Before now poetry has taken notice
Of wars, and what are wars but politics
Transformed from chronic to acute and bloody?
from "Build Soil"
Robert Frost

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Operation: Boredom

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.

T -0:
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.

T +3:
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.

T +4:
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.

T +4.5:
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.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Quid Pro Quo

It's been far too long since I last wrote here. Between the internet service, which is spotty at best, and a rough mission schedule this week, I just haven't had much time. Ah, well... enough excuses.

I had the opportunity this week to be a part of several good things. It all began almost a month ago. A local sheik came to the Army unit in charge of the sector he lived in, announced his desire to fight the insurgents, and asked for help in doing so. He was received with some healthy skepticism- many people in this part of the world will say whatever they think you want to hear in order to profit from you. To demonstrate his commitment, he organized his militia and began to attempt to quell some of the violence in the sector. Within days, indirect fire attacks against US bases from his area dropped to nearly zero over the next three weeks, from a former rate of multiple attacks per day. IED attacks and other insurgent activity was also down. By all appearances, this sheik was a legitimately good guy, stepping forward and doing his best to bring peace to Ramadi. Those appearances were confirmed three days ago when the local insurgents mounted an all out campaign to kill or humiliate the sheik, his family, and as many of his fighters as they could find.

The sheik got the help he had asked for before he began his pro-government activities. Coalition operations are still ongoing, so I'll leave it to the news to reveal the details (if they deign to do so). Suffice it to say that we grabbed some very bad men, found some bombs and some arms caches, and generally repaid the favor he did us. The military has failed both allies of chance and longstanding friends in conflicts past. This time, I was proud to see we did the right thing.

The second good thing that I got to be a part of this week involved one of those bombs I mentioned. While clearing a route that we expected to be heavily used by coalition vehicles later in the night, we found a possible buried IED. It took quite some time to unearth it, but in the end we pulled from the hole our largest single IED to date. Once again, I won't go into specifics because of operational concerns, but I will say that this one was big enough to make some family's holiday season very, very bad. All of us know for a fact that we saved multiple lives with our work that night, and that's the best reward we can have in this job.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

(Not-so) Magnificant Desolation

Today was bleak. The temperature hovered near 55 degrees all day, and dipped down to 40 with the sunset. Sunset is a terrible word to define it- today was windy, and the recent lack of rain gave the breeze an abundance of fine dust to toss about like some mockery of snow. The sky was grey and hazy, and faded down into a greyish hue of tan as it dropped to meet the horizon. The sun didn't set so much as slowly disappear into the miasma. I never knew I would describe a sunset as regretful, but that's how it seemed to me today. Before the sun was ready to go, the wind grabbed him and dragged him down, stretching tentacles of dust across his face. At the last, just before he finally submitted, he was pale and grey like the world underneath him- more like the moon, and not at all brilliant, glorious, and full of color as a sunset should be.

If the sky was dreary and grim today, the city was worse. The divorce of color from the sky betrayed even the piles of rubble of their former character. Nothing moved among the gaunt shells of buildings, save a few tatters of some refuse lifted by the breeze. Not even the prowling packs of dogs ventured out of whatever holes they call home. As I stood and looked about, a gust caught the ash from my cigarette and tossed it away. The fire quickly dimmed, and a few more specks of grey drifted down to meet Iraq.

Friday, November 17, 2006

A long-past due introduction:

I am a Combat Engineer.
I am one of a few thousand American soldiers lucky enough to be tasked with making a new mission work for the Army. That mission is route clearance. Remember those roadside bombs you hear about? Our job is to go looking for them, and destroy or neutralize them before they can hurt other troops or innocent Iraqis. It's a brand new role for the engineer corps, and one that can easily be likened to searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack. Given the odds we face, it's amazing how often we find the needle. I won't go into specifics here, but I will say if this were baseball, we'd have a damn good batting average. Even better, we have the best equipment in the world for our job. Tanks have more armor and better protection against direct fire, but we can take a bomb blast in a way that no other US or foreign vehicle could ever hope to.

Whenever I'm talking to someone outside of my unit, the conversation always follows roughly the same pattern: They ask what I do, I tell them route clearance, they give me a quick glance to see if I seem ok in the head (Like I asked for this job!), and then they tell me what a great job we're doing and how much they appreciate our efforts. Translation: 'I'm sure glad it's you and not me, bro.' It's one thing to go outside the wire hoping you won't be blown up. It's a completely different matter when you leave expecting to be blown up.

This mission is a good one for the engineers. It falls under the traditional engineer duty: clear the way for others to follow. We've always moved in front of the maneuver force, clearing wire, obstacles, mines, and now, IEDs. As I've already mentioned, route clearance is the job that no sane person really wants to do. I can see why; it's reportably the second most dangerous job in Iraq right now (after Special Operations), and yet remains one of the most important roles to fill. No matter. Engineers are right at home in the thick of the fight, far from home, doing the necessary but unwanted jobs. It's not fun, it's not glamorous, and it's nothing to write home about, but we can see the difference we make.


