Saturday, January 10, 2009

Still-Waged Wars

To my buddies heading out...


A mutual friend of ours [name omitted] asked me to offer you some words of encouragement as you ready for your deployment. I was initially flattered, but now, a day later, it occurs to me that I really don’t have much to say. You’re going to a combat zone. I don’t think anything I could think up would send you packing with a smile on your face and any heartfelt exuberance. The fact is, it’s a combat deployment, not a vacation. I will say, however, that I’ve been there – three times, actually, which probably counts for something.

When I first left, I did the standard goodbyes with my family and friends, yet I was almost afraid to be too sincere about it, lest I jinx the whole thing and lessen my odds of returning. Stupid, perhaps, but it made sense to me at the time. And, of course, I did come back, and ended up deploying two more times. Just tell them all that you love them, and make sure to reiterate it while you’re overseas. I’ve reached the conclusion that deployments are harder on your family than they are on you. You’re busy, usually, but all they can do is think about you being gone and how much danger you’re in, and then wring their hands helplessly.

Believe it or not, there are people in the states who want nothing more than to support you – in full. Whether it be food, books, coffee, even mission essential gear that you can’t get through supply. They’re willing, and eager to provide you with it. And pray for you. You don’t have to worry about writing back any lengthy thank you letter, because they never expect much. They know you’re thankful, and they also know you’re busy. Just knowing you received it is enough.

People are also praying for you – and you can add me to that list. It doesn’t matter that I’ve never met you; what you’re doing is challenging, fun, tragic, and difficult to relate to. But I can relate, so this is what I will pray for you:

That above all else, you will take God with you as you leave. That when you speak to your subordinates, friends and superiors, it’s evident that your confidence rests not in the tactical abilities of your unit, but ultimately in Him – in the preservation of your spirit over your physical being.

That when you speak and when you act, they would all see God in you. Not you.

That you will remain heartened to your mission – not necessarily viewing it as noble struggle for your country, but as an opportunity to ensure the success, wellbeing and safe return of your subordinates and peers. I am confident that God honors such character; since Christ Himself exhibited such traits.

That you will have the boldness to adhere to what is right and to stand before your superiors and advocate your troops And that also you would remain simultaneously humble enough to listen to those beneath you with a genuine concern for them as men, Americans, and fellow servicemembers.

That as you miss your loved ones that you would grow exponentially closer to them and pray for them.

That you will be successful in your missions, bringing you and others one small step closer to returning home permanently, and victoriously.

That you would recognize that God does not honor perfection, but that He honors pursuit of Him – no matter how faulty we may be. That failure, should it be encountered, is not a termination of your value to Him, but further opportunity to cling tightly to the hem of His garment and revel in His enduring grace.

That you would grow – as men, as leaders, as children of God, and as followers of Christ. That your witness would also grow, before your fellow troops and before your family. That what you learn, you would never forget.

That should you be taken, your rest confidently in your swift transport to His hall of saints and kings, and His sweet embrace. And that this does not happen until the allotted time – far from now.

And I will pray for your quick return to a country you will love all the more. God speed, and keep your head down. When you come back, I owe you a beer. Thank you for your service, brother.

Warmest Regards,

Ben Shaw
(OIFs II-VII, USMC Infantry)

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


For the record, these accounts are not all my own anonymously submitted. They represent real people enduring real experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. The names of those involved are either changed or omitted altogether to protect their privacy.

Please do not assume they are all my experiences, for they are not. Only a few are - and those will remain undisclosed.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Ian's Reward

You know, I was put up for two NAMs [Navy/Marine Corps Achievement Medal] on my second tour. But both times somebody shut it down, for some stupid reason.

By the time I left for my second tour, I’d done two full Iraqi Arabic courses at the community college near base. It was taught by a former Shiite, Iraqi General that somehow came to the states. I think he was instrumental in keeping the Iranians from completely overrunning the country when during the Iran-Iraq War. His name was Ali Wa Selan. We just called him Chemical Ali, but it was okay with him, I guess.

