Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Saturday, May 3, 2008
Chance of showers before 2pm. Partly cloudy winds
south southeast between 2 to 8 mph.
“Bummer. Looks like there won't be any help from the rain gods
tonight. For once. Let's see if the Air Force will
give us a little help,” I told myself followed by a
But I had the feeling. . . The feeling that I wasn't going to get out of this one. I was going to actually earn that extra hundred and fifty dollars I
get paid each month. I closed my laptop, grabbed my
keys and headed for work. They had given us a late
call of noon, seeing as I most likely would
not get off work until tomorrow morning.
When I got to the company, I walked up the ramp removing my maroon beret and was greeted by Sgt. Anderson at the door. He stopped and looked at me and without a word we both
looked at each other and began shaking our heads.
A staff sergeant was standing at his locker changing into
the duty uniform.
“Grab the cherries (privates) and get ready for
“Roger sa’arnt. Already on it.”
"Shira, Bulger, let's go fuckers, weapons draw five minutes."
Both jumped to their feet and headed for the arms room.
“Uh, specialist?” Shira said in his small voice and going to parade rest.
“What's up guy?”
“Uh, will I be jumping the SAW (machine gun) tonight?”
“Yeah,” I replied laughing. “Oh, and make sure you
draw a modified weapons case.”
He cracked half a smile that clearly said “dammit!” the only way a
At once we were first in line at the arms room so the draw went
quickly which is rare. With our weapons and night vision drawn, we went to our task
double checking the rigging on our parachute drop bags
as well as checking our night vision and changing
batteries as needed.
“ALL RIGHT CHALK LEADERS, GET THEM MOVING OVER TO
FALCON FIELD FOR INITIAL MANIFEST!” yelled the first
sergeant from his office.
“You heard the man get your gear and move over to
chicken field,” someone echoed.
Generally that's where things start to get interesting. Several
hundred men all gaggled around. . .the phrase too many
chiefs and not enough Indians comes to mind.
As NCOs try to make sense of it all and get everyone divided
into the right birds and the right order. For a
combat equipped jump, they do what they call combat
cross loading. Basically mix you in with a bunch of
guys you don't know from other units. That way you
have no idea whether or not they are going to freak out
in the air. At least that's what I think they say, so if
in the “real thing” a bird gets shot down a whole
unit wont be lost.
Jump masters begin combing the lines inspecting helmets and checking dog tags. For
some reason you cannot jump without you dog tags. I
think they help with aerodynamics during the free fall
portion. . . not really I made that up.
At that point, there were still rain clouds moving in
and out and the overall thinking was that we weren't
going to jump 'cause of the weather. I knew better.
For some reason I think I'm the only one who checks the
weather. But I didn't try to tell them otherwise. They
seem happier when they have hope.
I guess I should explain that the majority of America's paratroopers
hate to jump out of airplanes. It's not at
all like sky diving. Oh no, it's much more dangerous.
Between 60 and 80 some odd paratroopers exit two doors
in an average of thirty seconds. There is certainly a
long list of things that can go wrong, from becoming
a towed jumper (I'll let your imagination figure that
one out), to mid-air entanglements (which happens quite
often), to partial or total malfunctions of your main
parachute (nice way of saying your chute doesn't
open), and to the fact that you have no way of really
controlling where you go, so you are at the mercy of
I will say, most don't care about
the jumping out part, it's the landing really. Hitting
the ground at 18 to 22 feet per second, and a lateral
speed of whatever wind gust has you, never feels very
good. Broken legs, ankles, heads are common place. But
Eventually we made our way over to Pope Air Force Base
to a place called Green Ramp. It's basically a line of
warehouses and bays along the flight line with row
after row of strange looking wooden benches that are
'specially made so that they are only comfortable to
sit on when you are wearing a parachute.
We waited for hours before actually dawning our parachutes. My
shoulder hurt just thinking about it. The T-10-Delta
parachute weighs around 60 pounds alone. Then strap
on combat equipment and you're looking at about a hundred
pounds all together rested on two torturous shoulder
straps. The longer you're in the harness, the more you
want to jump out the door just so when you hit the
ground you can take the damn thing off.
Now in the chutes and hating life, the jump masters
having done their final inspections, the
starting of jet engines introduces adrenalin into the
blood stream. The only two guys from my platoon in my
chalk was Shira and another young private named
Myamoto, both doing the airborne infantry man thing. . .
they were both asleep. It's funny to me that all these
guys getting ready to exit an aircraft at over a
hundred miles an hour and eight hundred feet above the
ground can sleep. Heads slumped down in front resting
on their reserve parachutes.
Everyone wakes up when they open the giant metal doors to the flight
line. . .front row seating over looking a row of four
C-17 massive cargo jets, sleek and very impressive with
rear ramps down, bright white lights shining out from
I turned to the two guys, “Hey, when you hit the ground come to me and we will
move out to the assembly area together.”
“You know what to do if you can't find me? Find
the center line dirt road and follow the direction of
the planes. The company assembly point should be on
corner of the field.”
Then it comes.
“CHALK TWO ON YOUR FEET!”
