Friday, August 14, 2009

When We Walked In War

*Retold with permission.

During my last tour, we patrolled into a relatively untouched area and were ordered to scout out and build a patrol base from scratch. We were coming to stay, not just pass through. With the threat being what it was in that area (arguably among the worst in Iraq), we were still expanding our presence.

Midway through the patrol, we stopped in a house to rest, posting guards on the roof to cover all the sectors. It was a hot area, we already knew, so Abrams tanks were on the way in to reinforce us.

No sooner had we gotten comfortable on the roof when we start taking pretty accurate small arms fire from across the road. There, making little attempt to hide himself, a man ran from building to building, fired a few rounds, and then moved again. Whenever he popped into view, the 240 gunners opened up on him until he ducked away again.

“Jack, Tommy, can you guys see him?” my platoon sergeant called to us. I don’t know about Jack, but I couldn’t see the shooter from where I was on the roof, so I low crawled along the knee wall to another vantage point. On the ground, a squad of Iraqi Soldiers stood there, for some reason not shooting.

“Hey, Jack, go with your team leader. You guys are going to be the maneuver element and flank him while we keep firing.”

“Roger.” We ran out of the building as the firing stopped. Nobody was shooting back anymore.

Sprinting down the street, turning, and carefully patrolling back up along the edge of a small palm grove, we found him lying on the ground. We called the medic. As Doc started working on him and patching his wounds (he’d been strafed pretty badly by one of the gunners), we hunted around nearby and eventually found his AK in the palms under a bunch of leaf litter. Doc’s immediate assessment was not good. This guy would need a medevac flight if he was going to make it. A ground evac wasn’t going to be fast enough. Several of us wished we’d been better shots.

In short order, the bird arrived, picked up the insurgent (with Doc as his escort on the flight), and flew off. We would keep patrolling on foot.

As we walked, we were attacked again with small arms, but this time the shooter was being less obvious about his location. As we took cover in a nearby house, one of the riflemen on the roof spotted him and took a shot with his M4. The firing stopped again.

Executing another flanking maneuver, we eventually came upon him. He was bleeding badly. We called for a medic again.

Doc kept him alive and marginally stabilized him, but he was going to need a med flight, too. So, we called in another bird and fanned out to provide perimeter security when it landed. When they had taken off, the CO [commanding officer] made a decision. We would clear the whole village, building-by-building.

By that time, the Abrams [tanks] had arrived, and they’d scan for an hour or so and rotate back to base for refueling. While they guarded the road, we moved through the whole village. We approached a small palm grove and cleared it. Then houses. Then more houses. I remember the CO asking, “you guys walked this far?” Yes we had, and we were suffering, too. And that was only the first time we cleared that village. By the end of things, we’d done it at least three times.

Anyway, we stayed in that house for two weeks before relocating to better one a short distance down the road. We also got mortared all the time in that position – most of it coming from somewhere inside Jenog village.

As we guarded one day, I heard a whistle through the air and a mortar round crashed down about 200 feet from our position. Before the dust had even settled, one of the sergeants grabbed me and we moved out to the impact site to do a crater analysis. The sergeant took some measurements, made some calculations, and called in a counter fire grid to the base. If they were still in that spot, they were in for a surprise. Moments later, we felt the earth shake as artillery shells pounded their position. That’s what they get for firing on us.

That same week, the engineers arrived with two conex boxes and a pile of Hesco barriers. They would be building our permanent patrol base for us. Just as they began to install the guard tower, they started taking fire, picked up their personnel, and just drove away, leaving us with a heap of building materials we had no idea what to do with. The CO ordered us to go clear the village again, which we did, but we didn’t find anything.

As I manned the guard tower one day, a blue bongo truck approached from a distance and wouldn’t slow down, ignoring our commands to stop or turn around. Defensively, we fired a few rounds and it completely disappeared, which was puzzling. After closer inspection of that area, we discovered that there was another road on the far side of the river, complete with another small village we hadn’t cleared. It was obscured from view by the river and some palm groves. Eventually, we were sent over to clear that village, too.

I remember approaching a house over there and seeing a girl out front completely covered in flies. You could tell she was mentally disabled. Through an interpreter, her mother told us that it was just her and her daughter living there with her husband. As we searched the house, we found det cord [explosive cord used to detonate IEDs], as well as a bunch of washing machine timers [commonly used to initiate IED detonations].

“What does your husband do again?”

“He’s a farmer,” she told us. We couldn’t find him anywhere, but detained three or four other suspicious males in the vicinity. While on a nearby roof, we started taking fire, yet again. As it continued, the CO wanted to move to a building some distance away that had better cover and overwatch. We would use that position to launch a flanking maneuver. Getting to that building, however, meant a dead sprint across more than 100 yards of open terrain.