I loved those courses. We were officially detached from our units and reassigned as students in college. So we partied like we were college students. We got wasted every night and showed up barely sober. A couple of times we slept in the car in their parking lot just to get out of field day stupidity [Field Day – Thursday evenings when everybody cleaned the entire barracks from top to bottom].

After we did about two months of patrolling, recon [Marine Reconnaissance battalion] borrows our company to help them do a patrol through this area they called “gunfight city.” They’d get into bad firefights every time they went through, so they asked for some help doing a systematic house-to-house search of two small towns.

I got stuck in the company commander’s vehicle – manning the .50 while a Slovakian buddy of mine rode along. It was boring as hell and I hated it. If it wasn’t for family, religion and stuff, I’d have shot myself and pelted my CO [commanding officer] with my own brains. Maybe he’d be horrified or something.

After one day, we’d searched almost the entire area we were assigned. We’d be done late that night, so we need to find a place to stay so we could leave in the morning. Recon, by the way, wasn’t even half done.

I told the company commander, Sir, I speak a little Arabic. I can get us a place for the night if you give me a chance. And much to my amazement, he let me go.

That Slovakian guy and I walked up to a school compound. It was surrounded by a high wall and really secure. We just walk in and go to the headmaster’s office and talk to him. Seriously, within 15 minutes, I’d negotiated a place to stay that night – for the whole company. We’d be safe, secure, and since we were right next to a mosque, we knew we wouldn’t even get mortared. We’d even pay the headmaster reparations for his troubles. Everybody was happy. The CO was amazed. How’d you do that, he asked me. I dunno. I’m just good, I guess.

Awhile later they told me that I was going to get a medal for it – a NAM with a V [for Valor – always attached to the device when awarded in a combat zone – regardless of merit]. So anyway, did I get it? Nope. The CO was killed and everybody forgot about it. I didn’t get anything.

Before long, they disbanded weapons platoon and attached us to other platoons. I got stuck with the stupidest of them all. It’s not they were really idiots, but they followed every order to a T – to the point of absurdity. Even if the orders were stupid, dangerous, and horribly dumb. They’d just do them anyway – even if it killed them. They couldn’t think for themselves and improvise.

Anyway, we did pretty well despite that. I was still acting as provisional terp, too, so I had to interrogate them and determined if we’d even take them in. We captured about 200 or 300 of them, and I did spot interrogations of all of them. Believe it or not, 2/3s of them got sent to Iraqi court for prosecution. I guess my interpreting was pretty decent. I could spot a bad guy.

Whenever we were out on extended missions, we’d commandeer locals’ homes and stay there at night, which was really screwed up. Since I was interpreter, they’d send me to talk with the family and explain why we were kicking them out of their houses in the dead of night and telling them to just get scarce for a couple of days. I felt really badly doing it but I still had to. I had the hysterical women screaming at me about how we’d destroy the house, take their money and their guns, and then my platoon sergeant barking orders at me in the other ear. I was chaotic, and I felt bad. They all hated me for it – even though we were always very respectful of their homes, paid them money and everything. We were still kicking them out in the middle of the night. But I had to do it. Our mission came first. I still didn’t like it though. Thankfully, I ran into most of them later and they were still friendly with us.

So by the end of the deployment, I’d done this to like 40 houses. Just stormed into their homes in the middle of the night and told them to leave – sort of politely – at gunpoint. I was conflicted, but it had be done. They told me that I was going to get a medal for an entire tour as a provisional terp. Well, when I was up one day in headquarters, I dug through all the award citations sitting in the office, and then I found mine.

They were giving me a CERCOM [Certificate of Commendation – just above a letter of appreciation]. And it wasn’t for working as a terp. It was for doing a SINGLE spot interrogation of a guy that allegedly had some involvement in an attack that killed five Marines. That was like 15 minutes of the entire deployment, and that’s all they remember. A CERCOM. Those things are worthless. Just a shitty piece of paper. A written “thumbs up.”

Meanwhile, every radio watch guy, got a NAM just because they worked close to the command element. They were liked, so they got medals. And guys that weren’t even involved in operations got NAMs – for those operations. The officers just thought it was the right thing to do.

