The Last Boots on the Ground

***Warning: Some graphic language and content

“In a way, a part of me is still out there in that desert, trying to make sense of it all.”

CH1 – From my Land to Yours, and Then to Theirs

The story of my military training began for me in what Canadians refer to as ‘grade 8’, whereas Americans would say ‘the 8th grade’. In 1998 I was recruited by a classmate, who was the son of the captain of the 72nd Seaforth Highlanders, of the Royal Canadian Army Cadets Corps, in Vancouver, British Columbia. I was trained to use both old technology and new. I was taught how to lay, crawl, march, walk, talk, yell, and run like a soldier, and learned Marksmanship with .22 caliber rifles.

Colors of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada whose motto reads, “Cudich N Righ”, which means “Help the King”.

On February 9th, 2010, I enlisted with the Army National Guard of Washington as a 91 Bravo or Wheeled Vehicle Mechanic. In Basic training I was the Soldier of the Cycle. In AIT I was one of four Honor Grads. When I got back to Washington after my training, I wondered why I’d done all of that training to just sit around and do one weekend per month. So I volunteered for a deployment with two states whose units had been selected. In June of 2011 the Oklahoma Interstate Transfer Office of the Army National Guard called me and asked me if I’d deploy to Afghanistan. I said yes.

I transferred to a support unit for the 1st Squadron of the 180th Cavalry Regiment, under the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, out of Durant Oklahoma. On July 15th I would go to Camp Shelby, Mississippi for two weeks to train in what is called a Pre-Mobilization training. Usually, units go through 2 months of this training if not longer, but the 45th had already left, and I was catching up. It was at that time that The Anthrax Vaccine Incident occurred.

45th ID golden eagle symbol was an appropriation of the Nazi swastika symbol. 45th ID troops, during WW2, were rumored to have painted over the Nazi swastika with their symbol of the eagle, which has its roots in native tradition.

Due to our unit assisting in two combat zones, some of our orders got changed at the last minute, to Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. On July 27th I traveled for 73 hours to and through Kuwait. It was the longest and most arduous single journey I’ve so far been on, in my entire life, and I hope to never do such a thing again. I went with a sergeant from California who previously was in the Marines. I recall the flight over was fun, because I got to see the lights of the east coast USA at night from my northside plane window seat. They stretched from what appeared to be Philadelphia, all the way to the Atlantic. It was an endless sea of suburbs and cityscapes, with pockets of light in Canada to the north.

Germany was fun, because I pretended the houses were made of gingerbread. The flight crew, with their orange jumpsuits and big earmuffs, looked like the lollypop guild come to greet us to munchkin land. The gift shop they bussed us to was in a location of the airport specifically designed for processing soldiers. There were massages, meals, deals, German mementos like a 350-dollar stein (giant fashioned cup with overelaborate designs). Soldiers always have money, and they always have someone ready to take it.

Then we were on the plane to Kuwait. When I stepped off the plane it felt like a high-speed hot blow dryer was hitting me in the face. As I carried my huge bags across the tarmac, I thought for sure the plane’s engines must have been giving off that heat, and that it would pass. As I passed the wings I was shocked that it was actually the wind in that country! A bunch of foreign workers, which comprise 60 percent of Kuwait and amount to a slave labor force, sat on the runway waiting to unload our plane. I tried engaging them in Arabic, but they didn’t seem to understand. I later found out most of those workers come from south-eastern Asia, and work for little money in destitute conditions, to send money back home to their families.

We eventually got bussed for an hour or so to where US Navy Customs and special ops soldiers process people into and out of the combat zone. They documented, tagged, finger-printed, eye scanned and took images of my face. They put me into the same database they said they put all detainees and people they interrogate. I was too tired at the time, to think about why they may have done that. I went for a bunk, finally having been processed in. I had drunk plenty of water, but my body was in rough shape. I had a fever and felt delirious.

I hit my bunk sleeping. I had one of the strangest dreams I’d ever had. I woke up three hours later when it seemed the fever broke, and I went out to find my sergeant friend where he said he would be. Surprisingly, he was where he said he’d be. This is far less common than you may think.

