Fear and Loathing in Iraq: August 5, 2004

On Duty

Hey all! This week’s newsletter will have portions added to an article I am writing for Salon.com magazine. I was contacted by an editor there who enjoyed my past newsletters and she was wondering if I would write an article encompassing some of my experiences here in Iraq. I am excited about this and I will send you all copy of the article I wrote so you can check it out, whether it is ever published or not.

This week was very, very busy and I am totally exhausted. I am so thankful to have today off to recover. Everything started off smoothly on Sunday morning when I arrived for my day shift at the TOC. I worked until around 4 and then went to my C-hut to relax. After dinner and horsing around with friends I went to bed around 10:30 when SSG Ferguson knocked on my door and told me Giuriceo was sick and throwing up and could I pull her night shift? This would mean that instead of going to bed I would go to the TOC, work another 8 hours, and then go right into my day shift and work for another 8 hours on top of that. Well we are short handed because so many people are on leave and I really didn’t have much of a choice, so I got dressed and went down to the TOC. I tried to stay awake the best I could by doing school work and watching some movies, but it was tough.

I got a phone call around 1 am from the battalion saying they just got a report that two female soldiers had been kidnapped somewhere in theatre (all of Iraq) and that we were to have all the female soldiers counted to make sure it wasn’t one of ours. So I called SSG Ferguson on the walkie-talkie and asked if he could check all the chicks. He said they were all in their nests, which is strange because half the company is sleeping around and many of them sleep in each others huts, but I guess there was a lull that night. I called the other platoons around the country and they were all accounted for. I never heard anything more about the kidnappings, so I don’t know what happened. All I know is that it wasn’t any of ours.

Around 3 am there was an intelligence report of a possible chemical attack on the base and that we were to test all the NBC equipment and our gas masks. I knew this was dumb and highly unlikely and so I waited until morning to relay the message. When I told the commander and 1SGT they said both said in unison, “this is dumb and unlikely.” With a base as large as ours and as spread out as we are, I can’t see how the Iraqis could get chemical weapons into the base. They don’t have rockets capable of that, mortars don’t have the range, and no one can walk or drive in with them, so I am not sure how Intel figured we would get attacked. Whatever, it never happened.

By that morning I was a walking zombie and when the shift changed happened I stayed right where I was. I brewed more coffee and fought to stay awake. I did paperwork, school work, answered the phone, answered questions, etc., all while in a comatose state. I was later told that Navarro would be coming in early to relieve me so I could go and get some sleep. But that fucker didn’t show up until an hour before the normal time, and when he arrived I yelled and screamed about how inconsiderate he was and how I had not slept in almost two days! I stormed off and went to go sleep. When I arrived at my hut I found out the Iraqis were hired to put sand bags around all the C-huts (Grrr. Since SGT Vice and I did much of ours a couple of weeks before) and were making all kind of racket. As I lay down and tried to sleep all I heard were voices yelling in Arabic and loud “Thumps” as the sand bags were thrown into place and flattened down with large wooden mallets. Eventually sleep overtook me and I passed out.

The next day was normal, but I had still not gotten the right amount of sleep and I was tired all day long. That afternoon I was told by the commander that we were short handed and they needed an extra person to drive to Mosul. So it was set, Lunde and I were to drive to Mosul the next morning. This was gonna suck.

Lunde and I spent that night setting up the ambulance, getting all our gear in order, filling our aid bags, getting changes of clothes and such. We filled up the truck with gas, checked all the fluids and made sure nothing was leaking any more than usual. We were set to go.

We got up the next morning around six and proceeded to get the last of our gear, fill the cooler with Gatorade and water and then headed to the TOC for ice and to do radio checks. We filled the cooler with all the ice we could fit in and headed on our way to meet the 25th transportation company. We drove to their Motorpool and checked in with the people we would be riding with. They were driving LMTVs, a new version of the 2½ ton trucks from the Vietnam era most of the Army still drives. These LMTVs have huge metal walls welded into a box in the back where the gunner sits in, and large plates welded to the doors and to the front of the vehicle. These trucks were straight out of the Mad Max design book and looked uglier than a divorce. But these battle wagons were built to be nothing but gun trucks to protect TCNs (Third Country Nationals), Turkish truck drivers, who transport fuel and equipment. The gunners sit/stand in the back with SAWs and .50 caliber machine guns, as well as anti-tank AT-4 rockets. These trucks are fast, strong and looking for a fight.

