Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Boots on the Ground: A Soldiers story of the war in Iraq (part 3)

Kuwait was full of broken promises for the 1st Infantry Division. While we awaited our turn to depart north and join the battle, we were assured that none of our vehicles would go north of Kuwait without armor. At this point in the war, the insurgency was begining to use roadside bombs in their efforts to oppose the new order establishing itself in the Arab world. This was a deadly weapon, and this concerned a lot of troops and their families. Hearing the division commander assure us that we would not roll north without armor was calming but disconcerting. in the short amount of time that i had been in the army, i knew that this was just too good to be true. This convoy was perhaps the most frightened i had ever been for any trip in my life. I was headed into the valley of the shadow of death. I took a lot of time to pray. i was scared. its not like the kind of fear that you experience when watching a scary movie, this kind of fear is deep within your soul. it is almost painful where it touches you. i was scared for my life.
time passed, our training at the Udari Range Complex was completed and it was time. Our maintenance team had been working around the clock to fix as many of the problems with our vehicles before we hit the road. there were five serials in our convoy as we were trying to reduce the size of our convoy to a manageable amount. there were still more than forty vehicles per convoy and this is dangerous because you move too slow. I was in the last serial. we were the recovery group. if any vehicle broke down we were the ones that would pick them up. the first serials would not stop for any reason. we were briefed on the convoy two days before we rolled out. it was at this point in time that we were informed that there were not enough armor kits to accommodate all of our vehicles. we were instructed to put sandbags on the floorboards of our vehicles. all of these promises of world class equipment for our protection boiled down to a twenty-five cent sandbag. thanks a lot uncle sam...
0400 9 March 2004, we were awakened at an early hour to make the final preparations for our departure at 0700. This was it. months of preparation and training, classes, and exersizes and now we were actually going to cross the border into a combat zone. the chaplain gave us a prayer at 0600. it was still dark, so no one could see the fear on each others face. it was so palpable that you could taste it. no one was talking. we all had so much to say but no one was saying a thing. I climbed into my truck and waited. there would be a separation between each convoy, enough time for each convoy not to run up on the other. we weren't scheduled to leave until 0900, but we waited with engines running. the time flew by and we were on the road before too long. it was my first opportunity to see camels up close and not in a cage. it was like driving in america, but instead of cows you would see herds of camels. it was wierd, almost unnatural. we stopped at Norstar Convoy Support Center and fueled up two miles before the border crossing. this was the last chance to file for conscientious objector status. next stop, War.
There are signs painted on a concrete barriers just before the border, "Approaching the Iraqi border, Speedlimit, Drive it like you stole it!" This became our motto and practice, but not on this convoy. I think the fastest that we went on this trip was 35 miles per hour. the convoy was scheduled to take fourteen hours...but nothing in the army works quite as well as planned. Many of our vehicles were not as "battle ready" as they could have been and nearly forty vehicles in our battalion broke down along the trip. since we were the recovery element it was our job to pick them up. I was in a Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck (or HEMTT, said hemit). The truck had just come back from a rebuild and was a "new" truck. all this meant was that it was not battle tested. any time i come to a military vehicle and it does not have at least two to three leaks on the underside, that is not a truck i will drive. this time i did not have that option. besides the fact that i was a private, i was just as much of a "cherry" as this vehicle. my vehicle broke down approximately eight miles into Iraq. Bad fuel was the cause, and the effect was having to stop in hostile territory and drain the 154 gallon fuel tank. we did not have the luxury of environmental friendly disposal, and all of us were nervous about being stopped on the side of an iraqi highway. i opened the drain plug on the tank and let it pour onto the highway. in a twisted way, i was just returning the fuel to the source...the whole operation took about 20 minutes, and then we were back on the road. this would be the last time my truck would be the cause of a stop, but this would not be the end of the nightmare on our hands.
by the time we reached the Scania CSC (convoy support center), half of the vehicles in our convoy were towing another vehicle behind them. we thought that this was the end of the breakdowns, but once again we were wrong. Scania was everything i thought a movie about a war should be. there were hundreds of trucks parked in the staging area and the living area looked like something off of the TV show MASH. there were helicopter overflights constantly and I thought any minute "charlie" was going to come out of the palm groves and ambush us. i felt like an actor in some great movie about modern warfare, but this was not a hollywood movie set, and there was an enemy out there observing me right now. sometimes i wonder what he saw. what i looked like in those early days. I must have looked like a young, scared, sub-urban kid who somehow got lost on his way to college and now was fighting a war in some country half a world away...at least that is how I felt. we took some time to fuel up, rest up, and get ready for the next leg of the trip we were only halfway to our destination, and we were already hours behind schedule. This was turning into a fiasco, and the sun was getting ready to set.
as darkness crept up, I found myself pulling security as we recovered yet another broken down vehicle. as I gazed out on the landscape, everything looked so foreign. there were palm groves all over the place, and each town that we passed looked just like the drawings of villiges in bible stories of my youth...that is except for the occasional antennae for television or radio. i never thought that i would ever have been in the middle east as a tourist let alone as a member of a liberation army. what was i doing here? what did i do in my life that ended up with me in the driver seat of a fuel truck in the middle of a combat zone? what was i thinking? these questions haunted me as i sat there staring into the wide open spaces of this foreign land, and they would continue to haunt me for most of my tour. I was looking for answers, i was looking for direction, i was looking for the person who wanted me dead.
twenty-two hours after we left kuwait, we arrived at our designated rally point. we would sleep here for the night, and in the morning our comrades would pick us up and escort us to FOB Scunion. I dont think i have ever slept so rough in my life. it is impossible to fall asleep and be comfortable inside the cab of a HEMTT. somehow i got enough rest to function come wakeup, and i was never more alert than i was on the ride to Scunion. this would be my first experience driving in traffic. the escort told us that the only way you stay alive in this country is to "drive it like you stole it." he brifed us on the route, and told us to keep up-he had no intention of stopping. it is an incredible experience driving in rush hour traffic at 55 mph...especially when you dont have to pay for the damages you cause. I took my 10 ton truck over bombed out replacement bridges, through wall to wall traffic, and finally through the gate at FOB Scunion. I never felt so alive in my life. I was hooked. Adrenaline was my new drug, and I wanted more. My oportunity would come soon, but not soon enough. For now we rested.

Welcome to hell boys...

1 comment:

Bob said...

Awesome narrative, Drew.

Bad fuel? Yikes!