Just Another Soldier: A Year on the Ground in Iraq

Jason just finished and released his new book “Just Another Soldier: A Year on the Ground in Iraq“. His stories are awesome. You should buy a copy. Here’s a couple great excerpts I blogged while he was in Iraq still.

The Tao of Soldiering
Just Another Soldier

Just Another Soldier

Three Days of Combat – Day Two – The Head

One of the best things about taking something over is you get to change things. Like when you marry a girl, you get to change her last name, or if you buy someone’s house, you get to turn the spare bedroom into a game room. Sometimes the changes made are good, and sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes the changes take, and sometimes they don’t. When my battalion moved into forward operations base Lion, north of Baghdad, the first thing we did was change the name to FOB O’Ryan. Our unit is known as Orion, but it was decided that we would use the spelling O’Ryan, the name of the decorated officer our unit was homophonically named after. I prefer the Greek over the Irish, and this book is my fiefdom, so I am hereby changing the spelling of our base to FOB Orion. Isn’t arbitrarily wielding power fun?

FOB Orion needed a lot of work and most of the physical changes we made in the time we were there were pretty good. For example, plywood shitters with poop barrels that needed their contents burned regularly were replaced with a port-o-john-type service. Sometimes the Iraqis who ran the port-o-john service and their families would be killed by insurgents, and it would take several days before replacement workers could be found, so we’d have to go back to shitting in burn barrels temporarily, but regardless, the port-o-john was an excellent change, a definite improvement. Another improvement was the gym that KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton, built for us. They took an old ammo bunker, cleaned and painted the interior, installed air conditioning, put down a sectional rubber-mat floor, then brought in some exercise machines and free weights. It wasn’t fantastic but it was pretty damn decent. And it only took them six months and eighty thousand dollars to build. I am not exaggerating when I say that my platoon could have done the job in two days, five at the most, absolutely free of charge. After all, it was the soldiers who wanted the gym, not the overfed, beer-bellied KBR guys. But, hey, who am I to say how American tax dollars should be spent? Thank god for combat zone tax exclusion, because if I were paying taxes I would be pissed. Speaking of which, have I ever mentioned the KBR truck drivers I talked to who said they didn’t know of one single driver who didn’t fudge the hours they reported having driven each month? I love how the truck drivers would confide things like this to soldiers.

The most vital changes to FOB Orion were those that involved security. When we first came to our FOB, a smallish but somewhat sprawling collection of concrete and earth bunkers, there were a handful of insurgents who were living in and operating out of one of the remote bunkers. Concertina wire and berms were put up around the entire perimeter of the base, and the unexploded ordnance that littered the place (a draw for insurgents because this is what they use to make their improvised explosive devices) was cleared.

After the basic level of perimeter security was improved, there were ongoing changes to base security, most really good and some a little more superfluous. The buildings that housed our tactical operations center (TOC) and the administrative and logistics office were strong, but not what one would consider “hardened.” Tall concrete barriers were eventually put up around these buildings, a definite improvement. In an effort to further protect these buildings, a massive berm was installed in a location between the front gate and the TOC. I don’t know the exact reasoning behind the installation of this monstrosity of earth we dubbed “Hunter Mountain,” a name in honor of the battalion moniker of “The Hunter,” the professional title of the legendary Orion, but it just seemed a little excessive. If the insurgents had tanks, they would not have been able to directly attack the TOC because of Hunter Mountain. In that sense, it was a successful improvement. But the insurgents don’t have tanks, so it was just a big dumb pile of dirt with a wall of dirt-filled barriers across the top like the Great Wall of China.

Another security-related aspect of our base that was constantly being improved upon was our front gate area. There were barriers forming entrance and exit lanes for both civilian and military traffic. There was a parking lot and a vehicle search area. There was a machine gun bunker that overlooked it all but that had nearly useless fields of fire. No one could seem to come up with a solution for the area that was truly effective, but there were certainly plenty of attempts to do so.

The most recent improvement was to completely change the entrance and exit for military traffic. Long, serpentine Jersey barriers were installed, with the entrance and exit lanes located in the almost exact opposite places as they were before. In my humble opinion, the change was stupid and unnecessary, but again, not my call. It was dumb to start with, then changed to dumb-but-different.

