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Reflections, Ten Years On

Posted by on Feb 14, 2013 in iraq, Marine Corps, war | 1 comment

The ten year anniversary of the 2003 invasion of Iraq is in a few weeks. Below are a few thoughts describing what we were going through as the invasion neared. J.E. On St Patty’s Day, 2003, myself and the five other members of HUMINT Exploitation Team Three, assigned to support Third Battalion/Fifth Marines, were in position north of Logistical Support Area Grizzly, just a few hundred meters south of the Iraq-Kuwait border. The day before we had taken the last showers we would have for about the next month. A few days earlier we’d made a last quick trip to First Marine Division headquarters, Camp Commando outside Kuwait City, to touch base with our chain of command, pick up last minute supplies like extra ammo and MRE’s, use the internet, and maybe get a phone call home. We had also broken open our vacuum-packed chemsuits, to ‘try them on.’ Leadership wouldn’t tell us anything official, they wouldn’t say we were about to cross the border. But you don’t ‘try on’ a packaged chemsuit. Once you open a sealed chemsuit it can’t be re-packaged and the protective chemicals in the suits deteriorated rapidly in the open air, so they were only useful for a few weeks after they had been unsealed. Breaking open tens of thousands of chem suits could only mean the military had been ordered to prepare for an imminent invasion. Despite not having been given an official order, there was a sense of overwhelming momentum in those weeks and days before we crossed the border and invaded Iraq. We had watched as each convoy carrying tanks, artillery, armored transports and every other kind of military hardware imaginable flowed north from the ports in southern Kuwait. There is something magnificent about watching a military force prepare for war. A sense of purpose. Everywhere you looked there were thousands of Marines cleaning weapons, training, checking gear. We were professional warriors. We were poised to attack. I was surrounded by my team, the battalion we supported, Fifth Marine Regiment and the entire First Marine Division, all readying for the conflict to come. We were an army preparing for a war far from home, but we represented a nation preparing for war. It was at the same time incredibly humbling and amazingly empowering. Within the team, we discussed the imminent invasion, we didn’t all agree with what we were about to do. Contrary to some propagandists, the individuals that make up the American war machine are not mindless followers. We obey our seniors because that is our duty, we all swore the same oath. But we still have beliefs about the orders we are given. Discussing the reasons for the war were important, and still are, even ten years after the invasion. The ripple effects of the removal of Saddam Hussein are still being felt throughout the region and the world. Arguably, the 2010 Arab Spring was one of those ripples that brought a tsunami of change to the Middle East. I believed, and still believe, the United States was justified in removing Saddam. Not because he (as we thought at the time) had weapons of mass destruction, but because he was a threat to regional stability. The sanctions on Iraq that had worked for a decade were broken. Not just...

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Ramadi Part II – Shitty Shane

Posted by on Sep 25, 2012 in iraq, Marine Corps, Ramadi, war | 0 comments

HET Two’s attitude was pretty demoralized after me and Jason got hit with the IED. That attitude was reinforced a week or so later when one of our team members, ‘Shitty’ Shane, went on patrol with Echo Company Two/Four. Shane was a great guy, but he got the nickname from the invasion the previous year when he routinely stepped in shit. Dog shit. Goat shit. Donkey shit. Human shit. Shit is everywhere in Iraq and, somehow, he always ended up stepping in it. It seemed he couldn’t avoid it (though, everyone else could). The Echo Company platoon he was with started up a side street in a fairly suburban neighborhood, just a little bit outside the city. They had good disbursement, they were alert, it was a textbook two-column patrol formation. And then they started taking small arms fire. Just pot shots from a few guys with AK-47’s from the far end of the street, it wasn’t like they were getting direct fire from a heavy machine gun. But, enough to take cover in the ditches on the sides of the street. Even pot shots can find a home in your skull or gap in your body armor. Shane decided to jump over a low wall, maybe four feet high, into the backyard of an Iraqi house. It was the smart move to get out of the street and away from the line of insurgent fire. He landed in the backyard of a house and crouched against the wall for maybe two seconds. And then… insurgents who had been hiding in the house he’d just jumped into opened up on him. Shitty Shane almost shit himself. The Iraqis were only maybe thirty feet away, firing from doors and windows, and yet they all missed somehow. Strange shit happens in combat. He should have been dead. Shane was alone on that side of the low wall and while the wall provided great cover from the insurgents in the street, he was completely exposed to the insurgents in the house. The fire in the street was an occasional ‘pop.’ As soon as he landed in that back yard it sounded like a Fourth of July finale. They were horrible shots, but even though the insurgents were missing initially, there was no question that they’d eventually kill him if he stayed where he was. In an adrenalin-fueled jump, Shane immediately hurled himself back over the wall. He came down hard on his left leg, with all the weight of his body armor, weapons, ammo, grenades. His leg shattered. His shin snapped and he lay in the street, screaming, exposed to fire from the original attackers who were still firing. Echo Company Marines rushed to his rescue. No one had a stretcher, but it was imperative to get Shane out of the line of fire, back down the street. His leg was fucked, his bone was sticking out. The wound could have killed him if he’d gone into shock. There was no time to treat him in the street, the priority was to get him away from the bullets. So, two Marines grabbed him by the arms and started dragging him down the center of the street while the rest of the platoon continued the fight. Shane still had his rifle, and even...

