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.


Tuesday, August 07, 2007

I Can Taste It

Going home is a beautiful, terrifying thought to have once it gets this close to happening. Not only am I in the twilight of the deployment, but of my military career that began three years ago yesterday. It was then when a nineteen year old chubby kid found himself bound for Ft. Benning, Georgia, fresh and malleable as molten copper. Weeks from completing a fifteen month tour, I’m as confused and apprehensive as that teenager with the twiddling thumbs and darting eyes that had no idea where he was going, or why.

You may want to sit down for this.

This occupation, this money pit, this smorgasbord of superfluous aggression is getting more hopeless and dismal by the second. It’s maddening to think that more than a year’s worth of blood, sweat and tears will lead to little more than a pat on the back and a hideously redundant speech from someone who did none of the bleeding, sweating or crying.

Despite being in a meaningless situation, my life has never had this much meaning. I watch the backs of my friends and they do the same for me. I’ve killed to protect them, and they’ve killed to protect me. For friends and family, being deployed is like being pregnant or surviving a car wreck; everyone is nice to you all of a sudden. People I don’t even know send me kind words and packages from all over. They came out of the woodwork knowing my plight and shared with me heartfelt hope and luck. The fact that you’re reading this now, dear reader, is a testament to that. Would you have cared about what I thought, felt or did two years ago? This position I’m in, shared by less than one percent of the U.S. population, has given me the distinct privilege of sharing my experiences and ruminations of this war, observations undiluted by perpetually delirious officials like General Petreaus and mainstream media sirens. I have felt every extreme of the human condition, physically, morally and emotionally. I’ve never laughed so hard, cried so long or felt more ashamed of myself in all of my life. In a matter of weeks it’ll be over, and I’ll have just the memories of enduring 130 degree heat, and poker games lasting well into the night. I’ll look back on the hysterical laughter during fifteen hour Baghdad clears, the terror of being pinned down by machine gun fire, the sight of a Stryker on its side and the unfolding of a body bag under the flames of a nearby school, unzipped tenderly to fit the body of Chevy as RPGs screamed overhead. Soon this place will all be in the past.

What a beautiful, terrifying thought.

Next month we’ll be the first unit home that completed a three month extension. We were one of few to see Iraq before and after the surge. If the media got anything right, it was that the surge failed. The idea, as birthed in a bloody, mucous-y blob of counter production by General Petreaus, is quite simple on paper, impossible to execute in a meddling reality. The concept is that combat troops would move from their huge bases that housed obscene luxuries like beds, flushing toilets and running water, and into outposts within the most dangerous parts of the city. The key to it all would be 24/7 interaction with Iraqi Army and a constant presence among the Iraqi citizens, giving them confidence in the mission of coalition forces. The building we picked used to be a whiskey distillery, and we’ve been busy putting up concrete barriers and wire around it. A house was too close to where the wall was supposed to be, so engineers blew it to smithereens and sent the family packing. The father owned the plot for forty years and comes by every so often to collect the useful bricks left scattered a hundred yards in every direction. Before he entered once, I patted his seventy year old frame down like a common criminal.

Talk about community interaction!

Our mission now revolves around the outpost. Engineers and Iraqi workers toil day and night to build it up to an acceptable level so we can hand it off to the unit replacing us. We conduct patrols, raids and selective clears of buildings identified by insurgents (1920s) that potentially hide other insurgents (Al Qaeda) while future insurgents (Iraqi Army) sleep all day and eat our food.

So close, yet so far. Deployments start to get dangerous and deadly around month nine, when people start to let their guard down and get sloppy. There’s nothing you can do to stop it. We were ahead of the curve since soldiers in my unit didn’t start dying with regularity until month ten. Now in month fourteen, eight have died in the past week.

General Petreaus must be given accolades for his selflessness. A weaker man would have trembled at the arduous sight of forms authorizing a surge and extension. Thanks to his steadfast character, I’m still here while eight men are not, working toward the noble goal of the surge: building an outpost in podunk Baqubah so the Iraqi Army has a place to sleep, sleep, sleep as the country goes to hell.

Thank your lucky stars we have produced such fine leaders that are brave enough to send us to man these outposts day in and day out.

The most interesting reports in the world must come from the Army Center for Lessons Learned, a government think tank dedicated to updating doctrine based on what soldiers experienced in war. They came out with shocking developments like putting doors on Humvees and having every soldier wear body armor. The most fundamental suggestion they issue, one we’ve heard countless times, is that we shouldn’t set patterns. It boils down to simple things like changing patrol times and reorganizing the order of vehicles in a convoy. But for these outpost operations, that gutless, nonsensical suggestion goes flying out the window. We take the same roads in, at the same time, with the same vehicles going to the same place. It doesn’t take a genius jihadist to see a pattern after a couple of days.

And that’s how we’ve been leading our lives for the past year and two months. Going from place to place and hoping we don’t die on the way there or the way back. With our GPS tracking satellites and laser guided warheads and scientifically developed helmets for ultra comfort, we’re getting beat to the punch every day by a dude crouching behind a wall with a battery and a spool of wire. We’ve been killing the innocent with the guilty because we don’t have the luxury to tell the difference when that bomb goes off and you don’t know which of your friends are dead or alive. In essence, we’ve come here to help each other survive. It worked in most cases and sadly, not in others. We’ve still got a few weeks left until we cross the border of Kuwait, until someone else comes and tells us our job here is done.

I have a chapter that I’d like to add to the next report from the Army Center for Lessons Learned, something that will hopefully be useful in the future of our country:

Chapter 1: Occupation

If you don’t have to, don’t.