It feels like cool air has no rightful place here. The power keeps kicking on and off, causing the heap of an air conditioner outside to barely keep any life to it. I am down to a t-shirt and pants, and my body is wet with sweat and dirt. There is not a place in this tent that is not covered in fine dust and sand. My feet are propped up on my armor sitting on the edge of my cot, as I stretch out and try to relax my anxious and tired body. Underneath my cot is my helmet, M203, pistol belt with Berretta and my boots. It is very quiet in the tent as we wait. All of us are thinking the same thing–about what this night will bring. Some are thumbing through pictures of home, some are trying to sleep, some cannot sit still long enough without having to go outside to light another smoke, some of us are scared. We are all sharing the same sentiments as the realization that we are very far from home is setting in. This is going to be a very long year. The heat is killing me from the inside out, and between that and my nerves, I cannot tell which is worse.
From the Intel we just got, the road to the FOB is RED, so driving there in the middle of the night is off. We are to be air-lifted there around 0300 by Chinook, so our departure time quickly approaches. I’m trying to wrap my head around how real this is getting. I’m trying to comprehend the RED route status, where I’m going, what awaits us, will we make it to the end, and will we all be together again. It’s peculiar how your mind mitigates what it can’t understand and makes things much worse than they are, and here I definitely believe that. I’ve been in Iraq for two days now and we are all waiting to split off from the company. I have not heard of this place we are going, but from the rumors flying about it’s a tiny shit hole, smack dab in the middle of insurgent territory.
I check the time again for the umpteenth time and see its time to get suited up. Somehow, the minutes flew and the inevitable has arrived. I begin to get dressed and lay out my gear in the order that I will put it on. I pick up my IBA and grimace under its new combat weight as I slide it on. I remember a few months ago when it was issued to me and how heavy I thought it was then; now it’s decorated with the accoutrements to kill. Six magazines loaded with 5.56, two grenades for the 203, a folding knife, two magazines of 9mm, first aid pouch, pistol belt with Beretta and the most important thing of all; the tiny gold angel pin fastened to the collar. I tie my bandanna around my head and adjust the Kevlar straps to somewhat comfortable. I grab last my 203; the Horse with No Name. I blow the dust out of the chamber and let go the bolt before I sling it across my body. Holding all this, I weigh over 250 lbs. My back is numb again as sweat pours out and soaks into my shirt. Ready to go, I gather with my team and wait for the call to leave. We all look miserable as we sit in silence. We don’t have to say anything to know how the other guy is feeling; our eyes give it away. We are so green.
We say our goodbyes to the others we are leaving. We don’t say it but we know the nature of the job may not bring all of us back together again. It’s a harsh realization, knowing that these quick goodbyes may be the last words spoken to those who have become my friends; brothers. I need a smoke and everyone else thinks the same. Usually, when we were hunkered in a group smoking, we’d joke about, but everyone is quiet. We are all preoccupied in our heads, creating our visions of fear of the unknown. Checking my watch again, it is time to leave.
The rest of the platoon and I move to the awaiting five ton to drive us to the flight line. It is a struggle to get up in it as we clumsy ourselves into the back and pack in like sardines in the dark, dusty bed. It is hot as hell. My sweatband has since failed me as I wipe my face with my sleeve another countless time. I feel absolutely drenched and filthy. The truck starts to move and we all slam into each other as the gears shift. Still, absolute silence through the short ride. We arrive and all pile out in pitch blackness, making it hard to get our bearings. I see a Chinook sitting on the tarmac with crewmen bustling about, getting ready for takeoff. In a few minutes, we’ll load up, so I take this time for another smoke. As soon as I inhale it to a nub, it’s time to form up. As I take my position need to my squad leader, orders for movement are barked but I don’t hear them. My mind is a thousand miles away. Soon we are moving single file towards to the back of the helicopter, and step inside, bathed in the red tactical light. The light makes our worn features seem deathly, as there is no expression on any face. Finally sitting, I put my head down and pray. I pray for protection and safety. I pray for my crew. I pray for her back home and that I see her again. I pray for my family and friends. I pray for myself. I pray for guidance and wisdom to make the right decisions and to bring my guys home. Amen.
