Friday, April 3, 2009

Old Habbaniyah

Two years ago at this time, I was sitting in Habbaniyah, Iraq, approximately 300 meters from the Euphrates River, and more likely than not studying Arabic with my roommates or dissecting a new weapon so we could magically pronounce ourselves experts and create courses of instruction that helped expedite Iraqi army and police training. We were never bored, to say the least.

When I arrived in late January, 2007, I spoke two words in Arabic: yes and no. When I left in late May, I was instructing in Arabic; a fairly impressive feat. Nor was I the only one. We worked hard for that. Immersion is the best way to learn (and also the best way to make stupid mistakes a lot and look stupid).

But far more memorable than our accomplishments and escapades were the people. There were exactly thirteen of us in the original group, and, like no other unit in which I have ever served or even observed from afar, we meshed fantastically. I had the privilege yesterday of catching up with our old Habbaniyah commanding officer (CO), a now-retired Marine Gunner who gave the Corps 34 years before turning to the private sector to do virtually the same thing he was doing while in. Most heartwarming about our conversation is that, after this man completed at least 12 full-length overseas tours in various parts of the world, the one that he remembers the most fondly is our time in Habbaniyah. "I am the luckiest man alive," he told me.

Save for a few unique cases in the special forces community, no military commander under almost any circumstance is permitted to hand-pick his or her own troops. My CO, however, was a notable exception. After well over three decades, it was universally known that when he touched something, it worked. Using this fact, some clever bullying, and a some back channel negotiations, this man was permitted to hand select every last one of us. And he did so quite boldly, pulling not only from his own unit (with well over 100 Marines in his charge), but also from other battalions and even regiments. He knew who he wanted, and he worked to get them. From his enormous pool of friends and associates, he chose a mere twelve of us. I was privileged to be one of them.

If I said we were simply friends, I would be a liar, for we were more than that. If I said we always got along swimmingly, I would be painting a much brighter picture than actually occurred. If I say that every day was an exercise in the deepening of lasting friendships, nobody would even believe me by this point. This wasn’t the case. But we had fun, and we got things done.

Foremost, we had a number of commonalities. I got along with one guy because he liked to find things and make them somehow work again. He once came back with a Lexus (with permission!). Another was an absolute gun fanatic, and I knew just enough about ballistics to enjoy his recitations of shooting some obscure machine gun that nobody else had even heard the name of before. Later during the tour, we teamed up and problem-solved a weapon neither of us had ever fired before. And I thought of something he didn’t. As I am a TOW missile gunner and he a machine gun instructor, I was particularly proud of myself, and reminded him of this often. Whenever we explored the labyrinth of roads on our base, he’d invariably end up lost and I’d help him navigate back out. Making fun of the GPS navigation system Tom-Tom, he called me Ben-Ben. And I still hear it every now and then.

Another man was a big fan of old-style, real southern cooking. We would sit around and discuss our favorite homemade meals of cornbread and biscuits and gravy. We’d compare our grandmothers’ recipes. We spent many an evening discussing Hotel Habbaniyah, a rotating door of tactical genius, reporters, and stragglers. We were the staff, and we knew every visitor.

One of the Marines in my room was a particularly odd bird, tying complex knots in short strings and hanging them to display around his sleeping area. It looked like a little shop of horrors, made significantly worse when he took out his teeth. But he was a great guy, and the most enthusiastic about my “extracurricular” activities, joining me for “finding” equipment, exploring the overgrown areas of base and wandering the halls of the old Habbaniyah British Hotel (now a derelict, but still beautiful structure). He also helped me wire the whole barracks for internet – for no other reason than he was enthusiastic to help.

A man by far my senior was a great shopping buddy – seriously. Somehow he’d managed to find all the little stores on the Iraqi side of our base and establish a great relationship with all the vendors. We’d wander over there at all hours of the day and buy bread, tea and teapots, barter, or experiment with new things that stood a good chance of making us sick. He, by the way, did get sick, and I never did. But it never diminished his enthusiasm.

But more than having fun with these men, I had friendships. When days were long and everything went poorly, they were quick to sympathize. They’d probably had a similar day in the not too distant past. Maybe tomorrow would be better? Who knew. We’d all be out there anyway. We worked and lived together always. In the evenings, we’d all go eat together. Yet we weren’t just eating, we “broke bread.” And when our schedules permitted, the entire lot of us would conduct a special “mission” through a non-secure area outside the wire (to another base altogether) for the sole purpose of sitting down at a long table and enjoying a slow, better-quality meal. When we broke bread as a group, we blessed the meal, too. We’d have barbecues and a general would come rumbling in at the last minute for the express purpose of enjoying a steak (cooked, of course, by my culinary compatriot, who could really work a grill). We’d spent weeks planning those events, and negotiating enough food for everybody, securing charcoal (back channels), and even condiments. We took food seriously. It’s truly amazing we all didn’t get fat.

More than any unit I’ve served in, this was a small, close family. We certainly had our fair share of squabbles and disagreements, and hardly a day went by that we didn’t yell at each other about something, but come evening time, we were friends again, arguing over Monopoly, studying Arabic, perfecting the courses we created and taught, dissecting a gun, or simply watching a movie with failing, decrepit electronics. We were united in early-morning misery until we’d gulped down at least the third pot of coffee. We were united in prayer, a bond which extended well beyond a quick tour with varying degrees of danger. And we were united in mission, where merely thirteen dedicated instructors and staff saw to the instruction and tactical preparedness of well over 10,000 Iraq soldiers and police. The country continues to reap the rewards of these efforts, with those troops serving as the backbone for some of nation’s most successful infantry divisions. We trained them, and we did it with only a handful of men, a fairly modest budget, and in only a year’s time (and I was only part of that for 4.5 months).

We all talk still at random intervals and about random subjects. Some guys have since elected to get out of the Corps, a few have moved to different units, at least two have retired, and a couple more have simply faded back into the regular infantry ranks. But they show up every now and then, and it’s great to hear from them.

I know of no units since World War II that actually have reunions, but we will certainly buck that trend. Being such a small family as we were, there are few to actually track down, only limited logistics, and friendships that will undoubtedly last a lifetime. I rarely reminisce about the Corps, since most of the greatness of it is so buried in daily aggravation that it’s hopelessly lost. It wasn’t really that awesome; we just tell ourselves it was. But Habbaniyah was different. On a base once occupied by the British (from the 20s to the 60s), in an old barracks that was probably an office, thirteen men did amazing things with few resources, little planning, and often little support from our overseeing unit. But we did well, and we had a great time doing it. But more than anything, they really WERE the good old days. A bunch of gun nuts, goobers and oddballs became a family, and no distance or time can ever diminish it. And I miss it…

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

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