All the company commanders got Bronze Stars, too – with Vs [for valor], just because they were company commander and WE did such a good job. In Vietnam, a Bronze Star with a V usually meant you were a hero – or more likely dead. Guys that got shredded doing something amazing. But now, all the COs got one, even MY CO [commanding officer].

And that was the most screwed up thing about it. He had died doing something stupid – against the judgment and advise of the other four Marines in his humvee. They said there was an IED ahead, but he ignored them. He insisted. And he was killed, along with four of my friends – and good Marines.

But they gave him a Bronze Star, too. We were back in the states by then, and the guy’s family came down, so we had to do a memorial service for him – which was dumb. And when they read the citation [the account of the event that earned the Marine the award], they recounted something that happened THREE WEEKS after he killed himself and my friends. They’d just made it up out of guilt or something.

So all these guys that come back and show off medals, I don’t care. I don’t believe any of them. Chances are, they didn’t do anything. They might not have even been there when it happened. But somebody just handed them a medal. Maybe out of guilt. I don’t have any medals still, and neither do my four dead friends, but I know what they did, and I know what I did. And I don’t think anybody cares.

The Gunner's Dream

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Jeff's AO

There was a company in our battalion that was tasked with patrolling this one road – I think Time Magazine considered it the most heavily IED’d (Improvised Explosive Device) road in Iraq, but I never saw any report about it. It was bad, though. After a couple months, it was almost a guarantee that you’d get hit driving down there – unless you went out at night – we didn’t get hit at night there, but other guys did. They always drove with their lights on – and paid for it.

Anyway, the company that patrolled that road got hit all the time. One of the first was when they first showed up over there. They were in tracs (AAVs – Marine Corps amphibious assault vehicles), and just as soon as they got across the bridge (Euphrates river), they got rocked with a huge IED.

That was bad enough, but then another IED hit them right after the first one sent the trac airborne a couple feet. It cracked the whole thing in half like an egg. Amazingly, nobody got hit with shrapnel, but at least one guy was knocked sideways by the blast and messed up his back. I think they sent him home it was so bad. And one or two guys got knocked out, too. That one was just the first.

Before long, the engineers were sent to set up a base at the start of that road – just so the company could have a constant presence down there – and even see down the road for a couple of kilometers – overwatch or something.

Well, as the engineers were out there bulldozing the base, some stupid carbomber drove up and blew up the car right in front of them. Nobody was seriously injured, but a lot of guys got little bits of shrapnel in their arms. We got called out to reinforce them – and we passed their humvee full of injured guys riding back to base. It seemed like everybody had their arms bandaged.

We got out there and set up a secure cordon, and there’s bits of the bomber all over the place. His ear was on the ground near me, and also a piece of jaw. One of the other guys radioed that they found his eyes. Somehow they landed next to each other. Then my buddy found his spine. And one guy found his balls. I don’t know how or why, but everything landed in pairs – in like a 100 foot radius around where he blew himself up. Our lieutenant told us to just kick the shit to the side of the road. It was like soccer with body parts.

Eventually they got the base built and started patrolling the road regularly – and still got blown up all the time. Some sections of that road were directly across the river from where we stayed on base, so every time an IED would go off close, the blast would push our doors open. We’d just get our gear and just go wait in the trucks. We knew they’d be calling us out soon. And they did.

Those poor bastards. They had a horrible time. Their base, if you can even call it that, was just a shitty compound surrounded by Hesco barriers (earth-filled wire baskets virtually impervious to shrapnel and bullets). They lived in an old iso-can (a removable tractor trailer compartment – like those seen on the highway towed behind semis), but it didn’t even have sandbags around it. They didn’t have AC or anything, so they cooked in the summer, and froze in the winter. And they got mortared all the time and they weren’t allowed to fire back. They might hit somebody, the command said. I heard a rumor that their lieutenant overruled them a couple times and they fired anyway, but I don’t think it happened very often.