With a sigh, I struggle to my feet. With the parachute drop bag strapped around
your legs in the front, it's nearly impossible to walk. So,
of course, the Air Force parks their birds like a mile
away, which makes for a very awkward and painful
C-17s look, well, like a space ship inside. Very
high tech and powerful birds with much more room inside
than C130s. Those Vietnam era birds are louder on the
inside than the outside and smell of oil and exhaust
and often break down. It's so tight in there that when
the jump masters have to get to the front of the
aircraft, they literally walk on you.
Less than five minutes in our cargo net seats and
guys are again passing out left and right. Many times
the pilots need flight hours so we load up and “race
track” for several hours. Was not to be the case
tonight. We had been pushed back already for whatever
reason so it was to be a about an hour flight to a
drop zone five minutes away. When the ramp goes up
the white lights turn off and the red lights come on.
Really sets the mood, I'll tell ya. A short taxi and a
hard throttle up and we are airborne.
The adrenalin really starts going when the two
jump masters near the tail begin yelling and giving
hand and arm signals.
“TWENTY MINUTES!” and the jumpers snap awake look to
the front and repeat. “TWENTY MINUTES!” f
Five minutes later comes, “TEN MINUTES!. . .GET READY!”
Each time the jumpers turn to the front and repeat.
“OUTBOARD JUMPERS STAND UP!” All the jumpers on the
outboard side of the aircraft stand up folding up their
cargo net seats.
“INBOARD JUMPERS STAND UP!” The jumpers along
the center of the bird move over the anchor line
cable, two steel cables strung from front to back
along the side of the aircraft about a foot apart from
I grab the long yellow chord thats draped
over my shoulder and hook it to the cable above my
“CHECK STATIC LINE!”
I trace the line from the cable down over my shoulder making sure it hasn't gone under
the riser or under my arm. Then reach forward and
trace the line on the guy in front of me from his
shoulder down ensuring the same for him. Then slap
him on the shoulder letting him know he is good as
someone does the same for me.
Trace my helmet strap, tightening
it once more and go down ensuring each snap hook on
the harness is secure. Then from the back its passed
to the front. Someone slaps me on the ass and yells
“OKAY!” I do the same to the man in front. When it
gets to the number one jumper he yells, “ALL OKAY
It's about that time that they open the doors and the
wind rips around the cabin as the four screaming jet
engines reach your ears. Guys start screaming and
yelling muffled “WHOO!” and “YEAHS!”
I turned to the guy standing next to me and yelled in his ear, “YOU
KNOW, IT'S TIMES LIKE THESE THAT I CAN'T HELP BUT WONDER
ABOUT ALL THE DECISIONS I'VE MADE IN MY LIFE THAT HAVE
LED ME TO THIS POINT!” He laughs and shakes his head.
All the noise and commotion seem confusing but its kind
of a strange ballet. The jump master known as the
safety literally sticks his head out the door and
looks for the approaching drop zone. When he sees
that he's two thousand meters away, he gives the signal and the
jump masters yell, “ONE MINUTE. . .STAND BY!”
The number one jumper turns and stands in front of the door. That to me
would be the worst job and I refuse to do it. I can jump
because I don't think about it, I just do it. The
number one jumper stands there for an eternity looking
out into the world from a high performance aircraft.
Then the amber light comes on and the jump masters
give the second to last command.
Blink hard, breathe deep and focus. Body and mind ready.
And then it happens. The little amber light by the door turns green.
“GREEN LIGHT, GO! GREEN LIGHT, GO! GREEN LIGHT
GO!. . .”
One by one, each jumper hands off the static
line to the safety turns and runs into the darkness
TO BE CONTINUED.........
The caller i.d. said LIPE. I opened my cell phone and
put it to my ear. “Merry Christmas bro.”
“Same to you man. whats up?”
“Ah, nothing man. Lying on the couch. I’m a little hung
over to say the least.”
“Right on man. Listen the reason I'm calling is I’m
“Wait. What? You're at work? You didn't take leave?”
“Nah man, I stayed cause they're actually going to let
me stay for the (my) wedding.”
“Oh. How nice of them.”
“Yeah, surprised the hell out of me. But listen I'm on
CQ and I've got some bad news. The call out roster has
been initiated and they're calling everyone back from
“You're fucking kidding me.”
“No man, I wish I was.”
“At least they waited until the day after Christmas.”
“Yeah right. Well, I gotta let you go man. I'll see you
when you get in.”
“Alright bro, I'll see you soon. Peace.”
I closed the phone and my arm slumped down off the couch. I let the
phone drop from my hand on to the floor. Sat there
motionless, thoughtless. Mom was in the other room
and wanted the news that she probably already knew.
With a sigh, I broke the news. Picked myself up off the
couch and headed for the shower. It was the day after
Christmas, nine days since I left Fort Bragg on leave,
and about 20 days since I landed at Pope Air Force
Base from Iraq.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
I had survived my first tour in Iraq despite having
kicked doors in every hot spot in country. . . every bad
neighborhood that you hear about on the news . . .from the
Sunni Triangle of Death to Tikrit to Ramadi.
We landed at Pope to welcome home banners, joyful and
cheering family members, and the 82nd band playing the
82nd song. Some officers spoke and told us “welcome home”
and “good job” and “enjoy yourself you earned it.”
But it was to be short lived.
