16-17 January 2008 (ON PATROL)

MISSION: 1st Platoon executes nighttime dismounted patrol vicinity village of 14th Ramadan, in order to assess CLC posture and readiness as well as village conditions during hours of darkness.

After grabbing a bit of dinner at the Camp Taji chow hall, we all headed back to our living area to get our gear on and make final preparations for a night patrol through 14th Ramadan.

In the room, I told Leo that I had been thinking about this patrol, and I had a weird feeling about it. “I don’t think we’re gonna get blown up or anything, but I’ve got a feeling that something is going to happen,” I told him.

As we tossed the essentials into our assault packs and double checked our gear, I attached an infrared (IR) strobe light to my vest, and threw extra batteries, chem lights, and even a VS-17 signal panel into my bag. I pulled apart my M4 and my 9mm pistol and wiped the moving parts down with a light coat of oil before reassembling everything.

Leo peaked around the corner of his locker in our room with an eyebrow raised. “You really are worried about this patrol, huh?” he said.

“Yeah, man. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve had this fucked up feeling all day,” I replied.

I lifted my body armor and slid my head through the hole at the top, then wrapped the side panels around my abdomen, securing the Velcro strips that hold it all together. Bouncing up and down a couple of times, I shrugged my shoulders and pulled at the collar, adjusting to the wait and making everything as comfortable as possible. I threw my assault pack over one shoulder, grabbed my helmet and rifle, and headed out the door.

As I walked toward our vehicle staging area, I knocked on my soldiers’ doors. “2nd Squad! Time to go, fuckers,” I shouted.

2 Vic was back from the mechanics, and I was happy to be rolling out in my own truck again. I walked up the ramp, ducking my head as I stepped into the passenger area. Moving to the middle of the truck, next to the gunner’s seat, I dropped my gear in front of my seat, and plugged my headset into the comm’s box. Spc. Crapenter and Sgt. Taaga were busy making last minute checks.

“Hey, T. What else do you guys need before we go?”

“Hey Sgt. Taylor, we’re all set,” he replied.

I liked having Sgt. Taaga as my vehicle commander. He was responsible, hardworking, and I always knew that I could count on him.

My squad arrived moments later, and we did our final checks and inspections. Sgt. Bridges and Sgt. Fraleigh went around to their soldiers, making sure each man had the equipment he was supposed to have; ammunition, water, dog tags, ID card, batteries, night vision, weapons, etc.

Ready To Roll #2

2nd Squad NCOs: (L to R) Me, Sgt. Bridges, and Sgt. Fraleigh getting ready to roll.

It was about 7:30 P.M. when we finished our patrol brief, and got everyone loaded up.

After doing our usual comm’s checks on the platoon and company frequencies, we got word to roll out.

On our way to the gate, Lt. Schardt got a call from battalion headquarters asking us to return to the TOC, so we found a place to turn around and headed in that direction. When we turned around, our vehicle shuddered a little, and started making some unusual noises, so I called Lt. Schardt and told him something wasn’t right with our truck still. He told me to stop by the motor pool and see if a mechanic was available to take a look at it.

The platoon headed toward our battalion TOC, while we made a quick stop to get it checked out. Luckily, there were still a couple of General Dynamics guys there working, and they came out and took a look. They told us to go ahead and roll, but they suggested that we get it back into the shop as soon as possible.

We left the motor pool and caught up with the rest of the platoon just in time for an intelligence briefing. We were told that battalion had received intel about a possible ambush aimed at a supply convoy that was currently underway on MSR Tampa. In response, a drone had been launched, and its operator had spotted a group of armed individuals in a palm grove on the east side of the highway. The drone was still on station, and the operator estimated that there were 12 to 15 of them gathered there.

The briefing continued, “Elements of Charlie company are currently operating in the area. They have one patrol southwest of Mshahdh and another to the east toward Tarymiyah.”

If intelligence was correct, our planned patrol to 14th Ramadan would have had us pass through the insurgents’ kill zone ahead of the supply convoy. An infantry platoon is a somewhat harder target than a logistics convoy full of quartermaster soldiers and truck drivers.

Lieutenant Colonel Boccardi, the battalion commander, changed our plans. He directed us to roll out and clear along the east side of MSR Tampa where the gathering had been spotted. They wanted us to find the ambush before the ambush found a convoy of coalition forces. 2nd platoon would roll with us, and clear the west side of the highway as well.

Initially, we were told that we would be dismounted, walking through the palm groves looking for the group of insurgents, but that changed before we even got outside of the wire. Someone at HQ had decided that we should remain in our vehicles when we reached the ambush site. We were supposed to drive slowly up the northbound lanes of MSR Tampa, while 2nd platoon stayed a couple hundred meters behind us driving in the southbound lanes. In addition to our plans changing, we were informed that the gathering had grown from about 15 to nearly 30 people, and that they had started walking to the south after spotting the UAV circling above them.

We are going to roll right into a complex ambush, I thought. As we rolled out, I was just imagining that there would be IEDs on Tampa, and small arms fire and RPGs immediately following the detonation. 2nd platoon is going fishing, I told myself, and we are their bait.

We headed north on Tampa, passed through Mshahdh, and approached the target area. The temperature had dropped to just below freezing, which made standing in the top hatch of a Stryker almost unbearable. My face was red and aching, and the wind was just cutting through my uniform, chilling me to the bone. and the wind was cutting right through my uniform. We all had plenty of cold weather clothing (snivel gear), but we couldn’t really wear it when we were out on patrol. If we made some sort of contact and had to be out on the ground moving, we would easily overheat if we were wearing extra layers of clothing. As a result, we just dealt with the cold.

We reached the area where the insurgents had been spotted, and Lt. Schardt had Spc. Eichler slow down to almost a crawl. The rest of our drivers followed suit, and we crept through the area, scanning the roadway for IEDs and watching for movement off to the sides. We didn’t see a thing, so Lt. Schardt reported back to the company that there was no enemy activity in the area.

We halted and waited for further instructions. Cpt. Veath finally gave us the go ahead to proceed with our originally planned patrol to 14th Ramadan. My soldiers were clearly disappointed. They had been pumped up thinking we were going out hunting for a platoon-sized group of insurgents, and it was a real let down when we didn’t find anything. All of that excitement had been for nothing.

Our patrol through Ramadan was quiet. After we walked the loop around the village and checked in with the CLCs, we loaded up to return to Taji.

We headed west toward MSR Tampa, and I checked my watch. We were running a little later than we had initially planned, but it looked like we would be back in on Taji around midnight, and that wasn’t bad at all considering all of the stuff that had come up.

The ride back to Taji was cold and quiet. For the most part, we were alone on the highway. There really wasn’t any radio traffic to speak of either, and the guys had all come down off of their adrenaline rushes from earlier. Most of them were dozing in the back of the Stryker. We had rigged some wiring to connect an iPod to our vehicle’s communication system, so those of us wearing headsets or vehicle crew helmets were listening to music on the way back. After all of the excitement, I think everyone was looking forward to getting back and calling it a night.

