Reflections, Ten Years On

The ten year anniversary of the 2003 invasion of Iraq is in a few weeks. Below are a few thoughts describing what we were going through as the invasion neared.

Joel

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Team meeting in northern Kuwait, days before the invasion.

On St Patty’s Day, 2003, myself and the five other members of HUMINT Exploitation Team Three, assigned to support Third Battalion/Fifth Marines, were in position north of Logistical Support Area Grizzly, just a few hundred meters south of the Iraq-Kuwait border. The day before we had taken the last showers we would have for about the next month. A few days earlier we’d made a last quick trip to First Marine Division headquarters, Camp Commando outside Kuwait City, to touch base with our chain of command, pick up last minute supplies like extra ammo and MRE’s, use the internet, and maybe get a phone call home.

We had also broken open our vacuum-packed chemsuits, to ‘try them on.’ Leadership wouldn’t tell us anything official, they wouldn’t say we were about to cross the border. But you don’t ‘try on’ a packaged chemsuit. Once you open a sealed chemsuit it can’t be re-packaged and the protective chemicals in the suits deteriorated rapidly in the open air, so they were only useful for a few weeks after they had been unsealed. Breaking open tens of thousands of chem suits could only mean the military had been ordered to prepare for an imminent invasion.

Despite not having been given an official order, there was a sense of overwhelming momentum in those weeks and days before we crossed the border and invaded Iraq. We had watched as each convoy carrying tanks, artillery, armored transports and every other kind of military hardware imaginable flowed north from the ports in southern Kuwait. There is something magnificent about watching a military force prepare for war. A sense of purpose. Everywhere you looked there were thousands of Marines cleaning weapons, training, checking gear. We were professional warriors. We were poised to attack. I was surrounded by my team, the battalion we supported, Fifth Marine Regiment and the entire First Marine Division, all readying for the conflict to come. We were an army preparing for a war far from home, but we represented a nation preparing for war. It was at the same time incredibly humbling and amazingly empowering.

Within the team, we discussed the imminent invasion, we didn’t all agree with what we were about to do. Contrary to some propagandists, the individuals that make up the American war machine are not mindless followers. We obey our seniors because that is our duty, we all swore the same oath. But we still have beliefs about the orders we are given. Discussing the reasons for the war were important, and still are, even ten years after the invasion. The ripple effects of the removal of Saddam Hussein are still being felt throughout the region and the world. Arguably, the 2010 Arab Spring was one of those ripples that brought a tsunami of change to the Middle East.

I believed, and still believe, the United States was justified in removing Saddam. Not because he (as we thought at the time) had weapons of mass destruction, but because he was a threat to regional stability. The sanctions on Iraq that had worked for a decade were broken. Not just broken, they were completely defunct. Irrelevant. Saddam would eventually have reconstituted himself as a regional threat, and that simply couldn’t be allowed. The region is too important to the world’s energy supply to risk allowing a loose-cannon free rein to threaten his neighbors again. Iraq had re-established regular international commercial flights, banned under the sanctions. Saddam was upgrading his air defense network with fiber optic cables purchased from China. And he was financing his rearmament via the UN’s Oil-for-Food Program. As most of the world seems to have forgotten, after the invasion we discovered the United Nations was involved with Saddam in the largest bribery scandal ever recorded in human history. Senior UN personnel, including the Secretary General’s son, were collaborating with Saddam and helping him evade the sanctions the UN had imposed by selling Iraqi oil through the UN Oil-for-Food program and using that money for weapons to re-arm his military. The primary countries that didn’t want us to invade, Germany, Russia, France and China, were all heavily involved with Saddam financially and simply didn’t want to lose the business, in my opinion. Once we got to Baghdad, we found tens of thousands of tons of recently manufactured Russian ammunition, of course the Russians didn’t want to lose a buyer, just like Putin doesn’t want to lose Syria now.

I wish President Bush had just said we were going to war to safeguard a significant portion of the world’s energy supply, but ‘Global Stability!’ doesn’t make much of a battle cry. It isn’t a pleasant responsibility to protect the world order, but in the years since World War II the United States built the way the world is now structured. We made ourselves indispensable, so I believe it is on us to protect the world we built around ourselves. It’s not just a matter of self-preservation. If we fail to live up to our global responsibilities the people and nations around the world that have built themselves on this American-made foundation are at risk, whether they know it or not, which means the entire global order is at stake in these kinds of situations.

Some of my teammates felt it was none of our business, and we should let Saddam be a regional power if he wanted to be one. I can certainly understand that position, I didn’t WANT to go to war. My life was fundamentally altered by what I went through, from my career to personal relationships to a multitude of other aspects my life, and the lives of so many others, were put on a different course because of Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. As much as I believe we were justified in going to war, I wish we had just assassinated Saddam, though of course that wasn’t an acceptable option. Apparently it was more moral to invade the entire country than killing one man. Considering our current targeted killing program using drones, an anachronistic prohibition against assassinating Saddam seems ludicrous in retrospect.

