Tuesday, July 28, 2009

We Survived Them

*Retold with permission. (This post is more graphic than others, so please proceed at your own risk.)

I think every last one of us, at some time or another, has been tasked out on missions that make no sense whatsoever. Sure, it’s not our job to really know WHY we’re doing some of them, but there are orders that so directly conflict with our warfighting doctrine that we’re left puzzling over what idiot decided they were a good idea.

One prime example of this was when we were attached to a unit north of Baghdad in a particularly dangerous, deadly area. Before we arrived, they were getting hit badly, and it continued well after we arrived, too. We’d been called up to help control the violence that was spinning out of control. Aside from small arms, one of the largest threats was IEDs [improvised, explosive devices].

Typically, to help ensure safe passage along regular convoy routes, a team called “route clearance” will slowly creep along the shoulders of roads looking for IEDs. They use special, heavily-armored vehicles called Pumas, complete with mine flails in the front, and metal detectors under the body. Even in the event of a detonation, the occupant is relatively safe.

These guys slowly scan the shoulders, and whenever they find something suspicious, they’ll call up another special, heavily-armored vehicle to dig up and detonate the device (if there is one to detonate – often times, it’s just trash buried in the dirt).

Well, for some reason these guys were terrified for their safety, despite their armor, cautious, methodical pace, and so on. And rather than just move even more slowly or cautiously, they asked for some infantry guys to help them.

No worries, that’s what we’re there for – to help secure the AO [area of operations]. BUT, rather than have us provide extra firepower or provide additional security, the route clearance guys wanted us clear the route for THEM. How? By walking along the road, in front of them, without armored vehicles, and visually looking along the shoulders for IEDs.

For reasons that were never explained to me, this ridiculous order wasn’t questioned. No, we’d be glad to walk along the roadsides for you. So we get out there, in front of route clearance, vulnerable as ever, and started walking along the shoulders.

One of our guys asked, “wait, we’re providing route clearance for route clearance? What the hell are we looking for!?” His squad leader was the one that answered, himself miserable.

“If we blow up, they stop.”

So we walked, convinced that at any moment we’d all be shredded with IEDs. To our utter joy and amazement, we completed that mission unscathed. I assure you it did nothing to improve our respect for the troops we were supporting. It seemed to me they were shirking their jobs and making us do them – at greater risk. Or maybe they were trying to get us killed.

Other missions weren’t as dangerous, but they were an utter waste of our time. One was the donkey hunt.

Apparently the mayor of that town, somehow finding himself and his life to be of far greater significance that it really was, called our battalion commander and complained that his donkey had escaped into town and he didn’t know where he was. Believe it or not, our commander felt it was high priority and promised the mayor that he’d do something about it.

We had been on base that day, standing by as QRF [quick reaction force] for whomever needed serious fire support, medevac, or assistance in the city. As we stood by, the radio crackled that we had a mission. Scrambling to throw on gear and load weapons, we ran out to get our brief. QRF missions are often intense, so we expected the worse. Somebody was in trouble.

“The mayor of the town has lost his donkey, so we’re being sent out to patrol around and find it.”

The CO [commanding officer] was serious, too. Furious, we drove out the gate to find a donkey.

After hours of fruitless searching, roasting in the trucks in all our gear, we spotted a donkey lying on the side of the road. It looked sick, and its legs were spastically twitching. But, it was the only donkey we’d found in the entire city, so we assumed it belonged to the mayor. Stepping out, our squad leader walked over and tried to haul it to its feet. It didn’t budge.

“This thing is dying, and there’s no way we can save it, either.” Drawing his pistol from the holster, he put it out of its misery. Some of our guys jumped in surprise. They weren’t expecting gunfire.

“Sergeant, we can’t just leave it there. It might get used to hide an IED.” The Soldier was right, too. It happened all the time. More than one animal carcass had been rigged with high-powered explosives in that area, and we weren’t going to provide the carcass for it to happen again. Not only were they extremely dangerous threats, they were revolting, too. Nobody, however, had any idea what to do with the carcass.

Somebody got the bright idea that it’d be smart to burn it, which really wasn’t bright at all. After a thorough dousing in diesel, they lit it – resulting in a rank, smoldering carcass still sitting in the road and posing a threat.

“We could shoot it, I guess.” So they fired a few rounds with a .50, which didn’t do anything. Meanwhile, people were starting to get sick from the odor of singed hair and flesh. Our platoon sergeant made a quick call.

“Open up on it. Now.” Two .50 cals started shredding the carcass into pieces. They were still fairly large.

“Screw it. I’m done. Let’s go home.” Enthusiastically, we returned to base and it was reported that the mayor’s donkey had been found very ill and been mercifully put out of its misery. Close enough.

These are just two examples, but we ran all sorts of missions that had no purpose or tactical intelligence. After a couple of months attached to that unit in the city, we were thrilled to leave before they got us all killed. They were perhaps the most screwed up units I’ve ever served under. If I stay in the Army, I’m going to spend my time avoiding that unit at all costs. I don’t want to end up like them: stupid – or dead.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved


  1. Did anyone consider shooting the Mayor and burning him?

  2. Shades of dead chickens that did not disintegrate when burned & would not stay buried!