The main gate at Camp Taji had just come into view when Lt. Schardt announced over the radio that we had another change of mission. “Battalion wants us to proceed north to the IA checkpoint near 14th Ramadan and link up with a platoon from Charlie Company. How copy? Over.”

They say that soldiers aren’t happy if they aren’t bitching. I can assure you that we had a happy platoon that night. We were all cold and tired, and we were all pissed that we were being called all over the place for nothing.

We made a u-turn right in front of the gate and headed back to the north. We pulled off to the side of the road just south of the checkpoint and waited for the platoon from Charlie. When they arrived, Lt. Schardt went and met with their platoon leader to find otu what exactly was going on.

The latest intel’ said that the group of insurgents that our UAV had spotted earlier, had entered a house on the west side of MSR Tampa. This platoon from C Co. was going to surround the house and call the inhabitants out. It was going to be a sort of knock and search. They needed us to set up blocking positions to the south and west, to make sure that no one tried to escape from the house as the men from our sister company approached. Our job was to capture or kill anyone who fled from the home.

It was after 1 A.M. when the platoon from C Co. was in position and ready to execute their mission. We dismounted on the highway and walked west through some tall grass and open fields to the south of our target. We ran into another house and a canal, and then turned north toward Charlie’s target, and found a spot with a good view of the house and the surrounding fields. It was a shitty location, because we were back-lit, and there was absolutely no cover or concealment. Thankfully, our Stryker crews, still parked on Tampa, could see us and were able to offer of some rear security so we could focus most of our attention on the target.

16 Jan Blocking Position

A rough sketch of our blocking position. We did have some eyes to the south and west, in addition to our Strykers watching us from the highway.

We were tired, and the night was growing colder. Still, we all hoped for some action.

Soon after we set into our blocking positions we saw lights moving around the target house, and it looked like someone was searching for something. We called up what we saw, so that it could be passed on to the Charlie Company guys. It turns out that it was the Charlie Company guys. They had gotten two of their Strykers buried in the mud, and they were trying to get themselves out so they could finish setting in around the house.

I heard the call to Lt. Schardt come across the radio, “Bushmaster Red 6, Dragon 6 says to hold your position until dawn. Over.”

Fuck! I thought. We are going to sit here and freeze our asses off. Half of our platoon is sleeping in their Strykers with the heat on, and we are stuck out here without any snivel gear.

“Roger that,” Lt. Schardt replied.

He walked over to give me an update, but before he could even say anything, I started bitching, “I know, Sir. I heard the call. What the fuck are these guys supposed to do out here in the cold? None of these guys have cold weather gear out here, and the B.C. is sipping coffee and watching this shit on a big screen in a heated TOC. What the hell is Charlie doing up there, anyway?”

He called SFC AB and told him that we may need to figure out a way to rotate soldiers, or at least get our assault packs brought out from the trucks.

I briefed my team leaders on the situation and told them to be sure they are checking on their guys. Sgt. Bridges and I walked around talking to the men and making sure they were okay. We also made some minor adjustments to our security perimeter since we were now planning to stay put for longer than we had initially anticipated. PFC Colleran was already hurting from the cold. He was tall and skinny; not really ideal the ideal body type for being in the cold without extra layers.

Colleran as RTO in Abayachi

PFC Colleran in Abayachi later in the deployment.

Sgt. Bridges sat down with him, and I walked over to talk with some of the other guys in Sgt. Fraleigh’s team.

When I came back around, Sgt. Bridges and Colleran were still talking about how cold it was. Colleran kept repeating, “this sucks. It really sucks. This sucks so bad.”

I sat down with them, because I was a little concerned he was going to freak out while we were sitting out there.

Dogs had been barking around us since we first moved out into that area, and just as I sat down, one ran by really close to us. We joked about skinning it so we could have something to keep warm with. Then we decided we would be better off if we could catch it, tie its legs, and tape its mouth, so that we could take turns cuddling with it for warmth. We joked too, about how we might react in the morning if we found a cobra snuggled up to us, using our body heat to stay warm. We sat there quietly talking and telling jokes, trying to keep Colleran’s mind off of the situation.

Colleran finally said, “I wish someone would just shoot me.”

Sgt. Bridges replied, “I just wish we could get some mortars coming in. We could run around and get warmed up.”

Sgt. Bridges and I could not stop laughing at Colleran’s discomfort. He couldn’t figure out why we thought the situation was so funny, so we explained to him that he just doesn’t have as much experience in the suck as we do.

“One day, Colleran, you’ll be used to the suck. When things get really bad, you’ll just laugh at it,” I told him.

“Embrace the suck,” Bridges told him. “I’m glad I can be here to share your first sucking experience.”

I chimed in, “Hey, at least we’ll be up in time for breakfast.”

“At dawn, they’ll probably tell us we have to stay until noon,” Colleran moped.

Bridges replied sarcastically, “Holy shit! Have you done this before?”

It was around 2 A.M. when Charlie Company finally approached the target house. They hit the front of the house with lights and called on a loud speaker for the occupants to come out. The family that lived there came out, and they were willing to cooperate.

It was bad intel’. There weren’t 30 people there. It was just a family. Soldiers searched the entire home and found nothing.

Once the search was complete, we were told we could return to Camp Taji. We started walking back toward our Strykers a little after 4 A.M. We were freezing and feeling pretty drained.

We arrived at Camp Taji a little after 4:30 A.M., and we headed to the fuel point. After our vehicle crews topped off on fuel, we linked up with a heavy wrecker, and headed back out onto Tampa. We had to escort the wrecker up to the C Co. Strykers that were stuck in the mud near the target house.

When we arrived, they had already managed to pull the Strykers out of the mud, but we sat nearby until they had all of their vehicles back on the hard pavement on MSR Tampa. Once all of their vehicles were on the blacktop, we headed south again, toward Camp Taji.

It was a little after 6 A.M. when we arrived back at Camp Taji. We finished up some after patrol business and went to bed.

 

More later.

A February Raid in the War on Terror

Featured image

This story began on Facebook. It was published in Proud to Be: Writing By American Warriors, Volume 3. I rushed to finish it before the submission deadline, and I wasn’t totally satisfied with it. Maybe I’ll turn it into something bigger later on.


It was 1AM. Sleep this night had been elusive at best, coming in short segments between bumps and swerves that jostled us around in the cramped troop compartment of our twenty-ton tin can as we made our way toward the drop off point for our mission. Boys in camouflage body armor, packed like sardines leaned against one another. They moved and shifted, desperately searching for some small semblance of comfort while trying to keep their legs and asses from going to sleep. A rifle magazine jammed into the inside of a thigh here, a hand grenade pinched a hip there. In the dim glow of my squad leader commo screen, their heavy eyelids slowly closed behind the lenses of their ballistic glasses. Heads bobbed up and down like pistons as the young warriors drifted off to sleep and awakened, startled, before their eyes drooped again. Gravity was especially cruel, pulling hard on the nearly 5 pounds of each advanced combat helmet adorned with tactical lights, d-rings, para-cord, camo bands, photos of wives and babies, and night vision goggles, commonly referred to as nods.

