Chapter 1

31 0 0
                                                  

September 21, 2007
Deployment day: 325

"Travel the world, meet interesting people, and kill them."
That was a provocative sales pitch from the Army recruiters for a teenager sitting in a dead-end desert town with few prospects other than becoming a junkie like your mother. It was that and the repeated images of the Twin Towers falling to the ground, which lead me to stare at a bridge 7,000 miles from home, wondering if it was going to explode.
We were nearing the end of another exhausting resupply mission. Since the incident with Colonel Kennard, the 4th Brigade Combat Team had increased their demand that we conduct more missions over a larger battlespace with even fewer resources.
It was as if the generals in charge of making decisions had forgotten that we were humans that required sleep every now and then. But, there is no time to sleep. Do terrorists sleep at night? I think not. Something about standing on a guard tower of freedom. You can sleep when you are dead.
"Blue 6, this is Blue 5" The radio cracked with the sound of the gun truck commander.
"Go ahead, Blue 5."
"Blue 6, this is Blue 5, spotted new trash around the east support, we are going to dismount to inspect it."
Time has a weird perspective a war zone. We have to stop often and rarely travel fast. Instilled into your memory is that every piece of trash on the side of the road is an explosive device waiting to go off.
Back home, the most significant problem driving was avoiding the police while you sped down endless miles of road. Or avoiding the random pothole that CalTrans had failed to fill for years.
Whereas on my debut combat mission, the first thing I encountered after leaving the base, was a giant hole where a buried explosive device heaved the road apart. The next second, my eyes spotted the burnt skeletal frame of a semi-truck sitting in front of a shopping mall. The complex was peppered with basketball-sized holes from heavy caliber weapons had punched into the wall, ventilating the building in a manner the creators did not intend.
It is at this point the brain hesitates, and you quickly realized the training they gave you was bullshit. There was no rhyme or reason to any of it. The instructors said to watch for vehicles with sagging springs, or missing windows as potential enemies loaded down with bombs. They forgot to mention there was not a fully intact vehicle in the city.
"Watch out for trash on the side of the road, that usually is hiding an Improvised Explosive Device, or IEDs as they were referred to, the biggest killer of our forces in this war."
They told us to fear trash in a city of over a million people where the trash services were ended years ago as liberating coalition forces liquidated the local government.  I mean, come on. Even the ambulances were stolen from Saddam General Hospital as everything fell apart. So being afraid of trash would mean you curl up and never leave your compound because the city was drowning in waste.
Now I had no business being the lead scout driver, hell I didn't even know how to get back to the base in Mosul. Not that it was much of a destination anymore. The position did offer a few minutes of idle sitting instead of having to navigate the dry wadi looking for IEDs intended to kill us. Anyone honestly, it wasn't like bombs discriminated between friend or foe.
The westbound lane had already suffered destruction, the two-lane section of the bridge lay with a gaping hole with burnt, twisted rebar exposed like bone sticking out of a wound. This left only the two eastbound lanes still intact, and only because it was a separate span of bridge. No one was injured when that bomb went off, being used as a tactic of denial and annoyance. In response, the 3rd Brigade of the Iraqi Army we had been training established an outpost near our final destination of the day, Badush prison.
The outpost was too far away actually to stop someone from planting another IED. Still, it gave the illusion of progress, and delusion is good as cash when you have little else.
Most of us were too young to have any real possessions, having joined up straight out of high school catchy on the still smoking heels of September 11, 2001. Your world tends to be very small when you have to be able to shove everything into one of two green duffel bag.
"While we are dawdling here, who thinks they can tell me about the proper security ratio for a military force?" Sergeant Millhouse started off on one of his usual out-of-the-blue clinical military presentations.
I stayed silent, as did Golden. You learn when Sergeant Millhouse starts asking questions he doesn't really want answers; he simply wanted to tell you how much he knew.
"When he first came in to liberate the population of Mosul Iraq in 2003, there were an estimated 1.7 million citizens. Based upon historical analysis of past counterinsurgency examples, such as the British in the Malayan Emergency, we should have deployed with a ratio of ​20 soldiers for every 1,000 civilians or about 34,000 troops. Instead, the 101st Airborne Division deployed with ​10,000​ soldiers, which give us a ratio of ​6-per-1000​."
I am sure I wore a glazed-over appearance. Millhouse had been in the 101st Airborne Divison when they first "liberated," Mosul, and he wanted to make sure everyone knew it.