They’d patrol that road night and day, and they always got blown up. Their company had a Marine that held the military record for number of times IED’d without injury. I think it was twelve. He’s lucky to be alive – or have any hearing left.

For some stupid reason, the command got tired of them blowing up humvees down that road, so they told the guys to patrol on foot instead – which seemed like the stupidest idea in the world. The humvees offered at least SOME protection. On foot, you were dead. The kill radius for a 155mm artillery round is 300 meters anyway. They didn’t have a prayer on foot – but somehow the command thought it’d help. I’m still pissed at them for doing that to those guys.

It didn’t take long for them to start getting hit on foot. They weren’t even patrolling the areas OFF the road – but the shoulders. They’d just walk along and peer into the craters from past IED’s, and pray to God that they didn’t bite it. The bastards would re-use the holes over and over. A couple of times, a guy was looking down in a hole and an IED would go off. And somehow, they just got knocked back and that was it. If that’d happened to me, I’d just quit. I’d used up all my luck.

One of their sergeants was looking into a crater once, and then it blew up on him. The company first sergeant ended up out there picking up whatever pieces of him they could find – and putting them in a trash bag. He was the first to die on that road, I think.

But they still made them patrol on foot. And they still got hit all the time. Sometimes they’d spot them before they went off and call out EOD (explosive ordinance disposal), and we’d escort them out. Once, our other section took EOD out, which was fine, but then they got hit as they were getting ready to head back to base. They mopped up that mess – which just popped a couple of tires, and started up again. And then a carbomb hit one of their trucks. Somehow everybody was okay, except that they all got their bells rung and couldn’t hear for awhile.

We had that happen once to us, too. We were escorting EOD back to base, and then THEIR truck got hit. But one of the guys had the door cracked, and the force of the explosion slammed the door into his leg. He was okay, but bruised up pretty badly. He limped for weeks – and looked pissed and miserable the entire time.

It got so bad that driving that road at night was really hard with NVGs (night vision goggles). Even if we didn’t get hit, we’d still have to zig-zag from one side of the road to another to avoid the craters. Some of them would swallow a humvee. The truck in front of me missed a big one once, but was going so fast that they sort of launched over it. They got shaken pretty badly, but the .50 cal fell out of the mount. The gunner ended up barely grabbing it with one hand while it hung over the side of the truck. After we got that fixed up, we started heading back to base again, and we passed another unit riding up the road with their blackouts on. We radioed over to them to be careful for the holes – it was treacherous up there. ‘Yeah, yeah. They got it.’ Five minutes later they were radioing back to us for help. They’d dumped THREE trucks in just one hole, and their own corpsman (Navy medic) was injured. They wanted to borrow ours. That unit was so stupid that they only did patrols on that road for about a week. Then the command sent them to do other things. They had no idea how to navigate, drive, or respond when they got hit or attacked. They gave all their missions to MY platoon – assholes.

One of my buddies was out there one day doing a foot patrol along the road, and all of the sudden they heard a cellphone going off in the ditch. It was the detonator and they were right on top of the IED. Lucky for them, it didn’t go off, but they were convinced they were going to die. I talked to him a few months ago, and he’s completely disabled from PTSD – I imagine it’s at least partially because of that one incident. I didn’t ask him

Another time, EOD was poking around doing a post blast (post blast analysis), and suddenly we saw him bend down and start ripping at wires frantically. Yanking and yanking. Then he suddenly just stopped and knelt down with his head in his hands. Apparently he had stumbled on top of an IED, and since running was just a waste of his time, he just started ripping up the detonation wires and hoped he disconnected the detonator before it went off. I guess it worked. So after he slumped there for a second, he stood back up and started stacking artillery rounds up on the road. It would have been a big one. I’m glad he made it.

Not long before we were slotted to leave and head back to the states, some guys from the original company were doing a patrol one night where they’d drive part of the way, but then get out for some reason and keep going on foot. It was their stupid mission tasking.