Each of us fought a stiff neck, a sore ass, and tingling legs and feet when my gunner, Sergeant Taaga, opened the ramp. It was early February, and cold night air surrounded us as we stumbled out, rifles at the ready and adrenaline just starting to pump through our veins. We would have to worry about being tired and having aches and pains later, much later, when we are old and in our thirties. We had a mission to do.

The cold, winter night concealed our movement through a frosty grove of date palms. Our armored Stryker vehicle had deposited us along Iraq’s Highway 1, at a spot some 30 miles north of Baghdad, leaving the last few klicks between us and our objective to be covered quietly on foot. The spikey trunks of date palms stood in uniform rows that disappeared into the glowing green darkness ahead. Dead and dying fronds hung low and out of place, making strange silhouettes in our night vision. Others reached up at us from their final resting places on the ground, their dry and hardened points like finely sharpened claws grabbing at our pant legs, at times puncturing fabric and flesh. Some found our faces, slicing and stinging our cold red cheeks. Decaying palm leaves, underbrush, and knee-deep ditches paralleling each row threatened at every step to give us away as we crept toward our target.

First squad was on point, walking in wide fire team wedges, with Lloyd, their squad leader, directing from the middle. The infrared strobe light in his right shoulder pocket flashed every couple of seconds, invisible to the naked eye, but clear as day in my night vision. It lit up the palms around him, and left eerie snapshot profiles of the soldiers walking between us. I hoped they were on their game, as Lloyd’s squad would be my overwatch when we reached our objective.

My alpha team walked between me and Lloyd’s soldiers. Sergeant Fraleigh, who we often called Frolo, was at the front of his fire team wedge. Fraleigh was the best kind of guy to have as a team leader. He was a young sergeant, but he was big, loud, aggressive, and fearless. I watched him win our division’s boxing championship long before he became one of my team leaders. He was the type of NCO who struck fear into the hearts of privates and Iraqis alike. No one wanted to be on his bad side.

As we walked, I spun around to check the spacing of my bravo fire team. My other team leader, Sergeant Jimmy Bridges was walking at the apex of his team’s wedge. They were doing exactly what they were supposed to be doing. I was proud of my boys tonight. Their spacing was perfect, and despite all of the obstacles, we were moving silently through the palms toward our objective. It all looked like a scene from a war movie, or even a trailer for some new video game. Heavily armed soldiers moving through the darkness like silent ghosts. To the naked eye, the only evidence of their existence was the dim green glow that the night vision goggles left on their faces. All that was missing was a soundtrack by CCR and the thumping of helicopter rotor blades.

I turned back around and smiled at no one in the darkness. This was my favorite kind of mission. “Bravo Company, 1st Platoon, the “Maggots” conducts a raid against target house, vicinity Iraqi Army checkpoint, in order to kill or capture enemy sniper.” My boys, second squad, would be the assaulting element, while first and third squads were to provide support and security.

I couldn’t remember a time when we had walked more quietly in the dark, and I was anxious to hit this house. Just days earlier our platoon had been returning to Camp Taji after a twelve-hour patrol, when we were directed by our battalion headquarters to support our sister company, Charlie, as they searched this very home. We had hoped to make it back in time for a midnight meal at one of the Camp Taji chow halls. Instead, we set up hasty blocking positions to prevent anyone from fleeing as soldiers from Charlie Company entered and searched the house. No one had tried to run away. We sat in an empty field watching lights come on in the windows of the house, and listening to the radio communication as the mission progressed. The occupants were cooperative, and there were no weapons or contraband found.

After several hours of waiting in the cold, we received instructions to hold our positions until daybreak, so that Charlie Company soldiers could search again during daylight hours. The temperatures had dropped below the freezing mark, and we sat there shivering, while frost formed around us. Finally, just before dawn, we were given permission to return to base. Charlie Company had found nothing in the home.

Now it was our turn to search this place. As we continued moving, I could make out the outline of a building through the palm trees. Lloyd, the first squad leader, whispered over the radio that he had the target house in sight. It was a pretty typical Iraqi home for this area. It was two stories with metal doors, a flat roof, and a sort of stucco exterior. There was a garage, a couple small outbuildings made of mud bricks, and a small fenced area with goats and sheep. It was quiet and dark as we approached.

We halted, and waited for Lloyd to set up his over watch position.  As he set his men in place, I whispered radio checks with Sergeant Taaga; Sergeant First Class Arambula, our platoon sergeant, who had the medic; and Leo, the third squad leader. I had clear comms with everyone but Leo.

Where the hell was our reserve squad?

I walked over and knelt next to my Lieutenant. “Hey sir, I can’t get Maggot 3 on the radio.  Where the hell are they? I don’t even see his strobe flashing behind us.”

While Lieutenant Schardt, our platoon leader, tried to raise third squad on the radio, I heard brush breaking to our right. I turned around to see what or who might be moving, and the noise grew louder.

Then Leo called out, “Hey, first platoon, where the fuck are you?”

So much for noise discipline, I thought.

“My fucking radio isn’t working,” he continued, almost shouting.

By this point, we had practically announced our arrival. His squad continued tromping toward us, seemingly stepping on and breaking every stick and branch in the palm grove.

I quickly walked over and whispered through clenched teeth, “Hey, shut the fuck up. What the hell is wrong with you guys?”

Leo approached and started complaining that he had been trying to get us on the radio, and that we had just left his squad alone out on the highway. He went on and on about how he had somehow ended up on the east side of the road, opposite our objective, where he ran into another platoon’s blocking position while trying to figure out our location.

Finally, we got ourselves organized, and Lloyd and Leo finished getting their squads settled into over watch and security positions. Amazingly enough, there was no sign that we had disturbed the occupants of our target house. It appeared that we still had the element of surprise working in our favor, but this whole cluster set the tone for how the assault phase of this mission would go.

I signaled for my alpha team to move forward to the house. They spread out, crouching low as they ran quietly across the clearing to the front door of the house. I followed closely behind, and as we reached the corner of the front wall the men automatically lined up in a stack. Most infantry fire teams have a breach man. In this team, it made sense for Frolo to be the door kicker. We had never encountered a door that he couldn’t get through.

Sergeant Fraleigh stood in front of the door and looked at me through his night vision. I gave him a quick nod, and he took a step back with his left foot, and then slammed the heel of his boot into the door next to the latch. It gave way, but the door didn’t fly open like they usually did. He kicked again. Then a third time, and the plastic mount on his night vision goggles broke. They were hanging from the para cord attached to the camo band on his helmet.

Frolo turned to me and said, “Sergeant T., my nods are down!”

“No shit! What the fuck to do you want me to do about it? Take care of it once we get inside.”

He reached up and held onto the nods while he kicked the door again. It sounded as if someone were hitting the door with a sledge hammer. It was bending in the middle, and each strike left a new dent, but it simply would not open more than a couple of inches. A light came on inside. Through a window at the top of the door, we could see a large wooden cabinet that was preventing it from opening. An outside light came on, and we no longer needed our night vision. We had also lost the benefit of surprise.

