach them that war is not honorable, it’s no plaything cast with an indifferent hand. It’s the most terrible thing man ever brought to the world. My generation didn’t learn from Vietnam, but the next one can learn from us. The memories and spirit of Chevy and Jesse compel you, America. Do not forget your fallen sons.


Saturday, August 18, 2007

Stupid Shit of The Deployment Awards!

At the end of our fifteen month deployment, it seemed fitting to resurrect the Stupid Shit series started over a year ago under the gray Washington sky. I envisioned a weekly edition but quickly realized a deployment is a constant parade of ridiculous, asinine, over the top moments that are too numerous to keep track of, and much too difficult to explain in full.

These entries come to you in a fury of writing during the few precious days we have inside the wire. Ever since Baghdad we’ve left the comfort and safety of our huge bases to venture out into the city for as little as two or as much as eight days at a time. There is a direct correlation between the amount of operation activity and the amount of stupid shit that gets piled onto us. As the workload increases, so does the shit, eloquently described as stupid here on out.

Most of the candidates for Stupid Shit of The Deployment, then, come from our stay here in Baqubah. Our operation tempo went from back breaking in Baghdad to soul crushing in Diyala Province. Gone were the days of adequate rest for the trucks and ourselves. Often we’d spend five days out in an Iraqi’s house, sleeping on the roof with lice infested mats and pillows, only to come in for a scant few hours for fuel and a shower (if time permitted). For reasons unknown to anyone, we’d arrive as the chow hall was closing and everyone would make a mad dash for the scraps left over. Stupid, indeed.

So without further ado, the nominees for Stupid Shit of The Deployment:

Working with 1920s – A Sunni insurgent group we’ve been battling for months, responsible for the death of my friend and numerous attacks, agreed to fight Al Qaeda alongside us. Since then, they’ve grown into a much more organized, lethal force. They use this organization to steal cars and intimidate and torture the local population, or anyone they accuse of being linked to Al Qaeda. The Gestapo of the 21st century, sanctioned by the United States Army.

The Surge – The beefing up of ground forces in Iraq at the beginning of the year, started by the 82nd Airborne. Unit deployments were moved up several months to maintain a higher level of boots on the ground to quell the Baghdad situation. What most don’t realize is the amount of actual fighting troops in a brigade, something in the area of 2,000 soldiers in a brigade of 5,000 depending on what unit it is. So for every 2,000 fighters, there are 3,000 pencil pushers sucking up resources in every brigade that was surged. A logistical nightmare that, surprise, failed miserably. The increase of troops in Baghdad pushed the insurgents to rural areas (like Diyala), hence our move here in March. The surge was nothing more than a thorn in the side of nomadic fighters having to move thirty five miles while the generals watched Baghdad with stubborn eyes.

Two Companies Clearing Baqubah – Which brings us to the next nominee. Since Baghdad was the showcase of the war and Baqubah was brimming with super IEDs taking our Bradleys and Abrams tanks, it was decided that a unit needed to be sent there to assist the cavalry unit who averaged a death per week. But how many to send? Someone, somehow, somewhere decided that two companies of Strykers would be adequate to take down what Al Qaeda had deemed their headquarters in Iraq. What came about this oversight? Two hours into the first mission, my friend was killed in a massive IED blast that busted the hell out of the squad leader’s face, resulting in traumatic brain injury and facial reconstruction surgery. The vehicle commander tore his ACL from the concussion. Shrapnel being thrown around the inside of the truck caught one dude in the knee as a dude in the back hatch got rattled around, bruising his back as the other in the hatch was thrown completely out the vehicle. He’s been quiet since then, and was sent home soon after. Returning fire from us and the Bradleys killed an untold number of kids unlucky enough to be in the school next to our position. A wrecker sent out to pick up the destroyed Stryker was the next victim of an IED explosion, killing two men inside. Two more wreckers were sent out, one for the Stryker, one for the now totaled wrecker. As we pulled out that evening, local Iraqis, men, women and children, danced in celebration by the massive crater where the Stryker had been. At once we realized reinforcements were needed but we didn’t get any for two more months. Many more men were killed because we were stretched to our operational breaking point. But there was always more to do. Whoever made the decision to send less than an infantry battalion should be in jail right now.

