April 8, 2004
Oh gosh, where should I begin?
On the morning of April 3, we were told we were definitely convoying. We drove to Camp Arifjan, got our trucks, and proceeded to our staging point in Camp Virginia. We parked and secured the trucks but it proved to be an all-day event. We didn’t get back to Camp Doha until 2100 hours. Along the way, Top got lost and we wound up going through Al-Jahra, eventually ending back up on the highest point in Kuwait (which I have now learned is called Mutla Ridge) again. I didn’t mind. What a beautiful view. You can see clear down to the ocean. That’s about all there was to that day except for getting my first real experience driving a five-ton truck. They’re big and somewhat clumsy, slow to accelerate, but otherwise fun to drive.
On the 4th I left Camp Doha. We needed to pick up the remaining trucks we didn’t move the day before from Camp Arifjan and bring them to Camp Virginia. At some point we were supposed to link up with the 30 some people flying down from Balad who were meeting us for the convoy. I must admit, it was somewhat sad to leave Doha. It’s such a danger-free area, almost as if it’s a surreal Army amusement park.
I had a feeling it was the beginning, the beginning of a long arduous journey, a turning point—or starting point, as the case may be.
Anyway, we arrived at Camp Virginia after getting the trucks and met with everyone around 1200 or 1300 hours. Overall it was uneventful, just a lot of driving around Kuwait. Then of course we had to endure the usual organizational cluster fuck but were eventually told we were going to be on the move again—we had to drive to Camp Udairi for two days of combat and convoy training.
After everyone got organized—gathered equipment, checked their assigned trucks, lined up, started the engines—we were on our way. Dust was swirling, engines were throbbing, exhaust fumes choking the air. Tanned arms hung out of doors, Kevlar helmets were perched on dusty heads, and rifle barrels glinted in the sun. There was the resounding click of a magazine being loaded, discussions of plans and strategy—it was utterly astonishing. A massive movement of trucks and equipment all at once. I had never experienced such a thing.
Just outside of Camp Virginia I saw a whole herd of camels— there must have been about 50. They kept trying to approach our trucks, obviously curious about these funny, noisy contraptions, but a Humvee kept chasing them off. It was really funny. Three rebels separated from the herd and started running toward us, the Humvee in hot pursuit. One camel broke off, and the Humvee chased the other two around and around in circles. Imagine telling your spouse what you do in a combat zone—“I herd camels with my Humvee.” Hilarious.
The drive to Camp Udairi was dusty, long, and grueling with little to no scenery but sand dunes—a desolate wasteland baking in the blistering sun. The roads were terrible—hard-baked uneven sand and rock continuously jostling us back and forth in our tiny cab. Occasionally we would drive by a dead camel at the side of the road. One time I saw three dead goats, all in a bunch. I don’t know what they died of—thirst? When we finally arrived it was dusk and all you could see in every direction was endless rippled sand dunes—there was absolutely nothing out there as we were just about on the Iraqi border.
After parking our trucks for training the next day, we were told wake-up was 0400 hours and were released to settle in and get some rest. Briefly surveying our surroundings (it didn’t take long), we were dismayed to discover there were no facilities other than a couple of port-a-johns. The camp was nothing more than a few tents housing a small contingent of soldiers and a classroom.
The landscape was utterly flat with a few sand dunes scattered here and there, essentially a wasteland. I watched the last remnants of the day’s heat shimmer on the horizon before the sun yielded to twilight and eventual darkness. It was like I had stepped onto a whole different planet, light-years from any sort of civilization. It was an anthrophobe’s dream.
Our choice of accommodation was either the floor of one of the tents or the trucks. By this time, it was dark and we were all tired. I opted to settle into the cab of my truck—it seemed the most private place to get a little rest and I could stretch out fairly comfortably on the bench seat. All of our baggage was stacked in the back of one of the five-tons and a group of people sorted through them, which of course quickly decimated any organization we had. Think of it, rummaging for two duffel bags, one rucksack, and one personal bag each for 20 people, in the dark, in a big truck—it was virtually impossible to find anything.