“Jack, you’re in charge,” the CO hollered at me.

“Sir, what about the detainees?”

“Take them with us!” he roared, and ran off to shoot some more. I was only a private.

I found my sergeant and told him what he CO had said.

“What! That’s bullshit!” He quickly devised a better plan.

In small groups, we would “bound” across the danger area. One squad would remain in the original building as the base of fire, another squad would be assigned to haul the detainees, and when everybody else had gone across, my teammate and I would carry up the rear.

I have bad luck, though, so as the CO was sprinting across and I was firing, my SAW [M249 Squad Automatic Weapon] jammed. Silence. For a brief moment, I could hear the CO screaming at me as he kept running towards the far building. “WHAT THE HELL, YOU ASSHOLE! KEEP FIRING!” The 240 gunners on the roof, realizing what happened, picked up the slack and started firing to cover him while I worked on my SAW. That’s one of the things I don’t like about SAWs: they always jam when you need them to fire.

I got the gun back up fairly quickly, and before long, it was just me and my team mate Arnold left to run across the danger area. When he tapped me, I got up, and we both took off at a dead sprint.

Farm fields in Iraq have pretty uneven terrain, however, due to a crisscross pattern of irrigation ditches. As we ran, I stumbled in one and fell.

“Oh shit!” Arnold yelped, and doubled back, hauling me to my feet. Thankfully, we arrived without injury.

“Jack, why the hell did you fall back there?”

“I didn’t mean to, Sergeant.”

“I sure as hell hope not!”

Before long, the shooting stopped and a team of scouts arrived to help us find whoever it was firing at us. While they flanked around the palm grove, we would push through it and hopefully flush him out. We’d collapse on the objective.

When we did, though, neither team found anything, so we kept moving towards some huts in the distance to clear those too. By this time, we’d basically given up. Whoever he was, he was long gone. We were mistaken.

As we approached the huts, we saw some movement in the tree line – a guy crouched low and moving cautiously with an AK. As I raised my SAW to fire, Arnold fired first – right next to my ear.

“Why the hell did you do that!?”


When we ran up to the guy, we found him on the ground, shot in the head. Doc tried his best to save him, but he died right as the medevac chopper arrived.

“Brown, you took my shot.”

“Sorry.” It didn’t really matter. We’d gotten the guy.

When we had wrapped things up, we started back to our patrol base. We’d walked, patrolled, or run a good 10-12 kilometers.

That’s all we did on that tour: walk. House-to-house searches and foot patrols. And it’s not like that anymore, either. We used to walk everywhere, but now we just drive around in armored vehicles and try not to get blown up. Aside from planned stops, we really don’t even get out of the trucks. It’s a lot different now.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Thursday, August 13, 2009

It's Just Iraq

You’d be amazed how quickly people forget about you out here. Most Soldiers may start off with a good home support network, but that invariably diminishes as the deployment continues, friends and family grow accustomed to your absence, and those who once knew you well begin to feel alienated but unsure how to remedy it. Most, unfortunately, give up. While by no means universally true, a number of troops feel abandoned.

Few will articulate it aside from remarking that they haven’t received many letters or packages, but it creeps out, usually when other frustrations have begun to exact a toll on the morale of the individual Soldier. “Why am I doing this, anyway?” many will ask, and few are able to formulate satisfactory answers. Most aren’t asking for a cheering section, but they certainly wouldn’t mind knowing that somebody is thinking of them.

One Soldier here departed for Iraq missing a pretty girl back home, but that changed. These days she doesn’t write, and their phone conversations are usually short, tense, and avoiding the obvious that something has gone horribly wrong. Meanwhile, the same Soldier now receives e-mails from this girlfriend’s new interest. More than one note has read, “I hope you get crushed by an RPG.” To protect his own sanity, he has backed off from the relationship.

Another Soldier remarked that the only times his mother has called him during his entire tenure in the Army is when somebody in the family has died, save for once when she called to let him know about the birth of his niece. Aside from this, there is no contact.

One Sergeant hypothesizes that he’s losing friends because they feel somehow intimidated or guilty – that because they haven’t served in the military or overseas that they aren’t “worthy” of sharing the details of their seemingly mundane life. The Soldier, however, never suggested he was in any way superior. This job and lifestyle just isn’t for everybody.

Another feels it’s because he’s lost his connection with their world. They have chosen one path, and he another, and the two have little in common. For many, the awkwardness drives a permanent wedge between the two, leaving both parties increasingly insular, and unaccommodating of the other.

