Monday, March 23, 2009

The End of The Beginning

Mood: Settling In
Music: Seize the Day/Avenged Sevenfold

Seize the day, or die regretting the time you lost
It’s empty and cold without you here, too many people to ache over

Today is March 20, and I have been at my job for almost three weeks now. I have some catching up to do, but am at a point where I have to decide how to keep everyone up to date while being vague enough so that the Taliban assholes lurking on the internet (here fore after to be referred to as taloti) don’t glean anything of value from reading my blog. I’ll try to figure it out as I go.

I left off with me snoozing in my sleeping bag at the Udari range in Kuwait, thinking about the convoy exercise that would, for all intents and purposes, end our training. It was the last training we would get prior to moving on to our final destinations. The weeks spent in San Diego, Camp McCrady, and now Kuwait would all end after we went through the convoy exercise, and took a bus back to Camp Virginia. Everyone was eager to get it over with.

We started waking up, one by one around 0430 the next morning. The early risers got up, dressed, stowed their gear, and went outside into the pre-dawn, desert darkness to visit the port-a-john, eat an MRE, and clean up the best they could. The late sleepers then reluctantly began to stir, and by 0545 the lights were on and everyone was up, eating and getting themselves ready for the day. I ate a cold spaghetti MRE for breakfast, and then took three packets of instant coffee, dumped them into an empty water bottle, added a single packet of sugar, re-filled the bottle with cold water, and shook vigorously. It tasted a little bitter, but I needed a cup of coffee, and it would have to do. I offered some of the concoction to a buddy, who violently spit it out, and acted as if I had played some sort of practical joke on him by letting him drink it. Oh well, so much for sharing…

The first evolution of the day was additional reflexive firing training with our rifles and pistols. It was meant to build upon what we had learned at Camp McCrady. Unfortunately, the King of Kuwait had made some sort of decree about something important to the King and that somehow resulted in us being prohibited from firing live ammunition that day. The training we received was still OK, but at times it seemed comical. The thirty of us going to Afghanistan were lined up in a single row facing the targets we were supposed to be firing at, as the instructors slowly went through footwork and body movements. They built upon each other and slowly got more complex. It looked like we were learning how to country line dance, except we were wearing body armor, and slinging weapons around. The instructors did the best they could, but everyone was disappointed we weren’t firing any ammo.

After we finished line dancing in the desert, the folks who had been selected to be drivers and vehicle commanders for the convoy exercise were sent to the motor pool to draw the hummers we would be using. All of us then went back to the tent for some classes on convoy operations, and to review portions of the exercise scheduled for the next day. Before breaking for lunch, the instructor let us know that the remainder of the day’s training would be directed by what I wanted to do. Huh? As the convoy commander, I was supposed to come up with a list of topics that I wanted to go over to get the class ready for the convoy exercise. Time to start thinking As we were let go to eat MRE’s for lunch, I pulled the other five vehicle commanders aside to get their opinions as to what they thought was needed to get everyone ready. Right off the bat, I made it clear that my top priority was clear communication and proper radio procedures. During the convoy exercise at Camp McCrady, I had sat back and watched as everyone talked on top of each other, held their mic’s open for extended periods of time and basically cluttered the net so that no one could effectively talk to each other. Since it was my show to run, if no one learned anything other than how to calmly, clearly and succinctly communicate on a radio, I would be happy. After making sure all the vehicle commanders (who would also be the radio operator for each vehicle) were on board with communications, we then decided the gunners from each vehicle should get together and come up with a common set of hand and arm signals so that they could communicate with each other independent of the radios while they were standing up in the turrets. We also decided that the drivers needed some additional instruction on vehicle safety, and instead of just hopping into the vehicles and driving around, we would have every one stand in their respective positions next to the vehicles and walk through as many scenarios as possible before even stepping foot into the vehicles.

After lunch, as we were standing next to our vehicles, pretending to drive, and literally walking through different scenarios, the Iraq group passed by and gave us curious glances as they drove out into the desert to rehearse. I could hear unspoken questions from some in our group as to why we weren’t out driving around and why we were doing what appeared to be a kabuki dance in the sand next to our vehicles. After we had walked through as many different scenarios as possible, and spent some time going over safety issues, we mounted up in our vehicles and moved out. Our convoy of six vehicles followed the instructor out into the desert and after we had a chance to get used to driving in formation, and had established good communications, the instructor began calling out different scenarios over the radio. As a group we responded well, but it immediately became clear to me that things got real complicated real quick trying to keep track of six vehicles as the instructor was calling out which vehicle was disabled, who was dead in each vehicle, where the enemy contact was coming from, etc. I tried to keep track of it all in my head, but soon found that I was scribbling in my note book to make sure I knew who was where and who was doing what. After the third or fourth scenario, the instructor told us that we were doing well, and that he thought we were prepared for the exercise the next day. He asked if we wanted to run through any more scenarios, I said we could do one more on the way back to camp, but wanted to make sure that it was still daylight when we got back. It is easier to eat when the sun is up, then it is to fumble around with flashlights trying to eat MRE’s in the dark.

While we were cleaning up from dinner and after the sun begun to set, the Iraq group rolled back into camp. After everyone was settled for the evening, the vehicle commanders and I spent time reviewing some of the scenarios that we had run through earlier. I let them know that after the second or third scenario, I had to start writing things down to keep them straight. I made an offhand comment about how I wish I had a grease pencil so I could scribble on the windshield while talking on the radio and scanning out the window. We only spent about 30 minutes or so going over things, before I went outside for a walk.

I had my boots on tonight, and a jacket. The same group that was standing around chatting last night was there again, laughing, complaining and doing imitations of some of the quirks of the various people we had spent the last four weeks with. As with the night before, some in the Iraq group were still up discussing their convoy exercise. I felt like I could do more, but the things that I and the other vehicle commanders thought important; communication, immediate actions to respond to simulated attacks, vehicle safety, and formation driving, were all covered well enough that going over them anymore would not add any value. However, before going to sleep, I opened up my little green notebook, drew six circles and labeled them 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. I then made the same marks on six consecutive pages. That way, after each scenario ended I could turn the page and start over. Hopefully having a fresh page for each scenario would help me keep better track of the vehicles during the exercise.

The next morning was just like the last morning, except that everyone woke knowing that as soon as we were done with the exercise we would be busing back to Camp Virginia, getting hot showers after three days without, and finally, finally getting our travel plans for moving on to Afghanistan. (or Iraq) This was truly the end of the beginning of our deployments.

After eating an MRE, packing our gear, and cleaning out the tent, we were all anxious to get started. As the other vehicle commanders and I reviewed some last minute details, a commander, who had been listening to us talk yesterday, handed me a black grease pencil, and said, “Do you still want one of these?”

“Absolutely,” I replied, not really thinking to ask where he found one out here in the middle of nowhere.

We loaded into our hummers, conducted radio checks, fell in behind the instructor’s vehicle and drove into the desert to begin the exercise. I hastily scribbled the same pattern of circles and numbers that I had drawn in my notebook the night before on the windshield with my new grease pencil. The instructor called over the radio to let us know that the “game was on” and then sped away, out of sight over the nearest berm. We were to continue on the road (there really wasn’t a road, just tire tracks in the sand to follow) we were on and respond to whatever they threw at us.

The first and second scenarios were some of the basic situations we had rehearsed several times and we responded well. I made marks on the windshield to keep track of which vehicle was damaged, who was towing whom and the number of dead and wounded in each vehicle. After the first scenario, I tried to wipe my marks off the windshield to reset for the next situation, but eventually resorted to spitting on my drawing and rubbing it clean with my forearm before redrawing a new set of vehicle symbols. We were working well as a team and our emphasis on proper radio procedures seemed to be paying off because the radio traffic was crisp, succinct, and to the point. The instructor called a halt and we all dismounted and formed up around him. We reviewed what we had already done and he provided us some feedback on minor things we could have done better, but all in all he said we were doing well, better in fact than some of the Army personnel that had previously gone through the exercise. He let us know that we were about half way done with the exercise, and that the next couple of scenarios were complex and designed to be “no win” situations where the intent was to completely wipe the convoy out. Great. I get to lead us all to our doom.

This seems like a good place to break. I swear, in the next post I’ll finally get to Afghanistan.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Purgatory Continues...

After a seemingly mind numbingly endless four days at Camp Virginia, we
each packed a few things in our backpacks and headed out to the Udari
Range. The Udari Range is even more desolate than Camp Virginia. There
are about a dozen strong back tents, a small arms range, a couple of
port-a-potties, and the wide open desert used for convoy training. The
strong back tents are used as class rooms during the day, then when
instruction is over; the chairs are stacked up in a corner so we can put
down our sleeping bags and spend the night on the floor. There are no
showers or sinks, nor any running water at all. Personal hygiene is
accomplished by baby wipes and bottled water, or not at all, since we
would only be there for three days and two nights. We would be issued
MRE's to eat for the duration. Our class was divided into two groups,
those going to Afghanistan were in one, and those going to Iraq were in
the other. We would stay split up for the entire three days in Udari.

The first day was spent in the class room learning how to detect, avoid
and respond to IED's and suicide bombers (both the walking and driving
types). After classes were over, we ate MRE's, and laid out our sleeping
bags on the classroom floor. I had brought a paperback with me to help kill
time. I was reading Inside Straight by George RR Martin. It's a
bit cheesy and predictable, but interesting enough to pass the time.
After sunset, and reading for a few hours, I got bored and went for a
walk. When I exited my sleeping bag and went outside, I stepped into
cold sand and realized I had forgotten to put my boots on. I almost
turned around and went back inside, but the sensation of my bare feet
sinking into the sand let my mind conjure up images of other times and
other places; Ocean City, Myrtle Beach, Solomons Island, Diego Garcia,
family and friends, so I kept walking. Over by the port-a-johns there
was a group of about ten trainees standing in a circle laughing and
talking. It had the feel of folks sitting around a campfire, drinking
beer, and telling half true stories; except there wasn't any beer and there wasn't any campfire. I avoided them, and walked out and over the top of the twelve
foot sand berm that surrounded the site. Once I started down the other
side, I was clear of the ambient light of the compound, and in complete
darkness. I walked half way down the berm, plopped into the sand, and
leaned back so that I was lying flat out lengthwise staring at a
cloudless desert night sky. There was very little light pollution, and
once my eyes adjusted I could see a thousand pinpoints of light
overhead. I scanned them and found both dippers, Orion, the North Star,
and what I thought was Mars. If I had paid more attention in astronomy,
I would have easily found dozens more. As I sat digging my bare feet
into the sand, staring off into space, I thought of home, past mistakes,
possible futures, and pondered how an insignificant speck of life like
myself fit into the enormous infinite universe spread out above me. My
reverie ended when I noticed I was shivering. It was about forty
degrees, and I was lying barefoot in the desert, flat on my back,
wearing nothing but a tee shirt and cammie trousers. When I stood up, I
couldn't feel my ass. It had grown numb from the cold sand.

I scurried back up and over the berm and was greeted by curious glances
from the guys still standing in a circle laughing, gossiping and
complaining about life. I guess I may have looked a little odd
scampering over the top of a berm barefoot in the dark wearing nothing
but a tee-shirt, since most of them were wearing fleece jackets and
boots. I joined them, pretending not to be the least bit cold. They
were a mixed bunch, a few from both the Iraq and Afghanistan groups.
The Iraq guys were ridiculing the poor sap who had been chosen to be the
convoy commander for their group, but when I walked up the topic changed
to scorpions, snakes, poisonous spiders, rats, mice, and packs of feral
dogs, as one of the guys glanced at my feet, and reminded us all of the
safety brief we had gotten earlier on the hazards in the desert. As the
memory of the class slowly came back to me, and as my ass began to thaw,
I had an almost uncontrollable urge to start patting and slapping the
back of my legs and torso to brush away the tens of spiders and
scorpions that I thought now must be crawling all over me. Instead, I
jammed my hands into my pockets and tried not think about creepy crawly
things running up and down my back. One of the guys offered me a
cigarette, and since I was cold and silently obsessing about my
impending death from a multitude of spider bites and scorpion stings, I
accepted. After a pull or two from the cigarette, I brought the topic
of conversation back around to the other convoy commander and why they
were all mocking him earlier. Apparently, he and some of the others
from the Iraq group had been discussing and planning their convoy
mission for the last several hours, and were really, really getting into
it. Some in the Iraq group got annoyed and just went to sleep, while
others (the ones I was talking to) had come outside to vent their
annoyance to their friends in the Afghanistan group, who replied that at least
they had the cool convoy commander. I mumbled something unintelligible
through a clenched, almost chattering jaw in response, looked away,
noticed that the cigarette in my fingers had burnt most of the way down,
unsmoked, and nonchalantly dropped it in the sand. I was getting cold
again, so I bid them goodnight and walked off towards the tent.

As I rounded the corner and got out of sight, I quickly pulled my tee
shirt over my head, shook it vigorously, and then, in the cold,
hurriedly used it as a whip and a brush on the backs of my legs, neck,
and torso to get the hundreds of imagined creatures off of me. When I
was satisfied that I was bug free, I put my shirt back on, went into the
tent and crawled into my sleeping bag. I thought about earlier in the
day, when I had pulled one of the instructors aside and asked if there
was something I could do to get the group ready for convoy training. He
had replied that, no, it could wait until tomorrow, after we had
finished a couple classes on convoy operations. Was I missing
something, or was the other group just a bunch of over analytical dorks?
I was pretty sure it was the latter, but as I lay curled up, shivering
in my sleeping bag, drifting off to sleep, I mentally reviewed all of
the lessons learned from the convoy exercise at Camp McCrady, just in

Friday, March 6, 2009

Purgatory; Part One

pur-ga-tor-y: -noun; any condition or place of temporary punishment, suffering, expiation, or the like.

Nearly twenty hours after leaving South Carolina we landed in Kuwait around 1 AM local time. Since I had volunteered to help off-load our 20,000 pounds of luggage from the plane, I, and thirty others waited while the remaining ninety passengers disembarked, boarded buses and disappeared. A fellow named Matt came aboard next, and told us that we would be helping him get our bags off the plane. We were led to a bus, given a safety brief on how to safely unload luggage from a plane, then allowed to crawl into the baggage hold and start passing off, one by one, the 600 or so sea bags we brought along. When we had unloaded about 575 of them, Matt frantically told us we had to stop what we were doing and get back on the bus. A Kuwaiti fuel truck had just pulled up and decided that since there were thirty people inside the cargo hold of the plane, almost done unloading baggage after spending 20 hours flying and crossing 7 time zones, now, at this very moment, would be a good time to refuel the plane. We were led back to the bus and told to wait while the plane was refueled. After about five minutes on the bus, people started moaning and groaning about having to go the bathroom, and being hot, sweaty and thirsty from the exertion of unloading 95% of 20 tons. I looked around the bus. There weren’t any captains or commanders, and the other couple of lieutenant commanders were either reading a book or playing with I-pods, so I reckoned I should do something. I got up and left the bus looking for Matt. He found me as soon as I stepped off and demanded I get back on the bus. I told him that half the bus had to go to the bathroom and that the other half wanted some bottled water. He answered by telling me that he has been doing this for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for the last two years and we had no options but to wait on the bus. Wrong answer. After a few more minutes of discussion he agreed to get us an escort, and the folks who needed to go to the bathroom were led off in single file across the flight line. He then brought us a case of bottled water to pass around. After an hour, the fuel truck left, we finished off-loading our bags, got back on the bus, and left the airport. We drove for a half hour before arriving at Camp Virginia.

After getting off the bus, all 120 of us were herded into a tent and given a series of briefs on all the things we were no longer allowed to do. They seemed to revolve around drugs, booze, gambling, and taking pictures of dead people. We were then given tent assignments and some basic directions as to where things were on the base, before being dismissed to find our tents and to offload a truck containing the 20,000 pounds of seabags. It was 4 AM when everyone was in their tents and settled with their bags.

Jet lag sucks. My watch said it was 4 AM, but most of us decided to stay up until the DFAC (dining facility) opened at 5:30, for what felt like a late dinner. We were in Kuwait for a couple reasons. The first is that its a travel hub for everyone heading to, and coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Everyone has to stop here, check in, before continuing on to other places. We were also here to get our final bit of training. We would be heading to the Udari Range for three days of more intense convoy training and additional training with our weapons. At this point I should probably describe Camp Virginia a little bit.

Camp Virginia is in the Kuwaiti desert, near the infamous highway of death that runs north to Iraq. There is nothing (I mean absolutely nothing) there, nothing but sand and Camp Virginia. Picture an empty desert, then picture about 10,000 concrete jersey walls of various heights lined up end to end until the last one touches the first one again, to form a large, oddly shaped enclosure- in the desert.. Then there are more concrete barriers inside the oddly shaped enclosure which delineate where to drive, where to walk, and I don’t know what else. There is no asphalt, only some token gravel in places where really heavy things need to travel. Hundreds of canvas tents, each capable of holding 40 or more transients, are arranged in neat columns and rows, in the sand. There are no permanent structures in Camp Virginia. I think the U.S. has some sort of agreement with the King of Kuwait that we can use the land, but aren’t allowed to build anything permanent. This has resulted in a sprawling landscape of tents, trailers and temporary facilities scattered haphazardly inside the oddly shaped enclosure of concrete barriers- in the desert.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a Starbuck’s, McDonalds, Taco Bell, Movie Theater, PX, a modern gym, basketball court, internet cafĂ©, phone center, library, chapel and an enormous DFAC. There is even a USO where you can surf the internet and play XBOX 360, PS3, and Wii games for free. All are just either in tents or trailers, and when you go from one to the other, you trudge through six inches of sand, and are blasted by the same sand as it is carried along on 50 mph winds. I wore goggles just about my entire time at Camp Virginia. The sand is everywhere, and gets blown into everything else; including your eyes (even with goggles), ears, nose and mouth. At the end of each day, I would use Q-tips to scoop the sand out of my ears, and then use some more to dig it out of each of my nostrils. Everything you eat is accompanied by the grittiness of sand. I must say though, that the food at Camp Virginia is outstanding. The DFAC is a huge conglomeration of connected trailers, which can easily seat a few hundred folks. There is a main line that serves two or three entrees and half a dozen sides, a quick line that serves pizza, fried chicken, cheeseburgers, hot dogs, chicken sandwiches, and Philly cheese steaks, and even another area set up as either a pasta bar, taco bar, or baked potato bar depending on what day it was. And don’t forget about the wide assortment of breakfast cereals (available all day), fresh fruit, soup, and enormous salad bar. Oh yeah, they also had a dessert case full of freshly baked pies, cakes, and cookies, a guy serving Baskin Robbins ice cream in the corner, and a self serve, soft serve ice cream machine with chocolate, vanilla, and chocolate and vanilla mixed together. None of us was going hungry. I even had prime rib for lunch one day.

We would be spending four days in Camp Virginia prior to going to the Udari range for 3 days, then returning to Camp Virginia to find out our travel arrangements to Iraq, Afghanistan, or Djibouti. The first four days, we had no responsibilities, except for an occasional 30 minute brief late in the afternoon. Other than that we sat around getting our internal clocks adjusted, overeating at the DFAC, sleeping in our tents, or wandering around in sandstorms going from the USO to Starbucks to the PX and back again. The thousand or so sailors, soldiers, airmen and marines spending a few days in Camp Virginia were biding their time, waiting to leave, waiting to go someplace else. The staff did pass out some information about what we would be doing at Udari. They gave us a roster of who would be doing what for convoy training. I looked for my name and saw that they had me listed as the Convoy Commander. Are you freaking kidding me?? Was this some sort of joke? Couldn’t I be a driver, or at the least an anonymous Passenger Number Two? Convoy Commander was the absolute last thing I wanted to do. However, later that day, one of the other lieutenant commanders in my group approached me and asked if I was comfortable being convoy commander, that it would be OK if I didn’t want to do it, or if it was too much for me to handle, he would do it for me. For the second time that day I thought Are you freaking kidding me?? He probably had the best intentions, but I don’t take condescension and/or patronization all that well, so regardless of whether or not I actually wanted to be the convoy commander, there was no way I was going to be anything but the convoy commander.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Something to Hold You Over

This link goes to a site that one of the chief's set up online to deposit his photo's of our training in South Carolina. Some of the pictures have a small white arrow on the corner of the photo. That means they are actually short videos. Just click the picture to start the video.

I am getting settled in at Camp Eggers, but am still using a public terminal with a time limit to type this up. I should have my laptop hooked up in the next day or two, and then I'll get caught up with the rambling musings.

Stay Tuned...