Saturday, July 18, 2009

Unholy Water

*Retold with permission

I kicked off this tour with a big dose of stupidity, but unlike a lot of other calamities, this one was entirely my own fault. It was one of those situations that you never really live down, ever. It’s been a good seven months since it happened, but people are still lining up to hear the story. It’s humiliating, but I guess it’s funny.

When we were in Kuwait waiting to fly north, all the water to the base was trucked in, so our water usage was strictly rationed. Each person was authorized fifteen gallons a day. Any more than that, and you were taking from somebody else. And if you didn’t get to the showers early in the morning, the tanks would be bone dry.

When we first got there, I put it off all day because I was busy, and I really didn’t believe all the stories about the tanks running empty. It was probably just a scare tactic intended to make us to cut back on water usage. Well, I got ready for my shower that evening, walked in there, and nothing. The tanks were sucking air. All ticked off, I stormed back to the tent and went to sleep smelling my own B.O. I vowed to get up early the next morning and get my shower.

I got up about 0500, grabbed my towel, and headed over to the trailer. This time, the tanks were full, and since I hadn’t used my water ration from the day before, I was going to take a long, 30 gallon shower. I figured I’d earned it.

I climbed in, got the temperature adjusted, and just stood under the water. I had a thick layer of desert dust all over me, so it was nice to just relax and soak. Eventually I got cleaned up and rinsed, but as I was starting to shut off the water, it occurred to me that I was still standing in ankle deep, filthy water, full of everybody’s foot funk, hair, soap scum, and whatever else was in the shower. It was absolutely disgusting.

I stepped out of the stall carefully and carried the shower head with me so I could rinse the grime off my feet. The place was mostly empty, so I didn’t care I was standing out there naked. I held the curtain rod with one hand, sprayed off my foot, then switched hands and did the other. Excellent; I was finally clean. As I held the rod again and leaned in to hang up the shower head, I fell. Right into the pool on the floor.

It was more than just a simple fall, though. It was like a swan dive into a pool of sewage. Naked, cussing, and floundering on the floor of the stall in a panic, I struggled to stand up, a complete mess again. The two guys brushing their teeth at the sinks had turned their backs to me, but I could see the buttheads were laughing hysterically. Still cussing, I jumped back in and started to wash off again.

I didn’t care that I was over my water limit now. I had to get that stuff off of me. I washed down again, carefully cleaned off my feet, and got out. And of course, my towel was soaked with scum water. I looked over at the two guys at the sinks – they were still looking away, and still laughing.

I wrung out my towel, used my dirty shirt to dry off a little, and started to dress. But I noticed there was blood on my shorts now. Somehow, I’d cut my finger on the soap dish as I fell. I hadn’t noticed it before, but now I was bleeding everywhere from a tiny cut on my hand. I never knew such a small wound could leak so much. I stuck my finger in my mouth, finished dressing, and stumped back to my tent. It’d taken me an hour to get clean, and instead of being covered in sweat, now I was covered in blood. And I was furious.

I knew those two guys in the bathroom would tell everybody what they say, so I figured it’d better tell the story first, before it got blown out of proportion. So I when I got back to the tent, I told everybody about it – me flailing naked on the floor trying to get out of a cesspool of a hundred soldiers’ foot grime and God knows what else.

But I guess I shouldn’t have told them. I don’t think I’m ever going to live it down. Now everybody wants to hear the story about how I “purple hearted” myself in Kuwait. See, there’s even a crowd listening right now. You do a hundred good things, and nobody remembers. But you do one stupid thing, and they never let it go. They’ll probably write this one up in the yearbook – minus the bad language. What did I do in Iraq? I fell down naked in the shower and got covered in foot water. Quit laughing.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Friday, July 17, 2009


*Retold with permission

We had a lot of weird experiences when we were manning the ECPs [entry control points] into the International Zone. There was the usual array of local vendors, political guests and day laborers, but every now and then it was something completely unexpected.

