Friday, March 18, 2011


During training they told us to keep an eye out for debris in the road. "Anything in the road might be an IED in disguise. An empty MRE bag, an old tire, even a dead animal. Road debris, like broken concrete, might be an indication that they buried an IED in the area." Be alert, they told us. Suspect any debris in the road.

Then we got there and saw what was on the roads. Debris was everywhere. Broken curbs were abundant, trash lined the streets. I did some volunteer work in New Orleans clearing debris after Katrina. There was more crap on the roads in Iraq.

The thing about hiding IEDs inside of old tires stuck in my mind most for some reason. I nearly shit myself my first mission out, because there was a giant pile of old tires just a couple miles from the entry control point, or ECP. Thousands of the fucking things just a few feet off the road.

Eventually you figure out what's supposed to be there and what isn't, but those first few times out were somewhat harrowing, not in spite of our training but BECAUSE of it.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Superbowl Sunday 2010

Superbowl Sunday is more than just some big event where I get to watch funny TV commercials and eat chips, occasionally pausing to watch guys get paid way too much to play sports. It's also an anniversary.

Superbowl Sunday 2010 was the night I almost lost three friends.

We were making a run from JBB to Seitz, part of the Victory complex of bases on the outskirts of Baghdad. 2nd Platoon left to go to the same place about an hour or so before us, so we joked that they were clearing the route for us. It was going to be an easy run - zero trucks there, bring some back. As such, we rode a little tighter than usual.

We didn't notice that all the street lights were out this time. We didn't see any of the Iraqi Army around like usual. I was driving the #4 truck, about 400 meters away from our lead scout. There was a flash of light, then a deep "pop" sound, like the world's largest balloon popping. Before the words "what the fuck was that?" even finished leaving my mouth, I saw police lights come on to my right as the Iraqi Army suddenly appeared, reacting faster than they should have.

I heard the lead scout TC over the radio stating that they took a hit on the right side of the vehicle, but everyone was okay. They're still rolling. He wanted the #6 truck, the medic vehicle, to move up so the medic could check out his guys. SOP for a blast.

He would reiterate that everybody is okay a few more times. His voice was cool, like we were running a drill.

The radio keyed again, and a voice started screaming "OH FUCK OH FUCK OH FUCK." Unbeknownst to me, the gunner dropped down out of his turret and landed on his mic switch, accidentally keying it up while he reacted to what had happened. The concussive blast of the explosion rang his bell pretty good and he didn't remember this later.

It was an EFP - explosively formed penetrator.

An EFP is a disc of metal, ideally copper, on a shaped charge. When the shaped charge goes off, the disc turns into a molten spear, punching its way through armor like a hot knife through jello. This EFP didn't form properly, however, and only made it most of the way through the TC's door. However, had it hit a few inches further to the vehicle's rear it wouldn't have mattered, because it would have found the seam where the door meets the body.

We didn't make it back in time to watch the Superbowl. So we missed out on two honest-to-God beers as well.

I still don't like loud noises.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

I Hate the Media

In the spring of 2007, Anna Nichole Smith died. I did some cursory research and concluded that she was only famous because she got naked for a magazine and married an elderly rich man.

The news didn't shut up about her for weeks.

In the spring of 2007, Captain Walter Schirra died. Wally Schirra was a Naval aviator, a test pilot, and chosen to be part of Astronaut Group 1, the Mercury Seven. Wally Schirra was the fifth American in space, commanded Gemini 6 and, by commanding Apollo 7, became the first person to fly in space three times and the only man to fly in projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Wally Schirra was an American hero and I didn't find out about his death until weeks after it happened.

Michael Jackson died in the summer of 2009 and the media wouldn't shut the hell up about him for months. All he ever did was sing some songs and touch some little boys.

Last week, Major Richard Winters passed away. Dick Winters is best known for commanding Company E, 2/506 PIR, 101st Airborne from the invasion of Normandy until just after Operation Market Garden, then becoming battalion XO and eventually battalion commander.

Dick Winters saved the world. But you'd have been lucky if you accidentally stumbled into the news of his passing.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Why You Should Never Try

If the formation is at 1700, I'll be there no later than 1650. Usually earlier. If I'm supposed to be clean shaven every day in the correct uniform, then that's how I'll be. Give me a task and I'll get it done. Not once was I late, I followed the rules, I worked my ass off.

At the end of the deployment, I received an Army Commendation Medal and an Army Good Conduct Medal.

