The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.

ALARM CLOCK |

December 14, 2006

ALARM CLOCK
Name: SGT "Roy Batty"
Posting date: 12/14/06
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Yellow Springs, Ohio

The ocean is deep, shadowed dark, full of the keening whispers of whale song and the lunar musing of the tide. I swim mindlessly in the liquid womb of its embrace, the half-felt shadows of distant sharks sliding over the sun-dappled pillars of light above, undulating. Life is safe, unseen but bodyfelt, bloodwarm and thick with the musk of sleep, and I clutch at it, slowly, like a sleeping infant at his mother's breast. The blind comfort of nipple dreams.

NOISE, deep, sharp, more felt than heard. The wooden barracks thrums twice, buckling and then springing back into place. I am thrown from my bed, the stuffed animals that my wife keeps sending me flying wildly, eyes bulging and felt paws flailing, into the tiny space I call home. I don't know if the local detonation of high explosives actually flings you around, or if it is some incredibly fast autonomic response sparked from the recesses of your reptilian brain, but it is impossible to lie still when it happens.

Clearly, this is Rustimayah, and we are under yet another mortar/rocket attack. The good thing about being in the Army in Iraq is that you are always in uniform, even when asleep, which means that one can usually run to the bunker without having to suffer the embarrassment of public nudity, and the subsequent hilarity among your comrades-in-arms. Unless one runs straight into the camouflage poncho strung across your four square feet of living space, falls down, and flails on the ground like a stunned porpoise in a fishing net.

Which is exactly what I did.

Extricating myself from the eager folds of my plastic curtain, I sheepishly realized that this was not Rustimayah, but our four-star accommodations at FOB Shield, and since there were no follow-up explosions, we were not getting mortared. Must be a VBIED--a car bomb.  A big one.

In any case, I was awake, and there was no sense in going outside unprepared. I grabbed a can of Starbucks DoubleShot and a pack of Camels, and wandered out to find out what the hell was going on.

The dusty patio in front of our dilapidated barracks was full of the usual flares of post-blast cigarettes, and the hasty stories of perturbed soldiers. All of the civilians had frozen in place and stared, but, fresh from the joys of Camp Rusty, our MPs had collectively done the 360 spin-in-place and headed for the nearest bunker. A thin mushroom cloud, drab and brown with atomized sand and smoke, rose from the western side of the perimeter.

There was a lot of talk about what it might have been. Some of the officers authoritatively announced that it was an IED, down on Route Wild. Others, NCOs like me, were sure it was a VBIED. It looked to be like it was in the market area two blocks from us, the same place that was hit by three simulataneous VBIEDs just a few days ago. Either way, it was huge -- somehow this single blast was louder than those three. We watched the smoke cloud to be sure. If it was just an IED, it would quickly dissipate. If it was a car bomb, it would smolder and burn for some time.

Over the wall, there was a sprinkled crackle of gunfire, along with the distant wailing of police and ambulance sirens. I wondered for a minute if this was a coordinated attack, until someone noted that the IPs were clearing traffic in their normal way, by shooting at the cars. That's not an exaggeration, that really is how the police clear traffic here -- by shooting at you. It sounded as if every cop in Baghdad was making their way to the scene, which probably wasn't far from the truth.

The mushroom cloud slowly faded in the chilled blue of the early morning sky, a burnt offering sent back to Allah as it was intended. It was gradually replaced with thin streams of jet black smoke, trickling up from the secondary fires in the square. Yep, I was right. A VBIED. Trapped by the early morning convection layer, the smoke hugged the dull brown skyline of the city, spreading slowly southward like ink in a glass of water. I watched the vapor with curious distaste; it seemed more fluid than smoke -- black, thick, viscous. Evil, as if it was imbued with everything that is wrong with this country; hatred, petroleum, and the smell of burning human fat.

After a bit, people wandered off to continue doing whatever they had been up to before the Big Boom. Guys trudged by with towels and ditty bags, headed for the shower. Squads, headed out on mission, went back to their trucks to tinker with their obstinate mounts. IPLO civilians drifted off to the chowhall for breakfast. The rest of us stood and drank our coffee and sucked on our cigarettes, watching the smoke, quietly.