Brushing away the fatigue rooted in my eyes, I scavenged through the mess until I found my bags. It was fully dark by now and I was sweaty and sticky when I finally settled into my truck to brush my teeth using a bottle of water, splashing a little on my face while trying to wipe as much sand and dust from my body as I could. I draped my uniform top over the open door of the truck, took off my boots and socks in an effort to air out my feet, ate an MRE, and watched the moon rise over the horizon.
Late that night, perhaps around 0100, I was awakened from a light slumber to the sound of vicious wind whistling around my truck, making it tremble and vibrate. Shaking away my sleepiness, I quickly discovered it wasn’t just wind—dust and sand were angrily swirling into my cab and I scrambled to close the windows, coughing through the choking airborne earth. Squinting into the side-mounted rear-view mirror, I chuckled in amazement because I found that I was completely blanketed with dust, the whites of my eyes seeming to glow in the dark.
After taking a few moments to pat myself down, again coughing with the dust billowing around me, I summoned the gumption to crack the window—mainly out of curiosity—and clouds of sand soared in, caking everything. That was enough of that. So… for the rest of the night I kept the windows closed. The stuffiness and dust inside the cab made it virtually impossible to sleep and I ended up propping my head on my uniform top that I was using as a pillow and listening to the wind rattling my truck as I took in my first bona fide Middle Eastern sandstorm.
We woke at 0400 and began training shortly after. Most of us were already awake thanks to the sandstorm. I didn’t get a chance to eat or change or even brush my teeth. The wind was still blowing—at least 25 or 30 mph I’d guess—and after a brief formation we all headed out to a little rifle range about 100 yards away. After about an hour of class instruction—all of us clustered in a small circle, the instructors shouting through the scarves covering their faces so we could hear them above the gale—we began some close-quarters combat exercises. We could hardly see, the sand constantly getting in our eyes despite our sunglasses and headgear.
We conducted rifle drills such as shooting while walking, reloading while keeping our target in the rifle sights, and turning and shooting. It was very dynamic, much more so than the typical rifle range at a stateside base, those being merely plastic pop-up targets with the shooter stationary in a foxhole. But we didn’t do so well, as most of our rifles jammed at some point because of the dirt.
The training was actually quite good, but it was so difficult to concentrate. I was tired and aching from the night before. Sand was crusting my nose, caked in my ears—there was nothing I could do to keep it out. It was remorseless.
At noon we broke for a half-hour and ate lunch—more MREs. Then we drove the trucks to some nearby tents and parked. We were split up into four groups and had classes in one of the tents. We covered many convoy driving techniques: what to look out for along the way, how to spot suspected insurgents who might be trailing us, and how to identify IEDs alongside the road. I honestly don’t remember that much. The tents, which weren’t air-conditioned, were so hot and stuffy I was struggling to stay awake after 20 minutes. We sat on backless wooden benches, our instructor standing behind an easel, occasionally handing out photos of IEDs or other devices. We finished around 1730 hours and were given a break for the night.
I ate another MRE for dinner and grabbed one for the next day because they were running scarce. The wind had thankfully died down to a light breeze and I managed to take a sponge bath with a baby wipe. I never thought I would appreciate baby wipes so much. I rooted through the baggage truck again and grabbed some clean socks, underwear, and T-shirt in the duffel bag I couldn’t find the previous night.
Then quite suddenly, it miraculously became wonderfully calm. The stars were out, brightly shining, accompanied by a dazzling full moon… it was beautiful. No, that’s not quite right. It was stunning, striking… a sight beyond my imagination—so peaceful, clear, still, and silent.
After changing and wiping the essentials, I leaned back in the cab and savored the moment. I watched as the shadows from the trucks shrank as the moon crept higher and higher in the sky—until it illuminated the landscape almost as though it were the sun. This was roughing it in the extreme and the exhilaration of it took my breath away. All you could hear were a few people bullshitting here and there, maybe the sound of an engine for a couple of minutes.
Eventually all was still—completely, deafeningly silent. I was in the middle of nowhere, miles and miles from any sort of civilization, so far out I never even heard or saw a plane flying overhead. It was like an ultimate camping trip.
I began to miss you terribly, yet I felt… soothed. The best way I can describe it is that I felt a comforted loneliness—I was so far from home but I knew that you were with me… I could feel you with me.
We got up early, 0500 hours, and began our practical convoy driving training. It took all day. Camp Udairi has a two-mile driving range and we conducted some practice drills in the morning with a live-fire exercise in the afternoon. We learned how to park our trucks in a defensive “box” formation and how to dismount safely and take up fighting positions. We learned how to shoot from the cab and reload while driving, how to set up an emergency MedEvac,22and how to effectively get first aid to the wounded.
It was good training.
We finished in the late afternoon and packed up, heading down to Camp Virginia in the late evening to stay for a night. The camp was still as hushed as a ghost town and some tumbleweed was all that was needed to make the scene complete, maybe the creak of a wooden sign as well. I finally got a shower and you should have seen the sandy stream flowing down the drain. It was the best shower I had ever taken.
We stayed for three relatively quiet nights. Essentially all we did was check our trucks, review our training, clean rifles, and rest. The best part was I had the opportunity to get on the Internet and send you a letter, the queue being bearable these days. It felt good to be able to express how my thoughts of you are my light, my beacon, a lighthouse guiding me home. I could almost feel your presence through the computer screen when I read your email.
22 Medical Evacuation Site
You’re so adorable… you know that, my dear? When you spoke of our nights together, cooking, watching a movie and snuggling, I felt as if my smile would break my face in two. I too can clearly recall those times when you would stand at our kitchen counter chopping the piles of vegetables we were having for dinner. I will never forget all the times you would ask me to mince the garlic as you stood there, a glass of wine in hand, overseeing the operation.
I remember us chatting about our crazy friends while we marinated shrimp together, chuckling about how complicated they made their lives. Still laughing, we’d fire up the wok, sauté our creation, and pile it onto plates and snuggle up on the couch, the cats lounging on the back of the sofa, our dog nestled comfortably on the living room floor.
Please don’t worry too much; I’m not going anywhere. No one can predict the future, but I have no plans to leave you or our life together. How strange that you dreamed of the future, a future without me, and regretted it. I wonder what happened that would compel you to dream of that. You’ll have to tell me all about it when we can hold each other and take comfort that we are never to be parted again. Now is our time to be strong for each other… both of us being a beacon in the night to guide us back to each other.
I love you.
April 10, 2004
We left to go north… to Baghdad… to Camp Anaconda—to war—on April 9.
The convoy officially began by 0700 and all I can say is it was a fucking incredibly long drive. I was paired with Major Burns, who had flown down from Balad, and he really took care of me. He made me a bottle of strawberry Tang, practically shoved beef jerky down my throat, and requisitioned a cot for me to sleep on. Top assigned me to drive with him, although I’m not sure why and I have to admit, I felt a bit strange driving my commanding officer around. Overall though, it’s been a nice chance to get to know him better.
The beginning of the journey was a long dirt road that took us past Camp Udairi again. It was the same terrible road we had driven before and the bottom portion of my ballistic vest, now weighted down with armored plates, stabbed my kidneys with every lurch of my truck making it difficult to concentrate on driving. Not comfortable to say the least.
Oh, I guess I should mention that the day before we left everyone chalked their trucks with everything and anything, sayings such as:
“Fighting for freedom.”
“Freedom ain’t free.”
“I didn’t get that memo.”
Anyway, we drove to just shy of the border and pulled over at a fuel station. We were told that when we crossed the border we needed to lock and load our rifles and keep our eyes open. At that point, it was show time—the real deal. We were entering an active combat zone and had to be ready for anything. The major had arranged for an escort of three armored Humvees with machine guns—a welcome sight.
We never did get any armor for our trucks and whatever we had certainly wasn’t provided by the military or our government. We scrounged steel plates from scrap heaps in Camp Virginia, scavenging through piles of junk and jerry-rigging anything that might work. After gathering what we could, there was the problem of cutting the scrap to fit our truck doors and perhaps even the flooring. For that task, we “found”—well, “borrowed”—a cutting torch from the camp to complete the job. The scant scrap we managed to gather didn’t go very far, so the majority of the trucks were unarmored when we began traveling.
Everyone did chip in for a “sandbag party” one afternoon however, but what we were able to make didn’t go very far and wasn’t very comforting. My truck had just a few sandbags laid on the floorboards and no scrap metal. It was pretty nerve-wracking because the flimsy canvas door of my truck would have done absolutely nothing to stop an AK-47 bullet, let alone an IED. But it was too late to worry about it, the drive had begun and I just hoped everything would go smoothly.
We left the fuel station and drove out of Kuwait, past the demilitarized zone between the two countries that’s roughly 100 yards wide and flanked by two rows of concertina wire, with guard posts for each country’s entrance. I must admit it felt peculiar crossing the border, almost sinister… you could tangibly feel a change in the air—I don’t know how else to describe it but it was real nonetheless.
Shortly after entering Iraq, we came upon a small village. It consisted of a few haphazardly scattered sand-colored brick houses, all of them reduced to shambles by some past battle. A few junked cars stood forlornly next to the houses and a cluster of small children dressed in ragged T-shirts watched us from the roadside. A few of them waved but most just stared at us with a vague curiosity as we lumbered by.
Trenches had been dug between the houses, and a few patches of grass dotted the landscape. There was only one road, the one we were traveling on—a divided six-lane highway, three lanes on each side. Running north, the right lane was reserved for Iraqi citizens. Our trucks were to stay in the middle lane, with the far left lane reserved for our escort. We averaged 45 to 55 mph with the escort slowing down and speeding up accordingly, keeping a watchful vigil over us and the surrounding expanse of desert. Radio communication was strictly limited because it could trigger an IED, so each truck was largely on its own despite each of us silently depending on one another to watch out for danger.
I was driving with my rifle aimed out the window, praying not to have to engage with anyone. But nothing could be left to chance and you never knew who was friendly or out to kill us. Let me tell ya, it’s tough driving a big-ass truck with one hand and holding a rifle out the window with the other combined with aching kidneys and a real sweaty ass. I’ve definitely been on more fun road trips.
Shortly after passing the ruined village, a group of children on bicycles rode by us on the opposite side of the road and I was amused when the lead kid looked right at me and gave me the finger, his dark eyes flashing and smudged face twisting with hatred.
Honestly, I don’t blame him.
As we drove on, we saw countless burned-out wrecks of military and civilian vehicles on the shoulder. Whatever houses we came across were in shambles, piles of rubble nestled against their remains. Every child we saw was dressed in dirty rags. Some of them were smoking cigarettes, sitting alongside of the road and gazing at us indifferently as we passed by. They couldn’t have been more than 10 years old. Stray dogs rummaged in trash piles, poking noses in tin cans, licking plastic wrappers, occasionally snarling and fighting over a scrap of discarded food. And on the horizon the great steel mazes of the oil refineries reared their cities of pipe and machinery. They glittered in the fierce midmorning sun, gouts of unwanted natural gas burning from their flare stacks, spewing pollution into the air. The contrast between this ruthless extraction of black gold and the poverty all around me took my breath away.
We were told during our training to tailgate and even bump out of the way any vehicle that got between our trucks. We were also told to look for cars pacing us because they were most likely watching us, perhaps even radioing to an ambush
up ahead. One car I saw twice (I wasn’t the only one who noticed)—a dented white Chevy Caprice that was definitely not friendly. It hovered around our convoy until chased off by our escort then returned shortly after, pacing us and watching. There were three Iraqis—two in the front seats, one in the back—all with AK-47s. When they passed my truck I braced for an inevitable confrontation. But they sped ahead and were soon chased off again. Thankfully our escorts were good at their job, however, the bottom line was we had been noted and that information was bound to be disseminated. We all knew they would be back… them or someone else.
I must admit I was frightened. I felt a sickening feeling creep into my stomach, the reality of the situation becoming all too clear. I was also dismayed to find that the tic in my eye had returned, which made it difficult to see, to aim, or drive.
Sometime later, I saw a guy selling old Iraqi money on the side of the road and we passed many rundown brick shacks no bigger than four feet square, where the locals had set up stands to sell snacks and trinkets.
The whole way we were tailed by random cars, the white Chevy returning as we predicted. At one point, we were delayed 20 minutes when one of the Humvees busted a radiator hose and I noticed (after we had dismounted and taken up fighting positions) that the guardrails on both sides of the highway had been removed, dismantled either by looters or U.S. forces in an attempt to prevent IED planting. Our escort was hit by an IED on the way down to meet us but no one was injured, thank God.
We never knew when we might be attacked.