After much waiting around I was off to the South, on a little bus. A sergeant with the security team came on looking for a shooter. “Sergeant is a shooter,” I said, but my battle buddy looked at me sleepily, preparing for a nap. The other SGT saw all of this and quickly said, “Are you volunteering son?” I said “Yep,” and asked for a second magazine. Then I asked if I was allowed to shoot out the windows of the bus. He said to do so if needed so then I understood. A lady captain thanked me, and I told her to rest assured that I wouldn’t be passing out on guard duty.

I remember every vivid detail. Scenes from training sprung to mind, as I saw piles of trash just left aside the road everywhere, sagging back ends of cars, colors and makes and models of suspicious vehicles, people’s faces, and a bridge. I momentarily looked around, but I focused on that bridge. There were several cars parked on it, with nobody inside them. No flashes from a scope. No snipers that day, and there wouldn’t be in Kuwait, but that bridge is burned in my mind, because at the time I had no idea what to expect. I was told by our Intelligence people that a resistance group existed in Kuwait, sometimes seen sporting a hand print of white paint on their Toyota trucks.

The military formulated little energy drink cans that we were told were only for missions. Travel was one of the times one could get their hands on such cans. A few hours later, I was still jacked up and observing every little detail. Lucky for us we had arrived at the most overrated military base in CentCom, Camp Arifjan. We had chow in the most glorious and clean chow hall we’d ever seen, right next to the new high speed officers’ racks. Then our luck ran out. We had to spend some time tracking down the unit we were supposed to be with. We finally found somebody who told us that somebody would be along who could talk to us. So after waiting an hour or two somebody told us the unit we sought wasn’t at Camp Arifjan. We were to go report to Camp Buehring instead, on the opposite side of the country.

So after about 60 hours of travel and only 3 hours of fevered sleep I had to go wait for the afternoon bus, which showed up a couple of hours later. It took us for over 6 hours, all the way to the north border of the country, where burn pits awaited my nostrils. I would not learn about the pits until years later, when I would be informed by the Environmental Exposure Clinic at the Veterans Administration, that Camp Buehring ran burn pits, and that I had enough to make a claim for exposure.

When I finally arrived on my 73rd hour I put down my huge bags, found my bunk, and passed out in it unmade. I woke up about 18 hours later, had an afternoon chow, and went back to sleep for another 18 hours. I had a chow, and went back to sleep for another 18 hours or so. When I woke up, they said they didn’t think I’d wake up at all!

So far, my battle buddy in transit had been top notch. It was a night and day difference between him and the folks I would call my unit for the next 10 months. “These guys are going to get me killed,” I thought, but I did my best to blend in. One sergeant came in to say hi to me. I said, “I’m from Washington,” and he said, “But I don’t hear any difference in your accent.” I just shrugged and he left after looking at me strange. I had picked up their accent in the two weeks before I’d arrived. It’s just one of the idiosyncrasies I have. I mimic accents. I suppose it could be because I watched a lot of comics that did voices, growing up, and wanted to be like them. I can do a great Christopher Walken and I start doing it whenever a person from New York is around me for any amount of time. I can distinguish between several dialects of Arabic.

On my first day awake again I went to a kickboxing class, and upon volunteering for the “welcome stretch,” I tore my groin so bad it took 3 months for me to walk properly again. At about that time, I fell off a bunk and landed on the pole of a foldout chair, and cracked a rib. It took yet another three months, to heal from that. Then the majority of my work began.

I helped to outfit 72 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles with 12 lights around their tops, alarm kits under their hood and inside of their cabins, and loaded them with 1 Driver Box each. Their navigation systems were upgraded to hook up with the satellite systems that would be needed for them to operate in the field of battle alongside an integrated force of multiple military branches and systems. FLIR cameras and videos screens were installed. Directional high-frequency energy weapons were mounted to their hoods, on the passenger side. Semi-annual and annual inspections were done to all of them. Then we spent 4 days driving across Iraq, and delivered them to what appeared to be some very suspicious looking forces in Mosul.

Smedley Butler wrote a book called War is a Racket, which answers the questions of who profits from war, and who pays the bills. How true that statement rings today, and war has not changed. In my time in the US military, I went through the motions of testing and utilizing weapons systems that went into development, use, redesign, and were replaced within a few short years. The armor got thicker, the underbelly became shaped to deflect blasts, and the limits of what an explosion could do to a vehicle was maxed out at Explosively Forced Projectiles- plates of metal placed into buckets of shrapnel and explosive powder, which has the ability to rip through armor and in exiting the pressurized environment, to kill people not hit by the blast. The pure force of the vortex leaving the exit-point is enough to destroy a person’s brain, as their body resists being pulled through the tiny hole.

