Tillil, Part 1
Eight hours south at best speed. I’d be in a Heavy Equipment Transport with the 377th Transportation Company, moving some M109 Paladins south to be shipped back to the states.
HETs are said to be the third largest vehicle on the ground. The first is the sled NASA uses to haul the space shuttle. Second are those dump trucks used in stone quarries. Then comes the HET. I don’t know if that’s exactly true…but it sure is a big sombitch.
SP was at 2230. I rolled in to the 377 motor pool around 2145 to manifest and receive the “stay awake and don’t shoot anybody” briefing. Good times. Hello’s all around. I was the new guy – all of this was organized through my section sergeant.
It’s always awkward meeting a group of guys in the dark. You have no idea what anyone’s name is or what they look like, so any introductions are moot by morning when light comes around.
“Get comfortable Salmons,” the convoy commander said after the briefing. “The roads are red, so we’re on hold.”
That meant our route had experienced “hostile activity” within the last few minutes. Whether bomb or ambush, we liked to let things settle down before heading back down the same route. It could take awhile before we were cleared to leave.
I asked where my truck was, eyed the ladder, and then my gear. I’d have to make trips.
After the ascent to the cab, I situated myself in the “third seat” or rear bench. The driver and TC station were independent full-out chairs, but the rear seat actually was two flat pads that formed a bench when down but became two bunks when the back portion was propped up.
“Yeah, we don’t leave these damn trucks,” my driver said. “We eat, sleep, and live out of here. It’s how we do.”
My driver was a stop-loss soldier. That means his time was nearly up when the military enacted a special clause that kept him in past his contract date long enough to deploy.
“I should’ve been out a year and two months ago,” he said through a winter cap he had pulled over his face, laying back in his chair. “And they wonder why I don’t give a sh*t. Two weeks and we go home. Three months after that, I’m a civilian.”
This guy’s plight was typical. Say what you want, good or bad about the military, the mission, God, justice, truth and all that, but there are a lot of men and women being held in the military far past their agreed-upon enlistment date.
The saying good or bad things part comes in when the argument comes to blows about how nobody forced this kid to sign the contract, how he volunteered. And that’s all true. We all raised our hand, and so on and so on, the mantra goes. The sticking point is how many of us were given a high-pressure sale, like a sneaky car salesman, and got a lot more interest on our loans than we wanted to pay. Yes, we agreed to it, being naive enough to trust others, but we still don’t think well of the salesman.
My ears always perk up when I run into these guys, since I stand a good chance of becoming a stop-loss soldier myself. Upon our intended return date from this deployment, I’ll have one year and three months left on my contract. That’s a dangerous amount of time. Usually you’re in the states eight months to a year before heading back. I’ll probably end up like this guy, just weeks away from leaving when I’m tagged for another year rotation in this paradise.
As the driver settled in to get some sleep, I climbed down the cab ladder to socialize with some of the other Joes while we waited.
The dark was lanced by thin beams of light from some cab lamps. The idling roar from the monster trucks was almost enough to cover over the crackling of gunfire that started up behind us.
“Hear that? Someone’s lighting something up! Yeeeehaaawww,” one of the gun-truck escort soldiers yelled as he passed by. Our escorts were newly arrived from some place, eager to earn some medals.
The four guys I had meandered to just shook their heads.
“We’re two weeks out from leaving. He can have all the IEDs he wants,” one of them said.
These guys had experienced attacks as part of their daily routine. Collectively, their unit had put in nearly 16,000 operational miles during their year. They were ready to put this place behind them — at least for a few months, then they’ll be right back for another go-round.
The gunfire continued for a few seconds. “They’re getting ready for ya,” one said to another.
“Why me? Why they always getting ready for me? I got kids. I got a wife. You take ‘em.”
We laughed for a minute before the convoy commander yelled over the engine noise. “Mount up. We’re rolling.”
Doing a quick check on my weapon and ammo, I climbed back into the truck that would be my home for the next couple of days.
To be continued…