Friday, April 24, 2009

"Here... We... Go..."

Music: Becoming the Bull; Atreyu

Back and forth the struggle consumes us all.
Trying to keep a level head, in the most unsettling of times.
Today, I’ll become the bull.

In preparing for the convoy exercise, we had to come up with call signs for each vehicle. One of the vehicle commanders suggested it be a one syllable word in keeping with streamlining radio traffic. I didn’t want to waste too much time on a small detail, so after momentarily closing my eyes, and thinking of where I was and what I would be doing for the next year, Brick immediately came to mind. Our six vehicles would be Brick 1 through 6. I was Brick 3.

After our short feedback session with the instructor, we got back in our vehicles, performed a radio check, set the vehicle order, and moved out. Like before, the instructor lead the way, then announced over the radio that we were to stay on the marked path, and immediately veered off into the desert, leaving us to continue on alone.

We continued on for a few minutes before the path went up a steep incline of about 100 feet. The terrain changed significantly from wide open dessert to jagged and hilly. There were deep wadi’s and large sandstone formations covering the landscape. Nothing was visible beyond the crest of the hill we were travelling up. Brick 1 crested the ridge and disappeared out of sight. Brick 2 followed and disappeared as well. When our vehicle crested the ridge, we found ourselves in a small canyon. It was 200-300 feet long, with steep, almost vertical walls that ranged between 20 and 30 feet high. It was relatively straight, but narrow. In some places it was wide enough for two vehicles to be side by side, but mostly throughout its length, there were just two or three feet of clearance between the walls of the canyon and the vehicles. After taking it all in, I thought, Here… we… go… And as if on cue, an explosion went off at the end of the canyon and Brick 1 was lost to my sight in a cloud of smoke. All hell broke lose after that.

Brick 1 radioed that they had dead, wounded and that their vehicle was destroyed. Brick 2 disappeared into the smoke in front, and as Brick 4 passed our vehicle on the left I looked up and saw four men armed with AK-47’s coming down the canyon wall from the left. Before I could slap the gunner on the thigh, to tell him what I was seeing, he yelled out that he had multiple targets at three o’clock. (right side). I quickly glanced out my window, but only could see the wall of the canyon a couple feet away. As I was turning away to look back to the left, I heard and saw a metal canister go dinka dinka dink across the hood of our vehicle, fall to the ground and explode into a cloud of smoke. The next few moments were filled with radio chatter; Brick 2 was now the lead vehicle. Brick 4 had moved behind Brick 2, to begin hooking up to Brick 1 to tow it. Brick 5 had eyes on all the bad guys scampering around the tops of the canyon walls. Brick 4 called in that they had been hit, and now had casualties. Brick 5 was directed to take control of Brick 6, and to try to get high ground to engage to the enemy. Brick 2 wanted to know if they should attempt to tow Brick 4 out. No…It was time to make a stand. The final instructions given over the radio were to cease all attempts at towing, cease caring for the wounded and to focus solely on clearing the canyon of bad guys. Brick 5 soon reported that they and Brick 6 were able to loop back around and gain the high ground, quickly followed by Brick 2 reporting that they had killed some bad guys and were no longer taking fire. The instructor then broke in on the radio and told us that the scenario was over, and that we should shut down the vehicles and form up, so he could give us some feedback. After I told the driver to shut the engine off, I glanced up at the windshield and noticed the multitude of X’s, O’s, lines, circles, checks, letters and numbers that I barely remembered scribbling with the grease pencil during the last few minutes. Out of 30 people and 6 vehicles there were four dead, six wounded, one vehicle destroyed, and three damaged. What a slaughter. The entire scenario lasted only three minutes, but seemed much longer. Now it was time to be told how many things we did wrong. Oh well, I guess it could have turned out a lot worse.

Surprisingly everyone in the group was in good spirits, and the instructor had only positive feedback for us. Apparently the last few groups to go through that canyon fared much worse. The instructor even told us of one group that, once the scenario started, sat paralyzed, in complete radio silence for over three minutes until they were all dead. He seemed genuinely impressed with our results, and since the other 29 folks in the group weren’t calling me names or throwing things at me, I’ll just book it and move on.

The final scenario was supposed to be more complex than the canyon, but due the keen eyes of first vehicle commander, we completely avoided triggering the initial phase of the scenario. I won’t go into details because of taloti, but needless to say we went through the final scenario unscathed. We soon found ourselves at the end of the convoy exercise, being told by the instructors how well we did, blah, blah, blah. Everyone was glad it was over, and even happier we did well, but the icing on the cake was that in a few short hours we would be back in Camp Virginia, taking hot showers eating in the ginormous DFAC, and receiving our final travel plans. We did a final brief debrief of the exercise and convoyed back to clean up our tent/classroom, and to turn the vehicles in.

As the class was cleaning up the classroom and loading up gear, the instructor and I drove back to the motor pool to turn in the vehicles, he commented, “Nothing bothers you much, does it? You didn’t seem to get too flustered during all this.”

I replied by telling him that being in the Civil Engineer Corps, I’m usually not the smartest guy in the room, but instead I just try to keep a level head, do what I think is right, and stay in the shadows. It gets me by.

On the bus back to Camp Virginia, there was chatter about the Iraq group and how they had been slaughtered on their convoy exercise. Everyone was upbeat and positive. A few of the folks sitting close by, offered me a, “Good job out there today.” I told them it was a team effort, and that everyone just did what they were supposed to do. They agreed, but added that since I was the convoy commander, that I get the credit for everyone doing well.

When we got off the busses in Camp Virginia, it was about noon. We were told that the travel brief would be at 5pm, and we were free until then. There was also a rumor going around that we would be leaving tonight. Most everyone headed straight for the showers. I don’t really enjoy being crowded into a shower trailer with 40 other men who haven’t bathed in four days, so I did something else. I have a habit of doing the exact opposite of what the crowd is doing. Sometimes it works to my advantage, other times… not so much.

I went into our tent and proceeded to pack up all my belongings. If the rumors were true, then I would be one step ahead, if not, then I would have to unpack my crap again for however long we were stuck in Kuwait. As I was stuffing the last of my things into three sea bags and two backpacks, people were starting to trickle back from the shower trailer. I took that as my cue, grabbed my shower gear, some clean cammies and took off for the showers. Since I had waited, there was the risk of there not being any hot water left. The trailer was un-crowded, but filled with trash left behind from the first wave of people. The hot water hadn’t run out, so I was able to get three days worth of grime off of me in relative comfort. After showering, I hit up the DFAC for a late lunch, went to the internet cafĂ©, ran through the PX, and finally settled into a big black leather couch at the USO to vegetate for a little while. I came across a few of my classmates, and according to them, the rumors were firming up that we would be leaving tonight.

The travel brief pissed me off. We were all seated in the same large tent we had sat in a week ago when we showed up in Camp Virginia at 2 in the morning. This time everyone was wide awake, and in much better spirits. We were getting out of here. The brief started out with various senior members of the Navy staff in Kuwait taking questions from all of us. It turned into a bitch and whine session. Person after person got up and told the Captain and Master Chief every complaint and gripe they had stored up for the last month. Some folks were actually bringing up things that had happened in San Diego. This was dragging on and on and on. I just wanted to know when we were leaving. God! Won’t these people ever shut up! After nearly 90 minutes, people began to run out of things to complain about, and the operations officer was introduced. He said he had Good News and Bad News. The Good News was that we were leaving tonight. The Bad News was that we had to be on busses to the airfield at 8pm. You do the math… the brief started at 5pm, people complained about crap for an hour and a half and now this knucklehead was telling us that we were getting on busses less than two hours from now. Do you think the whiners would have brought up so much petty crap if the operations officer would have gone first? Instead, my last few hours outside of a warzone consisted of listening to the trifling gripes of niggling bellyachers.

Amazingly, once we knew when were leaving, no one had any further quibbles. The tent cleared out as if a bomb had gone off. Everyone hustled back to the tents to pack. I walked.

When I got back to the tent, there was a flurry of motion and activity. People were frantically cramming and jamming everything into sea bags and backpacks. I double checked the locks on my bags, and found the chief who had been designated to make sure that everyone staged their bags in the correct spot to be loaded into the cargo truck following the busses to the airfield. He was packing when I found him. He showed me where the bags were being staged, and when I dropped mine off, there was already one other person’s there. Since my bags would soon be buried by several hundred others, they should be the last on the truck at Camp Virginia, the first off the truck at the Kuwait airfield, the first on the cargo pallet in the plane, the last off the cargo pallet when the plane landed, the last on the truck in Bagram, and finally (and most importantly) they should be the first off the truck when I saw them again. In hindsight I can’t believe I actually spent brain cells thinking that through when I dropped my bags off.

I wandered over to the McDonalds trailer and got a cheeseburger, fries, chicken nuggets, and a Mountain Dew. I sat and watched some Army folks play basketball for a few minutes. I went to the internet trailer and sent home a cryptic email implying that I was leaving for Afghanistan shortly. I passed back through the USO, played Fallout3 on an Xbox for a few minutes, and then begrudgingly began to wander back towards where the busses were supposed to pick us up. The busses were there. The cargo truck was there. I pitched in for a few minutes to help finish loading the multitude of sea bags on to the truck, walked over to the bus, plopped down, and briefly thought, before closing my eyes, Training is over, time to go to work

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