November 28, 2013

This post originally went up on The Sandbox seven years ago. It is by Owen Powell, who while deployed posted frequently under his nomme de blog. It goes up today as a tribute and a shout-out to Owen, to everyone else who has contributed to the site, and to all those who have served or are now serving far from home.

Name: SGT "Roy Batty"
Posting date: 12/1/06
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Yellow Springs, Ohio

Cinnamon rolls, golden brown, freckled with spice, hot and steamy, eager for the soothing caress of white frosting. On the morning of every Thanksgiving Day, my dad would get up early and make cinnamon rolls for the family. I would wake up to the house thick and sleepy and warm with the delicious smell, full of the promise of turkey and dressing and pies to come. Growing up in the Air Force, things were often turbulent, fractured. Thanksgiving Day was one of the few days of the year that could be counted on to be peaceful, a day to immerse yourself in the quiet joys of our family rituals. A day to put aside sibling rivalry and all the covert battles that are fought within a large family, a glorious day to do nothing but help with the cooking, watch the parades on TV, stuff yourself with rare and special delicacies, and loll on the floor with your brothers and sister and moan about how you ate too much.

It was perfect.

For this year's Thanksgiving, my platoon woke up at 0600, put on our PTs, and went out for a couple of hours of moving sandbags. Due to the casualties we took the other day, the Wise Old Men of the company have decided to relocate our bunkers to a closer and more protected spot. It's a great idea, one that I'm surprised no one came up with during the four years of occupation before we arrived. Huge cranes will be coming in to move the concrete "doghouses" that make up the heart of the bunkers, but the sandbags have to cleared off and moved by hand. Each sandbag weighs 30-40 pounds. There are hundreds, if not thousands of them, covering the three bunkers outside our barracks.

Curiously, there is something positive about the work; healthy, needed. It's dirty, dusty, and your shoes rapidly fill up with sand. Your shoulders ache after a bit, and your hands chafe within the thick leather work gloves. Yet after the last few days, it is good to do something simple, physical, and with a tangible, visible result at the end.

After a couple of hours of sandbag games, it's time to load up the trucks for the day's mission. Yep, no federal holiday here, it's business as usual, which means there are checkpoints out there just desperate to be evaluated.

Load-out goes smoothly, as usual these days. While grabbing my rifle and mission pack, I spot my digital camera, sitting on the little plastic shelf next to my bed. Should I take it along? Naaah, just some more boring checkpoint -- why bother? I do take the time to try to fine tune some things within the truck, though. Hook up a cloth bandolier under my radio speakers, so that I can store para-flares close at hand. Tie a line of 550 cord in C's turret where he can hang smoke grenades, so he can quickly toss them out to obscure a sniper's line of sight. Try to figure out how I can mount both a spare tire and a full-sized tow bar off the tailgate.

In the middle of my brainstorming, there is a high, familiar FIZZZZ overhead, followed by a large explosion behind our barracks. Rockets. Gotta be rockets.

Everyone runs for the bunkers, which are naked and bare; only halfway through their repositioning move. Nix and I just jump into our HMMWV. The damn thing has enough armor hanging off of it, surely it will stop most of the little pieces of metal that might be zinging around the parking lot.

More explosions crump their way randomly around the base, some fairly nearby, others farther away. I tell Nix to start up the truck, and if they start getting really close, we'll just haul ass for the other side of post. We joke back and forth about the vision that springs to mind, born out of adrenalin and some ancient Burt Reynolds movie; the HMMWV careening at an impossible speed, weaving madly back and forth down the dirt roads of the FOB, explosions bracketing it on each side, guard towers slowly toppling over as we dart underneath. We cackle madly at the thought, and light up our cigarettes. Ain't like there's anyone around to yell at us for smoking in a HMMWV right now.

With that, there's tap on the passenger door. We jump, and look at the window guiltily, feebly trying to hide the smokes. It's Doc H, looking haggard, flinching down a bit at a distant blast. We unlock the door, and let him in, and W climbs in behind him, and we all scrunch together so we can shut the thick armored door. I think about how ironic it is that we are in the middle of an attack and we are more worried about getting caught smoking in a HMMWV than being blown to smithereens by a Katyusha rocket. Until I look up, and see that the gunner's hatch is open. Nix tries to close it, but there is an AT-4 anti-tank rocket hooked to the back of the hatch, placed there earlier, and we can't close it unless we stand up to loosen it.

Fuck it. What are the chances that a rocket will land directly on top of the only occupied HMMWV in the entire parking lot? We go back to smoking our cigarettes, each pretending not to notice when the other sneaks a worried glance at the gaping hole above our heads. We used to not believe in unlikely close calls.

A medic runs by the truck carrying a bulging trauma kit. He's headed towards the center of the MP complex, at high speed. We don't think much of it at first, but then another medic runs past. And another. Doc sighs out loud. "Guess I better go, too." He grabs his backpack and takes off at a slow jog, his medic pack flopping from side to side as he crunches through the gravel, headed into the smoke and dust.

Medics. Gotta love 'em.

Nix and I sit in the truck, listen to the radios in an attempt to find out what all is going on, and smoke a couple more cigarettes. Eventually the "all clear" signal is given, and we get out, shrug, and go back to wrestling with the tow bar.

SSG T appears, in full gear, and gives the brief for today's mission, which is the same as yesterday's mission, and the one before that. He starts his brief as he always does, by reading the SIGACTS page, about significant acts that have happened in the last 24 hours. There've been something like 29 attacks in the Baghdad area: 15 IEDs, five VBIEDs, three snipers, six ambushes, as well as a handful of murders and kidnappings of local nationals. Even for Baghdad, this is a little high, but not that much. Most of us just tune out during this part of the brief; it is too hard to fully visualize, and too depressing if you choose to actually make the effort.

