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.