Despite the disagreements about the imminent war within the team, our discussions weren’t heated. They were held in the context of what we were pretty sure we were about to do, standing on the Iraq-Kuwait border ready to invade. We could discuss the ‘why’ of the invasion, but we all knew that in a few days or weeks the ‘why’ would be irrelevant, which meant that it was essentially irrelevant at that point as well. We would execute our orders, conduct the mission and perform our jobs, which would be killing the enemy and protecting the Marines around us. Civilians could afford the luxury of passion in their conversations on international politics and the policy of US military intervention abroad. We would face our duty with the dispassion of professionals.

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Ramadi Part II – Shitty Shane

HET Two’s attitude was pretty demoralized after me and Jason got hit with the IED. That attitude was reinforced a week or so later when one of our team members, ‘Shitty’ Shane, went on patrol with Echo Company Two/Four. Shane was a great guy, but he got the nickname from the invasion the previous year when he routinely stepped in shit. Dog shit. Goat shit. Donkey shit. Human shit. Shit is everywhere in Iraq and, somehow, he always ended up stepping in it. It seemed he couldn’t avoid it (though, everyone else could).

The Echo Company platoon he was with started up a side street in a fairly suburban neighborhood, just a little bit outside the city. They had good disbursement, they were alert, it was a textbook two-column patrol formation. And then they started taking small arms fire. Just pot shots from a few guys with AK-47’s from the far end of the street, it wasn’t like they were getting direct fire from a heavy machine gun. But, enough to take cover in the ditches on the sides of the street. Even pot shots can find a home in your skull or gap in your body armor.

Shane decided to jump over a low wall, maybe four feet high, into the backyard of an Iraqi house. It was the smart move to get out of the street and away from the line of insurgent fire. He landed in the backyard of a house and crouched against the wall for maybe two seconds. And then… insurgents who had been hiding in the house he’d just jumped into opened up on him. Shitty Shane almost shit himself. The Iraqis were only maybe thirty feet away, firing from doors and windows, and yet they all missed somehow. Strange shit happens in combat. He should have been dead.

Shane was alone on that side of the low wall and while the wall provided great cover from the insurgents in the street, he was completely exposed to the insurgents in the house. The fire in the street was an occasional ‘pop.’ As soon as he landed in that back yard it sounded like a Fourth of July finale. They were horrible shots, but even though the insurgents were missing initially, there was no question that they’d eventually kill him if he stayed where he was. In an adrenalin-fueled jump, Shane immediately hurled himself back over the wall.

He came down hard on his left leg, with all the weight of his body armor, weapons, ammo, grenades. His leg shattered. His shin snapped and he lay in the street, screaming, exposed to fire from the original attackers who were still firing.

Echo Company Marines rushed to his rescue. No one had a stretcher, but it was imperative to get Shane out of the line of fire, back down the street. His leg was fucked, his bone was sticking out. The wound could have killed him if he’d gone into shock. There was no time to treat him in the street, the priority was to get him away from the bullets. So, two Marines grabbed him by the arms and started dragging him down the center of the street while the rest of the platoon continued the fight. Shane still had his rifle, and even though he must have been in intense agony as his shattered leg bounced along the Iraqi street, he returned fire towards the insurgents to help cover the evacuation.

However. If you’ve ever been in an Iraqi city, you know that they usually have an open sewage trench down the center of most suburban streets. It’s a murky, grey ooze that flows from the houses into a kind of foot-wide gutter in the middle of the street and, eventually, to the river or canal. Shane was hauled for probably fifty meters through a channel of shit. It wasn’t deep, it was just a few inches of muck. But. Getting dragged through a trench full of shit heavily reinforced the ‘Shitty Shane’ nickname from 2003.

And, of course, he looked ridiculous. Seriously. Bouncing through a river of shit on his back, screaming in pain and adrenalin-fueled rage, firing like a madman at the enemy. Makes me laugh every time I think about it.

Shane was medevac’d to Baghdad, and then back to the States. Once we knew he was going to be ok, his trip through the shit gave us a rare reason to smile.

In our first month in Ramadi, three members of the team had been wounded and received Purple Hearts. We left the ‘deployment countdown calendar’ Shane had started on the wall, but no one kept it going. No one wanted to think about the days we still had left in Ramadi.

It didn’t help that shortly after we got the Purple Hearts, two of the guys received letters from home with Purple Heart stamps on the envelopes. I’m not normally superstitious, but, we thought we were going to die in Ramadi that summer.

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Ramadi

I wasn’t supposed to go back to Iraq. I had spent almost a year and a half overseas, two tours back-to-back, and I had orders to a sweet gig in northern Virginia. I was supposed to go to the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity in Quantico. It was an assignment I had to fight for, one I thought I deserved. No combat, no long deployments, just an easy few years until I got out of the Marines. And, being near the Beltway I would be perfectly positioned to network with other intelligence professionals in the area and easily find a government or contractor job post-Marine Corps.