Well, the humvee had parked on top of an IED, which went off just as the guys were starting to dismount from the back. It went off right under the engine, and flipped the truck over – right on top of the dismounts out back. Two were badly crushed underneath it and they couldn’t roll it off of them. The doc crawled back to them and gave them both morphine, but it was all he could do right then. He couldn’t even work on them. They called a wrecker to lift the truck off them, but they were both dead before it even got there.

When they told one of those guys’ dad, he was so overcome with grief, he shot himself. We heard about it almost right after it happened. I keep wondering what would have happened if they told MY family. I wonder if it would have been that bad. We lost a lot of guys on that road – but we actually lost even more on another road – including my squad leader. They rigged everything into IEDs in our AO (area of operations). Donkey carts, palm trees, waterlines, guard rails, cars, trucks, even bicycles. Everything blew up. In seven months, I think our battalion alone went through about 1,100 tires. That’s insane, considering there’s only about 40 trucks – if that. We had a couple that still had shrapnel holes in them. Mine had a bullet hole in the radio mount right next to my knee, but I still have no idea where it came from. One truck had bits of my buddy’s elbow all over it. It never rained enough to completely wash it off, and we really didn’t want to touch it. That entire area was hostile to the US. Hell, they probably still are.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Jeff's Closure

We were coming back to base one day after some mission. Eight vehicles in our convoy. I think I was in the 6th that time, driving.

Less than a click (kilometer) from base, the humvee two in front of me suddenly disappears in a fireball. The first thing I’m thinking is, ‘is anybody alive? Who was in the gun this time?’ You get a real tight feeling in your gut when this happens – and this wasn’t the first time.

We all rolled to a stop, and as the flames died away we could see the truck still sitting there, no movement. God, they’re all dead, I’m thinking. I saw our corpsman (Navy medic) running back from truck two. It was in slow motion. By the time he got there, we had all dismounted and started looking for a triggerman, but I didn’t see anybody anywhere. It was freakin’ silent. Nothing. We’re just driving along and the car on the side of the road blows up. We should have noticed it, too. They’d set it up to look broken down, but they’d been too obvious. The back end was jacked up and a tire was off, but the hood was open, too. We didn’t catch it, but we should have.

By the time I looked back at the humvee that got hit, Doc had three guys lined up on the ground – they looked like they were napping or something. Or dead. I couldn’t tell. Then the first two trucks in our convoy took off onto a side road. I think they saw some strange movement across the field – maybe the triggerman. The lieutenant probably wouldn’t have let them go with just two trucks, but he was lying on the ground next to the vehicle that got hit.

The guys sat up next to the humvee, so I guess they were okay. I found out later that one got hit in the back of his head with a pea-sized piece of shrapnel – he still said it felt like somebody pitched a softball at his head. It went in right under his helmet. The rest of the turret armor was peppered with hits. He was lucky. The driver got a small piece in his cheek, and I think the doctors ended up just leaving it there for some reason. Maybe it would have made a larger scar to dig out of his face. He was okay though, too. Lieutenant wasn’t hit, and neither was the radio guy, which was good. I think the Lt was back on the radio getting EOD (explosive ordinance disposal) to come out and do a post-blast analysis. They’d also need a wrecker to tow that truck back, since both of the left tires were shredded. I’m not sure if it ran anymore either.

I heard an explosion somewhere off to the front and right – like a few kilometers away. Either another unit just got hit, or some IED-maker just blew up his basement. Probably us getting hit though. They only seemed to blow themselves up at night in our area.

Meanwhile the sergeant in my truck is trying to radio ahead to the front two trucks and see if they found anything – he tried repeatedly, but got nothing on the radio, which was strange.

Our sister unit finally brought out EOD and hung around for added security. Good thing we’d had them come out, since there was another IED buried in the dirt a little further in front of the fourth truck. I don’t know if it didn’t go off when it was supposed to, or maybe the triggerman was waiting for us to all climb out and see what’s going on – and then hit more of us. Either way, EOD found it and backed everybody up to do a controlled detonation.

Suddenly, I see a single TOW truck (TOW missile humvee) come flying up from the same side road that the first two vehicles had left to go down earlier. The gun is empty. I have no idea where the driver is. The front windshield is shattered on the driver’s side. They disappear onto base and that’s all we saw of them. A few moments later our sister unit peels off from our cordon and heads out in the direction that truck had come from. We didn’t see them for a long time.

