Sandstorm

Apr 20, 2012 by

This excerpt happened prior to the rescue of the POW’s, so it’s a little out of order.

J.E.

The commander's AMTRAK

The commander’s AMTRAK

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, turning the first half inch to mud while leaving the rest ice cold and hard. Hard and unforgiving, like an ex-girlfriend you cheated on. The pickaxe bounced off the icy earth. We could barely make a dent in it. Since real holes were out of the question most of us ended up sleeping in the trucks. As I was the driver, Matt put me to bed first, he had me sleep on a makeshift platform across the bed of the humvee. It was a metal bed, nothing more than a mesh of cold wire meant to hold cargo that we had jerry-rigged into a narrow shelf across the back of the truck, just behind the driver’s seat.

That night more than anything I wanted to get out of my chem suit. It was oppressive, I had been wearing it for over a week and I had to get it off, I had to get the boots off. We had gone days without removing our chemsuits, without removing our boots. Matt’s feet looked like a horror movie, toenails warped and flaking off and fungus growing. My own feet weren’t that bad, but they needed air. We were only allowed to take off one boot at a time, since you didn’t want to be caught with both boots off if a chemical attack happened. We wore the rubber chemsuit boots over our regular combat boots, and when I took the chem boot off I poured out a half cup of sweat. The sweat had leaked through the leather combat boot and the socks that had turned into bacteria farms. My feet looked like they had been soaked in the East River for a few days, bloated, stinking and soaked with dirty salt water. Feet are all-important in combat, if you can’t walk you’re not able to fight. We took care of our feet as well as we could, but with those chemsuit rubber boots on, the sweat and the stank built up.

It took a while but I finally got out of my chemsuit. Got out of my boots. I stank, but at least it was my own stink, in my own truck in my own sleeping bag. I laid there on that icy metal mesh, tired. ‘Tired’ isn’t the word. I was drained, I had no energy. It was only about a week  into the war but we had been going non-stop. I had been driving for days straight, with no rest. We had pushed hard to the north, toward Baghdad. I crawled into my sleeping bag with a grateful sigh of relief, I put my head down on a metal, wire-laced pillow with a smile of happiness.

Happiness that was incredibly short-lived. Enemy rifle fire began to sound. Not intense, it was probing. Trying to find where the weaknesses were in the battalion’s perimeter. But the Iraqi fire was random, and I was exposed. I was about six feet off the ground in my metal bed in the back of my humvee. With no armor. With no clothes except the Marine Corps green silky running shorts and the thin green t-shirt we all wore under the chemsuits. AK-47 rounds flew, I could hear the snap of bullets as they broke the sound barrier over my head.

The grunts of Three/Five returned fire into the darkness, which was almost as dangerous as the Iraqi incoming fire. If some jackass fired from deep within our own lines he could kill a fellow Marine. I scrambled for my rifle, and found it in the jumble of gear in the back of my truck. But I couldn’t find my clothes. I couldn’t find my boots. I was scared as shit, I had been in that quasi-sleep halfway between consciousness and coma when the Iraqis decided to start probing the battalion’s lines. Those rounds had snapped me out of my almost-sleep and my mind was a blank. All I could think of was getting my boots on, but I couldn’t find them in the darkness of the truck and all the gear that was piled around me. So… I said, ‘fuck it.’ I was up high and exposed. There was no way I wanted to catch a bullet with my ass six feet in the air. I kept thinking how shitty it would be to die looking for my boots.

All of which is pretty funny in retrospect. I must have looked ridiculous.

But at the time… I was frustrated and scared. I jumped from the back of my truck into the cold, hard, muddy blackness. I was wearing only my rifle and my green silk running shorts. Barefoot, shivering, backed up against the side of my truck and basically naked. A single pair of silkies and a t-shirt is not protection against an Iraqi sand/rain storm, let alone Iraqi bullets.

My condition wasn’t really the main issue at that moment, though. HET 3 had a position on the ditch that defended the battalion headquarters. If the Iraqis broke through the tank company and the grunts manning the perimeter we were the only Marines defending the headquarters. And to make shit worse, we then heard over the radio that our tanks were out of fuel, meaning they couldn’t maneuver. They could fire their main guns, but if the Iraqi tanks assaulted our lines they would be sitting ducks. We would all be sitting ducks. Without our tanks we didn’t have a lot in the way of heavy weapons, just a few heavy machine guns and the main guns on the AMTRAKS (20mm cannons). Nothing that could defeat the Iraqi tanks, some of which were fairly modern Soviet T-72’s.

We crouched there, in the mud. In the rain. It sleeted down. Against their many protests, we put Johnny and Ra’ad underneath the trucks, we hadn’t given them weapons yet, and they were defenseless. Also, they had no combat training, so it felt more dangerous to give them weapons than to keep them unarmed. We stared at the ditch a few meters in front of us, waiting for an Iraqi horde to wave across us.

Staring is tough in the pitch black. You see shit that isn’t there. And when you’re exhausted from the road, you start hallucinating. I kept seeing Iraqis pop up from the ditch, though none ever did. After about thirty minutes, Nate and Matt noticed I was shivering with my rifle next to my truck’s front wheel well. They were annoyed I was awake. I had almost no clothes on and I was sitting, shivering, in Iraqi mud, but I still had to drive my half of the team the next day. They wanted me rested and alert, not standing watch. In a lull in fire, they had the team find my clothes, and boots, from the back of my truck, and I went back to bed.

The Iraqi tanks never made a concerted assault. They backed off during the night, giving our tanks time to refuel. I slept a few hours, and got back in the driver’s seat when it came time to continue the advance. The lesson I learned from that night was to never, ever, take my boots off. From then on, I didn’t take my boots off again until I was fully confident there wasn’t the possibility of imminent enemy fire, which wasn’t for another few weeks. My feet were mutilated with sweat and rot.

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1 Comment

  1. James

    I bet there were many moments during your time there (and the countless other times you went to that country and others) that you can reflect on the things we all take for granted here in the States but unlike many people in the States you can now appreciate those things in a way that is unique to those you have gone without (like having a change of clothes, dry boots, a comfortable place to sleep)

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