Maybe even more importantly the girl I’d started dating, and fallen in love with, had chosen a graduate school in northern Virginia so that we could be together when I got out there. Our lives were on a great path and we talked about it almost every day. I felt like I’d finally caught a break, that maybe I could leave the war behind.

But, a few weeks before I was supposed to go to Virginia, I was told I had to go back to Iraq instead. It wasn’t open to discussion. “Needs of the Marine Corps” trump all personal desires.

So I went back. And, not just anywhere, me and my new team, HET Two, went to the heart of the burgeoning insurgency. Ramadi in 2004 was a special kind of hell. Nothing could have prepared us. We had no idea what we were in for when we showed up.

Iraq in 2003 was a traditional military operation – a straight-forward invasion – and we were not really prepared for what would turn into a full-blown insurgency. The months I’d spent in Al Kut with my old team after the invasion had been in a relatively friendly city, we routinely drove around in unarmored trucks with only a few Marines. There were times when I just took my linguist Johnny Nano, pulled up to a tea shop, and smoked hookah for an hour or so. Ramadi in 2004 was utterly different, and we learned the difference almost immediately.

Ramadi is the capital of the Sunni-dominated western Iraq province of Al Anbar, part of what would be known as the Sunni Triangle and the center of the Sunni and Al Qaeda insurgencies. This part of Iraq, Western Iraq, was quite literally the wild west. Baghdad was always known as a cosmopolitan city, full of intellectuals and technocrats. Al Anbar, though, was known for the Arab equivalent of the hill country, home of the Iraqi rednecks. With banjos playing in the background. Saddam was Sunni, and yet he still had problems keeping Al Anbar under control. There were times, according to the stories we heard from the locals, when Saddam sent his Republican Guard, the ‘Harisjammori,’ into Ramadi, killing whole villages to make sure they stayed in line. One tribe was especially known for fake documents. The story was, that tribe in that particular Ramadi neighborhood could make you a passport better than what the government could provide. Which, of course, pissed off Saddam and caused occasional retaliations. Ramadi is a rugged, well-weathered city, the Tombstone of Iraq. And we were supposed to be the Earp brothers.

Ramadi is bounded on two sides by water, the Euphrates river to the north and a canal branching off of the Euphrates to the south. The city spreads to the east as the two channels diverge from each other, with outlying communities across both bodies of water. In an effort to better control the city, Two/Four was dispersed throughout Ramadi. Two companies, Echo and Golf, were situated on the eastern edge of the city on a tiny operating base named Combat Outpost. On the western edge of the city where the river and canal diverged the headquarters company, Weapons Company and Fox Company set up in a small palace complex from the Saddam era named Hurricane Point. This geography, and the fact that there were only two main roads through the city, meant Two/Four would be operating in a shooting gallery. And HET Two was along for the ride.

The first few days in Ramadi me and my new HET just tried to get familiar with our area of operations, what we called “area fam.” The HET chief,Tony, and Brent went to Combat Outpost to support Echo and Golf. Conditions were incredibly spartan on the tiny base, so on the morning of March 17th Jason and I joined up with the regular morning logistics convoy from Hurricane Point to Combat Outpost to bring them some gear and a linguist. I drove one of the HET Two vehicles, just as I had driven for HET Three in the invasion, Jason sat in the passenger seat and the linguist sat behind him. The convoy took the River Road, the northernmost of the two routes through the city which ran parallel to the south side of the Euphrates.

About two thirds of the way to Combat Outpost, the convoy had to take a hairpin turn to the left, slowing from our fast pace to a crawl. As I passed through the turn, eyes on the fuel truck ahead of me, I was briefly distracted by a shepherd waving at me from the side of the road. And then the world exploded. I don’t remember much. I saw a huge geyser of earth as it rose up from my passenger side and my truck lifted up onto two wheels, almost flipping over. If it had, I would have been crushed instantly. My truck slammed back down to the ground, unmoving though I think I had my foot on the gas. Good thing, though, since if the truck had been able to operate I would have slammed into the fuel truck ahead of me (the probable target for the bomb) which had stopped as soon as the explosion happened. I desperately grabbed for the radio handset, screaming into it, “HET’s been hit, HET’s been hit!” I looked over at Jason, and back at our linguist, but they didn’t seem to be bleeding, though they seemed dazed. I couldn’t hear anything. I looked down at the radio, and saw that the handset cord had been ripped out of the radio, I’d just been yelling to myself. I stared at the limp cord and felt like an idiot.

I stumbled out of the truck, my head ringing and the world spinning. I had my rifle, and I took a knee a few feet from my door as the rest of the convoy stopped and Marines dismounted their vehicles to set up a defensive perimeter. It was a disorganized mess. This was the first Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attack the battalion had suffered, and no one really knew what to do, even though we had all trained on how to react.

Fortunately there was no follow-on small arms attack, which happened frequently later in the deployment. The convoy was so disorganized after the explosion we almost certainly would have lost Marines if the insurgents had started attacking us with rifles and RPG’s.