It's interesting to watch people trying to be normal in the aftermath of a fundamentally disturbing event. A few blocks away, corpses were littering the blackened asphalt of a city square, burning. Ambulance crews would be arriving and trying to find the wounded amongst the debris and the dead. But not us. It was someone else's job, and there really wasn't anything to do here but carry on with the mundane details of the still alive. So, we all walked around and fiddled with our gear or stood and tried to make small talk through clenched jaws; but all the voices were a little too loud or a little too quiet, and the people walking by tended to look down at the gravel a little too intently, with the occasional anxious glance towards the shrouded sky, or the perimeter wall that seemed just a little too close.

After a bit, Fish and some of the other guys went inside to see if they could find out what happened, via the Internet. Astonishingly, only 20 minutes or so after it happened, the attack was already on Yahoo. The blast was in Tayaran Square, not in the market area as I had guessed, but about a block west of it. The square is right in front of one of the bridges to the Green Zone, and I had driven through it and across that bridge only yesterday. Now Yahoo was saying that 23 people had been killed, and a hundred or so wounded. The number would be sure to rise.

Eventually, I have to go off in search of gainful employment. We have a critical "distro" run to make, shuttling administrative papers from one FOB to another. As we are gearing up and preparing to leave there are a couple more explosions, which eventually turn out to be pyromaniac EOD teams blowing up suspicious banana boxes out on the highway. Getting dressed and squaring away the truck to roll out of the gate is a curious exercise, in light of this morning's reveille. It's all down to a set routine now, and I hold to the sequence faithfully, as if that act of contrition will somehow save me from swerving too close to the wrong white and orange taxi cab. I strap on my $70 WileyX assault gloves and slip on my Peltor headphones in the solemn hope that they will fend off the combined demons of Wahabism and plastique.

Through group consensus, we decide to go against the usual tactic of driving at a stately 15 mph along our route, and instead careen at high speed through our chores, scattering civilian vehicles as we go. I feel protected and comfortable in my high-speed gear amid the bolted-on armor of the HMMWV, although I know it is an illusion. We do whatever we can to help protect ourselves, but in the end, if it is your time to go, then you're going. I notice myself absentmindedly swearing, out loud, at the local drivers as we pass them.

At the Rustimayah PX I score another case of DoubleShot, and reluctantly buy a pirated Xbox from the kaffiyah'd bandit at the base hospital store.  My old game finally collapsed in a dusty corner of the barracks a week ago, its mouth cracked open permanently, another victim of the choking Iraqi sand. The new one is all sleek and plastic wrapped, boasting a bootleg chip which plays every kind of VCD known to mankind, including, inexplicably, ancient Sega Genesis games. Maybe there is a remote clan of Genesis-enthralled Bedouin tribesmen out there in the wasteland somewhere, snapping these things up as fast as they are churned out. All I know is that this new beast bellows wailing Arabic music at me every time I turn the damn thing on. Oh well. As long as I can play Need For Speed, I'll be okay.

There's nothing like pulling out into Baghdad traffic with your trunk full of expensive and newly purchased toys to make you pray extra hard not to get hit by an IED. Never mind losing your legs; it would really suck if that carton of real Camels, case of over-priced espresso, and new Xbox got shredded by an Iranian land mine.

Eventually we complete our tour of eastside Baghdad FOBs, and return to our pleasure palace at Shield. Yahoo, still light years ahead of the military intelligence reservists across the street, coughs up the latest details on this morning's bombing. Seems that some Sunni dude rolled up to the square in his pickup truck, and got together a crowd of guys with promises of a full day's pay for some odd jobs. Apparantly this particular place is a known gathering spot for day laborers, mostly Shia men, looking for work. Once the scumbag had a good number of folks around him, boom, he blew himself and everyone around him up. Killed sixty-three people, and wounded over two hundred.

Take a minute to think about that one. Y'know, sitting here in front of your computer, catching up on your favorite blog, it's fairly easy to go "Okay, makes a sort of sense." But can you actually imagine it? I mean really visualize it, doing it? Not as the plot of some dumbass Tom Clancy book, or Hollywood's next blockbuster movie. For real.

