Coming of age
Iraq nighttime summer missions are hot.
While the air cools off to a modest 90-something, the reserves held within the stone and metal continue to pour out misery to all cooler-clime-based individuals, well into the night.
Add the typical combat load: armored vest, shoulder pads, side inserts, side pads, loin protector, throat protector, weapon, helmet, gloves, ammo, med pack, weapon, and, in my case, a camera bag; and you have one recipe for salt encrusted uniforms post mission.
Packed into the space behind the truck commander, I felt like some muscle-bound brute trying to reach across my armored chest to check my equipment. Already my legs were aching, sharing foot space with our spare spotlight, used to ID potential “gifts” from our insurgent friends.
We pulled up to the gate and awaited our “SP” (start point) time. It was a lot like airports with gate schedules, sometimes you got stuck behind a few convoys ready for takeoff. We were second or third in line, which translated into 15th or 20th for aircraft since a dozen cargo-laden vehicles are a bit harder to get up to speed and in line than is a 757. You sit there, with the lights blacked out, the “air conditioning” blowing Iraq-temperature air on the one-inch portion of your sweat-soaked skin not covered by ballistic padding; waiting to leave.
I cracked open a Rip-It, our energy drink of choice this season (apparently Red Bull, Monster and other vendors are allowed to showcase their wares in our dining facilities only on certain months to maximize fairness). Gone in two gulps, I threw the can aside and groped in the monitor illumined, quasi dark for the bottle of water I had set down earlier. No luck.
I went through all the equipment checks in my head and started to realize something: we were the old kids on the block. Just a few weeks away from leaving, we were starting to train other units in how to work the roads. That was my story, to cover how the training program was going for a Puerto Rican National Guard unit that operated out of the capital.
A few minutes earlier, when we were staging, the newer guys listened with rapt attention at the briefings the older guys knew by heart — convoy speed, intervals, reaction to enemy fire…. Some of our cats started to make jokes and laugh and had to be told to settle down, just like the seasoned jokers that we replaced did on our first few convoys.
It was a good feeling, almost being done. It helped me wear the ache in my legs like a badge of honor, since I knew the new guys just feeling the pain wouldn’t be faring as well. Call it an initiation, I guess, learning all of the discomforts of road patrols and convoy escorts.
Those were the parts of patrols that the others back at the office never saw — the parts that you remember when a fobbit brags, “Man…wish I could get out on the road — go outside the wire. Sucks that they don’t let me.” Yeah, it’s glorious, right down to the musky smell of the radio headsets.
We started moving into the road to exit the gate, trucks firing up their headlights in succession. Now was the time to see if all their classroom work made any difference when facing the real deal.
“Gun three is red.”
And we were off.