Saturday, August 1, 2009

Those Stupid Reporters

*Retold with permission.

I’ve never really had any good experiences with reporters. They’re usually a bunch of self-righteous fools that have no business on the battlefield. Not only do they put themselves in great peril, but they jeopardize missions because they have no idea what they’re doing. In fact, they require a PSD [personal security detachment] to keep them from screwing things up. That’s what I found myself doing last tour in Kirkuk.

Since I was one of the few privates in the platoon, I drew the short straw for this particular raid. Instead of kicking in doors and doing my job, I would be assigned to the goofy reporter embedded with us. I was basically babysitting, and I wasn’t happy about it. This was a raid. This was what we trained to do. Nope. I was required to stay glued to his side. He told me he was doing human interest pieces for the automotive industry, which made absolutely no sense.

Everybody tried to comfort me by pointing out that intel [intelligence reports] were pretty scant on this mission. In reality, we might not even take anybody in, they said. My absence, I was told, wasn’t a big deal. I would take up the very rear of the unit and the reporter would be positioned right in front of me.

Because this was a hit, not a cordon and knock, we parked the humvees some distance away to avoid being heard. We left them guarded with drivers and gunners, and took off down the alleys towards the target in a combat glide. We moved tactically, crossing danger areas quickly and keeping low. We didn’t want people to spot us from over their walls. But this tall idiot stood in back and just strolled along like this was a sidewalk. Even after I politely reminded him that we needed to move tactically and avoid detection, he largely ignored me.

The house itself was surrounded by a courtyard with a fairly high block wall. Running into up to it, we tucked low against the wall and prepared to hop it. The plan was to hop the wall, provide a secure cordon, and an entry team would move into the house itself. I would be last over the wall – right behind the reporter. He just stood there looking stupid – no situational awareness.

I again explained that we needed to be tactical on this, so he needed to duck down. And when the time came to go over the wall, be very careful. These walls frequently have loose bricks on top. Climb carefully, slide over, then start filming. This isn’t a race, I said. Your safety comes first. At this, he snapped.

“Private, this is NOT my first time in Iraq! I know what I’m doing, and you don’t need to treat me like a child.” Of course, he said this too loudly. There wentthe element of surprise.

In seconds, everybody piles over the wall and heads for their positions around the house. I tell the reporter he can climb over, but watch out for loose bricks. Muttering angrily, he shoulders his camera, climbs on top of the wall and stands there. The bricks gave out then and he went tumbling forward – into a heap of concertina wire, breaking his ankle. Then he starts yelping and complaining. Everybody that saw him started laughing.

I scrambled over quickly to provide him some security, but since he was immobilized I basically sat on him until the raid was complete. There wasn’t any good place where I could move him. The courtyard gate was locked, and it was more secure inside than out, at any rate.

When the raid was done – without my participation in the least, we all carried him whining back to the trucks, which were seemed a lot further when you’re hauling a casualty. Packing him in, we left for base and dropped him off for treatment. That, thankfully, was the last I saw of him.

I can’t say for certain, but I highly doubt this is an isolated incident. I imagine something like this has happened repeatedly. It’s bad enough we have to escort somebody without a gun, but far worse when they’re detrimental to the mission and threats to themselves and us. Whenever they talk about embedded reporters now, I pray we don’t get one. And whenever I see them, I just start laughing. All I can think about is that arrogant guy and his camera, tangled up in a heap of concertina wire and whimpering. Hopefully we’ll never get one like that again. They’re a waste of our oxygen.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Friday, July 31, 2009

A Short Break

Though it is definitely a break from the norm of first person stories
that typically appear here, the mission today for 1st platoon, Charlie
2-35, 25th Infantry Division is worthy of a mention. In terms of
mission tasking in Iraq, this rivals the best as just plain good. It
made me smile, certainly, and I imagine it will do the same for
others. What’s more, I have photographic proof this time.

As many will recall from reading the news, a major component of
current US policy in Iraq is the reconstruction of essential
infrastructure. At present this includes schools, and throughout this
area of operations there are scads facilities either being built from
scratch or wholly restored from their condition of neglect. There are
also several others already operating. In total, more than
thirty-five primary schools are, or will be soon functioning in this
small, impoverished region of Iraq. There are children here, after
all, and they would benefit from something more than a hard life of
subsistence farming. This education gives them options.