Driving to work with a pickup full of artillery shells and propane tanks rolling around in the truck bed behind you. A detonator in your pocket.  Waking up, getting out of bed, knowing that you are going to kill yourself this morning, along with a whole shitload of other human beings. Oh, and not a military convoy, not a checkpoint or some general or a vital headquarters, at anything important like that. Just a bunch of ordinary Joes, looking for a couple of bucks sweeping out somebody's garage. And then actually doing it.

Baghdad averages three car bombs a day.

One other interesting thing about yesterday. It's eight p.m. or so, I am sitting outside, smoking a cigarette with my friend, Phil. Phil is sipping on his ritual Coors beer. He has one every night, after chow. It doesn't actually have any alcohol in it, since such immoral things are disallowed in George W.'s Puritan militia, along with pornography, sex and tight-fitting civilian clothes. Or any civilian clothes, for that matter. Phil just drinks it because it helps him to remember home. That, and the hope that someone at KBR will screw up and let a real one through the supply channels.

So we're sitting there, enjoying the crisp dusk, when every single person in the Greater Baghdad Metropolitan Area with a machine gun starts shooting. Seriously.... Every single one. The sky is full of tracers. It looks like CNN footage from the opening of the first Gulf war, only not in shiny nightvision green. Black sky, red tracers. Badadadadada. We sit there, a Camel hanging off my lip, a beer can half way to Phil's mouth, agape at the sheer volume of metal suddenly appearing in the night sky in front of us.

Presently the FOB loudspeaker system cranks up and the Marine 1SG that runs the camp comes on, telling "All Hands" that the shooting is not a mass uprising against the infidels, as we all suspected, but celebratory gunfire due to a soccer game. Everyone not on mission has to get indoors, and everyone who has to be outside has to be in full battle rattle. Phil and I reluctantly move to the wooden double doors of the barracks, where we stand and watch the spectacle.

It seems that the Iraqi national soccer team is doing pretty well for itself at the Asia Games in Doha, and the locals are simply showing their appreciation for its latest success. Baghdad style, fo' shizzle.

Phil and I are standing there, talking about how stupid it is to get everyone indoors. It's not like our flimsy plywood barracks is going to protect us or anything. Still, we want to watch the fireworks, and don't want to go to the trouble of putting our gear on, so we just stand in the doorway and sip our beer and puff on our smokes, and feel cool.Batty_ak_47_round_iraq_041

Suddenly there is a sharp CLANG! between our feet, and a puff of dust in front of us. We both jump and spin back inside the barracks, shocked for a second, and then laughing. Not one, but two rounds have hit right by us. Our feet were only 8 or 9 inches apart, and one round impacted between them. Once the shooting dies down, we go out to investigate, and pry an AK-47 slug out of the metal grate in front of the door. One of our soldiers finds a PKC round in the sand a couple of feet further out. I'm not going to bitch about the FOB safety rules anymore.

You gotta love a city that wakes you up with a car bomb, and puts you to bed with machine gun fire -- for fun. Easing into the blue womb of my bed, I glance at my German cellphone, the one I use as an alarm clock, sitting on the plywood table. Do I really need to set it for tomorrow's wake-up?

Comments

SGT Batty, I cannot begin to tell you how very much I look forward to your posts. First, then I know you are still okay. Second, the imagery you use is amazing. I can almost share the sensory experiences you describe. You have brought smiles to my face, and tears to my eyes, and always a thanks for your 'gift of gab' that you share with us. At times, it is as though you are standing there talking to me. I can even smell the smoke from the Camel dangling from your lip... Oh,and just to make you smile... My daughter Helen, USAF, just back from Kirkuk, now in Saudi, and told me of going out with an EOD team. She sent me a video of a blast they did of unexploded ordinances (I believe that is what she called them) called 'the money shot.' I laughed and asked her if she knew what a money shot was. She did, and told me that of all the people they shared that video with, her 52 year old mom was the only one who commented on the name! Seems she and her battle buddies got a big kick out of that! God be with you, Roy.