Soon we are in the air, and the dual props are hurling us across the desert. The back hatch is half-open so the tail gunner can scan for threats, and it gives us a slight view of the desert floor, rushing beneath us in the black night. It’s a bumpy ride and we are constantly slamming into each other with the sudden turns and drops. The sensation of my stomach jumping into my chest tells me we are landing abruptly. With a slight thud, we touch down and the props slow to a metallic whine as the back hatch lowers completely, giving us a look at our new home.
While my eyes adjust, all I can see is a street light in the distance. We move single file out of the cabin and onto the tarmac, into more darkness. I can make out a huge tan-like structure but nothing of detail, and a row of hescos surrounding it. We’re called to another five ton waiting to take us somewhere. I can’t help but feel so nervous and numb because I am absolutely lost. I have no control over my surroundings; I don’t know where I am, and I don’t know what awaits us. After another short five ton ride, we reach our new home. Inside is not what I expected. I anticipated tough living arrangements, but nothing like this. The first thing I see is a dull lamp illuminating some Arabic writing on the door. Once inside I see what this structure is; it’s an abandoned warehouse converted to temporary housing. Everything is open and cots are strewn about the filth and dim lighting. I’m too tired to care at this point; I can’t remember the last time I slept, and anything is looking good to rest on. I find a cot near my crew, drop my gear, strip down to my shorts, and collapse into a dreamless sleep.
I wake to sunlight breaking through some of the uncovered windows. Checking my watch, I see that I’ve only slept about four hours. I wander to go see what I couldn’t last night and step outside into a world of tan. I light the first of many cigs for this day and get my bearings. I see a compound of container housing units across the way, a bunch of what looks like cottonwood trees, and what I assume is the DFAC nearby. It looks very desolate, but my surprise comes when I get a good look at the outside of this warehouse. In its dilapidated state, it appears to have some odd holes and coloring in places giving the impression that it’s been shot at or hit with mortars; my stomach tightens up again.
Two days pass, and soon it’s time for us to be broke in. The unit we are replacing is taking us outside the wire to familiarize us with the battle space. As luck or karma would have it, my team has been tasked with taking lead in the patrol. Our guide is a Puerto Rican who hardly speaks English, telling us from the back seat which ways to go and what to look out for, at least that’s what I hope he’s saying. With all the equipment inside the humvee, there is barely enough room for us to be somewhat comfortable wearing full battle rattle. I am hating life because my back is screaming and I’m already drenched in a nervous sweat. We line up in formation and move out after triple checking PCI/PCCs. It’s a four truck patrol full of combat virgins, apprehensive and anxious to what awaits us. As we wind through the serpentine towards the gate, I pray again. Soon, the wire meets us and we drive out into the unknown. To our right, there is a small town right outside the gate. Our guide tells us that this town is embedded with insurgent activity and usually is where the mortars and rockets are fired from at the FOB. There is no one to be seen, but we know that we are being watched. As we travel further, I notice trash everywhere, as if people have built communities in the middle of one giant landfill. Shortly, we reach the turn that will take us into our primary operating place, called Bayji. I watch the road and see many concrete plugs, which tell of many IED craters that have been filled by engineers so the insurgents cannot put any more bombs in them. All the while, my pucker factor is getting worse.
As we continue, all I can see is more trash and craters. I recall back to training how insurgents use the trash to cover their bombs, and we were to look for conspicuous piles that would look like bombs were under them. As far as I know now, it’s going to be impossible to detect and we are going to be at their mercy. By this time, we are deep inside the city of Bayji. It’s like nothing I have ever seen. First is the smell of raw filth, garbage, and waste on the streets that gives off an indescribable stench. The raw odor of the refinery adds to the melee of smells that makes me think that death has its own air freshener. At first, it makes me feel sick to my stomach, and I light a cig so the smoke will mask the smell. There are jalopy vehicles all over the place. I hit the siren so that they will move to the side of the road as we pass by, and it is almost comical, how they scurry like rats at our presence, in fear of being shot. There are huge crowds standing street-side, watching us, which make me nervous because at anytime someone could lob a grenade or shoot at us and disappear into the people without us seeing what happened. We pass through without incident and continue towards a giant, compounded police headquarters, which will be our primary place of operation. Our guide tells us the battle history of certain places and where to be cautious as we pass by bullet-riddled buildings and more huge craters displaying the action that has clearly taken place here. Through the congestion of the streets and the never- ending sea of garbage and filth, I am appalled that people can live in such conditions. In hindsight, after seeing and being away from all luxuries of everyday life back home, I am very thankful for how good I have it, and learn to not take such amenities for granted.
As we enter the compound of the police station, I acclimate to my surroundings. Around the station are 20 foot t-walls and a tight serpentine entrance to discourage car bombs. In the courtyard are a lot of blown-up, shot-up cars from previous local-on-local violence. The insides of some of the cars show sprays of dried blood and pieces of human tissue from the previous occupants. More shocking to see, though, is the police’s definition of law and order. Mingling about are scrawny hadjis, walking around wearing ski masks and slinging AK-47s in an unsafe manner. I am told by our guide that these men are not to be trusted. They are all primarily Sunni and wear blue during the day, and some are insurgents by night. Our dealings with them are just the beginnings of our trials and tribulations.
It’s been less than 13 months, and we are a few days from flying home. Looking back, in retrospect, I think I’ve used up 14 of my 9 lives. I’ve lost count of how many IEDs hit our platoon, how many times we got shot at, and how many have died around us. By the grace of God we have been lucky enough to lose no one from our company, but those in the 101st and 82nd, our brothers in arms, have been dealt some serious losses. I think back to how green and naïve we were when we first hit country. Up to that point in my life, the only dead bodies I had seen were at funerals. Now I am desensitized by death. A deep seed of hatred has been planted in me and I begin to hate any Arab I see. When thinking of the atrocities I have seen them do to us as well as each other, I know there is a special place in hell for these evil acts. I recall the first of many bodies I would see, and how I was taken aback by how soullessly these people carry out such evil. There was no way to describe how I felt, and now that it’s over I still cannot comprehend what I feel. My dreams aren’t haunted anymore, for I am numb to the core. I’m so tired. We’re all so tired. I feel that we’ve aged years beyond our youth in the short time we’ve been here. There is a hidden hardness to everyone now; myself especially. I look in the mirror and see dark circles under my eyes, my hairline has pulled itself back, and my features are sharp. I have not really paid close enough attention to my physical change, but I feel the change inside. It feels like any shred of purity and youth has long since gone. My younger brothers here have become seasoned in a way, as so young to arrive and so old to leave. In a twisted way, this has been an experience and a half, and I would not trade it for anything, if that makes any sense at all. After all that we’ve been through, we were brothers to the end and will share a bond the rest of our days that nothing can break.
It is dusk on the tarmac here in Kirkuk, Iraq. There is a C-17 waiting to take us to Kuwait. Our whole company is lined up, ready to get the hell out of here. I do my tarmac ritual and light up another smoke. This time instead of silence, we are all joking around, happy as all get go to be leaving this hellhole. I feel a slight tug inside that tells me that I’m not ready to leave because I don’t know if I’m ready to reacclimatize into the real world. I don’t know what to expect and I sure as hell can’t carry my 203 around wherever I go. I am without fear, though, for fear became a part of me as a vice that kept me sharp and aware. It is time to leave, finally, but before we move onto the back hatch we all stop in unison, and snap to give Iraq a middle finger salute for the last time.
It’s been over a year now since I have been back home, and things have somewhat settled into somewhat normalcy. I made the mistake of trying to jump back into my former life and slowly watched things crash around me. It has been rough on most of us. Two have taken their own lives and many have over-compensated with alcohol abuse. I lost my girlfriend of five years, and friendships as well. I tried the school thing, off the bat, which proved to be another failure. My anger is somewhat better, but I feel it come on from time to time when triggered. I still have the occasional dream and have to take some time to realize where I am at and that things are ok. It seems sometimes the only crutch I have are the guys that were with me, and my family, because the support is ever-present. As we’ve suffered together, we’ll have each other’s backs no matter where we are. As we gear up to leave again in a few months, I am ready because I know the road ahead and hope to make it through another with focus and strength that never left me. I have high hopes and am at peace for what is ahead.