As I stepped in to the office, the night shift of the section we officed with piped up, “You have a mission.”
“Yeah, what is it?” I replied.
“There is an Iraqi kid coming in for treatment at the clinic. You need to be there to take pictures.”
“Ok, when, at what clinic, what kind of treatment, and at what phone number?”
“Oh, I don’t know, all your sergeant said was to get some pictures.”
Since there were about 10 clinics on camp and only one within walking distance, I decided to try the closest one.
Thinking that these stories always end up with me putting in a few miles between me and several buildings full of people who have no idea what I’m talking about, I was prepared for a day of walking.
Luckily, my first visit struck info.
“Yeah, there’s an Iraqi child that is to be treated here around noon,” one of the medical officers from our battalion said. “Well, his family is arriving at noon. It’ll take them a while to get through the gates.”
My watch bore the signs of 1045, a few minutes before lunch and a few more before noon. It was back to the office for the interim.
I had no sooner dropped my weapon next to my desk when a sergeant major came barreling into the office.
“PAO, just who I needed to see,” he said in that characteristic here-comes-a-work-request tone.
“Yes, sergeant major,” I rose and stood at parade rest.
“Now, this is just in the forming stages, but we need you to begin to get a hold of television stations – ESPN, HBO, Fox, NBC, ABC, all of those…,” he started out.
Okay, I thought, he’s messing with me. A little fun-with-the-evil-journalist game. Since most military members are raging conservatives, they also have the republican innate hatred for “the media,” of which I am technically a member.
I say technically because what I write are processed Army “command messages” – i.e. propaganda. Thus, no self-respecting journalist would ever share his title with me. Yet hardly any of my compatriots would ever see me as anything else. So, I’m stuck between the two sides of journalist and soldier and not trusted by either one.
“…and get them to give you a time when they can record Jay Leno and (insert miscellaneous sportscasters I’m not familiar with), and all those guys saying they support our brigade and are behind us and all that…”
Now the joke was going a little longer than usual. Could he be serious?
“…There is a major in the operations shop that was in Bosnia and said his unit got Leno to say a few jokes when he visited the troops. They even got a 30-minute video saying hi to the soldiers from all these celebrities, so I know it can be done…”
Wow, he was serious! Did he have any idea of how embarrassing it was going to be to call up and be laughed off the phone as I asked the biggest names in television to send video messages to a pencil-pushing mid-sized unit like ours?
“…So have it ready to go so when the colonel pulls the trigger, we can get it going.”
Ah, so not only did Conan O’Brian need to send a video, but we were putting him on hold until we were ready? Got it.
I let out a “Hooah, good training” and the sergeant major spun around and left. Looking down at the watch again, 1140 looked back at me. Having a mountain of bullshit fall on you is a good way to kill a few minutes.
Camera in hand, I headed toward the clinic where the little tike was going to be looked at.
After arriving, I met the medial captain who had started the whole request.
“Now just to give you a little background on the child,” he began, “Saturday he was wounded by a warning shot fired by a convoy…”
Jesus. Ok, go on, I said in my internal dialog.
“Apparently the bullet hit something in the car and sent shrapnel shooting at the child. Now it was totally our fault, so we brought him in for treatment that night to de-debris the wound – that is, scrub out the metal and dirt on the surface.”
Jesus. Ok, I’m good now.
“Unfortunately it was getting late by the time he made it to us. The father said he had to get the child home because it was getting dark. Things aren’t safe on the roads at night. Isn’t that sad?”
…Oh…um, sad? You mean like being shot at by a convoy sad, or the country is in such a state of turmoil that blood, death, and violence stalk the populace as night falls, sad?
“Anyway, he’s here now for us to check up on him again. Most of the wounds are superficial and are healing nicely.”
Yes, lucky us. We “dodged a bullet” on this one, apparently. (Quotes for emphasis, notice the irony…oh God, there it is.)
I got my pictures and headed back to the office. At the end-of-the-day commander brief, the medics reported on treating the child.
“PAO,” the colonel said. “Get me a story on that kid. That’s good stuff we’re doing – helping the Iraqi people.”
Now I’ll probably have to edit out the whole “What caused the wounds?” part of the story, but, yeah, good stuff.
“But don’t release the pictures. There are spies everywhere and I don’t want the family getting attacked because they used our medics.”
Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space.
Some soldiers broke into the office that hosts our internet access in the trailers and stole some stuff. I’ll be out of the loop for a couple days until they reactivate us.
“But how can you post this without internet access?” some might be asking. Mmmmmm, excellent question.
You know those cool spring mornings where the mists haze the Sun and woodland sounds are hushed?
Well Iraq is like that – except there are deafening generators and incoming aircraft. And there’s no green. And the “mist” is actually smoke. And it smells like butt.
Everyone has worked for an unreasonable boss. Warzones are no exception.
While civilians can quit jobs that get too arduous, military-types just have to weather the storm.
So, since those deployed can’t mutiny and steer their ship toward familiar shores, the three E7s and I of our section have decided to invent a way to up the freak-out factor.
I recommend this course of action for anyone who feels the need to send a friendly “back off, jerk” message to their bosses. It is a four-part play, and requires ammunition, so I suppose the whole endeavor will be relegated to military audiences. Anyway…
The Communist: Have one person start reading “The Communist Manifesto” in their off time. After a few days, have the person nail a piece of paper to the door of the section, stating the six-or-whatever steps a group should take to establish a Communist state.
The Psycho: One person should start cleaning their weapon constantly, staring at nothing but the parts for 15-20 minutes at a time. They should cease talking, and when the boss starts on his kick, begin to unload and reload M16 magazines. Be sure to emphasize the “click” of each round as it is put in.
The Militant Muslim: My favorite. One soldier should announce a conversion to Islam. Be sure to leave the office for prayer and have your mat displayed prominently in your work space. In conversation, say “infidel” instead of “soldier.” Make nice with the locals, and score one of those small radios they carry around so you can tune in to the religious sermons through the day. Start to speak with an accent.
The Counter: Have someone put up a sign listing how many days are left. Make a big ceremony every day as you take down the old number and put up the new one. Put in statements every hour or so like, “Wow, the time really is going.” Comment constantly how upcoming events are only “(X) days away from Christmas,” or whatever random holiday you choose. Use crazy, extrapolated formulas when counting till the next milestone.
Such as: “You know, if you figure the two-weeks before and two-weeks after Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving will be wasted since we’ll be distracted. And if you figure it could take two weeks of travel time in addition to our mid-tour leave. And if you don’t count days with “Ts” in them — or the days when you get some dessert. Then — hell, we only have three days until we go home. Wow, this year flew by”
Lt. D to the left, Sgt. H on the right, and the crazed super scuba ninja Salemonz keeping it real from above. Notice the svelte armored shoulder pads, scoped M16, and general look of fierce awesomeness.
The sun had set by the time I exited the camp PX. Only a fading band of light on the horizon was left. The stars were out and dazzling. It was like the sand from the day had scrubbed clean the skies. It was beautiful.
Catching the bus back, I walked to my trailer, letting the drudgery from the day turn into sleepiness. Although it was only early evening, I needed to convince my body to get some rest before I had to report to the motor pool. For the weekend, the night would be my day.
I hear about one in the morning a lot, but it’s not often I see it for myself, at least on a day’s start.
Down at the motor pool, the gang was readying the trucks. We were only taking five vehicles to Camp Anaconda that day, but were going to join a larger convoy, so we had the numbers needed for safety.
What was a little sketchy on the safety factor was the soft-top Humvee I had been assigned. Actually, I had volunteered to ride in it, since everyone was chicken. While our up-armored Humvees boast all-around armor plating, this poor thing had make-shift armored doors slapped on the sides. The roof was cloth and had a big, gaping hole cut in the middle for roof access. The guys looked at it with nervous eyes.
Named “The Punisher,” our ride had the skull from the comics painted on the side. Cute.
“When I told my wife what I was riding in, I also said the name meant that it punished the people inside. She didn’t think that was funny,” my lieutenant said. Lt. D was a good guy, prior enlisted, and so didn’t let all the officer broo-haha get in the way of getting crap done.
Sgt. H, our brigade armorer, would be driving. Lt was on TC (front passenger), so that left me free to ride along in back.
Sgt. H wasn’t too thrilled about the cloth roof, and would shake his head whenever he looked at the huge hole that was the “hatch.”
We had put sandbags on the floor to help slow down any shrapnel that might come blowing through. Not that it would block it, but maybe just allow it to stop in our butts rather than shoot through our whole bodies. We couldn’t do much against anything rigged to hit us from above.
Our battalion chaplain showed up to give us a send-off prayer. Even the guys who don’t subscribe to the whole religion gig play along. Prayer in the military is just a good time for introspection, if not a small talk with the Almighty. We always appreciate the thought.
After loading the weapons and material we were bringing to Anaconda, we rolled out to the staging area to meet up with the rest of the convoy. Elements from the camp’s Quick Reaction Force would be on gun-truck duty. While we had a few .50-cals ourselves, the QRF boys would be the ones racing to intersections and patrolling the lines to maintain security; we would just be scanning for targets from our places in line.
“Okay okay, form it up, lets get this briefing out of the way,” a master sergeant spat out, breaking the guys away from their laughs and cigarettes.
The briefing lasted about 30 minutes, which was a long time for a newbie like me to stand around in my armor, weapon slung, and a big honkin’ camera bag on my hip. Afterwards we hopped in our trucks and headed for the nearby gate.
But the guards wouldn’t let us through. Apparently there was a problem with the paper work. It was one thing to deny access to people trying to come on the post, but I though it a bit ridiculous that we couldn’t get out.
After driving along the length of the camp, we left through the north gate. Dirt mounds flanked the path, giving us some cover as we snaked our way out to the roads.
By now morning was creeping into the sky and my first sight outside the wire was of a Iraqi man across the street, slinging rocks at us as we passed.
Iraq is a desolate place. Sure, there are trees and plants that keep it from being a total wasteland, but what does constitute villages are little more than rusted out buildings and mud-brick houses.
Single florescent bulbs are hung everywhere and serve as the preferred sources of light. Little stripes of light spelled cryptic messages for us along the houses in the growing morning.
Smells wafted in and out from our sun roof. Piles of trash would sit along the roads. Mounds and mounds of the stuff, some of them smoldering from an evening burn. It was an olfactory cornucopia.
As we came up to some kids walking to school, I readied myself for more rocks, but got waves instead. We were 1 and 1, series tied.
They tell you to look for piles of rubble, rocks, disturbed earth, or anything that might conceal a roadside bomb. Problem is, the road is lined with piles of rubble, rocks and disturbed earth. The whole thing makes you a bit edgy, and Sgt. H wasn’t taking any chances. He’d swerve right and left whenever he saw a pile big enough to conceal a boomer. The way the Humvee rocked back and forth, I can see vehicle rollovers are such a problem.
Soon I was up on the roof, snapping pictures of this and that. Unfortunately the low light blurred most of the shots. I didn’t stay up there for more than a couple minutes at a time, partly because it made the Lt nervous, but mostly because what was a chilly morning was bone biting at 50 mph.
After a couple turns and a few minutes, we made it to Anaconda. There it was, half the trip was over.
I know you never know when you’ll get hit, and every moment outside the wire is supposed to be this horrifying wait for the boom to send you to oblivion, but I can’t think like that and get by. I’ll pop.
Five o’clock Friday morning smacked me in the face.
Sitting up in my bed, the room dark, I reached over to quiet my alarm clock before my roommate woke up.
After a minute or two of rubbing my eyes, I started my little morning ritual of changing in the dark. When living with someone on different work schedules in a tiny room, you get quite good at operating in darkness – finding shoes, keys, stepping over bags and clothes.
I locked the door as I stepped out. It was cold – damn cold. Just as I had begun to grow used to fierce heat, now the fall was bringing a new aspect of arid life. I stopped for a second and thought about putting on a jacket, but figured I’d warm up after starting the run.
Friday was chest/triceps day. I had started a nice little six-day weight workout plan from awhile back. Although the gym was very crowded by 0530-ish, I didn’t mind squeezing a little more sleep out of my night verses a few fewer bodies in the weight room.
Forgoing most of my stretching routine, I started my mile-or-so jog to the nearest gym. I heard there were three in the general area of my gym, but had never bothered with finding them. This gym was the biggest and was right next to a huge dining facility – easy to find.
I made my way on the gravel paths through the clusters of trailers that housed everyone from aviation personnel to cooks. Some were sound asleep, other clusters showed the beginnings of life. A smattering of runners gave me a few people to say “hello” to.
Down the street and around a few corners, I finally came to the gym itself. It wasn’t until I reached for the door that I realized I had forgotten my ID card back in my trailer. Without it, nada on the weight room. You needed it to get in, and the civilians who run the place are cold-hearted bastards when it comes to exceptions.
Oh well, I thought, and started along the normal route I use on run days. Rounding the nearby PX and heading south put me near the fence that slides along the south-western edge of the camp. An Iraqi village was beyond the fence. Apparently there were two villages nearby: A friendly Shiite one to the south, and the not-so-friendly Sunni town next to the fence.
After finally finding my pace, there was this boom that happened off beyond the fence. Then this sort of whine – like a police siren spinning down. Just hearing that, I thought a police car outside the gate had just been hit with an IED. Strange that the police siren hadn’t been going off before it was hit.
Then there was a louder boom to my left. This explosion had more of a cracking sound and was definitely on camp.
Thus went my education on mortar attacks. The thumping sound was the launch. The whine was the shell arching into the sky. The cracking explosion was the shell hitting.
No mortar alarm sounded, so I kept running. I was heading home anyway and figured I’d make it back before another hit came.
Two minutes later I was almost home when the alarm finally went off, signaling everyone to head to the bunkers.
Another thump came from my right. You could barely hear the shell’s whistle over the siren. Small arms fire started up in the distance – apparently some of the guards saw who was shelling us.
Then a flash off to my left, some 150 meters away. The shell had burst in the air, leaving a small cloud hanging in the sky like a July 4th firework. Wow, close one, I thought.
Veering off the road, I headed to a nearby bunker and huddled in the concrete and dirt shelter with some sleepy Mississippi National Guardsmen. A first sergeant nodded at me as I came in.
“Air burst?” he asked. “Roger, top, close as hell,” I said.
A few minutes went by before the choppers started up. Watching them from the bunker, they flew low over the camp toward the offending village, searching for our attackers. An unmanned aerial vehicle took to the sky as well, putting more eyes on the now still and quiet row of shacks beyond our border.
And that was it. Soon we got the signal saying we could leave the bunkers. I said my goodbyes and made it back to my trailer. Just another attack. No biggie.
Retelling the story later to a sergeant first class in my personnel office, she said, “With it that close, you could qualify for a combat action badge. All you need is two eye witnesses.”
Not that I was gunning for the award, but no dice – I was alone, I told her. “Oh well,” she replied.
Regardless, it was an interesting start to the day; and the convoy I was scheduled to go on that night would make the day’s close just as eventful. Our main supply routes are very interesting places, full of suspense and adventure. Damn insurgents love sending us little bombs to keep us on our toes.
Thank God it’s Friday just doesn’t have the same sparkle as it does in the states.