For some time now the President and some generals were putting together a
plan to escalate the war. . . a plan they called a “surge” that would flood the streets of Baghdad in
a desperate attempt to secure the Iraqi capital. Being
“AMERICA’S STRATEGIC RESPONSE FORCE,” we were the obvious
choice to spearhead the surge. We specialize in
rapid deployments and can get out much faster than
most of the Army.
The day before the President went before the nation to
announce the plan, we were called into work. My first
sergeant came out and from the look on his face and
the commander's face, we knew it was bad news. There
had been whispers that we were going back but no one
“Bring it in men and sit down.” He preceded to read
the warning order that basically spelled out that we
were to begin preparations to deploy some time around
the 1st of January. Not believing my ears, I scanned
the room and every face was blank. No emotion. it
really felt surreal.
The hardest part was passing off the news and listening to my mother cry on the other
side of the phone. They decided to send us home for
14 days of leave before we actually started
preparations. Really didn't have much to do. All our
equipment and gear never left Iraq. I went home with
weight on my shoulders that was nearly unbearable. Christmas
that year was a somber affair.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
I had 48 hours to report back to Bragg. I turned the
shower on and climbed in. Sat in the tub and stared at
the drain. I got in the shower because I didn't want
my family to hear me cry. It was a strange feeling.
shedding a tear. Two tears and a sniffle, I soldiered
up and started packing my bags. Hugged my parents and
At least they waited to 'til the day after Christmas.
Parts 1 and 2 are below.
We had been sitting in the corner of the field
waiting to get back on the birds. Finally the birds
began cranking up and we were back on our feet getting
ready to re-board the aircraft. As we walked back
slowly to the helicopters word came down the line:
the Air Force would be dropping a couple JDAMs (joint
direct attack munition) on the container yard at 0350
right after our guys flew out. I thought to myself
"Hell yeah." But I soon forgot about it in the noise and
confusion of the in-fill phase of a mission.
Since we were there to bolster Alpha Company’s
numbers, I think we got the short end of the stick as
far as jobs goes. We were to hit a house on the edge
of the village and set up a blocking position there watching
over the main road into the small town. Part
of that blocking position called for us to set up a
road block using concertina wire. So we were given a
couple spools of wire that are really big sharp
circles about four feet across. There was no way to
carry it but by hand. So in classic paratrooper style
we found an old bed frame along the way, broke off a
metal pole, put the wire on it and two at a time took
turns carrying it.
When we finally hit the ground we
found that this system had a couple flaws. One: the
wire is fairly heavy and added to our more than a
hundred pounds of gear, ammo, food and water. . . not
fun. The second problem we found is that not everyone
is the same height. So those of us less than 6 feet
tall really got screwed. Following the laws of
physics and gravity, the wire slid towards the smaller Joe
so that hands, arms and faces were cut. The two or so
miles to the objective ended up being very awkward and
painful for some.
It was time for the next two to take the wire so
my partner and I passed that stupid contraption off,
which literally had to be ripped off of me because the
sharp ends were stuck in the fabric of my uniform. I
passed it off and moved back in to my position in the
formation as we walked through the muddy little
village. Breathing heavy and completely worn out, I
wiped the sweat from my face. Feeling very sorry for
myself, I followed along with heavy footsteps,
SGT Medina yelling at me the whole way, "Pull
security, face out!"
We stopped for a moment on a
short security halt and I went down to a knee. Right
then my ears caught a distant noise: the unmistakable
sound of a friendly fighter jet somewhere above in the
star lit heavens. In spite of everything hearing that
cracked a smile on my face. Knowing that there was
someone up there watching over me was very comforting.
Listening closely, I looked down at my watch and hit
the light button.
"Guess we've got air cover," I
muttered to myself. No sooner had I said that then
I lifted my NODs off my face and saw what I can only
describe as a volcano erupting about two miles away.
A huge ball of yellow and orange leaped into the sky.
It was so bright that we were no longer cloaked in
darkness and I was now casting a shadow. Half a
second later, the shock wave made it to us and shook
the very ground, slapping us on the chests and
rattling all the metal roofs around us. The initial
blast was quickly followed by another and then
another. Each equally powerful as the first. With
hell breaking loose upon the earth in front of us, my
squad leader turned to me and said something I'll never
"You're goddam combat veterans now."
We soon picked up and moved out to our objective.
Part 1 is below.
I'm not sure when but eventually I had passed out and I
was blinking awake now. Waking up in the Army is the
hardest part of my day. Usually I have a full poopy
face going as I sit collecting my thoughts. Took a
drink of water, strapped on my boots and headed for the
tent door. It's so dark in those tents that you have to
close your eyes before you open the door so as not to
go blind from the piercing sun light of the late
Stepped out, took a look around, stretched a bit, turned
and headed down the row of tents to the latrines. It
was nice with everyone gone. No one in the latrines. . .
hot water in the shower. . . I could get used to this. Yes,
it was going to be a good couple of days.
I finished my morning routine feeling quite good and cleanly shaven.
I stuck my head into my squad leader’s tent to see
what was what. Surprisingly they were up and already
playing video games. We exchanged a couple insults
and I sat down and picked up a controller.
“Hey, uh, where's Sgt. Medina?”
They all sort of moaned at my question. I had developed a bad
reputation for asking too many questions. I couldn't help it but I needed to know what was going on at all times. I blame my father, a former reporter, for that one.
“Uh, someone for the battalion TOC came by and was asking for him. probably some detail or something.”
