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.