In the night at a “blackout” post, there are few signs to point you toward your destination. After stepping out from a lit building, you are enveloped in the Iraqi dark.
The horizon can be seen as a hazy orange from the black of nearby buildings, shifting to a deep purple at the sky’s apex. Depending on the haze, some stars shine through.
The first few steps outside are the most important, as Logistical Base Seitz’s buildings are always surrounded by tall, concrete barriers that shield facilities from the frequent mortar fire that goes along with existing on the civilized edge of the Army’s Victory Base Complex—also the reason for being at blackout, that is, with no headlights, streetlights, and minimal to no external lights.
Regulars on the post use their familiarity with the rocks, ditches and random piles of sandbags to give guests like me a hard time when blindly walking into the night.
“C’mon, let’s go. I gotta smoke,” my admin host teased as I took a second to let my eyes adjust.
“I can’t see a damn thing,” I said back.
“Bah! You’ll be fine. Let’s go.”
Oooof! Smacked into a barrier. Didn’t see the hard left followed by a hard right.
“Jesus, hurry up,” the smoker coughed.
Usually after standing in the dark for the minute or two it took for the smoker to have his fix, I’d be fine; but navigation around parking areas, streets, fences and other barriers were still tricky, even when pupils were at max.
The night was hardly quiet, either. Generators continued to scream through the muffling sound cases that incased them, and all manner of humvees and trucks sat idling in the near distance.
Convoys would form up and crawl along the roads leading out of the base, all without lights. Drivers usually had night vision, so as to minimize accidents while navigating through the FOB.
The small, all-terrain vehicle that sped by me with naught but a guy in PTs was a different story, as I almost was hit head on as he swerved to miss a ditch.
“You guys let them just do their thing, huh?” I asked my host, a little indignant at the close call.
“Yeah, they usually don’t hit anything.”
Later that night, after settling in, I made my way back out into the dark to find the showers—all conveniently located on the opposite side of camp.
Blackhawks and Chinooks would occasionally fly by at top speed, their own lights dimmed, in quick, shadowy roars.
One started popping flares as he descended. Twelve of them burned overhead, slowly drifting down to earth, each like a small sun in the light-starved patch of military base. A small tendril of smoke rose from them as they burned. The haze amplified the light, like headlights in the fog, and gave me a quick preview of the route I would need to negotiate through the containers and bulwarks between me and the showers.
In the distance, a call to prayer started. Our proximity to the savage Iraqi capital made the sounds of firefights, dogs (of all things) and these songs much more distinct.
With all of the normal ops through the days—regular meals, air conditioning, mattresses; sometimes I forget that I’m in Iraq. And in moments like that, hearing the sounds of a foreign city just yards away, I remember. Strange feeling, that, realizing you’re far away.