We finish the brief and make our final preparations to roll out. Doc appears back at the trucks. Someone from another one of the MP companies got hit, just on the other side of our barracks. Blasted with shrapnel from one of the rockets, doesn't look good for him. I say our usual pre-mission prayer for the team, asking God's help for each of us, just so we can make it safely through another mission. After leading the prayer, I grab my rosary and Nix's St Michael's medallion, hanging in their special place in the windshield. Dear Lord, please be with me.

He's always answered it.

Outside the gate, traffic seems a little crazier than usual. People don't seem to pay quite as much attention to us as normal, and C has to madly blow on his police whistle, pointing his 9 mil pistol at the closest and most oblivious drivers to get them to react. The strange thing about Iraq is that some people react more to a pistol than to a heavy machine gun. We're told it's because Saddam liked to show up randomly at various places around town, and if his pistol came out, someone was definitely getting executed.

Nix swerves the heavy truck at cars that don't want to pull over. We don't like vehicles moving around us. Best they just pull over, put on their emergency flashers, and sit there quietly until we have moved on. Part of it is our concern about VBIEDs, or drive-by shootings. Part of it, I think, is just aggression and anxiety, that and the desire to have some control over the insanity around us, any control -- even if it is just to get that guy with the red kaffiyah to pull over.

"What--the--fuck?" asks Doc, from the back seat, in his long, drawn out Virginia accent. "These people are on freakin' drugs today."

"Yeah, man, didn't you get the memo?" I reply, craning my head back from the TC seat. "It's DWI day!"

"DWI day?" Doc looks around C's legs at me, quizzically.

"Yeah, Driving While Iraqi!" I smile back at him.

"Sheeesh, more like Kill An American Day." mutters Nix, hunched down behind the driver's wheel.

"Every day is Kill An American Day......." My voice trails off, and I turn back to the windshield. C whistles shrilly above us, in the gunner's hatch, and swears under his breath at some errant motorist. I rest my case.

Today, we are headed for the northern stretch of Route Pluto, northeastern Baghdad, right on the tip of Sadr City. We wind back and forth on various streets, taking a circuitous route, trying to avoid the "Black" and "Red" designated roadways. There have been so many IEDs lately that it seems half of the roads are off limits. Still, we make it with no real problems up to Checkpoint 3V. We are there for exactly two minutes before the day starts to unravel.

One of my SINCGARS radios is tuned to our 1st Platoon's frequency. First Platoon's second squad are our "wingman" element today, working a couple of the other checkpoints. The speaker for that radio is turned down a little so that I can focus on our "internal" frequency, but, through the static, I start hearing little snatches of urgent conversation.

"Taking fire...."

"IA armor approaching from the 6 o'clock...."

"......looks like they're in the mahallah, down by the mos......"

I grab the handset, stick it under the cup of my Peltor headphones, listen in. Grab the internal handset, and call up to Renegade 43, SSG T's truck. Fish answers, and I tell him that it sounds like "the Uglies" are getting shot at, down at whatever checkpoint they are evaluating. Believe it or not, that's their platoon name -- the Uglies. Don't ask me, I guess they are not a very imaginative bunch of guys. Either that, or they just have poor self esteem. Through my windshield, down the row of HMWWVs, I can see Fish as he leans out and yells at SSG T.

SSG T speeds up his questions, working his way quickly through his forms. The INPs listen intently to their radios, no doubt getting the same intel from their chain of command. They are visibly concerned, and start turning around approaching traffic. They obviously don't want any cars coming near them. Sounds like a good policy to me.

Thirty seconds later, and we are bouncing and shaking our rickety way southbound on Pluto. We are going in to back up 1st Platoon. This seems to be our primary mission these days, backing up folks in trouble.

We were at Checkpoint 3V, and the Uglies are at Checkpoint 4V, only a mile or two apart, so we are there in just a few minutes. Since I'm monitoring their freq, I call them and let them know we are coming in from the north. I get back a quick acknowledgement, and a warning: the Iraqi Army has arrived at the checkpoint, with armor. Greeaaaat.

The IA has a reputation for wild, frantic gunfire at the slightest provocation. The fact that they have shown up with armor, meaning some sort of armored vehicles, i.e. tanks or armored personnel carriers, is kinda scary.

We race up the on-ramp, and wheel into position on the bridge at CP 4V, the place that we called in the Apaches one night after getting sniped at; the place where, on a different day, we had a suspected car bomb and an IP kid stopping traffic with a belt-fed machine gun. The place where, on yet another night, the INPs were blasting away at insurgents as they tried to flank us, and SSG C had me fire the one and only shot that I've fired in almost six months of Iraqi "combat".

I love Checkpoint 4V, it's always good for a laugh.

As we move into position, we can see BMPs down the wide road in the business district. BMPs are wide, low, Soviet Armored Personnel Carriers. I've seen them here before, since there is an Iraqi Army installation somewhere just to the east.

Some IA guys are out of their BMPs, clustering against the sides of the some of the buildings. As we park and start doing our standard checks for roadside bombs, there is a rattling "thumpthumpthump" of heavy caliber machine gun fire to our left. The deep sound makes us duck, even though we are within the embrace of the HMMWV and its armor.

Seems there are some more BMPs on the access road just to the side and below the bridge, and they are furiously shooting at something unseen. What that something might be, I haven't a clue. I break out my Steiner binoculars, and start scanning the buildings.

"More IA armor, coming up behind us." C calls down from the turret. I call it up on the internal radio as a couple more BMPs rumble past us, belching grey smoke from their sides. They pull up against the building at the end of the bridge, and start disgorging troops. Almost instantly, I can hear the "poppoppop" of AK fire.

The weird thing is, I can't see any bad guys out there through the binos. Are we just sitting at the wrong angle? Do the IA soldiers see something I can't? Another volley of heavy machine gun fire cuts my musings short. It is frustrating to have to sit here and just watch the action. I understand why we are just sitting here -- in fact there are a number of reasons. The main one is that this is their country, and we want the Iraqi Army and police to take the forefront in the fight. The other is more pragmatic, since it's probably a good idea to stay out of the IA's way; we don't want to get shot by our "allies". Still, I can't help but feel that if I was still working with the infantry, we would be down there in the mahallah, manuevering on the bad guys. Not all squad leaders are as aggressive as SSG C. So, we sit and watch, the gunners and team leaders glassing the buildings, looking for insurgents. We have our Rules of Engagement to think about, and must have Positive Identification in order to shoot. We can't just blast everything in sight, like the IA do.

A "sniper" team of Iraqi National Police runs past us at a full sprint, carrying long Dragunov rifles, moving to reinforce the police bunker at the eastern end of the bridge.

"I can see a tank moving up from Route Pluto." remarks Nix, to my side.

"Is it a tank, or a BMP?" I ask him.

"What's the difference?" he asks. "It's got treads, so it must be a tank."

"Nope." I say. "BMPs have treads, too. BMPs are armored personal carriers, like our Bradleys. Does it have a little bitty turret in the front, or a big, dome like turret?"

"I dunno." Nix says, with a bit of sullen tone, which is normal for him.

"Can't see it now. It's coming up the exit ramp."

I'm really not being a dick to him. I'm trying to teach my soldiers vehicle recognition. Back when I first joined the Marines in the mid-80s, when the notion of being a soldier in the Army would have made me spit venomously, vehicle recognition was a skill that was carefully taught. We would sit around and study little flash cards of tanks and aircraft and helicopters, quizzing each other. Only thing is, then it was enemy vehicle recognition -- and the pieces of armor we are looking at now were going to be the bad guys, stomping their way through the Fulda Gap in their thousands.

"Whoa, here it comes now!" exclaims Nix, pointing through the winshield.
A great clattering, rickety, rust-colored behemoth lurches into view in front and just to the left of us, farting out greasy exhaust fumes from its side. Two Iraqi soldiers with Russian tanker helmets are standing in the gunner and track commander hatches, manning their massive Dashika machine guns. A long main gun turns ponderously to the side, pointing down the city street.

I whistle, low and respectful. "Gents, that is a T-72."

"Which is a tank! Right? Right?" Nix jumps up and down in his driver's seat, looking at me. "I knew I was right! Fuckers...." He mutters under his breath, chortling to himself, stabbing victoriously with his finger at the windshield and the tank behind it.

There is a gawdawful rattling and clanging of metal, and the burbling of a huge and ancient diesel engine behind us, and another T-72 lurches to a halt right next to us.

I look at it with something like disbelief. The T-72, former Main Battle Tank of the Soviet Bear. We are so used to seeing our M1A1 tanks, all sleek angles and relatively quiet turbine engine, whistling like an idling jet. This great beast next to us is something else entirely, a relic, an antique, a dinosaur, freed from some oily Jurassic Park motorpool. It is a little strange, for a former Cold Warrior, to have backup arrive in the form of an old and half-forgotten enemy. I'm not sure whether to be impressed, relieved, or seriously concerned.

More gunfire down the road, heavy, a little more persistent this time, snaps me back to the present. The pair of T-72s belch more gray exhaust, and clatter down into the local neighborhood. Looking at them move makes me feel as if I am watching a newsreel, some footage from another era -- almost makes me feel as if we are present in a real, honest-to-goodness, shooting war. Their guns swivel and turn, and the tanks disappear down a side street. I'm really glad that we are not down there, with them anywhere near us.

Sure enough, a few minutes after the tanks rumble out of view, we hear three, slow, oddly flat explosions, quite unlike any we have heard before. I guess at the truth. The tanks are firing their main guns, probably point blank, into some of the houses within the mahallah. Black smoke starts to curl above the rooftops, slowly at first, then increasing in volume, darkening. The Iraqi soldiers move in, following the lead of the tanks. The sound of AK fire goes with them, rising in tempo.

One thing I should note is that, while all of this is going on, from the moment we arrived on the bridge, Iraqi civilians keep walking back and forth across the bridge. Occasionally a car darts out from a side street, crossing the main road, and disappears out of view. Old men carrying newspapers do their best to jog across the road. Arab women, wearing the traditional black robes, haul groceries in thin plastic bags, headed for home. A few people have the sense to turn around and leave, or wave at us and the INPs first, making sure they have our attention, then lift their shirts to show that they are unarmed, and approach carefully. But most just go about their business, perhaps with a slight sense of increased urgency, but not that much differently from every day life. I honestly cannot think of many things that just couldn't wait a couple of hours so that I wouldn't have to walk into this instant combat zone.

I'm sitting there, thinking about this, when we all hear a very deep, distant explosion. The kind that is a long ways off, so it isn't loud, and nothing around you shakes, but it has such a deep bass tone to it, such a hint of magnitude and power, that you know it's a really big one. Like if someone flying above the far side of your home town dropped the Titanic from 10,000 feet, and it landed on the Dairy Queen. A sound to mak you go, "Oh shiiiiiiiit" in a long drawn-out sigh of awe and fear.

My "internal" radio, the SINCGARS that is tuned to our platoon frequency, crackles to life. It's SGT V, in one of the trucks ahead of me. He is monitoring the "land owner" frequency; the combat manuever element that is overall in charge of this patch of real estate. Not one, but two VBIEDs, car bombs, have detonated, at almost exactly the same time. One is in downtown Sadr City, and the other one is at Checkpoint 7V. We're not terribly heartbroken about the one in Sadr City, but 7V is just down the road from us, manned by INPs, and quite possibly by one of our brother MP squads. I hope none of our guys were there when the damn thing went off.

Radio traffic increases. There is a lot of talk going back and forth between our different elements and our Tactical Operations Center. I tell my guys to get ready to move out. In the middle of this, a BMP emerges from the neighborhood in front of us, belches smoke, and rattles up to us. A gaggle of Iraqi soldiers emerge out of the back. They are carrying something between them. Someone.

It is an Iraqi soldier. He has been shot in the side of his face, and blood covers his "chocolate chip" cammies in great splotches. His buddies lay him down in the road, just in front of my truck. SSG T and Fish get out of their truck as soon as they see him, and lend a hand.

"Doc, they need you up front!" I call back, but he is already pushing open his armored door, moving.

SGT V and B get out of their truck to pull security. SSG T motions for me to move my truck up and to the side, to provide cover from the watchful eyes of the local rooftops. Once parked, I go to exit the vehicle to help out, but he waves me off, tells me to stay put. He explains to me later that he wanted me to monitor and track everything that was going down on the radios, but in the moment I am a little pissed. I want to get in on the action.

The scene that plays out through my windshield looks like one from a pretty decent war movie, and I kick myself for not bringing that camera. Iraqi soldiers mill around with their AKs and machine guns, draped in bandoleers of ammunition. Doc, SSG T and one of the Iraqi sergeants work on the wounded man. Fish and B pull security and watch, until there is another burst of 12.7mm Dashika fire, and then they crouch over the back hatch of the HMMWV, pointing their rifles, scanning the closest buildings for snipers. I sit in my truck, both handsets jammed up under my Peltor headphones, a peevish look on my face, listening to distant chaos and trying to make Maverick Base understand what is happening on our little bridge within it.

"Damn!" says C presently, from above me. "The IA are fighting with each other."

"What the hell are you talking about?" I ask, looking up at him. Nix opens his door, leans out and looks behind our truck.

"Holy shit, that guy just slapped the shit out of another one of the IA!" exclaims Nix, excitedly.

Apparently there is a regular bout of fisticuffs going on behind us, as if the gunbattle to the front is not enough already. We can't figure out what it is all about, at first, but looking at the guy bleeding on the asphalt in front of me I start to put two and two together. I think one of the Iraqi soldiers shot his own guy by accident.

Doc has got an IV line going, and has patched up the soldier's face as well as possible. The soldier is conscious, stable, and so the Iraqis load him back up into their BMP, and rumble off to a local hospital. Doc gets back in our truck, breathless, excited.

"I got to work my first gunshot wound!" he keeps saying. We rib him about it, and joke about getting him his Combat Medic's Badge. Supposedly the wound was not that bad, but just bled like crazy, as head wounds often do. Doc says he hopes the guy makes it okay, and looks back through his window, trying to see the BMP disappearing behind us.

Maverick Base wants us to hang out for a bit, continue to offer medical assistance, and see if the situation calms down. We end up sitting there for another half hour or so, watching the smoke billow out of the mahallah, and eyeing the local minarets suspiciously. I hand around a box of Chicken in a Bisket crackers, which is completely demolished in less than ten minutes. We are all a little hungry, having missed lunch. There are MREs in the back, but no one really wants to get out and expose themselves to the locals by clambering up around the spare tire to get them.

That's okay, just means more room for turkey and stuffing when we get back.

We hear on the radio that there is more gunfire down south, on Pluto. Then there is a report of yet another car bomb, at another checkpoint. We're needed elsewhere. Things have died down here; we haven't heard any more shooting for the past twenty minutes or so. We never do see the T-72s again; maybe they just kept driving through the neighbourhood, squashing cars and the occasional juvenile delinquent, as they made their way downtown. Maverick Base orders us to clear the scene, and to "Charlie Mike" -- Continue Mission.

We manuever the HMMWVs into formation and turn southbound onto Pluto. The Uglies are coming with us, falling in a hundred meters or so behind us. My friend P is riding with them today, filling in for a sick team, and as he pulls out he reports "shots fired". Turns out a couple hit the back of his truck, so hopefully that means there really were some insurgents in the area. I'd like to think that not all of the gunfire on that bridge came from the Iraqi Army.

We crawl slowly down Route Pluto, scanning for hidden bombs and gunmen, a little more carefully than usual. A couple of hundred meters south we run into the outer fringes of a huge traffic jam. The entire highway, and the dusty canal that separates its two lanes, is jammed with cars, trucks and buses. Vehicles careen every which way, desperately. The local people are fleeing the bridges and their checkpoints, since this is what the car bombs seem to be targeting the most. Since they can't get off of the highway, they seem to be driving aimlessly, just for the sake of continued movement. I am reminded of scared livestock; stampeding cattle.

The radio crackles with yet another report of a car bomb.

"Y'know, we've never actually seen one of those." muses Nix. "Probably be pretty neat, actually."

"Yeah, right, real freakin' neat, particularly if it was right outside your window." I say in reply, looking worriedly at all of the civilian vehicles crowded around us. I know he is just joking, trying to take the edge off the situation. The feeling we all have is that the city is starting to tear itself apart.

We edge our way through the mob, trying to keep the vehicles away from us, but with little luck. There're just too many of them, and nowhere for them all to go. We are starting to make our way out of the mess when I see a billowing cloud of black smoke rise from behind some trees, right by the side of the road we are on, about four or five hundred meters in front of us. Just as the dark balloon of gas breaks over the top of the trees, it is swallowed by a monstrous spasm of red-orange flame. The truck shakes a half-second later, and through the armor, through my headphones, I can hear and feel the shockwave of the explosion.

"VBIED! Right in front of us!" I yell.

Everyone else swears to themselves in exactly the same tone of reverence. It seems to be a natural reaction to the detonation of a large amount of explosive close to your person. Your muscles tense uncontrollably, your eyes widen, and you quietly and intently moan, "Duuuuuuuude," in awe, more to yourself than anyone else. Usually a different four letter word, though. We all watch, wide-eyed, as the orange mushroom cloud, fringed with black, rolls up into the blue Iraqi sky.

"Okay -- nobody wishes for nothing else! I'm serious!" I hiss to the soldiers in the truck. Between Nix's desire to see a VBIED, and my own wishes, a few weeks ago, for more action; it is apparent that someone up there is listening in and fulfilling them, all too well. I'm never bitching about things being too quiet, ever again.

The convoy continues its slow roll southward, never faltering. I call up to C, reiterate my directive that no one, and I do mean no one, gets within 100 meters of us.

We come upon a dark debris field made of little tiny pieces of metal, all scorched and blackened. It is the remains of the car bomb. I look to the right, out of my ballistic window, and on small parallel road, just off the highway, is the remains of an engine, and a couple of feet to its side, part of the car frame. Both are still burning. There is nothing else but scattered wreckage; nothing bigger than the size of a fist.

"There's a guy lying on the side of the road." reports C, from the turret.
I look over and see the charred body of a man, smoke rising from his shoulders. He's not lying there for his health, becasue he's dead. I look away quickly. I really don't need any more persistent images to trouble my sleep. He's not a threat, so focus on the mission at hand.

The weirdest thing is the location of the car bomb. An INP checkpoint is a hundred meters or so away, not close enough to be damaged. There is nothing else here -- no cars, no crowd of people, no strategic buildings. I scratch my head, under my Kevlar, and wonder what happened. Did the bomber get made by the INPs, and blow himself up anyway? Was it an accident; a crossed wire or a carelessly fumbled detonator? Was it deliberately placed there in an attempt to just freak out the people fleeing the checkpoints? Just another day in Iraq, with more questions than answers.

We keep rolling south. The Uglies switch sides, start driving south in the northbound lane. Maybe they don't like the route we're taking, our idea of a scenic tour. They come across one of our M1 tanks, which has just hit an IED. Fortunately no one is injured, although the tank has thrown a tread and cannot be moved. They make sure the tank crew is safe, and then roll on.

A report comes over the radio that a convoy of vehicles is headed out of Sadr City. It is believed that there are 12-15 vehicles, with an unknown number of car bombs, headed for various checkpoints. Lord only knows where they got this intel, but it is not what we were hoping to hear. We redouble our efforts at scanning for bad guys, and pick up the speed just a tad.

I wonder to myself if this is not some sort of Shi'ite version of the Tet Offensive. What if this is the beginning of some major, all-out civil war? What if this level of insanity doesn't go on for just a few hours, but never stops, just keep rolling, increasing, expanding out of Baghdad like a virus? It feels a little like 9/11 again, with just unimaginable shit going on everywhere you look, with that similiar feeling of disbelief and horror.

"This sure is some wild-ass Disneyland ride," I remark to Nix.

Nix looks at me, cheek bulging improbably with chewing tobacco, as always. "That's crazy, Sar'nt," he says, smiling. "I was just thinking exactly the same thing, only as a Universal Studios tour!"

We laugh about it, which helps take the edge off. There is something to our analogy, as if the things we are seeing through the windshield and hearing over the radio are some carefully engineered amusement park ride. It doesn't feel altogether real.

We make it down to Checkpoint 12V with no further problems, and take all of about 60 seconds to ask our questions and get the hell out of there. Being ten klicks or so south of Sadr City, the craziness hasn't made it down here, although the INPs look appropriately frazzled. I can only imagine what they thought of the stupid infidels who showed up in the middle of this mess to ask their inane questions. "Do your toilets work properly?" "Do you have sufficient hygiene products?" "How do you and your men feel about the Coalition Forces?" Fuhgedaboutit.....

Our mission is complete, and we are called back in to the FOB. I am happy and relieved to see the concrete gate of Rusty in front of us, and the Uglies glide in safely behind us. There is much animated talking and gesturing at the staging area in front of the barracks, as we do the obligatory cigarette smoking and re-telling of the scenes to each other. And then SFC Ware tells us the kicker to it all.

The chow hall has run out of food.

There will be no Thanksgiving dinner for us. Halliburton may have won its 40 billion dollar no-bid contract, but it doesn't have any turkey and stuffing for the soldiers of the 630th today. It's especially heartbreaking to see the younger soldiers, shoulders sagging, looks of disbelief on their faces. "You're kidding, right, Sar'nt?"

With the time difference, my family should be making the cinnamon rolls right about now. The kitchen in my brother's Victorian house in Northern California will be brightening with the smell of the spice, as I strip off my body armor and lay my helmet down. My mum is there, visiting, probably pottering around with a cup of tea, making the stuffing by hand, as usual. My dad, in Ohio, is doubtless wide awake and hard at work, preparing the turkey, rubbing it with butter, sprinkling it with salt and pepper.

They are half a world away, on a different planet, in a separate reality from mine, thank God. Thanksgiving dinner, for me, is a little Dinty Moore microwave meal, eaten with a plastic spoon from an MRE. Chicken and mashed potatoes. But I am alive, and my soldiers are in one piece.

Even without cinnamon rolls and the promise of turkey, I am thankful.


November 27, 2013

Name: Charlie Sherpa
Previously embedded: with former unit in Afghanistan
Hometown: Boone, Iowa
Milblog: Red Bull Rising

Members of the Iowa National Guard's 833rd Engineer Company (833rd Eng. Co.) this week returned from clearing mines in Afghanistan, while 40 members of Bravo Company, 248th Aviation Support Battalion (248th A.S.B.) are heading out to Kosovo.

Framed Sherpa PRAYER 1It is a time of thanksgiving and prayer. In his annual Thanksgiving letter, Army Maj. Gen. Timothy Orr, the adjutant general of the Iowa National Guard, put it this way:

In the first time in 12 years, the Iowa National Guard does not have units currently deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, but we we do have individual deployers in the Central Command theater and one unit preparing at their mobilization station for deployment to Kosovo. It is a time to pause, to reflect, and to remember those who have sacrificed so much to insure liberty for all of us.

I've always held "Iowa's Engineers" in high regard. Back in the day, I was a member of the 833rd Eng. Co.'s higher headquarters. The Hawkeye patch they wear echoes the Mexican-water-jug shape of the 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division patch.

During one field exercise with the Engineers, I found myself selected to fill-in for the chaplain for the evening prayer. I always like to say that I can be spontaneous, but I usually need to plan ahead. While the commander was speaking in front of the formation, I jotted down a few words.

In the years that have followed, I've thought about those words often. I wish I could find that notecard now, but have tried to re-create the sentiment and spirt of the thing here. I think it still works as an all-purpose prayer of thanksgiving, and offer it here:

Dear Lord,

Help us clear the obstacles we create for ourselves, and protect us from our enemies' actions. Provide us strength, wisdom, forgiveness, and humor.

In your name and example, let us try to be better leaders, and followers, and friends to each other.

Keep our buddies close, our spirits up, and our rucksacks full. Most of all, keep our homes and families safe.

Thank you for our many blessings, and the opportunity to serve.

Essayons ... and amen.


November 21, 2013

Name: Mikey Piro
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Lindenhurst, NY
Milblog: ptsdsurvivordaily
Email: [email protected]


Well, I’m glad that is over. Veteran’s Day is as emotional to me as Memorial Day. Generally speaking, my wife and I hunker down and drag ourselves through the day. This year we both took off from work and that brought its own set of challenges, especially when the Veteran’s Day Parade and ESPN wouldn’t let us avoid as much as we desired.

The best article I read far and away was in The Atlantic by Alex Horton. The title summarizes the sentiment and is worth the read: “Help Veterans by Taking them off the Pedestal”

“That’s the problem with viewing something on a pedestal: you can only see one side at a time, and rarely at depth. It produces extremes — the valiant hero or the downtrodden, unstable veteran.”

My general approach, which has been more refined as years pass, is talk less, do more. (Or, in a more monosyllabic and brute fashion: Get. Shit. Done.) I appreciate Alex’s frank reasoning to drop the self applied superhero label.

On Veteran’s Day I also had the privilege to participate in WOD for Warriors with Islip Crossfit. If you live on Long Island I highly recommend three Crossfit Boxes: Islip Crossfit, Crossfit Undivided and, of course, Crossfit Lindy. Erica Pollack, of Islip Crossfit asked me to say a few words, and those words, as my family will support, invariably turned to tears. But I think the message was well received, and the WOD was a burner. If you want to get involved, I highly recommend checking out Team Red White and Blue for year-round Veteran interaction and community building.





These next six weeks, as merry and bright as they are at times, are also peak for lots of heartache, stress and general self-inflicted misery.

I have formulated a simple plan that has helped me get through. It requires a little time set aside for introspection, but on the whole, if I have put in the work it has allowed me to sprint into the new year. You will need a piece of paper and a writing implement.

STEP 1: Visualize the optimized refreshed you of January 2nd, 2014. For me, this is a lighter stronger person. When I say lighter and stronger I am not just referring to physically, but mentally and spiritually too.

STEP 2: Pick three attributes that if you could fast forward to the new year you would want to manifest (poof -- like magic) and that can be tracked empirically. Certainly the tricky part of STEP 2 is assigning something that can be tracked to an empirical observation. “Happy” can be an attribute, but you have to link it to something that you can measure. For me, smiling is a good link to happiness. For an empirical tracker I would track smiles per day. “Lighter” and physical weight is my favorite for keeping away the holiday poundage.

Step 3: Write it down, sign it, keep it with you and look at it every day. The key to success for the three attributes is the ability to answer a yes or no question on January 2nd. For instance, “Lighter: I workout often and weigh less than I did on 15 November 2013 (192#)”. The question is “do I weigh less?” Hopefully in January, it is a resounding “Yes!”

Here are my other two:
“Happier: I think of my family everyday and smile.”
“Giving: I donate each week to my favorite charities and attend one fundraising event.”

See, three easy steps. When that line gets a little long, when the day drags, or traffic is a nightmare, when someone is snarky or mean, take out your little slip of paper, focus on those attributes and keep moving. Let me know if you take on this little task. Charge into the new year by kicking ass the next seven weeks!


November 18, 2013

Name: Virgil Harlan
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Tucson, AZ
Milblog: A Gift From Marghalara
Email: [email protected]

Throughout Afghanistan there are the ruins of those who have entered this region of the world with a vision, tried to build, and eventually left. North of Charikar, Parwan Province, is a graveyard of burnt and rusted Soviet equipment, from a battle fought in the 1980s. By Shinwar, Nangarhar Province, there is a decaying British fort, built during one of their wars in Afghanistan. And in the town of Qalat, Zabul Province, high on a hill overlooking a wide valley is a castle that the locals will tell you was built by the men of Alexander the Great.

The war is coming to an end for the United States. For the most part, true combat operations have come to a halt, and the effort now focuses on advising Afghan forces and closing down Forward Operating Bases that were built throughout the country. The tiny Combat Outposts in god forsaken areas where so much of the violent fighting occurred were shut down well over a year ago. This comes with welcome news to the American public, the majority of whom basically forgot about the war sometime back, and welcome America’s withdrawal. Yet there are those of us who have fought here, and who remember September and October of 2001, when the American public clamored for military action and the end to Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Yes we have fought here. By “we,” I mean a very small group who has served in combat arms. At any given point in this war, less than 1% of the American population has served in the military. Of that percentage, even fewer have been in true combat. Ever since the First World War, the vast majority of people in the military do not experience true combat. Yes, they may have experienced incoming rounds, or have viewed the fighting from a relatively secure position, but those who were on the ground, engaging the enemy with direct fire have been the exception. It has been on those individuals, predominately male, that the heaviest burden war falls. And it is to those men that serious answers must be given.

America has spent billions of dollars in Afghanistan. These dollars have kept the Afghan government and military operational. Roads, schools, water and power systems have been built. Huge numbers of civilians, American, Afghan, and from countless other countries have been employed here, involved in a wide variety of projects. Yet it is coming to an end. By 2014, US forces will have basically left the country. For those of us who fought here, we wonder what the future will be for Afghanistan and for ourselves. 

Ruins. They can be found throughout Afghanistan.



November 11, 2013

Name: Mikey Piro
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Lindenhurst, NY
Milblog: ptsdsurvivordaily
Email: [email protected]



In a letter to my wife, I once wrote "When this war is over for us, I want to move far away, buy a small piece of land and live the rest of our days in peace."

I quickly found that returning from combat was a much longer trip than riding on a plane. The impacts of exposure to war, especially prolonged combat living under a constant threat of attack, deeply engrained in me experiences that are complex and tough to understand at many levels.  In most respects, the war is not over for those of us that have returned. The laws and morality of war differ enough from life at home that adjustment is problematic at best, impossible at worst. Talking with Veterans of other generations, I am not sure if the wars in our hearts and minds ever end.


I can describe my combat self as a troll who thrives on stress, fear, grief and uncertainty.  He is the ugly and mean part of my soul. Like the trolls from myth, he feeds on flesh and tears. He is kept at by by sunlight and comes out at night when all is still to stalk and prey on the weak issues that linger in my mind. He takes refuge in my inability, despite my work, to understand fully or process my experiences. He digs up issues that I have tried to bury and lines the path to peace with bodies on pikes. He slips in and out, leaving horrific reminders that any effort to forget him will be punished. To him, trying to live in peace as a Veteran is dissent.


December always brings the nightmares of dead children to haunt me. I keep my house cold to help me sleep, but my son is a restless sleeper--the blankets don't hold him. He somersaults in his sleep, thrashing covers as he rolls. When I go up to check on him, his foot is dangling out from the covers. His tiny digits mirror the dusty foot of an Iraqi boy blown from his shoes by a mortar. It is after midnight and I selfishly climb into my son's bed to hold him and cry. I clutch him tight as I try to reconcile the images of grief-stricken fathers holding the blankets that wrap their precious dolls robbed of life.  Avoidance is nearly impossible. The tiny foot of my own son is all it takes. I cannot hold him tight enough.

I believe the troll I mentioned lives in many people, and especially in combat Veterans. The geek in me likes to label him a troll because then I can hope to outsmart and conquer him someday. If I can ever claim victory, I think it will be in my ability to keep him from appearing often and when he does, in a smaller diffused role. Until then, I have further to travel. My destination is finding peace, and hopefully I will help others along the way as they have helped me.


All these years and I still struggle to live in peace. I have given up the pastimes of fighting and martial arts in favor of yoga and CrossFit.  I want to be non-violent, but I still cling to violence as an option. I aim to be calm but my boys will tell you there are times in frustration and weakness when I am anything but. I try to live in the moment, but my wife will tell you I am easily distant and distracted. If you compare my demeanor to other Veterans with PTSD, I believe this is typical. Discovering and learning more about these contradictions make the journey so important to me and my family. We need time, and space to explore, to find peace.


November 10, 2013

Name: The Afghan Battle Fox
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Clyde, Ohio
Milblog: Afghan Battle Fox's Blog
Email: [email protected]


November 07, 2013

Name: Lisa Wright
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Iron River, MI
Email: [email protected]

I wrote this about when I deployed to Iraq in 2005:

Truth be told, I was terrified. Now I know what you’re thinking: “What kind of soldier admits they’re scared?” But what kind of person would I be if I didn’t?

I was nineteen years old, and the longest I’d ever been away from home previous to the Army was maybe two days. I still couldn’t tell you my exact reason for joining the military. I know I had many flourishing emotions throughout my contract. I also know the number one feeling I had next to pride was fear.

I’d say the fear started with the phone call, or the mobilization training that spanned over a month, but it didn’t. It didn’t start with the cushy commercial airplane ride, either. I was too tired and confused to know exactly how to feel. There was a spark of fear, but not nearly enough to really give it a name.

Unloading off the airplane to Camp Doha was when I first realized that maybe I had gotten myself into an unfavorable position. I was there with six other soldiers, and we would all have the same fate. We stayed about a week in Camp Doha. The smell in the air was putrid; it stunk of dead rotting fish and human waste, and it was thick, like you walked into a cloud of trash and fog. The ground was shades of ecru and khaki, and the only green in sight was grown in Dixie cups by American soldiers missing home. The sky always seemed to be grey and the sun never seemed to shine. I don’t understand how we didn’t see the sun because the heat was so intolerable it felt as if we were standing directly underneath it.It took us a while, but we adapted to the extreme climate change, the sweat evaporating off of our skin like steam.

We were there about a week before they rounded us into the cattle trucks with all our gear, driving us to a canvas tent, location unknown. There we sat, in metal folding chairs, with nothing to entertain ourselves but what we carried on our person.

There we sat, seven very different human beings, all with the same fate, unsure of what was to come. We waited there for what seemed like an eternity. I don’t know if it was 20 minutes or 20 hours. I didn’t have a watch and there wasn’t a clock on the makeshift canvas wall. Even if there had been it wouldn’t have mattered. Time wasn’t ours to contain anymore.

Finally a man came into the tent. He told us we had five minutes to collect our gear and gather outside the tent. How long was five minutes? Time was unknown to us still. We just hurried and retrieved our items. We Velcroed together our IBAs*, we clipped our Kevlar straps taut under our chins, and we slung our weapons over our shoulders and grabbed our large green military issue duffle bags and scurried outside. We climbed on to the back of the truck and dutifully took a ride.

We arrived to the location of a C-130. I had never seen anything like it in my life. It was large with a subdued grey coloring to it. The propellers were working their way around and it was so loud we had to shout to one another. We handed our duffle bags over the guys waiting for us and we boarded the jet and waited to be strapped in. We were loaded right in with the supplies that needed to be delivered, as if we were nothing but expendable material objects.

The take-off was rough, but the ride was worse. I remember sitting in the plane with the others, and as they were talking they all winced in pain and struggled to hold a conversation of attempted sign language. There was nothing but a loud whistle and whir of the wind and the propellers spinning. We couldn’t hear a word out of anyone’s mouths, and at one point I remember fearing that my head was going to fold from pressure. I closed my eyes and didn’t think until it was over.

Once we landed safely, we all unloaded off the jet, stood in a circle, looked at each other, and didn’t say a word. It could have been because our heads felt concave, or it could have been because we were all scared. The men who transported us on the plane tossed our bags out onto the hard desert ground. The sky was black with a speckling of white stars, and there wasn’t a sound to be heard, not even a cricket in the distance. It felt like we were at the end of the earth looking out into space.

We waited for what seemed like an endless amount of time, until at last a dirty white bus pulled up to us, curtains drawn over all the windows. A man walked out of the bus, not in uniform, and not American. He spoke broken English, his skin was brown, his hair was very course and very black and my ethnocentrism led me into fear. I did not understand the world outside of what I was raised to know, and I did not know if this man was to be friend or foe. Another man stepped off the bus, dressed in DCUs, and a Kevlar helmet, carrying an M4, with his black First Sergeant E9 rank stitched onto his vest, and ordered us to grab our gear and load into the bus. Hurriedly, we jumped on.

The bus smelled like stale piss and fruity tobacco, and the ride in it wasn’t any better. We all sat in silence, staring at each other, afraid to look out the curtained windows, afraid of what could happen. Was there potential for gunfire? How about an IED or a mortar attack? Where was our final destination? Full of contemplation and anxiety, we sat, seven of us new to the country, and two men who had to know what was in our future. All that we could see of the strange land outside was the tawny ground from underneath the gap below the filthy curtain covering the missing door.

We reached a stop, and the two men got out of the bus. The next thing we saw were tan suede combat boots that blended well into the ground walking toward us. We all sat up, rigid, as if we were at the position of attention but still remained seated. On walked fellow comrades, a woman and a few men. Not dressed in full armor, they almost seemed naked. They only wore their cargo pants, combat boots and their burnt sienna tee shirts, stained dark with sweat. We all stood up and followed them off the bus, into yet another large canvas tent.

The tent was empty of any furniture besides a couple of metal folding chairs and a wooden desk. What was this place we were at? Was this my destination? We learned that it was just another rest stop in our journey. We were told to get comfortable but be ready to move at any second. How was this possible? I did what I could. I removed my helmet and laid it on the ground. I then opened up my IBA and propped it against my helmet, took my floppy-ass booney cap out of my pocket, and I laid down on my makeshift pillow and covered my eyes with my hat. If I was going to die, I wasn’t going to die scared.


* IBA : Interceptor Body Armor


November 04, 2013

Name: Mikey Piro
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Lindenhurst, NY
Milblog: ptsdsurvivordaily
Email: [email protected]

A while ago I wrote about anniversaries and their significance to me. That post is over two years old, yet traumatic dates and countdowns still dot my yearly calendar. As more life events have papered over smaller dates, there are plenty of times where a date comes and goes and I don’t notice until well after it passes. As more life events stack up, I am less fixated on dates and the events that caused so much pain. For that, I am truly thankful.

Still, there are major dates that my mind will not let fade into the background. These handful of dates, days when mounds of conflicted emotion stack high, are days when the lead in to the memories is particularly tricky.

I have written or talked about June 7th, 2005 in many therapy sessions.  It was a long day where a pre-dawn raid turned into an excessive search and our element of surprise gave way to hours of searches and subsequently let the enemy organize. From that day the largest emotions that stick with me are guilt and anger. In a box in my basement is a piece of asphalt I picked out of my gear from that day.

Each year on that date I take the time to mourn my fallen comrade. I still have trouble sleeping that week. I still hear the contact report on the radio. I can still see him receiving aid that came as quickly as it could but ultimately too late. The sight of our fallen comrade, the sounds of gunfire and mortars and acrid smell of cordite and unmistakable odor of blood linger ready to trigger vivid memories. The fuse is shorter that week.

Yet, there are other anniversaries that have come to take hold. The birth of my sons are two that bring me such joy no bad day in Iraq can compete. And, this past week, to a less extent but with a strong significance to me, I hit one year at my new job. I don’t often write about work, but I am meaning to change that in these coming days.  I have to admit, it was very odd to get congratulations for hitting that mark. However, knowing that I should celebrate my own achievements with this new normal early and often, I took it as a gentle reminder to try harder to let go of more harmful dates.

Letting go is a tricky balance because it feels good to hold on to some things, even if they can sometimes bring pain. At certain points in my recovery the pain and suffering defined me. Though I did not want to be know or acknowledged as the guy working through his therapy, it was so all consuming I had little other choice. After much therapy what I can say for sure is that time and process have made these dates pass easier for me.

One emotion in particular that lingers around anniversaries is the need to feel as though I am adequately honoring my fallen brothers and sisters in a significant and meaningful way. Early in my therapy it started with smaller and more trivial acts. An inner monologue that continually chirped over how much effort or sacrifice I was still making knowing my friends paid the ultimate sacrifice. Over time, as my confidence in my own thoughts and emotions matured, I am grew less concerned with keeping score on myself and more focused on being positive and in the moment. Now I look to build more positive memories on top of the old and potentially harmful anniversaries without the burden of constantly checking to see if I was carrying that guilt or whatever emotion was on call.

Building memories is not necessarily a quick and easy method. For me, things have to feel right. They have to be planned, and even when they are planned they must completely remove me from the reminders and memories I am trying to build over. That is why this year anniversary at work is great. I had to “work” at getting to the work anniversary. Other successes I have had generally take me far away from my everyday routine and have special time set aside. Because I often see the dates of the past coming each year, for me, the planning is all the more important.

I know from my Facebook feed that many of my friends and family honor their loved ones with anniversaries. I hope that in time they are not bound by grief or other emotions and they find peace and energy to create great and meaningful memories.

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