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

Thursday, May 24, 2007

3 In 2?!

Two days, three blog posts.

Too bad I can't keep this up.

I'll be off doing Army stuff for a while, and you won't be seeing any postings here for several days, at least. Hopefully, I'll come back soon with stories and pictures, so keep checking.

In other news:

I recently celebrated my 23rd birthday on a hot and lazy afternoon back in Ramadi. Thanks to all of you who somehow managed to figure out when it was to send me something. The cards and well-wishes were great.

Acute Politics will have three posts appearing in Doonesbury's print edition of The Sandbox. The book will release in September, and will feature blogs from Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Home Front, just like the website does. There will also be a picture on the back cover that should look very familiar to readers of this blog. Badgers Forward readers will be pleased to hear that Badger 6 will have entries in the book as well.

The ads *cue evil music* have sparked more than a few comments, and several emails for and against in my inbox. Perhaps it would help soothe some injured idealism if I reveal that I receive no monetary compensation for the presence of the ads- they exist solely to support PJM's relationship with this blog. If at some point in the future I do receive payment, it will go to a military charity. All that isn't to say that I think there's something wrong with profiting off of creative works in one of the few ways the internet allows- it's just that that is not the case this time.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Promotion Party!

The night was hot yesterday. The sun had set an hour or two previously, and yet the thermometer on the back porch still read 105 degrees. Two helicopters flew low overhead, tilting at the sliver of moon rising above our barracks. The rotor wash from the choppers turned the porch into a hellish wind tunnel. On the other side of the dirt-filled wall of HESCO barriers, the Marines were lining up for another mission out into Ramadi. Blue chemlights described glowing arcs through the night as Marines taped the markers to radio antennas and released them skyward, and the night thumped to the tune of Guns 'N Roses on some Marine’s stereo.
Mama put my guns in the ground
I can't shoot them any more
That cold black cloud is comin' down
Feels like I'm knockin' on heavens door
On our side of the HESCOs, the party was in full swing. We were on our second day back in Ramadi. Our platoon leader had just earned his promotion to 1st Lieutenant, and we were celebrating as hard as you can in Iraq. The humidors full of cigars were out, and melting ice leaked across the deck from open cases of non-alcoholic beer. Wood scraps sent twisting flames aloft from our fire pit set into the patio built of metal airlift pallets. Many members of the platoon made use of our most obscene amenity- an 8x6’ pool built by our predecessors out of a water tank that was hit by shrapnel during a rocket attack. We spent the afternoon cleaning the accumulation of dust and sand out of the bottom, and sent someone running after the water truck in anticipation of the evening.

Now the porch and patio dance with flames that cut through the swirling cigar smoke- the smoke that moves and throbs in time with the bass from the portable speakers. Members of other platoons in the company drift in to congratulate the LT, while our soldiers split off into groups and talk. In the back there's the shatter of glass and a brief curse- no worries, there's plenty more near-beer on ice. Ramadi's partying, and it's jumping for us.


We said goodbye to Gator recently, after over four months of working together. Gator is the nickname Marines affectionately give their Amphibious Assault Vehicles- the 23-ton tracks that accompanied us on so many missions through Iraq. Our Gators were the men of Co. B, 2nd Amphibious Assault Battalion. Gator was the first Marine unit that most of us had ever worked with directly, and I doubt we'll soon see one better.

A Gator platoon sounds off before leaving Falluja

Over the course of the months we spent together, we jointly completed over 60 route clearance missions without a casualty. As our security team, they chased our phantoms, like the cows that looked like men. Gator helped us evac wounded children after a school near us was hit by a mortar. We towed them out the time they slid off one of the steep raised roads we patrol. On other days, we spun up patrols to go help Gator Marines that had been blown up. While we were traveling to and from Ramadi, we depended more than once on Gator patrols when we ran into trouble.

The day before they left, the 1st Sergeant of Gator presented each of us with a certificate of appreciation and membership in Gator's team as honorary Marines. He also bestowed upon us the unit motto chalked on their vehicles- "YAT-YAS", or "You Ain't Tracks, You Ain't Shit". Our unit was converted to route clearance from a mechanized (tracked) combat engineer unit, so we well understand the tough love of mech troops for their tracks.

The brotherhood we shared with Gator was personified by two individuals: Specialist Yaw and Lance Corporal Yaw. SPC Chris Yaw is a member of my Army Reserve squad; LCPL Matthew Yaw is his younger brother and belongs to one of the active duty Marine platoons in Gator. Neither expected to see the other while serving in Iraq, but they ended up running multiple patrols together.
Yaw and Yaw

Both Yaws were gunners. Both have paid final respects to friends at small shrines in front of dusty congregations. For Chris, it was three friends and platoon mates; for Matt, it was his garrison roommate. Both have survived multiple IED hits, while their platoons found many more bombs before they exploded. They shared the dust, the mud, the flies, the stench, and the heat. They were the physical brothers, but someone once said that the bonds of combat form thicker ties than blood. I don't know that that statement is strictly true, but I do know we all remember Gator warmly.

Godspeed, Gators.

Oh, and YAT-YAS!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Pajamas Media

I'm sure you'll all notice the changes on the site. There's a big, hard to miss button over on the right, and some of those big ads. In the short term, becoming a PJM blog will mean some increased traffic, some more publishing opportunities for me, and unfortunately, some ads. I'm going to see what I can do to make the layout better. I'm unsatisfied with how the banners look right now. Here's hoping everything works out for the best!

Karma, Karma, Always Karma

We took another trip up into Karma tonight. We patrolled up through the town and cut east, out through the area in which coalition forces recently took a bite out of al-Qaeda's anti-aircraft capability. One bomb crater nearly blocked the road in one spot- another was visible a short distance off the road. We spent four or five hours heading out to our turnaround spot, with dark clouds menacing their showers over the entire trip. Rainstorms are refreshing, once in a while, but they also mean more work spent drying and cleaning ammunition and weapons.

The clouds finally broke as we were driving back out of Karma. Rain drummed fitfully on the roof- just enough to obscure the road, but never quite enough to need the wipers full time. Lightning shot blue fire across the sky. Somewhere to the south, a bolt of lightning hit the power grid, and the horizon light up with the turquoise strobes of exploding transformers. Distant lights began to wink out and disappear- the oncoming tide of blackness washed ever closer as transformers continued to light up the sky. The blue light was joined by the steadily flashing golden pink glow of a downed power line. As we continued to roll towards Camp Falluja, we passed the power line still sparking and glowing on top of a concertina fence. The air smelled sharply of ozone- it also smelt cleaner than it has in weeks.

The rain also lead to the first pang of homesickness that I've felt in a while. After we got back, I walked out under the netting that covers the entryway to my buddy's tent. The netting is a fine, sand colored mesh that block the sun. It also breaks up the rain into a fine mist, with larger droplets that break and fall occasionally from the net. I stood underneath the netting with my eyes closed, smelling the suddenly fresh air, and thinking of the rain in the forests on the coast that was so similar to what I felt tonight thousands of miles away.

Just a few more months now.

Sunday, May 13, 2007


Acute Politics is back, after some long missions and another communication blackout.

The news is all abuzz with reports of killed and captured soldiers near Mahmudiyah. To be more precise, the attack occurred between Mahmudiyah and Amiriya. The area is mostly open desert, and the Sunni insurgency is strong there. Bill Roggio has written previously about the fight in the region, and my platoon recently conducted a long mission northwest of Amiriya.

The DOD press release on the attack reports 7 soldiers and an Iraqi Army interpreter were in a "static overwatch position" overnight, that they were "attacked by an IED" and an apparently unknown number of insurgents. Of the eight, five were killed at the scene, either in the engagement or shortly afterwards, while three were apparently captured and are listed as "duty status unknown".

A nearby coalition unit reported hearing an explosion at 0444, and attempted to make comms with the overwatching unit. They were unable to do so, and a Unmanned Aerial Vehicle was dispatched to investigate. A Quick Reaction Force was sent to the scene when the UAV found two vehicles burning. QRF arrived at 0540 to find five dead and the other three missing.

No insurgent group has publicly claimed responsibility, and coalition forces are already scouring the area for the missing soldiers. The tribes of SAI (Sahawah al-Iraq, or "Iraqi Awakening"- formerly Anbar Awakening) have agreed to help in the search. If we find our missing boys, it will be a testament to the growing success in al-Anbar. The tribes have a native intel ability within their population that we simply cannot match. I hope it will help us bring them home.

In the meantime, my sympathies and prayers go out to the families- seven American, and one Iraqi. I'm sorry for your loss.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

There and Back Again (A Soldier's Tale)

This is the third and last segment on our 40-hour mission. It's a little more disjoint than the others, because I don't remember the second day as well as the first and I didn't take the luxury of a lot of time editing this one. Hope you enjoy!

First call was at 0500. I rolled over in the blackness and felt for my breakfast MRE and my last cigarette carefully nestled between my ammo pouches. I emptied out the backpack that I normally bring on missions before the previous mission, because the lead truck has no room to spare for it. I miss that bag more than anything this morning. It had all the essentials that I need today: a spare pack of smokes, clean socks in a ziplock baggie that keeps them dry, and a small jar of sleep-replacing vitamin B12, as well as some other comforts. This will be the last time I take crap about my bag.

The mission is only one-third complete, but we will be turning around and heading out the way we came. There are too many IEDs, too many caches, and too little time to finish out the route. The smaller trucks are refueled from the disabled vehicle to ensure we don't run short of gas if the day drags on again. We know we'll find bombs replaced in the road behind us, so we prepare for a long day and set out at dawn.

The day progresses, and we find more IEDs. EOD is once again called off to the sides to deal with bombs the infantry has found. Periodic explosions announce the reduction of another IED and the impending return of the EOD team. The bombs that EOD judges too damaging to blow near their surrounding buildings get stashed in the back of the truck. I didn't wear a seat belt the entire second day- it seems a little ridiculous to worry about your neck when the secondary blast from the back-seat cargo will turn you to mush before you can feel the IED hitting the truck.

One bomb was burrowed in nearly four feet from the roadside, underneath the asphalt. It was a Russian 152mm artillery shell- 90lbs of explosive and steel waiting the chance to turn into deadly shrapnel. Along with it we found eleven liter bottles of diesel fuel; over the radio someone joked "Well, at least we solved our fuel problem". When we dug it up, someone had already tried to set it off. The blasting cap on the bomb was blown, but the IED had not gone off. Someone got very lucky.

Beauty and humor are the two things that most easily make me forget Iraq. The last push back into Amiriya had both. We were rolling down a narrow, rutted road through the middle of a wheat field starting to turn tan and gold from the sun. Lines of Marines and Iraqi Police stretched away on either side scouring the ground for hints of war, despite having their finish line in sight. Bradleys clanked behind the infantry, pushing stalks of wheat into the soft earth. I looked out over the line of troops- Marines in digitalized desert MARCAM and IPs in old woodland BDUs. In the middle was one Army soldier in ACUs, sticking out like a redneck at a fashion show.

We spent the next few hours uneventfully, back in familiar territory clearing the last roads between us and home. One last detail remained before we rolled back into Camp Falluja- we had to destroy all the explosives I was carting around in the back of the truck. We stopped in the semi-secure "pink" zone on the gate road, and set up the blast. Artillery shells, rockets, signal flares, bulk explosive, and a healthy helping of C-4 all went into a pile that totaled something close to 450 pounds, 200 of that explosive. I pulled the initiator on the time fuse, and we stepped back over the berm, drove down the road to our desert amphitheatre and watched the fireworks. The blast was perfect- all the ordnance detonated and left behind a six foot crater with a small hill in the center.

We rolled inside the berms and barb wire of Camp Falluja at a little after 1730- we were out for almost 39 hours, and we got back just in time for dinner. We were credited with six IED finds over the course of the mission- EOD reduced four more that the infantry found on side roads. Between IEDs and caches, we and EOD destroyed over 1200 pounds of ordnance.

It was a good day.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Hadji Houses

We pulled into the open space between the two houses we were to occupy for the night at about 2000. The house set aside for us and our Marine security detail was single-story cinderbrick of perhaps 1500 square feet, with a walled flat roof. The Marine company that had been moving dismounted alongside our patrol made their sleeping arrangements in the second house- a split-level two story building, also with a walled roof. Most Iraqi houses have the same flat roof and low wall, which makes them very expedient to convert into nighttime firm points with reasonably good fighting positions. Both houses had obviously been vacated hurriedly- food was halfway prepared inside the outdoor kitchen, and laundry still fluttered from the line. Someone said the owners had tested positive for explosives residue and been arrested. That could be true, or the Marines could have simply sent the families off to another house for the night with a few extra dollars in their pockets.

We gathered our gear inside our assigned room, and broke out cartons of MREs and water. We ate quickly in the darkness- the better to secure a chunk of rug on which to spend the night.
I pulled the first roving guard shift, and spent the next two and a half hours pacing an Iraqi farmyard and listening to the distant rattle of gunfire somewhere north along the river- punctuated by the deeper whoomp of Bradleys firing.

The operations officer for the cavalry's parent unit came by and mentioned that troops pushing south towards us had hit multiple IEDs, and lost men, but "there wasn't much to be done, because they don't have route clearance". I wished for the hundredth time that there were more of us. He also mentioned that sporadic fighting continued all up and down along the river, as well as out into the desert on the main road south.

The houses were set off the road about 150 meters, and were surrounded on three sides by farmland, with a palm grove stretching away to the south. We were very close to the river, so the ground was moist with springtime, and the air smelled of plants both growing and dying. To the west, pens of goats and cows added their noises to the air. Beyond the animal pens, a field of tomatoes and then of grass unfolded. Far off in the western sky, illumination flares rose in a constant stream of orange harmony to the distant sound of incoming American artillery.

The air was thick with musky scent- the product of an already long mission. The sharper smell of crushed vegetation mixed with the dank odor of animal manure and that of tired men. It was a bouquet that will define Iraq for me someday- the smell of living and sweating and dying.
Inside, the house was a tangle of sleeping men. Chemlights spread their ghostly light from the corners in a vain attempt to help the changing guards avoid their sleeping buddies. The room in which I spent the next five hours in fitful sleep was large enough to accommodate all thirty members of our patrol, and yet the only decoration was a poster on the inside wall that simply said "Allah" in fancy calligraphic script.

The house itself smelled of animals of some sort, perhaps dogs, and a pungent tarry smell. The smell of the house bothered some, while others seemed not to even notice. I inhaled and remembered sleeping on my grandparents floor as a child and smelling my grandfather's beloved cats. That grandfather is my only surviving grandparent, and the only other member of my family to have walked the sands of the Middle East. I fell asleep thinking of him, and of home.

(The third and last post on the trip will be up tomorrow)

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Awkward First Dates

Friday was a day of firsts for me. First time driving a Cougar, first time riding with EOD, first overnight stay in an Iraqi house, and first time I didn't have my camera on mission. The last was the one I would regret. I was unsure about driving the Cougar- it's a lot bigger than the RG-31 I've driven before, and the visibility is considerably more limited. There was no one else to do it, though, and so I agreed to my "trial by fire". When we left, I had no idea of how accurate that phrase would become.

The mission started easily enough- we were headed down to Amiriya to clear a route back north along the river in support of Marine infantry and Army cavalry searching for caches and bad guys. We mounted up and headed out the gate very early in the morning. Dawn was still hours over the horizon, and we spent most of the intervening time making our way to the mission start point. A pale pink glow was spreading across the sky as we passed through Amiriya and started up the river road. Just meters past the turn was the first IED, which we quickly cleared under skies already starting to turn grey with an approaching storm. As we continued driving, the EOD tech turned to me and said "This doesn't look like Iraq at all... It's more like something back in Ohio." Indeed, the scene along the river made me forget for a moment that I was in the desert. Tall trees grew along the road, and dense green undergrowth lined the elevated roadbed. The rain had started and was growing heavier- the wind was beginning to whip the drops sideways. The monsoon hit just as the lead truck found the second IED. They called up a tripwire stretched across the road, and I turned to ask the EOD tech which war, exactly, we were fighting?

IED #3 blew up underneath one of the trucks, marking the beginning of the first time that day all hell would break loose. The driver was ok, but we now had a truck that needed recovered, on a road barely wide enough to accommodate one vehicle. We moved most of the convoy off onto a side road, and brought up the wrecker. Two Bradleys moved up to the rear of our patrol, and veered off into the fields to bypass both us and the blast hole. They came back to the main road just a few hundred meters north of us, and the trail Bradley promptly scored a near miss from another IED. EOD started getting calls from the dismount Marine infantry moving up on our rear, and the techs began moving from site to site responding to requests. They reduced another IED in a controlled detonation, and then moved off to examine IED-making material that another group found. Just to our rear, a Marine stepped on a booby trap set to target dismount patrols. EOD moved off once again to clear the site, and the Marine unit began setting up a MEDIVAC site for the wounded in the field adjacent to us. (Side note: We checked today, and all those guys are ok) After three hours, four IEDs, and one vehicle recovery, we were on our way again.

The blast holes from the Bradley and our vehicle effectively blocked the road to our forward, so we had no choice but to follow the field route the Bradleys had taken initially. I was the closest to the side road in the Cougar, so I lead out towards the bypass. Iraqi farms typically use flood irrigation, so the fields are lined with ditches. The first such ditch was no problem- I got around it with some maneuvering. The second was a deep double ditch, which I took at a slight cut at EOD's direction. The truck bottomed out as it hit the second ditch, and slid back into the hole. Stuck. Behind me, the RG was in the process of winching out of the first ditch. Great. Another hour, a lot of digging, and some help from a Bradley later, we were moving again.

Once back on the road, we got another call from the infantry. The had found more IEDs on the section of road we were unable to clear. The BUFFALO and EOD went back to reduce them. With the IEDs taken care of, we moved to confront our next problems- we had been on mission for a solid twelve hours, and our Humvee security detail was running low on fuel. To add to the matter, intel reports were coming in warning us to expect strong insurgent resistance to our north. It took nearly another hour to refuel the Humvees from the Bradleys, and we pressed forward yet again. The infantry had moved slightly ahead of us, and as we caught up, we watched them digging caches of weapons and munitions out of the riverbank. A Marine sapper tossed a demolition charge into a small hole, and the patrol quickly moved off. We followed, and a few minutes later there was a boom and puff of smoke behind us. I though nothing of it until the next boom threw up a waterspout out in the river, and Marines starting scrambling up the embankment to the other side of the road. Incoming mortar fire sucks, especially when the bad guys are on the far bank 500 meters away. More rounds began to explode on the bank and in the grass; the trucks in front of us caught the exhaust from the mortar tube and began to pour machine-gun fire across the river. Somewhere behind us, Bradleys opened up with the whoomp-whoomp-whoomp of 25mm chain gun fire. Bullets flew both ways across the water, glinting and sparkling when shots dipped too low and caught the ripples, and abruptly ceased coming from the far side. The Marine landowner on the far side called up and asked us to mark the site with tracer fire for their troops moving in. We did so, and moved out, past the groups of flex-cuffed captives moving south into the gathering night.

By the time dusk fell, we had covered less than one third of the route- the Marines wanted to do the rest, but didn't want to move dismounts without us on the roads for clearance and heavy gun support. Neither we nor the Marines could go much longer without some rest, and the Marines were loath to sweep the riverbank at night. After some discussion among the respective leadership, the Marines settled on a spot in which to set up a firm point and spend the night. It was 1930- we had been on the move for 17 hours.

(Check back tomorrow for Part II)

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Breaking News- Developing

Iraqi tribesmen are reporting the death of al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri, according to Ali al-Dabbagh, spokesman for Prime Minister Malaki. Al-Masri is the Egyptian who took over AQI after al-Zarqawi was killed last June by a coalition airstrike. The report of Masri's death have not been confirmed by either the Iraqi government or by coalition forces. A search for the body is ongoing, in the hope that DNA testing will confirm al-Masri's demise.

Sunni tribal sources are claiming that al-Masri was killed in the village of al-Nibayi, near Taji in the Salahadin province. This is not the first time that al-Masri has been reported dead- in October of last year the Iraqi government reported that he had been killed, and in February, he was reported wounded near Balad. If this latest report is true, it will be very interesting to see who claims the credit.

The fighters at this point are loosely identified as "Sunni tribesmen". That could mean many things- there have been previous reports that a movement akin to the Anbar Salvation Council beginning in Salahadin province, and this could be one of that movement's first victories. More likely is that ASC fighters went hunting in nearby Salahadin province, and turned up gold. Two major tribes being courted by the ASC have debts to pay AQI, and killing their leader would square the bill nicely. As you've read here before, the al-bu Issa tribe has suffered multiple chlorine and ground attacks around Amiriya at the hands of al-Qaeda. The son of the sheik of the al-Zuba'a tribe was killed by al-Qaeda fighters. I would not be surprised to see fingerprints from one of those two tribes on this one.

PS: I can't access Bill Roggio's site right now for some reason, but I'm sure he beat me to this one.

PPS: Just talked to Bill: he also has a post up. Go hit The Fourth Rail for more analysis.