Personalized Learning One Bottle at a Time

A few years back, I decided to try my hand at home winemaking. I watched videos online, and I joined a few groups on Facebook and read through different threads. I found blogs and articles about the art and science of making wine. I picked up a book on wine tasting and ordered a couple other books of recipes and instructions for building and using home winery equipment. I talked with winemakers at local wineries, asked lots of questions, and even toured some of the production and storage facilities. When I finally built up the nerve, I ordered a home winemaking kit. It came with all of the basic equipment I would need to make my first batch of wine. When it arrived, I pulled everything out and looked at it. I had more to learn. I went online and searched for instructions on how to use a hydrometer properly. I watched a couple videos showing people using racking canes. I put everything back in the box because I was really intimidated. I watched more videos, read more, and asked more questions. Finally, I visited a home brew store, and I purchased an ingredients kit. It came with juice, yeast, all of the other additives I’d need, and most importantly, it had detailed instructions. The old Italian woman who owned the store pulled the instructions out of the box and pointed out a couple of things, and she told me where to deviate from the instructions to get better results. Within a few days, the airlock on my bucket was bubbling away, and my house smelled like a winery. Within a couple of months, we were sipping on homemade green apple Riesling.

After I’d been through the process once, I was off and running. I started buying juice, juice concentrates, and fresh fruit from grocery stores and local farms. Today, I can throw some water, sugar, fruit, pectic enzyme, potassium metabisulphite, yeast nutrient, and a few other things in a bucket, adjust the sugar level to reach an appropriate specific gravity, pour a packet of EC-1118 on top, and I’ll have an active fermentation within a day or two. After about 8-10 days, I’ve got wine. There are other steps between the finished fermentation and the wine glass, but you get the idea. I could go home today, take ingredients that I have in my freezer and pantry, and have 30-35 bottles of wine within 6 or 8 weeks. To be fair, I have nearly 40 gallons of wine in different stages of the aging process at home right now. These days I like to let wine age for a year or so before I put it in bottles; it creates a much smoother finish. I make 30-35 bottle batches for about $2 per bottle, and some of my wines, in my personal opinion, are better than the ones that I can buy locally.

Homemade wine on a shelf.
A few different varieties of my homemade wines waiting for the corks to expand before storing on their sides.

What exactly did I do here? I spent time gathering background information, learning the process, and identifying areas where I may run into obstacles. Next, I used pre-measured ingredients and instructions to practice the process with support. From there, I went off on my own, and started making my own wine based on my own tastes and preferences, and I continued tweaking my methods as I went. After making a few batches, I started to wonder what it would take to make wine commercially. I started doing research on the permits and processes that are required to produce and sell wine. I figured out how much it might cost to get the proper permits and worked to determine if it would even be feasible to pursue this as a side job or second career. More reading. More asking questions. More thinking.

This all started because my wife and I once spent a weekend away, and we stopped into a winery for lack of better things to do. We enjoyed it, and since then we’ve made it a point to check out wineries every chance we get. At one particular location, the owner showed me where he made his wine, and told me that it had just been a hobby of his until he was laid off from his factory job.

Think of your own example. What did you learn? What was your process? How did you learn, practice, and improve your skills? Why did you want to learn that particular thing? What motivated you when you faced obstacles or challenges? How did you know when you’d finally learned it?

Now, think back to a time when you were a student in a classroom. Were you interested in what you were learning? Were you inspired by someone to learn about Trans-Saharan trade in the 1300s? Were you able to explore course content in a way that worked best for you and your learning style? Did you practice the skill or concept and then go off and do it on your own in the real world? Did you connect with what you were learning?

I currently work in an alternative high school. Our students have all been in some sort of trouble before they were sent to us, and they’ve dealt with a lot of obstacles outside of school. All of the things they warn teachers about students facing outside of school are present and accounted for here. We deal with drugs, trauma, poverty, race-related issues, hunger, homelessness, abuse, gun violence, gang affiliation, foster care, addiction, teen pregnancy, fighting, childhood cancer, alcohol abuse, underage drinking, academic underachievement, and overall feelings of hopelessness.

When I started teaching in this district, one of the first things I found in the high school English curriculum was something about having students read selected works of William Shakespeare to help them understand adversity. I was floored that anyone could think that Shakespeare could teach these kids about adversity. They live it every single day of their lives. Why wouldn’t we be using their experiences and their interests to engage them in learning that truly matters to them? Maybe you’re thinking about curriculum, and standards, and assessments now. If we really think about standards; though, in most cases they describe skills and concepts more than content. They can be deconstructed into specific learning targets that can be laid out as simply as what a student needs to know, and what a student needs to be able to do. The whole purpose is for students to build skills and understanding so that they can then apply those skills and their understanding in situations that they face in the future and hopefully in the real-world outside of the classroom.

Let’s circle back to my winemaking adventure. Obviously, high school students can’t be fermenting wine in the back of a classroom, but it’s my example, and I’m running with it. From start to finish, while learning to make wine, what skills and concepts did I potentially master or at least gain some knowledge and experience with?

I analyzed a complex set of ideas or sequence of events; determined the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; integrated and evaluated multiple sources of information presented in different print and non-print formats in order to address a question or solve a problem; conducted research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrowed or broadened the inquiry when appropriate; synthesized multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation; gathered relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assessed the strengths and limitations of each source in terms of the task and purpose; and I determined or clarified the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases.

I worked with the volumes of a variety of differently shaped containers and used them to solve real-world problems.

Through fermentation, I modeled cellular respiration as a chemical process whereby the bonds of food molecules and oxygen molecules are broken, and the bonds in new compounds are formed resulting in a net transfer of energy, and I evaluated the evidence supporting claims that changes in environmental conditions may result in the extinction of a species. Did you know that when yeast use oxygen and consume sugar, the by-products are alcohol and carbon dioxide? Eventually, when the alcohol level reaches a certain point, the yeast die. They literally pollute their environment until they can no longer survive.

In learning about regulations and the feasibility of opening and operating a commercial winery, I analyzed ways in which competition and government regulation influence what is produced and allocated in an economy, and I performed cost-benefit analysis on a real-world situation, using economic thinking to describe the marginal costs and benefits of a particular situation.

While naming different varieties of wines and creating bottle labels, I generated and conceptualized artistic ideas and work; refined and completed artistic work; and organized and developed artistic ideas and work.

Finally, through the whole process, I used a decision-making process to develop solutions to real world problems; modeled flexibility and willingness to try new things; outlined and examined goals and priorities necessary to complete tasks; evaluated failure as a learning opportunity; demonstrated and evaluated personal responsibility and pride in assigned work (e.g., asking clarifying questions, self-directed learning, self-initiated learning, quality of work); applied important concepts in reading, mathematics, science, and technology to solve real-world problems; explored various options related to a chosen career cluster; and evaluated a career, including educational requirements, skills necessary to perform the job, potential earnings and job outlook in a geographical area.

All of these actions are in some way, and on some level, Kentucky academic standards, or parts of standards in English, Math, Science, Social Studies, Art, and Career studies. Everything from studying before I started to make my own wine, creating a live fermentation, understanding how some yeast has higher alcohol tolerances, figuring out how many bottles I’d need per batch of wine, to researching commercial winery requirements, accidentally letting a Cabernet Sauvignon get too warm, and designing wine labels, is a demonstration of learning and growth that is aligned with standards.

If school is intended to prepare students for the real world, then why do we insist on seat-time, teacher-created lessons and assessments, worksheets, meaningless tasks, and tests? Why wouldn’t we allow students to explore our world, let them generate evidence of their own learning and mastery, help them align their work with academic standards, provide them with feedback, and then assess them on their growth and progress toward their personal goals and mastery of standards? Truly personalized learning places students at the center of their own learning. It puts them in the driver’s seat, and changes the teacher’s role to act as guardrails, keeping students on the path of learning. Students can pursue their interests, passions, and aspirations. Imagine the academic possibilities if a student wanted to explore the physics behind car crashes; the chemistry behind internal combustion engines; the math and economics behind the stock exchange; the art of persuasion in marketing and sales communications; the work required to be an entrepreneur; or the math involved in accounting. Students could gain real-world experience, build personal and professional networks, and explore the world while using their talents and experiences to carve out a path to their own vision of success. Personalized learning is not just student voice and choice. It’s not just self-paced. It’s not digital curriculum, or a menu of teacher-created options; personalized learning is personal, individualized, and student-centered. Personalized learning means something different for every student.

Cheers! 🍷

30 May 2008 (Abaiji, Iraq)

We were up early today, about 0300. Everyone had to shave and do all of their usual morning hygiene; plus we had radio checks; intelligence updates; weapon, ammo, night vision, and water inspections; then the patrol briefing, all so we could head out by 0500. No breakfast this morning; though, unless we wanted an MRE or had some pop-tarts or granola bars stashed away somewhere.

Our vehicle crews did a great job keeping our vehicles stocked with MREs and water, and usually some junk food, Gatorade, and Rip-Its energy drinks. Nikjoo, the RTO, took care of keeping our radios, both handheld and vehicle-mounted, on the correct encrypted nets and always made sure we had batteries and whatever else we needed. Even though they all took care of those things, getting the platoon ready to roll still took a lot of preparation on everyone’s parts.

Before each patrol, LT Schardt and SFC AB gave a patrol brief. They explained the plan, destination, order of movement, which squad was responsible for which piece, intelligence for the area, radio frequencies, medevac plan, where the platoon sergeant and medic would be located, convoy speeds, actions on enemy contact, etc. It was a pretty extensive patrol brief each time we left the wire. Since SFC AB was still back in the States, I was filling in. I was responsible for his portion of the patrol brief and also for everything he’d typically be doing on the patrol. Jimmy stepped up and ran my squad, while I was acting as the platoon sergeant. As such, I’d be riding in the 4-vic with Doc Bosley, Almazan with his M240B machine gun, Willy-P as the vehicle commander/gunner, and Crowley behind the wheel. I didn’t like being in other vehicles; I had everything set up the way I liked in my truck, and SGT Taaga always took good care of me. He knew how I liked to have things, and he and Crapenter did a hell of a job keeping the truck ready to go.

We’d be driving dirt roads over to Abaiji, then heading south on Route Cobras along the Tigris River to conduct another SOI payday. In some places Route Cobras went right along the river, and in others it curved a kilometer or so from the water.

Traveling to Abaiji from our JSS is a long process. Google Maps suggests it’s a little more than an hour, but everything in the army takes longer than it should. We had to cross the Route Asp bridge, which meant everyone had to get out of the vehicles. LT Schardt had to stop and talk at every SOI checkpoint we passed, which meant the vehicles set up a security perimeter, and the squads were on the ground covering his ass. Sheikhs always seem to show up with some “important information” and want to have a meeting. I think it’s more about the sheikhs feeling important or being seen in front of their communities as the go-to guy for the Americans.

Once we reached Route Cobras and headed south, we were able to pick up the pace a bit. Cobras was a finished road; in most places it was wider than the dirt roads, and we didn’t have to worry about slipping off into irrigation canals. The extra width allowed us to maneuver our vehicles a little more easily. Sometimes, we’d still catch the corner of a checkpoint barricade, or on one or two occasions, the corner of a building or roof overhang that was really close to the road. There were also times when vehicle traffic would slow us down, but honking, waving, and tailgating usually got them out of the way. Sometimes, they needed a little extra encouragement to move over. In that case, the gunner spinning his .50 caliber machine gun around and aiming it down into their back window usually got the point across. Other times, pointing a rifle or pistol at their back window would do it.Route Cobra #1

A little ways south of Abaiji, we turned off of Route Cobras and headed east down a dirt lane through an overgrown grove of date palms. It was a dusty trail that reminded me of farmers’ lanes that led to grain bins and separated corn and soybean fields in Illinois where I grew up. Once we got through the palm grove, the lane zigzagged north, then east, then north, and then back east again, passing through tomato fields, and some fish ponds that appeared to be filled with carp.

I was impressed by the tomato fields as we passed through. I’d never seen so many tomato plants in one place, and I missed having garden-fresh tomatoes from back home. They were planted in neat north-south rows, and they were separated by lines of towering sunflowers. The sun and heat are intense here, so I wondered if they planted the sunflowers to provide the tomatoes with shade at different times of day.B66 in Abayachi. Sunflowers used to shade tomato plants

We pulled through one more overgrown area, and the lane finally stopped at a Sheikh’s house on banks of the Tigris. It was built on stilts over a concrete pad, and overlooked the water. For an Iraqi home, it was kind of nice. It could have used a little TLC, but this place could have been a hell of a party pad. From the house, I could see another building on the property that had a roof made of reeds. It made me think of huts from Tahiti or some other tropical paradise. My mouth watered for a lava flow. Hell, any frozen drink would’ve been great at that point.

We set up a security perimeter, and waited for the SOIs to arrive for payment. As they showed up, it sort of turned into a party. I walked around checking on the platoon, checking in on the payday, and bullshitting with the SOIs.

Some of the Iraqis worked to prepare a huge meal. They built a fire and put huge metal pots of rice over it. They also had lamb, kebabs, stuffed vegetables, fresh fruit, bread, and a few other things. In addition to cooking and eating, a bunch of the SOIs jumped into the river. I was soaked with sweat from head to toe, but there was no way that me or my guys were going to set foot in that nasty water. While we were hanging out, one of the SOIs showed me a video on his cell phone of a cobra slithering around while a baby played with it. It must have been de-fanged, or something, but I still don’t understand why that would even be a thing.

These big meals are interesting. They put all the food on huge pans, and everyone gathers around and eats with his hands. They just tear off pieces of whatever and stuff it into their mouths. Then they talk and chew, and food falls out of their mouths back into the pan. It’s kind of a mess, but the food is pretty good.

