A DAY OF FIRSTS |
May 14, 2007
A DAY OF FIRSTS
Name: Teflon Don
Posting date: 5/14/07
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Milblog url: acutepolitics.blogspot.com
Friday was a day of firsts for me. First time driving a Cougar, first time riding with EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), first overnight stay in an Iraqi house, and first time I didn't have my camera on mission. The last was the one I regret. I was unsure about driving the Cougar -- it's a lot bigger than the RG-31 I've driven before, and the visibility is considerably more limited. There was no one else to do it though, so I agreed to my "trial by fire". When we set out, I had no idea of how accurate that phrase would become.
The mission started easily enough. We were headed down to Amiriya to clear a route back north along the river, in support of Marine infantry and Army cavalry searching for caches and bad guys. We mounted up and headed out the gate very early, dawn still hours over the horizon. By the time we arrived at the mission start point, a pale pink glow was spreading across the sky. We passed through Amiriya and started up the river road. Just meters past the turn was the first IED, which we quickly cleared under skies already starting to turn grey with an approaching storm.
As we continued driving, the EOD tech turned to me and said, "This doesn't look like Iraq at all. It's more like something back in Ohio." Indeed, the scene along the river made me forget for a moment that I was in the desert. Tall trees grew along the road, and dense green undergrowth lined the elevated roadbed. The rain had started and was growing heavier -- the wind was beginning to whip the drops sideways. The monsoon hit just as the lead truck found the second IED. They called up a tripwire stretched across the road, and I turned to ask the EOD tech which war, exactly, we were fighting.
IED #3 blew up underneath one of the trucks, marking the first time that day all hell would break loose. The driver was okay, but we now had a truck that needed to be recovered, on a road barely wide enough to accommodate one vehicle. We moved most of the convoy off onto a side road, and brought up the wrecker. Two Bradleys moved up to the rear of our patrol, and veered off into the fields to bypass both us and the blast hole. They came back to the main road just a few hundred meters north of us, and the trail Bradley promptly scored a near miss from another IED.
EOD started getting calls from the dismount Marine infantry moving up on our rear, and the techs began moving from site to site responding to requests. They reduced another IED in a controlled detonation, and then moved off to examine IED-making material that another group found. Just to our rear, a Marine stepped on a booby trap set to target dismount patrols. EOD moved off once again to clear the site, and the Marine unit began setting up a MEDIVAC site for the wounded in the field adjacent to us. (Note: We checked today, and all those guys are okay.) After three hours, four IEDs, and one vehicle recovery, we were on our way again.
The blast holes from the Bradley and our vehicle effectively blocked the road to our forward, so we had no choice but to follow the field route the Bradleys had taken. I was the closest to the side road in the Cougar, so I lead out towards the bypass. Iraqi farms typically use flood irrigation, so the fields are lined with ditches. The first such ditch was no problem -- I got around it with some maneuvering. The second was a deep double ditch, which I took at a slight cut, at EOD's direction. The truck bottomed out as it hit the second ditch, and slid back into the hole. Stuck. Behind me, the RG was in the process of winching out of the first ditch. Great. Another hour, a lot of digging, and some help from a Bradley later, we were moving again.
Once back on the road, we got another call from the infantry. The had found more IEDs on the section of road we were unable to clear. The BUFFALO and EOD went back to reduce them. With the IEDs taken care of, we moved to confront our next problems: We had been on mission for a solid twelve hours, and our Humvee security detail was running low on fuel. To add to the matter, intel reports were coming in warning us to expect strong insurgent resistance to our north. It took nearly another hour to refuel the Humvees from the Bradleys, and we pressed forward yet again.
The infantry had moved slightly ahead of us, and as we caught up, we watched them digging caches of weapons and munitions out of the riverbank. A Marine sapper tossed a demolition charge into a small hole, and the patrol quickly moved off. We followed, and a few minutes later there was a boom and puff of smoke behind us. I thought nothing of it until the next boom threw up a waterspout out in the river, and Marines starting scrambling up the embankment to the other side of the road.
Incoming mortar fire sucks, especially when the bad guys are on the far bank 500 meters away. More rounds began to explode on the bank and in the grass; the trucks in front of us caught the exhaust from the mortar tube and began to pour machine-gun fire across the river. Somewhere behind us, Bradleys opened up with the whoomp-whoomp-whoomp of 25mm chain gun fire. Bullets flew both ways across the water, glinting and sparkling when shots dipped too low and caught the ripples, then abruptly ceased coming from the far side. The Marine landowner on the far side called up and asked us to mark the site with tracer fire for their troops moving in. We did so, and moved out, past the groups of flex-cuffed captives moving south into the gathering night.
By the time dusk fell, we had covered less than one third of the route. The Marines wanted to do the rest, but didn't want to move dismounts without us on the roads for clearance and heavy gun support. Neither we nor the Marines could go much longer without some rest, and the Marines were loath to sweep the riverbank at night. After some discussion among the respective leadership, the Marines settled on a spot in which to set up a firm point and spend the night. It was 1930: we had been on the move for 17 hours.
We pulled into the open space between the two houses we were to occupy for the night at about 2000. The house set aside for us and our Marine security detail was single-story cinderbrick of perhaps 1500 square feet, with a walled flat roof. The Marine company that had been moving dismounted alongside our patrol made their sleeping arrangements in the second house -- a split-level two-story building, also with a walled roof. Most Iraqi houses have the same flat roof and low wall, and can be expediently converted into nighttime firm points with reasonably good fighting positions.
