With all the soldiers overseas, nothing seems to be gained, but there is so much loss…
Lost & Found
The arid heat from the helicopter’s propellers is pushed against my face violently. If it weren’t for the protection of the goggles on my face, I think I’d be picking sand boogers from my eyes for weeks to come. My rucksack rests uncomfortably on my lap, crushing my ball sack against my thigh. I shift to ease the pain as my legs begin to tingle from my feet to my knees. It subsides, but only momentarily. As I glance across the way, over the duffle bags stacked in between, I notice the other soldiers. Some are acquaintances, but most of them are my friends.
We’ve trained for this exact situation over the last year. Some would say, “We’re ready for it.” I would say, “We’re not.” The butterflies of anticipation and the wonderment of unknown bounce around inside my head and stomach. As I glance around at the helicopter’s other passengers, I know I’m not the only one feeling this way. My eyesight vibrates as I strain to focus on random faces. Their eyes are hidden behind dusty goggles. Some of the soldiers lose themselves in thought, their eyes closed, impossible to sleep on a Chinook with all of the noise. Not to mention the crushed groins and uncomfortable metal frames digging into a person’s quadriceps.
We begin to make our decent. As the vehicle turns toward our destination, I can see the ground below from the gunner’s door, the only lights are those from the city below. We fly beyond them across a long, empty field. The darkness invades my sights. Tiny, green lights affixed to the choppers interior walls are the only things allowing me to see. The forward operating base’s ground illumination suddenly begins to invade the helicopter’s belly.
Dust begins to fly from the ground as the propellers push it upward. Bits of the debris flies into my mouth, though it’s closed, it still finds its way inside. My teeth instantly feel grimy with sand and grit from the Iraqi earth. I try to seal them together more firmly. I didn’t think I’d need a cravat over my face for the flight, I think to myself. When there is a dusty situation involved, I’d normally have a cravat over my mouth and nose. It made me look like a bandit. The one from the Skoal can always pops into my head. The humorous thought is quickly interrupted.
“Grab your rucksack and two duffle bags! I don’t care if they’re your bags or not! Get the shit and get out! This bird has to be back in the air in less than 2 minutes!” The First Sergeant yells as loudly as he possibly can as he competes with the bird. We immediately obey. We are robots.
I stand, my legs feel like rubber as the blood rushes back into them. There is no time for recuperation. I grab a shoulder strap on my rucksack and swing it onto my back. I wait for the soldiers in front of me to get theirs in place and then grab the two duffle bags. Colorful thoughts of what First Sergeant will say if we don’t get our asses in gear run through my head over and over as I wait impatiently.
Finally, though it was only a few seconds, it feels like an eternity, the line is in motion. I grab two straps attached to the bags and make my way to the ramp at the rear of the helicopter. The weight of my interceptor body armor, IBA, along with all of my pouches full of ammunition, and the M16A4 slung over my shoulder, makes it nearly impossible to move quickly. The knee and elbow pads First Sergeant insists we wear are riding at my ankles and forearms now, useless. I am quick, but careful not to lose my footing as I travel down the smooth, metal ramp and out onto the gravel. I keep my head low though I’m fairly certain the propellers are much too high to make contact with my Kevlar laden head. My goggles cloud over even more with a combination of perspiration and the humidity and I strain against my load so I can run a finger across their plastic front. I shakily succeed and continue toward the others with my load of baggage. They skirt alongside a shoddy looking trailer located near the landing zone. There is a narrow path between a wall of sandbags and the building. I squeeze in behind them and struggle with the bags in the process. The heat starts to build inside my helmet. Sweat begins to flow from my hairline onto my forehead and, just when I begin to get the hang of maneuvering the path it opens to a parking lot.
We set the duffle bags neatly into a pile. The ends are marked with the last four of our social security numbers and our initials for “easy” identification. Some of the guys manage to get their bags before they end up in the pile. Their battle buddies know them well enough to recognize theirs for them. Others start their search in the dark. It takes a few minutes before everyone is ready. We gather in a formation as First Sergeant makes an announcement. We’re going to “tent city” for the night. Tent city is exactly what it sounds like, a city of tents. I’m really not excited about the news. From what we’ve heard, Iraq is well-known for its mortar attacks. Luckily, our time in tent city is minimal and there are no mortars, then.
The booms and crashes come full-force and loudly as I jump from my bed in an old Iraqi soldier barracks that the United States Army had claimed for its own during the initial invasion of Iraq. It takes a while in getting used to, but after a few months, the mortar attacks become just another event. I chalk them up as one of life’s many experiences. Sometimes the mortar attacks are quickly followed by Howitzer guns firing in retaliation and counter-fire. Those guns are placed nearby. I don’t know which I’d rather hear, the mortars or our own guns returning fire.
During one of the election times, we are sent out to assume a stay in a building which was once occupied by another unit within the city. They had abandoned it a couple weeks prior, upon arrival that fact was evident. The entire place had been gutted of all fixtures and anything the local populace could put to use in their own homes had been stolen.
As my team and I wander around the building investigating and looking for our room, there is an explosion that rocks the entire place. Luckily, I’m still in my gear. We all go on high alert and run for the stairs leading to the rooftop. The sky is clear, but it is nighttime and the illumination is obstructed by some abandoned buildings nearby. A .50 caliber machine gun is blasting away from the M113 positioned below next to the building. An M240B is firing like crazy from the bunker on the rooftop. We run to the edges of the roof and our weapons point in the direction of the 240’s tracer rounds. My team leader asks the gunner for a situation report. All he knows is that a rocket propelled grenade slammed against the side of the building and he immediately began to fire in the direction of origin.
We quickly run back downstairs and secure our night vision, affix it to our Kevlar’s, and set out to find the attacker. Much to our dismay, our hearts beating like kettle drums in our chests, we search every nearby building, stumble over several piles of brick, and trip into many holes, but our invader has eluded us. What an interesting evening.
With their former president still in hiding, the Iraqi nationals would stop at nothing for a buck. We established “pay sites” to encourage the force-retired ex-military members from trying to kill us for monetary Al Qaida bribes. The lines are blocks upon blocks of people, mostly men. With the noontime sun beating down on our heavily armored bodies, we watch, wait, and maintain order as the men get their American dollars. At times things get rowdy, we use sledgehammers and Maddox handles to convince people to get back in line.
Upon completion of the day’s payouts, we go to the local bank where the money is stored between sessions. We pull up next to the building, after dodging power lines that are sagging way too low, the ramp on the M113 drops and we get out. The metal door allowing, or protecting, the building from outside access creeks open angrily on its hinges. One by one, we file into the guarded perimeter. Our guard begins to drop almost the second the door is latched shut. Our Kevlar’s come off along with our body armor. Iraqi’s know how to construct a building that can withstand a lot of small arms and mortar fire.
We enter the cement office building as the locals secure the money in the vault. The bank personnel are kind enough to have a room cleared out specifically for us, the nighttime guard force. After a long day of heat, standing, and annoyance, a few members of the team decide to bed down until their guard shift comes. We each take an hour apiece in the gun positions on the rooftop, there are two of them. The rest of us go downstairs and begin our negotiations. We really want something to drink and I’m not referring to water. There are a couple of civilian police officers who stay in the building with us. A few dollars for the booze and a little tip money tacked on and we have ourselves a party.
The beer arrives, cans of course, and we place them into a water cooler. The cooler is made of stainless steel and contains water which pours out from a spigot below. There is a hinged door on top where the water is stored and, with a built-in refrigeration unit, it’s the perfect place for the beer cans to float and get cold, not to mention hide. We know we’re wrong, but sometimes an ice cold beer after a day in 130-140 degree weather seems justified even if it’s illegal.
We gather on the rooftop with our beers in our hands. Our squad leader sleeps soundly inside, oblivious to our shenanigans. We sit in a circle on old, rusty buckets and folding chairs as our buddies keep watch in their gun positions. We tell story after story about back home and, despite the circumstances, mold friendships through hardships that will never be lost. When my turn for guard comes, I’m a bit on the tipsy side, fall asleep, and pull way more than my hour, possibly two or three. Thankfully, the night remains calm and quiet.
I am on mid-tour leave in Germany when they finally find Saddam, but the celebratory fire, from what I am told, was quite intense.
There is one day that sticks out in my mind much more than any of the rest. The day is as hot as any other Iraqi summer day. The temperatures are in the hundreds. We prepare ourselves for a regular patrol. We’ve only been in country for a few months, but it seems like an eternity. The Humvee’s are warming up, we are loading up, and our patrol is about to commence. There is one soldier among us who hasn’t been outside the camp in our time here and he’s tickled pink to “finally be doing his job.” He’s been stuck in an office position answering radios and writing activity logs for the entire duration and finally managed to convince the Sergeant Major that it’s his turn to go out. He’s bored and has had enough of sitting around.
PFC Thomas is his name. He is an infantryman heart and soul. There is nothing he’d rather be doing than what he’s doing right now. Thomas isn’t much of a people person. He lacks the common knowledge to communicate properly, so he keeps to himself most of the time. As he adjusts the rounds in the box secured to the side of the .50 caliber’s gun mount inside the truck’s turret. The cravat he wears over his mouth and nose, in order to protect himself from the dust, hides his smile. The laugh lines around his eyes are the only telltale sign of what lies beneath the cloth. His eyes twinkle. He readies the harness below his butt by tightening it securely and making sure his feet are correctly placed on the center console.
Everyone gets into their prospective positions within the trucks and we roll out. As we drive out of the entrance to the camp, we all lock and load a round into the chamber of our weapons and make sure they are on “safe.” The clunk of the .50 cal is something that, if you’ve ever heard it, you’ll never forget as the bulky weapon is charged loudly. Thomas is ready as well. He scans his sector excitedly as we make our way into our section of the city.
The sun’s heat radiates brilliantly. The garbage laden streets emit a nasty stench. The breeze carries the odor into the trucks’ open windows as we drive along. Nobody says anything because it’s something we’ve all come to expect. It’s old news.
Today our mission, like many days before, is to make a link-up with the local city police and conduct a presence patrol. We have to remind the locals that we’re still here and allow them to talk to us when necessary. We make ourselves readily available often, though hardly ever conveniently so. The police are waiting off the side of the road where they usually do. As we drive by, they interweave themselves into our vehicular formation. We begin our patrol deeper inside the city.
I watch out my window as we drive along the streets. The buildings stand tall beside us, dirty and gray. A tall mosque, the top is weathered-copper green, stands alone amongst the surrounding homes as it reaches for the heavens above. Children play various games in empty lots, their shoeless feet caked with the dusty earth. Their innocent faces are crusted with snot and boogers. To be born into something like this, as Americans, we are so spoiled. An elderly woman stops our convoy with tears and violent sobbing as she steps out in front of our slow moving vehicle.
Our Commander gets out of the vehicle after a steady and suspicious observation around the area’s buildings. Our assigned interpreter gets out with him. They cautiously approach the elderly woman. A black niqab is veiling everything except for her eyes. Her flesh is weathered and dark. The wrinkles are deep. Her rough, callused toes poke from beneath her dress as a gentle breeze pushes the light fabric. The driver and I get out of the Humvee as Thomas continues scanning the area for threats down the barrel of the machine gun. We each face outward with our doors open. The police walk lazily about as if annoyed by our talking to a sobbing old woman, their AK47s slung and being used as armrests.
A shot rings out from behind me, a single shot. It takes a millisecond for us to react the way they taught us. We duck behind the closest cover available. For me it’s the hood of the Humvee. I orient the barrel over the truck in the direction of the shot’s origin. I scan wildly, but deliberately. There is nobody in range. I continue to look for a few more seconds as I check rooftops, still nothing.
I catch a sight from the corner of my left eye, it’s Thomas. His body is quivering and blood is pouring from his forehead. I jump quickly into the vehicle from the door below and grab his body. I yell for help and the driver comes. We lower him down into the truck. I reach into his first aid pouch and grab his dressing. I pull the wrapper off and press the cotton against the bullet’s entry point. The blood continues to flow as Thomas’ eyes flutter. A pool of red liquid forms around his head and begins to soak into my pant leg. His body tenses one last time and then relaxes, forever.
We return to the camp with shock in our minds and loss in our hearts. The tears remain concealed in our sockets. The Chaplain meets our trucks as we pull them next to the building. The blood stains coat several areas next to me. I try to ignore them by looking out the window. His face stares back at me over and over again in my head. We silently exit our vehicles and the Chaplain gathers us for a moment of prayer. Some tears find their way to the surface, but many of us wait until we can sit alone in the dark with a cigarette in our mouths. Our minds lost in silent mourning and the recollection of tragedy. Those who managed to stifle their tears couldn’t contain themselves as the bagpipes played “Amazing Grace” at his memorial service. He is our first casualty and he won’t be our last. The nightmares continue to invade our sleepless nights as his excited eyes leap from the darkness of the shadows for years to lifetimes.