Several times throughout this tour, Soldiers from C company have
gathered heaps of backpacks, pencils, paper, and other school
supplies, and prepared them for delivery to local school children.
They have also brought clothing with them, too – boxes of items
donated from the states that, while used, still have plenty of life
left in them. Rather than simply hand them out and appear the heroes,
US forces collaborate with nearby Iraqi Army (IA) commanders and even
local leaders to ensure that they are there involved, too. It’s a
combined effort, but it remains far more important that Iraqis are
familiar and comfortable with their own security forces than they are
with the US. We’ll be leaving soon, and the ISF will then be left on
their own.

Today I watched the latest school supply and clothing drop for a
primary school in this area. I could tell facts about it – how many
backpacks were handed out and how many shirts and pants were
distributed to the children, but that still strikes me as hollow.
Instead, I will tell you and show you what I saw.

The first thing I saw was a squat, concrete and block building
standing in the middle of nowhere. By the time we arrived, the
headmaster and his son (an English-speaking animal physiologist) had
herded a good fifty children outside and attempted to get them in some
sort of order. They were excited, so listening to directions was one
of the last things on their mind. With the assistance of our
interpreter, a few other teachers, some US Soldiers, a couple Iraqi
Army soldiers and officers, and the local sheik, they were formed into
a line. I must confess I’ve never seen Iraqis in a line (aside from
Iraqi Army boot camp), and certainly never children. In fact, I had
joked that the only thing I was going to capture today on camera was a
bunch of children beating each other, convinced that the backpack that
their friend received was somehow different and better than their own.
No such thing happened, however.

While a US Soldier went down the line handing out pencils and papers,
a small knot of IA, the school’s headmaster, and a few more Soldiers
quickly passed out backpacks to all of the children in this school.
Many, I believe, have never seen one before, much less owned one.
Their excitement was only tempered by my camera constantly shoved in
their faces.

Several things struck me as interesting about this scene. For one,
this is an infantry platoon trained for one primary mission: kill the
enemy and secure the area. Yet this mission finds them strictly in a
PR/humanitarian role. Few will likely admit it, but they enjoyed
themselves. Enough of them are fathers and uncles to not mind making
a child smile for a few minutes. They aren’t trained killers so much
as they’re trained fighters, at any rate, and this is a mission to
which they readily adapted – and did quite well. Quite simply, it’s

And they were also joined by their Iraqi Army counterparts. I
personally have had difficulty dealing with them in the past, mostly
because they were either unprofessional or downright harsh when
working with children, but they clearly enjoyed themselves too.
Slinging rifles in such a way that they didn’t bop kids in the head
every time they bent down, they directed children like fathers: gently
and patiently – despite the racket of the overexcited at the prospect
of receiving school supplies. I enjoyed watching their interaction,
particularly when it meant juggling a rifle, a cigarette, and
cumbersome gear that does little more than get in the way. Below is a
photo of the ‘Arif (Iraqi NCO) who would grab an item of clothing from
a box and walk around trying to match it with an
appropriately-statured child. He didn’t have to do this, but he did.

I observed a lot of cute kids, to put it bluntly, so I made an attempt
to photograph as many as would allow it. A number have the common
sun-bleached hair, giving it the appearance of burnished copper. A
number more have fingernails stained from working with newly harvest
dates. One loved having her picture taken, after she decided I wasn’t
really scary anymore. This is her below:

I did ask a number to smile for photos, but didn’t give up if they
wouldn’t. Maybe they don’t want to smile. After all, a backpack and
a few pencils isn’t going to change the fact they’re growing up
underserved and impoverished in Iraq. Giving them school supplies and
clothing doesn’t change the world. What it does do, however, is put
them one small step closer to receiving an education.

It is a known fact that the insurgency in some regions of this country
exists mostly because the locals are poor and Al Qaeda is the
highest-paying employer. This region is one such example. This is
why schools are so important here. An educated, equipped group of
children and teenagers is presented other opportunities besides the
few dollars that Al Qaeda offers them to dig in an IED. As much as
our own politicians always pontificate about everything being for our
children, there’s a bit of truth to it here. Kids that aren’t
desperate for income and food are less likely to make moral
concessions in order to find a job. In short, they won’t contribute
to the instability of this country.

Besides schools, there are also plenty of other unmet needs in this
community. I saw a few dermatological problems that needed attention,
and a few children badly in need of footwear. At least two bore
obvious signs of albinism – testament to high rates of birth defects
in this region of the world. Almost all could use a toothbrush.

Despite it being generally insulting, I have heard boys here referred
to as “pre-terrorists” or “terrorists-in-training.” Yet there’s some
truth to this. What solves this? It begins with parents that don’t
use their position as leaders to perpetuate a doctrine of hatred.
Another measure which definitely helps, though, is humanizing “the
enemy.” These children, having heard all their short lives that
Americans (or Iraqi Security Forces) are evil and part of the problem,
have seen a demonstration of something different. They met nice
people who joked around with them, played with them, and made an
effort to provide for them in some small way. Perhaps that lesson
will remain with them more than the violent rhetoric they may be
accustomed to hearing. It’s hard to hate somebody who you distinctly
remember being kind to you.

Iraqi girls don’t have it easy here, either. They are married off
young and often relegated to a life with little to no education. They
work hard and age quickly. An alternative to poverty will hopefully
improve their quality of life, too. Once again, it starts with an
education. Today I saw just as many female students as males. They
were all uniformly treated nicely by teachers and IA alike.

For those that are going to counter with some remark along the lines
of US troops were there so the Iraqis were on their best behavior, I
will say this: in the past, Iraqis have had no qualms about treating
children harshly in our presence. The fact that they did not today
indicates something: they didn’t want to.

I have worked enough with the population of Iraq to know that the
enemy are few and the numbers who simply want to live their lives far
greater. In short, I have put a face to this country. Those that say
we should leave them to their own devices are forgetting that there
are millions of innocents whose only “crime” was being born into a
chaotic, violent situation. Those that boldly announce we should nuke
them all and go home are boldly indicating their own ignorance (and
heartlessness). Those that insist that this country’s problems are
not our concern are overlooking the fact that basic human rights are
everybody’s concern. I don’t think there’s a good rebuttal to that,

Yes, this is a small act. Yes, a backpack and a few articles of
clothing isn’t going to change the world or dramatically shift a
culture from violence to progress. But it aims everybody in the right
direction, and that’s a great start. Additionally, this is only one
project of many. There are other schools, other projects, and other
efforts to improve quality of life.

It is always difficult for me to capture a “story” with a photograph,
so I find it easier to just describe the story and then show the faces
of those involved in it. Below are some of the players, and now
you’ve heard a little bit about them. It doesn’t hurt that they’re
all cute kids, either. However brief their encounter with us, it
leaves a good impression. In ten years time, they’ll still remember
us, no doubt. Will we remember them?

All Media Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


*Retold with permission.

Last time I was here in Iraq, we were temporarily attached to a unit in Baquba, kicking off what alternated between the most dangerous and most ridiculous missions we’ve ever done. From the very beginning, we had problems, starting with the unit that we relieved.

We arrived on the patrol base about midday, and we quickly discovered that we were going to need a resupply of food and water. There was a little, but nowhere near enough. In fact, we’d probably run out of water that day. Sure, they said. The small unit we’d relieved promised they’d take care of it when they got to the main base nearby.

Before they left, though, they announced that they’d show us around the area. We dutifully put on our gear and headed for the trucks.

“What are you doing?” one of their guys said.

“We’re going on a patrol, right?”

“We patrol on foot here. We have too many barriers throughout the town to make humvee patrols practical. Most of the patrols here are walking.”

That was a warning sign. We’d grown so accustomed to using humvees that we’d never even considered that we might have to do foot patrols. The fact that it was about 120 degrees didn’t make it terribly appealing, either. Begrudgingly, we headed out with them on foot, and later that day, the unit left, promising a hasty resupply.

Well, the resupply never arrived that day, despite the fact we desperately needed it, and the main base wasn’t very far from us. My guess is that they simply didn’t care anymore. Whatever. It wasn’t their patrol base now. So before the first day was even over, we already despised the unit we replaced. Their unit callsign was “Bonecrusher,” but we called them “Bonehead” – even on the radios, and just to irritate them. Even though they had left, they’d still provide our fire support [mortars and artillery] from their main base, so we had plenty of opportunities to tick them off. They deserved it.

Later that first day, sweating to death and almost out of water, I manned a checkpoint looking down a road. Off in the distance, maybe 500 meters, was a crater large enough to swallow a car. As I watched my avenue of approach, children wandered up and started to play in the hole, which was a problem.

Their presence wasn’t necessarily as innocuous as it might have seemed. In the past, children have been used to place IEDs, so it was possible that they were doing the same thing here, too. Yet none of us had any desire whatsoever to shoot them, so my team leader instructed me to fire some warning shots nearby to scare them off. I carefully aimed in, let off a burst, and they ran away.

My rounds had impacted more closely than I had anticipated, so I was momentarily concerned that I’d hit one of them. After all, he was limping. But thankfully, I had not. He had some other injury – none from me. I still felt really badly about scaring them, though. They were only kids.

Shortly after, our relief unit patrolled out to us and we went back to the base, still hot, and still thirsty. The water resupply had yet to arrive, and since nothing much else was going on, we tried to catch a little sleep. We’d be in and out for the remainder of the afternoon, evening and night.

No sooner had we started to unwind when we heard an enormous explosion not too far from our patrol base, and moments later, we heard over the radio that some of our guys, out there patrolling in humvees, had been hit. Everybody was okay, but the truck was going up in flames.

Wait, I asked. Isn’t that the truck with the AT4 in it? [Anti-tank rocked commonly used by US forces in Iraq] No sooner were the words out of my mouth, and we heard another huge explosion. There went the AT-4, and now my squad leader was running around in a panic. He wanted to get out there and help.

“ You, you, and you. Come with me. We’re going to go help them out.” He grabbed me and a couple of other soldiers, and we sprinted out of the patrol base and into town. It was faster to go on foot, since if we’d taken trucks, we’d have to go well out of our way to circumvent the concrete barriers.

Going on foot, though, wasn’t much easier. It was still over a kilometer to the blast site, and we couldn’t just run directly to them. So, in 120 degree weather, with all our gear on, and now completely out of water, we ran house-to-house, clearing the buildings, streets and courtyards all the way out to the burning humvee.

There was nothing left of it, either. Just a heap of smoldering metal, burned gear, and a few half-filled water bottles that had somehow survived the IED and the ensuing fire. Thirsty as hell and exhausted from our run, we jogged over and started sifting through the ashes to grab them. My buddy grabbed one and took a swig, but immediately spit it out. None of us has considered that it was boiling hot. We still had no water.

Somebody started hollering out that they saw movement in a nearby building. We found the triggermen, they yelled. We all opened up into the building with machine guns, rifles, and .203s, and in moments a Bradley lumbered up to reinforce us. My squad leader yelled me to take cover while they fired, but I ignored him. Their .25 [25mm main gun on a Bradley fighting vehicle] couldn’t be that loud, right? Wrong. When they started firing, it felt like somebody was crushing my skull.

Eventually things calmed down and we started doing our (slower) foot patrol back to base. I was feeling nauseous and half delirious with thirst, and I wasn’t sweating anymore.

“Hey High Speed, are you okay?” my squad leader asked.

“I’m fine, sergeant. I’ll be okay. We’re almost back.”

He could tell I wasn’t okay at all, though, and as he watched me, I collapsed. I don’t remember much from that point on, but they threw me into a passing humvee and took me back to the patrol base. My friend later told me that when I got back inside, I started shedding gear like a child. I peeled off my LBV [load-bearing vest] and tossed it down, then my flak, my helmet, and my rifle, leaving a trail of gear all the way from the door, across the room and to my cot. After our medic gave me an IV, I improved significantly.

Late that same night (still the first day on that patrol base), we went back out in town again on a night operation. As we patrolled, one of our guys spotted suspicious movement some distance off behind some houses. It was too dark to see clearly, and our night vision didn’t provide clear enough images, so I called back to Bonehead (on the nearby main base) and requested that they fire an illumination round .

Very carefully, I read off the grid, gave the azimuth and estimated distance, and relayed it to Bonehead on the radio. “Shot, over. Shot, out.”

Off in the distance, more than a kilometer from the target, we saw the round light up the entirely wrong area. I assumed I’d called in the wrong numbers, so I quickly confirmed that I was, in fact, completely correct. Bonehead was the one messing up. But, I called in the adjustment and tried again. “Shot, over. Shot, out,” they called. Nothing. We didn’t see anything. I radioed back to them. We’d seen no splash [impact].

“Um, we haven’t fired yet,” they explained, which made no sense.

You don’t say, “Shot, over. Shot out” until you’ve actually fired. I relayed their excuse to my squad leader, who was furious. He came down from where he was observing and radioed back to them himself. They changed their story this time.

“Uh, we’ve been having problems with our lum rounds, and sometimes they’re not working very well. If you’d like, we can fire an HE [high explosive] for you.”

Unbelievable. They couldn’t get within a kilometer of the target we called in, yet they were willing to lob high explosive rounds out there – hitting God knows who. Livid, my squad leader said forget it. Bonehead was too incompetent to even fire an illumination round. There’s no way in hell we wanted them firing HE out here. They’d probably hit us by accident. We ended the fire mission and just kept on patrolling. Without proper indirect fire support, there was no way we could pursue anybody on the ground.

All this was just the first day out there in Baquba.