"That study was ordered by the Army to solve Vietnam, but the eggheads didn't like it, so they tossed it out and ignored the findings." Specialist Young tossed out from the gunner's hatch. Young was the resident old guy who went to college, which made him the bane to the existence of Millhouse.
"Lock it up, Specialist, how are you scanning your sector if you are playing studio audience up there?" Millhouse snapped as he went to fiddle with the computer screen in front of him, trying to send a message to headquarters that was unlikely to be responded to.
I often wondered if he got a paper cut from gripping that Iraqi Study Report so hard. He seemed to know it front and back in an intimate way. No one knew where the study time came from, so that left only one option, he was sleeping with the report and obtaining the information through osmosis.
The study reports sounded great until you realize we have less than a thousand soldiers in an area the size of Maryland. Which is fuck all for security ratios. We couldn't handle Mosul, so spread the problem out.
Large scale tactical issues were the problems of sergeants and officers, though. Rule number one of being a junior enlisted soldier, sleep was never to be interrupted by learning.
'Not sure why we are doing this, BT is with us, which means shit all is going to happen.' Private Golden, our dismount scout said from the backseat.
I see Golden Opportunity is going straight for the sore spot today. The irony of being a combat soldier, and yet out of the Troop of 60 people, being the only one who has not been blown up places you in a weird position. You start shifting your thoughts, you want to be shot at or blown up because that's what everyone else did. Safety stands in the way of excitement. It is impressive how dull a war zone could be.
"If your friends were jumping off a bridge, would you do it too?" A stoned mother's voice somewhere in the world said. No one ever asks why it is they are jumping off the bridge though ma.
"Blue 6, this is Blue 5."
"Go ahead, Blue 5."
"Blue 6 this is Blue 5, we finished our recon and didn't observe anything. We are returning to the convoy, and we are clear to proceed."
"Rodger, Blue 5."
The two Humvees climbed back up from the wadi and rejoined their position in our parade.
"Let's go private."
"Rodger that sarge," I said.
"Don't fucking call me sarge, a sarge is a bottom-feeding fish. Do you think I am a bottom-feeding fish private?"
Does he really want me to answer that? I feel like this is a trap, my weeks of military intuition tell me that.
"Negative, sergeant," I say with more bite in my tone than intended. I press on the accelerator before he has a chance to respond. The diesel engine floods the cabin with the loud drone of an underpowered and overtaxed whine struggling to propel the vehicle forward. It was loud enough that we had to scream at each other over the noise when we were driving. We should have had headsets as they do in the tanks and Bradleys so we could actually communicate effectively with each other.
As we cross the bridge, my mind operates in automatic pilot mode.
5 and 25. That was the ticket to survival, always looking 5 meters ahead, then 25 meters. As I sweep my attention back and forth in my predefined areas, my mind imagines everything as a danger. Unlike a healthy and rational mind, there was no pull to go away from the threat. No, I still just wanted something to explode so I could be "one of the boys."
Alas, not this time.
Should you look for a healthy and rational mind in a scout?
Another incident-free crossing as Badush Prison finally becomes visible off to the left. We travel the remaining few miles, crossing between the highways in front of the Iraqi Army compound up on the hill. With that, the nose of the vehicle points skywards as we go up the steep driveway.
The serpentine of concrete barriers, same as you would see at the construction site of anywhere-America, were spaced barely big enough to accommodate the 8-foot wide vehicles. Navigating them was an exercise, crammed in a tiny seat made smaller by all the bulk of body armor and gear we wore on our chest.
At last, we arrive, and after 4 hours, I can finally stretch my legs. The volume the engine was replaced by the sound of air conditioners cooling down a half dozen tents, which represented the living area and headquarters for our third platoon. They were now sentenced to serve as an extra guard for the prison, following the break out that was conducted by the local terrorist chapter last month.
"Drop your gear and make a chain." Sergeant Millhouse bellowed.
I began to peel off the weight. First 15 pounds of gear vest with 270 rounds of ammunition for our M16, a weapon the Army decided to keep around since Vietnam, first-aid kit, and whatever an empty water bag weighs. Followed by 35 pounds of body armor vest. While the air outside has to be over 110F, the sweat that soaked my uniform causes me to shiver as it does its job of trying to cool me down.
I start to make my way towards the triple axle cargo truck. As I was passing by Millhouse, his arm forcefully met my chest, indicating to me that he wanted to chat.
"Private, I am growing sick of your attitude. If you don't get a haircut the next time that we go to the base, I'll have you pushing so hard an OB/GYN will come and ask you how your vagina is doing," he said.