After what seemed like forever, EOD detonated the IED that was still buried on the roadside, and the rest of us limped the 500 meters back to base – we were still missing the first two trucks, but I figured they’d already gotten back and parked – or maybe they had a detainee they were dropping off.

The Lt radioed to all of us to stage our vehicles right inside the gate, so we did, and circled up for whatever debriefing he wanted to do. There were only two people in his truck now – him and the radio guy. I guess somebody had evacuated the two guys with shrapnel already – it’s not like they had far to go anyway.

So, we’re down two personnel from truck four, and trucks one and two are still missing. We walked up to the Lieutenant. He looked miserable.

He told us that the two guys in his truck were going to be just fine, and that the first two humvees had driven off to the west a few kilometers to see if they could find anything. They were hit by a another daisy-chain (multiple IEDs rigged to detonate simultaneously). The first vehicle was completely disabled, the guy in the turret got knocked out, but he was going to be okay. The guy in the front passenger’s seat got some shrapnel in his shoulder, but he was going to be okay, too. He’d already been flown out. Then the Lt’s lip started trembling. The third guy, our squad leader, didn’t make it.

That TOW truck we’d seen tearing back onto base was ours – and they were trying to save our squad leader. But he was hit badly and died instantly – from what we later learned.

We all just walked back to our trucks, drove to the house, and parked. Nobody said anything.

When the IED had gone off, it detonated between the first and second vehicle, sending shrapnel into the front of the second, but through the rear fender of the first. There was no armor there, and it went through like butter. After it killed our squad leader, it kept going and grazed the guy in front of him. Since the first vehicle was completely disabled, the guys in the second left a few Marines with the first truck – which was now starting to burn, and drove the casualties back to base. They worked on my squad leader the whole way, but it hadn’t helped. My buddy told me that he died in his arms. 'He had his eyes open, but he looked really young all the sudden, like a child.'

Two hours later the entire company stood in formation when the brought in the choppers to return his body to the states. We all stood at attention as they took off. We didn’t have anything to do but fix up the trucks, so I went down to the motor pool to get a loaner humvee to replace the first one, and we swapped out a new windshield for the second.

We went out on another mission later that night, juggling people so we had enough to fill each truck.

I don’t even know where they buried my squad leader, actually. I think he was from California, but I’m not sure. I don’t even know where his wife is now, either, or their two kids. We wanted to be there for the funeral, but there was no way they’d let a whole unit go home for it. They allowed one man to go home – his cousin, who was also in the unit. I think we never get closure to these things if we don’t see the funeral, but I’m not sure if it would make it better or worse. At least we’d be able to keep in touch with his family, though. We’d been in-country for only about a month and a half when this happened, and we were already down three guys. One made a full recovery, one could never bend his arm again, and one was dead - all three from IEDs. By the time we left that tour, we only had two guys in some of the trucks. Two. I think we lost about 20 from our battalion that tour. And at least one company was combat ineffective by the time we went home. It was, by far, my hardest tour.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Monday, January 5, 2009

Bob Conquers Camp Fallujah

While we were getting ready to leave out of Fallujah and head south, they always put us transient troops as far away from everything as they could. It was like a two kilometer walk from our tents – and yes, we had tents while everybody else had nice trailers – so they issued us one of those dinky Nissan buses to operate our own bus service.

It’s freakin’ hard to do with one bus, and like only two guys in the whole battalion who could drive a stick. My section leader was one of them, and I volunteered to drive, too, just because it was better than rotting away on radio watch or getting yelled at for wearing my boots in the rack (bed/cot). That thing was almost dead. I could shift from third to fourth without pushing in the clutch, and I think the shocks were gone. IF it even had shocks. Every time we went over those tank tread speed bumps, everybody’s spine would get depressed and they’d scream at me.

Basically, all we did was drive from our end of base back and forth from mainside and pick up any guy that waved us down. We had a dumpy cardboard sign in the window that had our unit on it, so we knew they knew where they were going.

