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.

PICTURE US ROLLIN' |

February 21, 2008

PICTURE US ROLLIN'
Name: LT G
Posting date: 2/21/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Reno, NV
Milblog url: kaboomwarjournal.blogspot.com

Today is just like any other day except for the ones that are different.

A giant alarm clock, appropriately nicknamed Big Ben by SFC Big Country, rings with acrimony, breaking in the day far more brusquely than God intended when He designed the sluggish rising of the sun. I yawn loudly, slap myself in the face, and hop off of the top bunk and saunter towards the TOC for intel updates, while SFC Big Country turns on the coffeemaker and goes to the soldiers’ rooms to wake them up. When I return from the TOC, SFC Big Country hands me a fresh cup of coffee, SSG Boondock is staring at the wall cursing to himself, and SSG Bulldog -- a notoriously slow mover in the morning -- grunts from somewhere deep inside his sleeping bag.

“Time to get up, Sheik,” I tell him. “Your doting followers await.”

Some mixture of profanity-laced grogginess and Southern slurring usually let me know that he’s awake. Then it’s to the gear racks, where modern-day knights adorn their layers of cumbersome body armor, swelling in size and weight like a balloon discovering compacted air.

Some thirty minutes later, after whatever snack the Gravediggers manage to cobble together for breakfast, 19 chasm-black sunglasses hiding alert and dazed eyes alike bow towards my map, listening to a plan they know will change on the move. A background of pounding bass, coming from SSG Boondock’s Stryker, provides a steady backdrop for my words, the same words I said the day before about rules of engagement and the same ones I will say the day after. After I finish and answer any questions, I tell the platoon to mount up, and SFC Big Country barks last-minute priorities of work to the junior NCOs.

“Let’s rock and roll, you stupid bastards,” PV2 Van Wilder crows, as he rolls into his driver’s seat. “I got a hot date tonight with a fat Iraqi chick, and I don’t want to be late. Fat chicks love my molest-ache!”

I climb into the back of my Stryker, which has already been prepped immaculately by SGT Chico, SPC Flashback, and PV2 Boomhauer. All I have to do is plug in and start conducting my lieutenant radio calls; I used to try and help my guys ready the vehicle, but SGT Chico would get bothered and/or horrified by this, thinking it reflected poorly on them, so now I just stay out of their way and let them do their jobs. The terp Billy the Kid is already loaded up and bantering back and forth with PV2 Boomhauer, still arguing about some video game fallout from the previous evening. I give the platoon three or so minutes, and then ask them if they’re ready to move, in Army speak.

“Gravediggers, this is Gravedigger 1,” I say. “Report your Redcon status in sequence.”

“This, uhh, Gravedigger 2,” SSG Bulldog drawls. “We Redcon 1.”

“Gravedigger 1, this is Gravedigger 3, we’re Redcon 1!” SSG Boondock bursts.

“This is 4,” SFC Big Country thunders. “Let’s roll.”

“On your move 2,” I say, watching the wheels of my senior scout’s vehicle begin to churn forward. I let X-Ray know we’re departing and then, just like every day, our Strykers move past the gate, out of the wire, and into a war zone.

Our stated mission for the day is to conduct an electricity assessment of one of the local Anu al-Verona blocks. We’re not supposed to use the term “presence patrol” anymore -- it used to be doctrine until some general officer got another star assessing that the term presence patrol was not clear enough guidance for soldiers involved in a counterinsurgency fight -- but pretty much anytime an American convoy of combat vehicles maneuvers, it acts as a presence patrol. At every corner and sidewalk of Anu al-Verona, be it a Shi’a or Sunni neighborhood, the reactions are the same -- the children wave giddily hoping for chocolate, the women dressed head-to-toe in black robes stare rigidly at the ground, the old men nod with hard eyes that have seen far too much suffering in one lifetime, and the young men stare back at us callously, giving what Hawaiians refer to as “da stinkeye.” All clear way for our Strykers, though. Somewhere over the course of this war, they’ve learned not to get in the way of the Ghost Tanks embellished with machine guns and projecting raw firepower of instant death.

We arrive to our destination. SSG Bulldog finds a position for us to pull our vehicles into a tight platoon coil. “This work, 1?” he asks.

“Yep,” I respond.

“I knew it was already,” he cracks. “I was jus’ sayin.’”

SFC Big Country, ever the perfectionist, adjusts the vehicles slightly, optimizing security scans for our gunners. Then I give the order for the dismount teams to kick out, knowing full well they already are prepping to do so. We’ve reached the point in our deployment where SOPs are repeated out of habit instead of being stated as guidance.

Tired, dirty boots meet Mesopotamian soil for the umpteenth time. Like locusts descending upon ancient Egypt, we are immediately surrounded by Iraqi children, clamoring for our attention and clawing at our pockets. “Mistah, mistah, gimme chocolata!” they scream. “Gimme football! Gimme, gimme gimme!” My men react differently to the horde, depending on their general patience disposition and amount of sleep they got the night prior.

“You gimme chocolata!” PV2 Boomhauer responds, picking up one of the kids, twirling him around.

“Gotta love the effects of the welfare state. Go play in some traffic,” SPC Flashback says, while reaching for a cigarette, and ignoring the children gathering around him.

“Nothing like enabling future terrorists,” SSG Boondock says, all the while handing out candy. He notices me arching an eyebrow his way, and starts chuckling. “Don’t judge me, LT, and don’t think I have a soft spot, either. It’s all a part of my master plan.”

I turn to a small child with doubting eyes, ruffle the hair on his head, and point at him. “Ali Baba?” I ask, using the Arabic term for thief and general villain. The group of kids around him giggle hysterically and chant “Ali Baba! Ali Baba!” while the victim of my slandering protests his newfound label. I put my hands out and let the kids play with the Kevlar that lines the knuckles on my gloves, something that always fascinates them.

The children run away from PVT Das Boot, petrified that the American Giant will accidentally step on them. They point and whisper from afar though, and Billy the Kid translates their murmurings: “A man that tall must be able to see the whole world.” PVT Das Boot just snorts and shakes his head, and bums a cigarette from SPC Flashback.

“Don’t these fuckers ever go to school?” SGT El Nino asks. I don’t think it is a serious question, although it is a legitimate one.

I look across the coil and see CPL Spot turn to SGT Axel. “Think it’s cool if I give them dip and tell them it’s chocolate?”

“No,” SFC Big Country says, walking up behind them. He has a large trash bag filled with toys. He attempts to organize the gaggle of children into a single-file line of disciplined order, a concept so foreign to them that they simply laugh at his directions, while encircling him. Most of the children barely come up to his waist, and while towering over them, my platoon sergeant begins to pass out small plastic cars. Pandemonium ensues.

“Stay in line! God damn it, stay in line!” he yells, without effect. He ignores the temptation to just throw the bag into the middle of their youthful jubilee though, and hands them out to the snatching hands one at a time.

“Now the fireworks start,” SGT Cheech says to SPC Haitian Sensation, watching the kids begin to steal the cars from one another, often using the toys themselves as synthetic weapons of mass destruction. This phenomenon of plastic meeting skull inevitably leads to hysterical wails and tears. SSG Bulldog struts over to one of the head-cracking bullies, grabs a toy away from him in a grunting huff, and brings it over to a well-mannered runt standing away from the mass, watching quietly.

“Time to go,” I say, moving away from the vehicles with one dismount team, while the other one stays with the vehicles for local security. Half of the children follow our movements into their neighborhood, something I really don’t mind. Being encircled by a bubble of Iraqi street-urchins probably contributes to our security element in ways I can hardly comprehend. The enemy has to fight the public relations battle, as well, and shooting at Americans surrounded by local kids might not go over well with Iraqi soccer moms.

The Iraqi children spiral around our wedge formation, collecting rocks out of sewage dunes the way their western world counterparts pick out seashells on beaches of white sand. I sporadically select local citizens to engage, sometimes seeking out the welcoming faces, sometimes seeking out the hostile ones. This day is like any other day spent asking the populace to explain the details of their daily existence: Life in Iraq sucks and has always sucked and continues to suck. It doesn’t matter what neighborhood it is, the citizens of Anu al-Verona all have the same complaints. “We don’t have clean water,” they say. “We don’t have jobs,” they state. “We only have fifteen minutes of electricity per day, because the Others (cue Shi’a and Sunni divide) take it all. They Ali Babas, we think America very good. Gimme water, mistah. Gimme job, mistah. Gimme power, America.” Gimme, gimme, gimme.

“We’re trying,” I tell them, “but shit like this takes time.” I say shit just like that too, something I don’t know or care if Billy the Kid translates directly. I feel momentarily obliged to lecture the locals about turning to their own government for these civic matters, as a way of empowering themselves, but quickly discard such thoughts. I’ve already learned that lesson. Mere mention of the Iraqi government just leads to another stratosphere of bitching from the Anu al-Verona citizenry.

I also internally debate whether or not I should waste oxygen discussing the history of America’s evolving democracy, and explain that civil services take time to establish themselves, especially in third world countries. Ever heard of the Articles of Confederation, Mister Unkempt Iraqi Man addicted to the Handout? They make the Paul Bremer years look like pure genius. I smile to myself, in spite of this lunacy. I had tried that approach once, some weeks ago. Let’s just say it hadn’t spawned the intended effect.

I sometimes can literally feel my compassion for fellow human beings leaking out of me like oil leaving an engine, so slowly it’s barely evident, and yet dripping with enough regularity that I know the problem is severe in nature. I’ve only been here for two months; 13 more months of seepage awaits. I really do hope being cognizant of this leak will help me plug it back up, when the time comes to do so. Not that such a time awaits on any near horizon.

I take another sip of chai. I am now conversing with a group of local men who claim the Others don’t let them use the fuel station on the other end of town. They also insinuate that the Others are housing a sniper somewhere near this fuel station, knowing full well that the word “sniper” immediately captures our attention the way the tabloids lord over a long line at the supermarket back home -- even if “sniper” for Arabs usually just means an unknown person firing a gun somewhere within audible distance, thus qualifying 90 percent of the people in Iraq as snipers.

I catch a fleeting glimpse of two pairs of alluring dark eyes peeking out at us from behind a cracked front door from across the street, alluring dark eyes that belong to young female faces and flowing black robes that usually fail to cover every curve the way they are designed to.

I’m not the only one who takes notice. Billy the Kid leaves me alone to discuss business in broken sign language with the men, while he walks across the street, waving the young women out. Usually this direct tactic fails to work, but today it manages to somehow succeed; I assume the girls’ parents are not home. Without my terp, my conversation with the locals quickly dissipates, but Billy the Kid’s exchange is just now beginning to develop.

We spend the next ten minutes pulling security around a house in an alleyway of Anu al-Verona, so my 21-year old terp can flirt with two giggling Iraqi teenagers in Arabic. Welcome to this week’s episode of Real World: Iraq. I finally yell “Billy! Wrap it up,” and give him the international hand signal for such. He smiles, embarrassed upon finally realizing an entire section of scouts are watching him, but still pulls out a piece of paper to write his cell phone number on. He gives one of the girls the paper, and waltzes back over to me.

“I big pimp,” he says.

“You big liar,” I respond. “Those chicks think you’re an American, don’t they?” His midnight black skin, northern African heritage, and dummy rifle often confuse the locals.

He shrugs his shoulders and repeats one of his favorite mantras, picked up from watching SSG Bulldog play poker. “If you ain’t bullshittin’, you ain’t tryin’ hard enough.” A fair statement from a guy who claims to have four girlfriends in the greater Anu al-Verona area.

When we return to our Strykers, a Frago message awaits from CPT Whiteback, a follow-on mission unplanned by the operations staff until the last minute, that they never bothered to pass along to the enactors of their typed words. Shocking, I think to myself, cynically. I really do hate the TOC-roaches with every ounce of my Celtic spite at this moment.

Off we roll to another part of Anu al-Verona, to knock on a door of a purported insurgent. If the knocking doesn’t work, we’ll kick the door in and initiate a social engagement that way. I let my guys know we’re probably going to have to work through lunch, so hopefully they brought a brown-bag from home. Some of them laugh, some of them curse, but none of them are surprised.

Three Fragos and a life-frame later, I check my watch as I climb into the back of the Stryker with PV2 Boomhauer and Billy the Kid, who yawns noisily. Somehow eleven hours have passed since we departed the relatively safety of the outpost’s gates. Time passes differently while on mission; seconds and minutes and even hours disappear into an abyss of repetition and flickering echoes, sometimes slowing things down, sometimes speeding them up. Today proved to be the latter. I give the platoon three or so minutes, and then ask them if they’re ready to move.

“Gravediggers, this is Gravedigger 1,” I say. “Report your Redcon status in sequence.”

“This, uhh, Gravedigger 2,” SSG Bulldog drawls. “We Redcon 1.”

“Gravedigger 1, this is Gravedigger 3, we’re Redcon 1!” SSG Boondock bursts.

“This is 4,” SFC Big Country thunders. “Let’s roll.”

“On your move 2,” I say, watching the wheels of my senior scout’s vehicle begin to churn forward. I let X-Ray know we’re returning back to the outpost. Some minutes later, just like every day, our Strykers move back through the gate, into the wire, rising above a war zone in an American fortress of concertina wire and Jersey barriers.

As I strut back inside from the motor pool, cocksure ego and defiant nature still intact, I stop on the front stoop and pause to watch the desert sun slowly fade into the abstract possibilities of tomorrow. The austere chants of a Muslim call to prayer blaring over a nearby Mosque contribute to this idyllic clip of a stranger in a strange land. It seems like the kind of moment I’ll remember -- or want to remember, more accurately -- when I’m old and grizzled, looking back on my time in Iraq over a few beers, and too stained by the dirty tricks of memory to recall the more miserable moments.

The Gravediggers move into the combat outpost behind me, weary but still lively, swapping stories and uttering the normal soldier exaggerations, hoping there’s still some hot chow left. The Joes flock to the phone and the internet, while the NCOs head to their makeshift poker table. I have a patrol debrief to put together. Three hours, I tell them, before they are absorbed into the urban camo of accumulation. You have three hours. A night patrol awaits.

Today was just like any other day except for the ones that are different.

Any time y’all wanna see me again
Rewind this track right here,
close your eyes
And picture me rollin
       -- 2Pac, “Picture Me Rollin’”

Comments

Vivid....Lt G, great post. I look forward to reading more.

nice story man. keep them coming.

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