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.

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