The Extension – This wasn’t too much of a surprise to us, as we knew in the back of our minds that an extension was in our future. What was surprising was the fact that everyone in Iraq was extended to fifteen month deployments. It was meant to give every unit at least a year in between deployments, as some were coming back to Iraq after only ten months back in the states. Now at the end, it’s not hard to assess the achievements of our three extra months. It seems at a quick glance that we pacified the city, street by street. There was a lull in American deaths because, simply, we absorbed all the bomb blasts or found the IEDs before they could detonate on us. As deadly as they are, deep buried IEDs must take a lot of time to build and emplace. The ones used against us were meant for the cavalry unit, who didn’t have the manpower to patrol the streets like we have been. After we arrived, there were few bombs that haven’t been sitting in the ground for several months already. The enemy ran out of ways to kill us until the ingenious idea of putting bombs in houses took hold. Instead of blowing us up in armored vehicles, they thought about doing it inside an abandoned house. What kills you isn’t the bomb, but the foundation of the house that comes crashing down after the explosion. Wires and triggers are hidden behind doors or underneath rugs, so when we go out and clear blocks and blocks of houses, there’s a pressure plate waiting for you at the foot of the stairs. Only your eyes can save you at this point. That tactic has been born from our proclivity to redundantly clear neighborhoods, and the extension is guilty of claiming lives of men who are running on too little sleep, walking into house after house in the desert heat. When you’re worried about how much water you have left and the trucks are too far away to get more, you tend to miss the trip wire in the dark stairwell. Twelve month deployments are a burden on your body and mind. Asking men for three more months is not only unfair but deadly.

Seven Men Killed At The Same Time – Finally, one of the lowest, saddest points of the deployment came in May. One night, a helicopter spotted several men gathered in the road with a large object. Permission was asked to fire a Hellfire missile at them, as they were obvious IED emplacers. Permission was emphatically denied, but someone decided that a Stryker platoon should head out there anyway to check it out. In tow was a Russian reporter. On a road called Trash Alley, they hit a massive deep buried IED. Everyone in the truck except the driver, six Americans and one Russian, dead. And they didn’t need to be there at all. A helicopter could have killed the insurgents with breathtaking ease. Instead, those guys and the one with the detonator got away in the night. Justice was never done.

And now the moment you've been waiting for. The (dubious) winner of Stupid Shit of The Deployment is:

Two Companies Clearing Baqubah!

While each nominee was unique and shameful in its own way, this outshined them all in how much death and maiming occurred after the fact. Sure, the surge was the cataclysmic event that brought about everything, but the decision to go into the Al Qaeda mother ship with less than a battalion of men was one of the most reckless, foolhardy missteps of the Long War and should go down in the history books as such. In a few weeks we’ll be coming back to the states without our brothers because someone saw a chance for glory and decided to take it. I hope the full birds and the stars were worth our blood.

What has been bothering me this whole deployment is the brevity and formality in which the media handles the death of soldiers. It always goes, “PFC John Smith, Norman, Oklahoma, killed by enemy small arms fire in Baghdad. Assigned to 1/43 Engineers, Third Infantry Division.” What a crock to read that in a paper. It would be wholly appropriate to dedicate a full color photo and a real biography in every paper in America. The anonymity of dead soldiers would evaporate and the public would be forced to look at the faces of the fallen. Would it set in progress change? Perhaps. It certainly would go to show that we’re out here every day, dying for an ideal long forgotten. As for me, I started to sign these entries with my initials long ago to avoid detection by superiors. I could and still can get in trouble for what I’ve written. Lately this blog has been passed around to dudes of every rank, and those who would be punishing me have become readers. So it’s no longer necessary to be sneaky and secretive, another anonymous soldier. My name is Alex Horton, and I’m a 22 year old from Frisco, Texas. I can recite Pulp Fiction line by line and my favorite color is blue. I want to be a journalist when I grow up, and I want to see every part of the world. For the first time in my life I’m an avid reader. Fifteen months here has been fifteen months away from Lauren, the girl I’m crazy about. This wouldn’t be much of a blog without her, as she’s the inspiration for anything creative coming out of me, my beautiful muse.

In the future, I want my children to grow up with the belief that what I did here was wrong, in a society that doesn’t deem that idea unpatriotic.

Herbert Hoover said, "Older men declare war. But it is the youth who must fight and die." These are the young men we can’t afford to go without. Brian Chevalier and Jesse Williams, George Bush and Secretary Gates, we’re all flesh and blood. Every life is sacred. You probably don’t know the names of the first two. But you should.