Let it be iterated quite clearly that nobody is asking for a tickertape parade when they return to the states. They want to greet their families and go home. That is the single, consistent statement and sentiment: “right now, I’d really just like to go home.”

Nor is this designed to garner pity for those who certainly volunteered for service. Though few truly understood the gravity of the oath, they made it anyway, and adhere to it loyally. They aren’t asking for pity, at any rate, but the assurance that there’s a welcoming home to which they’ll soon return. The desert, after all, is a lonely place.

If you want to know the troops, read their thoughts on the subject below. They aren’t my own creation, but from the mouths of those who have spent the better part of their twenties training for, or participating in an armed conflict…

“I don’t think it’s really the families’ fault back in the states. We took an oath, and their only crime was falling in love with those who took that oath. They get dragged into this with little to no preparation, and then spend years working to mend the damage caused by separation.”

“I really don’t mind taking the slow ride home on the ships with all our gear. There’s nobody waiting for me back there, anyway. What else am I going to do? Hang out by myself?”

“Wives back home spend twelve months fabricating an image in their mind about what it’s going to be like when their husband comes home. It’s probably similar to a ballerina dancing in circles in the music box. But then he really does come home, she doesn’t know him anymore, and that music box turns out to be empty. There’s no dancer, and there’s no music.”

“Do you want my phone card? I have about 70 or 80 minutes left on it, and I don’t have anybody to call, so if you want it, just let me know. I’ll give it to you. Might as well put it to good use.”

“It was months after my R&R leave before my wife said she loved me again. That’s been the hardest thing I’ve been through in Iraq; anguishing every day, trying to keep on doing my job, but not knowing where my wife stood. Also, I considered it all my own doing. That near miss last week with the rocket attack… I’d rather have another of those again than worry that my wife doesn’t love me anymore.”

“You can quantify casualties and physical injuries, but you can’t put a number to the emotional toll of this separation. I’d say thousands, if not millions of spouses are separated, wondering and worrying what it’ll be like when they come home, fearing adultery, loss of interest, or that they won’t know their own children anymore. I’d say the figures are staggering, and far more pronounced than you’ll ever read in the news.”

“Part of the problem is that there’s always a couple sour apples that ruin it for everybody. Like a Soldier I saw in an airport, in uniform, yelling at an airline employee because she wasn’t bumping him up to the next available flight. I was embarrassed by it, and I think everybody around me was disgusted. Who wants to support somebody who thinks he’s entitled to some sort of special treatment? People may think we’re all like that, and they lose all desire to support us. I can’t say I blame them, either.”

“A lot of times they don’t know what to say to us. They think we want to talk about how it is over here, but we don’t want to. Phone calls are just short, and they can’t think of anything to talk about. I say, ‘tell me about your day,’ but they’re uncomfortable with it. It’s easier for them to just not talk to us.”

“For some, the servicemember is the one being blamed for his absence. Everybody forgets that our political leaders are the ones that sent us. We just answered the call. It was the leadership of the nation that sent us to war, but we’re taking all the blame for it.”

“You have a Soldier being held prisoner by the Taliban, scared shitless, and all you read about in the news is how Michael Jackson died and who’s claiming to be the father of his kids this week. Iraq? Afghanistan? It’s never front page news. This week it’s health care. Did they forget about the war? Nobody cares anymore.”

“Actually, we have a really hard time getting reporters here these days. Right now, there’s maybe twelve embedded journalists in the entire country. They rest have all left for Afghanistan, or gotten bored and gone home.”

“I don’t know. I’d rather have no attention than negative attention. My dad came home to crosses burning in his front yard. And he still feels like he had it easier than most. I’ll take no attention any day.”

“This war has been going on for six years now. Our families, as much as it still hurts them, are getting used to us being gone all the time. They’re either worried for our safety, or trying to figure out we’ll be like when we come home, and how will it be different. In reality, part of us never comes home.”

“It’s not a novelty to write to the troops anymore. It’s nothing new. People have lost interest in it. Maybe they assume that somebody else is taking care of it for them. After all, it’s just Iraq. I’ll bet you never thought you’d hear that, did you? ‘It’s just Iraq.’”

Just Iraq… Men still die here.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Bygone Era

*Reprinted from October, 2008

I have observed that the further behind one’s back military service becomes, the more fondly it is remembered. I suppose, given this line of thinking, I will be ready to reenlist when I am approximately 73 years old, at which point I would be more suited to simply wear a VFW hat on July 4th and wave a small flag. The point is that the unpleasantries of war itself and the day-to-day slowly fade away and all we are left remembering is our part in something far greater than the individual and frequently one of the most exciting things we’ve done.

