Sitting on the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border February 2004, just about everyone had the ‘pre-game’ jitters but put on their best game face. Lots of nervous chatter, no one got outwardly sick, lost control or wet themselves. Nor was anyone talking tough about how they wanted to ‘kill a haji’: my thought is if you are closer enough to ‘kill a haji’, they are close enough to kill you. That is too close for me.
I had the first shift of guard duty- as a Major, guard duty was unheard of, with less than 50 soldiers, everyone minus a few key leaders pulled a shift. Guard duty was keep wild dogs away and dissuade soldiers who decided our stuff was better than their stuff. If you want your soldiers to respect you, especially in a war zone, got to lead by example, no bitching, no moaning, shut-up do it.
After a few hours of sleep, we woke at 0300 hours or 3 AM in civilian talk, total darkness minus the areas illuminated by flood lights, located by the latrines. I tossed my sleeping gear in our vehicle, munched on a cold MRE breakfast without coffee and hit the latrines one final time, not sure when the next latrine break would be. Maybe no coffee with breakfast was a good thing?
We were warned of increasing insurgent attacks on convoys; just like ours. To mitigate this threat, we needed to look ‘professional’, ‘tough’ and ‘combat ready’. The insurgents preyed upon the weak and easy. So do not look weak or easy. All personnel were instructed to have their weapon pointing out the HUMMV and truck windows. This defensive posture is known as ‘hedge hogging’. My weapon was a Beretta 9 mm pistol with three magazines totaling 45 rounds. I am good with a pistol, always qualified ‘expert’, I would be of minimal help repelling an insurgent attack beyond 25 meters. I thought this was a stupid idea and risked dropping a pistol out of the moving vehicle or worse, someone with a sticky finger accidentally shooting an Iraqi farmer.
Once the convoy started, I reluctantly, but dutifully stuck my pistol out the window and tried to look scary and not scared.
We traveled north on Iraqi Highway 1 or called Main Supply Route Tampa by the Coalition Forces. I saw the ‘Land between the two rivers’, ‘the Cradle of civilization’ or ‘the fertile crescent’ as Iraq was aptly named. Some say the ‘Garden of Eden’ was in Iraq. Judaism and Islam have religious sites in Iraq, as well as many Christian churches, some dating back more than a thousand years [until ISIS got to them].
From a historical perspective, entering this ancient land was very exciting; from a military perspective, entering this ancient land, now a combat zone, was also very exciting; but in a unique and different way.
One hour into our drive, the convoy stopped for about 15 minutes due to the distant sound of unknown small arms fire. The war was closing in on us. Once the shooting stopped, all seemed well, our convoy started travelling. I never found out who was shooting; us, them or both or just as important why they were shooting.
Along the route, burnt out remains of Iraqi army trucks and armored personal carriers littered the highways- reminding me of the black silhouettes on the military vehicle identification cards I studied during the 1980’s. The abandoned vehicle carcasses looked empty: picked clean of weapons, loose metal, wire or other items of value the Iraqi’s could easily salvage and sell off as scrap. On the ground, around the convoy area I saw spent heavy machinegun projectiles- the battle was deadly close; people were killed here. At least the dead Iraqi soldiers were no longer in their destroyed vehicles or laying in the irrigation ditches- food for wild dogs.
I was getting closer to feeling like I was at war, just as an observer- third person removed, but I was not yet there.
Our convoy’s only planned Day 1 fuel-stop was at a road side refuel point called Cedar; located a few miles south of Nasiriya- remember the 507th Maintenance Company ambush? Jessica Lynch? Yes, that Nasiriya. The Cedar refuel point located on both road sides of Route Tampa encircled with barbed wire and sand bags, as a semi-permanent, semi-secure area, where military convoys refueled their vehicles and top off their oil and engine coolant; then continue on their way.
There was a bank of porta-johns of dubious cleanliness to relieve oneself and down-load the morning meal. I opted for the ‘hey guys, do not drive off without me, I am checking the rear wheel’s air pressure’ method of relief during IED and other road stops versus using a nasty porta-john. At that point, I did not need to compromise my basic sanitary requirements or expectations; eventually I succumbed to my new reality and dropped my standards. I felt bad for female soldiers who had less choice, if they wanted any sort of privacy or cleanliness.
In order to survive a long convoy; eating a starchy meaty meal the night before was best. While salads, fruits and vegetable meals are a healthier choice, a nasty porta-john awaits you.
Whenever our convoy stopped everyone got out and stood guard: looking for insurgents or secondary improvised explosive devices. Fortunately, I saw neither. I say ‘fortunately’ because I did not ‘want medals’, I did not want to ‘test myself’; I only wanted to arrive at Camp Speicher, safely.
I did not see any outwardly hostile acts by the local Iraqi villagers. The Iraqis kept their distance, not moving towards our convoy and kept on with their lives, like we were not even there. In the eyes of the Iraqi people, we just completed the transition from ‘liberators’ to ‘occupiers’.
We reached our over night rest area, convoy support center ‘Scania’, just after noon, stopping several times for Improvised Explosive Devices in the open, easily discovered and blown up in place by the explosive ordnance teams along our route. Soon, easy to find IEDs became scarce as the insurgents perfected their deadly skills. During the IED stops, I was too far back in the convoy to see anything or know what happened; I heard explosions when the IEDs were destroyed in place.
Convoy Support Center Scania provided military convoys’ fuel, food, some vehicle maintenance and a place to park their vehicles for an overnight rest. It did not provide beds, so our HUMMVs and trucks were our motel. This was not be the first time I slept in a HUMMV or army truck. Fortunately, the weather was good and the night was quiet, meaning no mortar or rocket attacks. We all got full night’s rest.
Day Two of the convoy north was mostly uneventful. Driving thru Baghdad was surprisingly peaceful and not too scary. Maybe it was the numerous US military check points or the Abrams tanks and Bradley armored fighting vehicles on the streets that kept the insurgents at bay. The surrealism climaxed when I saw a cow standing on a huge pile of garbage eating whatever leafy greens the Iraqis did not pick through first.
The peaceful condition was just a thin, shiny veneer; a temporary situation which would soon change, come April. Little did I know I would be a part of that change, and not in a good way.
A few miles after we passed Saddam’s home town of Tikrit, our convoy turned left on to the access road leading to Camp Speicher. When we entered the safety of Camp Speicher, we all breathed a sigh of relief as we dismounted our vehicles and cleared our weapons, ensuring no one had a round in the weapons chamber that could be accidentally fired.
We were finally home and most importantly, safe. Not completely safe, but relatively speaking it is much safer to be on a large base surrounded by wire and guards, than driving around outside the wire. I must admit, driving around the Iraqi roads was mildly addicting.
Soon, my addiction would be well fed.