I paused for a second to figure out my next move, and a woman pulled back a window curtain and waved at us frantically. With our rifles pointed at her she motioned to the side of the house. About that time, a small boy, maybe ten or eleven years old, came walking out from around a corner and gestured for us to follow him. A man in his early forties met us at the side door and invited us in. In the main room, where Fraleigh had been kicking the door, we found a China cabinet that stood seven or eight feet high, and ran the length of the room. It was full of all sorts of stuff; silver platters, little trinkets, and lots of newly broken dishes.

I called for Sergeant Bridges to bring up his team and help secure the first floor of the home. There was an elderly man, a younger woman, and four children ranging in age from toddler to about ten or eleven. They were cooperative but not very happy with us. The old man kept shouting at us. Our interpreter said that he wanted us to know that he was not a terrorist. He wanted to know why we were searching his home again.

We secured the first floor, and separated the men from the women and children. With the help of an interpreter, I asked about any weapons in the home. The younger of the two men explained that there were two AK 47 rifles in the house, and pointed to where I could find them. He said that they worked with the Sons of Iraq, and that they were allowed to have the rifles and the ammo pouches. I checked their ID cards, and they were indeed on our payroll as checkpoint security guards in that area.

Raid 3

That figures, I thought.

“Tell them that we are still going to search their house for weapons and contraband.”

Our interpreter relayed the message, and told me that they understood.

“Maggot Six, this is Maggot Two. Over.”

“Go ahead, Maggot Two.”

“Six, first floor is secure. Moving to second floor now. Over.”

“Roger that.”

Lieutenant Schardt entered the house with one of Leo’s fire teams, and asked which rooms the occupants were in. I pointed to the room where the men were being held, and started up the stairs with Sergeant Fraleigh and his fire team.

At the top of the stairs, there was a landing and four doors. The door to our right was metal and had a window much like the door downstairs. It was access to the roof of the home. One open door revealed a room that was mostly empty expect for a few large bags of dates, presumably from the palm groves that we had just walked through. The second room was used for storage. It was piled full of all sorts of junk. I could see burlap sacks, car parts, pots and pans, broken chairs, and all kinds of other things. The door to the third room was closed.

Sergeant Fraleigh gently checked the door handle and signaled that it was locked. I nodded to him, and he kicked it. Unlike the plain metal door downstairs this door was very ornately carved wood with a brass door handle. The handle and latch mechanism fell to the floor as wood splintered around it. The door was destroyed, and the latching side of the door frame came out of the wall as well. We thought we were ready for anything as we entered and cleared rooms, but we were not prepared for what happened next.

We rushed into the room, and a man rolled out of a large bed onto the floor in front of us. A woman rolled out of the other side of the bed, taking the sheets along with her. She was screaming as she pulled the sheets up to her neck in an effort to cover herself. The man, probably in his mid-thirties, was startled and confused. He got up from the floor quickly, his eyes wide with fear and surprise. He had one hand over his head, and was attempting to pull his pants up with the other. When he realized that our weapons all pointed at him, he dropped his pants and raised his other hand. He still stood there awkwardly bent at the waist, as if he really wanted to pull his pants up, but he wasn’t sure he could do it without getting shot.

A quick glance around the room confirmed what we had busted in on. His pants were around his ankles. His naked wife was curled up in a corner of the room holding a sheet up to her neck. There was a red light bulb glowing in a wall fixture above the bed’s headboard, and there was a box of peach scented douche sitting on one of the nightstands. I looked at her and then back at him, and I started laughing.

Sergeant Fraleigh laughed too and said, “That sucks dude! We had no idea you were gettin’ some ass in here.”

The man gave an uneasy smile. He didn’t understand English, but he knew we were laughing at him.

I looked at the interpreter. “Tell him to pull his fuckin’ pants up. I don’t want to see that shit. Tell her to get dressed too.”

Once the woman was dressed, she was escorted downstairs to the room with the other woman and the children. I kept lover boy in the room so that I could ask him some questions.

“Ask him if there are any weapons in the house.”

“He says that there are two AKs downstairs, and that those are the only weapons they have.”

“Has he heard any gunshots in this area recently?”

“He says no.”

“Ask him if he knows anything about a sniper firing on the Iraqi Army checkpoint out on the highway? I’m sure he can see the checkpoint from the roof of his house.”

“He says he doesn’t know anything about it.”

“He’s a fucking liar.”

I took him downstairs and handed him off to some of the 3rd squad soldiers who were now in the house. I walked over to where Lieutenant Schardt was standing and gave him a sit rep. “The house is secure. We have two women and four children in that room. Three military-age males in this room. I’m going to start searching the place upstairs first.”

“Sounds good Sergeant T. Let me know what you find.”

I walked back upstairs where Jimmy and Frolo already had their teams starting to search the rooms. I looked around as well, watching what the soldiers were doing, and rifling through drawers and closets that hadn’t been checked yet. I knew that this house had just been searched, and I wasn’t very confident that we would find anything. I didn’t see any reason at that point to totally trash the place.

Then I found something. In the back of the top drawer of one of the nightstands, I found a little glass dish that held about ten bullets for a 9mm handgun. Iraqis were allowed to have an AK-47 with one 30-round magazine for home protection, but there were no handguns allowed. I grabbed the dish and walked downstairs to ask lover boy about them.

Raid 4

Speaking to the interpreter, I asked, “Where is your handgun?”

As our interpreter spoke, he looked at me, and shook his head no.

“He says he doesn’t have a handgun, only AKs.”

“Why do you have ammo for a handgun if you don’t have a handgun?”

“He says he doesn’t have any handgun ammo either.”

I showed him the dish and said, “What the fuck is this then?”

He backpedaled a bit, but still insisted that there were no other weapons in the home.

“Tell him that we will leave if he just gives up the handgun.”

“He still says that he doesn’t have one.”

I left my lieutenant to continue asking questions, while I went back to searching. We looked in all of the usual places and found nothing out of the ordinary. By this point, we were hours into the mission, and I was tired and pissed off. Captain Veath, my company commander and our first sergeant, 1SG Angulo were now in the house poking around and asking why we hadn’t come up with anything yet. I pointed out the bullets in the dish.

Captain Veath said, “Where is the gun?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “It has to be here somewhere, but they won’t give it up. Without flipping this whole place upside down, I’m not sure where else to look.”

“Flip this place, and find it then.”

“Roger that, sir.”

Back upstairs, I called all of the soldiers out of the rooms onto the landing at the top of the stairs. “We have a handful of 9mm rounds that were in a nightstand drawer in that room,” I said, pointing toward the busted wooden door. “You will check every nook and cranny in this mother fucker. Flip the beds. Take the drawers out of each piece of furniture. Check the bottoms of them. Check inside to make sure that there is nothing taped above or below the drawers. Turn the furniture over, and check the back and bottom of each piece. Toss everything.” We broke to continue searching.

Raid 2

I walked into the bedroom with Pvt. Shane Steward. He went to the night stand where I had found the 9mm bullets, and pulled out the top drawer and dumped it. He dropped the drawer on the bed, and looked into the bottom drawer. Then he got up and started to walk over to the closet. I told him that he needed to remove the bottom drawer, and check under and behind the nightstand too. He turned back, pulled the bottom drawer out of the nightstand, and dumped it.

Raid 5

“Umm, Sergeant Taylor? I think I found something.”

I glanced over and saw the excited look on his face as he pulled the bag from the nightstand. He placed it on the bed and opened it. He shook his head as he reached in and pulled out a handful of 7.9mm rifle rounds.

Raid 10

“Nice job Steward! Take that out on the landing and dump it.”

When he dumped the bag, hundreds of 7.9mm rifle rounds on stripper clips, and loose 7.62mm AK 47 rounds fell out onto the floor along with several loaded AK47 magazines.
Raid

I called for my lieutenant to come up, and some of my privates started organizing our find so that we could get an accurate count. When Lieutenant Schardt came up, he smiled at me, and asked if we had anything else. I told him that we still had a couple of rooms to check, and that we had found yet another caliber of ammunition. I started thinking we would find more weapons.

Next was the junk room. Jimmy and I started searching this room. After finding so much ammo, we were feeling a second wind. We started pulling stuff out of the room. There were burlap sacks full of sheep’s wool. It was now daylight outside, so I carried the bags out onto the rooftop. I pulled out my knife and slit the side of each bag and dumped the contents onto the cement roof.

Raid 8

As we moved further into the room, I found a green cylinder with white military markings on it. The cylinder was empty, but it was a shipping container for a warhead for a Brazilian surface-to-air missile. Raid 11Raid 9I set that aside, and continued digging. Next I found a navy blue child’s backpack with UNICEF embroidered on it. Inside the pack I found a cowboy style leather belt with bullet loops all around it. There were a few AK 47 magazines, three strands of Christmas lights with no bulbs, which are commonly used to make IEDs, and finally wrapped in a piece of cloth was a rifle scope. After moving all of these things out of the room, we reached several large rolls of canvas on the floor. They appeared to be large tents or something of that nature, but when I tried to lift one of the rolls, it was much heavier than plain canvas. I unrolled the first one, and inside I found a bolt-action rifle. I held it up for Jimmy to see. He unrolled the second roll and found a sniper rifle that went with the scope we had found. In another larger roll there was another green cylinder, this one filled with rifle cartridges for the sniper rifle. Two more rolls revealed two more rifles and two more shipping containers filled with ammo. Raid 7

Jimmy and I carried the rifles and ammunition out onto the rooftop, and I called for Lieutenant Schardt, the commander, and the first sergeant. When they came through the door to the rooftop, I held up the sniper rifle and the scope.

“We didn’t find a handgun, but here is your sniper rifle, sir.”

“Damn Sergeant Taylor, we’ll have to call Charlie Company and tell them that you found what they were looking for.”

“No shit, sir.”

I went down to speak to the three men who had claimed that they only had two AK 47s in the house. I asked again where their handgun was. They continued to deny that anyone in the house had a handgun.

Talking to the interpreter, I said, “Okay, I believe that you don’t have a handgun in the house. I have searched upstairs, and we didn’t find a handgun. Are there any other weapons in the house?”

They all told the interpreter that there were no other guns in the home, and they looked relieved that I hadn’t mentioned finding any weapons.

I turned to the other soldiers in the room, and instructed them to put flex-cuffs on all three of the men. Once they were cuffed, I told the soldiers to bring them upstairs to the rooftop. The looks on their faces were priceless when they came through the door and saw all of the weapons and ammunition laid out across their rooftop.

In all, we discovered more than three thousand 7.62mm and 7.9mm rifle rounds, almost thirty AK-47 magazines, and seven rifles. We also had materials that were commonly used in making IEDs, and evidence that these men had gotten their hands on some sort of missiles or warheads that could have potentially been used against American soldiers in a number of different ways. It was a fruitful raid. We found what we were looking for. We accomplished our mission, to conduct a raid on the target house in order to kill or capture enemy sniper. There was not a single shot fired, and there were no casualties, aside from some dishes and a couple of doors.

Raid 6

All of our success aside, I felt guilty about that raid. It was approaching lunch time by the time we had processed all of our evidence, and prepared to move our three detainees. As my soldiers escorted the three handcuffed men to our vehicles and placed blindfolds over their heads to protect the secret materials in our Stryker vehicles, the oldest boy came out of the front of the house. He watched armed American soldiers blindfold his father, uncle, and grandfather. His face was emotionless as the armored ramp closed, concealing the men in his family inside. My company commander walked over to him and patted him on the head. The boy’s stare changed to anger and hatred when Captain Veath handed him a soccer ball.

I saw it right then; we took his dad, and his uncle, and his grandpa, and gave him a shiny new soccer ball in return. What a fucked up war. 

We took weapons away from insurgents that day, and we interfered with insurgent sniper activity in that area. What else did we do that day? Did we help reinforce negative feelings toward Americans in another generation of Iraqi people? Did we create another insurgent or another terrorist that day?

Tim O’Brien says, “Boom. Down.” That’s not how I remember it…

I grew up reading about war. I was fascinated by Green Berets, Army Rangers, and Navy SEALs. I read story after story and book after book about the fighting in Vietnam. I never cared much for historical research type books. I wanted the stories, the personal experiences, the war stories. These are the kind of stories that I write now, about my own wartime experiences.

I remember reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, where he described the death of a soldier as “boom, down. Zapped while zipping.” It’s a great book, and his writing can really help a reader get into the mind of a soldier. How are they feeling? How can they do this terrible job? What is it like? He doesn’t glorify the war. He doesn’t talk about explosions and massive firefights. It is just a simple, yet deeply expressive, explanation of his experiences in combat. While describing the physical burdens carried by infantry soldiers, O’Brien dips into the emotional burdens too.

He discusses dark humor and macho and dehumanizing language. It is all 100% true, and with a change of weapons, uniforms, and lingo, it could apply to almost any war.

“Boom, down. Zapped while zipping.” This phrase sticks out to me, because I don’t remember it happening so quickly or silently in my war. It was an explosion. BOOM! It didn’t go down. Smoke, fire, shrapnel, flesh, it all went up. We went up too, up to the intersection where the rocket came from. We unloaded, firing everything we had available. Machine guns rocked those buildings.

Glass. Glass went down, and so did bits and pieces of the walls that we were firing into. Brass shell casings went down to our feet. When the Air Force flew over, bombs went down. Smoke and flame went up. Pieces of roofs, wood splinters, and other debris went up. Then they came down, along with the walls that held them up. BOOM! CITY BLOCKS WENT DOWN.

Two weeks later, our brother-in-arms went down, to join those who went before him, and all those who have since gone.

Dagget Stone

Gone, but not forgotten.

Standards, Discipline, Double Standards, and more…

I just saw an entry in my journal from a day when one of our drivers, “Willy P.” got his Stryker stuck in the mud right in front of our battalion headquarters on Camp Taji. It was January 23rd, 2008, and it had rained nonstop for about two days. While he was turning around in the parking lot by the headquarters building, he got too close to a ditch that paralleled the north wall of the building. The roads and parking lots were gravel and mud, and the weight of the Stryker caused him to slide off into the water-filled ditch. It appeared that the vehicle was dangerously close to tipping over on its side, although it didn’t. We had to have a recovery vehicle come and get it out of the ditch.

