The Babylonian Caravan

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a typical convoy in Iraq

Submitted: April 19, 2013

A A A | A A A

Submitted: April 19, 2013








“The Babylonian Caravan”











James A. Bretney

Home address:  HSC 3/10 SFG (A) FCCO 80913

Deployed Address: FOB CENTRAL ELM SUPCEN APO AE 09342

Phone Number: (719) 213 – 8212 (cell) 226 8418

(home) 524 1519 (work)




Author’s Note

I have changed the names and places to protect the privacy of others and the operational security of our forces here in Iraq.  But the events contained here are true as best as I can tell them.

1. No Report


“Good morning, I am Lieutenant Sondervan, the convoy commander.  I will be giving you your convoy brief.”  The lanky, dirty blonde twenty-something with an oblong face, Nordic last name and dry monotone officially began the convoy brief.  He pointed to his first Power Point slide behind him on a fifty inch flat screen television which displayed the load out plan – diagram illustrating the vehicle formation. 


The load plan consisted of black rectangles and boxes for vehicles and red circles for people.  He announced each name in his roll call, “Samuels, Lopez, Finnegan, Fitzgerald, Van Dame, Portz . . .” 


The convoy consisted of three up-armored HUMVEES and two flatbed trucks in between.  The convoy from start to finish would take up most of daylight.  We would travel MSR Tampa[1] south from Baghdad through Marine checkpoints to Hillah, the provincial capitol and home of the ancient city of Babylon.


Sondervan pointed to his black and white photographs outlined in crimson with caption boxes of car bombs, mortar attacks and sniper fire taken from a God’s eye point of view.  “From north of vicinity and away from our direction of travel, we had a mortar attack at . . .” He went on with each slide.  “There was a VBIED[2] at checkpoint north of the IP [3] Academy. It killed two local nationals including the driver and injured two others.” 


Sondervan spoke without animation.His briefs vacillated between the serious and the routine.  This vacillation eased and yet made his listeners edgy.


The information he had been putting out had been pretty light from what we had been use to.  There is always the unknown that comes with each convoy like the butterflies in your stomach just before you jump out of an airplane, before you give a speech, before you get into a fight, before you steal something or before you communicate desire to a beautiful woman, you never know what you are going to get.  You never know if this is going to be the one time where you have to shot your weapon or use your medical training. 


“And from Hillah, our final destination, there is no report of enemy activity in the past week.” 


Merlin, the convoy NCOIC[4]  got up to speak, “I just want to add to the LT’s threat brief,” Merlin, a fit compact man in his late twenties, wearing E-6[5] rank on his collar, a regulation mustache and Ken doll hair began, “Remember there are wide fields of fire throughout our route along MSR Tampa.  But there are also 200 meter[6] hills where the enemy can take pop shots at you, so keep your head on a swivel.”


The LT[7] was the convoy commander, he was in charge and responsible but Merlin ran the convoy – nothing happened on the convoy without his permission.


“No one is going to question you if you take the shot.  Just be mindful of the secondary effects of the bullets.  We are going through some school zones and I think today is their market day.”


Merlin too had a canned brief that he gave as well, “The vehicle speed is 50 to 55 mph. We will leave one hour earlier.  It was pretty congested last time so we might miss the traffic.”


Merlin went through his back briefs in the same perfunctory manner deviating little from Sondervan’s lead.  For “falling out of formations” he went to his driver – Vo, for “accidents and break downs” he went to the convoy mechanic – Samuels, for “a down gunner” he went to the turret gunner – Fitzgerald who finished his answer with the following: “Lay suppressive fire and assault through.”  Merlin always asks the same people what to do during the back briefs.


Merlin went over the convoy call signs, CT and PT freqs[8] for the Sheriff net and the MEDEVAC.[9]  He went over the ROE[10] one more time emphasizing a graduated response.  The first thing you do is give a hand and arm signal which was the culturally accepted hand an arm signal for “stop”, then warning shots at the road, then into the vehicle and finally into the drivers and passengers.  The culturally accepted hand an arm signal for stop is lifting your hand palm facing inward extending all your fingers and thumb while keeping no space in between your fingers and placing the tips of your fingers on your thumb as if you where holding up an imaginary feather.  It’s a derivative of the F word which means roughly “Stop the F-word car!”


“We are rolling out of here with twenty-two pax[11] in six vehicles.”  Merlin closed before he turned it over to the War Shaman, Evangelical Protestant Chaplain Kevin Mateer.


2.  Roll Out

Merlin said I would have the most comfortable seat on the convoy when I asked him where I was on the load out plan.  He positioned me right behind the driver in the trail vehicle – not as a driver, not a TC[12] or a gunner but a passenger – a passenger with no responsibilities and no control if anything should happen.


The night before I was reading my Bible looking for consolation after my recent divorce when I cam across verses 8 through 9 from Psalms 137 entitled Sorrow and Hope in Exile:


“Fair Babylon, you destroyer

Happy those who pay you back

The evil you have done to us!

Happy those who seize your children

And smash them against a rock.”


The children of Babylon waved enthusiastically at their destroyers who rolled passed in a steel plated caravan behind 50 caliber machine guns gloved fingers outside the trigger wells.  They pointed at their mouths saying “Give me” and “Mister!”  From behind a bullet proof port, I saw the smiles and joy of the children unchanged since liberation near two years old. 