Monday, November 13, 2006

Happy (belated) Birthday, Marines!

November 10th was the USMC birthday.
The chow hall cooks outdid themselves for the occasion. I had the best T-bone steak I've had since I left home, shrimp in some sort of cheese wine sauce, and lobster tail with lemon butter. After dinner, the entire post received two real beers to toast the Corps with. Let's just say morale was high.

As I mentioned in my last entry, the fighting has picked up a couple of notches since Saddam's conviction and death sentence. As usual, the American media is making things sound much worse than they actually are. The attacks aren't particularly damaging, but they are steady, and it starts to wear on you after a while. Lately, I've seen demonstrated time and again just how undisciplined and untrained many of the fighters here are. That's not to say that they can't be deadly, or lucky, and sometimes, they are. Sometimes, we encounter one of the truely skilled fighters- often a holdout from Saddam's army, foreigners, or a member of one of the al-Qaeda affiliates. More often, an attack ends with soldiers shaking their heads and saying "At least we don't have to fight people like us".

Sunday, November 05, 2006

As the world turns...

It's strange looking at the news from the states and seeing disembodied issues being dissected when they are so close and relevant to you. This week, it's Saddam's conviction and subsequent death sentence. In many areas of Iraq, this will be a good thing. The Shiia have been under Saddam's thumb for long enough that they are happy to see him go and know that he won't be back. In areas with a Sunni majority, there are demonstrations, protests, and violence. Anbar province is over 70% Sunni, and includes Tikrit, Saddam's hometown, and other cities that were long favored by Saddam and/or have a history of Sunni insurgency, including Ramadi, Falluja, Hit, and Habbaniya.

Combine a history of insurgency, the pending death of a political figurehead, and religious fanaticism, with a full moon thrown in for good measure, and it's no wonder we're watching the news pretty closely here.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Walker: [Iraqi] Ranger?

It's been something of a surreal day. The air outside is thick with the smoke from the garbage dump, where it seems there is nothing to burn today besides some sort of plastic. The acrid stench gives way to the crisper smoke from the assortment of burn barrels which are once again busy devouring remnents of unkept letters and packages from homes far away. The night sky seems impossibly bright overhead- just a few days ago, it was nearly impossible to walk around at night without bumping, tripping, and stumbling along. Now, it's easy to move. It's especially noticeable in town, where we gain next to no benefit from dousing our vehicles lights in many areas. The dim twilight is still more than enough to see by, and our trucks are large enough to stand out, even in the more urban areas. I'm getting off track. Back to this last 24 hours.

Let me preface this story I'm about to tell with a little background: Chuck Norris is a gigantic cult phenomonem. Everyone knows a joke or two about the man. Examples include such interesting facts as "Chuck Norris has two speeds. Sleep/Kill", "There is no natural selection. There are creatures that die, and creatures Chuck allows to live", and "Chuck Norris doesn't have a beard because he doesn't shave; Chuck has a beard because razors are scared of him".
References to the man are everywhere, and nearly all of them are as odd or inane as the ones I've just shared. Whether they make sense or not, these little sayings are written everywhere- inside bunkers, latrines, vehicles... anywhere someone might think to write something.

Things started while I was out on mission last night. One of the Bradley Fighting Vehicles that compose our security escort called up the escort commander on the radio during a lull in movement:
Red 1: Sir, did you hear they're taking one of my Bradleys tomorrow?
Red 6: Negative. Why?
R1: I guess Chuck Norris needs it for something.
R6: Say again?
R1: Chuck Norris is coming here tomorrow, and he's taking one of my Bradleys.
R6: Is this one of those jokes you guys tell all the time?
We were sitting in the truck saying to ourselves "What does he need a Bradley for? Can't he just roundhouse kick the IED's away?" "Y'know, if he'd come here 3 years ago, we wouldn't still be here now!". Anyway, it turned out to be true. Every soldier's hero, Chuck Norris, came to the ghetto of Iraq. I wonder how many kids had their illusions shattered today.

Tonight, we went out on another mission, a short one, to clear part of one of the main routes between here and all the other military bases in Iraq. Coming back, we had a bomb explode near us. However, this was no ordinary bomb. This one was a shell strapped to what appeared to be a roller skate, and it got pulled across the road in front of us. Apparently, the bad guys have been watching too many old cartoons, and called Acme with an order for bombs. My truck has now earned the nickname "Roadrunner", for having survived an attack by Wily E. Coyote.

Chuck Norris and bombs on skates. That's about all I can handle for one day.