Though he has been involved in innumerable exciting things in his time, my great uncle Lindsey still vividly remembers his Naval service with deep satisfaction. He did well, and had fun doing it.

In 1942, in college in Detroit and not intending to join the service, he received his draft papers. Regardless of his interest, it was coming. As did so many draftees in his position, he took the opportunity to choose his own path as best he could. In October, he enlisted in the Navy, rather than the inevitable Army draft.

Though perhaps he had no prior knowledge of his skill, the Navy designated him an technical engineer and sent him to a base in Oakland, California for extensive training in the young, bourgeoning field of military electronics. More than six months later, he was assigned as a Technical Engineer, 3rd class (E-4) to a still-incomplete vessel, the USS Abercrombie, a destroyer escort.

Similar in purpose to a destroyer, the smaller, slower destroyer escorts had a few minor disadvantages but the ease and lower cost of production greatly increased their popularity and frequency. During the course of the war, the Navy built more than 450, and they were assigned to slow, vulnerable carrier groups where they served mostly as anti-submarine patrols and radar picket duty.

The distinct advantage of being assigned to a ship prior to its being put into service is that the panels are off, inner workings are exposed, and capable engineers are everywhere ready to explain the electrical operations of the vessel. Capitalizing on this opportunity, my uncle Lindsey learned as much as he could. On May 1st, 1944, the USS Abercrombie was commissioned and put into service on the Pacific, sailing almost immediately for the islands of the Philippines.

As best he can explain in it to me, uncle Lindsey’s purpose on his ship was maintenance and repair of the sonar and other sensitive detection equipment. Oddly, he was the only one aboard the vessel with that skill. Being best described as essential personnel, they mostly left him alone.

“I really didn’t do much until things broke, and then they’d come get me and I’d wake up and go fix it. Most of the repairs I could do in about 15 or 20 minutes. I’d get it working again, then I’d go back to bed.” Interestingly, this lone duty assignment seemed to be a relatively common placement for technical engineers. As an E-4 performing a technical position, he shared with great thankfulness that he never had to wash dishes. Good thing. I’d rather clean bilge pumps than get slammed with mess duty.

I’ve been lucky enough to see a few photographs if Lindsey, always smiling impishly, like the photographer pulled him away from a hilarious prank and he’s grinning because he hasn’t been caught yet. Maybe he never was. He fondly remembers his time aboard the Abercrombie, and there are pictures of him relaxing with other young men, hats perched ridiculously far back on their heads, playing with somebody’s personal dog snuck aboard the ship and somehow permitted to remain. Always grinning madly.

While in the Philippines, the USS Abercrombie was quickly caught up in what is now generally accepted as a gross military blunder for the sake of General Douglas MacArthur’s enormous ego. Having left a few years back solemnly declaring that, “I shall return,” he took the nearest opportunity to return to the same area to prance around declaring, “I have returned.” THAT, by the way, is not a fond memory for anybody, and I would be curious to see how many men are dead as a direct or indirect consequence of that man’s arrogance. The reality is that the Navy had little operational interest in the Gulf of Layte, but MacArthur pushed so hard that Nimitz eventually relented and MacArthur got his wishes.

The details of the naval engagements are exceedingly complex, but revolve around a decoy Japanese surface force luring a number of the US escort vessels away from their charges. Those that remained, the carriers, the slower ships, destroyers and destroyer escorts, were left extremely vulnerable to attack, which the Japanese did with two other surface groups. While not directly under attack during that battle (the Battle for Layte Gulf is often considered the largest naval battle in history), the Abercrombie had the misfortune of watching the advancing Japanese fleet approach ever closer and destroy a number of her sister vessels. Uncle Lindsey quietly pointed out that “it could have been terrible.” He has no fondness for MacArthur. The Layte Gulf battle, incidentally, was the first time the Japanese forces used coordinated kamikaze attacks against the Allies.

Later during Uncle Lindsey’s tour (in 1945), his ship served radar picket duty off the coast of Okinawa in support of the campaign to finally wrest it from Japanese control. These destroyer escorts on picket duty bore the brunt of the Japanese forces desperate attempts to keep the Allies from their shores, and the USS Abercrombie tangled with enemy planes (conventional and suicide attacks) on at least 16 documented occasions. She logged two confirmed kills, and at least two assisted. I cannot imagine being on a floating ordinance magazine and watching a crazed, similarly ordinance-packed plane dive on my craft. My uncle didn’t talk about this much. Nor can I particularly blame him.