While this little incident doesn’t seem like a big deal, small things like that can certainly become a big deal in the army. All of the NCOs (sergeants) in my platoon got an ass chewing from our first sergeant. Then, all of the squad leaders in my platoon had to go and see the battalion command sergeant major. We were left standing outside of our battalion headquarters building in the rain. It was cold enough that we could see our breath, but we had to stand and watch shovel wielding soldiers fill in the ruts left in the mud by our platoon’s Stryker vehicle. Heaven forbid we might leave ruts in soggy mud causing a drainage ditch in Iraq to be unattractive.

Command Sergeant Major Ordonio was a little Filipino man, whom I had met when he was the commandant of the Air Assault School at Schofield Barracks. He was a funny guy, and his thick accent made him nearly impossible to understand. He seemed like the kind of sergeant major who didn’t like stupid. In my experience, he didn’t take shit from anyone, and he was quick to voice his opinion when he thought something was ridiculous.

He finally came out to address us after the ruts were nearly filled in. We were wet, cold, and irritated.

“Are you cold,” he asked as he approached.

He looked at me. “I’m good, sergeant major,” I answered.

He was wearing several layers of cold weather clothing, topped off with gloves and a Gore-Tex jacket to keep him warm and dry.

He stopped right in front of me and said, “You have plenty of fat to keep you warm,” as he tugged the zipper of his Gore-Tex up a little further.

Once he was done insulting me, we were lectured about standards, safety, discipline, and a whole bunch of other shit that had absolutely nothing to do with the driver of an armored vehicle misjudging his turn radius.

What I got from this whole speech, was that the 1SG and CSM were pissed that one of the vehicle’s crew was photographed posing in front of the stuck vehicle, and he was smiling. Somehow, that photo was supposedly emailed to our battalion commander, and he felt that it was inappropriate. We learned later that our first sergeant had also posed in front of the vehicle, and flipped a “shaka” for the camera. Wonder if that made it to the LTC Boccardi too?

A number of the leaders in my company and battalion were experts in the art of being dumb asses. We put so much emphasis on the things that didn’t matter, and then didn’t focus on the things that did. Reason number 7,249 that I was ready to leave the military.

Now, fast forward two days, January 25th, 2008. Our battalion S-4, 1LT Iorio, gets shot on Camp Taji. Apparently, our battalion XO’s M4 had been missing, but it hadn’t been reported. Next thing we know, one of our lieutenants gets shot in the back with it. All of the troops in our battalion get lectured on weapon safety and accountability. Somehow, it seemed that those leaders in the command group didn’t have to get put on lock down for hours and hours. It didn’t seem that they were lectured about basic soldiering skills. Strange, since it was their missing weapon, and their lieutenant who was shot. Our battalion commander even took us over to 1LT Iorio’s living quarters, and showed us the blood and chunks of flesh that were stuck on the front wall of the building. I guess they decided that he had shot himself accidentally. I never heard anything official, but I’m not convinced that he did it. Although, maybe he confessed or something. I’m pretty sure he was miserable there.  Maybe he wanted to go home.  Maybe he wanted to stage it to look like someone had shot him. Maybe it was an accident.

Now, let’s fast forward one more time, just over a month, to March 3rd, 2008. The fabulous and insulting CSM Ordonio was playing cowboy with his 9mm Beretta just outside of battalion headquarters. Apparently, he had his weapon locked and loaded, and he was practicing his quick draw skills. It got stuck when he was putting it back in its holster, and he forced it back in. After all of our lectures on safety, accountability, standards, discipline, and a million other things…CSM Ordonio’s pistol went off as he pushed it into his holster. He shot himself in the leg. Maybe if he would have been fatter, his holster wouldn’t have been directly above his calf muscle.

If I ever write a book, maybe I’ll dedicate it to my wife and to all of those leaders who preached standards, discipline, and all of that other shit. I would especially like to remember those guys who said that the civilian world was too tough, and that I wouldn’t be able to find a job outside of the army.

Good For You, guys, Good For You.

Cub Scout Camping Trip


Image

This story also first published in Proud to Be:  Writing By American Warriors, Volume 2. (2013)

“Dad, can we please go camping with my Cub Scout pack this weekend?” Jacob asked, as he climbed into the back of my car outside of his school.  “It’ll be so much fun, and all of the other scouts are going!”

I looked over my shoulder to watch him buckle his seat belt. “Yeah, I saw it on the calendar.  I already made plans to go.  Your mom has to work, so she won’t be able to go with us.”

His eyes lit up as he pumped his fist.  “Yes!  It’s going to be so awesome!”

When we got back home, Jacob hopped on his bike and went down the street to his friend’s house.  I climbed up into the attic above the garage and started digging around.  I was looking for our tent and wondering what else we would need to bring.   At the bottom of a dusty stack of cardboard boxes I saw “Cold weather camping stuff” written in black marker.

“That figures; it would be on the bottom” I thought out loud.

I moved the boxes off of the top, and gray insulation dust swirled up from the floor as I made a new stack.  My eyes itched, and the dust made me cough.  After moving the last box from the stack, I reached down to open the one that I wanted.  I used my keys to puncture the clear packing tape, and opened the flaps.

The contents took me back a little.  The very first thing that I pulled out was a desert camouflage Gore-Tex jacket and rolled up underneath it was the matching pair of pants.  I held up the jacket and thought about my last combat tour in Afghanistan.  It was the third of my four deployments.  It had been so cold out there in the mountains, and we were told not to carry too much because of the elevation.  I rolled the jacket back up and set it aside.  Reaching into the box again, I pulled out a pair of cold-weather combat boots.  Now, these I can definitely use this weekend, I thought.  It was late October and there had been frost every morning lately.

I kept flipping through the box and pulled out a couple pairs of gloves, a ski mask, a scarf, some old long-sleeved undershirts and a bottle of arctic rifle lubricant.  I threw the gloves into a pile of things to take camping and set the other stuff to the side so that I could repack it all.  I found two sleeping bags folded flat at the bottom of the box.  Mine was black.  It was one of the three pieces that came with an army-issued sleeping-bag system.  Jacob’s had Scooby Doo on it.  I carried the sleeping bags, boots, and gloves over to the attic entrance and dropped them onto the garage floor below.  I went back over and put the rest of the stuff back in the box and closed it up.

Still looking around for the tent, I wondered what else I should bring.  My mind started to wander, and I began thinking about all of the times I had spent nights in the field as a soldier.  I hadn’t been camping since I left the army, three years earlier.  A tent still sounded like a luxury.

I found our green three-person dome tent shoved in the back of the attic behind some boxes.  I grabbed it and slipped the shoulder strap over my head.  I climbed down the ladder back into the garage.  I set the tent down with our camp chairs and grabbed the other things I had dropped down from the attic entrance.  I placed it all in a pile near the garage door and thought about going inside.

Instead, I climbed back up into the attic.  I knew that there was an old army rucksack up there somewhere, and everything we needed would fit into it.  Wishing I had taken more time to organize stuff when I hauled everything into my attic, I started digging around again.  After opening five boxes of Precious Moments figurines, baby clothes, and Christmas decorations, I finally found what I was looking for.

I pulled my old green rucksack out of a box and opened it.  My Kevlar helmet and rifleman’s vest were packed away inside.  The ammo pouches still had empty rifle magazines in them.  The ear plugs I had used in Iraq were still clipped onto the top of the vest, and there were still unopened first-aid dressings in the pockets.  In another pocket I found a small folded up section of a map of Baghdad.  An intersection on the map was circled in red pen, and I remembered my friend Kyle who had been killed there.  I closed my eyes and saw the stucco buildings standing guard around that intersection; their broken window panes and bullet riddled walls told tales of earlier battles.  The streets had suddenly cleared out, and we sat there quietly, waiting for something to happen.  The single rocket screamed as it streaked across the road and slammed into Kyle’s truck, bringing with it chaos and confusion.  My heart started to beat faster, and I took a deep breath.  I could still smell the mix of smoke, dust, and gun powder in the air, and I heard a panicking voice come across the radio again as they sped away from the contact, leaving a trail of black smoke in their wake.

“I’ve got two down!  Two down!  We are pulling back.  I can’t find a pulse!”

The intensity of the shockwave from the explosion came back to me, and I could see the smoking truck speeding away as we moved toward the enemy.  We opened up with everything we had and rained hell on that small piece of the city.  Our machine guns punched holes in the walls and doors, and our lieutenant called for air support.  We were still firing when Apache attack helicopters swooped in low over our heads and released their Hellfire missiles, making loud swooshes followed by ear shattering explosions that sent bits of stucco, splinters of wood, and pieces of broken glass raining down on us.  The dust and smoke made it hard to see and even harder to breathe.  Gunfire and the explosions were all that could be heard, and we still weren’t finished.  Air Force fighter jets screamed overhead, and we were directed to back away from the intersection.  They flew high over the city streets, making pass after pass, releasing their bombs.  One at a time, the buildings on each side of the intersection erupted into giant balls of fire.  Black smoke, dust, and debris rose high into the sky while we yelled and cheered.  When the smoke cleared, the buildings were gone.  A city block in each direction had been reduced to rubble, but Kyle didn’t make it.

I refolded the map and put it back into the pocket where I had found it.  Since I didn’t need body armor for camping, I reluctantly set it aside.  I dropped the empty rucksack to the garage floor below and climbed down the ladder.

Jacob came home from his friend’s house, and all he could talk about was going camping.  All through dinner it was all we heard about.  He could hardly sit still long enough to eat.

“Mom, Dad and I are going camping tomorrow,” he said with enthusiasm.  “I can’t wait!  I’m going to get to shoot a bow and arrow, and go hiking, and they will even have a bonfire,” he went on and on.  “Maybe I’ll even finish up the things I have to do to get my wolf badge.”

“I know, honey,” my wife said.  “I’m sure you’re going to have a great time, but you need to make sure you’re careful out there, and you have to be good for your dad.”

That evening after dinner I made a list of everything that I wanted to take camping.  I hadn’t been out to the woods for a long time, and I didn’t want to forget anything.  Never mind the fact that this camping weekend was going to be at a Boy Scout camp with a lunch room, bathrooms, and showers.  I wrote down everything I could think of.  I’ll need to bring a first-aid kit, Gatorade powder, extra socks, and my diving knife.  I continued writing: Para cord, bungee cords, entrenching tool, rain jacket and pants, insulated undershirts and pants, tent, chairs, combat boots and shooting gloves. The more I wrote, the more I worried about missing something.  I wondered if I still had my foil casualty blanket and if I could find my fluorescent VS-17 signaling panel.  They went on the list.  I scribbled down map pens, sleeping bags, extra water and food, a red-lens flashlight, signaling strobe light, extra batteries, and d-rings.  Adding more to the list, I wrote soap, hand towel, wash cloth, baby wipes, toothpaste, and toothbrush.  My list filled an entire page of notebook paper, and I still had this terrible feeling that I was forgetting something.

I went to bed that night, worrying about being prepared.  Theresa slept, while I stared into the darkness of our bedroom.  I finally drifted off to sleep sometime after three.  When my alarm went off at five-thirty, I felt like I had just fallen asleep.

Theresa got up, got ready for work, and left the house.  I took Jacob to school that morning and came home to pack after I dropped him off.  I would have to pick him up a little after three, and we would need to leave just after five when Theresa got back home.  The camp facilities opened up at four so that campers could get their sites set up before dark.  It would be close to six before we would arrive, and it would be dark by seven.

I spent the morning packing and checked each item off of my list as I stuffed it into my rucksack.  The pack held everything except for our tent poles and our two camp chairs.  Those we could carry separately.  My rucksack held enough food, water, and survival gear for us to get by in the woods for a few days without resupply.  I had everything we would need to stay warm in the cold weather, and all of the right stuff for directing a medevac helicopter in to our position.  I was prepared for whatever might happen.

Three o’clock came, and I picked Jacob up from school.  He was practically bouncing off the walls when he jumped into the car.

“Is Mom off work yet?  What time are we leaving?  Jameson said that his dad is taking him right when the camp opens.  When can we go, Dad?”

“Settle down, Jacob.  I already told you that we won’t be going until your mom gets home from work.  She’s off at five tonight, so we should be able to leave by a quarter after or so.”  I looked back to see that he was buckled, and then we headed home.

Once we got back to the house, Jacob asked for a snack.  While he ate a stick of string cheese, I loaded our gear into the car.  “Is there anything special that you want to take tonight, Jacob?”

“Can we take stuff to make s’mores?”

“Yep, it’s already packed,” I said.  “Anything else?”

“Nope,” he said, as he pulled another strip from his string cheese and dangled it over his open mouth.

I stepped out into the garage and looked around for anything that I might have missed.  I still felt like I was forgetting something, like I was unprepared.  Theresa got home a just after five, and we chatted for a few minutes about her day.

I kissed Theresa goodbye, and told her to enjoy the quiet weekend.  “We should be back in town sometime Sunday afternoon, but call me if you need anything.  Hopefully, my phone will have signal out there.”

Jacob had disappeared into his room, so I peeked around the corner of the hallway and said, “Let’s go, Jacob.”

Jacob came bouncing down the hall like he had just finished a case of Red Bull.  He ran outside and climbed into the car.  I followed him out, and we headed toward the Boy Scout camp.

I drove through the camp’s entrance.  There was a gate that could be locked across the country road, but it wasn’t attached to any sort of a fence.  As we rounded a bend and entered the gravel parking area, I saw families unloading camping gear from their cars and walking off into the surrounding woods.  Other parents and scouts stood in line at a card table situated near the edge of the parking lot.  Scout leaders flipped through papers attached to clipboards and highlighted names as the campers checked-in.

I looked around.  We were surrounded by woods.  A few buildings were situated here and there with woodchip trails stretching between them.  A single street light stood at one end of the parking lot.