Another time, they did manage to nearly wipe us out with artillery fire. We were positioned on top of a house and preparing to start a “terrain denial” mission [an artillery mission where rounds are fired in known insurgent hot spots to discourage them from using that location again]. The target was a shallow section of the river that Al Qaeda was using to smuggle arms across to other insurgent networks. We were about 400 meters away, so I gave them our position and told them to set up a 300 meter no fire area around us. No problem. They’d fire their first shot, and we’d adjust them if necessary. But it shouldn’t be needed, since it was an “on-call” target [a target already programmed into computers on the gun line, and usually hit accurately without any adjustments].

But their first shot landed right next to us in an orchard, sending shrapnel spraying against the side of our building, and humming over our heads. It sounded like a muscle car flying directly above me. Once again, I checked the map, determined that they were messed up, not us, and then called back the adjustments.

That impact, while closer to the actual target, still sent shrapnel into our building and over our heads. It was getting ridiculous. These guys were awful. I called in a second adjustment and told them to fire for effect. It was close enough. We hugged the floor and prayed that nothing would hit us. In the future, we were reluctant to call in any fire missions at all. They seemed more likely to hit us than hit the target.

The whole time we were there in Baquba, Bonehead never improved, and to this day you can inquire what any of us here think of them and they’ll quickly announce that they hate them. We’d been pulled away from our own AO [area of operations] just to help them, yet they didn’t even take care of us. Between the total lack of support, absurd assignments and frequent firefights, we all have stories about Baquba. Very few of them are good. Nor do any of us want to go back there, either – or deal with Bonehead.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

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

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Hardest Part

Getting home from a deployment may be the worst part of the entire tour. The first and only thing on your mind is to see your family and go home, yet there always seem to be stumbling blocks. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. There always seem to be delays. Families just want to see their Soldier, and naturally, we just want to see our loved ones.

This is my fifth tour out here, so I’ve been through the whole welcome home ordeal four times. The first two were with a unit that seemed to organize things quite well. When we arrived, all we had to do was grab our day packs, take the buses to base, and they’d let us see our families. But other units I’ve been with did things differently. And none of liked it.

We came back one time and rather than just letting us turn in our gear at the armory and go see our waiting loved ones, they shuffled us into a partitioned hangar. On one side, we turned in all our weapons and serialized gear, and on the other side, our families waited. That’s bad enough in itself, but they also had camera crews filming us as we turned in weapons, and on the other side they had monitors where they could observe us coming in the door. I guess they thought it’d make the families feel better knowing their love one was safe. But that’s not how it played out.

As we in-processed, we could hear our families on the other side, cheering, yelling our names, and impatiently waiting for us to be cut loose. It was hard to know they were on the other side, unable to see us, and we’re stuck here waiting until all the equipment was turned in. That time it took about two and a half hours, which was awful. And even after the gear was all collected, we still waited. We stood by, families screaming on the other side, until all our VIPs had come in and set things up. Then, they formed us up outside and marched us into the auditorium where our folks were waiting.

But rather than just let us go to them, we stood there at parade rest or the position of attention, in formation, while one person after another came up and gave a speech. They always started with, “I don’t want to keep you long, so I’ll make this brief.” And then they’d talk for fifteen minutes.

Meanwhile, children are getting grabbed by parents trying to keep them from running out to see Daddy. Wives are impatiently drumming their fingers. My wife later said, “I didn’t care at all what they were saying: I just wanted to see my husband.” But still, more speeches. Then they’d introduce another speaker, and you could see the people in the audience getting even angrier, and the children getting more impatient. It was audible throughout the crowd.

I really don’t know why they felt the need to talk so much rather than let us go. Maybe it has something to do with unit tradition, or to raise everybody’s anticipation of the whole thing. If that was the case, though, shame on them. They were “dangling” us in front of our families, who wanted nothing more than to wrap their arms around us. The anticipation didn’t make it better in the least; it made it worse. You could read it in the faces of our families as they waited. They didn’t understand why they were having their Soldiers paraded before them, but were still unable to actually greet them.

In the end, we spent almost two and a half hours waiting on the other side of the hangar and another hour standing in formation in front of them. It was stressful for us, and stressful for our loved ones. It was almost that bad after one of my tours, too.

All the VIPs want to stand around and make speeches about how the deployment went so well or how much we accomplished, but that’s furthest from our minds. We were out there, so we know what happened. It’s also behind us and done, and we’ve been gone for fifteen months. Instead, we have one interest: grab our bags, grab our families, and go home. We want to start the reintegration process, and drink an ice cold beer.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved