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.
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.
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.
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.