No more than two months later, the bombs were dropped and the war quickly came to a close. Personnel and ships were quickly slotted for return to the United States. After nearly his entire enlistment overseas, I imagine my uncle had enough points to return fairly quickly.

To quickly plot the story of the ship (which now disconnects with the story of my uncle), the USS Abercrombie arrived in San Pedro, California in November, 1945. Work was commenced to mothball her, and she was soon thereafter towed to San Diego and parked. She was decommissioned on 15 June, 1946, merely two years and fourteen days after her commissioning. Sometime later she was towed to the coast of Washington and anchored again. In May of 1967, she was struck from the Navy’s list, and the next year towed off shore and sunk during extensive naval target practice. It’s rather an inglorious and insignificant demise for a vessel that was home to hundreds for a pivotal time in their young lives. But she is by no means unique in her departure. There were many others.

I have noticed that while enlistment dates are always remembered well, discharge dates are fire off with perfection – consistently. In January, 1946, Uncle Lindsey, now an amazingly senior Technical Engineer 1st class (just below chief), returned to civilian life and made his way back to Detroit to finish his economics degree. A short time after graduation, he would apply to and be accepted to UC Berkley for a masters degree. It was there that he met my great aunt Emogene. That, however, is another story, and one probably much better told by the lovely woman he romanced rather than he. I shall save it for another day.

For more information on the Battle of Layte Gulf, click here.
For more information on the USS Abercrombie, click here.

A Lesson In Commitment

*Reprinted from October, 2008:

As I have promised already, and as I have very much wanted to do myself, I finally sat down with my aunt Em and heard the story of how she and uncle Lindsey met. It was time every bit well spent.

When aunt Em moved into a women’s boarding house in Oakland more than 50 years ago, the mistress that ran the establishment virtually kicked out her charges on the weekends to “go find husbands.” Well, okay… how?

Em and her friend and fellow boarder Ula May dressed to the nines and went to a local dance hall called the German House. It boasted a large dance floor and excellent music, and at times also served drinks – presumably fine German beers, hence the name. Years later, my uncle joked that he picked up his wife in a beer joint, yet I imagine he received a dark look for it and quickly rescinded the remark.

As was the awkward custom of the day, the women would line up on one wall and suspiciously eye the men doing the same on the far wall across the dance floor. The women wished the men would come over, and I suspect the men stood over there at great lengths before summoning the courage (perhaps with the help of the German beers) to stride across and ask a lady to dance.

Em and Ula were uncomfortably standing there when a tall gentleman and his short counterpart (fraternity brothers) sauntered across the room. There was no question of who was going for who. My aunt Em, being quite tall and elegant, was approached by the tall man, and the shorter man went for Ula. Asking Ula to dance, they wandered onto the dance floor. Aunt Em accepted uncle Lindsey’s request and they, too did some dancing.

Ula, who wore glasses and was virtually blind without them (and of course not wearing them) quietly asked Em, “what did the guy I was dancing with look like?” “Oh, he was cute,” remarked Em. Before the evening was out, Lindsey had extracted Em’s phone number.

Always the gentleman, he inquired if he could give them a ride home. “We were taught to NEVER accept a ride home on the first date, so Ula and I walked home.” It was late, the buses had stopped running, so they took off their shoes, wrecked their nylons, and strolled the few miles home alone. A few days later Lindsey called her. They had met on her birthday.

By August, “I had decided that we were going to get married, but Lindsey didn’t know that yet,” she said with a straight face. I stole a glance at my uncle and caught a smirk.

At the time that the two of them met, he was working on a graduate degree in economics, and intended to teach the subject at some college or another. In order to fit in with all the other distinguished professors in the field, he took up the habit of smoking long cigarettes, always dangling from the corner of his mouth. Whenever he spoke, it waggled frantically and it was all my aunt noticed. A mouth with a shaking cigarette.

In late August, I guess he had reached the same conclusion that aunt Em had reached earlier in the month. This was the woman he wanted to marry. He took her out to dinner at a swank restaurant and proposed.

“I THOUGHT he asked me to marry him, but I didn’t hear him clearly. I was afraid to say, ‘YES, I’ll marry you,’ because I wasn’t sure that’s what he had even asked, and then I’d mess it all up. So I had him repeat himself.” Sure enough, he had asked, and she excitedly said yes.

She kept talking, but I wasn’t listening much anymore. I was busy watching, and relishing what I saw. Throughout this conversation I had been intently paying attention to the story, but at some point, the words became unimportant. Of far greater interest was the storyteller.