Then those vehicles became unmanned and now we have Strikers and AI drone swarm systems, and want to get rid of the expense of using tanks. We used drones to track people on the ground and capture them to practice Advanced Interrogation, whose biometrics were uploaded to the sky from units on the ground, who used retina scanners and fingerprint readers to identify people who then were sometimes labelled as a deck of cards- a kill list. I know because I too was scanned into that machine, in a “class” during in-processing to Kuwait. We all were.

Common Iraqis were constantly put under the boot of our troops even if they weren’t doing anything wrong. The tribe leaders were offered money. Many refused. Death Squads of Shia were hired to kill Sunni tribes that did not want to join the US government’s new order. Then Sunni Death Squads were hired to kill Shia tribes who did the same. If you did not read any of this about the Iraq War, you did not read about the Iraq War.

CH2 –  Preparing for the Mission

I stayed ready. I practiced getting my mask on within 15 seconds, with wipe-down procedure and all. I was told not to bother responding to the siren drills. That was unnerving, because the voice telling us it was a drill, always came after the siren. Our unit had little to do for the first few months I was there, but then the activities began to increase.

Our dear leadership, a Major and a Colonel, were in Oklahoma a Police Chief and his underling, respectively. During civilian life, one of them was a really big jerk of a boss. During military life, the other one got his revenge. They were some of the rootin’est, tootin’est cowpoke you ever saw, with the big hats and the boots with the spurs. They were Armored Cavalry, and from a proud tradition of 45th Brigade Infantry soldiers. You cannot find a dumber, more loyal asshole on either side of the Mississippi, and I say that in an endearing way.

The Colonel, in all his wisdom, begged the base General to let his men do things no matter what it was. He signed up members of my team and others, to walk around the desert to find ordinance left over from the Persian Gulf. The radiation in those fields, may have messed up those men for life. I already did not realize our base was one which had Burn Pits, where dead bodies, trash, electronics, and even radiological material was dumped regularly and constantly.

In the late summer, my team went to Camp Arifjan, in the south of Kuwait. It took several hours to drive south past the Capitol. Arifjan was where large new barracks were being built for high level officers. We could see them towering above the entertainment complex nearby, being finished or perhaps they were done by then. The Chow Hall we ate at there, was the nicest we had ever seen anywhere. It was large, with lines so long, wrapping around corners, that one felt like they were in Disneyland. To not waste time, we walked past coolers before arriving at the serving counters, where friendly South-Eastern Asians would serve us our food with a smile. Arifjan seemed like such a safe base, which is probably why I did not suspect I would meet an Intelligence Agent of the enemy forces there.

I walked through the Mechanic’s yard one day there, and a man approached me smiling. I will never forget his face. He had a skin condition on his cheek. I think it happens when people have zits they scratch in their teenage years. The skin can become pockmarked. He had this on his right cheek. He asked me about myself, but peppered in questions about my mission, including where we were heading. I do not know why I told him we were driving north through Iraq. Perhaps it was because he seemed trustworthy, and I did not have any reason to believe he might use such information to harm us. I was so embarrassed about it; I could not bring myself to admit that I had done it.

One of the trainings we received was by a Counter-Intelligence Officer, who instructed us in the many ways we might spot a foreign adversary, posing as a friend. As the man described the nature of the deceit employed by the regular people employed by the enemy, my mind raced with thoughts of weeks before, when I had told the man about our mission at Arifjan. I quickly sketched down the man’s face, his mannerisms, what he asked me, and what I told him- well, almost. The Officer smiled when he saw my in-depth description of the person. He was impressed. I said, “Then he asked me where we were going.” He looked in my eyes and asked straight out, “Did you tell him?” Before I could think of how to get over my embarrassment, the word, “No,” came out of my mouth. I didn’t want anyone to know I’d told the enemy our plan, and I was afraid. I do not even know what I was afraid of. Perhaps I was afraid of not being the best. I did not want to seem unintelligent, but I really had no reason to lie. Yet I did not correct myself either.

