Saturday, July 30, 2005

First Night In Ramadi

We arrived after dark this evening after traveling for two days from Warhorse. We were up the past two nights, moving under the cover of darkness, riding in our Bradley which rode atop a HETT. By this time the Bradley is a radiating oven, drenching my clothes with sweat which now cling to my skin and attract every dust and dirt particle in the air. We got off the Brad and were welcomed by the guys that have been here for a couple of days. They made the trip in Blackhawks, and reuniting with them after just a few days felt good for some reason, like we were home because all of us were together again. Immediately the horror stories begin, the tales growing taller now that we’ve actually arrived. They were the same ones we’ve heard before, only now they take on a reality that our prior location didn’t allow.

Dark, unable to see the outpost clearly, I could only make out the shapes of dark buildings. Outside the outpost there are two and three story houses with lights glowing mockingly from within, welcome home. Gunfire can be heard in the distance, another nameless faceless fight between us and them. When the gunfire ceased, another sound, more haunting than the staccato sound of the guns, filled my ears. It was the eerie wailing of prayer songs emanating from the numerous mosques in the area. It almost sounded like a taunt, the mournful, unintelligible muttering of thousands of forsaken souls forever held captive in hell, calling out to us for help and seeking our presence with them. It’s an awful sound, made worse by the quiet stillness of night.

We parked our Bradley’s in front of the building that we’ll be living in temporarily. All bags and equipment were unloaded, taken silently inside the concertina wire and sat in the stone courtyard. A few of the guys came up and greeted us as if we had been separated for more than the few days it took to make the trip, most of them offering a sarcastic comment about our wonderful new home.

Stories abound, about the Marines in our area, the terrorist cells, their tactics, the casualties, how we’re at the end of the line, the last point, the bridge in Apocalypse Now. I can see people losing their mind in this place. Death and carnage were on grand display just a few feet from our building in the form of a burned out, half its original size, hull of a Bradley. The turret has collapsed in upon itself, only the barrel distinguishable in the dark. It was used by the unit we’ve come here to replace and had been burned and destroyed by an IED. The crew escaped, but some of the dismounts were cut down by a machine gun while trying to escape the inferno.

IEDs, VBIEDs, more foot patrols, anti-personnel mines, incoming mortar rounds, actually hearing them fired from close by but having time to find cover. There was even one rumor that some enterprising assholes use ice to set off the mortars, the melting ice giving them time to get away unnoticed. Marines apparently receiving more contact than army, and the army receives contact on a regular basis. All of these rumors and stories spread quickly from the unit we’re replacing to us, infecting us whether they’re true or not. I noticed some people are already a little on edge.

I entered one of the rooms of the temporary building that may become our permanent home, and the first thing I noticed is the hundreds of pages of magazines covering the wall. The pictures are all of women in varying states of undress but no nudity. Same in another room in which I’m staying but not as many. I found a little space for a cot in the room I’m sharing with fourteen or fifteen other guys, at least until the other unit leaves and we can spread out. I’m unfortunate enough to be sleeping inches from one of the most disagreeable guys in all the army. He talks incessantly about nothing of interest to anyone while rubbing his fingers in between his dirty toes. I can smell his feet, as well as the MRE he’s eating with fingers that were just recently between his toes.

Earlier, while I was standing in our little courtyard and looking toward the back of the building, I noticed the familiar white tubes sticking up out of the ground. In the dark they look like mortar tubes, but then I’m reminded of the piss tubes we used in the Kuwaiti desert before the start of the war. Who knows how much of the tube is buried or how deep they descend into the earth below, a conduit of filth leading to a river of urine flowing through hell. While standing over them and relieving yourself, you can actually hear a faint echo from below. The wailing music may as well be coming from these tubes.

From this position I can look to my left and see the plywood outhouse that houses three stalls in which we dispose of our other waste. Trap doors behind the stalls can be opened to remove the receptacles of our last meal. One of these receptacles now sits alone in an area behind the outhouse, the flames providing a bright glowing light that enables me to see the tube over which I now stand. Diesel, and the sickly sweet smell of burning shit, took me back more than two years ago when I stood over one just like it in Kuwait, stirring the witches brew with a forever tainted shovel. That smell, mixed with diesel, will always be etched in my olfactory memory. There is no other smell quite like it, nor should there be.

After situating my cot and sitting down to write, the lights were turned off, the glow of laptop screens and portable DVD players illuminating only the faces of those captivated by their contents, creating the illusion of bodyless faces staring into the dark void. We’ve been here just a few days and already there are tv’s set up with Playstations attached. What would today’s soldiers do in their off time without laptops, tv’s, DVD players, and video games? A couple of screens are turned so that I can see them from my cot. Each movie is recognizable, both by the actors and their pathetic performance, and by the ridiculous content of the movies themselves. GI Jane and Natural Born Killers, two wholesome, well made movies if you think Demi Moore doing one armed pushups is attractive, or you’re a psycho who enjoys watching the “creative genius” of Oliver Stone and the poor acting of Woody Harrelson. Extreme violence and pseudo military action are apparently the order of the day. I wonder which of the two main characters would triumph if engaged in a duel, Demi, the SEAL wannabe, or Woody, the maniacal murdering psycho. Then I remembered they were married in another movie, leaving me hoping for a draw in which both participants die.

My cot is situated in one of the back corners of the room. I deliberately sought out this space so that I would only have to sleep inches away from one person and not two. The tiled wall my cot is pressed against offers me more company in the form of pictures cut out of magazines. One is of Pamela Anderson in underwear and boots. The other three are of a girl scrubbing the floor in her underwear, a guy flying through the air on his snowboard, and another girl holding her breasts. The glowing light from the laptops and DVD players brightens and darkens as the images move across the screen, alternately lighting and darkening different areas of the images on the wall beside me, having the same effect of the flames I saw earlier dancing on top of a bucket of shit.

On the wall at the other end of the room, opposite of where I now sit, there are six names written on the wall with RIP above them.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005


I haven’t posted anything in the last month or so for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that we’ve been busy moving. We, meaning my Battalion, have moved from the somewhat friendly confines of Baquba to the “restive” city of Ramadi. Restive is the term I most often see in the news describing this beautiful place. What the hell does restive mean anyway? Actually, I know what it means, but I just don’t think the term accurately describes this place. I looked it up in a thesaurus, curious as to what other words are synonymous with it. I found edgy, fidgety, high-strung, jittery, jumpy, nervous, nervy, overstrung, uneasy, uptight, in suspense, wound up, and aroused. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve been here for two weeks and haven’t found anything remotely arousing about Ramadi. I think shitty would be a more appropriate description of this city, since it’s probably the biggest shit hole in Iraq, maybe in all the known universe. “Two high profile targets were captured today in the shitty city of Ramadi.....” That just sounds better than restive. Oh and what a paradise it is, this bastion of civility. Now I know why so many terrorists seem to want to reside here. It offers them an earthly version of the paradise they think awaits them once they blow themselves up. I can’t vouch for the number of virgins they have available to them here, but even in the heart of this rather populous city I still see quite a few goats roaming the streets, so I’m guessing they act the part of the earthly virgins.

Anyway, I’m getting off subject here. Back to why I haven’t posted anything in so long. Some people, and they know who they are, know exactly why I haven’t written anything lately. The main reason was opsec. Operational security, especially when an entire unit is preparing to move, is paramount. We first started hearing rumors of our impending fate with paradise about a month ago. So I couldn’t talk about moving here, nor would I want to, although I have a feeling people knew anyway. It’s hard to hide things from the interpreters, and if the terps know, then everyone in Iraq probably knew. The other reason is that my mind was already here in Ramadi from the time the rumors started spreading like a communicable disease. When your mind is in one place, and you can’t talk about that place, it’s kind of hard to come up with anything interesting to talk about, not that anything I talk about is interesting, but you get my point. As I’ve mentioned before, things in Baquba were getting boring, making it even harder to come up with anything worthwhile to write about. I could only write about the monotony of Baquba so many times before I put myself to sleep. There was also the little problem of time. We’ve been so busy preparing to move and actually moving that I’ve had little time to do anything else. You’d be amazed, or maybe not, at how hard it is to move a battalion to a place like Ramadi. The security situation here isn’t as bad as the news makes it out to be, but it’s still not really a place you should plan to take your family on vacation anytime soon, which makes moving a battalion size element and all its equipment even more difficult.

So that’s what I’ve been up to. I felt bad when I got emails from some very nice people who were worried about my well being. Don’t worry, I’m doing fine amidst the beautiful chaos that is Ramadi. Don’t let my sarcasm fool you. I am excited to be here, even if we are living in what can only be described as a shit hole. My wife wouldn’t want me to use that term, but I think she understands the point I’m trying to get across. The security situation isn’t what we bitch about here, it’s the living conditions, and I’ll get to that later. As far as the security situation goes, meaning the amount of paradise seekers/goat lovers in this city, there seem to be plenty of them, certainly a lot more than in our previous locale. I felt a little of that old familiar anxiety creeping in when I first heard we were coming here. I don’t know what you’d call it, anxiety, anxiousness, maybe even a little fear, whatever it is you feel when you know the shit can hit the fan in an instant, that nothing is guaranteed. I think a lot of these guys would say the same thing if they were honest with themselves, especially after all the horror stories we’d heard and read about. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, since it makes you become more focused, less complacent, and more alert to the surroundings. Once your outside the gates it’s a different story. That feeling of anxiousness is replaced by a feeling of peaceful contentment that comes from knowing your buddies are there with you. That’s one of the few cool things about the army, the camaraderie and trust that develops between a group of guys that care about each other and who are putting up with all the same crap that comes from being away from home and in a shit hole like Ramadi. It also helps that I believe that God is ultimately in control of everything, even what goes on in this chaotic hell of a paradise, and that whatever happens, happens for a reason.

In some demented way that anxiety is also what made me want to come here and out of the comfort zone that was Baquba. That boredom and comfort was nice because it came with the security of knowing you’re in a relatively safe place, which in turn pretty much guarantees a safe return home, something that all of us want in the end. When all is said and done, all we really want to do is go home to our wives, children, family, friends, and all the good things we take for granted in the land of the USA. But I didn’t sign up for this gig and get stop-lossed for over a year past my enlistment to be bored and comfortable, rotting away for another six months trying to retain a little sanity in the mountain of bullshit that was Baquba. We have purpose now. It’s good to have a purpose, a mission. As far as I’m concerned the mission in Baquba has pretty much been accomplished, something that you’ll rarely hear about in the news. Not that there isn’t still work to be done there, but it’s just not the kind of work I signed up for.

There is plenty of work to be done here though. There are full blown cut your head off terrorists running around this place, which is why I was looking forward to coming here. I can’t explain why, it’s just the way it is. I like to think we’re kind of on the front lines again, with the enemy right around the corner. Some people like to argue that we’ve brought terrorism to this country simply by our presence here. I hope so. Where would you rather terrorists be, roaming the streets of Ramadi or roaming the streets of main street USA? The difference is that we have lots of big guns and people that enjoy using them, especially if they’re really pissed off about eating the crap they serve us here, being served portions that would leave a small bird hungry, living on top of each other, having to burn our shit, or pissing in a tube stuck in the ground that takes a certain amount of talent and precision to actually make it in the tube.

There’s no better motivation for wanting to go out and get some bad guys like the sweet barbecue like smell of burning shit and diesel wafting across our camp. You think that’s bad, just imagine what those tubes look like. Not everyone is a good shot, especially when it’s dark and you can’t see where you’re aiming. It doesn’t help to know that there are people living in luxury at places like LSA Anaconda, in Balad and Camp Cooke, in Taji. If you know anyone living in either of those places, you certainly shouldn’t worry about their living conditions. We stopped through both of them when we escorted trucks back and forth between here and Baquba. There we were, uniforms all dirty and wet from sweat, smelling like exhaust among other things, walking into the dining halls of Anaconda and Cooke, and getting stares from all the soldiers and civilians as if we were crashing their nice little party. Both dining halls looked like five star restaurants, complete with made to order meals, ice cream bars, and basically every kind of food or drink product you can think of. One night when we were stuck at Anaconda they were serving prime rib. I had to remind myself I was in Iraq. Maybe it was because I hadn’t eaten anything decent in a while, but that prime rib was one of the best meals I’d ever eaten. Most of the other guys said the same. Our dining hall, if that’s what you want to call it, resembles an abandoned building unfit for the homeless. There is no air conditioner to be found. I have no doubt that we burn more calories through the process of eating than the amount of calories we are consuming with what little we have to eat. It’s so hot in there that sweat drips off the foreheads of the guys serving us. There is a little ventilation provided by two holes in the roof from a couple of mortar rounds that some asshole must have thought would make for some interesting dinner conversation. One evening they ran out of plates and utensils. Some guys just ate their meal out of cups, squeezing mash potatoes into their mouth. I ate off a plate someone had already used and found a spoon sitting on a table with some traces of food still on it. There are no refrigerators full of every drink imaginable. There are a couple of freezers in there that are usually empty. It’s like winning the lottery if you open one up to find a hot gatorade. We can’t even get any stale loaves of bread with our dinner chow, nor have we had any fruit since we got here. Ray said he was going to get someone to send him some seeds so we could start a garden to grow our own fruit and vegetables. We ought to get some of our own livestock as well, so we can eat something other than the fetid fish they like to serve us every other day. I swear they must’ve found an abandoned container in the middle of the desert full of fish whose shelf life is about to exceed the six year mark.

Anaconda has a multimillion dollar MWR building with all kinds of entertainment. One big room is full of 30 inch plasma tv’s where you can check out and play video games. They have plasma tv’s, video games, volleyball leagues, pools, libraries, fast food restaurants, coffee shops, flushable toilets, nice showers, movie theaters, beauty salons, and a PX. We have barrels of burning shit and piss tubes but no bread, go figure. The most pressing concern most of the guys(and girls) there will face during their entire deployment is whether they should go see a movie or attend salsa night. Salsa night, God help us. They actually had fliers posted all around advertising salsa night. I wondered if they may have had some actual salsa at salsa night that I could steal to put on our bland food here. It might go well with the green eggs we’re served for breakfast. It’s funny how the army tries to discourage, actually prohibit sex over here and yet they seem to make every effort to get the opposite sexes together. The PX does their part too, selling condoms and lingerie in close proximity to one another. This is the kind of lingerie that a hooker in Vegas wouldn’t be caught dead in.

Some of us made the trip over here riding in Bradleys which were riding on big army trucks, poking our heads out of the turret to watch for any bad guys. I spent the first night here in a room with about fifteen other people, our cot’s inches from each other. I got a cot in the back corner next to a guy that talks incessantly about nothing and who seemed to enjoy rubbing his fingers in between his toes. He later ate an MRE with the same hands. I’m not sure which smell was worse, the smell of his feet, or the nausea inducing smell of a warm MRE. You have to just laugh about the whole thing. I laid down and realized that I had more company next to me in the form of pictures cut out of magazines and taped on the tile walls. One was of Pamela Anderson in her underwear and boots. Another was of a girl in her underwear scrubbing a floor with a sponge. Thank goodness she thought to put on some rubber gloves before doing her chores. There was also a picture of a snow boarder flying through the air. I couldn’t help thinking that maybe he’d caught that much air after launching himself off of one of Pamela’s silicone filled breasts. Hopefully he won’t land on the sudsy floor surrounding the cleaning girl. These and other pictures were the handiwork or “art” left behind by the unit we replaced. The room next door, the one that is now my home for the next six months, is adorned with like pictures on one entire wall and half of another. All of these images are courtesy of SI swimsuit issue, Maxim, FHM, Stuff, and other enlightening reading material. Our room, where nine of us now live, has white tile going up half way to the ceiling. We have no idea if this room used to be some sort of shower or garage. The tiles did help in determining how much real estate we could declare as our sovereign space. The four of us on my side of the room were fortunate to have twelve tiles of space. The other side, where five guys are sleeping, had slightly less. My existence is now measured in tiles.

I was here for two days before going on another convoy mission, this time to escort empty trucks back to Baquba to pick up more equipment to be brought here. It was actually kind of fun, except that we always had to travel at night. Those civilian truckers aren’t real keen on traveling around the Baghdad area during the day, so I didn’t get to see much other than the lights of the big city. We also passed by Abu Graib prison, where prisoners live better than we do. The buildings, from what I could see, were far nicer than the ones we’re staying in. At night, when you traveling down a highway not much different from any interstate back home, driving through the outskirts of a big city like Baghdad, you feel like your back home and that the city of lights is just any other city dotting the American landscape. But then I’d smell something burning, see the big blue dome of a mosque, guardrails destroyed by IED’s, tanks rumbling down the road, or piles of automobile wreckage and know that this was no ordinary city back in America.

We actually drove through an area I recognized from my last little trip to Baghdad, the one that originated back in March of 2003. There’s an area of intertwining overpasses that I distinctly remembered sitting under for a couple of hours before the end of the war. We’d been fighting in and around this area of Baghdad and paused there to reorganize. I can remember shaving there for the first time in about a week. All of our Bradleys were parked there, well not all, because one platoon was still out fighting, and one of their Brads got hit by an RPG and rolled up a little later. There was also some fighting while we were in the position, a couple of Bradleys unloading on some enemy dismounts that foolishly tried to get close. Not far from there, on another overpass, I watched Sgt. B’s Brad get hit by an RPG. I also recognized a huge mosque about a mile away and a few other buildings. I felt like a tourist of my own past, traveling back in time to a war zone, except for the war in our case was still going on and we were once again active participants.

This convoy mission, which was supposed to last two days, stretched into four, with us stopping at different U.S. bases along the way. We’d arrive in the early dawn hours and have to wait around all day for the cover of night to continue our travels. Our 3rd ID patches stood out in those bases that were on this side of Baghdad. People would stop to ask us what unit we were in and became concerned when we told them. “Where are you going?”, they would ask. “Combat outpost,” we would reply. At this point they would almost become visually shaken. They’d get this grave look on their face and tell us how sorry they were. “I’m so sorry, if there is anything, and I mean anything you need, just let us know.” As if anything they could give us would have made us feel better after having to listen to their depressing comments. A few guys, upon hearing of our destination and unable to mince words, just came right out and told us we were fucked. And a good day to you too. We’d just look at each other and laugh, making fun of the pricks without them even knowing it. We could have used it as our ticket to do anything we wanted and probably should have. “Hey soldier, why are you stealing all those supplies?” “Well First Sergeant, we’re going to Combat Outpost.” “Damn son, that sucks, you need anything else?” “You got any bread?”