I remember one situation vividly, mostly because it infuriated me. It was obscenely hot out, and I was already pissed about that – standing there for hours listening to each person tell me why their business in the IZ took precedence over everything else. Then this three car convoy rolls up. We in-processed high-level guests all the time, so I just assumed these cars were more dignitaries. They were all BMWs or Mercedes, new, and impeccably clean. But the passengers were a different matter.

Each car had a single driver, and in the back seat of each sat one young girl. All three of them were gorgeous and well-dressed, right down to the perfume. That was kind of odd, but whatever. We asked them to step out, and then we conducted the security search of the vehicles.

That was when I started to suspect something. Each trunk had a suitcase in it, full of lingerie, body oils, fragrances, and basically what’s best described as sex worker clothing. None of it was typical attire for this region, this country, or for girls their age. One of the three drivers was pretty mouthy and spoke broken English, so I asked him what their business was in the IZ.

“We have meeting with minister.”

Okay, that’s nothing new. Why, though? What for? Is this an appointment?

“I have gift for him.” When he said that, he gestured towards the three girls. That’s when I knew exactly what he meant. He was pimping them.

They were young, too; maybe thirteen or fourteen, and they stood there on the side of the road silently, looking down, like they’d just been caught doing something shameful. I’m fairly confident they knew exactly what was going to happen to them, but I have no idea if they consented to it. They were only children.

I also knew the guy wasn’t going into the IZ to sell the clothing in the suitcases, since none of it was packaged or marked. It was loose, and it’d been worn before. Besides, we dealt with vendors all the time. They’d come in with trunks full of DVDs or truckloads of produce. The clothing wasn’t for sale here; the girls were the merchandise.

I don’t have a sister, but the first thing I thought about was this: what if they were my sisters? What if they were my daughters? They were only kids, and this guy was about to permit an unspeakable crime to take place. I looked at him squarely in the eye and told him to get out of there. Go.

Then he started to fuss and complain, which made me even angrier. I got in his face. You need to go. Now. Leave. I guess he figured out that I was genuinely pissed, so he and the other drivers put the girls back in the cars, climbed in, and drove off.

I have no idea who he was or even who he was going to see, but I wasn’t going to let that happen. This isn’t my country and they may have different rules here, but that doesn’t matter. As a Soldier, I have a warrior ethos; and as a civilian and an American, I have a code of ethics. This wasn’t acceptable under any terms, and I wanted no part in what was going to happen to those girls. I didn’t matter if they consented or not. They were only children.

I called in the whole incident to my NCOIC (non-commissioned officer-in-charge), and to my amazement, he chewed me out. When he’d calmed down a little, I explained the whole situation, and then he completely understood. In fact, he told me good job.

Later on, my CO [commanding officer] got after me, too. But again, when I explained the circumstances, he agreed with my decision. He simply said I could have handled it more diplomatically. Maybe I could have, but I really don’t regret what I did. In fact, I wish I could have done more. That sort of behavior is completely unacceptable, and those men should have been arrested. The worst part is that these girls were purchased by a high-ranking Iraqi political figure – the very ones we protected and supported. But if he had no moral objection to having sex with three children, what else was he willing to do?

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Gunny

We were sent out west once near the Syrian border to attach to a Marine unit doing a big sweep operation through some relatively hostile towns out there. We’d been attached to Marines before, so we knew the drill. They’re sort of strange, and they seem to be in a contest to see whose unit is more miserable. I think some of the went out of their way to make things suck as much as possible. I’d already briefed my guys. This is just want they do. Let them be. They were good guys, but they were nuts.

It was a long convoy, so we didn’t arrive until well after midnight, and it was winter, so we asked around to see about getting some cots or something.

We finally talked to one Marine who told us he’d have to wake up Gunny. “Wait, don’t do that. We’ll just sleep on the ground or something.” No, he said. He’d ask Gunny what to do about it.

A moment later, this burly, barefoot man stalks out and crosses his arms. He was wearing those little green silky shorts that Marines wear.

“Who are you?” he spits.

“Gunny, we’re the psyops team that’s attached to you guys for a couple weeks. The four of us were looking to find some cots or something to sleep on for the night.”