We had pretty good fun, driving like idiots, driving too fast, ripping through gears and trying to get it airborne when we went over the speed bumps – unless we had like an officer or staff NCO on there, then we’d drive like old people and nobody talked at all. It’s like having your parents chaperone you. No matter what you say, it’s wrong and they yell at you.

We picked up one of my buddies one day and we headed back towards our side of the base. We were driving like jackasses, as usual, but he said, “man, you can’t drive for shit. You drive slow.” It pissed me off so bad, I said, okay. Fine. How’s this; and I took off.

I tore through first and second, and then I hit a straight stretch, so I push it into third and fourth. I was getting ready to shift again, but then I saw a tank tread ahead, so I had to slam on the brakes. I wasn’t slowing down enough, so I sort of went onto the shoulder to try to get around it – maybe hit it with only two wheels.

I started skidding when the wheels hit the dirt, so I ended up going completely off the road and grinding to a stop. But then it started to slide sideways down the hill. It was almost a 45% angle, so we were afraid it would roll over. We all jumped out the windows on the high side and watched it slide down a little farther in the sand. We’re a million miles away from mainside and now we’re stuck on the side of the road with our stupid bongo bus about to roll down a hill sideways.

We walked to our motorpool nearby and told them we needed to get a wrecker to pull us out. They just looked at us like we’re stupid, so we told them to go to hell and we left.

There was another motorpool nearby, but it belonged to some artillery guys we didn’t know. I was wearing my boonie cover (floppy jungle-style hat), so I asked my buddy to give me his 8-point cover. They’re what officers usually wear for some reason, even in Iraq. “What are you doing,” he asked me. I said just don’t worry about it. You guys stay with the bus.

I went to these guys’ tent and ripped back the flap. There were a bunch of guys sliming around looking useless inside and it was dark, which worked out well. They couldn’t see that I was a PFC (Private First Class).

“Hey, somebody get me an NCO up here. Where are your NCOs? Hurry up, Marines.” They all jumped up and started stumbling over each other to get over to me. They still couldn’t see I was a PFC.

“Hey, some Marines got their bus stuck up the road a little way. You need to get a wrecker out to them, understand? You devildogs watch out for each other, got it? Go pull them back onto the road and help them out”

A couple of them stammered, “Yes sir,” and went running out the back while the rest just stood there staring at me. “Thanks, Marines. Oorah.” I walked out. I heard a few “oorahs” behind me as I walked away.

I ran back to the bus and got my boonie back from my buddy and we waited. They didn’t send a wrecker, actually. They sent a 7-ton (heavy combat truck – triple axles) and a humvee. Then they pulled us out, telling me that some officer stopped by their tent and yelled at them to get out there and help us. We said we didn’t know who it was, but thanks. Appreciate the help.

It was great, nobody yelled at us and we didn’t get in trouble. I was like 19 years old and they thought I was an officer. The whole military is like this, man. All you have to do is act like you know what you’re doing and everybody just assumes you do. It’s great. I hated that stupid bus though.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Tate's War

We were on standby one day on base, acting as QRF (Quick Reaction Force) – which basically meant we sat around dressed and ready to roll out in under two minutes if we got a call. They were usually something silly, but every now and then we’d be sent out to get a pinned unit or evacuate casualties. That kept most of us motivated to move with a sense of purpose.

We got called one time to bail out a recon unit (Marine Reconnaissance) that was just decisively attacked and wasted most of their ammo on a counterattack. We were sent out to relieve their position, help them with detainees and secure the area while they egressed to base.

By the time we got out there, there wasn’t really much going on. One humvee was being stacked with bodies that were lying around all over the place – none of them ours. They were either insurgents, or had gotten mowed down in the crossfire. I assumed it was the enemy crossfire, but I wasn’t sure. A few destroyed cars were still in the middle of the street, windows broken and lights still on. They had found weapons in the trunk of another.

We took up positions all over the place, and my truck and another were assigned to the north end, next to a couple Iraqi Army roadblocks.

