When we arrived at FOB Scunion, this alien world that I was in felt a little more like a home...it was nothing like the home I had just left, but it was getting better. I was able to call home after the first few days had passed, and I let my family know that I had arrived safely. We moved into our transient housing, which we affectionately referred to as the "chicken coops" because the windows were chicken wire and the rafters were full of pigeons. The chicken coops were home, but left much to be desired. There was no climate control, it was winter in Iraq, and I was a dumb private who packed his sleeping bag in the connex-real smart...
Scunion was a small camp; you had to run twice around the wire just to make two miles. We had names for some of the buildings; the headquarters building was called the Taj Mahal because it was a tiered building that the leadership thought looked like a temple. We had the North Forty, which was a wide open space north of the North gate but still inside the wire. then there was the trash pile. There was literally a half-football field full of scrap metal, concrete, and trash that was piled up in the center of the camp. 4th Infantry division had done the impossible by making the other buildings on the FOB livable, but it was at the cost of a gigantic trash pile that now belonged to us. The battalion Sergeant Major did not like trash. I did not like the prospect of having to clean up the trash...but there were still a few aces up the sleeves. The hearts and minds campaign was about to begin and all of our lives were about to change.
The first week in Iraq was spent in a RIP (relief in place). This meant that our leadership was sitting in the right seat while the people we were replacing were driving...this is a way the army uses to actively train the newbie’s. I spent the first week mostly doing nothing. as I was a private, I had no responsibility and, until my leaders were finished training, I was without a job. So I did what I do best-I went trash digging. The saying is right-one mans trash is another mans treasure. I found so much stuff in the junk yard that I was ready to move into my quarters and start living the good life. There were wood boxes to stack as a dresser, ammo cans to store my personal hygiene items, wood to make a permanent bed-I hate sleeping on cots, paint, and many other smaller more useless items that I felt like I absolutely needed them.
As soon as the RIP was complete, the day came to bring the trail party of 4th ID to Balad Airbase. This would be my first time driving in our sector, and, although I did not know the route yet, in the coming months I would become very familiar with the trip to Balad. I was the driver of a 5 ton truck, loaded to the max with soldiers ready to go home. I was terrified of what was out there, and this fear was beginning to affect my better judgment. The road to Balad was a dangerous route, but I was more dangerous to the soldiers in back than the route could have ever been. This trip was where it stopped being a game and started to get real. The road up to Balad is full of potholes and dips. If you have ever traveled by 5 ton you would understand how this is not a good way to travel. The suspension is very stiff, and the vehicles don’t handle bumps and dips very well. I was too scared to fall back from the vehicle in front of me, I was not making wise decisions, and I almost launched a soldier out of the vehicle because I was taking the dips too fast. I almost killed another soldier because I was too scared to risk my own for their safety.
This attitude would change, but experience was all that I needed to change. During the first few weeks in Iraq, the chaplain passed out ID tags that had a bible verse on them that quickly became my favorite. Joshua 1:9, “I will be strong and courageous, I will not be terrified or discouraged for the Lord my God is with me wherever I go.” I would always say a quiet prayer before we rolled out the gate, and this particular verse was incredibly reassuring to me. The more that I prayed, the more I accepted the fact that I had no control over my fate, and this led to the calm resulting from accepting your death. I was ready to die each time that I left FOB Scunion, and I was thankful for each day that I came back. Every day was my last. I would call home infrequently. Each time I talked to my family it was painful. I didn’t want to admit that they could lose me at any time. It was easier not to hear their voices; email is much more impersonal. I almost killed a soldier, and now I was ready to die myself.
The trip to Balad became a bi-weekly occurrence. I made the trip so often that it haunted me in my dreams. The first month flew by, and there was so much going on that it was impossible to keep track of the day of the week. An Najaf had become a problem, and we became part of the solution. A team of soldiers from 3rd Brigade, 1ID were sent down to An Najaf to assist the marines in clearing out the city. I was a member of the team.
My supervisor came to me one night in early April and informed me that I would be going to Najaf for sixty to ninety days. This trip was going to change my life. This would be the beginning of a journey that I did not know I was embarking on, and this trip would have far reaching effects to my life and my future. This would be the trip that would make me a combat veteran. This was the day I thought that I was going to die, the day that I first saw death, and the day that I began to have unwavering trust for the soldier to my right and left.