Monday, June 25, 2007

Three Sixty Five

A year later and we’re back where we started. On this great crusade in which we have strived for many months, our efforts and goals have become more nebulous than when we deployed in June of last year. In Mosul, we held relatively stable ground and assured the community of our positive impact by training the Iraqi Army and Police. The Army has had organization problems since 1775, but to my untrained eye it seemed we had our act together up there. The enemy met us a handful of times. Later in Baghdad the mission became more bold and active: to quell the spread of sectarian violence that plagued the city. It was like a royal rumble between Shiites and Sunnis, and we were the knocked out referee in the corner. Each sect believed we were working with one side to eradicate the other, like anyone in command understood the ageless conflict and had the solution to it. Building a wall between volatile neighborhoods was the culmination of four years of observance and occupation. It sounded like a great idea. I mean, it worked for Berlin, right?

Our greatest asset as a Stryker brigade has always been the Stryker itself. Fatigue has been a thorn in the side of commanders since war has existed. Up to the Korean War, most days were spent getting to the battle than actually fighting the enemy. With the use of helicopters and armored personnel carriers in Vietnam, troops could get to the fight faster and with more firepower. In the 21st century, technology made warfighting practical (in a hawkish sense of the word). From our bases outside the city we drove up to sixty five miles per hour to the gate of a bad dude and snatched him up. No marching, no warning. And the Strykers are scary, really. For their size and weight, they’re quiet compared to a Bradley or Abrams. Something is intimidating about an armored vehicle that can drop an infantry squad on your doorstep thirty seconds after you first heard them, taking most IED blasts with a few popped tires. In Mosul and Baghdad they were a godsend. They were always around to cover and protect us, always within an arms reach to pick us up in a pinch or to hold cold water for those long clearing missions. In Baqubah however, we’ve been transported back to the old days.

Quickly we learned to stay off the roads. The word overkill received a new definition when we saw what deep buried IEDs did to the trucks, limbs and lives of the men in our battalion. In the summer heat we began to dismount on the main routes and walk a few kilometers to the neighborhoods we intended to operate in. Not daring to face the bombs underneath the street, we were cut off from the life support of the twenty-two ton vehicles that were our second homes ten months prior. Water went from a luxury to scarce treasure instantly: you have only what you could efficiently carry. In the 120+ degree heat, a bottle of water that has been boiling in your cargo pocket is about as refreshing as drinking sand. But when you run out of water, the only thing left to do is drop iodine tablets into a bottle of tap water that you got from some Iraqi’s faucet. I remember reading about the practice in my basic training manual, thinking it would only apply in a theoretical situation where we were dropped in a steaming jungle and isolated for months. Never in my wildest dreams would I have guessed that in year four of The Long War, we’d be drinking treated sewage water and eating local bread because it’s all we had.

In some ways it feels like 1907 instead of 2007.

The military is obsessed with taking something and renaming it with a totally different term. A jumping jack is a side straddle hop, and any Islamic terrorist not affiliated with Al Qaeda is a concerned local. When a mission is complete, there is a rollup of killed enemies and found weapons. A rollup is another term for a summary. So I present my own summary (er, rollup) for the time my company has spent between June 2006 and June 2007:

525,600 Minutes Passed

Countless Enemies Killed and Captured

3 Destroyed Strykers

Dozens of Rifles, RPGS and Mines Found and Destroyed

2 Fatherless Baby Girls

Thousands of Rounds of Ammunition Found and Destroyed

9 Figure Severance Paycheck to Dick Cheney, Courtesy of Halliburton

3 Cleared Cities

2 Dead Friends

100,000 Contractors Making Five Times My Pay for Doing Laundry and Serving Food

Thousands of Cleared Houses

1 Quagmire

A year later and this is what we have to show for it. A year later and we care about the survival of each other more than a fledging democracy in the Middle East. To officers and officials influencing policy, our goal is to stimulate the economy and prop up competent Iraqi Security Forces. To the unwashed enlisted in the muck, we’re just trying not to get blown to fucking bits. A year later and we have realized finally: we’re biding time until the next unit comes to replace us. That’s it. Rotate in, rotate out. A year’s worth of sore backs, twisted ankles, near death experiences, shootouts, blown up buildings, fires, mangled corpses, dead kids, dead soldiers, cold desert nights, hot desert days, shit covered boots, trash filled streets, unfulfilled dreams, stagnant aspirations and murdered futures.