There's another guy in the platoon. We'll call him Dude von Jerkpants, even though that's not his name. Dude von Jerkpants graduated from AIT with me and we've been in the same unit ever since. Though after graduating from AIT, I didn't see him for about four months. He was AWOL the whole time. After they finished chewing him out for showing up to his first drill four months late, he had the gall to ask when he was going to get promoted to PFC.

Eventually he was promoted to PFC. Repeatedly, I might add. This is a man who has spent nearly his entire military career on extra duty because he can't not fuck up. I distinctly remember looking out the door of the barracks at Camp McCain to see him doing sprints in the parking lot, M4 held over his head, shouting "I WILL NOT FORGET MY WEAPON I WILL NOT FORGET MY WEAPON" as he ran. He once self-identified in the most spectacular manner.

"Hey, sergeant, what's going on in there?"
"They're taking the ACT test," was the reply.
"ACT? I can't pass a drug test."

He didn't bother showing up for the week of admin headache we had at Camp Shelby before our three weeks of annual training in 2009. He didn't show up for AT either. First formation the day we were set to head back to Shelby for mobilization, though, there he was. He decided he'd rather be in the Army than go to jail.

His track record in Iraq ran as follows: Constantly late, frequently drunk, once got into a fight with an entire other COMPANY, and had an article 15 pending for getting into an argument with a SSG over sweeping the platoon office while he was on extra duty. Incidentally, he was on extra duty pretty much the entire deployment. He was chewed out on more than one occasion for wearing unit patches he wasn't authorized. And for wearing jump wings he wasn't authorized.

At the end of the deployment, he received an Army Commendation Medal and an Army Good Conduct Medal.

The moral of the story is clear: Effort is for idiots. Just do whatever the hell you want and it'll all work out. Also: Awards are a joke, don't let a soldier's shiny chest cabbage impress you. Unless it's literal chest cabbage. THAT shit's impressive.

Thanksgiving Day 2009

It's Thanksgiving Day back home, but for you it may as well be another day. The food in the DFAC is actually good for once, though, serving standard Thanksgiving fare. You sit with some friends and actually enjoy the meal, the first time in weeks you've been able to finish everything on your plate. Foregoing dessert, you return to the motor pool and climb into the turret of D262, putting on your helmet and headset.

The truck drives towards the south entry control point, stopping at the test fire pit. You raise the feed tray of your M2 .50 cal, place the ammo belt on the feed tray, snap the extractor between the first and second rounds, and close the feed tray cover. With a grin, you pull back on the charging handle and let it go, allowing the bolt to slam forward. This is always the best part. You aim the weapon at the base of the test fire pit and press the trigger, firing two long bursts. The first burst seems a little sluggish, but the second sounds about right.

The truck then parks in the staging lane about an hour before mission start time, giving everyone time to sit around and bullshit. About fifteen minutes before SP, you start getting ready. Stripping off you fire-retardant ACU jacket, you pull on your light and medium cold weather undershirts. Over that goes your FR ACU jacket and a windbreaker. After getting everything comfortable, you untangle and put on your gunner's harness, which will keep you from being ejected from the vehicle in the event everything goes wrong. As you prepare, you chat with one of the KBR drivers, a Vietnam veteran with Cav sabres on his hard hat.

With five minutes to go before REDCON 1, you climb into the turret, buckle your harness to the vehicle, and plug your iPod earbud into your left ear. Running the cable through your neck scarf to keep it from being pulled from your ear, you plug it into your iPod case hooked to a D-ring on your Improved Outer Tactical Vest (IOTV). Paranoia getting the better of you, you reach down to your leg pocket and pull out your headspace and timing gauge to check the headspace of your Ma Deuce again. Checks out fine. You put your headset on and clip the cable to your IOTV. You scan the turret. Penflares within reach, M4 in its place, the on/off switch to the Hellfire light attached to your .50 cal is next to the turret's control handle. Your NODs or NVGs or whatever the term du jour for your night vision is hang from a handle to your left. Your M9 pistol is in a holster on the front of your armor, magazine in place but without a round chambered.

The radio crackles. "All Python elements, this is 5. Give me a REDCON status in sequence." Time to go.

"1 is REDCON 1."
"2 is REDCON 1."
"3, REDCON 1."
"This is 4, REDCON 1."
"6 is REDCON 1."
"Wrecker, REDCON 1."
"7 REDCON 1."
"8 is REDCON 1."

"3, this is 5. All Python elements are REDCON 1 at this time."

"Roger, 5. 1, go ahead and lead us out at this time."

"Roger, 1 moving out." The lead scout vehicle begins rolling, followed by the second scout and the convoy commander. Between you and the convoy commander are nine fuel trucks, which you count out to the driver before you begin rolling. Your TC keys the mic.