After we all lined up and left in a glorious fashion, we drove through the border of Iraq. Surprisingly, somebody tried to blow us up at the border by setting up a roadside bomb. Apparently, it exploded on him, because we saw his body parts aside the road. It’s probably my fault, for saying something about our mission to the man at Arifjan. I regret that very much.

There were many other trainings and talks, but the most important was the one we got just before our mission in December that year. Our unit’s Intelligence Officer laid out the plan, which was to drive a convoy of 72 MRAP vehicles, having two drivers and a Driver’s Box each, clear across Iraq in four days. Just four gun trucks would be available to assist us in our mission. On our route we would drive from Camp Buehring, a few dozen miles to the southern Iraqi border, past places of antiquity to the Green Zone and on to Mosul. We would stop to sleep at three bases, and then fly home from the fourth. It would take four straight days. The mission was said to be of a lower risk, for one major reason. The Intelligence Officer told us that enemy militias had agreed to lessen their attacks, so that troops could leave Iraq and bring their equipment with them. By January 1st of 2012, all US troops were supposed to leave, due to an agreement. In mid-December, we brought a lot of equipment into Iraq and delivered it to the most suspicious people I’ve ever seen. Our troops were to be called the last boots on the ground.

CH 3 – The Mission

On the afternoon we set out- drivers, mechanics, fuelers and grunts- we had such jovial spirits. Waiting around for the gate to open, and to put bags in trucks, was a drag, but for once we were being used for what we trained for. For me, I was feeling prepared for what may come. I had a knife on my chest, and one on my lower leg, but I could not have been ready for what came. Nothing came. Everything passed us by on the road, as we moved to our drop-off point. In a way, a part of me is still out there in that desert, trying to make sense of it all.

We had crossed into Iraq, off the number 80 highway, and turned northwest on the number 1. As the day dragged into night, our convoy stretched over 8 miles on the road. We drove at night, with blackout lights and no regular lights. We kept a distance between vehicles that seemed to wax and wane in a pattern like an accordion. I was somewhere in the middle of the fleet, and had been thrusted into the position of driving the convoy commander, who was an interesting man that many could have misperceived, misjudged, or taken for granted. He had a regular face for a Lieutenant, with glasses that looked like they were handed out at CIA bootcamp. He acted very strangely, and I have for a long time wondered if he was trying to spook me, or if he himself were spooked. He told me that he felt he could duck under a potential blast, and he did that with every dirt mound and wall we passed, and we passed a lot of those. I knew such a blast would either do nothing or do severe damage, and I was not at all worried about that scenario in particular. I remember feeling extremely calm, in spite of the man’s obstructions to my careful practice of soldierly conduct. I said very few words, and simply took in all of my surroundings, trying to block him out while at the same time reassuring him that we would be alright. It was the first time I’d been allowed outside that cage they call society, and see a fraction of the real world and how it operates.

My navigator spent a lot of time discussing the potential for himself to die, and acting in ways that might improve his chances. I myself was always a fan of remaining calm, and reacting when necessary. I think the other officers messed with his head, because they spent time together on the evening before the mission, and I believe they embellished in ways to scare him and get him to act silly. If only our officers were interested in more than having a kick-ass time, they might realize such a practice could jeopardize the entire mission. I did not realize it at the time, but those men were going to jeopardize the mission more than any single other soldier there, and it would make for a really funny story.

After 10 years of war, Iraq was a ghost town, but we were far from the city as yet. Very few local people walked around the side of the road, and were mostly standing and staring at us. Some people spent time on rooftops and watched us pass. Nobody waved, to which I was not surprised. They were quite shocked to see us. I would have been as well, considering every convoy in the country was going the other way. As we progressed through winding and open, sandy stretches of endless dunes, the number of small, adobe-style houses along the highway began to increase. I could see what appeared to be shops in open-sided buildings, with tables and chairs being the main objects around. Long lines of trucks were parked along certain stretches of road. Few cars were present, parked or driving, but that increased as well, as we made our way to the halfway point between the border and Baghdad.

