Saturday, March 26, 2005

Filler

I am, among many other things, a seat filler. A few nights ago my platoon went off patrol cycle and picked up force protection. Very rarely does one get a day off around here, and even on your supposed “days off,” you are still subject to being called upon to perform any number of mind numbing tasks. I was fortunate enough to not be on the first night of guard, giving me what I presumed would be a night off. Sleep, peaceful sleep, the kind of sleep that can only be attained by actually sleeping an entire uninterrupted night. It isn’t often that you find yourself able to sleep the entire time the sun is hiding on the other side of the globe. Most of us have forgotten what it is like to get an entire night of sleep. We survive by sleeping whenever we can, wherever we can, a nap here or a nap there, but never is it on a regular schedule.

So I’m grinning inside with pure joy at the thought of being able to pull down at least seven hours of wakeless slumber, the kind of slumber that your body is eternally grateful for. It in turn rewards your soul with a renewed vivaciousness and energy, the kind of re energized feeling that is sought after with more passion than a heroine addict seeks his next score. I feel good already, content in the fact that I will not be bothered until at least the next morning. I went to my room with this thought on my mind, sat down on my bed and began to take my boots off when I heard the most horrific sound I could possibly hear at that time. KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK! Why do people feel as though they have to knock so loud? In all my days I will never understand this phenomenon. It’s as if the gates of Heaven have been opened and someone has come to announce the second coming of Christ. But this was no knock signaling the beginning of an eternity of peace in the presence of God. This was a knock signaling something much more sinister and chaotic in the here and now on this celestial ball we call earth. “WHAT!”, I yell in like volume, making my annoyance at this intrusion known to whoever beckoned from outside my box. My door is pulled open with a yank and Sgt. H, the goofiest NCO I’ve ever had the pleasure to know, comes walking through my door without the perpetual grin that is normally plastered all over his freckled face. Not in the mood to be nice and sorry at the same time for taking my displeasure at being bothered out on him, I continue to unlace my boots, ignoring his presence. “Sgt. W. wants to talk to you about something.” Already tired of the secrecy in which I am obviously not yet privy to, I ask him what it is that my platoon Sgt. wants to talk to me about. “He didn’t say,” was his terse reply. Yeah right, I thought as I began to lace my boots back up and followed him to the door. Surely this could not be good. I knew as I was walking toward my inevitable fate that I would not be getting the peaceful slumber that I so desperately craved.

Walking down the alleyway between our boxes, I notice Sgt. W and the LT. standing outside theirs. Sgt. W, the coolest platoon Sgt. any soldier could ever hope to have, was standing there with a wry, your going to just love this shit look on his face. The LT., also known to always have a smile on his face, stood there with an apologetic look in place of his smile. Before any words were even spoken, I knew my worst fears would be realized. I would not be dreaming peaceful dreams tonight, full of visions of my wife and home. Without uttering a word, I stood before them resigned to my fate. “3rd platoon is going on that ambush mission and they need two people to fill some seats in the humvees,” Sgt. W said in a somber tone. “I tried to volunteer Sgt. D. and Sgt. H., but they said they wanted soldiers.” Aren’t they soldiers as well, I thought, as I stood there staring them down in silence. I was also thinking about the fact that neither of these two NCO’s ever had to pull guard and were therefore off whenever we had force protection. “I know you were supposed to have the night off and that it’s fucked up, but you and Ray need to be up at the C.P. at 2000hrs. for a mission briefing.” My eyes went from Sgt. W. to the LT., who meekly added, “Their platoon leader said that they just need you to sit in the back and go along for the ride.” With the realization that I am now nothing more than dead weight in the mind of 3rd platoon’s LT., I turned around without saying a word and walked back to my trailer.

Part of me wanted to go on the mission. I live for the missions, especially ones like this where there was a chance to take down some bad guys. Another part of me just wanted to relax and have one night off, knowing that it might be a long time before I get another one. Dammit, why couldn’t our platoon do the mission and the other platoon stay here in pull force protection? I didn’t want to go out on a mission with a bunch of guys that I didn’t know and didn’t trust. Nothing against them, but when you don’t know a group of people, it’s hard to put your trust in them when the shit hits the fan. I’d trained and lived with the guys in my platoon for the past year and a half. Some of them, the ones I’m closest to, had been with me the last time we were over here during the invasion. They were like my brothers. I trusted them with my life and they trusted me with theirs. It’s a good feeling to go outside the gates with people you trust and care about.