Woa . . . Batty . . . great stuff . . . again! Captures the absurdity of it all. The idea of US forces as a "puritan militia" is spectacularly absurd. I recall pallet loads of low octane beer coming into various FOBs in Vietnam slung underheath CH-47s, USO shows with scantilly (VERY scantilly in some cases) clad young women parading about in all manner of suggestive motion in front of horny GIs, and pimps pushing their "virgin" sisters in every ville we'd go into. These were not the reasons the war was lost (tho the puritans might claim otherwise) but it was a means to keep sane in the midst the insanity and violence. I suspect you won't have to look very long to find the homebrew that's cooking up somewhere in your FOB or the porn hidden here there and . . . everywhere.

Stay safe!

Again Batty another great story.... Thanks

Brother Roy,

Keep fightin' the good fight. Your words bring back so many memories of OIF1 (although the fighting was a little more one-sided back then and the IED's came later in the year). Please keep the proverbial 'head down' and keep sendin' in the pieces, because if you didn't, you'd have a lot of people here at the Sandbox worried about you, myself included. Make it out of the mouth of the beast alive and THAT will be the story I would want to read about. From the Afghan 'Front', Later.

Thanks, guys (and gal)! Debra, that is a hilarious story that really made me smile. I'll never think of money shots the same way when I watch ..um.. .uh... .EOD detonations again . Mike, thanks for including your memories of the 'Nam. I've commented on my buddies on that exact thing--the fact that the Army would bring beer to you in the field, once upon a time. Hell, I can remember cigarettes in C-rations. I sure could deal with some Camels in our MREs :) SGT White, thanks bro! I love getting feedback from people, but particularly when it is from vets and guys who are in now, it's particularly gratifying. Stay safe out there in the mountains of Afghanistan! Thanks again, everyone.

No, it doesn't make sense. It never does when I hear it on the news. How can someone go out and kill a a bunch of strangers trying to earn money to feed their children? How can that suicide bomber truly believe this will get him into Heaven? My God is the Right God and yours is wrong. Wait a minute.....sounds a bit like George W. I hope you keep that AK-47 slug to remind you not to bitch about the safety rules. Be safe, Come home.

Poignant. Thanks for telling.

Bless your sense of irony! My sympathies to Phil, Coors sucks. No soldier should drink a beer that comes out the same color it went in (and often the same temperature).

I recall the story about that VBIED (we hear about so many of them). We're being told the reporters in Baghdad rarely venture out of the Green Zone. Would be interested to hear your take on how Yahoo got the story so quickly.

Hey I just swung by here for the fist time today. I just wanted to say thanks - not only for what you're doing in Iraq/Afganistan (how sad it is that I can't even spell it correctly) but also for the writing - your's and the others - great work.

Stay safe.

Another account of a day in the life of Sgt Batty: understated and filled with irony. You ask if your reader actually considers the real and unadulterated horror of what's on the car bomber's "to do" lists for the day: blow up 63 people, wound more than 200!! I consider the reality and cannot wrap my mind around the concept. It is equally incomprehensible each time I read of or hear a report of such subhuman actions of one human to another.

BTW, was curious about the term used by Debra which a 52 year old recognized but one slightly (!) older did not. Googled define "money shot"...uh...thanks Wikipedia!! A day without learning is, as they say, a day that is wasted!!!

Thanks for another incredible post. Take care Sgt and God bless you.

Remember what goes up must come down. All those bullets shot in the air will come down. Don't let it be on your head. If they tell you to get inside, do it! Go out later and get the souvenirs. In OIF1, a lot of the "collateral damage" that we got blamed for came from Iraqi anti air fire. Take care and stay safe. -JJ

I’m new to the Sandbox and I just wanted to say that you are one of the best writers I’ve come across in a long while. Lee Child and Robert Crais should be looking over their shoulders to see you coming! I hope you give serious thought to becoming a novelist when you get out of service and allow a wider audience to enjoy your unique outlook on life.

Although I’m not a religious person I’m going to say a prayer for you and your fellow grunts, tonight and everynight. The world needs more people like you.

Stay safe, and in one piece.

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