I sank into my chair at that news. I had hoped to avoid details while everyone was gone but I
guess I wasn't surprised. Moments later Staff Sergeant Medina flew through the tent door. We all spun around in our chairs. I didn't like his facial expression.
“Start getting your shit together we’re going out
with alpha company in a couple hours.” His voice hada hint of anger or desperation i couldn't tell.We didn't move. We just looked at each other all puzzled.
“What do I have to do ask you please get fucking moving!”
His voice now definitely angry we all jumped to our feet and tripped over each other as we did. I
headed for the door and as I was half out, Sgt. Medina said something that changed everything.
“Someone got killed last night.”
It wasn't until the door closed behind me did it sink
in. My mind flooded with questions. Who? What
company? What the hell happened? Where are we going?
Despite the urging of every bone in my body to turn
around and find the answers, I walked quickly back to
my own tent. There were no answers back through that
door and my questions would only make him angrier.
Within only about an hour, I was ready to go. Two
days food and water. Machine gun clean and oiled.
Ammo belts neatly rolled into pouches. Extra chem
lights, AA batteries, zip ties and a couple
extra pairs of socks and t-shirts.
I couldn't take it anymore. I headed back to my squad tent in search of
some answers and to find when the mission brief would
be. There wasn't much to hear they really didn't know
The guys had gone into an old container yard near an abandoned power plant and had made
contact with the enemy. As the last hours of daylight
passed, more details came in. They had been out there
and had been in and out of contact with the enemy all
day. News that they had come under “complex” attack
was especially disconcerting. Complex meaning they
used coordinated mortar and small arm attacks. A good
sign that these were not your usual insurgents.
We were the supplement Alpha Company and occupy a
blocking position for them as they cleared a small
village about a mile from the rest of the force.
Nervous and antsy, we moved out to the LZ several hours
early. We propped up against the blast walls and
chain-smoked cigarettes as the sun melted into a sea
of gold and red.
We said nothing really. No real small talk we just sat deep in thought. Sgt. Medina
was the first to break the silence.
“You guys scared?”
No one said anything.
“I'm scared and if your not, I don't want you in my squad.”
We all eventually admitted the same. One of our
Sergeant Majors came out and spoke a few words of
encouragement. It did little but add suspense to the moment.
Hours ticked by as the sky opened and the stars lit
up brightly. The time for the birds to arrive came
and went. But we waited on. Finally two hours late, the
bird showed up in dramatic fashion as always. Thunder
and dust. We boarded, packed into the uncomfortable
cargo net seats.
I had started a little tradition for
that time. When the bird started to lift off and we
headed off to go who knows where. I had developed a little
way to keep my mind level. And to an extent it worked.
Every-time when the helicopter throttled up and the
bird shook its way up, I pushed the light button on my
watch to see what time it was. Did the math and
figured what time it was at home. Right then, at that
moment, I pictured what was happening at my house.
"It's 0100 here. . . that means its. . . it's 1700 back
home. Five o'clock. It's five o’clock. That means that
Mom's sitting on the couch watching the news. Dad
should be home and is probably finishing up the last
of his emails. Jon. . . Jon hopefully is doing his
home work. But no, he's probably surfing. Mike. . .
Mike is at his house, home from work and he's definitely
drinking a beer and thinking about doing his homework.
its five o’clock.”
That usually did the trick. Put me at ease for a
bit. Bridged that gap between opening jitters and
Before I knew it we got the six minute
warning. Weapons could be heard clicking as they were
loaded. I followed suit and loaded my SAW. The bird
banked and jostled and without any further warning the
bird slammed into the ground and the ramp opened.
Everyone jumped to their feet and hustled off the
bird. The only problem was that somehow the fact that
we had a two hour layover at another airfield hadn't
made it to most of us. So when we ran off the bird,
we were not greeted by the enemy but a rather portly
and confused staff sergeant holding a glow stick.
First in a series of three posts.
There was never enough room for the whole company to
go out. Usually one squad was chosen from a platoon
to stay behind.
To be honest I really didn't mind being left behind that week. The rest of the company would
be gone for a couple days and we would sit and watch movies and sleep. Sort of a mini-vacation, no one to bother us.
And so it was that night I caught the camp
bus back from midnight chow, which technically had
become lunch since we were on a reverse schedule. I
got off the bus and walked the short gravel road up to
our little compound. In the clear, crisp desert night
the moon reflected off the windows of a now silent
Chinook helicopter that had appeared while I had been
My eyes never left it as I crunched by. I could see
several more lined up perfectly one behind the other.
The moon was so bright I could see each separate chalk
line against the 10 cement blast walls lining the LZ.
There was little to be heard but a few stressed NCO's
and officers frantically trying to square everything
away in the little time they had remaining. I kept
walking turned my head and looked toward the ground.
In my heart I wish I were with them. I hated not
being with them. I hated not going out. I'm not a war
junkie and I'm not a super hero either but for some reason I
didn't feel comfortable letting them go without me.
Not that I could do anything more if
something happened but I only trusted myself with my
I had no sooner looked toward the ground when in
unison the birds made that hair drier noise. Massive
fans kicking on as the powerful engines began to roar.