The bomb guys, Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), told me later the only reason we survived was because the insurgents had fucked up, they’d buried the IED too deep. It created a crater about five feet deep and nine feet across. If it had been buried closer to the surface, or been loaded with shrapnel as well as explosive, the three of us in the HET truck would have died instantly. It was still a young insurgency, and the enemy would learn from this mistake. Their IEDs would rapidly improve.

Combat Outpost sent a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) of Marines and gun trucks to protect the convoy as we limped into the base. The corpsmen immediately examined me and Jason, we both had ears bleeding, his right my left. Even though the earth had taken the majority of the blast, evidently the concussion had slammed into his right ear, the explosion having come on the passenger side, passed through the vehicle (blowing up the truck’s roof), bounced off of my door and hit my left side.

I didn’t want or expect a Purple Heart, but I got one, along with my buddy in the passenger seat. I felt embarrassed. Guys with Purple Hearts lost legs, arms, eyes, they suffered severe burns. I took a blast, got my head rocked, and had a fucked up eardrum. I didn’t think I deserved it. But, it was automatic. As soon as the corpsmen put in their report on our injuries from the blast, we were immediately put in for Purple Hearts. All the guys told us we deserved the medals, but, I still feel conflicted. And I still feel sharp pain and hear a constant, piercing ringing in my ears that makes it almost impossible to sleep. I wish I’d just been shot.

It took hours for headquarters on Hurricane Point to muster a new convoy to come get us, we made it back to Hurricane Point in the late-afternoon with our wrecked truck in tow. Eddie didn’t say much, he made sure me and Jason were ok and then grabbed us, dug up a bottle of scotch he’d acquired somehow and told us to have a few drinks. I’ll always be grateful to Eddie for that gesture.

That IED was the closest call I ever had in the Marines, and it was a wake-up call to the team that Ramadi 2004 bore no resemblance to the invasion 2003. We had been in-country for exactly ten days. We still had six months to go. We went from full of confidence to convinced we weren’t going to make it.

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Riding

Again, an anecdote out of chronological order. We were in Tikrit in 2003 and me and Johnny Nano accompanied a sit-down between Brigadier General Kelly and some local tribal sheiks. Senior leaders.  Enjoy.

 

Joel

 

We feasted standing up, as normal. We all stood around a huge table laid out with bread, rice, yogurt, and various goat dishes. The general, his officers and the tribal elders rubbed elbows. Johnny and I ended up talking to the tribal sheik’s son, the ‘emir.’ The elders were discussing their bullshit, making promises that would never be met, so Johnny and I sat down with the emir.


    Johnny lit up, he was in his element. There was no real information to collect, so I could give a fuck about what happened. He bullshitted with the emir for a while, and suddenly he turned on me, a fat smile spread across his short, bald face. 

    

“Mick! The emir loves motorcycles, just like you!”
    

I laughed, “Johnny, did you tell him I was into bikes? Really? THAT was your conversation?”
    

“Yup!”
    

He was ridiculously happy he’d made progress with the emir, so I went with it.
    

“Mick, he says he’s going to go get something for you.”
    Awesome.

    The emir was smiling, though. He jumped up, his dishdasha getting into a tangled mess. He barked something in Arabic at one of his buddies/underlings and they both jumped into his Mercedes and took off, rolling out of the compound.


    I was puzzled by the emir’s sudden unexplained departure, but, whatever. Johnny didn’t really have an explanation for what had just happened, either. So, we hung out for a few minutes. I went back to the table and got some more rice, that shit was delicious, smothered in goat sauce.


    The sight that greeted me as I came out with some delicious bread and goat in my hand was a bit surreal. The emir was pulling up to the compound on an ancient crotch rocket. A massive predecessor to the Yamaha YZF R-1. To explain, if you’ve never ridden a motorcycle, this bike could have blasted the competition. Um, in the 80’s. It was a big bike. A big, relic of a bike. 


    As he pulled up, the emir was grinning from ear to ear. He put the kickstand down in  front of me, jumped off and proudly offered me the bike. 


    Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to ride. I hadn’t been on a motorcycle in far too many months, and I was dying to ride. I have always owned a motorcycle since 1997, when I bought an old-ass 1992 Yamaha Seca II when I first came into the Marine Corps. The bike the emir put in front of me had at least 1000 cc’s, though it was hard to tell because all the stickers were pulled off. It was old, though, and I had no way of knowing if it would blow up on me if I took it out for a spin.


    Johnny was excited, his little brown ass was practically jumping up and down as he told me how proud the emir was of his motorcycle, how Saddam had outlawed bikes like his, but the emir’s father had allowed him to keep it (yes, a strong suggestion as to how tight the emir’s tribe was with Saddam). The emir wanted me to ride it, who was I to say no? I took off my armor, and handed Johnny my rifle. I still had my pistol, but I knew in the back of my mind that if I got out on that road by myself I was taking my life in my hands. I could easily get captured by Iraqis loyal to Saddam, we had only just taken the country, after all. A little Beretta 9mm wouldn’t have been much in the way of defense.