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Ramadi

Posted by on Aug 1, 2012 in iraq, Marine Corps, Ramadi, war | 2 comments

I wasn’t supposed to go back to Iraq. I had spent almost a year and a half overseas, two tours back-to-back, and I had orders to a sweet gig in northern Virginia. I was supposed to go to the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity in Quantico. It was an assignment I had to fight for, one I thought I deserved. No combat, no long deployments, just an easy few years until I got out of the Marines. And, being near the Beltway I would be perfectly positioned to network with other intelligence professionals in the area and easily find a government or contractor job post-Marine Corps. Maybe even more importantly the girl I’d started dating, and fallen in love with, had chosen a graduate school in northern Virginia so that we could be together when I got out there. Our lives were on a great path and we talked about it almost every day. I felt like I’d finally caught a break, that maybe I could leave the war behind. But, a few weeks before I was supposed to go to Virginia, I was told I had to go back to Iraq instead. It wasn’t open to discussion. “Needs of the Marine Corps” trump all personal desires. So I went back. And, not just anywhere, me and my new team, HET Two, went to the heart of the burgeoning insurgency. Ramadi in 2004 was a special kind of hell. Nothing could have prepared us. We had no idea what we were in for when we showed up. Iraq in 2003 was a traditional military operation – a straight-forward invasion – and we were not really prepared for what would turn into a full-blown insurgency. The months I’d spent in Al Kut with my old team after the invasion had been in a relatively friendly city, we routinely drove around in unarmored trucks with only a few Marines. There were times when I just took my linguist Johnny Nano, pulled up to a tea shop, and smoked hookah for an hour or so. Ramadi in 2004 was utterly different, and we learned the difference almost immediately. Ramadi is the capital of the Sunni-dominated western Iraq province of Al Anbar, part of what would be known as the Sunni Triangle and the center of the Sunni and Al Qaeda insurgencies. This part of Iraq, Western Iraq, was quite literally the wild west. Baghdad was always known as a cosmopolitan city, full of intellectuals and technocrats. Al Anbar, though, was known for the Arab equivalent of the hill country, home of the Iraqi rednecks. With banjos playing in the background. Saddam was Sunni, and yet he still had problems keeping Al Anbar under control. There were times, according to the stories we heard from the locals, when Saddam sent his Republican Guard, the ‘Harisjammori,’ into Ramadi, killing whole villages to make sure they stayed in line. One tribe was especially known for fake documents. The story was, that tribe in that particular Ramadi neighborhood could make you a passport better than what the government could provide. Which, of course, pissed off Saddam and caused occasional retaliations. Ramadi is a rugged, well-weathered city, the Tombstone of Iraq. And we were supposed to be the Earp brothers. Ramadi is bounded on two sides by water,...