A year well spent.


Friday, June 15, 2007


A sudden jolt awakened me from a loose sleep. I opened my eyes and feel every bump on the turbulent ride. How long had I been out? It felt like hours, but I look at my watch. 5:30 in the morning. Shit. I look around to see who else is awake but don’t find any returned glances. Only our knees are touching, but I can feel the heat from the dude sitting to my right, his head cocked onto his shoulder. Bill’s hands rest neatly on his lap over a tattered copy of National Geographic from 2004. The Sphinx peeks curiously from underneath his fingers. A trucker in his days before the Army, Bill’s face shows the strain and anguish of two tours in Iraq, his skin eroded by the sun and sand. His son was born in October of last year, three months into the deployment. He spent his two weeks on leave catching up before returning to Mosul. I reach into my cargo pocket and feel around for my mp3 player. I find it buried underneath torn black gloves that hold the putrid smell of a year’s worth of sweat and dust. Before putting on my headphones I settle back into my seat, getting low and comfortable. I hit shuffle and the first song that comes up is Time by Pink Floyd. Fitting. I look to my left, expecting to see mud huts dotted along roadside palm groves. Quickly I realize where I am. The fuselage rumbles as we cut through a thick cloud. Streams of gray and white flow over the wing that commands my view in the tiny Plexiglas window. The fasten seatbelt sign dings and flashes courteously, and a message from the pilot sounds just as pleasant. “Gentlemen, in about fifteen minutes we’ll be approaching Bangor International Airport. Please fasten your seatbelts while we make our descent.” Three hundred and forty five days after leaving the states, we’re about to touch down in Maine.

Those of us awake let out a cheer that rouses everyone else to their senses. The sun is barely visible as we make our way to the ground. The lights on the wing blink with an impartial red and white rhythm. As the plane taxis down the runway, the sound of unbuckling seatbelts can be heard throughout. With a spontaneous burst of energy, the officers and senior enlisted men at the front of the plane shuffle toward the door. In the middle, not a man can hide their excitement. One more stretch and we’re home free. For some of us, this was our one and only deployment. Others finished their second, and a third is in their future. But for now, everyone that made it out alive has a year to spend at home before returning to Iraq. Walking down the tunnel that connects the terminal, I spot a crowd on the other side of the clear glass door, decked out in red, white and blue. I see their mouths moving but the only sound I hear is of dirty boots grinding on the clean green and blue checkered carpet. Banners and signs display messages like “Welcome Home” and “Land of The Free.” Both kids and adults wave tiny American flags. Veterans of past wars wear hats proudly displaying their branch of service, with CIB pins and unit insignia stuck in their bills. The crowd takes up most of the terminal, but a line is cut to the waiting area. After an exhausting amount of handshaking, I take a seat in a hard plastic chair.

“I just have to say, I’m so proud of what ya’ll have done” says the woman already sitting down.
“I know it was a hard year.”
Above her head a television on CNN plays without sound. The banner above the news ticker reads “Violence in Baghdad Escalates.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it” I say to her.
“My son is in the Navy. Do you know him?”
A Bradley with half its hull missing lay on its side, flames escaping the hole where the driver used to sit.
“Excuse me?”
“I asked if you know my son” she repeated with a smile.
A squad bearing the 82nd Airborne patch crosses a broad, trash filled street. I see the urgency in their steps and movements. One man covers the intersection with his rifle as the others sprint past him. They must have been in a firefight.
“Oh, I don’t know. I might. What’s his name?”
“Daniel. I think he waves those light sticks at the pilots or something.”
An Iraqi man pleads with tears in his eyes, covered in cuts and blood. A woman with a shrouded face behind him looks up and shakes her hands toward the sky.
“Ah, I can’t say that I know him.”
“I didn’t think so!” she says, with a laugh. “I better find my other son. He’s not quite old enough to join you! Thanks again for your service.”

Before I can return her kind words, the woman walks toward the book shop. I raise my hand to my forehead to part my hair. My palm comes back damp with sweat. I wipe it away on my uniform, down the right sleeve to my wrist. An hour, it was supposed to be. The plane would be done refueling and ready to load back up in about 45 minutes.

“Who the fuck was that?” asks a familiar voice. I take my eyes off the TV and see Josh walking toward me with an unopened pack of Marlboro Lights in his hand.
“I don’t know, some lady who spends her free time at airports. She asked me if I knew her son in the Navy.”

Josh has been my roommate for nearly the entire time I’ve known him. At Ft. Lewis we split a corner room in the barracks, and in Mosul we shared a connex with another guy. At 5’6’’, Josh is shorter than most in the platoon but made up for it in brute strength. Most of his free time during the deployment was spent lifting weights at the gym on base. In Mosul and Baghdad he lifted six days in a week. The move to Baqubah uprooted everyone’s routine, especially his. During our three month tenure there, he was lucky to fit in three nights at the gym in seven days. Even on a rare day off we got tasked with escorting commanders to other bases, or standing by in case another unit needed our help in the city. Josh seemed to sweat the muscle right off his body in the 110 degree heat. He put back on a surprising amount of meat during our three week stay in Kuwait. Sitting in the chair beside me, he looks like himself a year ago, more so than the thinner, exhausted frame of two months prior.

“So, you excited about seeing Laur-en?” asks Josh, with his patented strain on the –en.
“I’m excited to see roads that don’t have massive bombs underneath them, but in particular, yes. I am excited to see her.”

Lauren was waiting for me in Washington. This morning will be the first time I’ve ever laid eyes on her. A few months before we deployed, I started talking to her online. We quickly found we had a lot in common. I had about sixty days to meet her in person, but I didn’t. I knew that someone who goes to war comes back a different person. I didn’t want her to look into my eyes and see a changed man, or see me flinch nervously after a sudden noise catches me off guard. I was certain before we left that she was special. In the beginning months of our deployment, I had little opportunity to talk to her. She was at school, I was in northern Iraq. When I received a package from her one day, I had an epiphany. Outside of my family, she was the first person to send me anything. Friends I’ve had for years seemed to forget to send even emails. Before her, I have never known such care. When we got word of going down to Baghdad in November, I was worried it would put a heavier strain on our relationship. Quickly I realized that wasn’t the case. In our platoon bay we could get our own internet line for sixty dollars a month. It was a high price considering the service, but well worth it. I bought a cell phone that took prepaid cards, so after we burned through eighty minutes on the phone, we’d talk online until one of us was forced to leave. Seven hours was the longest we ever talked consecutively. We had a fourteen hour clearing mission the next day, but I wasn’t fazed by an hour of sleep when she was on my mind. I might have been delirious at the end of it, but I’m a daydreamer anyway. So is she. We pledged to wait for each other. Of course it was easier on me than it was on her, but it was the principle of the matter. In a few hours, a year’s worth of waiting, hoping, anticipation, will come together.

The speakers click on: “Attention in the terminal, Flight 815 to McCord Air Force Base will be departing in thirty minutes.” Immediately a flood of voices beckon everyone back to the gate. My hands feel sore from all the handshakes, but I give a few high fives to the crowd before boarding the plane. Entering the cabin again, I find it colder than before. I glide down the aisle to my seat. What was it again, 33A or 35A? I spot the faded, rolled up copy of National Geographic in the center seat. Yep, 33A.

I sit down, buckle in and wait for everyone to board the plane before I put my headphones back in. I close my eyes. The plane is at half capacity, but I can feel the electricity in the air. On the last leg of our journey, it’s finally becoming real. No more patrols, no more heat, no more thirst, no more pain, no more bullets, bombs or bad guys. Just me, Lauren and the rest of my life when the plane touches the ground. Everyone is seated. The engines begin with a faint groan that quickly becomes a roar. We’re moving at two hundred miles an hour when the plane takes off.

I drift in and out of sleep, but it seems like just an instant before we see the plains of the Midwest. The cornfields are a vivid green in the mid-June summer. I can barely make out tractors at work in the early morning fog. Fortunate Son is playing when my mp3 player finally dies after fifteen faithful hours. I should have bought a magazine when I had a chance. I had already read about the restoration work on The Sphinx, so Bill was no help in my cure for boredom. I stare out the window until the plains turn into the Rocky Mountains. Not too long now. Now without music, I can hear the twenty different conversations throughout the plane. Bars to visit, cars to buy, divorces to begin. Josh is talking again of the Halloween party where everyone is going as a superhero. He’s going as Captain America and I, as Thor. My mind drifts to the possibilities of drunken superheroes playfighting in a bar. A lot of demotions seem to be in our future. From the Rocky Mountains it seems like an eternity until we see the deep blues of Puget Sound. I’ve flown into Washington five times, but this is the first I’ve come in during a clear day. The sun is in the middle of the sky and reflecting brilliantly off the water. I count the taps of my left foot until we start descending to McCord. On 937 we feel the hard bump of landing. We’re home.

With how fast the plane emptied, you’d think the back half was on fire. In less than two minutes everyone was off the plane. Coming down the aluminum staircase, we barely make out the crowd standing a safe distance from the runway. In a single file line we make our way to them, but as we recognize faces, the line becomes a mob in a mad dash to loved ones. I search the signs and banners for any mention of my name. On the leftmost corner I spot a multicolored banner with a peace sign on it, saying “Welcome Home Alex.” I can’t help but smile ear to ear. Lauren s standing with her younger sister behind the cardboard sign. I told her jokingly beforehand, look for the guy in the Army uniform. My stride picks up as I get closer. She finally spots me. Twenty feet from her, she’s more beautiful than I could ever imagine. The only thing I can see on earth is her light brown eyes staring back at me. I don’t know who streamed tears first, but ten feet away my vision becomes hazy. I blink to regain clarity. This is it. The beginning. She takes a breath, and with sorrow in her eyes she says two words that melt the tarmac away: “Wake up.”

My eyes shoot open. Staring back at me is the most clear, uninterrupted view of the stars you’ve ever seen. Somewhere in the distance there’s a muffled explosion. “Wake up and get your shit on, we got a patrol,” says Bill, as he throws his boots on, not even stopping to lace them up. I roll over and check my watch. 3:14 Am. On the roof of our outpost on the east side of Baqubah, the mosquitoes dance in a cloud over the sandbag bunker next to me. With half opened eyes I throw on my vest and helmet and walk down the stairs to the gate, lowering my night vision goggles to my eye. “Alright, everyone ready to go?” asks Matt as he lazily steps outside. I pull the charging handle back to chamber a round. "Three more months of this shit," Bill mutters as he follows Matt. Stepping out of the gate, we walk past the charred frame of a car as the frogs croak with indifference in the muggy desert night.


Somnium: Latin. To daydream.
(This story is a work of fiction. I wrote it on June 12, the day we were supposed to be home before we got extended for three months. Instead of flying home, I settled for a flight of fancy.)

Thursday, June 07, 2007


I’ve only been to Iraq for one tour, which has been turned into fifteen or sixteen months depending on which eight ball you ask. A good deal of those around me are in their second tour, which was from 2003-2004. They deployed eight months after the beginning of the war. I hear it often: their living conditions improved as time went on. From tents they moved into squad rooms, and finally two man shipping containers with AC. In 2007, we have de-evolved. From containers in Mosul we moved into a bay that housed the platoon in Baghdad. NCOs shared rooms with each other in a separate area. Now in Baqubah, the whole platoon shares one tent. On average, we spend five days out of the week at an outpost in the city, a house once owned by a family until we kicked them out. We pay them rent now, and gave them their stuff. We just got some AC units for the place, but it’s not much help in the heat. Some choose to sleep on the roof instead of inside since it’s a bit cooler. Everyone, on the roof or otherwise, must combat the mosquitoes, which can only be described as persistent. Our trash and excrement are burned daily. War is about a lot of things, but one of them is progress. So what happened to this one?

My battalion lost three men the last deployment. Two were from an accident. This time twice that many died in one nanosecond last month. Since June 2006, the total comes to twelve. One in Mosul, one in Baghdad and ten in Baqubah. What a difference three years can make.

I’ve been a stickler for military history ever since I can remember, and one thing that is clear to me is that wars are most difficult and dangerous at their beginning. Fighting an unknown enemy makes a man edgy and nervous. You’re never certain how well you’ll perform under the stress of combat. As time goes by, that turns into confidence. Tactics that are understood in theory are put to test on the battlefield. Supply lines, nonexistent before, start picking up steam. Days melt together as everything becomes routine. It’s called progress and it has been the case for every war in our history except Vietnam and this one.

The conditions have worsened in steps since we arrived here last year. We started out in Mosul, where the Iraqi Army was well trained and well disciplined. We had no qualms with them watching our backs. The unit we were relieving, the 172nd Stryker Brigade, kept the city under tight wraps. IED attacks were common but rarely resulted in a death or injury. As we learned the city, we dropped into a schedule: a mission or two every day, mostly for two hours or more. If it came to two and a half hours, we moaned at the possibility of missing lunch. The worst thing that happened was getting force protection, which meant sitting in a shack for four hours, guarding the base. You had a plate brought to you if your hours fell during meal times. Curses to anyone who didn’t bring mayonnaise with your sandwich!

Four months later, we got the word we were going down to Baghdad. This made everyone a bit nervous; nothing happened to us in Mosul, just the occasional ineffective IED or a novice sniper. It was easy street. Missions turned from community engagements to twelve hour clears of multiple neighborhoods. We would leave for three, four or five days at a time and stay in the city to get an early start. In Baghdad, we fought a more sophisticated enemy. They had a certain weapon we never encountered, an IED with a copper projectile that tore through any kind of armor we had. They were rare and expensive, but they were killing us. The media was making Baghdad out to be the very center of hell. It was a tougher fight, but we were wondering where all the bad guys went. We got into a few skirmishes during the four months we were there, but nothing like we expected. After awhile, we started to feel the strain of operations. Nearly nine months later, and we’re starting to see the toll on our equipment and ourselves. It’s difficult to describe what it feels like to be walking around in the desert heat from sunup to sundown, searching every house, car, lot, trash pile, sewer drain, abandoned building, garage, apartment and warehouse we came across. At about hour ten, you start to get the giggles from exhaustion, walking around in a delirious state, not concerned with banalities like getting shot. The only thing we could look forward to was going home in a few months. On the eve of the big push through Sadr City, rumors started flying about us moving up to Baqubah. We all thought, “Where?” No one knew where it was or why it was so significant. On the Ides of March we convoyed, with two companies, to Baqubah to assist the cavalry unit there. The next day we started an area familiarization in the city.

Two hours into the mission my friend was dead. In Mosul and Baghdad, we lost a man each, but I didn’t know them. Maybe I’m just not very social, but I only know people from my company, but I recognize dudes from other companies. I didn’t recognize the two dead. Instead I recognized the body bag being unfolded next to the corkscrewed Stryker that lay on its side. I recognized the school ablaze next to it with dead and dying kids. I recognized that we were so strained by the fight that we had no time to mourn the fallen. It came back to routine. Everywhere we were beforehand, there was a rotation in place so you could rest at some point. Two companies holding a city does not allow that. This is how serious the situation is: Al Qaeda moved their headquarters to this city, to this province. It’s their Alamo. In response, not even a whole battalion was sent to put out the fire. Out of twelve dead in the deployment, ten have been killed in Baqubah since March 14. We can never match the days in with the days out. We just returned from eight days in the city, battling the heat, bugs and insurgents. If we are lucky, we will finish out three days back in the rear, to rest and recuperate. Soon, the shortsightedness of sending two companies here will be corrected by the arrival of reinforcements. And to think, it only took the deaths of ten men for someone to see the folly in that. It was nine until last night, June 5, but this city, this province, this adventure in the desert, they are all black holes of progress. Another day, another slain soldier. What can you say? When you hear someone has died, you feel numb. Unless you were there, you don’t know who it was. He was from another company, but I knew him. In Mosul, I was tasked to be a radio operator at an outpost for two weeks. It was my job to record significant acts in the city, plot them on a map and deliver messages. He showed me the tricks of the trade and I quickly managed the routine. He was a quirky dude. We talked about computer games and the laptop he bought with his reenlistment bonus. I made fun of his big goofy glasses he wore. Since Mosul, I saw him a few times here, and we exchanged hellos. It was our progress.

Today is June 6, D-Day. Month twelve for our deployment. Before coming to Baqubah I decided Iraq wasn’t as bad as it was on the nightly news. Now, the few days we make it back in are spent going to memorials for those killed. We had one two days ago and soon enough we’ll be going to another. I’m just a lowly enlisted dude, so I don’t have the privilege of reading reports from generals and colonels saying how we’re sticking it to the enemy, or of how many schools we’ve built in the last year, or anything of the sort. But from what I can see, the only progress that is absolute it the progression of time, moving like a glacier to that day when we fulfill our obligation and make our way back home.