Thursday, September 29, 2005

7 days

September 23, 2005

Still three days out from catching a helo to Falluja, SSgt Fay and I have been trying to keep busy and not step on Tim Crowley’s toes. Tim, my fellow the Field Historian at Al Asad, has already established a group of contacts within the airfield boundary and has interviewed many of the commands present. Tim has also ventured out and about with several units and has obtained some excellent field interviews of units subsequent to their patrols in hostile territory.
Today, I asked Tim if he’d like some assistance on any of the interviews he had lined up. Having a couple extra bodies to help knock out some interviews is a always a good thing, so we ventured down to Camp Ripper, home of Regimental Combat Team 2 (RCT 2), and met with a subordinate unit made famous by some recent press coverage, Lima Company 3/25.

You may have seen press coverage on Lima Company last month. A Marine Corps Reserve Infantry Company from Ohio, Lima Company was conducting a mission in August near Haditha Dam when one of its Amphibious tractors, known as an AMTRAC, or an AAV, struck a buried IED, or improvised explosive device. The IED was massive, and the fireball that consumed the AMTRAC instantly killed 15 Marines onboard. Only one Marine survived the explosion. The 25-ton vehicle was thrown in the air like a tonka truck, flipped over by the force of the blast and instantly set ablaze, with little chance of survival for its unfortunate occupants. This was not Lima Company’s first combat casualty, either. In May, another AMTRAC transporting Marines from Lima Company struck an IED. Sgt Samuel Balla, 1st Squad Leader, 1st Platoon, recalled the instant the Trac hit the IED. A bright flash of orange, then red light filled the cabin, followed by a blast of incredible heat and eventually, nothing but pitch black darkness. As the Trac filled with smoke, wounded but surviving Marines tumbled out, spilling from the troop hatch, Sgt. Balla included. It wasn’t long before ammunition inside the burning Trac started cooking off, exploding from the intense heat and flame. Four men never made it out of the Trac.

In addition to Sgt. Balla, I also spoke with Major Stephen Lawson, the Commander of Lima Company. Lawson is a consultant in his civilian life, and never dreamed his unit would take more casualties during their deployment than most any other single combat unit in Iraq. Nor would he imagine losing so many Marines to the horrible explosions that are slowly becoming a daily reminder of how cruel war can be.

During our interview, Major Lawson was quick to point out that his Company was one of the only qualified units available to conduct such dangerous missions. Many of his men are being nominated for valor awards, for bravery under fire. I am sure that he, among others, considers every Marine in his unit a hero. They have seen the horror of war first-hand, have lost close friends and coworkers. These Marines have endured hardships most of us will never know. Their pride was evident as I sat among these heroes in their crowded tent. I left the tent that afternoon humbled by the courage of these young Marines.

September 24, 2005

Today I ran into a VMI classmate of mine, Major Ken Devero, who is currently assigned
to II MAW G-3 staff. Ken and I have not seen each other in a decade, and it was great catching
up on the last 10 years. Ken was originally planning to go into the Navy following
graduation from VMI, but his grades kept him from the commission he wanted. After several
years and job ventures, Ken approached a Marine Recruiter and was eventually accepted into the Marine Corps Officers Candidate School in 1991. Now an electronics warfare officer in an EA-6 Prowler squadron, Ken is in the 15th year of his Marine Corps career. As with most VMI classmates who see each other after many years, we had a great time “talking story” and catching up on each others lives. We even stole a few minutes to get a photo for the VMI Alumni Review, which is mailed quarterly to every alumnus. If history holds true, we will see it in print no sooner that the fall 2008 issue.

September 27, 2005

Today we are in Falluja, home of the II Marine Expeditionary Force (II MEF). The MEF is the largest body of Marines assembled within the AOR, and is comprised of subordinate Regimental Combat Teams, Infantry Battalions, Force Service Support Battalions, Companies and Detachments, as well as a host of other cats and dogs like myself. The MEF is basically the Command element for the entire Marine fighting force within Iraq. Major General Johnson is the Commanding General in charge of II MEF and also controls a number of Army units and Iraqi Defense Forces (IDF) throughout the area of operations (AOR).

