Friday, January 9, 2009

Mike's Gear

We’d just gotten in-country and flew into a large base near our new AO [area of operations]. They told us we’d be there a few days, begin the RIP [relief in place] of the other battalion, and then move onto our permanent base. We wouldn’t all fit on it at once, it was so small.

When our gear finally made it north on the flatbeds and we started to putting everything back together, we were missing a LOT of stuff – mostly equipment for the humvees. I mean, we knew we didn’t have it when we left, but the motor pool was supposed to have it for us – jacks, tools, parts, spare tires, tow bars, everything. They had NOTHING.

In fact, the only thing we got was a little ammo – that’s it. Nothing else. No popup flares, no grenades, no chemlights, Arabic “stayback” signs, lights, winch controllers, chains. Shit, I don’t even think they gave us more than 1000 rounds for each .50. We’d burn through that in under two minutes if we got into a firefight. In many ways, it felt like they brought us, brought the guns, and forgot everything else. Half our trucks wouldn’t run, either, so we had to empty them one-by-one and take them down to the motor pool.

For a lot of these trucks – almost all of them – this was their third tour in Iraq. They’d been there for the invasion, OIF II, and now OIF IV or something – I could never keep track of it. They were absolute junk. Some NEVER worked right, and most of them only worked part of the time. Between abusing them in Camp Lejeune during training, getting blown to pieces repeatedly on my first tour, and then rusting away in the ship until we got to Iraq again, they were toast. And every tour they put more armor on them. They weren’t rated for the weight, and the stock springs just kept compressing and we’d be grinding the tires against the fenders. The motor pool actually started “crack dealing” with the Army to get other springs. We even helped them a few times. Since we had so many humvees and they always needed fixing, it was good to keep on friendly terms with them.

Eventually we got most of our trucks working and by that time, I was running missions from the big base over to our permanent base about 20 clicks [kilometers] away. It was winter and I was freezing.

Anyway, before we left the big base, we’d walked around the place and it seemed like everybody had the gear and equipment they needed except for us. We couldn’t even get maps. MAPS!

I stopped by the COC [command center] one day to get something, and there’s a dude out front burning something in a barrel. When my LT went in, I wandered over to ask him what he was doing. You know what? He was burning maps of Tehran, Iran. Seriously. They shipped us to Iraq with maps of Iran. They also had a pile of them for somewhere in Syria, but I can’t remember where. I asked the guy if I could look at one, and he let me, so I kept one of each. I still have them buried in the house somewhere. Syria and Iran. Those were the only maps we had.

I started doing a lot of crack deals of my own then, too. I got up with the guys that we were going to replace and checked to see if they had anything. They had a few, so I took all of them, and ended up looking for more. I even went to a regiment over there and begged their intelligence guys for some, and they felt sorry for me and let me have a stack that had our new AO in it. It was tough because our base lay right in the corner of one map, so each time I wanted a good map I really had to get four of them. I bugged some random media affairs guys until they let me use their giant laminator. They wouldn’t have lasted a moment without that. Basically, we geared up by everybody else taking pity on us.

I get the feeling sometimes that we were the forgotten battalion. Nobody gave a crap about what we had or didn’t have. They just wanted us there. There was a pretty BIG rumor floating around that we weren’t even supposed to be in country, but our MEU commander had gone ahead and done it anyway – and gotten in big trouble for it – but I couldn’t confirm it. Our lack of gear and ammo sure suggested that’s what happened.

I managed to convince the guys we were replacing to give me all their ammo when they left, so they did. I was FAR more than we were ever issued. I don’t know how they got away with just giving it to me, but I guess they were too lazy to turn it back in at the ASP [ammunition supply point]. Either way, it helped us out a LOT – and we never told anybody besides our platoon commander, and he was cool with it.

In fact, he was so impressed that he’d come to me in the evenings and hand me a piece of paper. “What’s this,” I asked him. Well, it was a shopping list. It was things we needed to get but nobody could find for us. Happy hunting.

I know that if I got caught, he’d deny all knowledge of it and I’d go down for larceny, but we sort of needed the stuff, so I just tried not to think about it – or get caught. We had a few guys in our unit who were serious kleptomaniacs, so I’d get their help. We’d wait until after dark, take a truck, and just disappear to somewhere on the base. Then we’d come back hours later with a pile of things. Every time.

Since the base was so large, each unit had partitioned off a section of their own, complete with gate guards and entry points. Thing is, all you had to do was wear a uniform and show your ID and they’d let you in. And they only wanted to see ONE ID from the whole unit. I’m serious. I could have a military ID and behind me could be a hundred cars full of Russians – they’d let us all in if we vouched for them. The main gate was the same way, seriously.

So we’d just take our truck, wander onto these other bases, and see what we could find. Then we’d leave. They never checked anybody on the way out. And it wasn’t like it mattered, because they never looked in the truck in the first place.

There was one smaller compound next to us that had two big units on it, and I guess none of them had any experience with Marines nearby. If they had known about Marines, NOTHING would be lying around at all. Not even food. But not this place. The whole thing was like a shopping store with no price tags or registers. Basically, we just took what we needed.

We were only on that big base for one week, but by the time we left, that smaller base had doubled their security, put up runs of concertina wire around everything, locked all their doors, and even put padlocks on their humvees. I guess they learned their lesson. We, however, got what we desperately needed. Ammo, tools, spare tires, parts, and gear. Without it, we’d have run out completely – during a firefight. They actually gave me a medal for all of this when I got back home, a medal for being a thief. It doesn't say it directly in the citation, but if you read between the lines, the whole thing is about being a crook. I think it's funny.

As it was, we couldn’t ever keep the trucks running. It got so bad that the motor pool guys would keep at least two spare vehicles parked just for us. If one of ours broke, we still had to run missions (we were considered a battalion asset, so we took priority), so they just gave us one of the loaners and started working on the broken one. Well, at least one of our trucks was always in there broken and we always had one loaner. We swapped trucks so often that it became impossible to keep up with who had what. We just started asking, “do you have a truck?” If they did, good enough.

During one operation, the commander wanted us ALL out there, ALL the time. We actually weren’t allowed to come back to base for anything – even if we were doing something right outside the gate. It didn’t matter, we had to wander off into the desert and find a safe spot – and hopefully not get stuck in the wadis [sand/mud-filled depressions where water flows during the rainy season].

We were out on that mission one night, WAY up the far side of the river. By road, it was about 60 clicks back to base, but only about 15 as the crow flies. And of course, MY truck breaks down this time – after blowing all the radiator steam into the cab, choking us, and coating the windshields with a layer of slime. We’d been trying to drive at night with NVGs on [night vision goggles], but then we broke down completely – in a puddle of course.

So, in the dark, freezing, and covered in mud, we hooked up a tow bar (which we’d stolen earlier – otherwise we wouldn’t have had one), and then we towed my truck back to base. I’d have to swap out with the loaner at the motor pool. It was a pain in the ass under the best of circumstances, but since I was riding in the first truck, we had the most crap in there – with radios, electronics, a power converter to AC power that I’d borrowed, and even a coffeemaker I rigged up in the front. It all had to be taken out. I’d carefully wrapped all the wires and made it look beautiful, but now I had to cut it all back out.

When we finally got back to base – at about midnight in winter, we swapped all our stuff into the new truck and got the radio and electronics working again. I even took the time to tie everything back down and make it look nice again, since my LT had wandered off somewhere. Anyway, when he came back, I asked him if we could stay there that night since we weren’t needed outside the wire until the next morning. Nope. The commander wouldn’t allow it. He wanted us ALL outside the wire – just because. I hated him all the more.

So we got ready to leave and drove for the gate in my loaner truck – which wasn’t actually a new truck, but just another one of our piece of crap trucks that they’d just finished fixing. Right after we went through the gate, though I could tell that something wasn’t right. I asked the driver what’s up, and he tells me, Sergeant, I’m flooring it and it won’t go over 20. I was more furious than I’d ever been. We turned around and drove back in.

By this time, the motor pool guy had fallen back asleep, but I went in and woke him up again. I felt badly, but I needed a working truck. He got me another loaner and I had to cut out all my stuff AGAIN and start moving it a second time. And then I lost it.

I started screaming at nobody in particular that if it was so damn important that we do this mission, the least they could do is give us working equipment. That was the only time my LT yelled at me to shut the hell up. I felt pretty stupid about it later.

Anyway, this third truck ran okay, so we left and went back out for days – and I don’t think we had any more problems with it, except that I always had a truck that the head didn’t work in ever. I thought the heaters NEVER broke – but they always did in mine.

Those poor trucks. By the time I got out, most of them had done four tours – and they were still crap. Because of all the armor weight, the engines would last a few months before they blew up. If you were lucky, they’d handle about 7000 miles. The transmissions weren’t any better, either. Those things had so much weight, that they burned the transmission fluid as dark as motor oil – in just a few miles. They were absolute garbage and I hated them. You’d think that if they wanted us to wage a war they’d at least give us the right equipment to do it. But no, as far as I can tell, the Army got all of it. And the Air Force got the rest. The Marine Corps only operates on about 2% of the DOD budget, actually, but we do all the work. Go figure…

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


  1. I wonder if any unit in Iraq still has the equipment they were issued? Would love to have a serial number check.

  2. I will share a letter with you written to me by Senator Barack Obama IL dated March 9, 2005.

    I had written a letter to him in December of 2004 describing the horrible state of disrepair of your fleet of humvees. I think you know who brought this to my attention...

    Anyway, here is his letter.

    Dear Sarah
    Thank you so much for writing me to share your concerns about not adequately arming our brave men and women fighting overseas.
    There should be no question that we must make absolutely sure that we are doing everthing we can to ensure that these brave soldiers (my letter to him was refering to Marines....) are never placed in harm's way unnecessarily. When we send them in to perilous situations, we must give them every protection possible. As you point out, that has not always been the case in Iraq, and I will work with my colleagues in the Senate to make sure we give our soldiers, guardsmen and reservist all the equipment they need.
    As a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and the Veterans Affairs Committee, I will also work to ensure that we pursue foreign policies that make us more secure in the world, and that we take care of our troops when they return home.
    Thank you again for your letter, and I hope you will continue to stay in touch.
    Barack Obama
    United States Senator

    Shall I continue to stay in touch?

  3. No heat? That would be the last straw.