The enemy was not above using these innocents as bait us in order turn the population against us.  We feared killing these innocents more than we did the killing or the being killed.  A child had been killed by oncoming traffic when he ran out to wave at an American convoy.  Did we not have children we left behind?


I use to think that being a father and husband were a common man’s pleasures that rated distant second to fabulous wealth and distinguished notoriety.  Only in America do children fill their heads with such extravagant thoughts.  Being neither rich nor famous, I took mean comfort in that most of the men on this convoy were fathers and husbands, some of them much younger than me.


The driver, a lean, blonde, mountain man of Montana, Joe Samuels walked with cocky slouch born from a hard day’s work and wore a hard bitten look in his eyes.  Samuels ran the Motor Pool as the NCOIC and earned the commander’s praise and favor in that position.  He would act as the convoy mechanic in the event of a breakdown or in the aftermath of an attack.  In all official communications, he came off as hokey and his responses canned, “I’m just looking after my guys.”  Offline, he liked off color jokes and smoked cigarettes.  He is thirty seven years old and husband and father of three.


Merlin was the TC for the lead vehicle.  Lieutenant Sondervan was the TC for the middle gun truck – the command vehicle.  And Sergeant Lopez was the TC for the trail vehicle.


Lopez walked with a lanky gait and a pretty face.  In the early days of his marriage, he had a wild side.  But after the last year, things came to a head and Lopez grew up.  Since that time, he got promoted after spending ten years below the rank of E-4.[13]


Lopez was the NCOIC for the S & T[14] section filling an E-7 slot.  He is in his late twenties though he looks much younger.  He is husband and father of four, two from his first marriage who live with him and two from his current wife.  My ex-wife held his newborn baby in her arms just before we deployed for the liberation.


In the gun turret stood an athletic, gregarious, “Leave It Beaver” twenty two year old native of Columbine Colorado, “Fitz” Fitzgerald, a sunny Specialist from the Chemical Detachment.  Since there is no Chemical mission here, “Fitz”, serves as one of the veteran hajji watchers on Van Dame’s Facilities Management mission.He has a young wife at home.


The two tail gunners, avid body builders, Mike Portz and Van Dame sat in the back bench of the gun truck exchanging jokes and being silly.I didn’t know Mike very well; he just got to the unit.  He keeps to himself mostly.


Van Dame and I go back since September 11th.  A Van Dam dubbed thus because he looked like the tanned stenciled abs film star.  Van Dame, ever the ladies man, moonlights as the owner and operator of a rather lucrative adult entertainment business.  He is currently juggling two women of exquisite looks neither of which are faithful to him.  Despite all this, Van Dame is a faithful friend who is generous to a fault, easily endears himself to the command and is professional and thorough.  Van Dame pays child support to four children.





3. MSR Tampa


A convoy headed north crisscrossed us on the opposite highway, to which Samuels said of their security posture, “Is there anyone in the turrets at all?  And you wonder why these guys get hit.”  Joe Samuels piped up over the internal convoy net.  He said again through my headset, “Does anyone know that hooga chakah song from the commercial with the dancing baby?”


“What about it?”  I asked.


“It’s stuck in my head,” Samuels said.


“Which version,” I asked


“What do you mean?”  He asked back.


“Well there are two versions of the song.  There’s the BJ Thomas version of the song which is kind of folksy and there’s the Steppenwolf, no.”  I corrected myself, “It’s Buffalo Springfield version of the song from Reservoir Dogs Soundtrack.”


“I don’t know,” Samuels said, “which ever one the dancing baby is on.”



I wish there was something new and different I can say about the Iraqi landscape as most of my readers have never been to the Middle East.  I have compared it many times to the desert wastes of the Mojave and the Sonora desert.  Perhaps it is because it looks so familiar that I bear no malice toward the land of this people.  The mirages, the white salt and alkali beds skirting the road, the tumbleweed, all of it forms a brown and green patchwork that taps into childhood memory, a database of familiarity that evokes pleasure and ease.  Besides, this convoy run has in the past and would probably be long and boring. 


Though I am armed, I am behind lots of armor and I could not fire out even if I could.  The best I could do is man the gun in case “Fitz” went down or render first aid to other shooters.


“Sergeant Samuels,” I speak into the mike.




“Do you know that highway that runs from Seattle to LA, the I Five?”


“Yeah,” He hesitates.


“That overpass reminds me of an overpass right outside of Sacramento?”  I reply.


“I don’t know why that overpass looks special. It looks like every other overpass we’ve seen since we got here.”  Samuels said so matter of fact to which I had no reply.  Nonetheless, it reminded me of rural Sacramento.


“Going right,” Samuels shouted and “Fitz” echoed the command back to Van Dame and Mike who didn’t have headsets.  Samuels maneuvered the HUMVEE from the left lane into the right lane under the overpass.  The rear gunners, Mike and Van Dame, pointed their M4[15]’s up on the overpass.  Most of the overpasses had huge chain linked fences on both sides of the lanes, so no one could through something down onto the cars passing underneath.


I saw a massive white and red radio tower that still stood even though the fourth leg of the tower had been missing completely mangled perhaps during the invasion.We passed shepherds with their flock.


A military convoy passed by us to which, Lopez said, “I like the HET[16]’s better than I like the FMTV’s.” 


“I don’t like all that electrical crap they put in the FMTV.”  Samuels declared


“You can go so much faster in HET or a deuce and half.”  Lopez added, “Do you know Highway 85? The one from Atlanta to Savannah?”


“I’ve been on it once or twice.”


“Well,” Lopez paused underneath his thick Puerto Rican accent, “we were going 85 miles per hour on that highway in a HET.  All of us got speeding tickets – one HUMVEE and eight HET’s.  Forty five was the convoy speed and fifty five was the catch up speed.  But the lieutenant fell asleep.  The lead vehicle got up to 85 and I was just following suit.  I was just following suit.”


It was then I thought how often I excuse my own bad behavior under the direction or sanction of some authority.


4. Through the Desert on a Horse with No Name


We passed a field where Arab husbandmen placed plastic green house tents over their crops.  We passed irrigated plains and livestock - grazing mangy sheep and underweight Holsteins.  We passed an Iraqi mansion with a pillared recessed corner and dish-network satellite dish mounted on the roof.  A few swarthy local nationals in long sleeve western attire congregated around an auto shop fixing their cars.  Behind the auto shop and mansion, a dilapidated mosque turret stood piercing the blue skies above.  We passed by the burned out hulk of an Abrams[17].


“There’s a box[18] in the middle of the road.”  Merlin reported back.  The convoy swerved as they passed the box individually.


I checked my GPS[19] as I usually mark key terrain or points of interest in case I get into a Blackhawk Down situation and have to E and E[20] my way back to base.I was not getting a signal.  I needed three satellites which would come up as three black bars but none were coming up.  Was it the electronics in the HUMVEE that blocked the ultra high data waves from coming into my receiver or was it the heavy armor itself?  I passed my GPS to Fitzgerald to see if I could get a signal from the turret.


“There’s dead animal on the road.”  Merlin said over the net.


It’s probably a dog, I thought.  Then I thought of an anecdote Raphael Patai recounted in his book The Arab Mind. Christian and Muslim Arabs relate to dogs differently.  Christians keep them as pets where as Muslims consider them an unclean animal.  Yet both of them feed the dogs.


We passed by an Army Engineer unit operated a steam roller flattening out the road.  We passed by a refurbished pedestrian bridge over an irrigation canal.


“I use to operate that piece of equipment when I was in the reserves for twenty two months,” Joe Samuels said, “I operated it once, then it broke and I waited for twenty two months for parts to come in and that’s when I decided I would go active.”


“What are you going to do when you get out?”  I asked as I knew he was coming up on twenty years.


“I have no idea. But I know what I am not going to do.  I am not going to fix other people’s broken shit.”


David O. Russell directed the Desert Storm flick “Three Kings.” He filmed it in Casa Grande, Arizona.  How sage that directorial choice of location proved as I had been on the I-10[21] over a hundred times and it looked identical with minor differences to MSR Tampa from scrub brush, tumbleweed, the pools water left on the wadis to evaporate and even the castle turrets of the mason homes of the desert dwellers reflect back to southwestern architecture as the Spaniards of Andalusia one desert to another.  The more plentiful palm trees, the freshly cut reed fields and oil refineries belching black plumes on the horizon provided the only clues to the region’s idiosyncrasies.


“Overpass,” Samuels announced over the net, “Going left.”  Samuels guided the HUMVEE from the right hand lane into the overpass and exiting into the left hand lane.


Another overpass had a Bradley[22] perched on top, where Samuels announced, “Since there’s friendlies on the bridge I am just going straight through.” 


Since I arrived in theatre, things appeared better than when I had left a couple months after the April insurgency.Signs of the additional troops in country, from the new tents pitched, to brand new vehicles marshaled on formerly empty ground, and longer lines in the chow halls meant fewer soldiers killed on live TV, fewer and fewer mortar attacks on the compound, and fast reaction times from the QRF[23].


Then I thought of pressure for more troops and the stop loss.[24] I thought about my own plans of getting out and going to law school.  Would I be able to?  Would I be stuck serving an indeterminate commitment in position in the organization that didn’t favor my talents or abilities?


Merlin made another announcement on the convoy net, “Going to 55 mph.”


Someone made a homoerotic joke about Lopez’s womanish beauty as we passed through two checkpoints with Bradleys on top of the overpasses.  We moved from the Army check points guarded by the troopers of the First Cav[25] to the Marine checkpoints who wore the tan digitized camouflage.  The checkpoints manned by both US and Iraqi Forces operate like a plumbing system.  If you have an incident, you can isolate it and take care of it. 


The Iraqis wore U.S. style Kevlar helmets, LBE[26]’s, and the Desert Storm chocolate chip cookie uniforms.  Last year the ING[27] was called the ICDC[28].The ING looked like real soldiers in their Kevlar helmets rather than underpaid rabble that staffed the city gates.  The Army has invested a lot of money and time in these Iraqis since the April uprising where legions of untrained militia disintegrated into the insurgency.  As the uniform reflects the training of the soldier, it’s hard to believe that wear and appearance of the uniform deters or conversely can invite an attack, but it is that important.


“You know I wore that uniform during Desert Storm.”  Joe Samuels said, “The Chocolate Chip Cookie.”  He paused and added, “Three of the last five birthdays I have spent over here.”


How would you feel, I thought, if we lost a war to an enemy and ten years later we would lose another war and then have to wear the uniform of the victorious occupying enemy?


 “We are supposed to get the uniforms that the Marines are getting.”  Lopez added.


Samuels asked, “Those digitized ones?”


“Yeah except they are going to be green and light blue,” Lopez said.


“Like that one that General Shoomaker[29] was wearing when he visited us?” Samuels said, “I think it looks gay.”


Some more time passed.


“So I guess they have taken Howard Stern off the air completely - radio and TV?”  Joe Samuels said plainly.


Lopez replied, “Yeah.”


“You know who Mary Melons is?”  Samuels asked


“Yeah,” Lopez replied.


“I caught my son with a DVD of hers in his bedroom,” Samuels snickered lightly.


“How old is your son?”  Lopez asked.


“17,” Samuels responded, “I guess it’s better than catching him with gay porn.”


“Yeah,” Lopez nodded.


LT Sondervan interrupted to state that the checkpoint guards reported mortar impacts dead ahead.


“Just keep rolling.”  Merlin responded.


“I didn’t know it was mortar day.” Joe Samuels said on the internal net, “Next time I’ll have to check my calendar.”


“I didn’t get the memo.”  Lopez said.


“You see if you did, then you could have faxed it to me.” 


“I didn’t have a cover page.”  Lopez said.


“I didn’t have a need to know,” Samuels said.


After a long pause Merlin announced, “Going to 55 mph.”


On the other side of the highway, we passed by a fifty car gas line.  For every one new Japanese Nissan Maxima or Honda Civic there must have been nine beat up Datsuns, old Chevy pickups from the seventies,  and crappy hatchbacks converted into taxis all stood in line one right after another first in first out.  And still the little kids waved to us from their cars.





5. IP Academy U.S.M.C.


Noon, a Myoplex protein bar wrapper fluttered in front of me from gust of wind that came from the back of the truck as we neared the gates of Camp Charlie – one of the Marine outposts – that served as an IP Academy. 


USMC and 1st MEF had been stenciled on the concrete Alaska barriers and bunkers as we weaved through the traffic inside the tent city. Hesco[30] barriers walled off the shower and toilet trailers.  The gasoline guzzling generators, attended by small Filipino men in pick up trucks, from behind sound proof brick walled enclosures, rumbled loudly.  Sri Lankan coolies, in blue jumpsuits with burned dark skin, filled up the water tanks throughout the camp. Nepalese chow slingers emptied the trash.  And Dravidian garbage men loaded it up in trucks.


Joe Samuels pointed to the one cute Marine chic carrying an M-16 checking ID’s[31] into the chow hall.[32]


Frankly, I had another priority on my mind.  I had a headache.  I, also, had to urinate.  As soon as we stopped and I finished, we were on our way out the gate.  The convoy left a flatbed truck there which we would pick up later.  With no possibility of eating at the chow hall, Samuels passed out the MRE[33]’s to those who wanted them and I took one label “Ham Jambalaya.” 


I was noshing on mine the Ranger way eating one item at a time starting with the desert item first – the oatmeal cookie.  I did this in case something happened I did not want to be caught unable to react to a situation if I had everything laid out before me like a picnic.  After eating the cookie, eating the oily old cheese spread, I poured everything all the condiments – salt, pepper, Tabasco sauce, the sugar packet, the lemon lime beverage mix into x and anything I could to make the jambalaya taste better.  I left the wheat bread uneaten.  So I ended up eating my MRE picnic style anyway.  ‘Complacency kills,’ so they say.  I would add that ‘Complacency kills time.’


I did notice that the Police also looked sharp more like real cops.  The cops wore Safari land holsters and tan jumpsuits looking more like our elite soldiers.  I saw the scorpion emblazon on their gun trucks written in Arabic and I don’t read Arabic.  But I got the idea that they were IP SWAT.


5. Red State Genies


The word Genie comes from the Arabic word Jinn.  The Jinni, plural form of Jinn, roughly translates to supernatural beings, demons, devils, and angels.  Their existence pre-dates Islam and makes up the vast body of legend, lore and superstition that Islam has built its house upon.  The Jinni reside in the empty barren wastes certainly the land beyond this highway would be the dwelling place of the Jinni. 


Samuels gave thanks and reproved himself for complaining about his living quarters after reflecting on the living conditions of the Marines.  I reminded everyone that our current living conditions were wanting compared to last deployment.  “How can you say that?”  Samuels confronted me, “You have your own room.”  Apparently, this was a sore point for the men in the convoy as everyone else who had roommates.


“Samuels was picking up one of his mechanics – Hope – perhaps he would be putting him in my room,” I pondered.


“Going left under the underpass,” Samuels announced over the internal net.


I adjusted the Peltor headset to my helmet for comfort.  I thought about using my pesh[34] rag to provide some lining in the inside of my helmet but decided against it.  I had worn that pesh rag on every convoy since the liberation and was very superstitious against losing it in a gust of wind along old highway one.


“2 ½ clicks to Hillah,” Merlin announced over the convoy net.


We passed by a pool of water surrounded by a sod grass floor and groves of palm trees.  It looked like a golf course had it been in the States.


“We were fighting on insurgency which is something like fighting a ghost.”  I thought to myself as I contemplated as to what I would write in my daily dispatch - a group email sent to family and friends. 


But before my mind could return to an exorcism, or models of success and case studies in failure in putting down insurgencies, it wandered back to the Bible Study from the night before.  One of the participants said, “Discipline gives definition in your life as it determines what you allow in versus what you put out.” 


I contrasted his statement to the way I lived my life just settling for what I can get without even trying because trying risks failure.  I avoided failure to a degree but I admitted I was in a state of depressed loneliness.


Another undersized shepherd tended his flock.  Hunger had stunted his growth and yet it enhanced mine.  I thought about how the different peoples of the world had strange dietary customs.  The Hindus don’t eat cows.  We don’t eat dogs.  The Muslims don’t eat pigs.  The Jews don’t eat shellfish.  The Mormons don’t use tobacco or drink caffeine.  Christians offer one another alcohol to get to know each other where the Muslims offer tea and in other places, narcotics.


I thought about how Merlin will tolerate the idiosyncrasies of any of his combat arms Pezos but is absolutely intolerant of the nuances of the support personnel who make it possible for him and his fellow brothers to prosecute their mission.  He is even more deferential to support persons outside his own unit, foreign nationals and civilian interpreters than he was to people in his own company.



Joe Samuels was asking us who knew the lyrics to the Papa Roach song “Getting Away With Murder” when we turned off MSR Tampa.  We headed west over a country road that revealed a lusher landscape held together by smaller plots of land.  The children waved to us.  If the insurgency was divided into an electoral college, this was definitely red state country.  These kids, the smell of cow dung, their mothers in their bright red dresses and their fathers undersized from a poor diet and an onerous dictator, all waving from their doorsteps, lining up the street side in a salutatory palisade.Everyone here loved Dubya more than we did.


Merlin, over the net, called out and we passed by a donkey cart.  As we and the driver smiled, laughed and waved, we could not help but remember the unclassified IED briefing where by Al Quesada is now reduced to donkey cart suicide bombing.  Talk about People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals!


The good news, quietly happening, is making the Iraq story boring.  The Iraq story is slowly disappearing as the Kosovo and Bosnia story has disappeared into babysitting with guns.


Joe Samuels gathered the unopened packets of Mare’s and tossed the out the window at the kids.  What he was doing violated the Convoy SOP[35] and therefore in Merlin’s view jeopardized the security of the convoy and future American convoys passing through.  But Merlin can pound sand.


As we neared an IP checkpoint, I thought of the Koreans – how they, the thirty somethings of my generation, wanted the Americans out of their country.  Perhaps they were tired of the sex trade going on in their country as the Filipinos were when we closed our Bases there.  Or perhaps they soaked up the Euro trash Anti-Americanism trendy amongst the fat, dumb and happy born in conditions where other people provide your own security. 


A couple of years ago, a little girl got run over by an American convoy sparking violent protests in spite of Kim Jong Mentally Ill’s nuclear saber rattling.  The kids – the Iraqi red state kids - love us now.  When they grow up, they will change this country, I am sure.  Perhaps they will still love us until the day they die.  But some day, they like the Koreans will get sick of us and ask us to leave.


As the life of Theseus[36] teaches the curse of democracy is her ingratitude.  If fame is fickle, and glory fades, the gluttonous sloths whom wealth has deformed and who have been dimmed by navel gazing ask, ‘What have you done for me lately?’


I yawned and my eyes grew heavy.  I didn’t want to go to sleep.  Mostly because I didn’t want to give Merlin the satisfaction even though there was nothing I could do in the event of an attack.


Then I heard some yelling, “Stop!”  Then I heard a pack, pack, pack.  The popping sound I recognized and when I turned around I saw Portz and Van Dame with their M4’s drawn and I yelled, “Shot!”


“Lopez, call it up!  We just killed some people – maybe one possible enemy KIA.[37]”  I yelled.


The first couple shots had been warning shots[38] as per our ROE.  Fitzgerald called down from the turret that a white van “got too close to our convoy.”  The three of the four male passengers exited the vehicle according to Van Dame and Portz holding themselves.  The driver didn’t make it out.


The IP’s looked past us at the carnage left behind.  They had a disappointed, curious and yet confused look in their eyes.  If their sense of personal justice had been offended, they kept it concealed.  We rolled by them.  I didn’t see anything.


The child missing his leg on crutches still waved and gave us the thumbs up.  A lot of children clogged up the streets that day.  Sondervan said we would pass right through the school zone and Merlin said that today was market day.  The children gave us the thumbs up.  The traffic got really heavy.


We pulled into the base.  American soldiers closed the oversized steel gates.  Thank God we rolled into the base when we did as the shootings made us all edgy.


Portz and Van Dame reacted to the questions from the guys from within the convoy with the nonchalance of an athlete responding to how it felt to hit a home run.  They took the edge off by joking amongst themselves about their experience characterizing it as ‘fun in vehicles’ and ‘space invaders.’  I kept my distance but my eye out for Van Dame for the psychological impact of killing is not known.  I was just concerned for my friend.


Sondervan and Merlin began their questioning with chips on their shoulder - so much for not questioning someone for taking the shot if that person feels threatened. 


I stayed away from Merlin.  He’s the kind of guy that will smile in your face but tell those in charge who jacked up you are when you’re not around.  I had some business with the Commo[39] NCOIC. 


I greeted a friend of mine, Redd, who was working the Intel[40] job there.  The rumor around the barracks back in the rear was that Redd was queer as three dollar bill.  Redd was not the most stable guy, but he was a good guy, who did damn good work.  We delivered his mail and I told him what happened and pointed to where it happened on a map.  Redd seemed perplexed as the area had been relatively quiet for several weeks now.


I found the Commo NCOIC and we talked shop.  I dropped off two radios and he gave me six.  We exchanged handshakes and paperwork and we were off - but not without him passing along some Russian NOD[41]s.


The NODS were a curious device and looked ten to fifteen years behind our latest NVD[42].  I wondered where I would get parts for this thing.


I looked for my gloves around my comfortable seat.  I had a penchant for losing them but before I could get on with my search, the convoy was off again for our last stop.  I placed my headset over my head and could hear the idling engine modulate the static over the net.


6. Camry Base


MAXIM[43] magazine did a story on Al Qaim of Al Anbar province – the wild, wild west and heartland of the Al Qaeda insurgency in Iraq.  The soldiers stationed there at the time, the Third Armored Cavalry from Fort Carson, Colorado, described Al Qaim as “Mos Eisley” the desert outpost that featured in Star Wars of 1979 and the Star Wars of 1997.  The sci-fi residents of Mos Eisely slithered on the floor, hung from the rafters, hovered above table tops.  Some were robots rusted and held together with bailing wire; others were reptilian like man-size salamanders with snouts, tusks and breast implants.  It was a place where disputes were settled with the loser being shot in the street or where he stood in the bar, deals and double deals where made over a toxic admixture and some galactic depravity was being performed with the best jazz quartet this side of the cosmos performed their version of satin doll.


Hillah’s streets, every town in Iraq for that matter from Baghdad to Tikrit, from Mosul to Samara had that Mos Eisely feel.  There was an element in the bazaars an Oriental romanticism reminiscent of Sir Lawrence (El Aa‘rense) of Arabia.  But guns were up even with the kids waving.


Lucky for us Camry Base was close by. I did a double take as most of the ING that guarded the gates with AK-47[44]’s.  But instead the Base had been guarded by desert camouflaged brown buddies carrying M-16’s.  Then I saw the blue and white flags on their shoulders and Mayan smiles on their faces.  Camry base was guarded by ING, but it was reinforced with El Salvadoran Infantry.  The flags of Poland and Latvia also flew over their trailers and antennae masts.  Their elite soldiers, with skin as pale as the Nordic north, strutted by in their PT uniforms. 


One of the benefits of being in the coalition of the willing was real world experience in counter-insurgency, occupational and logistical operations that one could not get in a NATO exercise.  The example that comes to mind of the success of loaning your armies out to get experience was how Hitler and Mussolini sent their armies and air forces out to Franco’s aid against the communists and anarchists backed by Stalin.


I too had to jump out and conduct some business.  I dropped off a radio and got the signature on the chain of custody paperwork filled out.  I solicited for business and one of my customers told me that what he needed was some ammunition.  When I brought this to Sondervan’s attention, Sondervan responded, “So what are you doing ammo now?”


I stayed in the vehicle until everyone else finished up.  We refilled our vehicles by the fuel point passing the small forest green golf cart sized troop trucks the Polish brought with them.


A middle aged blonde woman ran past us in her Army PT’s, to which Samuels pointed to me and joked, “There’s a woman for you.”


Lopez added, “Do you know that all the women on Camp Victory have been relocated into one central location where there are gates, barbed wire, guards, curfew and lighting?”


I thought of the wanted poster that CID posted in one of the Camp Victory chow halls.  The wanted poster featured an artist rendering of a scowling overweight but muscular bald black man wanted for indecent exposure and sexual assault.  Sexual assault appeared to be a botched seduction rather than rape.


“At Hip Hop Night in Balad, one girl got gang banged on the dance floor,” Lopez added.


“Do you think it was consensual or coerced?”  I asked.


“I think if it was coerced we would have all heard about it by now,” Lopez added.


“That sex segregation camp just does not sound right,” I said, “When we get back, let’s ask Montez as he goes over to Victory all the time.”



“Guys who come up with crap like that, are usually the guys that aren’t getting laid,” Van Dame said in disgust.


“Those guys who aren’t getting laid are rather protective of their women,” I said nonetheless.


7.  It’s Your Call

We were done.  All we had to do was pick up a flatbed truck we left at Camp Charlie and we could go home.  It was rather late in the day.  With the sun to our backs, we made our way back toward the Tampa road to Baghdad.  I ate some Pringles potato chips to stay awake.  Most people dipped smokeless tobacco to stay awake, others when they could, smoked.  I ate potato chips.  Until I heard some yelling from the back of the truck, I slid off my Peltor headset to see what was going on.  “They’re trying to arrest us!”  I heard from back there.


“Three vehicles trailing us!  Coming in fast!”  I said, “Call it up Lopez!” 


I could see the blue and red sirens blared from the tops of the white pick up trucks that Portz and Van Dame were yelling at.  We passed through a checkpoint where Fitzgerald said, “I got those guards to stop those vehicles.”


I relented, but Van Dame and Portz were yelling again and when I peaked.  I saw the vehicles coming though farther away but gaining ground fast.


“They’re still coming!  Lopez did you call it up?”  I asked.


“They got crew served weapons!”  Portz yelled back.  He busted out the AT-4[45], armed it and slung it over his shoulder.  He looked Fitzgerald in the eye and pointed to him, “If I yell shot, you duck down from the turret.”


“Uh huh,” Fitzgerald replied.


Samuels said, he thought people were overreacting.  I thought about this for a split second, as the only guys allowed with crew served weapons were our guys.  Then I thought about the many times, our guys were playing for the other side, “Did you call it up yet?”  I asked Lopez.


“He said, ‘It’s Your Call.’”


Portz poked his head inside the vehicle and said, “I want you drive up to that vehicle,” he pointed to the command gun truck, “Have him drop back and we’ll open up on them.”


“Report it up,” I said to Lopez.


We were all waiting for Merlin, Mr. Smooth Operator to pipe up and give commands.  But he never did we neared the command vehicle.  The man in the big rig flatbed did not have a radio and was an Iraqi, he didn’t know what was going on.  Portz waved at the gunner in the command vehicle to stop.  But the gunner had a confused look on his face.  Then the entire convoy pulled off the road.


The three white gun trucks drove passed us.  They were all men just as Van Dame and Portz pointed out to us earlier.  Their sirens were blazing and they were waving at us.  With the scorpion emblazoned on their pick up trucks, the pulled in the Camp Charlie.


With much of the excitement dissipated, Mr. Cool Himself, Merlin, called up over the convoy net ordered us to go Camp Charlie and pick up our flatbed truck.


We sat waiting in line at the checkpoint waiting to get into the gate right behind the people we were going to kill not but fifteen minutes ago.  The Iraqi men were smiling and joking with the young black Marine who joked with them as well.  It was hard to tell if an Iraqi man was just being friendly or if he was looking for another sexual partner.  There are only so many jokes you can tell with the language barrier being what it was and something is inevitably lost in the translation.


I still felt badly over what I had done in the ensuing chaos.  I looked at the clean cut, well groomed and well fed Iraqi policemen smiling at me and waving.  It was hard to stay clean in the desert.  I got the feeling that they were risking their lives being here but that they were so proud and hopeful for their country and so happy to have a stake in it and to be working with the Americans – the first team.


Samuels stepped out of the truck and walked out alone to tell the Marine what had happened in the hopes that it never happen again.  He explained things hoping to spare the lives of our allies and friends.


Samuels was a mechanic were Portz was a shooter.  I thought of the ramifications of a rift between the two and how it would not work to Samuels’s advantage should one occur.  I wanted to go out there and support Samuels.  He was alone and it was not good to be surrounded.  It was always better to speak with someone behind you rather than to speak alone.  Instead, I spoke to Portz, “Those guys we were going to kill were IP SWAT.”


“I don’t care if you and them are butt buddies,” Portz replied.  These guys just like my guys guarding the gates are dirty.  You don’t trust them.  They should turn this whole place into a parking lot.”


Samuels finished.  We passed by the SWAT team who waved at us even with a bit of suspicion couched in their smiles.  We picked up the truck and we went home.


Night came.  Samuels sustained the convoy with chit chat, jokes and anecdotes.  Like the closing credits of the Bob Newhart show, the cityscape along the highway near Baghdad took on a middle aged, urban-industrial, depressing but sturdy and stable feel to it.  We pulled into the base.  We downloaded our gear.  We met briefly for an AAR[46] which no one had said anything and we went home.


[1]  MSR stands for Main Supply Route.  Tampa is the Army designation for Iraqi highway one that skirts the Tigris river from Basra to Mosul.

[2] Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Device – Army-speak for Gaza Strip style car bomb.

[3] Iraqi Police

[4] Non-Commissioned Officer In Charge or the sergeant whose overall responsible

[5]  Staff Sergeant (SSG), one rank above a Sergeant (SGT) or commonly referred to as a “buck sergeant” and one below a Sergeant First Class (SFC).  A SFC is considered a senior NCO whereas SSG is still considered a junior NCO.

[6] About 600 feet

[7] Lieutenant

[8] Freqs is short for frequencies.  CT stands for cipher text or an encrypted feed.  PT stands for Plain Text which there is no encryption and anyone can hear it.

[9] MEDEVAC stands for Medical Evacuation.

[10] Rules of Engagement

[11] Pax is an Army word for personnel or people.

[12] TC stands for Tank Commander.  A HUMVEE is not a tank – not by a long shot.  But Jeeps and HUMVEES have been riding along with tanks since the War of the Greatest Generation and the term that stands for the individual in responsible still follows.

[13]  An E-4 is a Specialist (SPC) or a Corporal (CPL) rank.  A SPC is one rank above a Private First Class (PFC) and one below a SGT.  SPC is a position of no responsibility where a CPL has troops underneath him.

[14] S & T stands for the Supply and Transportation section whose responsibilities include moving units in and out of countries – the fork lifters and HAZMAT or Hazardous Materials experts.

[15] M4 is the carbine or short rifle version of the M16.  The Marines still use the M16 because of the longer reach necessary for patrolling in the jungle or rural environments, whereas the Army uses the M4 for urban and CQB – Close Quarters Battles or room clearing.

[16] HET stands for Heavy Equipment Trailer – the Army’s big rig and the FMTV is a German made truck that replaced the deuce and half troop trucks from World War II that are still in operation today.  I don’t know what FMTV stands for.

[17] M1- the Main Battle Tank and pride of the heavy divisions of the United States Army, like the elephants of ancient times, the M1 brinks shock and firepower to the battlefield.

[18] According to several unclassified briefings we received prior to deploying, the insurgents put IED’s in boxes, dead animals and debris along the side of the road.

[19] Global Positioning System – a pocket sized electronic device that tells you where you are in the world.  I have the Etrex Vista which allows you to load maps, act as a compass, and even estimate your time of arrival.

[20] Escape and Evade

[21] The Interstate Highway from Tucson to Phoenix

[22] A Bradley is an armored personnel carrier and light tank that replaced the Vietnam era APC – a big metal box on two tracks with a 50 cal.  The Bradley tops out at 60 mph, has a light gun and an anti-tank missile.

[23] Quick Reaction Force – the combat team that is called into action when things go bad, Ewan MacGregor’s character, the database clerk in Blackhawk Down made up the Ranger QRF in Somalia.

[24] Stop Loss – the infamous back door draft where by the Armed Services say that you can’t get out of the military even though you fulfilled your military commitment.  The Stop Loss is often accompanied by an IRR call up or In-active Ready Reserve.  After you get out of the military, say after a four year commitment, you have an additional federal commitment to serve another four years in the IRR.  If you have served eight years enlisted active and then get out, you incur no IRR commitment.  William Holden was called up to serve his IRR commitment in James Michener’s “The Bridges of To Ko Ri.”

[25] The First Cavalry Division, based out of Fort Hood, Texas – Garry Owen, has a patch that covers your deltoid muscle and has the slash across the shield and a pony in the top right corner both symbols of the Cavalry.  The Cav uses both armored (tanks) and helicopters (choppers) to maintain its mobility.  Mel Gibson made a movie based on eyewitness memoir about their heroism in Vietnam called, “We were Soldiers”

[26] LBE stands for Load Bearing Equipment.  You also hear the term LCE which stands for Load Carryi8ng Equipment.  Another variant is the LBV and LCV – Load Bearing/Carrying Vest.  It refers to the webbing that allows you to hold your ammunition and water, the only things you really need in combat.

[27] Iraqi National Guard

[28] Iraqi Civil Defense Corps

[29] The General Chief of Staff of the Army, General Shoomaker, a former Special Forces operator visited our compound the day after Christmas to see how the troops are doing.  He does not have a command the way that Sanchez, Metz and Tommy Franks had.  He is in charge of Army wide fielding, policy and training.  His predecessor, Erik Shinseki gave the Ranger Beret to all the soldiers – not very popular with airborne community.  I heard Shinseki is running for office.

[30] A Hesco barrier is earthen work that stops bullets and shrapnel by placing a half a ton of earth inside a canvas and steel reinforced sock.  They put these hescoes around tents and trailers and it acts like a ready-made wall.

[31] Ever since those soldiers and contractors got killed in that Chow Hall in Mosul a month ago, soldiers have to check ID’s of all personnel coming into the chow hall.  It also means that if you don’t have a DoD contractor ID card, it means you can’t come into our chow hall effectively excluding Iraqis.

[32] Ever since 22 Americans had been killed in the chow hall on Camp Marez in Mosul in January of 2005, the new policy was that U.S. Soldiers checked ID of those coming into the chow hall.  Only DoD (Department of Defense) card holders could eat at the chow hall and DA (Department of the Army) contractors had to eat somewhere else.

[33] Meals Ready to Eat

[34] Pesh is short for peshmerga – Kurdish word for militia.  The peshmerga were our chief allies during both Gulf Wars and of the Iranians during the Iran-Iraq War.  The aforementioned pesh rag is black and white – the colors of the Kurdish nationalists whereas the red and white are the colors of the Sunnis and Saddam loyalists.  The pesh rag may be worn with a band over the head as the Arab sheiks do, rolled up around the head to make a watch-cap or it can be tied around the face making a terrorist balaclava.  (Covering the face against dust and masking one’s identity is customary in this part of the world.)  The Arabs have a word for the Yasser Arafat style headdress, but I don’t know the word.

[35] Standard Operating Procedure.

[36] Theseus was the founder of Athens who was later hated by the Athenians.

[37] Killed In Action

[38] ROE – Rules of Engagement

[39] Commo is short for Communications – radios, computers, satellite, internet, chat, etc.

[40] Intell is short for Intelligence

[41] Night Operations Devices – this technology allows us to see and fight at night which has been one of our key advantages over most of our enemies.

[42] Night Vision Device – another acronym for a synonym.

[43] MAXIM magazine is the male vanity equivalent of COSMOPOLITAN except with bikini clad Amazons instead of anorexic stick figures in Parisian outwear.  MAXIM is read devoutly by members of all services and can be found in day rooms, toilet stalls and bedroom night stands anywhere where male twenty somethings live.

[44] AK-47 – called a Klashinikov worldwide after it’s inventor.  The inventor wanted a machine gun that would overcome the problems he experienced during WWII against the Nazis. 47 designates the year it had been first been used by the Red Army. The Soviets would circulate this weapon worldwide and it became the symbol of insurgency and an answer to those oppressed by our Son-of-Bitches in pro-American dictatorships. 


Saddam inherited the Klashinokov as Iraq had been allied with Nasser’s Pan-Arab Ba’athist Socialism until Saddam switched sides after the downfall of the Shah.


The Klashinikov is a stamped weapon meaning you take the metal and use a stamp press to put the weapon together unlike our weaponery which has to be precision milled.  This makes Klashinikov very cheap – about a hundred bucks a piece on the black market – and very durable – it fire after being dunked under water, mud or dragged by  from a bumper.  Conversely the Klashnikov is not a very accurate weapon, but is still pretty good for close-in work.


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