"4 rolling."

The convoy rolls to the ECP. As you pass the test fire pit, you place the ammo belt onto the .50 cal and snap the extractor in place. "I'm amber," you tell the TC. A faint electronic buzz enters your headset and then you hear your TC key the mic again.

"3, this is 4. We are amber, green, jamming and on."

"Roger, 4."

Now that you're rolling out of the gate, you open your iPod case and hit play. You previously set up a playlist just for convoy missions, an eclectic mix of everything from Bach to pop. You wonder what comes up first.

You're rewarded with Michael Jackson's "Thriller." There's a reasonable distance between the test fire pit and outside the wire and the convoy is moving at a slow crawl at the moment, so you decide to do the Thriller dance in the turret.

Your destination for tonight is CSC Scania, a small base south of Baghdad. If all goes well, it takes about six hours to get there. You've made it there in one night once.

Tonight is no different. On an interchange between two major highways, your lead scout narrowly avoids hitting what appears to be a pile of trash in the middle of the road. Sharp eyes on their part noticed a crush wire coming out of the trash. The convoy halts, the trash pile is interrogated and the Iraqi army arrives to help investigate. You wait, the air getting colder. Your feet hurt from standing so long, your shoulders and back ache from the weight of your body armor. You decide to have a seat on your gunner's platform for awhile.

Inside the truck is warm, and here you can sit and take a break from standing for awhile. The next couple hours pass uneventfully, but EOD should be arriving soon.

You stand up and immediately regret it. It's gotten a lot colder. You regret not putting on another layer or three back in the staging lane. The radio crackles in your ear. Iraqi EOD has arrived. You're not sure how to take this news, but Iraqi EOD is better than no EOD.

Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. EOD has cleared the object. It's a 120mm artillery round, initiated by crush wire and powered by the power supply from a portable DVD player. Clever clever. The general consensus is that regardless of how you feel about the Iraqi Army, Iraqi EOD is squared away.

The convoy begins rolling and you look at your watch. It's past 5 AM. You left at 8:30 PM. This mission has lasted far too long and it'll start becoming daylight soon. The decision is made to refuel and sleep at FOB Kalsu, which just just north of Scania.

The trucks are fueled and parked outside of transient housing. You tiredly take down the gun and ammo, make sure nothing important is inside the turret, then latch the hatch shut and head to the tent with your gear. You change into your PTs and head over to the shower trailer to wash the soot and grime of Baghdad's numerous trash fires off your face. And warm up with a hot shower while you're at it.

You wake up the next evening, get dressed, pack up your sleeping bag and head over to the truck. Prep for you consists of getting the gun ready, which you quickly take care of, then head off to chow. It's only about two hours from here to Scania and you're leaving relatively early - around 2030. But still, you layer up like you did the night before, just to be safe. You also borrow a gunner's seat from the 3 truck to give your aching feet and knees a break from time to time. It's a padded cushion that straps to a couple rings in the turret, not unlike a swing. It takes a little adjusting to get to a height where you can see through the bullet-resistant windows in the turret armor.

The trip to Scania is uneventful and quick, taking only 90 minutes. As before, you dismount the gun and claim a bunk. It's earlier than usual, so you kill some time at the MWR before midnight chow, grab a bite, then head back to transient housing for a hot shower and some sleep.

You wake up earlier than usual, having gone to bed earlier than usual. After you prep the gun, you head over to the PX and buy a copy of the Army Times to read. After a page or two, your realize it seems familiar and check the date on it. October 12. Crap, that's three bucks you'll never see again.

The drive back is uneventful, if cold. You kill the time by playing an audiobook, Sharpe's Trafalgar by Bernard Cornwell. You finish most of it. The trip back is punctuated by the gunner's seat's emergency release catch letting go under your weight. Three times. It is not, apparently, designed to take the weight of a human being. Or more likely it's missing parts and that's why the 3 truck was able to spare it.

The truck makes the right turn at checkpoint Milton 1, turning from MSR Tampa to ASR Milton - Joint Base Balad's "driveway," as it were. In about half an hour, you'll be back inside the wire. Between Milton 1 and the ECP, however, is NAI Jack Sparrow - an area a few kilometers long along Milton where bad things have been known to happen. Thankfully, nothing happens this night. As you pull up to the ECP, you feel your sphincter relax a little.

Ever since you came back from leave, going out has been unpleasant. You can't shake the feeling that this time - this time - something bad is going to happen. Ever since you heard about the guy in the other company who got shot in the face - just a graze, mind, but still - you constantly worry about it happening to you. You distinctly remember a time when you hoped, HOPED, that someone would try shooting at you so you could make sure they never made that mistake again. Now you're terrified that they will.