Both houses had obviously been vacated hurriedly. Food was left halfway prepared inside the outdoor kitchen, and laundry still fluttered from the line. Someone said the owners had tested positive for explosives residue and been arrested. That could be true, or the Marines could have simply sent the families off to another house for the night with a few extra dollars in their pockets.
We gathered our gear inside our assigned room, and broke out cartons of MREs and water. We ate quickly in the darkness -- the better to secure a chunk of rug on which to spend the night. I pulled the first roving guard shift, and spent the next two and a half hours pacing an Iraqi farmyard and listening to the distant rattle of gunfire somewhere north along the river, punctuated by the deeper whoomp of Bradleys firing.
The operations officer for the cavalry's parent unit came by and mentioned that troops pushing south towards us had hit multiple IEDs, and lost men, but "there wasn't much to be done, because they don't have route clearance." I wished for the hundredth time that there were more of us. He also mentioned that sporadic fighting continued all up and down along the river, as well as out into the desert on the main road south.
The houses were set off the road about 150 meters, and were surrounded on three sides by farmland, with a palm grove stretching away to the south. We were very close to the river, so the ground was moist with springtime, and the air smelled of plants both growing and dying. To the west, pens of goats and cows added their noises to the air. Beyond the animal pens, a field of tomatoes and then of grass unfolded. Far off in the western sky, illumination flares rose in a constant stream of orange, in harmony with the distant sound of incoming American artillery.
The air was thick with musky scent -- the product of an already long mission. The sharper smell of crushed vegetation mixed with the dank odor of animal manure and that of tired men. It was a bouquet that will define Iraq for me someday, the smell of living and sweating and dying.
Inside, the house was a tangle of sleeping men. Chemlights spread their ghostly glow from the corners in a vain attempt to help the changing guards avoid stepping on their sleeping buddies. The room in which I spent the next five hours in fitful sleep was large enough to accommodate all thirty members of our patrol, and yet the only decoration was a poster on the inside wall that simply said "Allah" in fancy calligraphic script.
The house itself smelled of animals of some sort, perhaps dogs, and a pungent tarry smell. It bothered some, while others seemed not to even notice. I inhaled and remembered sleeping on my grandparents' floor as a child and smelling my grandfather's beloved cats. That grandfather is my only surviving grandparent, and the only other member of my family to have walked the sands of the Middle East. I fell asleep thinking of him, and of home.
First call was at 0500. I rolled over in the blackness and felt for my breakfast MRE and my last cigarette, carefully nestled between my ammo pouches. I had emptied out the backpack that I normally bring on missions before the previous mission, because the lead truck had no room to spare for it. On this morning I missed that bag more than anything. It had all the essentials that I now needed: a spare pack of smokes, clean socks in a ziplock baggie that keeps them dry, and a small jar of sleep-replacing vitamin B12, as well as some other comforts. This will be the last time I take crap about my bag.
The mission was only one-third complete, but we would be turning around and heading out the way we came. There were too many IEDs, too many caches, and too little time to finish out the route. We refuled the smaller trucks from the disabled vehicle to ensure we wouldn''t run short of gas if the day dragged on again. We knew we'd find bombs, replaced in the road now behind us, so we prepared for a long day and set out at dawn.
As the day progressed we found more IEDs, and EOD was again called off to the sides to deal with bombs the infantry had found. Periodic explosions would announce the reduction of another IED and the impending return of the EOD team. The bombs that EOD judged too damaging to blow near their surrounding buildings got stashed in the back of the truck. I didn't wear a seat belt the entire second day -- it seemed a little ridiculous to worry about your neck when the secondary blast from the backseat cargo would turn you to mush before you could feel the IED hitting the truck.
One bomb was burrowed in, nearly four feet from the roadside, underneath the asphalt. It was a Russian 152mm artillery shell -- 90lbs of explosive and steel waiting the chance to turn into deadly shrapnel. Along with it we found eleven liter bottles of diesel fuel; over the radio someone joked, "Well, at least we solved our fuel problem." When we dug it up, someone had already tried to set it off. The blasting cap on the bomb was blown, but the IED had not gone off. Someone got very lucky.
Beauty and humor are the two things that most easily make me forget that I'm in Iraq. The final push back into Amiriya had both. We were rolling down a narrow, rutted road through the middle of a field of wheat, starting to turn tan and gold from the sun. Lines of Marines and Iraqi Police stretched away on either side scouring the ground for hints of war, despite having their finish line in sight. Bradleys clanked behind the infantry, pushing stalks of wheat into the soft earth. I looked out over the line of troops -- Marines in digitalized desert MARCAM, and IPs in old woodland BDUs. In the middle was one Army soldier in ACUs, sticking out like a redneck at a fashion show.
We spent the next few hours uneventfully, back in familiar territory clearing the last roads between us and home. One last detail remained before we rolled back into Camp Falluja: We had to destroy all the explosives I was carting around in the back of the truck. We stopped in the semi-secure "pink" zone on the gate road, and set up the blast. Artillery shells, rockets, signal flares, bulk explosive, and a healthy helping of C-4 all went into a pile that totaled something close to 450 pounds, 200 of that explosive. I pulled the initiator on the time fuse, and we stepped back over the berm, drove down the road to our desert amphitheatre, and watched the fireworks. The blast was perfect -- all the ordnance detonated and left behind a six-foot crater with a small hill in the center.
We rolled inside the berms and barb wire of Camp Falluja at a little after 1730. We had been out for almost 39 hours, and got back just in time for dinner. We were credited with six IED finds over the course of the mission. EOD reduced four more that the infantry found on side roads. Between IEDs and caches, we and EOD destroyed over 1200 pounds of ordnance.
It was a good day.