    I got on the bike anyway. I peeled out, spraying dirt. I felt alive. I drove up onto the blacktop and tore down the pavement. It was a shitty road, though, and I was still a bit nervous as to the quality of the bike. There’s no way it had been looked at by a qualified mechanic in years. I took it up to about 80mph, and then turned around, heading back to the compound. 

    I was scared as shit, taking that bike out. Scared it would break, scared I would crash it, scared I would get out of sight of the compound and my lone idiot self would be captured by Iraqis. But my dumb ass rode that ancient Yamaha. I wanted to ride, I missed being on a motorcycle almost as much as I missed getting laid. When I looked at that old-as-fuck bike, desire overcame fear. Which, when I think about it, has been the subtext for most of my romantic relationships.

    

I lived. Again. The stupid things I’ve done in my life…

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Celebratory Fire

    
    For the majority of our time in Al Kut HET Three was on a tiny, postage stamp-sized base on the eastern side of Tigris, just north of the city. We were remote, the main Marine force of Third Battalion/Twenty-Third Marines (also known as Three/Twenty-Three, a reserve unit mainly out of Louisiana) was on the western side of the Tigris on an old Iraqi air base. They were at least forty minutes from us. We were on our own. Just how much alone was made perfectly clear the day Uday and Qusay Hussein were killed. We had a satellite dish, courtesy of excellent scrounging in the Al Kut bazzar with Johnny), so we had a few english channels, Al Jazeerah, and of course Al Manar – Lebanese Hizballah’s propaganda channel. But, during the day nothing came on about Uday and Qusay getting killed.

     Evening fell, and the night caught us unaware. We had all, except for Nate, been drinking for several hours. Just before dusk small arms fire started in the city. AK-47’s, pistols. We barely looked up from our beers, celebratory fire is perfectly normal in Iraq. It was hot as shit, we were all stripped down to our green silkies and flip flops, so the last thing we wanted to think about was enemy fire. We hadn’t been shot at in a couple of months. Well, once or twice, there had been a few pot shots, but nothing serious. No real attacks. But that night the small arms fire started to increase. Slowly at first, then, as dusk turned to night the gunfire became almost constant. Heavy machine guns started opening up, red tracers began streaking across the sky over Al Kut, explosions from what sounded like RPG’s sounded in the distance and orange glows flashed from the heart of the city.

    Nate started to freak a little bit, he thought the Iraqis were about to come over the wire and kill us all. Actually, we all thought that was a real possibility. The unit of Marines holding the base were sober, of course (they didn’t have access to booze), but we only had some concertina wire and a berm to protects us. As drunk as we were, we were fucked if any Iraqis actually came over the wire. If any concerted effort was made to overrun the base, we were all dead. The company of Marines holding the base would have had a tough time holding back a serious attack, given the poor defensive posture of the base.

    Nate ordered us to get into our battle gear. We were all, at the moment, in nothing more than shorts and flip-flops and the urgency precluded putting on our full uniforms. We all ran back to our weapons, grabbed them, threw on our helmets and body armor, and ran (stumbled) back outside to take positions against what we thought was an imminent enemy attack. I crouched against a wall. I was in my helmet, armor, silky shorts and flip-flops. Holding my weapon, and swaying, hoping I wouldn’t have to fire it. And, kinda hoping I would. The night enveloped, and bullets and explosions cracked all around us and throughout the city.

    And that was when one of our linguists stuck his head out of the main room, where they’d been watching satellite TV.  He informed us Uday and Qusay had been killed by the US Army, which explained the unprecedented amount of ‘celebratory’ fire. We weren’t under attack. I leaned against the wall, clutching my rifle, and whispered a prayer of thanks. I don’t pray often.

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Summer 2003

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Randy and some Iraqi kids in Al Kut

Sitting in Al Kut through the summer of 2003 was endless, and the sun in southern Iraq was a merciless god. By June the heat in southern Iraq was a physical enemy. Temperatures drove upwards of 130 degrees fahrenheit. 130 plus. Anytime we left our little operating base outside of Al Kut we wore full armor, carried all our weapons. We didn’t have a lot to eat to begin with, and the heat killed our appetites.

We didn’t have much in the way of a laundry, so our uniforms became so crusted in the bleach white salt from our sweat they were almost brittle, you could smack your blouse or trousers against a wall and see flakes of salt break off. We did our jobs, but there was never an end in sight. We ran sources, but we didn’t have much of a focus except for looking for weapons of mass destruction, we had no real guidance from higher. We went on several wild-goose chases into the desert with sources who didn’t have shit, looking for Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction. Long, hot as shit, chases.

We did find radioactive material on one of those chases, though. Kinda sad. The Iraqi came in to talk to us, claiming he had WMD. Of course we went to his house hoping we would find the infamous WMD, but it turned out the Saddam regime had just told him to bury some radioactive material, some kind of bridge beam X-ray machine. It was hot, though, from the way the geiger counter went off.  I’m pretty sure I’ve been exposed to some serious radiation, if briefly, certainly the Iraqi’s whole family had started getting sick. We dug it up out of his back yard, sent it up to higher. His wife died of cancer.

For me, an overwhelming depression sank into my bones during my last few months in Iraq in 2003. All of the other guys on HET 3 had wives or girlfriends waiting for them at home. Even Johnny talked about the girl he was shagging. I hadn’t had a girlfriend since Trina, in early 2002. The loneliness grew as the days and months dragged on and the temperature increased. That the rest of my teammates routinely got letters from girls that loved them made my loneliness all the more intense. I tried to sweat it out, or drink it away, but nothing helped.

I lost weight. Lots of weight. From a beginning weight of about 185 I dropped to about 155. Randy was worse because he was slight to begin with. We called him ‘The Disappearing Man.’ He was already skinny, but the war made him look almost like a Holocaust survivor. We both lost over thirty pounds. My face shrunk and my shoulders stuck out, bonily. They’re kinda broad, a gift from my Gaelic ancestry, and my flesh was barely hanging onto my frame.

The war, as far as we were concerned, was over, dammit! At our level we didn’t understand why we lingered. After all, it was the Marine Corps’ job to conquer and take territory, we left it to the Army to occupy. It didn’t make sense to us, why we were staying. And no one gave us information, every few weeks it was another, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, you’ll be home next month,’ from leadership. In May we were told we’d be back home by early June. In early June we were told we’d be home by the 4th of July, without question. As we ate our 4th of July meal of steak and lobster flown special from Kuwait we were told we’d be home in August. Finally, in August, word came down no one had any idea when we’d go home. As far as Marine Corps leadership knew we might still be in Iraq for Christmas, 2003. And beyond.

Hope is only a good thing if the thing you’re hoping for actually happens. After months of betrayed hope, morale in the team was at an all-time low. We had no idea when we might go home, there was no light at the end of the tunnel. So. We drank.

It started out as just a few beers after the day was over, but once we realized we could get booze in quantity, we had Iraqis going all the way to Baghdad for beer and Jordanian and Lebanese whiskey. There were times when I had multiple cases of beer under my cot, and several bottles of whiskey. And the rest of the team usually had the same.

Ice was a problem, we had to buy it from Iraqi ice sellers on the street in three foot blocks. Ice was a big business in Iraq, ice factories turned out massive blocks of ice every night, and guys would sell them all day long on the side of the street. Stacks of ice blocks covered by sheets to keep the blistering sun off of them. If you paid more than two or three dollars for a three-foot block of ice, you were getting ripped off. Keeping an adequate ice-to-beer ratio in the coolers was always a struggle.

The beer was tolerable, mainly imitation German beer in 24-ounce ‘tall-boys.’ And after spending a few hours on ice, the beer was frosty and more than tolerable. Drinking an ice cold beer in the Iraqi sun I could almost pretend I was at Spring Break at Lake Havasu. With that icy goodness sliding over my tongue, all I had to do was close my eyes and imagine that maybe bikini-clad college girls were frolicking in front me, instead of my ugly-ass teammates walking around in their green silkies.

The whiskey, though, was rot-gut. Harsh as paint-thinner. May have been paint thinner, for all I know. Damn Lebanese ‘Blue Bird’ whiskey. But we drank it by the liter, and it did the job. When I finally got a bottle of Jack Daniel’s (for almost eighty dollars, total rip-off, but… I was in Iraq. Fucking war prices) it was smooth as Bailey’s and cream. It felt like I was drinking whiskey-flavored ice cream. Jack Daniel’s isn’t the smoothest of whiskeys, but deprivation and months at war change your perceptions.

Nate had divided the HET into sub-teams, Jason and I (and sometimes Matt) constituted one sub-team, and Randy and Chris made up the other. Driving back to Al Kut from An Numaniyah, Matt and I made up a game. The ‘My Balls Are SO Salty’ game. What can I say, the heat got to us. It was something to do. It’s not like we had music to listen to on that hour long ride.

“Hey, Matt, how hot is it?”
“Mick (my nickname in the Corps), my balls are so salty you could dam up my ass and make the Mississippi flood.
Kinda funny, but, still. Weak.
My response, “Dude, my balls are so salty the next season of Baywatch is gonna be called Baywatch: My Balls.”

I though it was at least a little better. We went back and forth, most of our “My Balls Are SO Salty” jokes were lame, but it passed the time. We pretended they were funny, regardless of how stupid they were.

I liked rolling with Matt, it was good conversation (when he wasn’t asleep) and it gave us an extra gun in the truck in case anything happened. But, he was the team chief, and when it was just me, Jason and Johnny we could drink on the drive back to Al Kut. Matt wouldn’t have let us drink and drive, usually.

In the mornings, when we’d leave for An Numaniyah, we’d stop and fill our cooler with beer and ice from various vendors outside the city. We just had a two-seater with an open bed in the back of the truck, we’d taken off the canvas covering since it had gotten pretty ripped up during the invasion. Johnny always rode in the back, he’d made a seat for himself out of captured pillows from Saddam’s palaces, and on our way home back to the base in Al Kut he’d pass us beers. After sitting all day in ice those beers tasted like drops of heaven, cracking them open in the murderous heat was an exquisite luxury. Rolling through southern Iraq, drinking beer and telling jokes over the engine noise, it truly felt like we’d conquered a nation.

Our work in An Numaniyah centered around the police station, we’d talk to the cops, get a feel for the city, and do interviews with any prisoners we thought might have information that might impact the security of the Marines we supported. We built up a rapport with the cops, frequently eating lunch with them and getting to know their lives. One guy in particular, Thamir, became especially close. He was an Iraqi cop, but he became our asset on the side. We paid him what we could, mostly captured Iraqi money. Even though it wasn’t a lot, just a few dinar, it was an extra income that meant he could support his family. In the days after the invasion Iraqis were just looking to get by, a few extra dinar meant the difference between just rice and bread or having some lamb or goat for dinner.

Jason took the lead on developing the relationship with Thamir and his family, and we eventually even got invited back to Thamir’s house to meet his father, uncles and the rest of the extended family. The women stayed in the back room, of course, but it was great to be made welcome into an Iraqi home. We had chai and chatted, not easy through an interpreter, but we’d had a lot of practice by then so we got by.

Thamir came through for us. After a few weeks of getting to know us he started talking to Jason about huge caches of regime explosives he had found out about through his own network of informants. We needed proof, of course, before we could pay out any money, but Thamir was a good asset and we trusted him. We set a meeting and he showed up at the police station with a case of high explosives, about twenty kilos, and several meters of det cord and shit loads of fuses. He gave us the coordinates of the houses where the rest was located, and the names of the people holding it.

We had the intel, but convincing Three/Twenty-Three’s leadership to action wasn’t easy. This wasn’t Three/Five, there wasn’t a reservoir of trust. But the sample, along with Nate’s strong advocacy to the battalion commander, eventually did the trick. A company-size raid was organized and conducted, and the haul off of Jason’s info was huge. Several tons of explosives were recovered. Huge, in those days, though of course as the insurgency progressed the weapons caches became truly enormous. Still, whenever explosives are taken away from the enemy, friendly lives are saved. There’s no telling how many road-side bombs could have been made with what Jason took off the street that night.

It meant a lot to have a victory for the team.  The heat of those summer days in Al Kut beat down on us, the loneliness, the not knowing when we might ever go home. If we might ever go home. We all struggled through those last days in southern Iraq. We didn’t give up hope, we just gave up caring. Jason’s cache roll-up buoyed us, kept us treading water a little bit longer. Well, not water, treading sand.

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A Proposition

This excerpt is, again, jumping around in terms of chronology. After Tikrit we ended up in Al Kut, in the southern Iraq province of Wasit. This would be the end of our time in Iraq, but it dragged…

Me, my sick linguist and my awesome mustache in Al Kut

I have lots of stories about Al Kut, too many. Nastiness, like a detainee escaping Marine custody. I’d collected intel saying he was the one who had hired a hitman to throw a grenade at the police station, severely wounding one of the American soldiers. The motherfucker cost a soldier guarding the police station his legs. He wasn’t talking in the Iraqi jail, he just professed his innocence, so I ordered him moved to a more secure facility on the Marine base across the river at the nearby airfield. His escape and follow-up investigation with his family and other sources made me conclude my source had been right, and we had lost a guy who had tried to kill us.

There were heroic moments, Randy and Matt saved two kids from drowning in the Tigris river. Kids liked to swim in the water just below the main dam/bridge in Al Kut, but it was dangerous. We heard screaming and saw a mob of kids on the riverbank as we crossed the dam. Randy stopped his truck and he and Matt grabbed the tie-down straps from their humvee. Randy had to jump about ten feet down, in full combat gear with both his weapons, to a twelve-inch ledge so that the tie-downs would reach the kids in the swirling water. A third kid still drowned, but the people from that neighborhood quit throwing rocks at us whenever we went in to patrol or mark a weapons cache. Another small victory.

There were moments of levity, like Johnny getting drunk and trying to show us how big his dick was. Well, he did show us, but for some reason he wanted to show it to us hard. He was so hammered it took him about thirty minutes to get it up (he went into the showers to take care of things), but when he finally got it going it did turn out to be pretty scary big. Damn impressive for a short, skinny Iraqi.

There was melancholy. My twenty-fifth birthday was spent in a tiny mud-brick building on a mission north of Al Kut. I didn’t tell anyone. I just silently wished for a beer.

The summer of 2003 passed slowly. At one point we thought we’d found the Weapons of Mass Destruction, but it turned out to just be some kind of bridge beam X-ray machine. But, the way the geiger counter went off, I’m pretty sure I’ve been exposed to some serious radiation.  We went out to cafes, smoked hookah and drank chai with an inch of sugar in the glass. We talked to the locals, ate at the restaurants, all while trying to find a meaning for staying in Iraq long past the invasion.

There was one particular incident I could classify as both nastiness and levity, though definitely not heroic. It’s probably best categorized as ‘it’s funny now.’ I had befriended a local Iraqi, Hamid, a tall (over 5’ 6”) good looking guy (he had all his teeth) in his early twenties who worked at a roadside convenience store not far from the main market in Al Kut. He gave me what we called “atmospherics.” He knew people, things. Nothing really specific, just general information on the neighborhoods in the city and the surrounding areas. I, in turn, bought sodas from him. A lot of sodas.

One day in the middle of the 135 degree summer Randy had a meeting with some guys he had been working with, and it just so happened the building they were meeting in was right next door to Hamid’s convenience store. Our concept of security back then, in those halcyon summer days between the invasion and the insurgency, was for Randy to go in with a linguist and for me to stay by the truck and stand guard by myself.

In hindsight… this was probably a bad idea. But, at the time we thought nothing of it, Al Kut was secure, more or less. And, fuck, we knew the neighborhood. I had Hamid as an informant keeping eyes out for me across the street at his convenience store.

Randy and Ra’ad had just gone into the meeting when I saw Hamid walking across the street toward the truck with another young Iraqi. He’d seen my truck, of course, and wanted to chat. More than chat. I could smell the cheap whiskey on his breath from three feet away as he approached, he was swaying and grinning and sweating, his buddy barely holding him up.

We exchanged kisses on the cheeks, of course, his stubble scratching my clean-shaven face, and we held hands as per Arabic custom. You can’t get information from an Arab if you refuse to touch them. They’re a touchy people, in both senses of the word, and it’s insulting if you refuse to engage them physically. I had my rifle in my right hand and his sweaty palm in my left. A drunk Iraqi was nothing to be worried about, but he had a glassy smile when he looked at me. And then he giggled. And started touching my shoulder with his other hand. Well, more rubbing, than touching.

Now, I had liked Hamid, he seemed liked a good guy, he’d shown me some good stores to go to, the bad places to avoid, etc. But the way he laughed made me twitchy. I was by myself, and I had no idea how long Randy was going to be in his meetings, so I started getting a little uncomfortable. I didn’t have a linguist, and Hamid was too drunk at two in the afternoon to speak much of the little English he knew.

Hamid’s buddy, though, spoke some English and he was sober, more or less. They were laughing and Hamid was starting to caress my hand. Then he leaned to try to drunk-whisper into my ear.
“Five minutes.” He breathed heavily, wafting booze into my face.
I stepped back a bit and laughed, at first not getting what he was referring to.
“Five minutes for what, habibi?” He was still holding my hand. With his free hand he pointed to the back of my humvee.
With a toothy smile he drunkenly exclaimed, “Five minutes, I give you big one!” And then he made a motion with his mouth like he was sucking a dick.

Holy fuck, I thought, I’ve just been propositioned by an Iraqi dude. I was the only Marine on the street, and Hamid was flirting with me. More than flirting. I had never felt more alone.

Keeping a smile on my face I rapidly considered my options, and hated all of them. As much as I wanted to put a bullet into Hamid, his kinda sober buddy and some random curious kids were standing around. No way I could kill all of them. At least, not without causing serious blowback from the area. And, you know, warcrimes and whatnot. We got away with a lot of shit during the invasion, but gunning down a couple drunk dudes and probably some kids in a fairly busy street would have really looked bad. And, besides, who knows who would have come out of the nearby houses and killed me in retaliation. Had we been in a blind alley and Hamid had been the only Iraqi in sight, he might not have made it out alive.

But instead of killing him I smiled at Hamid, laughed, kept holding his hand and told him I was married. And that I had no interest in men that way. He shrugged, and said, “So?” I had to keep telling him no, I didn’t want to get, “a big one,” as much as he insisted. He was persistent, and his drunk Iraqi ass couldn’t take a hint. As much as I tried to keep things chill, without escalating to shooting him, I was not happy about being hit on by a dude. Eventually, Hamid’s buddy started to get the vibe, and he started to make excuses for his drunk friend. I’m pretty sure he saw me fingering the trigger on my rifle, and he probably realized things would go badly if Hamid kept going with his drunk flirtations.

Hamid’s friend apologized, in broken english. “Salaam alakem, mister. So sorry!” He grabbed Hamid by the should and dragged him off, reeking of that damned Middle Eastern whiskey. Hamid’s buddy kinda gave me an apologetic look and, over Hamid’s protestations, they both stumbled away. Randy exited his meeting shortly thereafter, and we left that part of the city without any violence.

That day at the tender age of twenty-five I learned a valuable lesson. I most humbly apologize to any woman I have ever drunkenly hit on, I am so glad you didn’t have a rifle/pistol/knife with you. Or, if you did, I’m glad you showed restraint to my dumb ass. And, no, I never talked to Hamid again.

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