While we took over the position, some recon guys discovered that there was a car behind one building LOADED with artillery rounds – presumably to be used as carbomb during the attack. For some reason they hadn’t used it.

While everybody was standing around, two guys, believe it or not, tried to walk up to the car and drive it away. I guess they didn’t realize we knew it was full of ordinance. We captured them immediately, put them on their knees, and started screaming at them and questioning them. They were convinced we were going to execute them. Both of them pissed themselves, and my friend told me that one of them actually crapped on himself – so badly that nobody wanted to handle him to detain him. Somebody did in the end, I guess.

We started helping the recon guys round up all the detainees and doing a more thorough search of the buildings. I think most of the detainees were actually just shop owners and customers who just happened to be in the area. They’d all be questioned, well-fed, and probably released. That wasn’t my problem.

Somebody called out Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) so they could safely detonate the carbomb, though because it was in a courtyard, they couldn’t drive their robot up to it to lay any charges. Somebody – probably an EOD pyromaniac, proposed that it’d be a good idea to use a SMAW on it. (shoulder mounted anti-tank weapon – the loudest weapon in the infantry arsenal), and blow it up from a safe distance. We’re all pyros, too, so it sounded like a good idea.

The idiot gunner hadn’t sighted in though, so he missed his first short – from like less than 100 feet. I’m sure he got yelled at later for it. He fired a second round (these things are deafening), and it went in one window and out the other. What a waste. His third round hit, however, and the whole thing went up in a fireball. I was about 200 meters away, but the entire rear brake assembly crashed into the road next to our truck. My gunner cussed and ducked. I just watched. It was pretty neat.

I’m not sure why it happened then, but the insurgents must have used this explosion as a signal to attack us again. They started firing from somewhere in the buildings and first squad in front of me started rocking every weapon they had (except the TOW missiles, unfortunately). The insurgents started to move, so they followed them into some alleys, shooting them as they ran.

Some dude down there was crossing the street in a wheelchair when the humvees rounded the corner. I don’t know if he had a gun, but was immediately targeted by two 50 cals (heavy machine guns) and a few SAWs (light machine guns). My buddy told me later that he started using like evasive tactics on us. Wheeling one way, suddenly changing directions, and then amazingly got away. My buddy said, “an entire anti-armor squad opened up on him and he somehow escaped. I don’t get it.” I’m embarrassed, too. We were the most heavily-armed Marine infantry unit in Iraq and couldn’t hit a guy in a wheelchair.

While first squad continued pursuing the insurgents, things got a little quieter where were. The Iraqi soldiers grew some balls because we were there, so they started turning away cars from the checkpoints by just shooting at them. None of us spoke any Arabic, so we just left them alone. This was their country anyway.

Some of the EOD guys got caught behind a wall during all of the firing and some idiot shot most of it down with a 50 before deciding it was a waste of ammo to shoot a wall. I don’t know who it was, but it was probably one of our guys.

Occasionally we had a bullet or two wiz by us, but we couldn’t tell where they were from, so we just held our position and joked about it. None of them ever hit very near is, I think. Somewhere off in the distance somebody fired an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) at our guys, and for some reason, we didn’t do anything. I still don’t know why.

After the firefight ended and EOD carefully came out from behind their crumbled wall to yell at somebody, we ended up packing things up. I borrowed some cigarettes from an abandoned stand next to the intersection. They made me tow back the captured vehicle in the middle of the street, which was stupid. Because it wasn’t armored, they wouldn’t let anybody ride in it and steer or brake, so every time I drove forward, it started pulling sideways, and when I braked, it would crash into my bumper. I told them I wasn’t taking any responsibility for the damage to my humvee.

Eventually we all made it back safely with no casualties (either to us, recon, or EOD), and we later learned that we’d been fighting Zarqawi’s troops that day. While everything was going down in Fallujah, he went to our area and started causing problems. That was the only time we engaged anybody that actually reassembled and counterattacked. Usually they just shot at us and ran.

I’m glad they finally nailed that guy. His boys were dangerous.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved