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, October 01, 2008

In A Time Of War

I recently received a copy of In A Time of War, Bill Murphy Jr.'s book on the West Point Class of 2002.

I started reading a random chapter in the middle of the book, and quickly stopped and restarted at the beginning. I couldn't put it down. Bill Murphy Jr. offers an amazing look inside the warrior culture that drives men broken by war to return to the battlefield. He writes eloquently of commanders good and bad, of fobbits and frontline grunts, of homesick soldiers and of the too-often forgotten "home front" of worried, scared and proud wives and families. In A Time Of War took me back to Iraq- I smelled it, heard it, and tasted the dust. This is more than a book about West Point cadets- this is a book about the entire thin line -volunteers all- that protects and defends our great nation. It belongs on the shelf of anyone who cares to understand the military and its culture.

If you want to know what pre-surge Iraq looked like, if you want to understand why soldiers volunteer for multiple tours, and conversely, if you want to understand why those same soldiers serve their time and leave, you should read this book.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Just In Case

...you missed it in the midst of wondering if the sky was going to fall:

Iraqi Parliment passes Provincial Elections Law

The Washington Post opines:


But it's now clear that the political progress that the Bush administration hoped would follow the surge of U.S. forces in Iraq has finally begun. How can the next president preserve that momentum? Democrat Barack Obama continues to argue that only the systematic withdrawal of U.S. combat units will force Iraqi leaders to compromise. Yet the empirical evidence of the past year suggests the opposite: that only the greater security produced and guaranteed by American troops allows a political environment in which legislative deals and free elections are feasible.


I disagree in part with their conclusion- American (and Coalition!) troops played a large part in producing the present security, but there are multiple areas in the country where the Iraqi Security Forces are growing more and more capable, often taking the lead in security operations and operating effectively outside Coalition support. Ironically, the troop surge that Sen. Obama opposed is the very thing that will give him the security "space" to pursue the drawdown he has promised if elected. For that favor he should thank Sen. McCain.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Mmm.. I Love Fall

For dinner- a creamy turnip soup with paprika, french bread, and a roasted beet and Bartlett pear salad with a balsamic dressing.

To drink? Beer, of course. A Widmer brown ale for me, and a Blue Moon harvest seasonal for her.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Annual Training

The first few days of AT were filled with the usual settling-in activities- privates sleeping wherever and whenever they could; sergeants grabbing groups of privates to go unload supplies; specialists generally trying to stay out of the way and under the radar. A specialist's rank insignia looks like a medieval shield- they commonly refer to it as a "sham shield" because of its appearance and their mantra of "Out of sight; out of mind".

After everything was settled, we moved quickly into training. Three days of ranges (Demolitions, Rifle Qualification, and Pistol Qualification) were followed by two 24-hour mission rotations where we split into 8-man squads to be graded on our performance on a total of 16 squad tactical exercise lanes. At stake were the titles of Best Squad of the Battalion and Best Company of the Battalion (based on the sum score of squads from the companies).



This was the demolition shot that went awry and set California on fire. Unfortunately, my pictures of the fire didn't turn out very well- I got a lot of dirt on my lens while trying to multi-task photography and demo.



The coastal highway 101 runs through part of Ft. Hunter Ligget, and we occasionally used it while traveling between lanes. We had just turned off of 101 on our way to another lane when I took this photo. It was near sunset, a little over five hours into our first 24-hour mission rotation.



The lane we were moving to was run, graded and supervised by our company's ROTC cadet (a former 82nd Airborne Sergeant), and my platoon's Platoon Sergeant (a decorated combat veteran of the 2nd Ranger Battalion). The lane was set up to evaluate squads on their ability to conduct a dismounted combat patrol. In this photo, PV2 Engel checks his helmet-mounted night vision device. We actually ran the lane to old-fashioned way- in soft caps and naked eyes.



We had a day of rest between the first 24-hour rotation and the second; it just happened to include some rappelling. There are a number of ways to rappel a cliff face: this is the most common way.



This is also "a way".



Out of our 16 STX lanes, 2 involved live fire marksmenship, and 2 involved live demolitions. Here, my squad's Fire Team Alpha demonstrates breaching a door with a detonating cord linear strip charge. My Fire Team Bravo followed with a detonating cord water impulse charge.



Finally- the last night of Annual Training. The gear is packed away for the return trip, all the errands are taken care of, and all the time left is free for tradition. In the case of Alpha Company, tradition means Worm Races. You take a junior enlisted soldier, put a helmet on his head, and zip him into an old cotton sleeping bag. He races another soldier down a track made of bunk beds pushed together. They may not stand, hop, roll or jump. They may not have any portion of their bodies leave the bag before the finish line. Violence is highly encouraged.


PS: For those of you who are wondering: The top company was ours, with the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th place squads (out of 16 squads).

Traffic Check

Sarah Palin scandal gaffe
Sarah Heath Palin
Sarah Palin bikini
Palin McCain wife scandal


Welcome Google crawlers! If you must get back to searching for Gov. Palin's scandals, go for it, but feel free to take a look around the blog and get a sense for what al-Anbar province was like back before we could consider handing it over to the Iraqis.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Our New Running Joke

Q: Вы говорите по-русски?*

No? Better learn!


So advised the jokesters over the last few days of our annual training down at Ft. Hunter Ligget.

The conflict in Georgia is in its fifth day now. Russia seems to have stopped their advance, and have begun to make demands from a position of indisputable military power.

My family has a treasured Finnish history, and I see echoes of those old stories in the present conflict.

Finland had rich ores and an arctic port in the north, and in the south there was territory directly north of Leningrad that the Soviets saw as defensive terrain. The Soviets made their demands, and on Finland's refusal proceeded to shell a Russian village on the border, accuse the Finns of an unprovoked attack and restate their demands. When Finland categorically refused the Soviet demands, the Red Army invaded.

Stalin's purges had seriously weakened the Red Army, and that, combined with the most bitter winter in memory and a miracle or two for Finland, resulting in a crushing initial defeat. Hitler looked on at Stalin's blunder and saw a giant with feet of clay- a key factor in his later decision to invade in Operation Barbarossa. Stalin, meanwhile, had learned a hard lesson from the ignominious defeat, and a hardened Red Army, complete with a rebuilt officer corps, saw frozen farmland become the Wehrmacht's grave.

The current situation in Georgia is considerably different, of course- most notably in military performance, and the lack of any regional power to oppose Russia. The basics, however, are the same- a former Russian territory sited on key terrain and resources with a government growing less and less receptive to socialism suffers provocation after provocation as Russia builds a tissue-thin rationale for war. Georgia made the mistake of rising to the bait (and failing to hold the south end of the Roti Tunnel when they did, but that's another matter), and now both we and they will have to deal with the consequences.

The outcomes are fairly obvious and very bad at this point:

Russia will end in de facto control of South Ossetia and the western breakaway province of Abkhazia.

The current government of Georgia is done. Russia will call for "regime change", although they will not use that word. If they get a new government outright, Georgia will become the newest old Russian puppet state. If the current government survives Russian demands for replacement, they will not last long at home and the end state may well be the same.

Other western-friendly former bloc countries have to be sweating buckets right now. Looking at you, Ukraine.

Lastly- we didn't cause the current situation, but we sure as hell stoked the fire with troop training, the push for Georgia's inclusion in NATO, public and glowing support for Georgia's government, and a general "we got your back" attitude. Now that everything has exploded, we're issuing strongly worded statements, and France is heading up a diplomatic effort.

Other "Coalition of the Willing" members are probably re-examining their willingness to play on the GWOT stage, knowing what they now know about America and the world's willingness to back them up in case of trouble at home.





*Do you speak Russian?

Friday, August 01, 2008

About that demo...

Just a quick note here-

We accidentally sent a shaped charge skipping the other day in similar fashion to what I had described. Seriously... we didn't mean to. We had set up two shots of three shaped charges each, and one of the six charges misfired. Normally, a shaped charge is set up on a metal tripod, pointing downwards to punch a hole into the ground that will be filled with another charge for cratering. The standoff from the ground is required in order for the shaped explosion to fully form. When the one shaped charge misfired, the tripod was blasted away by the concussion from the other five charges, and the misfired charge was left lying on the ground. When we cleared the charge, we simply detonated it where it lay on the ground, for safety. The blast sent a plasma ball skipping across a tinder-dry grassy meadow and up a ridgeline into a stand of trees and high brush, leaving a line of small but quickly growing fires in its wake. The base wildfire unit put out the fire on the ridge, and we just waited for the fires on the valley floor to die down before continuing to blast California sky-high.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Demo

It’s Day #2 of Annual Training- that two week part of the “Just 1 weekend a month, 2 weeks a year!” that the US Army Reserve Component promises new recruits with dreams of playing soldier. Never minding, of course, those few odd years when there’s a war on.

Tomorrow is the first day of “real training”- today and yesterday have been administrative-heavy with settling in to living quarters and sorting out the rush of confusion that accompanies shipping hundreds of men and tons of equipment to a base hundreds of miles away from home.

Tomorrow is Demolition Day- the best day of the training cycle by far, and the main reason I became a Combat Engineer. I asked the recruiter what Army jobs dealt with explosives; she answered Combat Engineer and Explosives Ordnance Disposal. My nascent impression of the distinction was that Engineers blew stuff up, while EOD neutralized bombs that tried to blow them up. Since I didn’t want to go looking for trouble and get blown up in the process, I decided to join as an engineer. I’ll leave the irony to the reader.

Combat Engineers live for demo. There’s a sense of raw power when dealing with blocks of C4 and loops of detonating cord. There’s a downside, too- most of us can’t watch modern action movies without comment. Grenades don’t explode into fireballs, and a small satchel charge of plastic explosive won’t bring down a large building no matter how well placed.

On the other hand, we learn how much C4 it takes to cut through how much steel; how much Composition H it takes to blast impassable craters into roads, and how detonating cord explodes at 25,000 feet per second- fast enough to race in a straight line from Los Angeles to New York in minutes.

On a night like tonight, we talk about intangibles and wishlists, too. How cool would it be to blow up the old tank that’s sitting out on the range? Better yet, how about we take our blocks of C4 and spools of detonator caps and fuse and teach a class on “field-expedient” demo- the way simple cross-sections of steel with plastic explosive on the back can become simple shaped charges with many times the destructive power of the explosive alone?

I’ve heard older soldiers, experienced with more supplies and less oversight, talk about the way a military shaped charge, when tipped on its side, will send a superheated ball of metal plasma skipping across the desert. If that’s true, could we have shaped charge races? First plasma ball to the end of the valley wins?

Of course we won’t try it… there’s too many high ranking officers and NCOs around who would take an extraordinarily dim view of the proceedings. Still, there’s a lot of improvised demo that is ok, because the Army Field Manual on such makes it so. I know of at least 9 different ways to open a locked door with nothing more than detonating cord, tape, and hard rubber or spare intravenous solution bags. Some are so gentle they remove little more than a doorknob- others will tear a steel fire door off its hinges and send it into the back wall of the building. I can stand within a few meters of them all.

Really, when you think about it, it’s little wonder that former combat engineers are on the short list of people for the FBI to talk to when something explodes.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

And another one's gone... another one's gone... another one bites the dust


The recently milblog-famous LT G is now assured of a book deal, and the milblog-reading public is now deprived of an erudite inside look into the current prosecution of the ground war in Iraq. No long tails, no FOB life, no ice cream cones- Kaboom: A Soldier's War Journal was exactly that- a blog of US soldiers at war. I'll take my "proud father" moment here- I found his blog just a few days after the Gravediggers hit the Iraqi dirt; a few days after I had mourned the lack of quality milblogs currently "on the ground".


The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage


That was the post (of prescient title) that did him in. A too-real look at the struggle of a combat lieutenant to stay out of the mind-draining quagmire. No, not the media's Iraq: that quagmire is contrived and belied by the situation on the ground. This quagmire was the grind of the Tactical Operations Center, of the FOB life. LT G did not want to be a company executive officer. For a combat troop, that would be as good as suicide. The post he wrote about it got his blogging canned. Martyrs get books. Ask Colby Buzzell (who got called out of the inactive reserve for another Iraq deployment, by the way. It'll be interesting to see how that goes.)

It's too bad. I'll miss reading Kaboom.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Memorial Day

Seen from here, they have no names. They could be any men, from any war.

Those men I remembered on Monday...

The three Badgers you already know about, if you’ve been reading here long. Good men, taken much too soon. We all know far too well that the bomb that took them could have claimed any three of us.

A sniper killed Major Olmstead while he tried to talk insurgents into surrendering, rather than running away and forcing his men to shoot. Captain Casey was killed when he went to aid Major Olmstead. Major Olmstead became the first milblogger that I know of to be killed in action in Iraq- his last post was published by a friend and spoke at length of his life’s philosophy and final regret at having died.

Taps

LTC Jack Friedrichsen was my grandfather, an Army Air Corps veteran of World War II. He died while I was in training to deploy to Iraq, just days after my 22nd birthday. In the birthday card he sent to me that year, he told me how proud he was that I had chosen to serve my country and wished me safety in Iraq. I was reading it on my bunk when they came to tell me he was dead.

Pvt. James Kern

Another man I remembered Monday was one I had only just come to know, a little. Private James Kern was a veteran of the 1st Kentucky Cavalry in the Civil War. He died in 1928 and was buried in the Civil War-era "Silent Camp" in Boise. His grave formed an empty space between the weathered rows of marble- at some point since his burial, his headstone disappeared. Perhaps he never had one in the first place. Monday was Boise's day to give him the honor he deserved.


Civil War reenacters fire a salute to Pvt. Kern

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Last Monday in May

 THE WHITE HOUSE


Office of the Press Secretary
________________________________________________________________________
For Immediate Release May 2, 2000



Memorandum on the White House Program for the National Moment
of Remembrance


Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies

Subject: White House Program for the National Moment of Remembrance

As Memorial Day approaches, it is time to pause and consider the
true meaning of this holiday. Memorial Day represents one day of
national awareness and reverence, honoring those Americans who died
while defending our Nation and its values. While we should honor these
heroes every day for the profound contribution they have made to
securing our Nation's freedom, we should honor them especially on
Memorial Day.
In this time of unprecedented success and prosperity throughout our
land, I ask that all Americans come together to recognize how fortunate
we are to live in freedom and to observe a universal ``National Moment
of Remembrance'' on each Memorial Day. This memorial observance
represents a simple and unifying way to commemorate our history and
honor the struggle to protect our freedoms.
Accordingly, I hereby direct all executive departments and agencies,
in consultation with the White House Program for the National Moment of
Remembrance (Program), to promote a ``National Moment of Remembrance''
to occur at 3 p.m. (local time) on each Memorial Day.
Recognizing that Memorial Day is a Federal holiday, all executive
departments and agencies, in coordination with the Program and to the
extent possible and permitted by law, shall promote and provide
resources to support a National Moment of Remembrance, including:
  • Encouraging individual department and agency personnel, and Americans everywhere, to pause for one minute at 3:00 p.m. (local time) on Memorial Day, to remember and reflect on the sacrifices made by so many to provide freedom for all.
  • Recognizing, in conjunction with Memorial Day, department and agency personnel whose family members have made the ultimate sacrifice for this Nation.
  • Providing such information and assistance as may be necessary for the Program to carry out its functions.
I have asked the Director of the White House Millennium Council to issue additional guidance, pursuant to this Memorandum, to the heads of
executive departments and agencies regarding specific activities and
events to commemorate the National Moment of Remembrance.

William J. Clinton


Who do you remember today?

Dong.
3 o'clock.

Lieutenant Colonel Jack Friedrichsen, US Air Force

Dong.
Second bell.

Major Andrew Olmsted,
US Army
Captain Thomas Casey, US Army

Dong.
3 strikes for the hour.

Sergeant Ross Clevenger, US Army
Sergeant Jim Holtom, US Army
Private First Class Ray Werner, US Army


Tomorrow I'll write about today, and post some pictures.
Today, I'll remember.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Musings and Memories

(crossposted at Jules Crittenden)

Who's up for some war stories? Ok, maybe not *exactly* war stories, but I've been mumbling through old memories of Iraq recently. This post will be pretty much stream-of-consciousness, so continue reading only if you want a look inside.

Trash. Iraq is covered in it. Some areas are getting cleaned up now, but canals and roadsides are still the skunky lairs of plastic refuse and decaying filth.

I never understood the guys who complained about the mess, saying that "no one here cares enough to pick up the trash" (I would have a hard time caring, too, if the trash in my neighborhood covered IEDs), and then use the trash as an excuse to toss old water bottles-turned bathroom breaks out of the trucks.

An old favorite pit stop was Saddam's Mosque, the grandest structure in Ramadi, and oddly (I thought) named for the primarily secular former leader. Every night there was an IED on the corner next to the mosque- often, the wires ran inside the wall. Every night, the Explosives Ordnance Disposal techs blew up a little more of the mosque wall. No sense, after all, in moving the bomb too far from the site in the interest of preserving architecture. Every night, piss bottles sailed over the broken wall in a barrage directed at the IED triggerman.

Some parts of Iraq, most of the sprawling garbage is composed of old plastic bottles. Some places, the average IED has a few 1-liter bottles full of diesel fuel attached. The "accelerant", as the military calls it, doesn't usually make the bomb more deadly, but it sure becomes a hell of a lot more impressive. Less like fireworks, but less fun to encounter were the 1-liter bottles straddling artillery shells and filled with pesticide. We started wearing Nomex jumpsuits just in case, so the Army-issue brand new polyester-blend ACUs we went to Iraq in wouldn't melt to our skin if one of those impressive fireballs engulfed the truck.

Those tan Nomex jumpsuits were controversial, sure. We considered them important to our continued, unmaimed survival in our constant dealings "out there"- by a similar token, ice-cream licking desk jockeys considered those jumpsuits antithesis to good order and discipline "inside". I can see why: since we wore them to work in, those jumpsuits smell like work. It's best not to remind fobbits* too often of the vast difference in what you and they consider "work".

At Logistical Support Area Anaconda, the fobbit capital of Iraq (roughly equivalent to corporate headquarters in the Real World), no one knows how to address warfighters in jumpsuits. Little fobbit girls whisper in the back of the bus that those guys must be Special Forces! If they had been somewhere that actually sends men nightly into the breach, they might have known that SF and SEALs are more likely to be found wearing Carhartt and sporting a 4-day growth of beard.

I abused that look every time I found myself on a large base when I went back to Iraq as a photojournalist. The press ID that I picked up in Baghdad was virtually useless (and indeed virtually unused). Once I learned that displaying my press ID inevitably led to the same tired litany of questions and the same display of orders permitting my presence, I began strolling around in my Carhartts and goatee, flashing my military ID to the confused Specialist guarding the chow hall and the Ugandan mercenaries guarding the PX. I had more freedom in Iraq on my own presenting myself as a member of the military than I had experienced while deployed to Iraq on orders from the military.

My train of thought was interrupted here- by my girlfriend coming home from work to find me typing on her couch. That's a kind of distraction that I didn't have while blogging in Iraq. Frankly, I think I prefer the distractions of home to those of Iraq. ;-)


*Fobbit
Fob-bet
-Noun
1. A military member who works primarily on a Foward Operating Base
2. douchebag
a. A military bureaucrat concerned with style over substance
b. A soldier more worried about ice cream stocks than ammo stocks
See also: FOB Goblin, FOB Rat

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Sons of Iraq

There's been a lot of buzz lately over the Sons of Iraq (or "Sunni militias", depending on who you ask). I have a new article up over at The Long War Journal going into a bit of detail about the direction we are trying to go with the SoI.

With the security situation improving daily, especially in Sunni towns, within sight is the future that worried so many at the beginning of the grass-roots level movement: What will these fighters do when the Coalition tells them it is time to put their guns down and go home?
Go read and understand. Make sure to click the slideshow.

Monday, March 17, 2008

5 Years, 1 year

We've been at war in Iraq for 5 long years now, with more long years to go (assuming, of course, that we don't pull out like naive teenagers). I wonder, though... who remembers (without looking!) when the war began in Afghanistan?

Jules Crittenden has your roundup of blogger opinion and editorial opinion on the anniversary.

It took5 years to research what a lot of those serving in Iraq already took prima facie, but Havard University social scientists believe there is a link between public criticism of the war and increases in violent insurgent attacks.

The Idaho Statesman began a 5-part series yesterday on the "5 Years of War". The series opened with a fairly well-balanced article on ordinary life in Baghdad and a leading question: "When you close your eyes and think of Iraq, what does your mind's eye see?".

When I close my eyes, I don't see Iraq. I hear it. Every night when I close my eyes and go to sleep, the quite night is broken by the ringing memory of bombs long blown apart. I heard Iraq once in the gunshots as a man died in a bad drug deal nearby, and I hear it still every afternoon when the grade school across the fence recesses.

I still hear the music, too. Music is a big part of a lot of soldier's lives in Iraq- it is both calming and girding, and embraced in virtually all its forms. Music often turns surreal, too- the way Highway to Hell would start up on the truck playlist as we turned down Route Mets and play on as we passed the crater in the road where once we lost three good men was eery. I sat through a virtual monsoon once while listening to Welcome to the Jungle and watching the raid whip trees sideways.

Some guys listen to death metal before missions, some listen to melodic pop during firefights- whatever it takes to get you through. I had a pretty eclectic mix that ranged from the hardcore yet not hate filled Project 86 to soft and dreamy Nickel Creek, with the drunken Irish bagpipes of Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys playing the punkish counterpart to the timelessness of Guns and Roses.

The other night, I heard the music again, and the surreal undertones punched me in the gut. I was driving home at night, and the rain was coming down hard. The radio was playing Nickelback- it was one of SGT Clevenger's favorite songs, one that played at his memorial.
If everyone cared and nobody cried
If everyone loved and nobody lied
If everyone shared and swallowed their pride
We'd see the day when nobody died
I pulled over the top of a hill, and in front of me was the church billboard, the one that always bright lights spelling out a Bible verse and some "Jesus loves you" message. As I came over the hill, the billboard flashed big and orange letters: "DIED".

Weird. Thanks, but I knew that well, and I don't need reminding. I reached out and punched the button to turn my stereo from radio to CD player, and as a mix CD starting playing Dropkick Murphys, the billboard lights reorganized themselves: "FOR YOU". Every time I think of Clev, I remember that if a series of last minute decisions had gone differently it could be my ghost courting the visitors of some marbled estate. The CD player piped out the Dropkick cover of Green Fields of France:
Did they beat the drums slowly
Did the play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest

And I can't help but wonder, oh Willy Mcbride
Do all those who lie here know why they died
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause
Did you really believe that this war would end wars
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing and dying it was all done in vain
Oh Willy Mcbride, it all happened again
And again, and again, and again, and again
I was past the billboard before it flashed back to the beginning "Jesus", but I mumbled his name to myself as I flew by, the stereo completely off now. All I wanted was to get home, text my girlfriend to let her know I was home safe, pour a stiff shot of scotch, and forget the drive.

You can't make that shit up, but what can you do about it?

Thursday, March 06, 2008

FRAGO - 26 July 2007

On July 31 last year, Reuters ran a stub news item, noting the deaths of three more soldiers in the western al-Anbar province of Iraq. Several blogs picked up the story, questioning Reuters’ characterization of Anbar as an “insurgent stronghold”. In this case, the story revolved around one of the few remaining insurgent strongholds in Anbar, so Reuters got the story right.

As with so many news stories from this war, the stub condenses hours of tragedy, valor, and struggle into one brief five-sentence clip. Focused as it was on the human cost of the action, the short paragraph neglected the triumph of the men who lived and the fighting that ensured their survival.

This time, I was in the action, at least peripherally. I saw the day unfold- beginning with the fate of an American patrol, and becoming the moving of men and vehicles to provide rescue for stranded soldiers. The following is an account of the events of July 26th, in as full detail as regulation and my memory can provide. What portions of that day I was not present for, I have pieced together from radio traffic, from men, and from my past experiences of similar events.

I’ve had this story written for over seven months. I know that a couple of details are confused- I will address those and other concerns in another post to illustrate the difficulty in reporting on combat. While I was in Iraq this last month, I spent a week with Red Platoon, Apache Troop, 5/7 Cav - the men in this story. During my time with Apache, I was continually introduced with the postscript “He was with us on the 26th, you know.” I know some of those soldiers will read this blog, and I hope I did the story right by them.

Angels and Demons

Late afternoon north of Saqlawiyah, Iraq, on 26JUL2007


Long have they pass'd, faces and trenches and fields,
Where through the carnage I moved with a callous composure, or away
from the fallen,
Onward I sped at the time--but now of their forms at night,
I dream, I dream, I dream.

From "Old War Dreams"
Walt Whitman


It was one of those days when hell opens up and spills forth into the desert, the sun baking the last trace of water from the parched dust and fueling the devils that whirl across the ground, throwing up columns of ocher talc. The sky was hazy with brown and tan- the breeze felt like a hair drier infused with gritty dust. I sat outside the tent, enjoying an afternoon smoke with one of my friends and trying to ignore the dust mingling with my quickly drying sweat. We were interrupted by my squad leader: running from another tent, he stopped long enough to tell me “Grab your shit and run to the truck. We just picked up a mission.” before he ran on to gather others.

We routinely tolerate mission changes in the hours leading up to our departures- usually simple additions or deletions of roads, or corrections on times. This time, the change was a rare one, full of foreboding. Our instructions were to “spin up” as fast as possible, link up with our security team, and find the vehicle and personnel recovery team that would accompany us. We started hearing words and phrases like “multiple IEDs”, “multiple KIA”, and “too hot for MEDIVAC”. Today’s mission change meant that someone, somewhere, was in deep trouble, and we were the ones going out to bring them home.

It was a kind of change that we have only had once before; the last time, the change led to the worst day of our lives.

The patrol departed from a dusty patrol base near Falluja called OP Vikings. Their destination was a small village to the northeast. To get there, they planned to take a 25km+ circuitous route along relatively quite roads through the open desert rather than the 10km straight shot along Route Angels, a narrow, dangerous canal road.

The American unit that owned the area was Apache Troop of the 5/7 Cav- men we had worked with extensively to both south and west of Falluja. We knew the area well, and had spent a fair bit of time on both Angels and the surrounding roads. IEDs were extremely common and unusually large on Angels, a fact which had prompted the decision to use a more secure northern route.

Every patrol that rolls outside the wire in Iraq takes a chance against the reaper. No matter how calm a road has been, no matter how quiet the area, there is always the chance that someone is waiting just out of sight- waiting to kill you. Every trip is a roll of the dice; every mission is another chance to die. On the 26th of July, those dice were rolled once more. This time, they came up snakes eyes. Game over.

The first bomb lay buried beneath the powdery soil- over one hundred pounds of high explosive. The bomb was hooked to a strand of thin, lacquered copper wire, the sort Americans would find wrapped around the spindle of any household electric motor. The Bradley crew never saw the wire running into the distance towards the insurgent hovered over the trigger. The first hint of trouble on this previously quiet road was a clap of thunder and a flash through the cloud of rapidly enveloping dust. The 30-ton Bradley lurched as though punched, and jerked to the side, suddenly still.

The patrol cheated fate around the next bend- dismounted soldiers walking alongside the road found command wire and disabled another bomb just before the vehicles passed over it. Following the road around and across a canal bridge, they came within sight of their objective: that dangerous straight-shot of a road, and the village that spread around the intersection.

The third bomb exploded with thunderous force. Over two hundred pounds of explosive power burst out of the dusty ground, directly beneath a Humvee. By comparison, the Haditha blast that tore a Humvee in half, killing a Marine and allegedly sparking a massacre was accomplished by a bomb containing only sixty pounds of explosive. The Humvee, and the soldiers inside, never stood a chance. Superheated, expanding gases and hundreds of pounds of rock and soil rushed just behind the tearing shock wave, straight through the flat, vulnerable bottom of the Humvee and out into a billowing cloud of dust and smoke.

The shock wave flattened out across the ground, kicking dust into the air. Out of the cloud came the stuff of nightmare for every man who goes to war: scraps of vehicle and worse- the crew. Soldiers consider such massive bombs to be mercifully quick- the general consensus is that your mind wouldn’t even have a chance to register the event before the world went black. That thought doesn’t make the aftermath any easier for the survivors. Troops from different units share stories about such events in clipped, clinical phrases that divorce the conversation from the harsh reality. We call them “catastrophic”- the nature of the destruction in a “CAT-kill” is such that it is a miracle for anyone to survive. Amazingly enough, sometimes people do survive. That day, though, there was no miracle. The Humvee was completely destroyed, and the crew died instantly. Their tragic deaths would spark one of the largest firefights of the summer in Falluja.

The insurgents had set the stage for a major battle- they had clearly meant for events to proceed roughly as they had on the northern road, and they knew that we would have no choice but to come to the aid of our fallen companions. The shorter, southern road was heavily mined as well- a fact that the first recovery effort would soon discover. Firefights began to kick up around the sites of the IED strikes- the enemy was obviously itching for a fight.

We sat and waited at the dusty patrol base that the ill-fated patrol had called home and waited for direction from the ground commander. The sun loomed lower in the dusty sky, and the radio continued to crackle with traffic- the harried reports of Marines under fire, and the cool replies of the helicopter pilots, mixing with IED reports and updates on the situation. An Explosives Ordnance Disposal bomb-hunting team was sweeping the short southern road towards the immobilized patrol. The EOD team lost one Humvee, then another: blown up and disabled by more IEDs. Miraculously, there were no casualties.

A second EOD team began a slow and methodical advance towards the first EOD team and the stricken patrol beyond- they too were hit by an IED, again without casualties.

Ground fire was a constant threat. Once, twice, and again and again the gunners marked houses with fire as targets for the machine guns and rockets of the circling helicopters. The entire area between the two roads was designated as a “Free Fire” zone, meaning that any military-aged male out and moving could be considered an enemy and fired upon.

Back out in the dusty fields to the north, the danger of a "Blackhawk Down" scenario grew. A black Opal pulled out into the field to the west: the occupants began shooting at the troops on the ground, and then fired an RPG at the responding helicopter. The grey warbirds riddled the car and its passengers with bullets. A crowd of civilians formed in the field, possibly hostile, possibly merely trying to help a moaning survivor of the helicopter attack. The helicopter gunners saw no weapons amongst the crowd, and so they held their fire despite their “Free Fire” order.

As EOD continued to struggle towards the ongoing fighting, the Apache Troop command back at Vikings sent out a vehicle recovery team to bring the damaged vehicles back in to base. The recovery team had traced the path of the ill-fated patrol to the location of the first attack, and had dragged the Bradley out of the road over next to a small mud hut.

The soldier in charge of the recovery effort had asked for a lowboy trailer to be sent out the Bradley, intending to load the damaged vehicle up on the trailer and send it back to base. Miles from the fighting, a staff officer decided that the lowboy was unnecessary and the vehicle onsite would suffice to tow the Bradley home. Normally, it would have been enough, but then again, a Bradley normally has tracks. The explosion had torn out the shock absorbers holding the heavy track and pushed the engine through the top of the vehicle: the Bradley could only be dragged or carried.

The sky had grown dusky around a sliver of moon before we turned onto the last road that would close the last few kilometers between us and the downed vehicles. We took the same circuitous route they had driven, trying to avoid the possibility of even more IEDs delaying the recovery further. We slowly wound along the dirt roads, and finally came upon the turn where the Bradley had been hit. We found it still sitting there beside the hut, drunkenly slewed to one side and beyond the ability of the recovery team to retrieve.

Pushed up against one wall of the ramshackle building were bound, blindfolded men; eleven or twelve in total. They had been picked up in sweeps through fields and houses after the attacks, and had been moved back to be guarded by the soldiers standing watch over the damaged Bradley. Only a few of the soldiers that guarded them were still battle-ready; more than half were sprawled on the ground in some stage of undress. Most were not wearing body armor, and they were all low on ammo. They were also out of water; which was the reason for their seemingly dangerous lapse in discipline. Some were dangerously dehydrated.

In the end, the heat caused more casualties that day that the enemy did- thirteen soldiers were treated as heat casualties. Several suffered from serious heat injuries such as heatstroke. Two soldiers nearly died from the heat. We did the best we could for the soldiers as we passed; we handed out one half-liter IV bag per man, and twenty or thirty warm water bottles from the back of a Marine Gator in the security element.

Just down the road, we spent a few moments longer eliminating the bomb that had been disabled much earlier that day. A few hundred meters further down the road, we reached the site of the deadly attack.

When the recovery team had found they were unable to recover the Bradley with the equipment on hand, they had proceeded down the road to the site of the second attack. We found them parked in the darkness next to a small pile of shredded Humvee parts, out of smokes and water, and almost out of ammo. The soldier in charge of the recovery team was at the verge of tears and asking for a cigarette. He had spent the evening gathering together the fragments of the Humvee and trying not to get shot for his trouble. He pointed out some of the head-high bullet pocks in the armor of his vehicle; we gave him cigarettes and sympathized with him over his grueling day. We parked near him in a field and waited for the vehicle and personnel recovery team attached to us to do their work.

Marines load the engine of the destroyed Humvee onto a flatbed

It was growing close to dawn before our recovery team was ready to move with the remains of the Humvee and crew. We pulled out of the field we had parked in and began the slow trip home. One of the last things I saw before we cleared the area was the recovery operator still working on the Bradley, trying to find some way to drag it home before the dawn brought the chance of renewed assault from the dusty fields.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Across the Ocean

I put my head down/and I dreamt you were here
With me by the ol' tree/where no one could care

Far Away Boys, Far Away Boys/Away from ya now
I'm lyin' with my sweetheart/In her arms I'll be found

"Well, you don't smell *too* bad..." she said as I met here at the top of the airport stairs.

I should be fair. Somewhere in the haze of wandering around Baghdad or Kuwait, or in the long hours between, I had told her that I'd come home smelling like Iraq. It really is quite a process to get in and out of the country- made slightly easier for me because I flew Gryphon Airlines from Kuwait to Baghdad, thereby avoiding several days of sitting around at Ali al Saleem Air Force Base in Kuwait.

I took a helicopter out of my last temporary home at Patrol Base Stone in Hawr Rajab. I had to leave a day and a half before my flight, just to guard against delays. It was raining when I left. Rain in Iraq always turns the dust to muddy clay, the kind that makes you taller the longer you walk. In Baghdad, the water pooled around the ancient and decaying transient tents. The tents date back to almost the beginning of the war- the knee-high sandbag walls around them are disintegrating and falling into the lakes of water that seep under the edges. The original fabric of the tents is obscured by multiple layers of tarps cast over the top to seal leaks.

The Gryphon plane took off a few hours after dark. I settled myself into a window seat behind the wing, and turned my attention outwards. We flew over the dusky bends of the Euphrates reflecting the pale moon, and on south over Highway 8, still crowded with Shi'ite pilgrims walking southwards. I recognized the lights of one of the FOBs just south of Baghdad, and that made it easy to pick out Hawr Rajab. I waved goodbye to Angry Troop, 6/8 Cav, and looked ahead for Sayafiyah and 5/7 Cav. I saw the lights of Sayafiyah and al-Sur just as I saw a giant bonfire in the middle of a black patch below. PB Stone must be burning trash again. I saw a brief, bright flicker of light- so far away in a sealed airplane, I couldn't hear or feel the explosion.

We flew over empty darkness and over the pyres of oil fields at work, then on out over the tankers docked in the Gulf, and into the bright lights of Kuwait City. We had some delays and confusion in Kuwait in the process of facilitating Operation Puppy Love III, but I made the plane.
Now I'm home again, and in the process of writing out stories, labeling and organizing pictures, and eating good food.

I miss it still, and right now I miss it a little more than before, but I'm in no hurry to go back again. I've got my sweetheart, and I don't smell too bad.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sons of Iraq: Recruiting and Employing

Originally posted at The Long War Journal


Apache 5/7 Cav soldiers screen prospective SOI members in Sayafiyah, Iraq

As Coalition forces in Iraq have moved to a doctrine centered more on counterinsurgency and begun to engage the sheikhs, the military has relied more and more on security forces supplied by local sheikhs to point out bad guys, weapon caches, and IEDs. In Arab Jabour, those forces are called Sons of Iraq.

Sayifiyah, in southern Arab Jabour, had local villagers trying to start a Sons of Iraq program before US forces even reached their village.

Al Qaeda in Iraq has long been the only power in much of Arab Jabour, and the people of Sayafiyah were fed up. At the start of January, a group of sheikhs from the area traveled to meet Colonel Ferrel, the commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division to ask for help in their village. They talked about the many things that they needed, and about their desire to use Sons of Iraq to secure their village. Colonel Ferrel asked for a volunteer from among the sheikhs to head the Sons of Iraq when he reached their village. The sheikhs looked at each other indecisively, until Sheikh Sayeed (a pseudonym, used for his protection), dressed like an al Qaeda in Iraq fighter, volunteered. Colonel Ferrel looked at him and said, “OK. You’d better be ready, because if my guys get there and get shot at, I’m coming after you!”

American troops from the 6th Squadron, 8th Cavalry Regiment pushed into southern Arab Jabour days later, establishing a foothold at what would become Patrol Base Meade. The 5th Squadron of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division transferred over from Fallujah and took charge of the sector on Jan.14. After sporadic fighting in other villages, the 5/7 Cavalry reached Sayafiyah on Jan. 21. Just as Sheikh Sayeed had promised, they were greeted with open arms. Leaders sat down to lunch in the home of one of the village sheikhs and were identifying community needs nearly immediately. The process of rebuilding had begun. All civic projects require security first and foremost, so the first priority of the 5/7 was to establish local security with the help of brand-new Sons of Iraq.

Captain Anders, the soldier in charge of the Sons of Iraq screening process in Sayifiyah, described what he was doing as “building the Iraqi security forces from the ground up. It’s a good way to go, because they usually serve for a while without a gun, then we get them in here to badge and BAT them, and then later they’ll move into the ISF.”

BAT stands for Biometrics Automated Testset. It is a computerized system that checks the fingerprints and iris scans of a prospective Sons of Iraq member against a database of former detainees, known terrorists, and former badge holders of any stripe -- local interpreters, media, laborers, and so forth. If the individual passes the scan, he is photographed and issued a badge and an orange reflective vest. The local sheikh contracted to supply men for Sons of Iraq will supply a weapon and ammunition if the new man doesn’t have his own.

Some applicants don’t even make it to the BAT/badge station. Sheikh Sayeed was on hand to assist in the early days of the process and spotted men trying to get in line. He helped the Americans detain four al Qaeda in Iraq fighters the first day. Once in a while, a high-value target will pop up in the scans. Such was the case at a recruiting station in Hwar Rajab in northern Arab Jabour. A member of an al Qaeda anti-aircraft cell tried to join the Sons of Iraq, was identified during the testing, and was detained by the recruitment team.

During the badging process, former Iraqi Army officers and noncommissioned officers are identified and flagged as possible future leaders in either the Sons of Iraq or the Iraqi security forces structure that will incorporate some members of the Sons of Iraq. Boys and old men who lie outside of the 18-48-year age range of Sons of Iraq are thanked for coming and put on a list of prospectives for later civic projects. As the area where a Sons of Iraq group operates becomes more secure, active members will be drawn off for civic projects as well. Those who can read and write will be encouraged to apply to join one of the Iraqi security forces.

All that lies in the future for Sayifiyah, though. The area was cleared by US forces only a few weeks ago, and its Sons of Iraq is in the beginning stages. The initial contract of 1,100 men has just been filled, and the team that screened them is preparing to move to a training and enabling role. There will be no weapons training from the US advisers, but the Sons of Iraq will be trained in other areas in which they lack needed skills.

One of the newly minted Sons of Iraq told me through an interpreter: “You should turn the picture upside down. Rather than talk about what we are doing here, you should tell the people about the hell we live through.” He went on to talk about the lack of electricity, clean water, and basic services. His comments are valid and urgent complaints, and they will be answered to some degree in the next coming dispatch: Reconstruction.


SoI-slideshow-image-thumb.jpg

Slideshow of Sons of Iraq recruiting in Sayafiyah. Click image to view.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Crazy Troop

Today’s informant used to be an insurgent. Today, his name is Hassam. It’s been quite a while, though, since Hassam fought as an insurgent. The circumstances surrounding his conversion are a bit murky- his brother was killed by insurgents for reasons unknown, at which point all the males in his family began to support and work for Coalition Forces. Now, he is praised as one of the best informants around. The cynic might suppose that he is only working with the Americans to save his own skin because of his past. Those cynics could certainly be right- however; this informant is still on the job today despite a credible threat from one of the few remaining terrorist cells in the area to send a suicide bomber to kill him.

One of the reasons Hassam is so good is his ability to form relationships with other Iraqis who have abandoned the insurgency. His network of informants is broad, almost as broad as that of his American “handlers”. It is actually one of his sub sources, an 18-year old named Omar, that has volunteered to lead Crazy troop, 5/7 Cav, to a cache today. It’s a little misleading to say he “volunteered”- Hassam identified him as associated with al-Qaeda in Iraq and got his phone number; an American intelligence officer then called Omar and informed him that his choices were turning over caches he had helped to bury, or living in the Camp Bucca detention facility. Omar chose to come.

The cache site in a plum orchard

Yesterday, one of Hassam’s informants led Crazy troop directly to a 500gal water tank, buried in the middle of an orchard and filled partway with weapon parts and grenades. He said that tank was the only one he knew the exact location of, but that he knew there were several more in the immediate vicinity. Faced with the prospect of long hours ahead, Crazy posted a guard and retired for the night. Omar supposedly knew the locations of more buried tanks.

Buried water tank

Crazy was eager to find the rest of the cache for several reasons. One, of course, was unit pride. Bandit troop had just found a huge cache, and competition certainly exists between troops. Another, more important reason, was that in the days prior, Crazy had found several mounts for heavy machine guns. Yesterday, the buried water tank had included the bolt to another machine gun as well as ammunition. Those buried guns needed to be found before they were used on US forces.

These RKG-3 Russian anti-armor hand grenades were in the water tank

Today would not be Crazy’s lucky day. Omar lead the troop on a field run; through the orchard where the first tank had been, across a field, through a deep ditch and into another orchard on the other side. There, he pointed out a computer and an empty hole. The computer’s hard drive was gone, and the case was burned. The hole had probably contained something at some point, but if it had, the contents were long gone. Fighters in al-Qaeda are often trained in counter-interrogation techniques, and Omar was practicing a classic example. Lead your interrogator to something that doesn’t help him at all, and hope it’s enough to get him off your back.

SSG Vaughn helps a Crazy troop soldier out of a ditch while searching for caches

While Crazy stood around and started contemplating the possibility of having to dig up the entire orchard, Hassam had a chat with Omar. There was no violence- just a lot of raised voices and a swift kick to the buttocks when Hassam dismissed him. Omar would receive another call that night informing him of his last chance to avoid Camp Bucca. Meanwhile, Crazy began to dig.

Crazy troop soldiers check a discarded artillery shell canister


An explosives detection dog hit on a section of dirt in between trees in the orchard, but a quick dig failed to turn up anything. As more dirt came out of the growing hole, one soldier remarked “Every time this shovel comes up empty, I just want to punch that little jihadi in the face.” “I just want to hold him over that ditch he ran us through and shake him. He’s lost the war- why is he still fighting it?” said another.


Crazy troop dug like this for hours across the orchard

Maybe Omar is afraid. He had seemed ready to co-operate the night before- perhaps he had been threatened just as Hassam had. On the other hand, perhaps he was really a hardcore al-Qaeda fighter. The answer didn’t mean anything to Crazy troop, who would spend the rest of the day digging up the orchard with the prospect of more days in the orchard looming in the future.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Speaking of Pictures...

This is easily my favorite shot from the trip so far:


These fathers are waiting in line to bring their children to see the doctor in Sayafiyah, Iraq. The entire area was under al-Qaeda control until just recently, and the only medicine available was on the black market and difficult to obtain.

Look for other shots in this series soon at The Long War Journal.

A Brief Spot of History

As the last few posts have illustrated, units in recently cleared areas devote a significant amount of time to finding and clearing weapons caches left by dead or retreating fighters. Most of the time, cache sweeps come up empty or find standard AK47s or explosives. Every once in a while, cache sweeps turn up something remarkable. While I was deployed to Ramadi, Bravo company discovered a cache that included a M2 .50cal Machine Gun that the unit we replaced had lost when an IED blew apart the RG31 that carried it. Recently, troops from 5/7 Cav (Bandit troop, coincidently), had a rare find of a different sort.

CPT Owens, the commander of Bandit troop, holds the Mauser his men found

Bandit troop found this WWII German K98 Mauser in excellent condition in a cache in Falahat, at the south end of Arab Jabour.

Swastikas and serial number on the receiver

Every serial number on the weapon matches- even the stock is original and in good shape. The swastikas are still visible on the reciever. The manufacturer's stamp is worn, but still visible on top of the reciever.

Manufacturing date and stamp

Monday, February 18, 2008

Bandit White

My morning with Bandit troop started with White platoon and a meeting with a sheik. Sheik Nahmed is the leader of Minari village in south-central Arab Jabour. He is a regular visitor to the front gate of PB Meade as he looks for work for his men. Today, he has come to sign a contract to pick up trash along one of the main roads through the area. When the project is in full swing, it will employ 100 men, and pay $7.50 a day- about the same as membership in one of the developing Sons of Iraq “neighborhood watch” programs.
Sheik Nahmed

With the contract signed, we were off for the main mission of the day: digging up, or “exploiting” a cache that Bandit troop discovered the day prior. 1LT Lenon and his men had reached the site the night before- they uncovered enough in fleeting daylight to confirm the presence of arms and ammunition, and posted a guard over the site for the night. The initial search had turned up a recoilless rifle- about 8 feet of steel all told, and Bandit troop anticipated more heavy digging, so we went first in search of a power shovel.


This is one of the newest MRAPs. These trucks are huge.

There were no engineer assets at PB Meade, so we headed west to a small OP manned by Iraqi Army soldiers and a few American troops. There were several bulldozers, a crane, and a large power shovel at the OP- the only problem was that the shovel operator had the day off, and had left with the keys. Several White platoon soldiers offered to hotwire the shovel and figure out how to operate it, bringing to mind a spectacle LT Lenon described as “A bull in a china shop… that shovel jerking around, and rounds flying everywhere”. We left the OP to head back the direction we had come to start digging up the cache by hand, while LT Lenon called up to the Bandit troop operations center to tell them about the setback. Bandit called back- we were to wait at the OP while they called around for a shovel operator.

1LT Lenon waits for direction

LT Lenon sighed and said “They’re just going to call up to Squadron, who will call over here, and the guys here will tell them what we already know- there’s no one around who can operate the thing, and we’ll just waste more time.” Sure enough, Bandit called back down a few minutes later to tell us that no one could operate the shovel and that if we moved out now, we would have no engineer support. LT Lenon replied “Roger… I understand that if I leave with no digging equipment, I will nothing to dig with at the cache site.” The driver of the MRAP turned around and said to me: “You getting this? Make sure to tell people how much sense the Army makes.”

At the cache site

We drove ten minutes down the road to the cache site; 5 small hills with old cement bunkers crumbling on top of them. Last night, White platoon had dug up the side of one of the hills, exposing a large caliber recoilless rifle and a large caliber round. Their intent was to spend the day running over the rest of the hills with metal detectors, and digging up anything else buried there.

SPC Self sweeping for caches

By mid-day, White platoon had satisfied themselves that the recoilless rifle and two rounds were all that remained of the cache. The rest had already been taken, or had never existed in the first place. White platoon packed up to return to base- on the way home, they dropped me off to spend the rest of the day with Red platoon.

SSG Garstka checking a metal detector "hit"

Bandit Red

I caught up with Bandit troop’s Red platoon on a dusty road within sight of PB Meade. They were on mission to search through the fields and canals surrounding the site of a huge cache, and had been diverted to check out a report from an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle team of men digging in a field.
SGT Rose and Iron search for buried weapons

The report sounded promising enough- 4-5 men digging near the road until a bongo truck (the distinctive middle-eastern version of the pickup truck) pulled up, at which point the men started unloading items into the hole. It *sounds* like IED planting or cache digging, but my experience with UAV intel has been poor enough to leave me a cynic. I made a gentleman’s bet with the gunner that the search would turn up nothing. The dismount team found farmers working in the fields. Score one for cynicism.Red platoon soldiers set fire to a canal

Red platoon’s plan for the day was to light the reeds lining the canals in their search areas on fire, search the fields nearby while the canals burned, and return to check the canals after the flames turned the concealing reeds to ash. The danger in burning canals is that loose ammunition tends to explode like popcorn, and there is always the chance of an artillery shell “cooking off” in the fire. It is best to stay far away as long as the fire burns.

A Red platoon soldier runs from an explosion

The area where Red platoon was searching had come to Bandit troop’s attention a few days prior; White platoon had been patrolling nearby when they saw an explosion out in a field. They investigated, and found a trench cut in the earth with two men inside. They chased the men across the fields, catching one, at which point he confessed to being an al-Qaeda fighter conducting a sort of IED attack training. He proceeded to turn over his companion and lead White platoonto a series of large caches scattered across a few hundred m eters of farmland. Rockets, artillery shells, ammunition, RPGs, over 200 anti-personal land mines and more all came out of the earth.1LT Walker stands over the IED training trench

Searching for caches is as much art as science- “needle in a haystack” is an oft-used phrase. Human intelligence- the informants that soldiers call “bird dogs” is an important tool to use in the search. Shepherd boys and farmers are often just as important as AQI fighters and facilitators that can be convinced to give up information, because it is often their fields that have been turned into caches and fighting positions.

SSG Cruse comes up out of the reeds with a 155mm artillery shell

In Arab Jabour, though, many of the locals fled or were forced out by AQI, and are only now returning to their homes. As security improves and refugees trickle home, they often return to homes once used by AQI. They call in the war supplies left in their houses- as for what is buried in the fields; the search often turns into a treasure hunt like the one Red platoon was sent on today.
SSG Cruse feels out a homemade RPG launcher.
This one had a round explode in it when the fires passed over.

Just a few days before I went out with Bandit troop, a local farmer had approached them with the names of two men whom he claimed had been involved in Al Qaeda in Iraq. Bandit troop went out to question the men- cousins, as it turned out. Both men lead led Bandit to cache sites; both were detained after admitting they had helped dig the caches. 1LT Walker and his interpreter talk to a local shepherd

After being detained, one of the men told Bandit troop: “You don’t want me; my brother is the really bad one”. His mother came out waving a white flag to say goodbye to him, and substantiated what he had said about his brother. The next day, she returned- with her second son. She sat him down in front of the Americans and told him to talk or he would get worse than what his brother had gotten. The second brother, the “bad one”, would go on to help Bandit troop find yet another giant cache. This is just a simple story, but it substantiates a point about Iraqi culture that bears repeating: the men hold all the visible power, but winning over the women is extremely important to succeeding at counterinsurgency.


SSG Cruse calls EOD to report the day's finds

Saturday, February 16, 2008

First Article Up:

The first of several planned articles has been posted over at The Long War Journal. Here's a teaser:

Colonel Ferrel asked for a volunteer from among the sheikhs to head the Sons of Iraq when he reached their village. The sheikhs looked at each other indecisively, until Sheikh Sayeed (a pseudonym, used for his protection), dressed like an al Qaeda in Iraq fighter, volunteered. Colonel Ferrel looked at him and said, “OK. You’d better be ready, because if my guys get there and get shot at, I’m coming after you!”


Some new pictures up in a slideshow over at LWJ as well. Check it out.
I'm leaving PB Meade shortly and moving back to FOB Kalsu for a day or two, so I should have some decent internet soon. Look forward to more pictures and some patrol stories here on the blog, as well as a treat for the gun nuts out there.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Settling In

The wait in the Green Zone wasn’t short, but it was just short enough to forestall a meeting with the author of LT Nixon Rants. Too bad- I’ll have to try again on the trip back. I caught a Blackhawk helicopter ride from the Green Zone south to FOB Kalsu- home to the 2nd and 4th Brigades of the 3rd Infantry division. The 2nd Brigade, my hosts for this stage of the trip, is famous for leading the “Thunder Run” to Baghdad in the initial invasion.

On the flight down to Kalsu, I made friends with a civilian electronics tech. He had a day or so in between places he had to go for his job, so he was flying down to Kalsu to play high-stakes poker with his cousin stationed there. Was it a waste of government resources? I suppose you could look at it that way, but he had nowhere else to be, and the helicopter was flying with or without him. I don’t understand the surprise some people claim at the idea that soldiers might be gambling (or participating in most any other vice, for that that matter). Soldiers are soldiers, and war doesn’t often change their amusements.

From FOB Kalsu, I jumped on a convoy headed east into Arab Jabour, finally arriving at Patrol Base Meade, an isolated outpost that headquarters the 5/7 Cavalry. We had worked with 5/7 Cav under the 1st Brigade of the 3rd Infantry before we left Falluja- after we left they were attached to 2nd Brigade and moved to Arab Jabour. The soldiers I’ve met at all stages of my trip here seem to kick their estimation of me up a couple of notches upon learning that I served in Iraq- 5/7 soldiers kick it up even more when they find out about my time in Pathfinder. One soldier recognized me from some time we spent living in Iraqi houses south of Falluja- I walked out of the tent last night to hear him telling other soldiers about it. I still feel good about what we accomplished there, and I’m glad to know the guys we worked for back in al-Anbar held us in such high regard.

PB Meade is a recently constructed base in the center of Arab Jabour. Actually, it is still in the process of construction- just days before I got here, there was no heat or electricity. Those are spotty at best, and when the heat goes out at night a bone-chilling cold descends. It’s not the coldest I’ve ever been- not by a long shot, but it’s still damned uncomfortable. Food comes in on trucks, and moves from PB Meade to a scattering of even smaller patrol bases about the area. These bases are a fundamental piece of the counter-insurgency doctrine that the military is now pursuing in Iraq- sometimes separated from neighborhoods by little more than a hasty earthen wall, they allow the troops stationed at each near instant access to the community.

Over the next few days, I’ll be doing a little bit less “blog” style posting, and more photos and story about the fight in Southern Arab Jabour- keep checking back, and I’ll get posts up once I’m back on reliable internet.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

One Year

We turn 101 years old today. As I write this, it is one year almost to the minute from the event that would age us all more than any other. It was a hard week for our battalion- we had just remembered CPL Steve Shannon, who had been killed the night of January 31st. Then this morning, a year ago, we lost 3 good men to the biggest bomb anyone in our Task Force would have the misfortune to encounter.

To Mel, Dave, Brandi, families of Ross, Jim and Ray- we remember. We could never forget.

To those that read this from 3rd PLT- I wish I could be with you today. I made the pilgrammage you will make in this coming morning on Memorial Day. I feel like it was better for me to make it alone, in the same way I found out about our loss. Still... I wish I was there.

I don't want this post today to be about me, what I write or what I feel. Take a moment to remember these men and their families, and all the others that have given up their lives in service to our country.

And once again:

For those who have made the ultimate sacrifice
And for those now on their final tour
Gentlemen: lift up your glasses for absent companions.

Rest in peace
SGT Holtom
SGT Clevenger
PFC Werner

Welcome Back

Welcome to Baghdad, ladies and gentlemen”, the pilot said. The attendant opened the hatch, and the scent of burning garbage reached through and tickled my nose. I was back in Iraq. I flew up on a Gryphon Airways plane, direct from the Kuwait City airport. That meant a few hours of waiting at the airport after leaving my hotel, rather than a day or two waiting at the main air force base for a military flight. I also got to fly on a normal passenger plane, instead of stuffed into the back of a hot, cramped C-130. I’ll take that trade any day.

I spent the next 4 hours waiting again- this time for the RINO, which is a big armored black bus. It looks like a prison wagon, and I can’t imagine it would fare much better in case of an IED. The route into the International Zone was along the infamous Route Irish- at one time listed as the most dangerous road in the world. Now, route clearance checks the road before the RINOs move along it. As we left the gate, I saw an RG pulling in, and I was suddenly homesick for the road, and for my old truck “Roadrunner”. Our RG took more abuse than ever intended- we blew the engine out of her twice, and blew the entire front end nearly off once. We replaced every single window in her at least twice. The guys before us blew off the back axle. That was a truck whose creaks and rattles I trusted utterly, unlike the RINO I took bumping down the road last night.

While I was waiting for the RINO to come, I spent a fair bit of time talking to a British Aegis Corp. contractor. Aegis is like the British version of Blackwater, without the allegations of shooting civilians. He was former British military; I mentioned that I had deployed to Iraq before, doing the ‘ol route clearance. He said “Oh, so you were the crazy nutters in those big trucks!”. Indeed we were. I was crazy enough to come back again. The Specialist with the press center that came to pick me up asked if I’d ever been to Iraq before; I explained a little of my history, and he asked if I’d brought my pipe along with me, because he wanted a hit. So there you go- not everyone feels that pull to come back. I bet he misses it a little after a few months home, though.

Monday, February 04, 2008

On the Road Again

I learned some things the last time I was in Iraq- I learned of courage, and brotherhood. I learned that there is no glory in war- there are few heroes, and many decent, ordinary men too stubborn to realize that their actions are irrational, dangerous, and, well… heroic. I learned of emotional agony and of empathy; I also learned how to be callous. I learned how to tell someone with your eyes that you would kill him if he didn’t cave. I lost some timidity, and gained self-respect. The war did not make me a man- rather; I learned through the war some essential elements of manhood.

There must be a name for this sickness, for this consuming malady that compels some few of us back into the conflict, back into the desert. It feels like a mild form of addiction- there’s the drive to get more of it, and the rush, and the memories. It comes without the wasting, without the needle marks (that’s a lie, actually- I have a wicked bruise in my elbow right now from blood tests), but it brings its own scars, flashbacks, and dementia. There’s something very existential about it- I am forever the sum of my experiences, after all, and time spent in austere environs, separated from my comfortable life and often in the heat of combat certainly qualifies as life experience.

I’m happy to be on my way back again. I thought travel into and out of Iraq was bad when I went with the Army… I think it might actually be worse as a civilian. I guess we’ll see if they completely lose me on the trip back, like they lost my entire company in Kuwait. See, the funny thing about that is that the units in Kuwait control travel for the theater, and I never quite understood how they could not know we were leaving. But I digress.

It didn’t take me long to pack for this trip; the hardest part was selecting some civilian clothes that would work well in Iraq. I dug my tactical gear from my deployment out of the boxes I had it stowed in- everything was just as I had remembered. My tan Nomex gloves were still crusted with my sweat and Iraqi dirt. My little Timex watch was still running still set to Iraq time. That watch has to embody the best $12 I ever spent. I packed all the tactical gear into my carryon backpack for the flight; forgetting to remove my Gerber from its holster when I threw that into my backpack. At the airport, it took TSA 3 times through the scanner to decide there was something in my bag that didn’t belong. The screener acted as though my bag was radioactive. She gingerly removed books and power cords, and struggled to comprehend the fastening straps on the butt pack that held the offending multitool. I offered to help, but I was sternly refused. When at last she uncovered the grey canvas cover, she stared at it as though it might explode- which it might, of course. Standing next to her, I wondered how many suicide bombers tried to trick their victims into detonating their bombs, and only martyred themselves because they stuck around to watch the fun. In her mind, the number must be in the dozens. I can’t wait to get back to Iraq, where I trust the competence of the people around me.

The trouble I had at the security checkpoint turned out to be for naught. My flight was delayed to the point that I would positively miss the connector to my flight across the Atlantic, so I rescheduled for the next flight out and called my girlfriend: “Hey babe… Want to say goodbye to me again?” I’m sure it’s a little cruel to shift someone so quickly between tears and laughter, but I needed a ride home. My bag went on without me to my final point of departure from the United States- hopefully it will make it to the Middle East along with me, or I might get to soak up more Kuwaiti sand than I really want to.

Once I get to Kuwait, I will likely be unable to update for some time. I’m told that the damaged cables the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf have brought internet access in the region to a virtual (heh heh) standstill. In the meantime, spread the word that Teflon Don is back in the suck and blogging again.