You're back in the base, parked in the motor pool, and finished de-prepping the truck. Stiffly, you remove your body armor and place it in the ISU next to the truck. It's all locked up and you meet the rest of the platoon in front of the 2 truck for a little post-mission meeting and to find out when to show up for work tomorrow. More congratulations for the scouts for finding the IED and you're released. Hobbling back to your can, you change to go to the showers and hope the next run out is far in the future.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

But What Does It MEEEAAAN?

I suppose you non-military types are confused as to what my title means. You can basically boil down military existence to two states: In the field or in garrison. In the field is what it sounds like - being out doing Army shit. In garrison is back at base, living in the barracks and not doing Army shit. Life instead consists of Powerpoint briefings, administrative headaches, and pretty much doing nothing but police calls of the area. Police calls suck if you're a non-smoker, because 90% of the trash you'll collect will be cigarette butts.

Anyway, there's a joke that you hear in regards to an Iraq deployment (especially to a larger base) and I understand it's spread to Afghanistan as well: "We went to war, but garrison broke out."

Life at Joint Base Balad was a slice of garrison in the middle of... well, not exactly a combat environment, but a bit of unpleasantness nonetheless. Between the hours of 1800 and 0600, one was required to wear a reflective belt over the uniform. Reflective belts were required with PT uniforms (even though the lettering and the big mountain-thing on the back of the shirts, along with the lettering on the sorts, are reflective). Don't forget to salute officers! God help you if your uniform isn't 100% in regulation at all times. Are you a mechanic working in a motor pool for 12 hours a day? Better remember to bring a change of clothes with you, because you can't get into the DFAC (dining facility) in a dirty uniform.

Speaking of the DFAC, God help you if you work odd hours or come in from another base at odd hours. Food is only served for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midnight chow. If you show up between meals, you're not getting in. It doesn't matter how tired and hungry you might be after driving 10 hours from FOB Knoblick to JBB - if they're not open, you're not eating.

My company kept a night schedule because we ran night missions. The whole battalion did, really. So when the battalion scheduled us for briefings and classes, they all took place at night, right? Hell no! For the first half of our deployment, battalion scheduled all its Death by Powerpoint sessions at noon. The battalion aid station, where you went to sick call, was only open in the mornings and early afternoon.

Base support offices weren't any better. Nevermind that those of us actually running the missions outside the wire were on a night schedule, the rest of the military kept banking hours. Need to go to finance to get a pay issue settled, deposit to savings, or whatever? Better schedule your entire day around it.

Base security was handled by Air Force Security Forces. Now, my father served in the Air Force for 26 years. I have a lot of friends in the Air Force and I myself wanted to be an Air Force officer for a long time. So this is not a statement I make lightly: This collection of chucklefucks couldn't defend Alcatraz from an asthmatic eight year old with only one functioning leg. During certain weather conditions, Army units were assigned to a number of the bases perimeter towers. Basically, when visibility conditions were crap, the base would man all the towers. So we had to get briefed on tower guard duty.

The briefing was at 10 AM.

Among the happy things they'd teach us was that if we saw a threat to the base, they'd likely be a mortar crew or an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) team and that they'd be between 700 and 800 meters. The maximum effective range of the M4s we had is 500 and change. M16s aren't much better. Further, I have little faith in the ability of your average soldier to engage a target that far out with any success. It's more than twice the distance that our furthest target on the qualification range is, which is the furthest anybody ever shoots with any regularity.

My buddy Fee, a sniper, pointed out that 800 meters is a sniper's bread and butter and that he was issued a sniper rifle. Since the regular issue weapons couldn't reach our notional enemies, could he bring his sniper rifle to guard duty?

The answer was no.

Basically, in the event of an attack on the base, our instructions were to sit there and take it.

Basically, the only way to stay sane is to resign yourself to the fact that the military is run by pogues and Fobbits, do your job outside the wire, and then keep your head down while on base.

"Shot at and missed, but shit at and hit" is alive and well.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Lest We Forget... Oops, too late

To the Daily Mississippian,

Well done, DM. It was gratifying to be able to read your fine publication and be free from any reference of the sacrifices veterans have made so that you'd be free to publish your newspaper. 

Not only that, but you were able to keep from mentioning that today, November 11, is not only Veterans Day, but also the 92nd anniversary of the end of World War One. Nobody needs to be reminded of such dreary things, right?

You stay classy, DM.

Harry McNally
Senior History major
Iraq veteran