This statement confirmed many suspicions that he had been created from scrap pieces of hatred, and he had no clue about the inner workings of the male or female anatomy. My mind's eye pictured him, possessing only a drain plug.
"Roger that, sergeant. My hair will be cut. Do you want me to jump on that chain now?"
His gaunt face hesitated, a slip of human, perhaps? However, it wasn't too dissimilar to the hesitation of his Volkswagon Bus, sitting back in some storage center in El Paso, Texas. That bus was so loud with its straight piped had saved me from a bit of savaging once. After doing some stupid Army private action, he sent me off to the barracks to stand at attention until he came to punish me. I went to the barracks, but I did not stand at attention the whole time as he intended. He was still working at the Troop. I knew when I needed to stand at attention because the VW could be heard starting up from a mile away. You could accurately track his movement based on it. I was too juvenile to understand psychology but spoke the language of procrastination.
The Army taught us about 'hurry up and wait,' the critical mantra to any good invasion.
"Get to work private, and remember what I said." With that, I scurried off to help unload the cargo truck before he changed his mind.
"When he works you over, you should ask to have him remove the pearl from between your legs." Golden, still managed to trash talk even in the headlock Specialist Reese, a refrigerator-sized human had him in.
Reese wanted us to know what being close to death felt like, with combatives, death is apparently a very sweaty ordeal.
Young chipped in, "When mine was removed, I cut 30 seconds off my 2-mile run time."
"And how many decades were you building that monster up?" I asked.
"Maybe if you oiled your hips, you could finally drop below 30 minutes per mile," Reese said as a new camouflaged victim tried to jump on his back. The surprise jumper was easily tossed under the refrigerator and was now a squirming shrimp.
Our roast was interrupted by the platoon leader, Lieutenant Rodriguez, barely a few years older than us, calling us over for the mission briefing. He was one of the better platoon leaders. He managed to be around at some point in the day. Most officers had a very ghost-like characteristic, you would only ever see them if they wanted you to.
Once we finished the mission briefing, we could finally make the return trip back to our current home base outside of Tal Afar. We were located precisely as far away as the Brigade could put us, so our commander's incompetence could be isolated and ignored.
Another brief, another mission, one step closer, to going back home to the States. Although we had just been extended as part of the new "Surge." The days of 1-year deployment had been put on hold for an indefinite period. Some unit in Alaska had completed their tour, had sent half the unit back home when the surge orders came down.
Stop lossed as we called it.
Those soldiers who returned to their families were told to turn around and return to Iraq. The Army finds a way to reward you, whether you are first or last.
Hurry up and wait.
I flip the switch on the Humvee. What doesn't turn on is the air conditioner. A new installation to the vehicles, it provided just enough cold air to let you know how miserably hot it was inside the armored rolling oven. You don't realize how precious even a minute amount of cold air is until you are trapped inside the vehicle without it.
Not like we could roll down the windows.
At least the sun will be set by the time we get back, and hopefully, things will cool off a bit.
We took off and made our way through the serpentine. We crossed over the median, suddenly the world went silent. The vacuum of silence was instantly filled with a perfect rendition of that high-pitched ringing you hear in movies after an explosion happens.
What the fuck was that?
Who is screaming?
What just hit me?
A helmet? I look over and see Millhouse, sans helmet, screaming stop. I realize that I had floored the accelerator at some point.
"Let's go," he screams as he leans over and grabs his helmet and jumps out of the truck in a blur. The armored door slammed shut as did Goldens'.
Only the legs of Young were still in the cabin with me as he stood in the gunner's hatch, swinging the turret back and forth scanning.
"What the fuck happened?" I asked. The ringing has begun to fade.
No response. I elbow his leg and ask again.
"IED went off on the second vehicle," he said.
I try to remember who is in the second truck, I think it is Sergeant Burton and his crew.
5 and 25.
"Is everyone okay?"
Again, no response.
Burton was the single person in the unit I had talked about my problems with. He was the only sergeant who didn't put on the Teflon coating that Millhouse seemed to be born into.
Before I could ask again, the radio came alive and answered my question as lieutenant Rodriguez got on the radio and called to our Squadron.
"Hunter Main, Hunter Main, this is Blue 1, nine-line medevac request as follows,
Line 1. Location 38 SLF 1628 3024
Line 2. Squadron radio frequency, call sign Blue 1
Line 3. Three urgent patients
Line 4. No special equipment required
Line 5. Three litter patients
Line 6. Enemy in the area, proceed with caution.
Line 7. Red smoke will mark pick-up site
Line 8. Patients US Military
Line 9. No chemical contamination."
If they are sending out a nine-line, that means we can't even try to race into the city to take casualties to the Combat Support Hospital in Mosul.
My mind raced. The full weight with the first time being around a real blast was settling in. No one was shooting, which has to mean no one is actively attacking us.
I am glad I don't have to try to navigate those streets. The highway we were on lead to the city and we would be met with an ancient fort wall that spanned the road. We called that the "Gates to Hell," but which side of the gate was hell?
So that must mean... What?
Well, we must have hit a pressure plate.
"Hey, are you scanning your sector BT?"
Click, click, click.
5 and 25, look out 5, sweep back 25.
Young shuffles back and forth, the sound of the armored turret scanning became a monotonous tune that filled the maw of confusion.
I responded I was.
The angle the truck was parked at, I couldn't see anything behind us, even with the side mirrors. So I tried to maintain my scanning, now looking across the whole front of the truck since Millhouse was gone.
How long had I been pressing on the gas for Millhouse to throw his helmet at me? Even for him, that was an extreme measure.
"Trucks passing on the right," Young said down to me.
The two rear gun trucks moved past, and three stretchers were being carried by dismounts. There is a pop from one of the gun trucks, and a cloud of red smoke begins pouring into the field, marking where the medevac helicopters were to land.
Three stretchers. Burton's truck had three people in it.
Looking ahead as the highway stretched out, it looked exactly like home, everything I had ever been used to. Even a casual observer could mistake it for any random desert town in America. This was in contrast to the phantom scene of carnage behind us. Caused by an explosive that... That I had to have driven over if it was a pressure plate.
Why the hell do we cross in the same place every time?
"Blue 1 this is Band-aid 2-2, flight of two UH60's inbound your location, ETA 3 minutes." Helicopter radio calls were accompanied by the grinding sound of the rotors trying to beat the air into submission.
The two aircraft came from the west. Now visible high above were two egg-shaped attack helicopters that were taking turns orbiting around the landing site and dropping down like hawks striking at scurrying rabbits.
"Blue 1 this is Bootleg 26 and 28, we are scanning the area and don't see any movement." There was an endless stream of conversation pouring out of the radio speakers now.
"More traffic on the right."
Four more humvees appeared to set up additional security around the smoke. They must be the quick reaction force from the prison we just finished resupplying.
"We went to link up with the Iraqi Army, but the compound is abandoned," a foggy voice over the radio chirped.
This news did not hit me as a shock.
The first time we had completed the four-week-long training academy of the new Iraqi Army, the recruits were given 48 hours off. We had prepared a joint patrol to go out with them as part of the brand new strategy to replace American forces with locally trained forces. We were simply trying to put back the pieces that Millhouse's Iraqi security report suggested. This was the only way we would be able to leave the country. By replacing Saddam's old military force with one with a happy face waving little American flags underneath the Iraqi flag.
But they never showed up.
Instead, they took the uniforms, weapons, and vehicles and evaporated into a phantom mist.
This practice of disappearing became so common we stopped assuming that they would show up at all. Soon, we deduced we were giving additional training to people who were returning to Saddam's forces, wherever they were, to shoot at us later. And with better slightly better training then they had before.
The medevac helicopter landed, the red cross was swallowed up into a cloud of dust off the side of the road. After a few seconds, the dust settled, and the cargo door slides open. Two crew members jump out to help load the litters. A few more seconds pass in the doors are sealed up, and in what seems less than a minute, the helicopter is kicking up more dust as it lifts up. Its nose was practically kissing the ground as it struggled for elevation.
"Band-aid is outbound."
And with that, the litters were gone.
Millhouse and Golden came into focus, running back to the Humvee. I see the sergeant pointing at our truck and signaling me to move forward to him.
"Moving forward, Young."
I press the accelerator and stop in front of his new position.
5 and 25.
I notice Millhouse had a red-stained uniform as he opens the door to the truck.
"This is going to be a long night," he says as he sits down at his computer terminal and begins tapping away at a new message.
"Sergeant, are they alright?"
No answer.
I look back at Golden's seat, his uniform isn't covered in blood. Still, his face is blank, devoid of the usual goofy cheer it can maintain even under choking pressure from Reese.
It was indeed a long night.
It took several hours for the Squadron to send the mechanics out with a wrecker to recover what was left of Sergeant Burton's truck.

Journal of the lostWhere stories live. Discover now