So no shit there we were, stretched out over 5-7 miles in the middle of a red zone on the side of the road that Intel had told us could be hot. We’d pulled over, and were all told to dismount, to take a piss. I thought that was dumb, and readied a bottle to pee in. The lieutenant beside me got out and left the door to our perfectly secured vehicle open. I watched the driver of the vehicle in front of me get out and go around his vehicle and he closed his door, but he wasn’t supposed to leave the truck. I had one ear to the wire, one ear to the ground. I had one eye on the bottle I was peeing in, and one eye on the open door. I was thinking about the potential for a single bullet round to enter that door, where it would bounce around inside the vehicle until it hit me, when I suddenly heard screaming on the headset.

Soldiers driving to my rear a mile or two, were screaming about hearing an “explosion.” Then the security team came on the line telling them to calm down, asking where they were located. Then the gun jockeys left everyone else unguarded and circle to the source of the complaint. They lit up lights everywhere, throwing flares and glowsticks, pointing guns at people on the ground, people on the roof, and yelling. Then it turned out a truck tire some trucker was changing had exploded. That seemed to be what the sound was. No evidence of an explosion was found. If we’d been attacked at that moment, we’d all be chump change, but of course our leaders had to gloat afterwards. Our mission was such a success for their careers; well at least for the ones that didn’t get caught up in legal trouble for fraternizing with young 89 Alpha girls (admin assistants), sexual harassment or otherwise.

As the convoy found its way to the first stop-over of the night, we came into a base by a gate. It took a while to maneuver all of our MRAP vehicles around their winding blocks of concrete, through the gate and into a reception area of sorts. I passed one of our vehicles to my left, which had gotten all the way into the base just to take out a quarter of the underside of his vehicle on a small concrete block. While I will admit the turn was precarious, not a single other soldier collided with a block. With one vehicle down, and not a single shot fired, we’d finished our first day of the mission. The sergeants disappeared to talk to the base commander, and the lower enlisted around me did what Specialists and Privates do in the military. We found our bunks, and we downed our gear, but I was restless. I had too many of those little cans of buzz juice they fed us. They were for missions only, and had a limit of one can per day, for good reason. I had two that day.

I wanted to see more, so I took a walk back to my truck. I oversaw two other mechanics encountering the downed vehicle. Red liquid spilled out from underneath. They asked me to look at it, and of course I had little-to-no idea what was going on. Charlie had a way of bragging, so of course he wanted to see me fail before stepping up. He said, “Welp,” and he licked the red liquid off his fingertip. “It’s cherry juice,” he proclaimed after rolling the sweet petrol over his tongue, and that meant the transmission fluid was leaking. It was red, and it was 80/90 weight. I would remember, because I kept the logs of all the fluids and chemicals in the maintenance bay. I was selected and trained as one of two Environmental Officers for my unit, but only to say we had them. In spite of that I did my job, but I wasn’t really a good mechanic. I had joined as a mechanic to learn a new skill, while these other guys were there because they were more-or-less all for some reason or another, born with a silver wrench in their mouths.

Charlie then made fun of me for not knowing something so obvious, and of course his platoon’s sergeant was there to join in on the conversation. He did not seem too concerned with the rivalry occurring, and we all gathered around him as he began to talk about the truck. He then paused, looking me up and down, motioning to the knife on my leg. He said, “Do you mean to use that against the enemy?” I quickly replied, “No sergeant, this blade is for barracks rapists,” and I paused to look him in the eye square, then said, “and assholes.” I honestly was not referring to him, but I wanted to be clear that I considered everyone a threat, including members of my own team. I had read about an Oklahoma soldier who turned in haste and killed four of his own guys with a .50 cal., before realizing he was not shooting the enemy. I had no intention of trusting people more than an inch. The sergeant seemed to feel put off by what I said, but carefully transitioned into continuing on in conversation about the vehicle. The other three people there didn’t seem to react to my statement, and I really didn’t want them to. I just wanted him to understand that I knew hand-to-hand combat was the least likely form of combat I was to encounter. Still, nobody suspects getting hit in the head with a frozen water bottle and raped in the anus between two AC fans, right between the Morale and Welfare tents. That is exactly what happened to three male soldiers, in the weeks after the Marines showed up on base back in October of 2011, on Camp Buehring.

Only a hardened combat veteran could conceive of such a plan, as to freeze a water bottle for any amount of time, for the sole purpose of using it to knock a person unconscious and then rape them. “Only a Marine,” I had thought to myself, though technically that was unfair. An Army soldier could do such a thing, but Camp Buehring did not seem to have those kinds of soldiers. There were tech geeks, comms nerds, mechanics, supply & administration staff, 18-year-old infantry kids and an air base which I never went onto. I cannot comment on the people who might have been on the air base, but none of the people I saw there seemed so much as violent. One person’s main duty all year was to get coffee for the SGT Major, and he ate at Burger King like the rest of us, when the chow hall line doubled and tripled overnight, at the time the Marines appeared on base. A base of nearly 18,000 people increased to 21,000, and my chow hall was overloaded immediately.

My chow hall was right beside the morale and welfare tents, where I walked quite regularly. I walked regularly between those tents, to get to other parts of the base. It could have been me, and after I found out, I changed. I still walked alone, but I was half a millisecond from slamming my clip and drawing back the hammer. I was not stupid enough to walk between those tents, but I would scan the shadows of that area every night. I wanted them to try that on me, because I would not think twice about taking their kneecaps. That is why I said what I said, and why I meant it, but to nobody in particular, really. The sergeant was a nice guy, to be clear. Unfortunately, in war, it is the nice guys that get raped on their way to playing video games, when they should have been doing pushups and sharpening their knives. Even the strong can die, and the smart too, in that land where the only rule is there are no rules.

After our pow wow on the state of the downed vehicle, we dispersed, and I found myself pacing near the convoy, silent as the night, and blending in with all of the sand and brown brick structures. Even the trailer for the gate sergeant was sand colored, but one thing stood out against the backdrop. A hairy man without a shirt, stepped out of a recently parked semi-truck. He was perhaps Turkish, because he was brown, but he was lighter. He was not Arabic. His hair was brown. Perhaps he was Caucasian. His beard was so long, that I could not tell, and I was standing far away. I watched as he pulled out a large pot, and poured water into it, and began bathing himself. It was a very efficient use of water, but I could not help but wonder why he did not use a shower on base. Then of course, he was not a soldier, but he was not a base worker either. He was most likely a contractor of the military, which means he might have been a veteran himself. He was too skinny for someone who was paid more than four times the amount I got every month. Those contractors spent a year at a time in the country, driving endless convoys of trucks for whatever purpose the military needed. Then I saw yet another thing I will never forget. A tow truck for semi-trucks came through the gate, carrying a vehicle that was downed in a shootout, somewhere outside the wire that night. The bullet holes through the driver’s-side window indicated that the driver would not be making it home, in anything but a box.

Intel reports later confirmed that a route near to ours was attacked that night, coming under small arms fire from the 3 O’clock, preceded by a rocket propelled grenade attack on the middle vehicle in the convoy. We were lucky to not have been on that route, and the driver of the truck being towed into the yard was very unlucky. The small arms fire I noted, by the damage to the vehicle, came from a man standing directly in front of the vehicle in the road. I imagine that the truck was stopped at the time the rounds tore through the bullet proof glass. It’s really only bullet proof until the second sniper bullet hits the same spot twice, or until a half clip of .556 rounds get tossed at it. The place where the driver’s head and body would have been, was completely torn apart by bullets. The rest of the windshield was intact. I can only presume the driver did not survive, but perhaps he ducked and was able to escape on foot. Perhaps he was captured. Sure, contractors got paid a lot more, but the life they lived, every day outside that wire, was a price everyone paid one way or the other.

I became more curious about my greater surroundings, and wanted to see over the walls I stood within, so I did what I did every day for my job as a mechanic. I climbed onto the bumper of my truck, shifted around, and grabbed the ladder halfway up the side, and put one foot on a foothold and launched myself to the roof of my truck. I was still wearing my armor, and holding my M-16A2 rifle, which has a maximum effective point-target-range of 550 meters if anybody asks you. The view from up there was phenomenal. I could see beyond the wall, a dirt mound, another fence, and then a small city on the other side of the road beyond a field. I could see the chow hall, and noticed the roof was much taller than the height I was at. Then I started to think about the height, and how there could be snipers around. I went down on my stomach, and shuffled to the side of the truck, and climbed down the way I got up. It was a lot harder in armor than it was out, to descend the vehicle that way. I should have climbed down onto the hood, but unlike some people, I tried not to damage the merchandise. After all, we were there to deliver those trucks to Mosul, where they would be given to “The Iraqi Military,” or so I was told.

We slept the last hours of the night away, and a fair amount of day, and we ate in another soldier’s chow hall. If I had to name the soldier I could not, but I will never forget his face. He was not an American soldier, but he was part of the Security Assistance Force, which is a fancy name for mercs from war-torn parts of Africa and perhaps the Balkans as well. I remember that I was smiling widely, because I was talking to a friend, but I do not think anyone was smiling. When I caught his gaze, he was intently staring at me- a dead stare. I was a bit put off by it. I could not realize why he would be so vexed by me. Perhaps people in warzone do not usually smile. For me, I was just excited to be alive and to be on such an amazing adventure. I was happy to be using my skills, and being the best I could be, and I enjoy competition very much. Yet he seemed to dislike me for my casual demeanor, and I could not help but look at him as I passed, waiting for him to say something, but he never did. We just stared at each other, and as I went into the chow hall I turned and never saw him again. Yet I see him still, perhaps 28 years old. He was more skinny than he should have been, but about 6’2”. He was strong, and I could tell he was bold, but he was a military mind and that chow hall belonged to him, and then the chow hall belonged to the air raid sirens.

People became uneasy, but eating continued, as the sirens wailed above us beyond the walls that surrounded the chow hall. It was the only building on base with extra armor on the roof, to protect from missiles killing us while we ate. It was a strange feeling, because until then air sirens were just something our leadership told us to ignore. They instructed us to hide in our rooms, especially during sirens, because otherwise other leaders on base would notice that we were not gathered for accountability upon the commencement of every siren, which occurred about three times a day, every day, the entire time I was overseas. I could not just sit in my room, so I went through the motions in my mind of grabbing my MOPP 4 suit, wiping my mask and face, and taking no breathes as I put on my mask, and cleared it. You really have to plan to save that last bit of breath, to clear the mask after you put it on. Otherwise, you would have to breath in what is in the mask, before any attempt at expelling it. I was quite likely the only person on base doing this, and I did it every day, almost every time the sirens went off. It is possible to say that I am the most practiced soldier at donning MOPP4 gear.

After some food, we waited for night, and that is when I took the following picture. This was the face of my preparation. This was the face of my dedication, and it is now a stirring specter of my past. It will always be the ghost of myself that haunts me, lurking within my anticipation. It is the face of my training. It is the face they wanted to see on me, and the face nobody else wanted to find shifting within the shadows of a distance.

On the second evening of our mission we lined our vehicles again, and awaited word to leave Joint-Base Victory Ballad. My previous passenger stayed in the Green Zone, and I got a new navigator. After waiting for route clearance to clear the route ahead of us we were let out of the gate. Route clearance has a bar attached to their front hitch which can be remotely lowered to trigger Improvised Explosive Devices by tripping them. After we were released, we drove north through Baghdad, and past the palace. Some soldiers didn’t realize the point of leaving cell phones at home. Pictures were taken. I was not so foolish, but to make things clear our entire operation was using blackout light systems in the dark, and yet was broadcasted for miles to anyone listening.

We were traveling down a stretch of dark highway, three stories above the ground. We turned east, in all likelihood due to the err of the driver who was first in the line. I still do not know why we turned east, when our mission was north and to the west. We went 2 miles down the wrong stretch of highway. I’ll never forget how time stood still up there on that bridge. Four youth hunkered down in a circle talking. Then they started running away yelling, and I got nervous that they would bring an attack down on our position. Since the highway was up on stilts, and had walls, four lanes and a median, we could not make an easy turnaround. We did not want to go down to the main road to get back up and onto the highway. So we improvised. Every single vehicle made a 3 or 5 point turn and drove into the oncoming lane back the way we came.

From the moment we entered the Green Zone the city became more dense. They taught us to look for wires in training, which became quite ironic to me then. There were wires poking out of every foot of wall and dirt, bullet, and explosion holes in every square inch it seemed. The walls beside the freeway were like Swiss cheese. The western edge of the green zone was not green or safe. It was a freeway between two hot zones. It was a pinch point. It was a death trap. Good thing for us our forces had secured that whole area, but the carnage that I could see just from the freeway told a different story.

It is no wonder that area was such a battleground. The base is on the east side of the  freeway, and the city on the west side. The buildings beyond the walls of the freeway, towered slightly above. Somebody standing on a roof could fire down on the vehicles or throw a hand grenade from a laying position easily, and then retreat unseen if needed. It is no wonder the base took one side of the freeway, but what shocked me was the sheer amount of gunfire and explosions that went back and forth so often, that not a single bit of earth and steel and concrete was untouched by war.

We carried on down the road again, through the darkness, again, to the third base we’d sleep at for the night. It was a base halfway between Mosul and Baghdad, but I cannot recall its name. I just remember the smell was awful. As we slept, that smell creeped over all of our tents, and was gone by morning. Had we all been exposed to a burn pit’s smoke? If so, perhaps that is why I get asthmatic when I am around certain kinds of incense, and other strong chemical smells. Perhaps we will never know, the extent to which we were exposed, and to what. We may never know how much of the illegal burning of materials on land designated as USA soil, which was to be protected by law, we were all exposed to. That night was otherwise uneventful. We ate, we slept, and the next evening, we lined up our trucks to do it all one more time.

CH4 – The Last Leg

On the way to Mosul, nothing too exciting happened. My new passenger was a Specialist and infantry soldier, which means he was more apt to sluffing off then a Mechanic ever could. Both of us were Specialists, and there was a saying in my unit that, “Specialists run the Army.” It was safe to say, that while we were not trained to run anything, we did feel especially entitled to do what ever we wanted. So when I was informed by my new navigator that we could smoke a cigarette if we just unhooked the cable for the Fire Suppression System, I let it happen. I won’t leave you in suspense. Nothing came of that, except we were the only crew to ditch our chew for the sweet nicotine that would put us in a great mood.

We joked and smoked our way to the finish line, in our environmentally sealed hotbox of nicotine heaven. We were totally insulated from an entire world of chemical agents, sand, and small arms fire, by our two-part air filtration system, which filtered multiple chemical agents from the air, were they to be deployed against us. So it is a good thing we brought our own!

When we came into the base at Mosul, we parked our trucks inside of the base, dismounted and stood around for about an hour. Then we were informed that we would mount up, and drive the vehicles into a smaller, fenced-off and guarded section of the base. With dozens of vehicles ahead of mine, I waited patiently for the gate to appear in my vision. When I finally cleared the gate inside the gate, inside the base, I was met by two men holding M4 rifles, dressed in t-shirts and military fatigues, standing afront a massive building with huge bay doors far larger than my truck. Their clothing was unique, which caused me to question who they were. Perhaps they were special forces. Perhaps they weren’t even a part of the US Military. I had no idea.

The looks on their faces was that of distrust. They looked at me like they might have to shoot me, which made me feel quite uneasy. They pointed at me to dismount the truck and to walk away, and I did that. I left, and watched another uniquely dressed man mount the vehicle, and drive it the rest of the way into their secured area. I wondered why they did not just let me do it, but I was just happy to be off to chow and to my bunk.

We left Mosul on a C-130 aircraft, which did combat maneuvers upon takeoff. Two men stood at the rear of the plane, manning some sort of cannon that shot bursts of fire, ideally to ward off any heat seeking missiles that came at us. They did not warn any of the passengers that this would happen, and seemed to revel in delight at any of us who appeared afraid. I lifted my head to look at their faces, and saw their lack of fear, and decided we were in no danger. Then I put my head back down and promptly fell asleep, to wake up upon landing a few hours later, back where I came from.

A few years later I would see pictures of those or similar MRAP vehicles, attributed to the rise of ISIS. Mosul had fallen, the news reported. The Iraqi military had fled, they claimed, and ISIS had seized all US assets in that area. I questioned why a transfer of assets to the Iraqi military didn’t just go through Baghdad. Why did we pass Baghdad and deliver to Mosul? What was being done with those assets between 2011 and 2014? What role did our leadership have in those assets being transferred to a force called ISIS? These questions now haunt me, as I feel responsible for those assets falling into the wrong hands, whoever’s hands they may have been. The fact that I still don’t know who we even delivered them to, is upsetting.  I feel used.

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