As she told me how they met, she rested her chin on her hand and, with a small smile, looking unwaveringly at my uncle, she pulled up 59 year old memories as if they were yesterday. My uncle, little smirk still on his face, listened quietly. The attraction that brought them together, the handsome tall guy with the waggling cigarette, the elegant young woman shooed out of the house to “go find a husband,” the love they clearly shared and continue to express, is every bit as strong today – quite likely stronger.

They were married on September 3rd, 1949, in Reno Nevada, at Ula May’s sister’s house (Beulah Ray). After the ceremony, they drove to Lake Tahoe for their honeymoon. As she told me the wedding date, uncle Lindsey interrupted and finished for her. They both remember it fondly.

Though they intended to stay a while in Tahoe, uncle Lindsey, always a shrewd manager of his money, had arranged a house for them in the bay area, and they eagerly returned early to buy new furnishings. Four lovely daughters and fifty-nine years later, they are considering a 60th wedding anniversary party next September.

Aunt Em raised a finger: “We’re still on a trial basis, though, and a year is a long time, but if we’re still together, we’ll have a party. We might get tired of each other, so we just take it one day at a time.” She smiled broadly and he returned the gesture.

When my aunt came home yesterday from running some errands she interrupted herself and blurted, “I’m going to go kiss that old guy on the couch now, if you’ll excuse me.” I know he liked it.

"His sister Ruth said the smartest thing he ever did was marry me. So I like Ruth."

As I read this to them both, it was the same thing again. Aunt Em watching him lovingly. When I finished reading, I asked if it was okay. Aunt Em said it was. Uncle Lindsey feigned bewilderment: “I don’t even know what this is all about.” He gets another dark look. “No, it’s good,” he quickly adds, laughing. “What do you think I was thinking about? The dog?”

I’m confident they’ll continue to work things out, and next year I hope to be there to celebrate with them. After sixty years, sweethearts don’t just share a house, a bed and a life anymore, they share souls. And I enjoy watching that.


Today (12 August, 2009):I wrote these pieces when I spent some time with Uncle Lindsay and Aunt Em in California last year. It is with great sadness that I report that Uncle Lindsay lost his battle with cancer early this morning. He was one month from his 60th wedding anniversary. He is survived by his wife, Em, four daughters, and more grandchildren than I am able to count.

To Uncle Lindsay;

The chivalry, patience, and character exhibited by the Yates boys is
something I have long wished to emulate, and you have my deepest thanks
for the example you have set. You have influenced more than you may
realize. You have four beautiful daughters whom you have reared and
loved superbly, and a saintly wife whose hand and heart you long ago
captured and gently held. You have modeled love well.

I regret not hearing more of your stories, Uncle, for I know you had
scores to tell. But love is a legacy of far greater import, and I have
seen that first-hand. That's what we will all remember.

Go with God, Uncle Lindsay, and I'll see you in the morning.

Copyright © 2008, 2009,
Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

What The Hell?

*Retold with permission.

My last tour over here began with a whole series of “what the hell” moments. The very first day in the City of Kirkuk was not only a disaster, but also sufficiently strange that it left us wondering if the remainder of the tour was going to be equally unpredictable. Nothing was as we expected it to be. But in all fairness, we shouldn’t have made any assumptions. You don’t prepare for Iraq so much as you brace yourself for it.

Because of Kirkuk’s proximity to numerous oil wells, the city and its outskirts were crisscrossed with various periphery gas lines and then the occasional main lines as well. We were briefed that illegal cutting and tapping of these lines would be a problem we’d face. If we saw somebody doing that, arrest them. They were considered a disruption to the local, if not national infrastructure. Sounds easy enough, we told them. Anything else? Oh yeah, watch out for VBIEDs [vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices – IEDs]. Great.

Our very first operation in the city was actually a joint patrol composed of us (the new guys), and Soldiers from the unit we were replacing. We would drive some distance in humvees, dismount, and then move on foot while the vehicles “shadowed” us a few streets or blocks away. As we were driving along to our first patrol point, one of the Soldiers from the unit were replacing says, “see that down there? He’s about to cut the gas lines.” Down the street, I saw a car parked near the gas line and a man next to the lines. It did look suspicious. The Soldier called it up, and we turned around to intervene.

As we rolled up, the Iraqi man just stood there, looking nervous. The Soldiers we were replacing approached him. “You can’t cut the gas lines, understand? It’s illegal.” As one stabbed the Iraqi’s tires with his knife, another walked over with an ASP and started breaking his windows.