The day this change quietly went into effect, my platoon had QRF and CASEVAC duties. Since the job of CASEVAC is to act as an ambulance escort, anytime there was a routine need to transport a patient, be it a soldier or a local, from our base to the hospital at the major base ten minutes up the road, CASEVAC would be called. We had a routine patient transport to perform late in the afternoon, so when the time came, we mounted up and met the field litter ambulance at the front gate.

Once we got the go-ahead and we left our base, the lead vehicle noticed that the barriers outside the gate had completely changed. A dump truck with a load of dirt in it was being used as a makeshift outer gate to deny entry to any would-be attackers who might consider bursting through the entrance to our base with a car bomb. But with the new configuration, it was not immediately clear if the truck had to be moved for us to leave. The guys who were supposed to man the truck weren’t always in the truck. So the fact that there wasn’t anyone in the truck at this time made the exit route even less obvious. There were multiple paths ahead of the lead vehicle, so the driver of that vehicle chose the one that he thought was the exit. Once our four-vehicle convoy had snaked a good way down this tight path, it became apparent that it was a dead end.

The guys who were supposed to be in the dump truck had returned (from wherever) and were getting ready to pull the truck back to reveal the new exit, but our vehicles were in the way. None of us knew yet what the proper way to exit the base was, but we knew that the way we had chosen was definitely the wrong one. For at least one full minute everything was frozen. We could have asked the guys who worked the gate which way we were supposed to go, but we didn’t have direct radio communication with them. To talk to them, our conversation would have to be channeled through the TOC, and no one was going to be the one to ask, over a channel everyone listened to, where the exit was. I reached into my assault pack, rifled around through my extra magazines, 40mm grenades, and classic Nintendo cartridges, found Blind Man’s Humvee Tetris, blew out the dust, popped it into the Nintendo entertainment system and hit Start.

First, someone who thought they knew how to get out started to move his Humvee. Then someone else would think they knew how to get out or just wanted to follow suit and would start to move his Humvee. The guys in the dump truck, knowing their tardiness was the catalyst for all the confusion, just wanted to move their vehicle so they could look like they were doing something. I was in the fifth and last vehicle, so I started to back up my Humvee. Everyone in my truck had a perfect view of the madness but we hadn’t the foggiest idea where to go either. There was just enough room to move the vehicles around to make it even more of a confused mess. A vehicle would move, it wouldn’t work, another vehicle would move, another would move out of the way, and so forth. Guys got out of vehicles, some tried to take charge, there were short discussions and arguments, guys got back in vehicles. This was repeated several times. It eventually became apparent to me that the exit was behind the dump truck, and the only way we were going to be able to leave in the correct order was to completely back up all the vehicles one by one, let the dump truck move, then drive off the base like we knew what we were doing. Someone else figured this out too and called over the radio to back up and continue to back up. Back in line and with the exit before us, we hit the road, fifteen minutes from the time we had initially left. Thank god this was only a routine CASEVAC mission and not an urgent one.

On the way to the base up the street, the lead vehicle noticed some debris in the road. It was nothing big, nothing that could really be used to hide an IED, but we stopped briefly to check it out, cleared some of it out of the way, and drove on. Once we got to the big base, the ambulance dropped the patient off at the hospital, then we escorted the ambulance back to our base. The entrance for military traffic was now in a completely different place, but the lead vehicle found it on the first try. Good job!

Later that night after a shift rotation, I was on QRF. We drove to chow, ate some yummy pork and/or chicken, then drove back to the staging area. Back in my hut, I put my laptop on my cot, sat on my small folding stool, and popped in a DVD. I’ve never watched so many DVDs in my life as I did in Iraq. Honestly, any soldier who complains about their quality of life in Iraq needs to spend a moment and consider the days of pre-laptop combat.

I think I was near the end of watching The Rules of Attraction, a film I can’t seem to get enough of, when BOOM!, one of the loudest explosions I’ve ever heard shook the hell out of my hut. Then BOOM!, a second explosion, no more than a second after the first, both of them powerful enough that I felt them in my chest despite being in a heavily sandbagged shelter. I thought to myself, Holy fuck! That was fucking close!

I ran outside to the see if anyone knew what was going on. Sometimes EOD performs detonations and the word doesn’t always get to everyone. But they almost always do this during the day, never at night. Most everyone at the staging area was outside now, trying to find out what the story was. I saw my platoon sergeant. I said to him, “That was fucking close. You don’t think it’s EOD, do ya? Was there a net call about EOD activity?”

“No way that’s EOD,” he said. “That had to be just up the road. Gotta be one-fifty-fives, at least two or three each.”

Radio traffic on the battalion net was uninformative. No one seemed to know what was going on. Truthfully we didn’t need to know details yet; it was fairly obvious that they were IEDs, it was now just a matter of waiting for the TOC to send us on our merry way. Everyone started getting geared up and ready to roll. Then BOOM!, there was a third explosion, just as massive as the first two. Someone yelled, “Oh, we’re definitely going now. No fucking doubt that was an IED. What the fuck is the TOC waiting for?”

We weren’t going to wait any longer for word from the TOC, so both QRF and CASEVAC mounted up and drove to the front gate. EOD and the medics in their FLA (field litter ambulance) met us there.

The radio squelched, “Hunter QRF this is Hunter X-ray. Over.”

My platoon leader didn’t waste any time with the radio banter. “This is Hunter QRF. We’re leaving the gate at this time. We have with us CASEVAC, EOD, and an FLA. QRF out.”

Blind Man’s Humvee Tetris. Player Two up.

There was a different crew of guys in the lead vehicle this time from the earlier CASEVAC mission, and they made the exact same mistake trying to exit. They drove down the dead end and stopped. There were some attempts to turn, back up, turn again, and so forth. It was an almost perfect repeat of what had happened the first time. Someone got out of a vehicle, ran up to the lead vehicle, pointed, shouted, pointed, shouted, then ran back to his vehicle. It still required a bit of orchestration to unfuck, this time in just a little over five minutes.

As we rolled out the gate, more details came through. There was a huge convoy up the road that had been hit with the IEDs on its way to the base. At least one vehicle was down. A portion of the convoy didn’t stop after the attack and continued on toward the base. A unit of engineers from our base who were out when the attack took place were already on the scene. There were wounded soldiers, and the engineers needed CASEVAC at their location immediately.

This was no small convoy. It was all military vehicles, probably twenty or thirty, mostly the multiuse heavy-duty trucks that can carry fuel or large equipment. Near the front of the this row of vehicles were two craters, side by side, in the dirt shoulder of the road. Not far from the first two was a third crater. A few hundred meters ahead were more vehicles from the convoy, along with the vehicles of the engineers who had responded. CASEVAC and the FLA continued on to the vehicles ahead, while QRF and EOD stayed back with the other group.

Once we dismounted from our vehicles, I noticed that one of the heavy-duty vehicles had driven off the road and was several hundred meters away. There was a small fire in the cab of the vehicle, and it looked like some of the engineers were working on putting it out. A lot of the truck drivers had dismounted and looked wide eyed and shocked. Transportation guys always look like this, but tonight it was especially pronounced. The stereotypical Army truck driver in Iraq is a middle-aged National Guardsman with a mustache, a sizable gut, a hillbilly accent, a disheveled uniform, and a too-big helmet with a loose chin strap, crooked and cocked to the side. These guys looked like confused children, holding their aging M16s, a weapon that looks like a silly oversize toy in comparison with the tidy little M4s we carry. I always felt bad for transportation guys. They have just about the most dangerous job in Iraq because they are the easiest and best target for IEDs and they are the least suited to deal with them. Their vehicles lack decent armor, and by virtue of their job they lack decent combat training, but they have to deal with situations that would be stressful for a well-armored, well-trained tank platoon.

While EOD investigated the craters, the dismounted QRF guys spread out and did a quick sweep of the area. An M16 was found on the street in three pieces, covered in blood. In the same area were a few bloody chunks of flesh. These items were policed up and put in plastic bags. EOD was able to confirm that each detonation was approximately four or five 155mm artillery rounds and were remotely detonated by a wire that ran into the huge open field next to the road.

CASEVAC was working on a wounded soldier and had more information about what had happened. The first two blasts went off directly in front of one of the trucks in the convoy, sending huge chunks of shrapnel through the windshield. The driver was killed instantly. We later learned it was his rifle we found in pieces. The truck commander (TC) of the truck was badly wounded, but still alive. The blast had broken both her arms, both her legs, and her jaw had been blown off. I inquired later about her jaw having been “blown off,” but couldn’t get anyone to elaborate on what that meant—if her jaw was literally removed or just merely destroyed. Didn’t really matter. She was fucked up.

Once the driver was killed, the truck swerved off the road and drove far into the open field. It coasted for approximately four hundred meters before coming to a stop. Once the vehicle stopped, the wounded TC got out and proceeded to crawl back to the road with her weapon. She carried her rifle almost the entire way, but finally ditched it in the field after a few hundred meters. She made it all the way to the road, where the engineers found her.

Back at the craters, several of us from the QRF spread out across the road and started to trace the wires into the field. The terrain there was flat, irrigated farmland. There weren’t any crops being grown at the time; the ground was a series of hardened dirt furrows. Walking across it wasn’t easy, and in the dark it was virtually impossible to run across. It’s times like this when your typical infantryman yearns desperately for the enemy. I wanted there to be an engagement but knew that if we came under fire now it would be a very difficult movement. The insurgents know they can’t beat us in a force-on-force kind of fight, so the chances of anyone still being at the end of that wire were slim. Regardless, we continued to follow the wire, getting farther and farther from the vehicles.

The wires used in attacks like this are usually communications wires, the kind used for field telephone systems. This particular wire was just like all the rest we’d found attached to IEDs, most likely an American wire, the kind that come on big spools. And this one was long. Really long.

After following the wire for approximately eight hundred meters, we came to a dirt road that ran alongside a deep canal. There was a defilade between the road and canal. The canal was old and dense with overgrown rushes. Even if you stood a short distance away during daylight hours, it would not have been apparent that there was a depressed area on the other side of the road. The wires ran over the road, then ended in the defilade.

This canal road ran at an angle to the main road where the convoy was, but didn’t connect for more than a kilometer away. In the other direction, the road connected with a few other dirt roads. At eight hundred meters from the main road, the enemy was outside the range of all our weapons except the machine guns. But given the lack of visibility, hitting targets in the open at that distance would have been nearly impossible, let alone ones that were behind cover and that could easily have blended into the background of the rushes. The ground was too rough for a Humvee to approach directly, and even if a Humvee in the convoy knew exactly where the enemy was and knew exactly what roads to take to get to them, the enemy would still have plenty of time to escape with multiple routes of egress. In short, this was the best enemy firing position I had ever seen.

I was with my lieutenant and the EOD sergeant as we searched the area around the firing points. The EOD sergeant explained that given a wire of this length, a car battery or something larger would have to have been used for there to have been enough charge for detonation. We found no discarded battery, and since it was highly unlikely that the person or persons who made the IED went far with it on foot, we figured that there was most likely an escape vehicle. There were two firing points, one where the first two wires ended, and one a short distance away, where the third wire ended. There were at least two distinct sets of footprints clustered around these areas, one of which looked like soccer cleats. This was a shoe print we agreed we had never seen before. In fact, I don’t recall having ever seen any kind of cleats worn by anyone in Iraq. Most insurgents wear the same bullshit shoes everyone does, crapola plastic sandals or blown-out loafers, shoes that make Payless look like Bruno Magli. But this guy knew he might have to run through dirt and he came with the appropriate footwear. Whoever these guys were, they seemed to know what they were doing.

My lieutenant and I, along with the rest who had ventured out this far, continued to follow the dirt road to see where it led. Normally when it’s this dark and we’re this close to our own base, we’re able to get the mortar guys on base to fire illumination rounds over our position. But because of certain restrictions involving the possibility of aircraft being in the area that night, we were denied an illumination mission. Frustrated, my lieutenant asked me if I had any illum rounds for my 203. I told him I had three. He said, “They won’t give us illum? Then we’ll make our own fucking illum.” Our biggest concern at the time was the field on the other side of the canal. It was impossible to see anything out there, even with night vision, and there was at least one building we wanted to have a better look at. I opened the tube of my 203, pulled a long white illumination round out of the pouch on my left leg, loaded it in, closed the breech, guesstimated the best direction to fire in relation to the breeze, removed the safety, and Doonk! fired the round into the night sky. POP. Suspended from its small parachute, the round ignited and cast a faint white light everywhere. The illum rounds are not that big, but on a night as dark as this one, they make an enormous difference. After it burned out and fell to the ground, my lieutenant told me to fire again. This one didn’t hold in the air quite as long and fell to the earth before it finished burning. He told me to fire my last one, so I did.

Our platoon sergeant was out in the field with us and came jogging up to our location. He looked pissed. He explained to the lieutenant that things going “pop” right now were not a good idea when there was an entire convoy of jittery truckers with guns still on the road. The lieutenant conceded.

When we came to the end of the canal, we saw where the road connected with a few others. We had been following the cleat prints and saw that they ended at a set of tire tracks in the dirt. We realized at this point there was nothing more worth looking for, so we began the walk back to the Humvees. The second flare I shot a few minutes before had started a small fire in the brush, which provided some illumination, making the walk back a bit easier.

By the time we got back to the Humvees, my small brushfire had become an enormous brushfire. I could imagine some poor Iraqi farmer waking up in the morning to find half his field charred black, and to be completely honest, I couldn’t have given a shit. A part of me wishes every time we were attacked we’d just kill the ten nearest civilians. Sooner or later the math would start to sink in with the insurgents and they’d stop attacking us, right? Then I remembered that in most cases, anytime there’s an attack, a handful of civilian bystanders are usually killed anyway, either from shrapnel or crossfire, so I suppose there would be no real need to implement the Overwhelming Math doctrine.

The rest of the convoy had finally moved on, and those of us who had followed the wires were gone for quite some time, so I figured once we got back to the Humvees we’d be leaving shortly. But back on the street, I noticed everyone searching for something along the sides of the road. I walked up to Dan, who had been in the vehicle ahead of mine, and asked him, “What are we looking for?”

“A head.”

“What?” I half laughed.

“A head. We’re looking for a head.” Dan loved to explain things without explaining anything.

“Um, okay,” I responded blankly. “Whose head?”

More impatient than I think he had the right to be, Dan looked at me and said curtly, “The driver. They can’t find his head. We’re looking for it.”

I think the next thing I said was “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” For the briefest of moments I wanted to think this was funny. I immediately thought about the movie Eight Heads in a Duffel Bag. If we couldn’t find the head, would we try to find another head? God knows there’s plenty of them in Iraq these days. But this moment passed quickly. What if someone who didn’t care for Americans in this area—i.e. anyone we weren’t handing a wad of cash to—found the head before we did? What if the people who did this found the head first? I thought of this soldier’s mother. Then it started to really bother me. That was when it really sank in. There was no way to dismiss this or laugh it off. We had to find the rest of this soldier’s remains.

The sun had started to come up. This was good, because I knew once morning came we would be able to make a more legitimate and concerted effort to recover the remains. I had been up all night and was exhausted. I wanted badly to go to bed. But I knew that if it were my mother, I’d hope that for her sake those trying to recover my remains would never stop until everything was found. I think we had been searching for a little over an hour when word came down that there were no longer any remains missing. I almost felt disappointed. I wanted to be able to confirm personally that we had recovered everything. I felt so intent about the search and asked why we were giving up. I was told that we most definitely were not giving up; we would have searched all day and all night if it were thought that any remains were missing. It turned out nothing was missing; it just took a while for the hospital to confirm this.

There are two things my platoon never did unless we absolutely had to: talk on the radio and perform after-action reviews. But this time when we all got back to our base, our lieutenant had everyone gather around and we discussed what had just happened. We talked about the driver who was killed. We talked about the incredibly tough female soldier and what she had done. The lieutenant assured us that if anything ever happened to any of us we would never be left behind the way she was by her convoy. We talked about what we did well and what we could have done better. But mostly we just talked and listened to one another.