A lot of you have asked me what it's like to roll out of the relative safety of the Forward Operating Base to hunt for bombs and bad guys. I'll try to take a few lines here and explain to you a little bit of what I feel every night. Last night was a typical night for me and my platoon. We were slated to conduct route clearance operations near the center of Ramadi to "prep the route" for the Marines following us to raid several houses. Prepare to be bored. I was.
Mission Start Time -2 hours:
The night has just fallen. I make my way through the darkness back to the billets from the chow hall. On the way, I nearly trip and fall into a new trench dug across the path to lay new cable towards some unknown destination. Perhaps it's time to dig my hadji-shop combination cigarette lighter/flashlight out. I get back, slip on my tan nomex jumpsuit, grab my body armor and M240B machine gun, and head to the truck. I'm the gunner on the lead RG-31 Mine Protected Vehicle in our clearance patrols. We owe the South Africans a great deal for developing that vehicle. It takes IEDs far better than an uparmored 1114 Humvee.
We head out of the wire, and roll out onto the main road through the city. An hour later, the main road is clean, and we continue on with our mission: clearing the next area for the Marines.
Half an hour after that, with the route marked, we call in the assault force and slip into a security perimeter to help cover their operation. I hop up into the turret and start scanning for Anti-Iraqi Forces (AIF, or insurgents) who don't like Marines. The very beginning of a security halt such as this one is exciting. Your body expects something to happen, and all your senses twinge at the slightest hint of the enemy. As the night progresses without incident, you slowly lose the initial anticipation, until the only thing keeping you in the moment is the mission, and the knowledge that other soldiers and marines are out there depending on you.
The moon is just above the horizon, and the omnipresent Iraqi dust colors it blood red. For a moment, I consider that even the heavens seem to disapprove of the conflict here. Overhead, I can hear attack helicopters circling- the guardian angels that protect us from larger, organized attacks. My position in the turret is awkward: if I stand full on the platform designed for the gunner, I'm high enough to potentially be vulnerable to snipers. The floor leaves me too low to see. I'm currently standing with one leg on an ammo can, and the other half-cocked on the platform- I'm just high enough to see without being too exposed.
The raid seems to be dragging on. I've seen nothing, heard nothing, and nothing has come over the radio in quite some time. I'm noticing the cramp in my leg from my cumbersome stance in the turret. I want a cigarette, but I can't have it. The glow is just too dangerous. Just as I'm finally beginning to succumb to the monotony, the sky to the southeast explodes. Tracers are bouncing up into the sky, and everything is colored with the amber glow of illumination flares. A distant blast briefly lights up the night sky with a bluish flash. I snatch glances of the spectacle until the last tracers fade into blackness.
The raid is still going on. A voice came on the radio and informed us that the Marines have grabbed a couple bad guys, and are on the trail of a couple more. I grab a Coke, for the instant burst of caffeine and sugar that tastes like a liquid sleep substitute, and allow myself a view of the stars. The moon has set now, leaving behind a panorama of the heavens in detail I rarely see at home. The greenish haze of my night vision reveals an incredible depth to the void. Stars formerly too small to see twinkle green pinpoints of fire, and as I look, a meteor falls through my vision. I tear myself away and back into the present, feeling as if the seconds I spent were too long.
The raid is over, and we're headed home. The Marines have some bad guys in tow, and one very bad guy- someone who managed to attract enough attention to land him on the high-value target list. My head aches from the monocular night vision, my back aches from the body armor, and I'm tired. Even though this was a short mission for us, at five hours or so, I'm worn out. We cruise back in through the gate, and I grab my gear and hit the sack, because tomorrow I'm going to do it again.