On the other hand, our ambulance was slow, bulky, and packed to the gills with equipment. Since we added Up Armor doors and windshields there is much less room in the cab than before with little tiny windows that don’t allow any air in, plus there is now an MTS (Mobile Tracking System) taking up space, and to top it off we wear the bullet proof vests that add 7-8 inches to your body thickness. You then add the knee pads, elbow pads, helmet, ammo pouches miscellaneous little things and you are practically squeezed into the driver’s seat. Oh, and don’t forget the padded seat you have to have unless you want to sit on a steel-hard Kevlar blanket draped over the seat and floor. That added a few inches to your height.

So, since I was driving I was sitting hunched over, my knees rammed into the dashboard—ensuring the loss of my legs if I get rear ended or slam into someone—and my helmet rubbing the roof of the vehicle. It was cramped. We placed all of our stuff all over the cab. I had my rifle placed across the steering wheel, my gas mask next to me, the bag of CDs, snacks, knives and flashlights and junk in between us. We brought a portable power supply Lunde bought and we hooked up a power converter so we could use the 110v boom box because loud music is mandatory on these drives. We hung the radio handset on a wire over our heads and found a place to stash the 2-way radio. By the time we were done settling in all the stuff it was so crowded in the cab I am surprised I was able to turn the wheel at all.

After the briefing we headed out to pick up the 15 TCN fuel trucks near the front gate. We circled the lot and found our guys, lined up in order and started to head out on the road. There was a Gun 1 in the front, Gun 2 behind them, 8 TCN trucks, gun 3, us, 8 more TCNs and then finally gun 4 in the rear. When we headed out Gun 1 and 2 stopped traffic on both sides, clearing the way for the convoy to enter the highway safely. When the whole convoy was underway gun 1 and 2 zoomed up ahead and fell into place. Everything was going smoothly except for the heat. We were already sweating before we even left the base but by the time we actually got under way on the highway we were soaked in sweat and getting worse. Before we left we didn’t have on a helmet, or a vest, or the knee pads pulled up, or were sitting in a hot vehicle. This was getting bad. The heat that is generated by the engine and transmission is incredible. The transmission runs through the whole vehicle about hip height while driving and the housing that cover the engine and transmission connection is called the Doghouse and it offers little protection.

The heat was getting so bad it started burning my right leg. I was used to this because a Humvee is a Humvee, and they all get hot around the doghouse. But this was going to a 4-5 hour drive and I needed to protect my leg so I pulled my right knee pad down and turned it sideways to provide a barrier between my leg and the searing metal. This put my leg in an awkward position and I was pushing the gas pedal with my toes. I would have had Lunde drive but he has a problem of falling asleep at the wheel, has ADHD, and I just don’t trust other drivers. So I took one for the team and drove the whole way.

Everything was going along fine, I mean we were suffering in the heat of the 130 cab, but beyond that we were OK. My eyes were darting everywhere looking for anything suspicious, listening to rock music, drinking Gatorade and talking with Lunde. The ambulance was not acting up and we actually had pretty good power, considering we have been driving these vehicle non stop for months. We made our turns, went through Bayji, where we have a base called Summerall, and headed out again on the main highway we would take all the way to Mosul. When we northeast we saw the mountain range in the distance and it was a pleasant sight to see because there is very little change in elevation in Iraq unless you get to the northern part. We came upon an overpass and Lunde started yelling something I could not make out. I turned down the radio and he said, “Keep your eyes open, this bridge gets attacked all the time.” Ok, great, nice to know. I look around as we go over for anything out of the ordinary, but we crossed safely and some blood went back into my knuckles. I did see a hole in the ground where an IED once went off, but that was it.

About an hour later we had to stop for a few minutes because one of the TCNs lost the convoy and they had to be rounded up. Now stopping sucks because when ever you stop you have to get out, take a knee and pull security. So there we all are, kneeling on the highway pointing our rifles everywhere and trying to look mean. We were pouring sweat and cursing the idiot who couldn’t follow 20 vehicles. When the TCN was found we got back into the vehicles and immediately toweled off sweat and guzzled water. The temperature was punishing, and wearing all that gear adds another 15-20 degrees.

This week’s newsletter will be continued next week.