Our infantry platoon had been attached to a tank company when we first arrived in theater. We were then split up into two platoons, mixing infantry and tankers. The third platoon was pure tankers. This is who I would be going out on a mission with. At least Ray would be there with me, providing little consolation to my anger. I got dressed and headed for the mission brief at 2000. When I got up there, Ray was already sitting in a chair waiting for the briefing to begin. Sgt. W and the LT. were there too, having just gotten out of a meeting themselves. When I saw Sgt. W. I decided to break my silence and let my opinion’s on the matter be known. “Hey Sgt., why the hell are they going on this mission anyway?” “They don’t know what the hell they’re doing.” “This is our show, we were the ones that got the guy that gave up the goods.” “Why don’t they sit their happy asses on guard and let our platoon go out and do the ambush?” Sgt. W. just looked at me with a helpless smile, shrugged his shoulder’s and said, “I don’t know, but I brought up the same thing in the meeting.” “Well I guess it didn’t go over to well, did it?” “Nope, they’re still going, and you and Ray are going with them.” I looked over at Ray and we both laughed at the stupidity of the whole thing. Neither of us cared at this point because we knew that we weren’t going to ambush shit anyway. The only thing we were going to accomplish was losing an entire night worth of sleep. I looked around the room at all the strangers I would be riding along with and laughed some more. “Hey Ray, we better be on the same damn humvee.” “Why, are you scared they might shoot you in the back.” “ I wouldn’t doubt it,” I said as we both laughed some more. Sgt. W. was listening to us, so I thought I would ask him. “Hey Sgt., do you think it would be too much to ask for us to be on the same humvee?” “ I don’t think that would be a problem,” he replied.

It was almost 2000 and time for the briefing. I didn’t want to go to the stupid briefing. I already knew what we were going to do because our platoon had already been out on a recon of the ambush site. I saw the CO, 3rd platoon’s LT., and the commanders of each vehicle file into the meeting room. Ray and I looked at each other like, “Do they want us in there too, or did we just come up here for our health?” Our silent question was answered when the last person in the room slammed the door shut. Screw them, I didn’t want to go to their damn meeting anyway.
Since I’m already up at the C.P., I might as well check my email. As I was walking into the computer room, I passed Sgt. W. again. “Why aren’t you in the briefing,” he asked? “Oh I don’t know Sgt., maybe because they slammed the door before we had a chance to get in there.” He just shook his head, thinking the same thing I was thinking. Before I could walk away, Sgt. W. had some parting advice for me. “Hey Michael, don’t try to be a hero out there.” “Don’t worry Sgt., I’m just a damn seat filler, not a hero.”

As I was sitting at a computer checking my email, I overheard 3rd platoon’s LT. come in. Ray and I still didn’t know what time we were leaving. I asked him what time we were leaving, and if Ray and I were riding on the same humvee. He told me that we were leaving at 0200 but to be up there at 0030 for a ROE briefing. ROE briefing? What the hell do we need a ROE briefing for? If someone is shooting at you, you shoot back. He also nonchalantly told me that we wouldn’t be riding on the same humvee. Great, I sure do appreciate that sir.

I finished up with my email and went back to my box to try to get a few hours sleep before we had to be back up there at 0030. I set my alarm for midnight and dozed off, dreaming about being with my wife. After what seemed like a few seconds of sleep, Ray barged in the door and woke me up. “Man, you gotta get up, you were supposed to be up there twenty minutes ago.” Oops, I guess that alarm didn’t quite wake me up. Oh well, I didn’t need a ROE briefing anyway. I know what the damn ROE is, and besides, we aren’t going to have any contact anyway, not with this platoon running the show. I threw all my gear on, grabbed my weapon and headed for the C.P., not caring if anyone said anything to me about being late. When I got up to the C.P. everyone was sitting around or smoking, waiting for whatever it is we wait for before going out on a mission. Hey, I’m just a seat filler, the only thing I have to get ready is me. I had an hour to spare before we left, and thankfully nobody said anything to me about missing the ROE briefing. As I was sitting there waiting to leave someone handed me and Ray an infrared chem light. “Put this somewhere on your body in case you have to dismount the vehicle.” The IR chem lights are invisible to the naked eye but glow white when looking through our night vision goggles. Their purpose is to mark us as friendly so we wouldn’t get shot by our guys. With these guys I might want to run down to the local Wal-Mart and buy a strand of Christmas lights.

I just wanted to hurry up and leave so we could get it over with. I wasn’t excited about the mission at all. To top it off we had tourists going with us. Tourists are what I call higher ranking soldiers in our battalion who, having heard about a mission that has a higher likelihood of leading to some sort of contact, decide to go along for the ride. There have been times in the past when we have had to leave some of our guys behind so that the tourists can have a seat on one of the vehicles. They either don’t realize or don’t care that they’re taking away combat strength when they do this. You take three guys out of a squad that has trained with each other and know certain SOP’s and replace them with three people that are essentially clueless as to how we operate and you basically lose combat power. I’m not a big fan of tourists, and we had two going along with us. Of course at this point it didn’t matter to me since I didn’t know any of these guys anyway or how they operated.

It’s finally time to load up and leave. I find the vehicle I’m supposed to ride on and walk on over. As I’m about to jump in the back seat, I see one of the tourists about to climb in my seat. This tourist is one of the most high ranking soldiers in our battalion. I’m thinking that maybe I have the wrong vehicle, so I ask the commander of the vehicle, an E-6, if I am indeed on this truck. He says yeah, but when I tell him that there is someone in my seat, he looks perplexed. He walks around the other side of the vehicle and tells the tourist in a very respectful tone that he is supposed to be riding on another vehicle. Finally I have my seat that I have been made to fill.

As we are riding out of the gate the E-6 starts to go over roll over drills and other safety precautions. I already don’t like him and his tone, not to mention the fact that everyone should have these safety precautions permanently etched in their brain. No sooner were we out the gate when the E-6 starts barking orders to his driver, cussing with each command. If he hadn’t been riding in the front seat, he would have easily won the award for worst backseat driver in automotive history. I’m feeling lonely already, and I don’t like the guy in command of the vehicle I’m riding in. To my right, in the backseat with me, is our XO, a nice enough guy and someone that I’ve actually talked to on a couple of occasions. I found some solace in the fact that I at least somewhat knew one guy in my vehicle. The driver and the gunner were both strangers that I didn’t know and didn’t really trust. Oh well, hopefully they know their job. I looked up at the gunner who was sitting on the strap that’s linked from one side of the turret to the other. All that could be seen of his body was from his chest down. I was envious of his position in the vehicle. I should’ve been the one sitting where he was. I wondered if he was alert and looking out the space underneath the gun shield for any potential threats.

We weren’t a mile outside of the gate before another humvee up ahead radioed back to say that his steering was jacked up. When he got to higher speeds, he didn’t have any control over the steering. The CO, riding in the second vehicle, told the convoy to turn around and head back to the FOB. We were escorting this vehicle back to the FOB where we would leave it and it’s occupants. Guess which vehicle my buddy Ray was on? Yep, the one going back to the FOB. That lucky bastard was getting out of going on the mission. A deeper level of loneliness crept over me as I realized I was now the only infantrymen going out on this mission. Why couldn’t they just grab one of the guys from that vehicle and replace him with me? I guess that would have taken too much time, even though we had already wasted 30 minutes escorting the humvee back to the FOB. I was now going out on this mission for no reason at all.

There’s not much to do when you’re speeding along the highway at night. All you can do is look out your window with your NVG’s on and keep a look out. I had about an hour or so to reflect and think about things. I thought about how this ride wasn’t much different from driving along a deserted highway in some rural part of the U.S. There were sporadic lights glowing outside some of the homes that were dotting the landscape along the highway. As I looked through the front windshield, I could see the center lines of the highway shooting underneath us as we road directly over them. I could also see the familiar red glow of the tail lights belonging to the humvee in front of us. Mostly my eyes were looking at something entirely different than what is possible to see back home. On this dark stretch of highway, as I looked out the 4 inch thick glass of my door window, my eyes were automatically drawn upward toward the heavens. And heavenly was the sight that captured my attention. Stars, infinite in number, shining bright and defined, enraptured me with their refusal to be overcome by the intense darkness devouring the night sky. Their light, having traveled millions of light years, had ended its dark journey at this place and time for my eyes to witness. I was thankful for their effort. Witnessing this glorious site made me feel insignificant in their presence. Amidst the ugliness of the mortal affairs surrounding me on this terrestrial plane, I was able to look upon the heavens and steal a glimpse of God. God sees me, and I am no longer alone.

Having been reminded of the presence of God, this mission, trivial as it may be, becomes meaningful. It is a small part of the whole. The whole is important, and no matter how stupid I think this mission is or its outcome, it is an important part of a bigger vision. Armed with a better attitude, I continue staring out my window as we make our way north. As we got closer to the objective, we pulled over to the side of the road and went black. Our pace became slower as the drivers lowered their NVGs to their eyes. Ten minutes later I could see a small shack on the left side of the road. I’d seen this same shack a couple of days before in broad daylight. At that time there was a man sitting on its front door step with smoke rising from his mouth like a spirit. In his hand was a tube that was connected to a three foot tall bong sitting upright beside him. This bong, or pipe, looked to be made of glass, with bright colors and ornaments decorating every inch. The man with the pipe, appearing more lifeless with each cloud of smoke that escaped his lips, was content in living vicariously through others as they sped onward through life.

This shack was significant in the fact that it marked our turn off. We took a left onto the road with another humvee as the two lead vehicles continued up the highway. Once on the road, we turned around to face the highway. A ridge running parallel to the road kept us hidden from our targets and anyone that might be traveling along the highway during curfew hours. A couple of guys from one of the vehicles on the highway got out to set up an O.P. In the dark of night, in this relatively treeless flat area of land, the headlights of any approaching vehicles can be seen from miles away. It was time to sit and wait on our quarry. Besides getting out to relieve ourselves, the next couple of hours we sat in our vehicle’s trying to stay awake. The chilly night air and an empty stomach aided me in my struggle to stay awake. I was already dealing with an enormous sleep deficit and this night had only added to my fatigue.

The stillness and quiet was only broken by the occasional squawking of the radio. Random unimportant chatter interrupted the silence with scratchy voices. We sat and we sat some more, our trap empty of any prey. The eastern sky began to glow before the sun could make its appearance over the horizon. As if this glow announced the end of the curfew, trucks of all sizes appeared out of nowhere on the highway. The radio came to life with busy conversation as the lookouts were asked again and again for a description. My expectations were let down with every big diesel engine I could hear roaring in the distance. This familiar sound repeatedly revealed to me that these vehicles, whose headlights could be seen from a great distance, were nothing more than the semi-trucks that we were here to protect. As each one passed in front of us my disappointment began to grow. I knew that we would not catch our target on this day. My mind became anxious with the thought of leaving and returning to our FOB. I still had force protection later in the day, and I was already thinking of the food and sleep that would sustain me for the next sleepless night.

Once the sun had overcome the last remnants of any darkness, the concealment of our position was taken away. When it was obvious to all that our targets would not show up we finally began to head back. The ride back was torturous in that I struggled to stay awake. This was the first time I had sat down inside the humvee and the comfort of this seat compared to my usual one made it even harder to stay awake. At one point I noticed that the driver and I were the only ones awake. I strained to keep my head upright and became mad when I caught myself dozing a couple of times. When we got closer to the city, I could see people busily starting their new day. I was envious of their energy at this early hour. Their day had just begun and mine had started the previous night and wouldn’t end until the next day. I became overwhelmed with the thought of food as we finally reached the gates of our FOB.

We pulled in the gates and over to the clearing barrels where we all got out to clear our weapons. After clearing my weapon I walked to the humvee and told the driver to go ahead. Still feeling like a stranger, I was ready to distance myself from them. I walked back to my box alone where I dropped my gear and headed for the chow hall. The warmth of the building and the hot food in my stomach made me feel good, but I was still exhausted and couldn’t wait to stretch out on my bed. Stepping into my box, I took off all my gear, removed my boots, and stripped down to my boxers and t-shirt. I stretched out on my bed and began to fall asleep when I began to hear a noise in my dreams. Knock Knock Knock.

5 Comments:

Blogger DivaAngel said...

This is wonderful writing! I am amased at your humor and inspired to write.

I remember 4, no 5 wars.
Nasty things, but love your direct, matter of fact humor. Now I am a fan.

Off to worship the JavaGods and imbibe some caffiene.
Watch your 6.

Thanks!

12:55 PM  
Blogger Rob Gutkowski said...

Reading your posts brings it all back, but doesn't give me much to look forward to.

Stay Safe, I hope you get some sleep.

9:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You wrote a book...how tired can you really be?

6:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

http://www.estripes.com/article.asp?section=104&article=28092

Does this article sound familiar?

I've enjoyed your posts immensely.

-Pamela

8:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i peed all over myself..and pooped in my pants lastnight..if feels good you guys try it..it's fun..and when i do this naughty and nasty thing..make sure your woman spanks you good..and wash you up..and give u a big blow job...

2:44 PM  

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