Kept walking and past through the little gate that
was little more than a hole in the blast wall. I
stopped, Styrofoam to-go-box in hand, and turned back
towards the gate. The giant rotors started to turn
and I found a spot against the wall and crouched down.
the engines now in full swing i could make out lines
of paratroopers shuffling towards the open ramps.
Rotors spinning so hard the bird looked as though
they wanted to leap off the ground. They stayed
faithfully on the ground waiting for the pilots to
release them into the air. Finally the time came, and
when you thought that those things couldn't get any
louder, they wound up more and began to look skyward.
Five of six Blackhawks took off in the distance and
the four or five bus-sized twin rotor Chinooks all
lifted up and turned away. The wind generated from
those fans is enough to blow you over. I may have been
if it weren't for the concrete wall against which I was leaning.
The birds thundered off and left a thick
dust cloud in their wake. even though it was my turn
to stay behindI still felt very low. One of the
lowest points of my Army career was sitting there with
my cheeseburger and French fries in my hands watching my
brothers head off with out me.
I patted the dust out of my uniform as I stood up.
Walked into the tent without saying a word. I laid on
my cot staring at the floor. And somehow I was on
that bird with them. That calm excitement. Wondering
what was going to become of us all.
FYI, there is a language alert on this post.
We had some where in the neighborhood of 50 Humvees.
At first, I really had no idea why. Normally, Our mission was to
go in by helicopter where ever we thought the bad guys
were hiding. Not Humvees.
They were rather sad looking Humvees.
Reminded me of old pack mules, broken down by years of
hard labor. It took a crew of about 20 mechanics
working around the clock for two and half months to get
them all mission capable, which wasn't saying much
considering mechanics were adjusting them and
replacing parts when I was mounting the machine gun on
So many of the casualties in Iraq after the invasion
were roadside bombs or IEDs. If you were there and
weren't scared of them you were probably a moron or
someone who was blessed with a job that kept you off
the dangerous Iraqi roads.
Until then I had thought I was one of the lucky ones. I had told my family that
I was much safer cause I didn't have to drive anywhere. Helicopters took me where the brass wanted me to be and picked me up when the job was done. I
walked everywhere in between. Later I realized
that telling my family not to worry about IEDs was as
much for my benefit as it was for theirs.
That night when I was given the warning order of the
mission to come, all I could think was, “Crap.” We
were to "ground assault convoy" or GAC to a small
village just outside Tikirt, the city of Sadaam’s
birth. It's been about a year and half since then and
I'm not sure who exactly we were going after or if we
we had caught him.
I can only remember what happened that first night.
I should have known I was in for something interesting
when I was told that I wouldn't be traveling with my
company. Not only that, I was to be separated from my
squad leader and half my squad. You really only can
trust those you know out there.
My team leader and I were attached to Delta company for the initial
movement. Delta company was to stop at a specific
intersection within the village and let us out. We
were then to wait there for the rest of my squad to
link up and hit the house on the intersection . . . hit
and hold that house to control the intersection and
provide watch for our buddies as they went ahead
with the task at hand.
Not only that, I was to be riding in the very first truck in the first of two
convoys. . .the bomb finder.
Before I went to Iraq I had been a smoker for several
years. When I got to Iraq, I decided to quit.
It went pretty well for the most part and it had
been almost a month without a single cigarette. As
the sun set that afternoon, I chain smoked, one after
another. We got the word sometime around midnight to,
“mount up” and so I strapped on all my combat gear and
climbed into the Humvee.
It was about a 45-minute ride from Camp Speicher to that little village. I
breathed low, hunched forward, muscles tensed and ready as
I peered through my night vision goggles, watching and studying
every foot of the dusty road. After a very tense hour
we turned off MSR (main supply route) Tampa and into the village.
I had studied the maps ahead of time and memorized every
turn that would take us to our intersection. We
hadn't gone into the village but ten feet when we
had to turn around because of a road block. From that
point on I had no idea where I was going but I prayed
that Delta company did.
It's not a good feeling being away from your guys and that feeling was growing worse by
the minute. Twenty minutes and six turn-arounds
later, I was sure that we were all completely lost.
Just then and without warning, the Humvee skidded
to a halt and the sergeant in the front passenger seat
said, “This is you, get out.”
I went through the open Humvee door with a little help from the adrenaline
flowing through my veins. Ran over to a wall and picked up
security with my machine gun. My team leader, Murph,
ran over throwing his back into mine and picking up
security the other way down the road. The final member of our team, Jenkins, came up throwing himself between the two of us.
The humvees dropped into drive and drove off kicking up the dusty road and leaving us
in a cloud. Then, quiet. Nothing. No sound, only
helicopters criss-crossing overhead. Jenkins broke
the silence and said exactly what all three of us were
thinking, “Well, this isn't where we’re supposed to
It was totally obvious seeing as how there wasn't even an intersection in sight.
“Yeah I know, where the hell are we?” Murph said in a
“Fuck man, I don't know,”I said in between breaths.
“Middlebrook, did you see our intersection?”
“Fuck me man, I don't know. Everything looks the same.”
“Shit uh... shit.”
“Well we cant just sit here man. We’ve got to mo. . .”
“Goddamit, I know.... Middlebrook, which way do you
think our intersection is?”
“Uhmm. . . . fuck man. . . uhmm. That way I think, man . . . fuck man, I
“All right. All right. Well then, that's the way were going.