It was about 1500 (3 P.M.) when we’d finished eating and packing everything up. Because there wasn’t much space to move our vehicles around near the house, we had to make about a 397-point turn to get out of there. Typically, LT Schardt’s vehicle took the lead on our patrols, and SFC AB’s vehicle brought up the rear, but there was  no way for our big vehicles to pass one another on this lane. That put me, in 4-Vic, in the lead on the way out.

Once I had a good headcount and confirmation that everyone was ready to move, we rolled up the lane and started zigzagging our way back toward Route Cobras. About halfway through the tomato fields the ground around my truck erupted. Earth, gravel, and parts of our sniper screen flew skyward. The blast felt like a kick to the chest, and the inside of our Stryker filled with dust and smoke. Crowley took his foot off the gas, and Willy P was screaming into the radio in his thick Texas drawl, “IED! IED! IED! 4-Vic, IED!”

I yelled through our vehicle communication system, “Don’t stop! Fucking go, man! Go!” He hit the gas again, and I checked on the guys. I was relieved that our armor had held, and everyone was in one piece. Later, I was told that the smoke and dust shot up into the air about 40 feet.

We all got the wind knocked out of us a bit, everyone’s ears were ringing, and a little later we all had headaches. We rounded the next turn in the lane, and kept heading toward Route Cobras. The platoon had stopped and backed up as soon as the IED had detonated. No one had started shooting at us, so it wasn’t a complex ambush. We just never knew if there were more IEDs buried close to the first one. Sometimes, they disabled a vehicle with the first bomb, then waited for help to come before detonating a second one.

Once Willy had stopped yelling into the radio, I radioed to LT Schardt that we had zero casualties, and that we were good to continue rolling. He told us to stop short of Route Cobras.

I didn’t want to stop; I knew whoever detonated it was probably running through the trees back to the main road. I wanted to roll up there in time to see someone fleeing. I wanted to shoot them. I can’t even describe how angry and impatient I was feeling. To make matters worse, it was only a few minutes after the explosion that a couple guys came up to the truck asking if they could go repair the power lines that the explosives had cut. I’m pretty sure I told them to fuck off. I couldn’t believe we were stuck waiting on EOD while the prick who tried to kill us was going on about his day. We sat in our truck and waited, and waited, and waited.

After all we’d been through in Sadr City, just having had a memorial service for Kyle a week and a half before, and now these assholes out here in the country try to blow me up. I was done. I wanted to go back up to the sheikh’s house and put everyone one of the Iraqis there on the ground. I wanted to tell them that they had 5 minutes to tell me who did it, or I was going to start shooting one person per minute until they told me. I may have even suggested that to the guys in my truck. Obviously, we didn’t do it. We’d all probably still be in prison had we done that, but somehow, I think Route Cobras would have had fewer IEDs after that point.

A couple hours later EOD finally showed up. They did their crater assessment and determined that it had been about 50 lbs of homemade explosives that was buried at the edge of the road. It was command-detonated, which meant that someone waited until we drove over the right spot, and then he touched a battery to a wire that was connected to the bomb to set it off.

The crater was about 5 feet deep and filled with water. In this picture, someone put a rifle down to show the size of the hole. Of course, you can see the damaged power line too. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Once EOD had done their work, we escorted them to a local police station to pick up another IED that had been found, and then we returned to the JSS via Route Coyotes. It was the long way. Our day had started at 3 A.M., and we rolled back into our camp just a little after 9 P.M.

We were all exhausted, especially after the heat of the day and adrenaline rush that followed the IED explosion. My face was dirty and gritty from dried sweat and dust from the roads. My uniform was still wet under my body armor. The parts that weren’t covered by my vest had dried. My dry sleeves and pant legs were ringed with white crusty salt from having been sweat-soaked earlier in the day.

We unloaded our vehicles, accounted for our equipment, wiped down our weapons, and did all of the usual post-patrol stuff, and 1LT Schardt and I checked in with 1SG and the commander at the CP. After that, it was finally time for a shower and a phone call home.

I walked back to the tent, grabbed my shower stuff, and headed over to the showers. They weren’t working, so I washed with warm bottled water that had been sitting outside all day. Once I got myself cleaned up, I dropped my things off in the tent and headed back to the CP to call Theresa. The phones were down too.

Later, SGT Bridges and LT Schardt both got sick. They were having some pretty intense stomach issues by the time we all went to bed.



28-29 May 2008 (JSS Rowad, Iraq)

We continued covering JSS security today. During my time as S.O.G. (sergeant of the guard), 2nd platoon was doing an S.O.I (Sons of Iraq) payday. These are local men we pay to stand at checkpoints along certain rural roads. The Iraqi Army has checkpoints along Highway 1, but no one keeps an eye on the rural roads. We pay these guys to watch the roads. They’re armed, and they’re supposed to prevent insurgents from traveling the back roads with weapons or burying IEDs in the dirt. I wouldn’t trust these guys for a second. My platoon will be doing a payday tomorrow, so I went out to see how it’s all organized and executed.

The Iraqis brought some food with them, so I ended up having some sort of stuffed vegetables with rice in a sauce. It wasn’t bad. One of the guys kept piling food on our plates. We’d get about halfway through what we had, and he’s start loading us up again.

After I ate, I was running all over the place. I had to escort Sheikhs in and out to meet with the commander. I met generator mechanics at the gate and took them to where they needed to go. They were local Iraqis, so I had to make sure they had a security detail watching them the entire time they were inside. I had to make sure my soldiers were getting relieved on schedule and getting meals brought out to the towers and all.

After I’d gotten the generator mechanics to the generator, and they had started working, I got a call from SPC Brown at the company TOC. He informed me that I wasn’t supposed to let the mechanics bring their truck inside the perimeter. I was so aggravated at the logic. I get it, we have to take precautions, but do we understand that we’re hiring local contractors to come in and work on things inside the base? Do we understand that they need equipment to perform the jobs that we’re paying them for? Everyone’s panties are in a bunch because some kid, about 12, blew himself up on a moped at the gate to a base over here somewhere last week. I went over to the mechanics, made them unload whatever they might need from their truck, and then take the truck, which we’d searched, out of the camp.

Then next day, we conducted our payday operation. It was at “Colonel” Whalid’s guys. The Iraqi Army was supposed to be there for additional security, and they were late. We had expected to be done around lunchtime. Instead, it was closer to dinner time.

They brought more Iraqi food for the occasion; though, so we were well fed. This time, we ate some sort of chicken, kebabs, vegetables, and some bread. Again, it was pretty good.

While we were out there, Captain Cooper, from battalion or brigade HQ, I can’t remember, asked me what I thought about the Iraqi army. In true SSG Taylor fashion, I gave him an ear full. He agreed with most of what I had to say. After a pause in the conversation, he said, “you should consider running for office.” I laughed.

