Friday, November 19, 2010

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.

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