We're going to keep bounding (bounding is a movement
where one moves while the other covers you then
covers the other while he moves) until we find where
we’re supposed to be. . .All right... Go Middlebrook,
I picked up my gun and hoisted myself and took off at
a dead sprint. Wheeling left and right I got about a
hundred meters and dove on the ground just like in
training. Seconds later, the heavy foot steps of an
over-loaded paratrooper came up behind me and gave a
“hughhh” as he hit the ground, lying there huffing and
puffing, sweat pouring and pulling security until the
final member of our little party ran up.
When he did, I instinctively jumped up and took off again. This
continued for nearly a click (1000 meters). It broke down to this: the further we went, the more nervous we became. Towards the end, we were just running . . . running for our lives.
In my mind - I think in all of our minds - we were beginning to panic. But in that situation, fear and panic is what will get you killed. We kept to our training. We stayed together and we kept moving.
By ourselves, it wouldn't have taken much for us to be overrun or even captured. Huffing along those dusty roads and alleys, all that could be heard was heavy
breathing , footsteps, barking dogs and distant helicopters.
I was running low on gas. Picking up and running, dropping then picking up again with a full combat load of an M249 machine gunner is not an easy task. Plus food and water, I was carrying somewhere in the neighborhood of 110 pounds of gear. When we set out, I was in the front. Now, nearly a mile down the road, I was in the rear and trailing. Everyone always
gets angry with SAW gunners for slowing them down. But when things start happening and you let that thing loose, everyone loves you.
When we got to the very end of the road, we turned a
corner and spotted three Americans running across the
street under some sort of make shift street light. A
hundred meters away and through distorted night vision,
I instantly recognized one of them as American.
Not only American but my squad leader.
“It's Sergeant Medina!”
We took off again at a dead sprint giving it everything we had left. Without even saying a word we stacked on the courtyard door and SGT Medina kicked
it in. Within seconds the house was clear and I was on the roof training my gun across the village.
Through my night vision, I could see paratroopers hitting houses and clearing to the roofs. Flash bangs, popping tactical lights searching houses, infrared
strobe lights blinking while Apache helicopters flew lazy figure eights overhead.
A year and half later, I think back to that night and how lucky I was that nothing happened. At the time, I didn't think about it. I just did what I was trained to do. When I thought about it later, it dawned on me just how bad it could have gone.
Just hearing the name Tikrit today . . . my veins open and adrenaline begins to flow.
Remembering that night is a conscious re-occurring nightmare.
I consider myself lucky. Lucky to be alive. And
that's it. That's what it boils down to.
If those mortar rounds had landed a little closer. Had those bullets
been aimed just a little bit lower. Had those three
IED kill teams got me instead of me them. In the nearly
16 months I served in Iraq, my unit of about 700 men
lost 13. We came home with 13 fewer men - brothers - than
we had left with. About three times as many wounded. Though I
didn't know any of them personally, it was hard just
Memorial services. God I hate them. A paratrooper.
A battle hardened veteran is supposed to be almost
numb and without emotion. I think back to standing
there in the desert in a mass battalion formation
surrounded by barbed wire and 10-foot tall concrete
blast walls at one of those damn services.
Always a light desert breeze and fiery golden sunset as a back
drop when we honored our fallen brothers. Every man
there quietly swallows hard pushes those emotions deep
deep inside. Tear ducts screaming for permission to
shed tears, teeth bite down hard and from the outside
little shows the battle waging inside.
It's the end where most lose it. Roll call. A senior NCO begins
calling names. One after the other: “HERE FIRST
SERGEANT!. . . HERE FIRST SERGEANT!’’ until the name
of the deceased is reached. Nothing but silence as
they attempt to call his name three times.
Two days ago was a nice day here. Breezy and cool, great
blue sky overhead with a brilliant sun to warm the
skin. I walked the short distance to my battalion
headquarters running a errand for a platoon sergeant
in my company. Walking inside, by happenstance, I ran
into an old battle buddy. I'd known him from the
beginning of my Army career. Him, me and three other
guys had all gone through basic together, airborne
school and came here to Bragg. Medina, Blaske, Coats,
and Baez, good friends eventually separated by the war.
“What's up man”
“Oh you know man, livin' the dream.”
Smiling and continuing on without stopping. Truth is, I didn't really
want to talk to him all that much. I'd only made it five steps past him...
“Hey man, listen.”
“What's up?” Turning to face him.
“Hey, sorry to be the one to tell you dude. You know
those couple guys that got killed in 1/73 (a cavalry
battalion in my brigade) the other day?”
“Yeah. . .”
“One of them, man, was Baez.” Hit me like a punch to
“Yeah man, Baez is dead.”
I wasn't sure how to react. I was in shock and didn't truly believe it. Safe and
sound in the United States, a thousand of miles from that damn desert, and the war ripped me right back. Hell, I may as well be still in Iraq because that unmistakable feeling took hold of my soul.
Spc. Miguel A. Baez was killed in action in Balad, Iraq by an improvised explosive device as he entered a house. He was set to come home to his wife and four children next month. He died on his last mission outside the wire.
An all around great guy. Hell of a sense of humor. After all the things the Army put us
through, I never heard him utter a word in anger. He was a very devoted family man and if you asked him about his kids his eyes would light up and a smile always followed.
How did I survive and Baez not? He had so much more to live for. If I could change places, I would without hesitation. But that is the way it seems to be. Those lost are always most missed.
I will never forget him. My thoughts and prayers are with his family. His memory will always occupy a place in my heart.
It starts over, as if everything that happened, didn’t.
Out of the desert and back from leave:
0500 wake up,
physical training from 0630 to 0745,
breakfast from 0745 to 0845 and a 0900 work call.
Brand new privates have begun to show their faces.
Timid and scared like little kids, they are labeled
I look into their faces and see myself some
two years ago. They almost look innocent, and in their
eyes, I can see that their souls carry no weight. Most
are baby faced and can’t be a day over 18-years-old.
I wonder what they see when they look at me. Do they
see a twenty-something veteran who feels like he’s
thirty-five and pities them knowing that one day their
eyes will look like his own.
To be honest personally I am relieved they are here
because it means fewer details for me. The latrine
needs cleaning. “New guys!” The floor needs a sweep
and a mop, or the garbage needs emptying. “New guys!”
Some may call this hazing or just unfair. But
that is the way it has to be. There is a short window
when a cherry arrives to either make them into a good
soldier ready to listen and learn from the veterans or
allow them to become (for lack of a better term)
They have to learn their place and earn
the respect of the veterans. The more they take the
quicker they are accepted by the rest of the herd.
But don’t feel bad for them because every day that
goes by it gets easier for them. Little-by-little
they are befriended and absorbed into their platoons.
Not only that, but the old way of the Army, which used
a system of torturing and hazing new soldiers to
integrate them, is gone. As far as my unit goes, the
group of new guys with whom I arrived got the last of
it. Those were tough days and I wish them on no one.
No one talks about the sandbox much anymore. Even
though we were in the middle of combat operations only
a few short months ago, it’s been put to the backs of
minds and swallowed deep inside.
And so the endless rotation begins again. For a combat unit in a time of war, if you are not in combat you are training for it. The day we landed back in the States after almost a
year and a half in
ends. For those who have been in the know, it’s only a matter of time before orders come down.
Those veterans with several tours under their belt keep
track of the days they have left in the Army trying to
do the math and praying that they will be out by the next
trip to the sandbox.
I am one of those veterans. I put my life on hold to serve my country. I am now certain
that I have done more than my part. I am ready to start
my life and go on to do bigger and better things. But
for now like so many others the Army still owns me and
I am at will the of it, and my civilian leadership.
I have been asked more than once or twice whether I
regret joining the Army. From my heart, I say “No.” I
purposefully volunteered three times to get myself
into a place where I knew I would most certainly see combat. I knew what I was doing unlike most guys who are here with me, who were sold the idea by
recruiters. I say now that you know I
don’t regret joining the Army but ask me if I regret
signing a four-year contract.
We’ll start training again very soon. Bring the new
guys up to speed. Polish the skills of our new
officers and NCOs. Eyes always looking down range
towards the next battlefield. Some quietly praying
to never have to make that journey again.
The guy next to me leaned to my ear and said, "One
I turned to my left and repeated it to the
man next me.
Sat forward and strained to untangle
myself from the cargo net on which I was sitting. Reached
down and opened the feed cover tray on my M-249 SAW.
Ran my hand across the feed tray and grabbed the charging
handle. With a little force, I locked the bolt the
rear. Fumbled in the darkness and finally grabbed the
belt of ammo hanging from its pouch. It was so dark
my eyes may as well have been closed. Blind and
alone surrounded by my fellow paratroopers, I loaded my
light machine gun. Slapped the cover shut and placed
the weapon on safe.
The bird banked hard and shuddered back and forth. I
could feel the rapid descent in my stomach and then
through the noise someone yelled "THIRTY SECONDS!''
Adrenaline shot through my body. I took a deep
breath, looked up and asked God to spare me. The
bird seemingly crash landed and hit with a solid
"GO! GO! GO!''
Guys are falling over each other. Blind and
confused, I stood and turned toward the ramp. On my
feet, my body strained from the heavy load. I began to
run off the helicopter.- everything in slow
I couldn't tell whether the loud thump was the
chop of the bird or the heavy beat of my own heart.
When I got to the the ramp, I was stopped dead in my
tracks from what I saw.
In that short hour on the helicopter, I had been
teleported to another world. I was no longer in the
desert but in a lush jungle. Ten-foot tall grass
being fanned out in every direction from the massive
rotor blades. A brilliantly lit full moon
illuminated everything from the clear sky, giving it a sort of silver lining.
I stepped off the ramp and dropped straight to my knees.
The ramp, which I totally misjudged, was at least two feet off the ground.
Under several layers of thick grass were a couple inches of water and, in a half second,
my boots and knees were already soaked.
"AHH!" I thought.
For a second, I thought I was in Vietnam in a rice paddy. Picking myself
up, It started to run off at a 45-degree angle from the ramp. All the men were falling into a half moon around the tail of the aircraft. Found my spot and crashed in the mud. Extended the tripod on my weapon and flipped my night vision down over my eyes.
The bird throttled hard and the wind and grass and
dust whipped violently. In an instant
the bird was gone. All was quiet. The grass stood
back up and I disappearred. Breathing heavily and nervously. Time slowed as a bead of
sweat rolled down my forehead.
With a blink, I look down at the beer I'm holding in hand as a drop of condensation rolls over my fingers. The wind starts to blow and the cold moisture a chills my face. With a deep
breath, I look skyward at the full moon looking back at
me. I peer into the clear starlight sky over Ft.
Bragg, N.C., blinking slowly.
With another deep breath, I lower my head and turn back to the barracks, beer in hand.
I can still smell the grass.
The stillness was suddenly interrupted by something hitting the back of my helmet. For a split second, I thought that it was someone tapping me. I almost turned around. But almost simultaneously something else hit my hand. It was large, fat raindrop crashing into my right hand, which was firmly grasping the pistol grip, index finger laid across the trigger guard.
"Great," I quietly muttered to myself.
I had been hearing thunder in the distance for some time now, even before we had set out to that field. Lying there in the tall grass being harassed by some sort of God awful bugs, I prayed for no more rain. But as my luck usually goes, my prayer was not to be answered that Halloween night.
We were strung out in a long line on the far edge of a farm using a dried irrigation ditch as a make shift trench. Hugging my M249 machine gun, I stared through my night vision goggles across the field- weapon at the ready, always at the ready. We waited.
It was then that someone unzipped the night's sky and I now lay in a monsoon. I didn't move an inch. The cold water poured off my helmet down my neck and b-lined all the way down my spine, continuing on into my pants. I could feel my pant legs now sticking to my legs and the unmistakable feeling of a cold sensation on my feet. I was completely soaked in a matter of seconds.
I let out a sigh. . . heard only by me for it was drowned out by the roar of the rain.
The rain then stopped just as quickly as it had started. It was as if the insects in that field were angered by the deluge and took their frustrations out on me. I could feel them biting and gnawing at the only exposed skin on my body. I didn't move an inch. I watched my sector and waited. The temperature dropped what felt like 10 degrees. My breath appeared and I began to shiver. I heard curse words as they whispered down the line.
The thunderstorm, or I should say lighting storm, because, despite the dazzling display of light, it made no sound, moved out in front of me. Through my night vision the lightning was truly impressive.
Then a thought occurred to me and my heart sank. There surrounded my my brothers I was totally alone in my mind, "Would they still be coming to get us?"
"Pilots don't like to fly in bad weather," I thought. And in my short time in Iraq, this was the worst weather I had seen.
I looked at my watch - 43 1/2 hours. In the past two days, I had eaten less than two meals and had less than three hours of sleep. I was ready to get back to the rear.
I continued to stare off across that field watching my sector when I heard what over the last few months had become the most beautiful sound in the world - the heavy chop of an in-bound Chinook. I lifted my head out of the three foot grass and there it was to my 10 o'clock a tiny blinking light - an infrared strobe light only visible through my night vision.
Someone down the line called quietly from their radio,"Birds in-bound." I smiled on the inside. I watched as the blinking light moved closer and a dark shape grew underneath it. The chop became louder and the ground began to shake.
"One minute out," someone said through the darkness. Using both hands, I pushed myself up, straining from the weight of my gear now twice as heavy from the rain. I posted up on a knee facing away from the in-bound "shit hook" with my head down.
The ground shaking and the wind beating on my chest, I braced for the impact of the coming hurricane force winds. The two giant sets of rotors have the ability to knock you down if you aren't ready for it. I had learned that the hard away a few months earlier when a landing Chinook flipped me over my gun into a ditch.
WHOOSH! The wind hit me pushing me forward and pelting me with wet grass, sand and rocks.
The bird throttled back and the wind died down. Just as I had done so many times without prompting, I stood up and turned left and began running in two long lines out of the palm grove on the edge of the field. Even when perfectly executed, loading is never easy.
The heavily irrigated fields were very difficult to traverse with night vision and a full combat load. Tripping and falling, helping others up and being helped up, I made my way to the bird.
Inside the Chinook, the high pitched whine of the engines deafens those foolish enough to forget "ear pro."
Running the length of the bird, I made it to the front and sat down.
"HA!" I thought, "a seat"
(With my luck, I usually end up on the floor of the bird. Sitting on top of each other in the darkness its a hellish ride. It usually takes more than a hour and you are lucky if you can walk by the time you land - your legs cut off from blood go beyond sleep to numb.)
The bird throttles hard and, within two minutes of landing, she lifts off with about 50 beleaguered paratroopers, tired and cold and now totally relieved after surviving another mission in one of the worst areas Iraq has to offer. We flip up our nods as the bird turns for home. My muscles relax and I put my head back and look at my watch again. It's 3 a.m.
Right now my Dad is on the couch relaxing after work. My Mom is in full Halloween mode and impatiently waiting for trick-or-treaters.
Not sure what my brothers would be doing. Jon is now at the age where Halloween isn't cool anymore and he is probably on the computer.
Mike is now at the age where Halloween has become cool again is probably trying to go out. I guess I was GI-JOE this year.
The bird jostles and jumps, then bucks its way through the churning air surrounding the lightning storm. What a Halloween to remember.
I blink and it's a year later and I'm staring at the bottom of the bunk on top of me. This year is way better than last I think to myself. Who could argue with that? - in the rear with the gear at a staging area waiting to finally re-deploy home... I pause my Ipod and sit up, look down the endless rows of bunks, sigh and close my eyes and try to imagine a Halloween before the war.
Nothing comes to mind.