Our flight to Falluja took place at night under the cover of darkness. Again, most flights and convoys are done at night to decrease the risk to deploying personnel. Pilots and air crew wear special night vision devices to see through the darkness. Their night vision goggles, or NVG’s, pick up the faintest glow from stars, the moon, or flickering city lights below and in essence, magnify it in a way that permits the wearer of the NVG’s to see everything as if it were daytime, though in an eerie, green hue. Every so often, you catch a flicker of the greenish hue surrounding the darkened silhouette of the air crew as they turn their heads away from you, resembling some sort of space alien from Star Wars.

The flight itself was typical as military helicopters go – loud, hot and cramped. The rear hatches remain partly open as you ride through the darkness, and the smell of aviation exhaust permeates the inside of the helicopter. Air crews are fond of saying “don’t worry if it leaks – it’s when it stops leaking that you’ll have to worry,” referring to the dozens of exposed hydraulic lines throughout the interior of the fuselage. It’s a common for grease and oil to spatter your uniform if you’ve spent any amount of time inside a Marine Corps helicopter. Maybe that’s why all the aircrews wear jumpsuits!

We made one stop at a different location, switching helicopters. This required us to lug our gear off the first bird and onto the second. In addition to my ballistic vest with its heavy SAPI plates, I was also carrying a loaded MOLLE pack and two fully loaded seabags containing everything I brought with me to Iraq. As Falluja will be my base of operations for the duration of my deployment, I did not leave anything behind in Al Asad. This made for a quick, unplanned workout as I struggled to walk across the runway to our new point of embarkation with everything in hand. By the time the helo touched off, we were all soaked to the bone with sweat, the heat trapped between our bodies and our body armor.

Transient personnel arriving at Camp Falluja stay overnight in a large tent containing over 100 cots, four rows deep. Two exist aboard the Camp – one for men and one for women. Only in Iraq have I ever seen tents with air conditioning. Similar to the tent I stayed in last year at Saddam’s former Presidential Palace in Baghdad, the tent had air conditioning units installed on each facing wall every 20 feet. Each were set at 16 degrees Celsius – I’m not sure what that translates to in Fahrenheit, but I think a side of beef would have remained indefinitely edible in that tent. It’s a good thing I had my sleeping bag and poncho liner handy or I would have gone outside to share a sweet spot in the sand with the camel spiders.

I spent the day checking into the MEF, trying to explain my purpose to most Marines I met. Unfortunately, the Field History Division is relatively unknown by most Marines, and seldom will you find a Marine who understands our mission until it has been explained in agonizing detail. However, most Marines are fascinated once they realize the scope of the mission and want to get in on the action, particularly when they find out we are basically our own boss in the AOR. I can’t tell how many times I’ve been asked by Marines how they can be part of the unit. Earlier today, the personnel clerk at the admin processing center admitted he had never seen blanket travel orders before being presented with my and SSgt Fay’s orders. We are indeed a rarity within the Marine Corps.

The Camp is no different than any other base in Iraq. It is a hodgepodge of tents, ISO (shipping) containers, prefabricated trailers, existing Iraqi buildings, and plywood construction covering hundreds of acres. Units of all shapes and sizes occupy areas throughout the base, with little apparent organization to the untrained eye. Concrete jersey walls and Hesco barriers are everywhere, as is concertina wire and plywood guard towers, or OP’s (observation posts). The Hesco barriers are so abundant in Iraq that they are beginning to blend in with the landscape. A Hesco is nothing more than a large cardboard box that contains dirt and is wrapped in steel gauge wire – it is a highly effective barrier against small arms fire and shrapnel from indirect fire of mortars and rockets. I wish I had a small portions of the money Mr. Hesco has made from this little war.

A shelter made of Hesco barriers stacked atop each other. This shelter, located at a military camp in As Samawa, Iraq, can hold 50 personnel inside.