After we’d finished our payday, I got my ass chewed again. I wasn’t carrying a team leader radio, and he was pissed about that. My Stryker wasn’t monitoring the company radio net, and he was pissed about that. Apparently, there was some sort of brawl outside of our main gate. 1SG freaked out about it, and he made a huge deal out of the fact that I didn’t know about it. I didn’t really understand why. It was outside; who gives a shit? They can do whatever they want outside of our concrete walls. Let ’em kill each other for all I care. I didn’t care that there had been some incident out there. It didn’t matter to me one bit.

27 May 2008 (JSS Rowad, Iraq)

Today, we had to downsize the platoon.

We ended up basically cutting Leo’s squad. It was Leo, Cameron, Peno, and Black. They were all assigned to 4th platoon, and Leo found out from the platoon sergeant in 4th platoon, instead of from us. He’s angry, and he’s upset. He feels like he’s being punished for everything that has happened over the last few weeks, and I can understand why he’d feel that way, but it’s just not the case. I’d be upset too.

I also found out that SPC Dreamer will be coming to my squad. He’s a good guy, but he doesn’t really have any experience in a regular line squad. I’m sure he’ll be fine once we get him trained up some.

Two squads will be fine, but I still think it’s ridiculous that we’re over here and so under-strength.

I spent a little time online today; I was looking at some different types of federal jobs. I’m feeling a little discouraged, but I still have a year to figure out what I’m going to do.

Later in the evening, I went to our gym tent and lifted weights. I really need to get back into a routine. I’d like to surprise Theresa when I get home on R&R in September.

26 May 2008 (Camp Taji / JSS Rowad, Iraq)

JournalIt’s been 11 days since I’ve made time to sit and write anything. It’s not that I’m always busy working; I’m just always occupied doing other things, and I haven’t had much to say. It’s funny, when guys see me sitting somewhere with this red notebook, they always ask me what I’m writing, or why I’m writing all the time. I tell them, maybe someday I’ll write a book.

Since my last entry, SFC AB and SPC Strot flew out on R&R. They, along with Captain Veath, will be on TDY (Temporary Duty Assignment) to attend Kyle’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery on June 2nd. I learned after he died that Kyle had enlisted on June 2nd. It was also the day Theresa and I got married.

Captain Newbill has taken over as company commander. During the change of command ceremony, Captain Veath gave a long speech; he talked about how great second platoon is, how good third and fourth platoons are, and how my platoon has come a long way since PTA (Pohakuloa Training Area). Those weren’t his exact words, but it seemed like that was the gist. I feel like I’ve heard a few other comments from him about our platoon, where it seems like he’s not a big fan. I don’t really understand where that’s coming from. I wouldn’t want to be in any of the others. I feel like, for the most part, we’ve got our shit together.

Until SFC AB gets back, I’m acting platoon sergeant. It’s not my favorite. 1SG bitches at me pretty consistently. It doesn’t really bother me. I should say, I don’t let it get me down, but it does piss me off.

I went to a couple planning meetings for SGT Daggett’s memorial service, and I sat through a half-a-dozen rehearsals. It felt like I’d attended half-a-dozen funerals in those two days.

1SG insisted that my whole platoon attend the rehearsals. I argued that they shouldn’t be at the rehearsals because I felt like this memorial service is for the soldiers in my platoon. They were his friends, the guys who lived, worked, slept, partied, and fought with him. LT Schardt agreed with me, and told me not to bring the platoon. 1SG was not very happy with me about that. We went round and round, but in the end, my soldiers had missed the rehearsal. Can you imagine if families had to do rehearsals for visitations and funerals? Let’s just pile on a little extra grief, let you live this a few extra times to make sure it really sinks in.

At one point, CSM Ordonio showed up right when a rehearsal was supposed to start. Set-up had been an hour earlier, but not for the sergeant major. He decided it was time to rearrange the room. Chairs needed to be moved, and I don’t even remember what else. We basically rearranged everything that had just been set up, causing the rehearsal to be delayed, and there was no reason to change it at all.

Shockingly enough, I was angry about the whole situation.

As I’m going through my journal, I’m noticing a trend here. I think I was angry a lot of the time in Iraq.

LTC Boccardi overheard me sharing my views, while CSM Ordonio was making his demands. He came over and told me to go and tell the sergeant major what I thought needed to happen. I laughed at him.

The memorial service went well. SSG Masterson led the firing detail for the 21-gun salute. They were spot on. Each volley was flawless.

Chief Warrant Officer Baumgardner flew in from Camp Victory…Liberty, ah hell, I don’t know; it was one of those places. He used to be in our platoon, and he worked for me as a team leader. Now he was a warrant officer in another unit. The army is a surprisingly small world, but I was happy that our paths crossed, even under these circumstances. Baum hung out with us until until around midnight, then he had a catch a helicopter back to his own base closer to Baghdad. ____________________________________________________________________________________________We had always joked that he was an old man. Honestly, he wasn’t that old, but I was only in junior high when he was in Desert Storm. He had gotten out of the army and come back in later in life. Once he decided he was too old for the infantry, he went to warrant officer school. I think that may have had something to do with an incident that happened when he was bounding his team through the lava fields in Hawaii. I remember calling for him to move his team toward the objective, and I only heard moaning. Maybe they should issue cups and athletic supporters to soldiers who will be running and falling to the ground on the jagged rock of cooled lava fields.CW1 Baumgardner, SSG T at Camp Taji

I was Baum’s squad leader for a short time, but he is one of the guys who stands out in my mind as a real leader. He wasn’t a PT stud, or a ranger, or anything flashy like that. He was a genuine soldier, and a solid leader who cared about his men, his unit, and his mission. He wasn’t out for attention or awards; he just wanted to do a good job. I learned a lot from him.

____________________________________________________________________________________________As everyone gave their final salutes, they left coins, ranger tabs, combat patches, and a few other things. SGT Fraleigh played a song during the service, and he even laid his guitar down with all of the patches and coins. Those items were split up and given to Kyle’s parents.

For most of these soldiers, it was clear that this was their first time losing someone close. I was doing okay; I hadn’t cried until SSG Miller broke down. He and I had been squad leaders together before Iraq. Right around the time we were deploying, he was moved to a different position within the brigade. We ran into each other on occasion, but we weren’t serving side-by-side anymore. We hadn’t always seen eye-to-eye; we just had different ways of doing things, but he was a good guy and a solid leader, for sure.

There was a sort of receiving line at the end, and Chaplain Burton was there. I was still doing okay, mostly, until I got to him. He was shaking hands with everyone who passed, but he reached out to hug me. I cried on his shoulder, then I got my shit together and left.

Our platoon moved back out to the JSS the following morning. It’s really not terrible at the JSS, but it’s damn hot. There are no air conditioners yet, and we’re in tents in the middle of a gravel field surrounded by 10-12 foot concrete walls. Temps are getting up to about 110 everyday, so we’re a little toasty, and there isn’t much room for air to move between the walls.

We took a day to get settled and had several meetings about security schedules, patrol schedules, other duties around the small camp, and whatever else you can think of.

The next morning we left pretty early to patrol a small village east of our camp. After having been in Sadr City, this small rural village seemed like a waste of time. Presence patrols between mud-brick buildings and sheep pens, what’s the point? Once we’d made a lap through the village, we headed back to Taji to go to the rifle range.

1SG complained that we left the JSS earlier than we were supposed to. We did leave early, but we had also briefed our plan during the previous night’s meeting. We said that we would be leaving early, and no one seemed to have a problem with that. When I got to the CP at Taji, I was told to call 1SG. He screamed at me over the phone. Again, it’s whatever, but don’t flip out on me because you can’t pay attention during a meeting. In the end, he was pissed because he wanted more soldiers there to help set up tents and do other work details around the JSS. I was pissed because I couldn’t stand working for the guy.

Yesterday, on the 25th, 1SG informed me that I have to cut my platoon down to the following positions: Platoon Leader, Platoon Sergeant, RTO, Medic, 2 9-man Squads, and 8 Vehicle Crewmen. I talked to LT Schardt about it, and he called SFC AB. I don’t feel right about restructuring the platoon when I’m only the acting platoon sergeant. This isn’t my platoon, it’s AB’s. I don’t know what AB had to say, but I gave the PL my thoughts and told him that he needed to make the call. We had to cut one staff sergeant and two soldiers. I was a staff sergeant, so it wouldn’t be right for me to determine who stays and who goes. I did know that I really didn’t want to leave the platoon.

Later, I cooked on our makeshift grill from 1630 until 1930. I was finally making my own, after standing over that grill for 3 hours, when several more soldiers came up for food. I’m not a cook, and they’d had 3 hours to come out for food, but they waited until now. I gave someone mine, and threw more steaks on.

Finally, after 3 1/2 or 4 hours of grilling some crappy steaks, I sat down with my own. I hadn’t even gotten the first bite when a mortar round landed inside our perimeter. A buddy of mine had just sat down with me. We looked at each other, and another round exploded. I jumped up and ran to my Stryker. I was throwing my gear on when another round landed. Our vehicle’s ramp was down, and LT Miller was running toward the back of our truck when another round exploded, and he fell. I thought he was hit, and I started to go out and grab him, but he scrambled to his feet and got inside as quickly as he could. I finished getting my shit on and ran out looking or my soldiers. I ran to each end of the survival bunkers, and they weren’t there. The bunkers were full, and my guys weren’t in them, so I ran to our platoon’s tent. They were still throwing their gear on, so I told them to get their shit and get to the trucks; I figured our armored trucks were their best bet, since there wasn’t enough room in the bunkers. They ran for the trucks, and I ran for the CP while rounds were still landing.

In the CP, they were on the radio with Camp Taji. An artillery battery at Taji was preparing a counter-fire mission, but they had to wait until they received clearance. Of course, anyone who had been firing mortars at us was long gone before the brass gave them permission to fire.

Once the artillery rounds landed, since my guys had gone to the trucks and not the bunkers, we were called to roll and out find the point of origin for the mortar rounds. It had been so long, we didn’t find anyone. We hadn’t hardly looked around when we received a call from the company about Sheikh (Colonel?) Walid. He claimed that he had been mortared, so we ran back to the JSS, and then escorted Captain Newbill, the new CO, down to talk with him. He was bullshitting, and we called him on it. He knew someone had fired mortars, but he didn’t realize that they’d been aimed at us. They had fired 6 rounds; 3 landed inside our JSS, and the other 3 were just outside the wall. I went back to our chow area when we got back. My steak was cold and covered in dust from all the commotion. No dinner for me, I guess.

Today, May 26th, we went back to the mortar firing point. We found the craters where our own rounds had landed, and the marks from the mortar base plate, where they had fired the mortars at us. The artillery rounds had landed damn close to their firing point. Chances are, had our guys fired sooner, we would’ve found bodies.

As we looked around the area, PFC Hermida noticed something unusual in a nearby irrigation canal. Upon closer inspection, he realized it was the mortar system. They had ditched it and ran.

Once we’d wrapped things up there, we headed further east to another village in our AO. Sheikh Thamer had stopped LT Schardt near the firing point and told him about a weapons cache in the area. We were going to check it out.

In order to get there, we had to cross a very sketchy bridge. It was a concrete, stretching over a canal, and so narrow that our vehicles barely fit. Everyone except for the driver got out of the vehicles in case the bridge collapsed or their Stryker went over the edge. The drivers opened their hatches, and crept across the bridge one at a time. Each of them had a can of emergency air with a mouthpiece on it in case they found themselves stuck in the vehicle under water. This seemed like the most ridiculous situation to be in, but it was the only way for us to get to where we needed to go without adding hours and a much higher risk of IEDs to our trip.

We found some sort of Night Vision Goggle (NVG) periscope device half buried in the ground, but that was about it.

When we got back to our JSS, I got another Anthrax booster shot. Yay! (Sarcasm intended.) On a positive note, they finished setting up the SPAWAR phone and internet system in the CP at the JSS while we were out. Now we can call home and check our email and stuff. The SPAWAR guy has an Airsoft M4 with him with all sorts of extras on it. It looks pretty realistic, but why? Being the immature infantrymen that we are, Eichler took a shot in the ass for $10.00. Can’t even spend it out here, but it was entertaining for everyone else.

I’m gonna go call Theresa. More later.

15 May 2008 (Camp Taji, Iraq)

On Thursday, the 15th, Doc Bosley came around to check everyone’s IFAKs (improved first-aid kits). He made sure everyone was restocked, had all the appropriate supplies, and was ready to start working again.

Once he’d come around and checked everyone form his list, we, the squad leaders and LT Schardt and SFC AB, started working to update our sensitive items inventory lists. Each platoon was assigned particular equipment from the company arms room, and each platoon assigned specific items to squads. Sensitive items are key essential pieces of equipment, expensive equipment, and equipment that we wouldn’t want the enemy to have access to. Those items include our weapons, optics, lasers, night vision, etc. In Sadr City, things had gotten broken, damaged, destroyed, or passed around between soldiers as needed. We knew we had all of our equipment, because we did a hands-on check multiple times each day, but we needed to make adjustments to our inventory list so that we knew exactly which soldier, squad, and platoon was assigned which piece of equipment. Each time we changed the inventory list, including equipment nomenclature, rack numbers, and serial numbers, something would come back incorrect and need to be fixed. That wouldn’t be a huge deal, except we have to go through and visually inspect each item, to make sure we’re accepting responsibility for the correct piece of equipment. It was long and tedious, and a simple typo could mean tracking down a soldier somewhere on the camp to double check his serial numbers.

While that was going on, I continued working on awards recommendations. I wrote CIB recommendations for all of my guys and a few other soldiers who happened to be with me when we got into contact. I put Caballero, Juice, Fuller, and Sanchez in for Army Commendation Medals, and I recommended SGT Taaga and SGT Fraleigh for Bronze Star Medals.

At 1300, we were called to the CP to draw out our pro-masks (protective masks, AKA gas masks). We were not thrilled. They are bulky, uncomfortable to wear in or out of their carrying cases, and certainly not convenient for riding in cramped vehicles. Plus, we didn’t want to carry around extra gear that we’d likely never need. We hadn’t carried them up to this point, so why now?

At 1400, someone, probably Nikjoo, came through our living area knocking on doors and calling everyone in the platoon out of our rooms. We all stepped out into the muddy walkway between the buildings and stood around wondering what was up.

I was looking toward the PL and PSG’s CHU door, waiting for them to come out and tell us whatever they had to say, when I saw LTC Boccardi, 1SG Angulo, our battalion S-3, and Chaplain Burton walk up between a couple of the CHUs and mix into the group of soldiers standing there.

This wasn’t my first rodeo; I knew as soon as I saw them.

Daggett didn’t make it.

Army Sergeant, John Kyle Daggett was 21 when he died in service to his country. May06084

LT Schardt and SFC AB came out and called for squad leaders. We went into their room, and there was some debate about how and when to tell the platoon. I pointed out that the men were smart enough to know something was going on with 1SG and the officers from battalion standing around. We had been given some updates on Daggett’s condition along the way, and we were hopeful.

LT Schardt broke the news to the platoon. He struggled to get it out, and it hit the men hard. SGT Daggett was a good kid. He was young, a good soldier, a ranger even, and well-liked among all the guys, both above and below him in the chain of command.

After the PL and PSG were done talking, we were dismissed to go on about our day, but it wasn’t long before our entire company was called to the chapel. Some officers, at some level above us, were up in arms about the fact that we’d just dismissed the guys to go off and be where they felt most comfortable.

Instead, we had to sit in the chapel, so we could think about it and talk about it. 1SG Angulo, Captain Veath, Chaplain Burton, and LTC Boccardi all had things to say. Honestly, I was just pissed. I felt like the guys needed time to process and to mourn their friend, their brother, and in their own ways. Some may want some time alone. Others may want to surround themselves with more brothers. Everyone is different. ____________________________________________________________________________________________

I’m not sure how, but somewhere along the lines I had gotten to know the chaplain pretty well. We’d sat next to each other on a flight when he was new to the unit. We were flying from Oahu to the Big Island for training, and we’d had a nice conversation. After that, we always chatted when he was around. We talked about my son Jacob, about the kids in Iraq, about how things were going in the unit, about life.

Sometime in 2007, while we were still back in Hawaii, all of the battalion’s team leaders and squad leaders were called into a meeting with the chaplain. Soldiers were getting in a lot of trouble; guys were getting DUIs, pissing hot on drug tests, getting into bar fights, picked-up for underage drinking, and all sorts of other incidents. It reached a boiling point when a young private went out partying in Waikiki; he was drinking and popping prescription pain killers, and housekeeping staff found him dead in his hotel room on Mother’s Day morning. I escorted his remains back to his family and stayed for the funeral services.

2006 and 2007 were rough; I swear we were called to work every weekend because some dumb-ass Joe, as in G.I. Joe, who’d never been away from his mama didn’t know how to act in public. It was putting a lot of stress on all of us. At one point, the plan in our company was to make the offender’s platoon come in and do a road march, equipment layout, and I can’t remember what else. They also had every soldier calling and checking in with their leaders by 8 P.M. on Friday and Saturday nights. I had to speak to each of my soldiers, find out what they were doing, where they would be, and did they have a backup plan for transportation. Then, I had to call my boss and tell him what they were doing, and what I was doing. I know it ruined so much of my time off with my family. I’m sure it did for everyone else too. It never failed that there would be one soldier who forgot to call in and wouldn’t answer his phone. It always took most of my evening on nights before a day off of work.

I remember sitting in a platoon sergeant meeting, before SFC AB had been assigned to our company, and our platoon sergeant at the time wasn’t around. Our former 1SG, 1SG Neil, and the platoon sergeants were discussing how to keep soldiers out of trouble. I forget what they wanted to do, but it was basically restricting soldiers from drinking, or something. I argued that taking away the opportunity to screw up didn’t create disciplined soldiers. It created soldiers who didn’t know how to choose to do the right thing when no one was watching.

It was about this time that I made the decision to leave the army after our rotation in Iraq, if I survived.

With all of this drama going on, battalion asked the chaplain to get feedback from the NCOs. Everyone was afraid to talk; the chaplain was an officer from battalion HQ, and no one wanted to be the one to open their mouths for fear it would all get back to the higher-ups. We sat in silence, listening to the chaplain talk. No one said anything, until finally, I’d had enough. I let Chaplain Burton have it. My words weren’t directed at him, but they certainly weren’t censored. I used the full range of my soldier vocabulary, telling him; this is fucked up. That’s fucked up. This is bullshit, and who’s fucking idea was that? and these guys don’t wanna fucking talk to you, sir, because your an officer. My tirade went on for a bit.

My peers, the other sergeants and staff sergeants in the room, sat there wide-eyed. They couldn’t believe that I was talking to the chaplain like that. I think someone even told me that I needed to chill, and I was like, No. Fuck that! He’s asking; I’ll tell him the truth. What are they gonna do, call me in to work this weekend? Send my ass to Iraq?

Chaplain Burton waved his hands and shrugged. “Don’t worry about SSG Taylor, he and I go way back. I know how he talks.”

A few years after we returned from Iraq, Chaplain Burton sent me this video on Facebook. He said, “I could totally hear you or SFC Locklear giving this speech.” He’s not wrong; I love this video. It definitely sounds like me. (Not safe for work or kids.)

Sadly, Chaplain Jim Burton lost his battle with cancer in 2017. ____________________________________________________________________________________________

On this particular occasion in Iraq, I found myself in a position to tell the chaplain and some other leaders exactly what was on my mind again. I told them that none of these guys wanted to go off and kill themselves. I explained that we all wanted to go out and kill militia fighters. I also told them that none of these guys wanted to come back up here and talk with local sheikhs and watch sheep herders; “we want to fight.”

After being held in the chapel for awhile, we were released to go about our day. Most of the guys were visibly upset. Some seemed okay, but it was clear that everyone was trying to figure out how to be. For some, it was their first time losing someone close to them. For others, it wasn’t. It didn’t make it any better; I think some of us older guys were just numb.

A little later, Captain Veath came by my room. He knew I always carried a camera, and he asked if I had any photos of Kyle. I showed him what I had, and we talked about all that had gone on at the chapel.

When Captain Veath left, I saw that SGT Tyler and 2LT Bowen, from other platoons, were down the way packing and inventorying Daggett’s  belongings.

11-14 May 2008 (Camp Taji, Iraq)

It wasn’t terribly late when we finished unloading and unpacking all of our gear. As usual, our vehicle crews got the raw end of the deal; they still had to go fuel the trucks, secure all of their equipment, park in the motor pool, secure all the hatches and doors, and walk back to their billets.

We were told that the 11th would be downtime. I think we all wanted to stay in Sadr City, but we were happy to have a day off.

They held a BBQ for us at the DFAC patio area. Our battalion and brigade commanders spoke to us about the work we’d done, and I remember that they had a big cake sitting out there melting in the heat. My mother wouldn’t have approved. I skipped the cake, but eating real food again tore my stomach up for a few days after we got back.

The following day, the 12th, we had to prep for a layout starting bright and early, 0600. We started getting our equipment out to be ready for Captain Newbill, our incoming company commander, and our XO to check the company’s equipment from 0800 to 1200. The XO came around about 0845.

Around 1, it was decided that we would simply turn in every piece of equipment that we didn’t want. We packed up the things we needed to keep and moved my squad’s locker into my room. It was more cramped but far less cluttered since I now had a place to store equipment.

On the 13th, there was a dust storm. I tried to stay inside and spent most of the day organizing and naming photos on my external hard, trying to find anniversary gifts online for Theresa, and starting to write awards recommendations for my soldiers. They all qualified for Combat Infantryman Badges, but those recommendations had to be accompanied by multiple sworn statements, explaining exactly how each individual soldier was engaged in active ground combat. Those sworn statements had to be handwritten, witnessed, and filled out in a very specific way. Of course, we had to walk to the company CP to print off those forms. Nothing in the army was ever simple. Maybe that’s why I get so easily frustrated now, when a seemingly simple task starts to require extra steps.Taji Dust Storm

We were called up to the chapel, and Chaplain Burton, the battalion or brigade surgeon, and the brigade’s psychologist all talked to us.

We laid out the same equipment again on the 14th. If the army were a business, it would have gone bankrupt due to lack of efficiency, probably when Washington was still just a general. We waste so much time and effort; I can’t even begin to describe how ridiculous it is.

This time, we were told to turn in the equipment we use and wanted to keep. I was hesitant and asked questions about this. Why would I turn in the things we need to operate? I wanted to be damn sure that I was getting my things back. I was told that I would receive the same squad equipment back once the change of command had been completed.

Once that layout was over, we had an after-action review (AAR) for team leaders and up. This is a reflection on what we did. What was supposed to happen? What happened? Why? What did we do well? What could we have done better? It’s basically a way to identify flaws, best-practices, and to get better at what we do.

NCOs and officers brought up some good points, and they brought up some bad points. CSM Ordonio, who wasn’t in Sadr City with us, seemed to counter everything that was said. I became more and more frustrated through the whole process; the repetitive layouts and CSM Ordonio’s feedback was about all I could stand for the day. I just can’t handle the lack of coordination, communication, and planning. I’m sure there are great detailed plans at levels above me, but it never gets communicated down to us. It’s just this hurry up and wait game, mixed in with a little just do it over again attitude that makes me nuts.

10 May 2008 (Sadr City, Iraq)

I didn’t write anything on the 9th. The last several entries in my journal were written every few days. Unfortunately, it’s been 12 years, and I don’t remember exactly how things went down. Sometimes my journal was very clear. Other times, it was like I was just trying to get everything down on paper, and it may not be in any particular order. Fortunately, I saved my photos in folders according to the date they were taken, so I have a folder for each day. Unfortunately, I didn’t take photos every day. Having the dated photos and the journal does help me piece things together, and surprisingly, I do still remember a lot of it, especially after looking at the photos and reading a little of what I wrote.

We’re supposed to leave Sadr City around 1430 today. They’re telling us we’ll go and meet with some colonel or lieutenant colonel at some point, and then we’re going to head out. I’m not sure I believe it. I’m also not sure I want to leave. This is where the war is, not up north of Taji in the countryside. Time goes by fast here; we’re busy, and it can be exciting. On the flip side, showers, hot food sometimes, and a cot might be a nice change.

I overheard Captain Veath asking LTC Barnett about the possibility of Silver Star Medals for some of the soldiers in Leo’s squad. I didn’t hear what LTC Barnett had to say, but I doubt that they’ll do it.

After my last guard shift, we left the OP and headed to JSS Sadr City for fuel and then back to the patrol base. A few minutes later, we were told to go back to the OP to photograph the houses. They wanted to avoid any false claims of damage we caused. Of course, we’d left the houses unattended, so who knew what might be waiting for us.

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When we returned to the house we’d been staying in, the family was already there cleaning up and putting things back together. We explained that we needed to take photographs of their home so that we could compensate them for anything that was damaged, and they let us in. We had caused some damage, but it wasn’t malicious. We didn’t break windows or dishes or anything. Much of it was from being in contact, the fact that we’re bigger and carrying a lot of weight and gear, and partly from carelessness. We got our photos, handed them a claim card with contact information, and left.

We stopped to grab Captain Veath at the patrol base then headed back to JSS Sadr City. I went in with him to upload our photos to someone’s computer. MG Hammond was there, so we got held up some.

We had first left the OP at 1130. It was 1600 when we finally reach the old Ministry of Defense, where LTC Barnett’s HQ was.

As we waited for the word to get into a formation, 1SG was making a huge deal about uniforms and damage to our vehicles. Suddenly, it was very important that everyone was in full kit, cleanly shaven, etc. We’d been wearing our combat gear pretty much nonstop, and now we’re here in a protected zone, but we have to wear our full kit for appearances. He was also telling us that we needed to photograph every mark on our trucks. I’m sure LTC Barnett and CSM Boom dished out their fair share of typical army bullshit, but sometimes I wished I worked for them. They seemed like common sense leaders.

LTC Barnett came out and spoke for a bit, passed out some coins, and talked about combat patches. Some guys were wondering if we’d be able to wear the 2nd Cavalry patch as a “combat patch.” The proper terminology is shoulder sleeve insignia, former wartime service. It’s a unit patch worn on the right sleeve, and it signifies that the wearer served with that particular unit, usually a division, during wartime service. It doesn’t necessarily mean the soldier was in combat; it just means the troop was deployed to a hostile area, and the unit participated in, or supported, ground combat operations. There is also a time period. It’s usually 30 days in-country.

At this particular time, a lot of guys were frustrated. There were a lot of grumblings about not wanting to wear a 25th ID combat patch for whatever randoms reasons. Many complained about a lack of support from higher up. They felt like LTC Barnett and CSM Boom were there on the ground with us, supporting us, and backing us. I think they appreciated the common sense leadership that I already mentioned. Looking back, I think those of us on the ground struggled to see that while we were attached to 1-2 SCR, our own company, battalion, and brigade still had their own areas of responsibility to take care of. On the ground with bullets flying, it was easy to overlook the bigger picture. It was a frustrating time; we had our own battalion calling some shots from a distance, and a cavalry unit there calling the shots on the ground. The cavalry unit leaders were there in the streets, dodging bullets and hitting IEDs right there with us. It seemed like our own unit leaders would show up, walk through, and bitch about what they saw. Then they’d return to Camp Taji’s hot chow, hot showers, air conditioning, and wifi. It certainly generated some resentment.

As far as combat patches, I already had a 10th Mountain Division Combat patch from all the way back in 2001-2002, and I would’ve been qualified again in 2003. After my 2004-2005 deployment, I was also eligible to wear the 25th ID patch. I preferred to wear my 10th Mountain patch though. At one point, I had a sorry-ass command sergeant major who insisted that soldiers in his battalion only wear the 25th ID combat patch, regardless of others they had earned. The army regulation states that soldiers may elect not to wear a combat patch, and it also says that those who are authorized more than one may choose which they wear. Here’s a middle finger to you, Command Sergeant Major Arthur Lee Coleman Junior. His decree about combat patches was the least of my complaints about that guy.

We left for Taji around 1645. When we reached the base, we drove past our battalion headquarters, and there was a formation of soldiers standing out front. They saluted as we passed by, and I think someone was recording video of it. After that, we circled around to our company area to unload our equipment.

Our fighting in Sadr City was done.


6-8 May 2008 (Sadr City, Iraq)

We did another dismounted patrol this morning. We walked up to Route Tennessee, the road that the OP was on. As we passed through the streets, we hung massive vinyl wanted posters. I’d actually call them banners. They were probably 5 x 7 feet.

The rest of the day, and the next day was business as usual. We did patrols, watched the patrol base perimeter, and sweat through our uniforms.

On the 8th, we took a female journalist from the Washington Post on patrol. We hated having the media around, but it was interesting to see how the Iraqis responded to her. Women smiled at her, while the boys and young men stared.sadr city

The patrol was uneventful; although, we did find some anti-coalition graffiti. Someone had spray painted a man firing an RPG at a Stryker on a wall. sadr city

When we returned to the patrol base, the Iraqi Army was setting up a MEDCAP (Medical Civic Action Program) There was a ton of press in the area for that. Thankfully, the Iraqi soldiers were taking care of most of it, so we didn’t have to jump through hoops to make it happen.

I had to laugh at the CO. I swear he told this reporter his whole life story. He carried her bag for her, talked about where he was from and why he joined the army. I think I stopped listening when he said, “I’m a cowboy at heart.”

He’s been busy writing his change of command speech, which seems like something the higher-ups should be concerned about given our current location. At one point, he asked if he could refer to my son, Jacob, as a “holy terror.” Jacob could be a terror sometimes, but he hadn’t ever been a problem the few times he’d been around the unit with me. I wasn’t sure what Jacob had to do with his change of command speech, and it kind of annoyed me. I’m sure he was just playing around, so I’m not even sure why it bothered me. Maybe it’s just that I haven’t seen Jacob for 5 months already.

Later on the 8th, we moved back out to the OP. I read Kiss the Girls between guard shifts. Rt. Charlie, Rt. Tennessee Overwatch

I called Theresa, and she told me that she’d received a letter from Major General Hammond. It said I’d been decorated and something about courage under fire. I suppose we’d all been under fire a few times by this point, and we’d all done our jobs. I figured it was just a silly form letter, but it felt good for Theresa to hear a little about what I’ve done here, from someone other than me or the wives of other soldiers in my unit. Really, the general doesn’t know a damn thing about me, but it was still nice to get recognition in front of her.


5 May 2008 (Sadr City, Iraq)

I woke up to flies buzzing around and landing on my face and arms this morning. My clothes were already wet from sweat.

We headed out on a foot patrol at 0900. 1st squad led out, followed by LT Schardt and Nikjoo, his RTO. Next came SFC AB with the machine guns teams and doc. Frolo, Kirby, Fuller, and I brought up the rear. I left Bridges and Alleman on guard at the patrol base.

We walked through a part of the neighborhood that we’ve walked through before and checked in on the same schools. Our lead element walked past the entrance to the first school and couldn’t figure out how to get in. I finally called and told them that they’d passed the gate.

LT Schardt sent me and my guys in to have a look around. I spoke with the same caretaker, who told me the same thing he’d told me last time we were here.

We moved on.

At the second school, 1st squad went in and did the talking. Then Fraleigh took point and led us back to the patrol base.

It was boring, and I was in a shitty mood. I woke up in a bad mood, and everything here has just pissed me off today.

After we returned, LT Schardt was still trying to get to the bottom of the rooster incident. He pulled everyone from that position in and questioned them. When it was my turn, I told him that I’d been downstairs at the time. I explained that the person in question had shown me where he’d shot the rooster, and that I’d also seen the Iraqi man carry away the dead bird.

Later, someone threw a grenade over the wall into the area where our vehicles were parked. I threw on my vest over my t-shirt and ran out of the gate with my rifle. I was hoping I could catch someone running down the street. Another squad followed saying, “Don’t think you’re gonna have all this fun by yourself.” A few more soldiers came out behind us.

The street was empty, so we went back inside. There, LT Schardt and SFC AB were assessing the damage. Shrapnel had punctured the two right-rear tires on our medical Stryker, but there wasn’t any other damage.

They looked up at a three-story building across the street that overlooked the soccer field we were parking in. One of the…apartments, I guess you could call it, was directly across from where the grenade landed. LT Schardt looked at me and said, “Get your squad into that house.” He didn’t have to tell me twice, I grabbed my guys and ran out of the gate.

As we left the security perimeter, I counted everyone, as always. Some 40-something-year-old E-5, Sergeant Olson, from an army reserve psy-ops unit decided he wanted to come with us. He also brought his interpreter, “Steve.”

This fucking guy thought he was on some sort of SWAT team or something. It took all I had to not tell him to stay the fuck out of my way. He was the same ass-hat who had told me in an earlier conversation that psychological operations troops are Spec-Ops, they deploy every other year, and their work is way harder on them and their families than being on active duty. He went on to say that most reservists are older, and that the older generation didn’t mind the harder military life because they just want to serve their country.

In retrospect, I should have said, “Well damn, double-0 shit bird, maybe I should sit this one out. Me and my guys will just go grab an ice cream cone and take a break while you and super-Steve win the war.”

Big shocker, the house was empty. There was a shell casing from a tank round in one of the rooms. Hopefully the explosive projectile isn’t buried in some garbage along one of the alleys around here.

I called LT Schardt to let him know we were heading back, but Papa Olson and decided he needed to stop and talk on the way back around the corner to our gate. He stopped some random Iraqi man, told him that it was his fault that someone threw a grenade at us, and then accused his son of being part of Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia.

Jimmy was pissed. He thought we were going on some city-wide manhunt to track down the guy who threw the grenade. I expected the house to be empty, and I knew we weren’t going to go running through the streets looking for trouble.

Soldier of Fortune finished accusing the Iraqi man’s son of being an insurgent fighter, and then we headed back in to the patrol base. I counted again, to be sure everyone was there.