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Riding

Posted by on Jul 8, 2012 in iraq, Marine Corps, war | 1 comment

Again, an anecdote out of chronological order. We were in Tikrit in 2003 and me and Johnny Nano accompanied a sit-down between Brigadier General Kelly and some local tribal sheiks. Senior leaders.  Enjoy.   Joel   We feasted standing up, as normal. We all stood around a huge table laid out with bread, rice, yogurt, and various goat dishes. The general, his officers and the tribal elders rubbed elbows. Johnny and I ended up talking to the tribal sheik’s son, the ‘emir.’ The elders were discussing their bullshit, making promises that would never be met, so Johnny and I sat down with the emir. Johnny lit up, he was in his element. There was no real information to collect, so I could give a fuck about what happened. He bullshitted with the emir for a while, and suddenly he turned on me, a fat smile spread across his short, bald face. “Mick! The emir loves motorcycles, just like you!” I laughed, “Johnny, did you tell him I was into bikes? Really? THAT was your conversation?” “Yup!” He was ridiculously happy he’d made progress with the emir, so I went with it. “Mick, he says he’s going to go get something for you.”
    Awesome. The emir was smiling, though. He jumped up, his dishdasha getting into a tangled mess. He barked something in Arabic at one of his buddies/underlings and they both jumped into his Mercedes and took off, rolling out of the compound. I was puzzled by the emir’s sudden unexplained departure, but, whatever. Johnny didn’t really have an explanation for what had just happened, either. So, we hung out for a few minutes. I went back to the table and got some more rice, that shit was delicious, smothered in goat sauce. The sight that greeted me as I came out with some delicious bread and goat in my hand was a bit surreal. The emir was pulling up to the compound on an ancient crotch rocket. A massive predecessor to the Yamaha YZF R-1. To explain, if you’ve never ridden a motorcycle, this bike could have blasted the competition. Um, in the 80’s. It was a big bike. A big, relic of a bike. As he pulled up, the emir was grinning from ear to ear. He put the kickstand down in  front of me, jumped off and proudly offered me the bike. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to ride. I hadn’t been on a motorcycle in far too many months, and I was dying to ride. I have always owned a motorcycle since 1997, when I bought an old-ass 1992 Yamaha Seca II when I first came into the Marine Corps. The bike the emir put in front of me had at least 1000 cc’s, though it was hard to tell because all the stickers were pulled off. It was old, though, and I had no way of knowing if it would blow up on me if I took it out for a spin. Johnny was excited, his little brown ass was practically jumping up and down as he told me how proud the emir was of his motorcycle, how Saddam had outlawed bikes like his, but the emir’s father had allowed him to keep it (yes, a strong suggestion as to how tight the...

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Celebratory Fire

Posted by on Jun 28, 2012 in iraq, Marine Corps, war | 0 comments

For the majority of the summer of 2003 HET Three was in Al Kut on a tiny, postage stamp-sized base on the eastern side of Tigris, just north of the city. We were remote, the main Marine force of Third Battalion/Twenty-Third Marines (or simply 3/23, a reserve unit with a lot of guys out of Louisiana and the mid-west) was on the western side of the Tigris on an old Iraqi air base. They were at least forty minutes from us. We were on our own. The extent to which we were alone was made perfectly clear the day Uday and Qusay Hussein were killed. We had a satellite dish, courtesy of excellent scrounging in the Al Kut bazzar with Johnny), so we had a few english channels, Al Jazeerah, and of course Al Manar – Lebanese Hizballah’s propaganda channel. But, during the day nothing came on about Uday and Qusay getting killed. Evening fell. The team, except for our lieutenant, Nate, had been drinking for several hours. We had brands of foreign beer we’d never seen before and rotgut Lebanese and Jordanian whiskey, but it got the job done. Just before dusk, small arms fire started in the city. AK-47’s, pistols. We barely looked up from our beers, celebratory fire is perfectly normal in Iraq. Weddings, funerals, births, Iraqis took any celebration as an excuse to fire weapons into the air. It was disconcerting at first, but we eventually got used to it.  It turned into just another part of the Iraqi background noise, like the daily call to prayer wailing from the mosques. Being mid-summer, it was hot as shit even though it was getting dark. We were all stripped down to our green silkies and flip flops in the 100+ degree weather and the last thing we wanted to think about was enemy fire. We hadn’t been shot at in a couple of months. Well, once or twice, there had been a few pot shots, but nothing serious. No real attacks. It was late-July, the war was over, right? But that night the small arms fire started to increase. Slowly at first, then, as dusk turned to night the gunfire became almost constant. Heavy machine guns started opening up, red tracers began streaking across the sky over Al Kut, explosions from what sounded like RPG’s sounded in the distance and orange glows flashed from the heart of the city. Nate started to freak a little bit, he thought the Iraqis were about to come over the wire and kill us all. Actually, we all thought that was a real possibility. The company of Marines holding the base were sober, of course (they didn’t have access to booze), but even so, the tiny base only had some concertina wire and a berm to protects us. If any concerted effort was made to overrun the base, we were all dead, there’s no way we could fight off a serious attack, given the poor defensive posture of the base. No one was coming to help us, not that they would be able to get to us in time from the airbase. And, of course, considering the HET was… not sober. We were definitely fucked if any Iraqis actually came over the wire. Nate ordered us to get into our battle...

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Summer 2003

Posted by on Jun 7, 2012 in iraq, Marine Corps, war | 0 comments

Sitting in Al Kut through the summer of 2003 was endless, and the sun in southern Iraq was a merciless god. By June the heat in southern Iraq was a physical enemy. Temperatures drove upwards of 130 degrees fahrenheit. 130 plus. Anytime we left our little operating base outside of Al Kut we wore full armor, carried all our weapons. We didn’t have a lot to eat to begin with, and the heat killed our appetites. We didn’t have much in the way of a laundry, so our uniforms became so crusted in the bleach white salt from our sweat they were almost brittle, you could smack your blouse or trousers against a wall and see flakes of salt break off. We did our jobs, but there was never an end in sight. We ran sources, but we didn’t have much of a focus except for looking for weapons of mass destruction, we had no real guidance from higher. We went on several wild-goose chases into the desert with sources who didn’t have shit, looking for Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction. Long, hot as shit, chases. We did find radioactive material on one of those chases, though. Kinda sad. The Iraqi came in to talk to us, claiming he had WMD. Of course we went to his house hoping we would find the infamous WMD, but it turned out the Saddam regime had just told him to bury some radioactive material, some kind of bridge beam X-ray machine. It was hot, though, from the way the geiger counter went off.  I’m pretty sure I’ve been exposed to some serious radiation, if briefly, certainly the Iraqi’s whole family had started getting sick. We dug it up out of his back yard, sent it up to higher. His wife died of cancer. For me, an overwhelming depression sank into my bones during my last few months in Iraq in 2003. All of the other guys on HET 3 had wives or girlfriends waiting for them at home. Even Johnny talked about the girl he was shagging. I hadn’t had a girlfriend since Trina, in early 2002. The loneliness grew as the days and months dragged on and the temperature increased. That the rest of my teammates routinely got letters from girls that loved them made my loneliness all the more intense. I tried to sweat it out, or drink it away, but nothing helped. I lost weight. Lots of weight. From a beginning weight of about 185 I dropped to about 155. Randy was worse because he was slight to begin with. We called him ‘The Disappearing Man.’ He was already skinny, but the war made him look almost like a Holocaust survivor. We both lost over thirty pounds. My face shrunk and my shoulders stuck out, bonily. They’re kinda broad, a gift from my Gaelic ancestry, and my flesh was barely hanging onto my frame. The war, as far as we were concerned, was over, dammit! At our level we didn’t understand why we lingered. After all, it was the Marine Corps’ job to conquer and take territory, we left it to the Army to occupy. It didn’t make sense to us, why we were staying. And no one gave us information, every few weeks it was another, ‘Oh, I’m...

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A Proposition

Posted by on May 23, 2012 in iraq, Marine Corps, Uncategorized, war | 0 comments

This excerpt is, again, jumping around in terms of chronology. After Tikrit we ended up in Al Kut, in the southern Iraq province of Wasit. This would be the end of our time in Iraq, but it dragged… I have lots of stories about Al Kut, too many. Nastiness, like a detainee escaping Marine custody. I’d collected intel saying he was the one who had hired a hitman to throw a grenade at the police station, severely wounding one of the American soldiers. The motherfucker cost a soldier guarding the police station his legs. He wasn’t talking in the Iraqi jail, he just professed his innocence, so I ordered him moved to a more secure facility on the Marine base across the river at the nearby airfield. His escape and follow-up investigation with his family and other sources made me conclude my source had been right, and we had lost a guy who had tried to kill us. There were heroic moments, Randy and Matt saved two kids from drowning in the Tigris river. Kids liked to swim in the water just below the main dam/bridge in Al Kut, but it was dangerous. We heard screaming and saw a mob of kids on the riverbank as we crossed the dam. Randy stopped his truck and he and Matt grabbed the tie-down straps from their humvee. Randy had to jump about ten feet down, in full combat gear with both his weapons, to a twelve-inch ledge so that the tie-downs would reach the kids in the swirling water. A third kid still drowned, but the people from that neighborhood quit throwing rocks at us whenever we went in to patrol or mark a weapons cache. Another small victory. There were moments of levity, like Johnny getting drunk and trying to show us how big his dick was. Well, he did show us, but for some reason he wanted to show it to us hard. He was so hammered it took him about thirty minutes to get it up (he went into the showers to take care of things), but when he finally got it going it did turn out to be pretty scary big. Damn impressive for a short, skinny Iraqi. There was melancholy. My twenty-fifth birthday was spent in a tiny mud-brick building on a mission north of Al Kut. I didn’t tell anyone. I just silently wished for a beer. The summer of 2003 passed slowly. At one point we thought we’d found the Weapons of Mass Destruction, but it turned out to just be some kind of bridge beam X-ray machine. But, the way the geiger counter went off, I’m pretty sure I’ve been exposed to some serious radiation.  We went out to cafes, smoked hookah and drank chai with an inch of sugar in the glass. We talked to the locals, ate at the restaurants, all while trying to find a meaning for staying in Iraq long past the invasion. There was one particular incident I could classify as both nastiness and levity, though definitely not heroic. It’s probably best categorized as ‘it’s funny now.’ I had befriended a local Iraqi, Hamid, a tall (over 5’ 6”) good looking guy (he had all his teeth) in his early twenties who worked at a roadside convenience store...

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Tikrit – Where We All Nearly Died

Posted by on May 15, 2012 in iraq, Marine Corps, Uncategorized, war | 1 comment

the box on the right was our toilet.    Taking Tikrit turned out to be pretty easy, it had been almost entirely abandoned. We rolled into a ghost town, the night after we rescued the POWs. So, the next day, we began to explore… The palace compound stretched for miles along the Tigris River. While exploring we came upon several locals fishing in one of Saddam’s private fish ponds. Just days earlier they would have been executed for fishing there, had they been caught. We were alone, just one truck, but even so they were scared at first. Johnny jumped out and started talking as soon as we stopped, and within minutes the Iraqis were laughing with Johnny, and effusively showing their gratitude for invading and overthrowing Saddam. They had caught several monster fish, carp or something, and even though they had to feed their families they insisted on giving us the largest fish they had. It was about three feet long, and at least thirty pounds, Saddam let his fish get big, probably by feeding on bodies. At first we demurred, what would we do with a raw fish?  But they wouldn’t let us refuse, saying Allah would give them a bigger fish if they gave away their biggest. Johnny jumped on the offer, and said he’d cook it up that night. So, we shrugged, accepted the gift and Johnny wrapped it up in a sack and stowed it in the back of the humvee. And, as we started to drive away, I’ll be damned if the Iraqi fishermen didn’t start shouting praises to Allah as they hauled in a fish half again as big as the one they had given us. They cheered us as we left. Johnny asked/demanded that we go into the city of Tikrit, to get vegetables to cook with the fish. We spent money we’d captured, thousands of Iraqi dinar, to buy sodas, tomatoes and onions and various other cooking supplies. That afternoon we went back to the garage and found the other HET, CWO Dunn’s guys, already well-ensconced in the building. Johnny set to work, cleaning the fish and getting a fire going. Even though he pissed us off sometimes, Johnny worked for us like no other linguist I’ve ever had, going far above and beyond what was strictly required in his job description. When evening fell, we started breaking out the booze and the hookah. The officers avoided the former, but we all partook in the latter. Johnny’s fish turned out to be delicious, grilled up with the onions, tomatoes, garlic and various mysterious spices he had picked up in the market. The best seasoning was the fact it was our first cooked meal in weeks, months if you don’t include the shitty chow hall food back in Kuwait. You had to be careful of the bones, but even picking through the flaky white meat with my bare hands I felt like I was feasting. The night progressed, and most of us got a little drunk. The booze from the distillery in Baghdad was harsh beyond belief – whoever heard of ‘banana gin???’ –  but it felt good to get a buzz with other Marines in a more or less safe environment. The fish was devoured, and I finally crashed out...

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Darkness

Posted by on Apr 27, 2012 in iraq, Marine Corps, Uncategorized, war | 0 comments

Darkness in war is a combatant, and it switches sides at random. The Iraqis didn’t have night-vision equipment and we did, so in that way the night worked for us. But night-vision only lets you see if there is at least some ambient light or illumination from an infrared beam, and there are nights in Iraq so dark opening your eyes doesn’t change a thing. The IR beam from the night-vision goggles is narrow, focused, and limited to a very small area wherever it is directed. Even with technology, the Iraqi night is an uncertain friend. On one of those nights a few days after the sandstorm we bivouacked on the shoulder of the highway.  The fuel trucks had finally caught up with us and LtCol Mundy decided to have the entire battalion fuel up throughout the course of the night, so we would be ready to roll the next day. Normally we slept on the ground, digging our holes as close to the truck as we could to be sure no one drove over us. But, that night, Matt ordered us to sleep in our trucks. He didn’t care if it was in the back of the truck or on the broad hood, he just didn’t want anyone on the ground. We were annoyed with the order, and we all slept fitfully. The ground was actually more comfortable than the inside of a cramped, stuffy humvee or trying to lay on the unforgiving fiberglass hood.  The night was quiet except for the rumble of engines as vehicles, one by one, left their positions on the sides of the road and rolled up onto the highway to get fuel. And then the screams started. No gunshots, we weren’t getting attacked, but the shrieks of a man in pain. Agony. His screams cut through the night from a few trucks away and there was no way to block them out. Screams that made me whimper to hear. Fuck. I wasn’t even in direct danger at that moment, I was in a foggy, half-conscious state. Exhausted but awake with fear, the Gunny’s screams frightened me as much as enemy rockets. I never left my truck, there was nothing I or the rest of the team could do to help. We just lay there and listened to the panic in Marines’ voices as they yelled for the corpsmen. Over and over, it was “Corpsman up!” Men screamed for help. We lost the battalion executive officer in the darkness, Major Nave, crushed to death instantly. The comms gunnery sergeant sleeping next to him lost his legs. The vehicles they were sleeping between had both moved to get fuel, and a combat bulldozer coming back from the fuel trucks rolled over them. The dozer had a Marine walking in front, with night vision, but the night was just too dark. There was zero moonlight or starlight, and the infrared beam from his night vision goggles missed the sleeping Marines. I don’t remember the comms gunny’s name, but I remember liking him. He  was bald and constantly had a chaw of tobacco in his mouth, and he was always willing to help out HET 3 with our comms gear. Major Nave, though… He had been a prick to the team. Not really sure why, maybe he didn’t like outsiders or maybe he was just a prick. But,...

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Sandstorm

Posted by on Apr 20, 2012 in iraq, Marine Corps, war | 1 comment

This excerpt happened prior to the rescue of the POW’s, so it’s a little out of order. J.E. On March 25th one of the largest sandstorms in Iraqi history covered half of the country, halting our advance on Baghdad. I don’t know how it affected the Army’s progress, but the entire First Marine Division was stopped just south of Ad Diwaniyah. There’s no way to adequately describe an Iraqi sandstorm, let alone a legendary one. Me and the team were focused on interrogations, so we didn’t notice the dust roll in at first. But the sky turned red in the middle of the day, and by 1500 (3pm) we realized the weather was unusual. The dust got progressively worse, and the sky became darker and darker. The landscape, what we could see of it, looked like Mars. As far as we could tell we were on the Red Planet. The dust was so thick it dampened sound, it enveloped us like an orange snowstorm and a hush settled over us. Gone were the constant sounds of engines, Marines shouting and distant gunfire, there was just a reddish quiet. Only my labored breathing reached my ears. After we finished interrogations we escaped to the trucks, zipping up the plastic windows and trying to get out of the wind, holding cloths over our faces. For a little while I even put on my gas mask in the hope it would filter some of the dust, but it just made it harder to breathe so I took it off and wrapped a rag around my mouth and nose. As evening fell it started to rain and with the sand in the air it became so dark that even though the sun was still out there, somewhere, it was black as a Capetown hooker.  It was midnight at five in the afternoon. We drove into the night, through the rain and the darkness. I held the night-vision goggles to my face, struggling to keep the truck in the convoy, on the blacktop, and away from the truck ahead of me. The battalion finally bivouacked, setting a perimeter with their grunts and the tank company that had been assigned to Three/Five. Three/Five was, as usual, the lead unit for the offensive, there were no friendly units ahead of us, only the enemy. HET 3’s two trucks parked side by side, face the front, a couple of meters from a massive ditch.  The only Americans between us and the Iraqis were the handful of Marine Corps M1 Abrams tanks attached to Three/Five on the other side of the ditch, keeping watch. We tried to dig in that night. Tried. It was so dark the only way we could dig was if one guy looked through night vision goggles and instructed the guy swinging the pickaxe where to strike next. He was swinging blind. “A little to the left, motherfucker!” “Ok, now a little in front of where you just hit.  Now a little to the right.” “Dude, you’re just turning up the same ground. It doesn’t need to be deep, just long enough for us to lay in.” We couldn’t get the survivability holes deep that night, the ground was too hard, even though it was raining. The water just sluiced off the dry dirt,...

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