I spent dinner with four of my fellow agents from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), each deployed to Camp Falluja in general support of the MEF. I was already acquainted with 2 of them – Scott Milburn and Doug Einsel, and it was Doug who stayed up through the wee hours of the morning to pick up a couple of sweaty, stinky Marines from the helicopter landing pad at the Camp. NCIS currently has agents deployed throughout the theater, conducting criminal investigations, strategic counter intelligence support, and forensic assistance to the many Navy and Marine Corps units deployed. It was nice to see some friendly faces and catch a ride in the NCIS suburban, as I’m sans ride here in Camp like most Marines. The NCIS agents had a long day yesterday when the responded to the suicide death of a young Marine who’d only been in country a couple of days. An unfortunate tragedy, the Marine apparently took his own life with his service weapon. It’s something I’ll never understand.

Thursday, September 22, 2005


September 22, 2005

We arrived at Al Assad Air Base at 0200 hours, the night bright with stars and lights from inside the belly of the C-5 Galaxy that had ferried us for the last 14 hours. Among the group of Marines accompanying me were 17 K-9 handlers and their dogs. During a 4-hour refueling stop in Rota, Spain, the handlers had the opportunity to walk their dogs and get some fresh air. I had no idea how many dogs were actually in the cargo hold and was amazed as dog after dog came off the C-5, all acting like typical house pets, jumping at their handlers and licking their hands, happy to be out of the roaring plane. However, looks can be deceiving – each dog is specially trained to detect a variety of substances, from narcotics to explosives, as well as acting in the capacity of attack dog on command. These are no simple house pets; I enjoyed watching them but made sure to steer clear of them when their handlers walked by.

We also had several AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters inside the C-5, dwarfed by the size of the huge cargo hold. A passenger compartment lies above the cargo hold and can only be accessed by ladder once inside the aircraft, or by using roll-away stairs similar to those used on some of our older commercial aircraft. Each seat in the upper compartment faces rearward, and there are no windows, much less movies or snacks to make the flight enjoyable. Toward the end of our flight, the crew warned us the flight into Al Assad would be a bit different than what we’d experience at home, as the approach would be fast and the descent steep. The ride in was similar to an roller coaster ride, complete with unexpected dips and turns. Fortunately, roller coasters don’t face the threat of being shot by SA-7 missiles.

We were met by several dust-covered Marines once inside the air terminal and briefly welcomed aboard. Everything occurs in the hours of darkness – it’s safer that way. As our seabags came off the plane, still strapped to their pallets, we split into groups. Many were going on to other bases – Falluja, Baghdad, and smaller forward operating bases (FOB’s), while several were to remain in Al Assad. Al Assad is a joint air base, meaning each service component has personnel assigned within its gates. It is also home to the II Marine Air Wing, or II MAW. Hundreds of Marine aviators, aviation support personnel and other MOS’s are deployed aboard the base. We finally hit the rack at 0400 hours and had a restless night.

This morning, Lieutenant Colonel Tim Crowley, the current Field historian on deck, took us for a brief tour of the base. Tim had borrowed a vehicle from the II MAW S-4, and was more than happy to show us around. Nearly every Marine on base walks or runs everywhere they go, and the use of a vehicle is usually reserved for troops leaving the base, or by those units owning tactical vehicles such as HMMWV’s or 7 tons. During our drive, I was surprised by the sheer number of Russian MIG’s littering the area surrounding the airfield. Saddam’s Air Force had obviously made great efforts to move the aircraft from their hangars before US Forces bombed the airfield. None remain operational, though some still resemble the mighty flying aircraft they once were. Hidden among oasis trees as well as scattered across the open desert, most have been spray painted with graffiti by US troops, their guts strewn out across the ground.

Throughout the day, we were introduced to officers and troops from various subordinate units on Al Assad. Our most interesting stop was the Sgt. Major’s office at Regimental Combat Team 2 (RCT 2), adorned with a dozen weapons seized by RCT 2 from Iraqi insurgents. The weapons, many older than me, ranged from pistols to mortars. Homemade rocket launchers made of PVC pipe displayed the ingenuity of their makers. By dinner, we had visited many units, and finished off our “tour” with a stop at the Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) building recently built on base. The MWR building houses pool tables, fussball tables, a big screen television, and an internet cafĂ©. A home away from home, it provides the young Marines and soldiers a welcome bit of relief from the hot sun and long hours. Only the impact of indirect fire from insurgents would break many of these Marines away from their games.

We have requested air transport to Falluja, but may have to rely on ground convoy due to other operational commitments. It is there that I will attempt to embed with subordinate units of the 2nd Marine Division, my old Command at Camp Lejeune. Many are headed to the field, and I hope to join them in fight against the insurgency. Until then, I’ll continue to explore Al Assad, and attempt to develop some well-needed contacts within the aviation community. You never know when they’ll come in handy when you are in the field.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Hurry up and Wait

There’s an old saying nearly every Marine has said or heard at one time or another in his career…“Hurry up and Wait.” Unfortunately, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing since returning to active duty in early August. A series of events have delayed my intended travel to Iraq, most notably the devastation wrought on the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina. On August 28, 2005, Katrina rolled through Louisiana and Mississippi, flooding the towns of New Orleans, Biloxi, Mobile, and numerous other coastline communities. A co-worker compared the resulting disaster to Mogadishu, Somalia, where bands of looters roamed the city in search of food, or other items. The situation in New Orleans immediately brought to mind the aftermath of September 11, 2001, where the city of New York was left in tatters following the collapse of the World Trade Center. To some, it seemed the odds of rebuilding were insurmountable. For weeks following the attack, everyone wondered how we would recover from such a disaster. However, will and determination are remarkable elements of human nature. We’ve become stronger in our resolve, and the survivors of Hurricane Katrina will also be stronger despite the horrors they’ve seen and endured.

If my current travel schedule holds true, I should depart the US via a C-5 military flight on or about September 16. The largest of all military aircraft in the fleet, the monster C-5 can hold half a dozen Greyhound buses in its cargo hold. A straight, but lengthy flight straight to Iraq if all goes well, though I won’t hold my breath. “Hurry up and wait” has a way of following you regardless of your location and situation.

I will be accompanied by Staff Sergeant Michael Fay, one of only 2 official combat artists in the United States Marine Corps. SSgt Fay returned from Afghanistan in April/May 2005, where he was embedded with 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment (3/3), spending his time in Camp Blessing, Wazir Pass, and Jalalabad. SSgt Fay’s drawings are currently archived in the Marine Corps Historical Division and will hopefully appear on the walls of the National Museum of the Marine Corps, currently under construction outside Quantico Marine Corps Bases alongside I-95. The museum is scheduled to open on November 10, 2006, the birthday of the Marine Corps.
I recently received an e-mail that questioned my return to Iraq. The writer indicated I should be going to the Gulf Coast instead, helping our own citizens stranded in New Orleans or Biloxi. While I understand their feelings, it is not my choice whether I serve my country in Iraq or within our own borders. I serve at the pleasure of our Commander in Chief, the President of the United States. The President, backed by Congress, has determined that it is vital to the security of our nation that we remain in Iraq until such time that the Iraq Government can safely and securely protect its citizens. The Iraqis are simply not ready to do so. To leave now would negate any forward progress we’ve made in the shaping and building of the Iraqi security forces. Until such time comes, the insurgency will continue to prosper. We are the “fence line” that separates the borders of security and insurgency. Regardless of ones political persuasion, we are there, and will remain until it is safe to hand over the reigns to the Iraqi government.

If it were not for the requirement to deploy to Iraq, I would certainly endeavor to travel south and assist with the recovery efforts in Mississippi and Louisiana. However, I have been assigned my lot in life, and I must carry on with my assigned task. In response to the aforementioned e-mail, I ask only that each of you reflect on your own situation and consider the extent to which you’ve served your country and your neighbors. Be it community or military service, charity work or donations of your own time and money, I ask you to focus your energy on your own actions (or inaction, if appropriate), not the actions of others. It’s tempting to sit back and play “armchair quarterback,” but actions speak louder than words. If your response to the events in Iraq, Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, or any other major event was stuck in the “hurry up and wait” mode, now is the time to act vice coaching from the sidelines. Whether you Agree or disagree with the politics in play, now is the time for you to make a difference.