Searching his car, however, revealed that this was a not a one-time event for him, but a livelihood. In his trunk sat an extra tank, complete with a dispensing valve cleverly concealed inside the car’s fuel door, right next to the real nozzle. Clearly, he had intent to sell.

“Well, you’re doing to jail now, buddy.” As soon as he heard the word, he took off in a sprint.

We started to chase him on foot, down the street and around a corner – directly into a huge open sewage dump. The Iraqi man kept running, but we tiptoed, cursed, and picked our way through as carefully as possible. None of us wanted to be covered in sewage. As he ran off, we quit and ran back to our humvees. We’d catch him in the trucks. As we mounted up and started driving, we heard a brief report of gunfire, and drove on scene to find Iraqi soldiers standing around, and the man lying wounded in the middle of the street.

We asked them what hell had happened.

“He wouldn’t stop running.” Great.

We still had a man to detain, but now he also needed medical assistance. Since he was entering Iraqi custody, the Iraqis soldiers called for one of their own vehicles to come pick him up. His medical transport would be a flatbed metal truck. They laid him in the back and stopped again. They weren’t quite sure where to take him. Meanwhile, the prisoner is lying shirtless on the floor in the back of the flatbed, moaning as he burned on the hot metal. How about you drive him to the hospital, we said. Oh, okay. They left, and we started walking back to our trucks.

As we mounted up and prepared to continue our patrol, a gigantic VBIED rammed into a sister unit and detonated. We were diverted to go help them out. Amazingly, and thankfully, nobody sustained any major injuries.

The whole time I’m thinking, “What the hell? Is the whole tour going to be like this?” The answer to that, we later found, was yes. We’d get blown up all the time.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, August 10, 2009

Goings On

During the brief time in my life when I pursued a career as a police officer, it was at best with a very uninformed, outsider’s perspective. I didn’t know much about police work, didn’t know what comprised a typical work day, and armed with the non-facts of half a dozen police-themed TV shows and movies, I had it all wrong. The stories cops themselves tell and the scripts that attract movie producers aren’t mundane, but frequently tragic, grisly, and action-packed. The end result is that most of us are left with the impression that cops are always in the act of speeding to a crime scene, arresting a violent criminal, or firing a never-empty service weapon at drug lords in a firefight that leaves half the city in shambles. None of this is particularly realistic. Police officers spend a great real more time than we realize just patrolling, or flippantly: sipping coffee and eating donuts. The boring parts are simply omitted when they tell stories.

Public misunderstanding of the military is remarkably similar, and quite likely more pronounced. Mothers presume that if their son wears a uniform, he will spend the next four years of his life either doing pushups in the United States, or charging the enemy’s bunker on combat. Neither assumption has much truth to it. If her son tells stories, it will pertain to the more interesting periods of his service, but there will be enormous gaps. Military service is a series of events which we combine to develop an opinion or a memory. When I think of the year or so I’ve spend in Iraq, I think of specific missions, specific firefights, and maybe the occasional altercation between me and a roommate over the top bunk. They add up to about three hours of my life, yet somehow develop into hours of stories, deeply-rooted opinions on US foreign policy, and a lifetime of valuable (and difficult) experiences. What happened in the other 364 days and 21 hours? Well, we did stuff. It’s just not as interesting to me personally, or the news didn’t report it.

In this manner, those at home are left to construct an opinion of a conflict based upon a veteran’s short stories and media reports which fixate on the more “interesting,” all at the expense of reality. No doubt, it increases their concern for their loved ones – perhaps unduly so. As a good friend (and veteran) recently reminded me, “more occurs in war than killing,” yet that killing becomes the primary focus of our service, perhaps to the point that everybody assumes the troops are constantly engaged in epic, linear combat.

Yesterday, a Soldier very keenly remarked that, “people at home don’t ever hear about the schools we’ve built, or the roads we’ve repaired, or the power plants we’ve reconstructed. All they hear about is war. They forget that this hasn’t been a ‘war’ since the earliest parts of 2004.” Yes, combat operations continued, but mostly in a defensive role – and intended primarily for self defense and ensuring stability. Nor will anybody hear that of more than 300 missions run in Iraq, this conversation took place on perhaps the most boring mission in which I’ve ever participated. All they did is drive up the road, drop off some lumber at an Iraqi Police station currently under construction, and drive back to base. Save for one of the vehicles catching on fire during the return trip, it was uneventful and will soon be forgotten. More likely than not, the vehicle burning will be the only aspect remembered.

If you asked the Soldiers here what they did yesterday, very few of the responses will involve war. Somewhere in the country, a unit or two was engaged in a firefight (probably briefly), but aside from that, most will tell you very little. Nevertheless, it was a typical day. Combat comprises but a miniscule portion of one’s service, but often becomes the focus. Let us now examine the question veterans most often hear: “what’s it like over there?” Some will answer simply “hot,” or that “it sucked.” If they tell you stories, theirs, like mine, will only encompass a few short moments of their service. Unfortunately, they do little to answer the question. Even my own writing casts undue focus on combat operations. It’s simply more interesting, however misrepresentative. Let us amend the question and try again: “what happened yesterday on FOB Brassfield-Mora, aka Silo?”

One small unit delivered some lumber to an Iraqi Police station, then towed back their vehicle that burned. Another two or three moved sandbags. Half a dozen Soldiers labored from dawn to well past sunset preparing, serving, and cleaning up meals at the chow hall. A few platoon commanders prepared micro-grant proposals based off of extensive interviews with local entrepreneurs and farmers, while their company commander met or teleconferenced with local Iraqi Police, Army, and militia leaders.

More than a dozen Soldiers manned radios and tracking equipment on base in support of units outside the wire, while several more worked to repair or maintain humvees, MRAPS, and other military vehicles. No doubt, a few were working to diagnose the vehicle that burned during that one small unit’s mission.

Scores of Soldiers cleaned weapons while a few Soldiers confirmed issued gear rosters for hundreds more. One unit relocated to another base, as this FOB prepares to be altogether dismantled and handed back to the Iraqis. A number of logisticians sat behind computers and coordinated what units will depart, when they will leave, where they will go, and what means of transportation will get them there.

A small handful of Soldiers dashed out to helicopters and quickly refueled them for the next leg of their flight, while others in-processed a few travelers and out-processed a few more. A few Soldiers departed on R&R and a few more solemnly returned. Throughout the country, hundreds read books, played cards, or created new games of their own. Several Soldiers took naps, either from exhaustion or boredom.

Well over a hundred Soldiers worked out in the gym, went on runs around the FOB, or otherwise saw to maintaining and improving their physical fitness. At least two manned the MWR (morale, welfare and recreation) room with its bank of phones and computers. Some packed their gear in preparation for relocation, and a few units laid out all of theirs for inspections, then repacked it.

Communications specialists worked to maintain radios and wire comm capabilities, and a few more unintentionally broke lines that would later need repair. A number wrote e-mails home, watched movies, or called their loved ones. At least a few telephone conversations ended poorly.

Several Soldiers contemplated reenlistement, several more prepared for transfer to new units, and a sizeable group readied to return to civilian life, college, and non-military jobs. This battalion is losing a solid 40% of its Soldiers soon after returning to the United States.

One company commander helped his Soldier study for a GED test, and later he stepped outside to help other Soldiers move sandbags late into the evening. Throughout his company office, several platoon leaders came and went, similarly covered in dust, preparing reports, briefs, and reconstruction contract proposals.

In every platoon, medics assessed and advised Soldiers on health problems, either treating them on-site, or referring them to the battalion aid station where they would be examined by medical officers and other staff. Quite a few medics readied to oversee redeployment health questionnaires to their charges, and a few updated medical records and a couple administered immunization shots. Some inventoried medical equipment.

Intelligence analysts processed the latest field reports, sifted through interviews, and conducted a few more of their own, preparing detailed reports to submit up the chain of command. Nationwide, several detainees were released, while a few more were taken into custody and handed over to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF)

Elsewhere in Iraq, aircrews repaired and maintained fixed wing and rotor wing fleets while pilots delivered personnel throughout the country, others flew aerial surveillance missions, and a few conducted medical evacuations. Key leaders manned Joint Communication Centers, coordinating troop movements with their Iraqi Police and Army counterparts. A few small units conducted training courses for local ISF in preparation for them assuming full operations in short order.

I am unsure where the war took place.

None of this is intended to downplay the critical importance of combat operations, or suggest that Iraq is a very boring place and we should therefore all go home. In truth, much is happening here. The point is this: very little, if any, of these events (or non-events) will make the news or be reported back to loved ones in the states. It doesn’t mean nothing happened, or that the mission was a total flop. In many ways, silence is good news: nothing horrible happened.

What does remain critically important, however, is that the troops receive recognition for their service. They are doing amazing things, great things, and with an enthusiasm I know I wouldn’t possess after more than ten months in-country. Here, more than 7,000 miles from home, they continue to carry their weight and contribute to successful reconstruction and stability of this country, regardless of their belief in the mission. The vast majority want nothing more than to go home. And when they finally arrive there, expect to hear very little of it, for they have not done it for recognition, but simply because it was right. Just know that much took place.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved