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.


Still an awesome read these years later!

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