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

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.