“Come with me,” he grunts, and storms out the door into the night – still barefoot. It was winter, mind you. He walks across the lot to a trailer they’d converted into a bunk house and steps in, and starts kicking racks.

“You and you. Get up.” A Marine groggily mumbled a “what” and Gunny barked a reply. “Get the hell out of here. Now!” Marines start grabbing sleeping bags and stumbling out into the cold.

“Gunny, they’re going to kill us in the morning.”

“No they won’t. They’ll be fine. I’ll see you in the morning.” And he left.

We were out doing an op with them one day, and before long they had a small foot patrol pinned down in the city. A whole lot of us were already outside the wire, so we just diverted from our missions and rushed over there to put more firepower into the fight.

As my humvee crested a hill on the edge of town, we looked down into the city and saw a mosque with a bunch of insurgents firing out of windows and over the courtyard walls. Not far away, there was a small group of Marines huddled behind a low wall trying to return fire. They looked badly outgunned.

As we’re halted up there for a moment, I saw the concussion blast of a grenade right next to the Marines, and then I saw a body fly through the air. One of the Marine officers in a nearby truck recognized the guy, too. It was Gunny – an old friend of his. “Shit! Gunny’s been hit!” he yelled, and he threw open the door of his humvee and hauled ass down the hill towards the firefight.

Completely ignoring that there’s a firefight going on, he runs out there into the middle of everything, hauls Gunny to his feet, grabs his hand, and starts running up the hill with him. Gunny ran with him, keeping his injured hand above his head, blood streaming down to his elbow. When I saw that he was injured, I started calling around on the radio looking for a Corpsman [Navy medic attached to a Marine unit], since I knew he’d need some sort of medical attention. I was still on the radio when they ran up.

When they stopped next to the truck, out of breath, Gunny sharply snatches his hand back from the Marine officer and looks at him squarely. “You know how goddam gay that looks?”

That man was a Marine’s Marine, and tough as hell. He’s just been yanked out of a firefight, bleeding profusely, and all he’s worried about is looking gay. That guy was awesome.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, July 13, 2009

Hot Guns

We conducted a lot of really badass missions on my last tour – things that most people don’t even know we have the capability of doing. One my personal favorites was the seismically activated cameras, which proved invaluable.

There were a few areas in our AO [area of operations] where the insurgents would emplace IEDs repeatedly, so the command set up cameras wired to sensors that activated when somebody started digging. When they did, the imagery was relayed back to base in real time. It was almost comical.

We’d see an image of a guy with a shovel in his hand, breaking ground. Then in the next shot he’d be digging. Then he’d be throwing the dirt. Usually the next photo would be of him looking around, like he’d heard something. Then he’d go back to digging for a couple of frames. Next shot: a huge cloud of dust and smoke. We’d dropped artillery on him.

Our artillery battery was always on standby for those missions. As soon as an insurgent started digging in an IED, the command would relay us the coordinates, and we’d fire a volley of HE [high explosive] rounds on top of him. Best of all, it worked. No more IEDs there. And they had to find new people to replace the ones we blew up.

The whole tour was pretty amazing, actually. When we got there, the arty unit we replaced told us they hardly ever fired any missions. It was pretty quiet. We could expect to just hang out, sleep a lot, and work a little. It sounded good, but it wasn’t true. The very first day we were on that gun line, we fired more than 200 HE rounds for call for fire missions. That isn’t “terrain denial,” but real targets. In fact, we fired so many rounds that we had to put bags of ice on our computers to keep them from overheating. We stayed busy.

As soon as we got on the gun line early one morning, we sustained a direct rocket attack on the guns. Thankfully, the rockets all hit the barriers directly in front of us, but it was obvious that we were the targets. Moments later, we fired a counter battery back at them, which we figured would put a stop to it. But amazingly, it didn’t; they fired again, so we unleashed hell on them and then everything went quiet. I’m pretty sure we got them that time. And that was just the beginning.

Later that day, an infantry company in the city was trying to approach a suspected weapons cache, but every time they moved in, they’d get repulsed by heavy insurgent fire. So, they called us for help. They gave us the coordinates, backed up, and waited for us to do our thing. We did a full fire for effect.

For about six minutes, one high explosive round hit that place every three seconds. There was no way anything there could survive the barrage. Five minutes after we fired our last volley, the infantry moved in, and everything was silent. And sure enough, they found the cache, which actually turned out to be an entire warehouse full of ordnance and weaponry.

The whole tour was like that: productive. When we first got there, we’d get incoming rocket or mortar attacks ten to fifteen times a day. We took care of that immediately. As soon as we’d get hit, we’d fire back with superior firepower. I’m sure they were thinking, “What? That’s not supposed to happen. The last guys didn’t do that.” Well, we did, and it worked well.

Before long, we’d killed most of the teams firing on us, and we went a full five days without a single attack. If I had to guess, they had to recruit entirely new teams – and find them new guns to use. Then they started changing their tactics.

They knew that artillery can’t fire on close range targets, so they’d either lob one round and run, or they’d move closer to the base where they thought we couldn’t hit them. Well, WE couldn’t hit them, but our own mortars could – and did. Those insurgents were taken out quickly, too. Long story short, we took care of the problem, and the whole area has been pretty quiet since.

That was two years ago, though, and Iraq is much different now. We still keep a “hot gun” ready all the time, but there really aren’t any more targets. Between us and the other indirect fire units, the insurgents don’t have a prayer. They’ve either been killed or they’ve given up. Either way, they don’t pose a threat anymore.

We may not have left the base as much as infantry guys did, but when they needed us, we were there, and we took care of them. The funniest part is that in the states, not a week went by when one of our guys didn’t get in a fight with one of the infantry guys. But none of that happened here. We put aside all the squabbling and we got the job done – and we got it done well. We saved the fighting for when we got back home. Out here, we’re on the same team.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, July 12, 2009

To Be Elsewhere

*Retold with permission

I’ve spent four birthdays and three Christmases over here so far and I imagine I’ll spend a few more here, too. Since I enlisted in 2003, we’ve been deployed every other year, except for the year they extended us and we stayed out here 16 months. But again, we did a year back, and then left again. You could say that I’ve spent most of my twenties at war. The rest of my twenties I wasn’t here, but I was in the Army.

Iraq changes every time I come here. It used to be absolutely awful, but it’s a little better now – at least in terms of the risks. I’m not with a very good unit this time, though. They don’t take care of their own like they should. I picked up sergeant maybe three years into the Army, but after that everything stalled. I’ve been eligible for E-6 for a long time, but for reasons nobody has ever explained, I’ve never been promoted. They’re supposed to give you annual counseling to tell us our promotion schedule, but they don’t give them to me here. My old unit cared, but this one really doesn’t. I know the company first sergeants hates me personally.

When that first sergeant released the soldiers for R&R, he’d make them wait for a convoy to take them to the airbase, which sometimes took days. But when he went, he made us drive him down there in our own convoy so he wouldn’t have to wait at all. And now he’s not even coming back. He only did six months over here.

When I finally went home on R&R, rather than relax a little, I spent almost half my leave trying to get treatment for injuries I’ve sustained over here in Iraq. They could have done it here, but that would have caused them to reschedule my R&R. Thing is, I was going back to Germany so I could spend my fiancé’s birthday with her (and propose to her).

I was able to get some of the treatment I needed in Germany, but there was one more undiagnosed problem that the doctors wanted more time to observe and examine. But when they asked, the command flat out refused to give me any convalescent leave, even though the request came from medical professionals. No, they wanted me back immediately. I guess it was really important to them that I hurry back here to sit behind a desk all day. So, I came back with stitches still in my hand and only halfway fixed. Now they’ve placed me on light duty until my shoulder injury heals.

I proposed to my fiancé while I was on R&R, but that’s turning out to be a huge disaster. Not the engagement at all, but getting her to the United States. See, I wasn’t supposed to go on this deployment at all, and I've been planning my future with my fiancé. I had orders for recruiting duty back in the states, which meant at least three years without deploying. One night, however, I was pulled over in Germany and accused of drunk driving. But when they tested me, I was far below the legal limit to drive, and the charges were dropped. That’s when the company first sergeant started hating me. He couldn't cancel my orders to recruiting duty, but he did call up the chain and tell them to send me to the worse possible recruiting station they could find. They selected White Sands, New Mexico. I asked if I could extend to stay with the unit in Germany, but they said no. My reasons weren’t good enough.

Well, at some point, they just decided to make me deploy with this unit anyway, to hell with my orders (even though they don’t really need me out here). So this is where the problem arises with my fiancé. I was going to move back to the states with her. But with those recruiting orders nixed, she’s stuck in limbo in Germany, and until we’re actually married, she won’t get command sponsored. And since I don’t have orders anymore, she can’t go stateside. She’s going to be stuck in Germany. At this point, I have no idea when we’ll get married, when she’ll get command sponsorship, or even when we’ll be able to live together. Do they expect her to wait around forever while they try to figure out what to do with me?

I actually have PTSD pretty badly, but until recently I didn’t tell anybody. I was afraid they’d pass me over for promotion and maybe even send me to see the shrinks. They might talk about an open door policy in the Army, but here, any problem like that will make them conclude you’re unfit for leadership and then you never get promoted. It’s not like I’m making up the PTSD, either. There are lots of reasons for it, and they’re real.

During the first tour, I remember we set up a VCP [vehicle checkpoint] just how they told us to, and then we’d search all the cars coming through. Well, an E-7 with us walked up to the driver of one car and when he asked them to step out, they shot him in the face, point blank. We were so surprised at what happened, we didn’t even shoot back at the car until it had sped through the checkpoint. They got away, too.

Another time, we got called out to help recover a Bradley that’d been hit by an IED. The unit was still engaged in a firefight, but they needed that Bradley moved, and the soldier inside needed to be evacuated fast. When the IED went off, it had blown off the guy’s arm completely.

When we pulled up, we bandaged him up, found his arm and put it on ice, and then started dragging the Bradley out of the kill zone. While we were doing this, EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] comes rolling up in their special IED sweeping vehicles, and then we realized that the area wasn’t even cleared yet. There could be more IEDs. Sure enough, right as the Cougar got a little distance in front of us, another IED went off. That blast was the fiercest explosion I’ve ever experienced, and I’ve seen many.

I was in the turret at the time, so when the shock wave hit me, I was pushed backwards until I was looking up into the sky. There, overhead, I saw the torso of the EOD guy flying over me like a ragdoll. I have no idea where his legs went.

Another time, we were manning a checkpoint and when a car pulled up, we ordered the driver to get out, but he refused. As two of my buddies approached it to pull him out, he detonated the car. There wasn’t much to pick up of those two. The young guys talk about how much they want to gear up and go outside the wire, and I keep telling them that they don’t. It’s safer if you don’t. I’ve had enough of war.

I have a hard time sleeping now. I hear voices or have nightmares, and sometimes I just lay awake for hours and can’t fall asleep. Those are the worst times, too, because all you do is think too much. Like a hundred thoughts at once, which is completely overwhelming.

I tried to kill myself four days ago because it got so bad. Between this command, the PTSD, thinking too much about things and not being able to sleep, I was losing it. I couldn’t take it anymore. See that guy over there? He’s my escort. They’re making him follow me everywhere, and they took away my rifle, too. I’m a little better now, I guess. I wasn’t really myself that morning. And if I’d really wanted to kill myself, I guess I still could.

They’re still not sending me home, though. We’re on the way back to the unit right now, and I imagine they’re either going to give me an Article 15 or court-martial me. At this point, I really don’t even care. They can go ahead and kick me out if they feel like it; I just want to go home. I don’t think there’s any other way they’re going to let me out, and I still have almost three years left on my contract.

I’d like a reason to be hopeful, but that’s only going to come if I see changes. Right now though, not a damn thing is happening. As soon as we touchdown on base, they’re putting me right back to work.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved