Wednesday, February 27, 2008

You're Visitor 100,000! Click here to claim your prize.

Sometime in the last few days, my hit counter surpassed 100,000 visit to this blog. Like your dad in the family station wagon counting the odometer, I'm very excited to be at this historic number. I created the blog in April 2006 but I only added a counter in September of last year, days before I came home from Iraq. Blue Man was the first person to link to me before my quote and URL appeared in the LA Times and Associated Press stories, making him fan #1. My parents have always been the most supportive readers from the start, along with my wonderful girlfriend Lauren.

I'm often asked why I started the blog in the first place. If you go back to the very beginning, you'll see writing that's rough around the edges with heavy doses of sarcasm. I had neither point nor purpose back then, only hoping to showcase the maddening Army lifestyle and the mundane day to day tasks that we were handed. It was frank as it was anonymous, and only my roommate knew of its existence. We had used the term 'Army of Dude' to describe a new military: free of the cover your ass ideals that our superiors used. We didn't want to screw each other for the next promotion and we didn't want to play politics. We wanted to do our time together. We didn't want to stay in for thirty years and continue the vicious cycle in place where seniority meant more than reason and teamwork. We wore our hair long and our sideburns flared. We called each other dude, and we used that word as a reaction to happiness, sadness, surprise and apprehension.

The purpose of my blog quickly changed once I got to Iraq and realized what could be done with it. In one of my first combat stories written, I described an attack that left a couple of houses destroyed. I couldn't believe my eyes, but I'd quickly see more of the same in the following months in Baghdad, and later in Baqubah. Writing became a way for me to describe what we were seeing and doing to not only my family and friends, but those following the lives of everyone I was in Iraq with. Not everyone wanted to write about what was going on and instead passed my blog on to spare themselves from doing it. Through writing, pictures and video, I connected people to our shared experiences and inner reflections not seen on CNN or in the halls of the Senate. The internet, it seemed, was the only way for it to get out.

I hadn't signed my name on here until after our combat operations ceased and the cat was out of the proverbial bag. My blog had gotten around the family group back home and soon everyone was either reading it or knew about it. I was stupid and didn't tread any more carefully after that, and I continued to write like I had never been found out.

Discipline never came. I continued my stories and my thoughts about the war and how it was being handled. When my blog was quoted in a story that appeared in the Sept. 11 edition of the Stars and Stripes, my first sergeant called me over while we were refueling in Ireland, hours from being home. With a red face he said, "I heard your fricken web site was quoted in page two of the paper. I replied, "No, first sergeant. It was page six."

Here are some choice entries from my nearly two years of writing:

Stupid Shit of The Deployment Awards - This helped put me on the map. The nominees were written out beforehand and voted on by my platoon by which event was the stupidest moment of the whole deployment.

Congress - My reaction to going back to Iraq after R&R and realizing, hey, we have five months left instead of two.

A Very Special Edition of AoD - A photo story spanning three years.

Somnium - A story written in an alternate reality where we came home on time and I met my current girlfriend, Lauren. She's a self described daydreamer and lover of poetry. "A dream within a dream," a line from an Edgar Allen Poe poem, spirals around her arm in a jet black tattoo. The word Somnium is etched onto her ankle, sprouting wings in flight, carrying the Latin phrase meaning 'to daydream' high and away.

I've met incredible people (and drawn considerable criticism) because of my blog, and I'm more than satisfied at the results. It has helped me craft and hone my writing, and I hope to turn that into a career in the future. I've started to write a book, making it the 10,000th war memoir to be written within the last few years.

Thanks for keeping up with me, dear readers. It's been a blast. I hope you'll be with me at the 200,000 mark.


Monday, February 25, 2008

Photo Story...Next week?

I'm on a mini-vacation this weekend and will not be posting a new photo story. So stay tuned until next week for an all new, fun filled story of hilarity and thinly veiled philosophical ruminations. Also, I am drunk.

In the meantime, mosey on over to Vet Voice to read my newest on Turkey's no-no. Also, be sure to check out the video below, from Vote Vets:

McCain. Because 10,000 years is only the beginning™


Monday, February 18, 2008

Photo Story Monday - Be Right Back

"Dude, I gotta shit. Find me something to wipe with around here."

Matt was direct and to the point. He was shitting all right, in a corner room of a makeshift hospital deep in the heart of Chibernot, the more rural and wooded neighborhood of Baqubah. Bill, the unremitting carrier of toilet paper, was on the other side of the building. He'd have to use whatever I could find him as he squat in the corner over the dust covered floor.

Just a day earlier, we were making our way through the abandoned neighborhoods fulfilling our raison d’être: cache and insurgent locating. After turning up nil for the first few hours of sunlight, we entered a courtyard with two pick up trucks and a modest yard that fed into a grass field surrounding three sides of a house. Immediately after searching through the house, we found what we had been looking for: ammo magazines, bags full of huge anti aircraft rounds, bulletproof vests and bundles of wire, rigged with sensors that sent a charge when run over by the wheels of our Strykers. The wire that is hooked to the IED requires no manual operation to be set off, just the weight of one of our vehicles. They were called victim operated IEDs, and we found bundles of wire that made them possible.

By then we learned to burn mostly anything we found. There was a hole in the back already dug, and we threw the vests, wire and many documents found throughout the house into it. One of the many smokers lit a first aid bandage on fire and threw it on top of everything.

But then there was the house. And the trucks.

A good portion of the platoon was in the courtyard already, including my friend Bryan. He was a college graduate who enlisted a little after me, and we got along well due to our sense of humor and because we both called north Texas home. He was a machine gunner in weapons squad, but we got to talk during these lulls in activity when we're sitting around wondering what to do next.

Destroy the vehicles, we were ordered. Finally, something that made sense!

I slipped off my vest and helmet and began my search of some type of blunt object. In a back room I found a hammer and a small pole. I walked out to the first truck and made small work of the windows, mirrors and headlights, smashing glass and breaking bulbs. I popped the engine to find a tangled mess of wires and tubes. I slash, cut and broke everything that wasn't part of the engine and put a brick through the windshield. Bill came by with his knife and slashed the tires. We did all we could, but there was still the other truck.

It was being smashed to bits by others, but this one had room to be flipped. The other was parked right next to a tree, yet this truck was ripe for turning over.

Better call Macco

Men lined one side of the truck to give it the heave-ho onto its side, causing a real big headache for the insurgent who owned it.

God dammit, I had only two payments left!

You guys got it!

One thing Bryan and I had in common was that our names ended in -ton. We created the name Team Destructon for ourselves, forever pledging that together we would destroy any insurgent property (and have fun doing it). Lamps, bowls, tea sets, everything in that house that was capable of being smashed was shattered with the attention to detail and precision only we offered. Our goal was to be the least hospitable guests possible.

Two safes in the house drew our eyes and they were drug out into the yard, next to the only truck still on its tires. We didn't have any C4 with us, so we called another platoon in to rig up the doors to see what was inside. Along the way, they found stuff to put on top of it to see how far in the air they would go. A rock, a boombox, a curious pole and some leftover rounds were thrown on top.

And a partridge in a pear tree

More was added that I didn't see (or document), namely a wheelbarrow. We all moved to another courtyard to stay away from the big blast. Once the dust settled, the guys who rigged up the explosives took a peek into the insides of the safes. Not a damn thing.

We soon left and continued our patrol, going for about thirty minutes before the other platoon clearing on the right side of the street found something. It was a dungeon-esque torture chamber, filled with handcuffed civilians and a few bodies. When asked how long it was since they saw their captors, they replied, "just before you got here."

We held at the house across from the chamber and ransacked it. It was too close for its occupants not to know what was going on at their neighbor's house. A bulletproof vest was found, along with two AK-47s, ammo and a camera tripod (used to film IED attacks, giving them a more professional, cinematic feel). There were mats and blankets on the floor in the living room, and I peeled back a layer to find a full length sword and scabbard. It was all added to the pile I was arranging, along with a radio, two American grenades used for a MK-19 grenade launcher and a couple of bayonets.

Insurgent starter kit

The sword had dried blood on it, giving it an orange tint from the handle to the tip from where it was wiped away. I thought it was a unique souvenir and stuck it into the bag I was using to carry a fold out stretcher (a Skedco for all you military folks). Another fan of cameras quickly grabbed the tripod to use for his own equipment. He still has it, and I still have my sword in my room today.

The tortured Iraqis were being treated and cared for, and it was going to be awhile until the situation was resolved. My platoon sergeant said we'd be there for a couple hours, so we all took off our vests and crammed into one of the rooms. I left my vest and helmet in the shade outside. Others watched the gate and talked lazily about this and that. Most of us fell asleep for those two hours until we got the word to move on.

By then the sun had shifted and my vest and helmet were sitting under the blazing heat for some time, absorbing all the warmth an Iraqi summer sun has to offer. Grabbing it to put on, I almost burned myself on the metal hook bolted onto my helmet that was used for night vision goggles. Well, this is going to get interesting. I slung one of the AKs on my back and pressed on.

In a few steps I was pouring sweat like I just finished a marathon. The heat from the vest and helmet had nowhere to go except into my skin. At every house, I took everything off and doused them with water. I wasn't about to be carried out of there. After an hour, the heat went back to its usual intolerable level, but I was out of water for the rest of the afternoon.

Toward the end of the next day, Matt really had a case of the shits. We had just found an insurgent hospital after a tip from a local, and he wasn't interested in finding buried weapons, just simple bowel relief. Since Bill wasn't around, I went to go look for anything appropriate to wipe with. When times were tough and we had to go in the corner of an abandoned house, we'd use curtains, clothes, anything. But this building was a few rooms with dirt floors and bloody towels. The cleanest thing I could find was an abdominal wrap tinged with crusty blood. Not good enough for Matt (so stubborn with his selection of wipes). In between my mission to find rolls of Charmin, I was collecting the medical supplies and weapons we found so we could document everything before we destroyed all of it.

Matt was still in the corner, waiting. I chanced upon Bill and got his TP to deliver to Matt, held hostage by his own pants. If he had waited, he would have known we were on our way back to the base soon, with plenty of sinks, toilets and yes, rolls upon rolls of toilet paper.


Monday, February 11, 2008

Photo Story Monday - City on Fire

We all agreed, it was about time to get some sort of routine going. Like the good ol' days.

In Mosul we had a schedule of patrol times and surveillance missions two weeks into the future, and our operations were like clockwork. We'd do a two hour patrol that possibly went over thirty minutes, and we came back. Hell, we even put Lost and Prison Break on pause, did a patrol and came back to finish the episode. Easy as pie.

Our move to Baghdad shook it up a bit, but we still had long stretches where we'd be on the base relaxing with not much to worry about until the next big mission. We occasionally were on recall status in case a high value target was found, but we were far from Baghdad (half an hour at least). We only got called once: British SAS killed one insurgent and a captured a few others in the outskirts of Taji. We were called to pick them up in the middle of the night and of course, to carry the body back. I provided security for the four guys carrying it and could see their struggle; the corpse was well into the 200 pound bracket.

The move to Baqubah destroyed any semblance of functionality and preparedness. In the first 46 days of operations, my platoon had five days with no missions scheduled. And those were intermittent, spread out and not for the purpose of rest, but to fix vehicles, restock on ammunition and plan the mission coming up early in the morning.

We held this tempo through March into June, when reinforcements arrived. By then we controlled an outpost in the city. It was just a big house converted into a patrol base. The family was paid to leave and move in with relatives. It was there where we finally resumed a normal schedule, or as normal as possible. We didn't have patrols or hits scheduled out to the next week, but we knew when they'd be happening on that particular day.

In July we started a series of humanitarian missions for the displaced citizens of Baqubah. A few months prior it was a ghost town with many abandoned houses. Now the people were coming back, and they were hungry. The mission would be 'food drops,' which involved trucking in bags of rice and flour to give away to the locals. We'd simply go down there to make sure everything went well.

Rice and flour? We were told this was a stop on the Led Zeppelin reunion tour!

There was only shade provided by the large shipping containers that held the food, so me and Dozer squat in the dust and watched the Iraqi Army check IDs and hand over bags. Once in awhile the crowd would get too close and one of the IA dudes would shoot a burst into the air with an AK-47, which was just a wee bit excessive. It happened so many times over the course of two hours that we didn't flinch anymore when shots rang out every few minutes.

A few of these food drops would happen in the next several weeks. They would change locations so that no one could plant a bomb to kill the hundreds of people that showed up for the charity of the United States and Iraqi government. My team and a couple of our snipers were tasked to move to an abandoned school to overwatch the the long lines to be sure there was no weapons or foul play afoot. We took our vests and helmets off as two guys watched the crowd. Everyone else was fooling around with the supplies found in the eerily empty classrooms. A stack of frisbees were quickly thrown out the windows to the kids below, and we found a much needed cache: piles and piles of chalk.

We drew pictures and wrote messages on the walls for the kids to come back to. Shane went above and beyond and started a masterpiece with no discernible pattern, creating a beautiful outburst of color and imagination.

In those days we rarely created, and after that mission it was back to the grind.

We received information about various bad guys in the outlying neighborhood of Tahrir, where we were living in the outpost for days at a time. The sources said they had since fled their houses but left their cars. We'd walk there, search for anything of relevance and completely destroy their vehicles with incendiary grenades. These were the more entertaining moments, of smashing windshields and headlights with the crowbar-like prying tool we always carried. Then came the grenades, burning each car to a frame.

Were they even cars belonging to bad guys? Hell, we weren't completely sure.

It was time to go. We were in a routine after all. The Strykers would be meeting us at an intersection a few blocks away to avoid driving any more than they had to, avoiding IEDs buried deep underground. The first few guys to climb aboard tossed colored smoke next to the vehicles, creating a swirling pattern in the wind reminiscent of Shane's drawing on the school wall.

It was the start of month thirteen of the deployment, and we were headed back for a much needed rest. The home stretch was ahead, and we had to keep alert to keep alive. We'd break routine in the next few weeks by re-clearing Old Baqubah, the most dangerous neighborhood of the city, and set up a new outpost. But we didn't know it yet. It was almost getting easy again, like the good ol' days.


Monday, February 04, 2008

Photo Story Monday - Wires, Skulls And Switches

It always comes back to those fucking palm groves.

A week in that thick, tangled, humid mess of trees, bushes and huts, and it was without a doubt the worst week of my life. We set up on a road along the Diyala River to conduct a huge search and clear of the groves. Nearly every man who could walk was taking part, and from my earlier account, you can tell it was becoming a custom to overload myself with superfluous equipment (though carrying both bolt cutters and a shotgun to use on the three total locks we found was a wise move). In ten minutes my neck was already burning with all the weight on my back. After half a mile down the road, the whines of the Stryker engines were overcome with the ambiance of the wind blowing around the leaves and trash on the side of the road. We found our entrance point.

It took awhile for everyone to get lined up so we could move as one giant unit forward. I watched my team leader for every move and mimicked his actions. Every halt, every crouch we together. We were about fifteen feet into the tree line when a transmission came broken over the radio. "injured....explosion...targeting dismounted personnel." Son of a bitch, man. We all knew there would come a day when insurgents would set up Tamagotchi IEDs to explode right in our fucking faces, but we really didn't want it to be that day. Fifteen feet into our clearing mission that was several square miles over seven days, and we were paranoid to take a single step.

So, like, was it really sandy and deserty in Iraq?

Every few yards we walked, we stopped. And walked. And stopped. And walked. And stopped cold, because our interpreter spotted an RPG round hanging in a tree above our heads. While we silently wondered if it was a booby trap or just a stray rocket, the kind explosive ordnance disposal units came out to collect and blow it up.

And so we went onward! For about twenty more feet. I could go on like this, but we did a lot of stopping, laying on the ground and waiting for something the next six days.

Eventually we'd break out of the palms and start our patrols and the continuous pursuit of caches. Climbing the stairs to a roof, we found something for the first time: a wire connected to a battery, waiting for someone to set off the charge wired to a deep-buried IED down the street. A chair was knocked over and a chai tea set was near the door, waiting to be used. They had left in a hurry, and not too long ago.

Worst job ever for a jihadist with ADD

One look over the railing and it could be easily seen where the wires went: down a pole, over the road and across the field directly in front of the house. From the ground, it probably wouldn't have been noticed until it was too late. Luckily we found it while the city was deserted and no one was at the switch.

Being the perpetual junior guy on the squad, I always had to do the most unsavory and dangerous things when just one man was needed. I was told to run out to the field, grab the wire and run back. The idea was rooted in a cartoonish world but made sense at the time: with the force of me running, I'd yank the wire and disconnect it. Right? Right. Exposed for all the world to see, I sprinted toward the light pole where the wire started on the surface, grabbed it and ran back into the house with the battery on the roof. From there I could pull on the wire from the the safety of a cinderblock wall in front of half of my body.

After thirty yards of wire, I hit a snag. I pulled hard with the help of a couple dudes, and with a final tug the wire came loose, broken. We reeled in the rest and set it on the floor.

"Well, the fuck you waitin' for?" Bill asked.

He was implying there was more wire to grab out there. We figured it was held under a barrel sitting there nonchalantly. I sprinted back out there, slower than before and stopped well short of the barrel to look for the end. It was lodged under it in a clutter of a few rocks. Once again I ran back to the house to pull in the rest of the wire. In the future we'd get the idea to burn any wire we found, but for now, we would (read: I would) carry the 300-odd feet of wire in a backpack for the duration of the mission.

Can you spot the wire trail?

After all that commotion, it was time to check out the rest of the house. The backyard yielded a smörgåsbord of homemade explosives. Bags filled with white powder (no, Courtney Love, the other kind of white powder) littered the ground. It looked like a wild cat got into one of them, as we found a skeleton nearby. Somehow, it found its way onto my shoulder.

With the famous skull and the infamous shotgun Bill was allergic to

Nothing of note was in the rest of the house, except for a light switch with Arabic writing above it. Our interpreter was looking over documents found in the corner and I called him over to ask him what it said.

"Danger," he replied.