Wish you were here

Getting dressed after wake up.

Getting dressed after wake up.

Our convoy start time was supposed to be 2230 Thursday, but we didn’t clear our gate until 0045 Friday morning.

The moon was just a couple of days past full, in the 90s percentages for illumination, which meant that we could see the enemy, but they could also see us. Sort of a so-so situation.

We were headed north to an out of the way base called Buckmaster, a few hours north of beloved Taji.

I was tagging along with soldiers from our COs personal security detail, which were never used for “personal security” since the colonel rarely left camp other than on a chopper, negating the need for heavily armed up-armored humvees. So, the hooah hooah boys were lent to cargo trucks from camp that needed some guns to see them around theater.

It was a little chilly that night, most of us put on the new black silk winter stuff we were given before leaving the states. Warm. I liked it.

I was in the lead gun truck, tucked in behind the driver. The seat behind the truck commander was our piling zone — our gunner had free foot reign of the center to pivot his turret. He did so liberally since he had full command of the forward arc of the convoy. Usually gunners were assigned to one side or another to keep from pumping rounds into the truck in front, but the first and last gunners had 180 degrees of .50cal goodness, so they were always in a good mood.

Our “guests” were brand newbies from the Alabama National Guard. For most, this was their first time on the road. We were a little nervous since their trucks were loaded down with max weight, and they had just had a rollover the night before. Reminding them that they needed to take things easy on the turns, we headed out our gate and headed north — way north.

I had my night vision goggles and scanned the sides of the passing mud fields. Through the monochrome glow, everything went from drab brown to drab green. Only spots of distant light came through the scattered mounds of dirt and bushes — the houses close to the road were usually darkened.

Back and forth I tracked shadows and glints of light, looking for signs of movement in the night. Every darting fox, flapping bird or occasional street light reflecting off a window gave me a start. After an hour or so, even the shadows started to move.

Then the fog hit. There was haze in the weather forecast, but not like this. It draped across the road in small bands at first, but eventually washed across the road.

“Take it down to 30,” Staff Sgt. L said when we hit the first of it. Then, just a few seconds later.

“Take it down to 20. Now 10. Shit…”

He started calling higher on the radio, asking for updates on the road conditions. We couldn’t see a damn thing — no road, no lights, only the white cloud that stuck to the front headlights as they tried in vain to punch through the shroud.

So there we were, crawling along a main supply route in Iraq at 10 miles an hour. The Alabama boys started to get on edge. A couple trucks kept panicking every time they lost sight of the brake lights in front of them. We’d try to calm them down, letting them know that we hadn’t made any turns off the road. They’d be fine. But it was important not to get too bunched up.

“God help us if these guys all get on our ass,” Sgt. H, our driver kept saying. A line of slow, heavy trucks plodding along with headlights shining in heavy fog was definitely an inviting target, to say the least.

After sitting a while your butt goes numb, and then there’s a while when your legs are on fire from being so cramped. Still you have to do your best to stay still and watch your side, cloudy as things were. We were on point for the whole line of trucks, so we’d be the first to spot anything.

There’d be a break in the fog every now and then, but as soon as we’d speed up to 30 or 40, we’d slam into another wave of mist.

Things got really interesting as we crossed a bridge. I’d have to look up the route on the map, but it had to be the Tigris or something, because it was big. Maybe it was just the slow pace that we crossed it, but it seemed to take forever to get over the blasted thing.

The guard rail was rarely intact, usually scorched or blown to mangled bits. Every so often there’d be some skid marks that careened off the bridge through wrecked barrier into the black. God knows what happened to make those, but talk from our cargo trucks told us the boys were imagining the not-so-friendly possibilities.

The street lights on the bridge were dark, and came out of the thick milky fog like things out of a cheesy Halloween movie. Everything came at you like that – including the tell-tale signs of IEDs.

“God, pothole — Another one!” our driver would say. We’d have to speed up, in case there was a bomb set inside, but where could we race off to? It was a strange feeling, being trapped in the fog, running into all the things we’d normally speed by, unable to move any faster.

The headlights from the truck behind us would light up my side view every now and then, meaning the boys behind us were getting too close.

“Stay back!” our TC would call back. “You’ll be fine. Don’t bunch up.”

Too close, and a single bomb would take out several trucks. On the bridge, who knew how far of a drop down it was, or if we were still over water. It was all too eerie.

Finally we cleared the bridge and kept plodding through the soup.

Our TC had asked higher to call the roads black, meaning they would relay to forces in the area not to send out any more missions along the same route we were on. For us, though, we were out of luck — too far along to turn around. We’d have to keep going.

Another fun moment came when a flare fired off above us.

“What the hell is that?” I said, not expecting flares to say the least.

“Dunno,” Staff Sgt. L came back. “Who’s firing off flares?”

As the first faded, another popped off, casting out this large orange bubble of reflected light in the fog bank. Someone was shining a whole lot of light in our general direction, and it was tripping me out.

Two sets of headlights appeared in front of us. Whether they had just turned on, or their light just made it to us through the fog wasn’t clear, but seeing traffic on the roads during this time of night was very rare. The Iraqis usually stayed in their homes at night, it was just too dangerous to be out and around.

“O, you on that!” L called out to our gunner.

“Yeah, on em,” he said from the turret.

“I see civilian trucks,” I reported as the forms of the vehicles became clear through the fog. “AKs! There are guys in the back with AKs!”

“O, stay on ’em!” L shouted. “Lay into ’em if they come close.”

All of this took just a couple of seconds and the civilian trucks passed by us, heading south. Although they hadn’t taken any hostile action toward us, they sure as hell scared the living crap outta me, jumping out of the fog like that. Had Pvt. O not been as cool-headed, there might have been some shot-up Iraqis and a whole lot of paperwork to deal with. Gotta love the new Army.

There were several other fun little run-ins, including one with an American tank that nearly blew us to kingdom come, but I won’t go on and on about them now. My time at the computer terminal is almost up, and this post is long enough. Needless to say, it gets crazy out there. But we all made it there and back.

God is good.

###

About salemonz

Born in San Diego, Calif. Raised as a Navy Brat, I jumped ship and crossed over to the Army. Served as an enlisted journalist for a bunch of years, then helped the DoD figure out what the hell to do with social media. After the Army, now I drift down the river of life, trying not to be a jerk.

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