I backed into an empty parking space near the exit and turned the car off, pulling the trunk lever as I got out.  Jacob and I stepped around to the open trunk lid, and I lifted it up.   I handed him the camp chairs, and lifted my rucksack.  After slipping my arms through the shoulder straps, I cinched them down and clipped my flashlight and diving knife onto my belt.  I closed the trunk and made sure that the car was locked, and we walked toward the back of the line at the card table.

When it was our turn, I gave the scout leaders our names.  They marked us off with an orange highlighter, and one of the men seated behind the table pointed to a woodchip trail and explained where my son’s scout pack had made camp.  Jacob carried our camp chairs, and I hauled the over-packed army rucksack down the trail to our campsite.  As we reached the small clearing where Jacob’s friends were set up, I noticed that the tents weren’t arranged in any particular fashion.  Camp chairs were scattered here and there.  Kids were running all over the place yelling.  Some of them were carrying colored light sticks in their hands, others had them tied around their necks, and still others had flashlights.  It wasn’t dark yet, but it would be soon.  Moms and dads were sitting around on picnic tables and in lawn chairs.  Some were drinking coffee or hot cocoa already, and others were drinking sodas that they had brought out in big coolers.

I immediately felt uncomfortable.  It was too noisy here.  We were too visible.  Where was the security around this place?  What kind of an idiot would set up a camp this way?

Jacob dropped the camp chairs next to a tree and watched his friends.  “Can I go play, Dad?”

“Yeah, I can get the tent up.  It’s pretty simple.  Come back and check-in with me before it gets too dark.”

“Okay!” he yelled as he disappeared down a trail with the rest of the kids.

I went to work on the tent.  A few minutes after I started, another dad came walking over.  I noticed his desert combat boots and his camouflage pants as soon as I saw him.

“How ya doing?  I’m Mike,” he said.

I stood to shake his hand and introduced myself.

“I saw your boots and your rucksack.  Army?”

“Yep, almost ten years,” I said.  “What about you?”

“I just got out last year, when I got home from Iraq.  Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“Did you have a hard time packing for this little trip?”

Escort

P2B Vol. 2

This story first published in Proud to Be:  Writing By American Warriors, Volume 2 (2013)

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking.  On behalf of Delta Airlines, I would like to welcome you to San Antonio, Texas.  The local time is eleven-twenty-three AM, and it is currently seventy-eight degrees and sunny.  We will be pulling up to the jet way momentarily, but we ask that you please remain in your seats.  Today, we have the honor of carrying the remains of a fallen American soldier.  Please remain seated until his casket can be off-loaded.  Thank you for your patience and thanks again for flying Delta Airlines.”

The flight attendants were up moving around the cabin, and one of them approached my seat.  “Thanks for what you’re doing,” she said. “If you would like to go ahead and grab your carry-on, you can move up to the door.”

I unfastened my seat belt and reached up to grab my bag from the overhead bin.  The passengers sitting near me suddenly looked very uncomfortable.  The young woman whom I had sat next to for the last few hours had told me all about her hometown, her work, and how much she loved running.  She had asked me about where I lived, if I had been overseas, and what it was like to jump out of airplanes.  We had talked off and on for most of the flight, but now she looked at me sympathetically.   She hadn’t thought to ask why I was flying to San Antonio.

“Once again, we appreciate your patience, ladies and gentlemen.  Please remain in your seats, and we will deplane momentarily.”

As I stood up, I straightened my necktie and pulled at the hem of my green jacket.  Once everything was in place, I moved forward.  As I walked toward the door some of the passengers looked at me with sorrowful faces, others checked their watches as if waiting was a huge inconvenience.  A few older gentlemen looked at me and nodded.  As I reached the door of the aircraft, I was met by the pilot.  He put his hat on, and I slipped on a pair of white gloves and pulled my black beret onto my head making sure that the folds were just right.

I followed him out onto the jet way and then through a side door that led outside.  We walked down a flight of metal steps onto the tarmac where a charcoal-gray hearse was backed up next to the conveyor belt that would carry luggage out of the plane’s cargo hold.  The driver stepped out, opened its rear door and walked over to us.  He was an older man, dressed in a black suit, and walking with a limp.  On his left lapel he wore an American flag pin.

He shook hands with the pilot, and then reached for my hand.  “Good mornin’, Sergeant.  I’m Bill Meyers.  Once we get the casket loaded, I’ll take ya on around to pick-up your luggage.”

I reached out and shook his hand.  “It’s nice to meet you, Sir.  I’m Staff Sergeant Taylor.”

The pilot nodded to the ground crewman who was standing in the entrance of the plane’s cargo hold.  Looking up at the plane I could see passengers’ faces in the windows.  They were all looking down, trying to see what was happening.  Behind me, in the airport terminal, some people had stood and were watching.

I stood there thinking about how much I hated this part of the job, and how later I would have to meet this kid’s parents.  How the hell did I get picked for this one anyway?  He wasn’t even in my squad.

As the ground crew worked to prepare the luggage carts, a long rectangular box came into view.  The man inside the fuselage cut the shipping bands and lifted the top off.  Inside was a soldier’s casket with an American flag stretched over it and held tight by an elastic band.  Private-First-Class James Anthony Smith Junior, barely twenty years old and dead.  A hero’s homecoming for a kid who had never even been to war; I wondered how these people would respond if they knew he had died in a hotel room after getting drunk and overdosing on prescription pain killers.  It must have been some party.  Unfortunately for his mother, the hotel housekeeping staff had found him on the bathroom floor on Sunday morning.  It was Mothers’ Day.

With the help of the mechanical wheels in the plane’s cargo area, the man maneuvered the casket to the top of the conveyor belt.  Another crewman turned it on, and the casket slowly descended from the aircraft toward the waiting hearse.

I snapped to attention and raised a slow ceremonial salute.  The pilot saluted as well.  When the casket reached the bottom of the conveyor, ground crewmen and Mr. Meyers slid it into the back of the hearse.  I dropped my salute.  The pilot shook my hand and thanked me for my service, and then he turned and walked under the plane heading back to the stairs.  I walked over to the hearse.  Mr. Meyers was fastening the casket onto the rollers and straightening the flag.

In his Texas drawl he said, “Hey, Sarge, go ahead and get on in the passenger seat there.  It’s a good forty-five minute drive down to the funeral home.  The family’s gonna meet us there.”

I opened the door and sat down on the leather seat.  I took off my gloves and my beret, and I waited.

After closing the back door, Bill walked around and climbed into the driver’s seat.  “Which luggage carousel do you need to go to, Sarge?”

“Carousel A, please.”

“Alright.”  He shifted into drive and started following an airport-security vehicle toward the gates to the flight line.

“Are you familiar with the Smith family, sir?”  It wasn’t my first time meeting grieving family members, but I wondered what I was getting into.  I absolutely hated delivering the body of a young soldier to his mother and father.

 “Yeah, I have known them for years.  We’re actually headin’ to a small town outside of San Antonio.  It’s a pretty close community.”

“How are they doing with all of this?”

“Well, Jimmy’s dad has been doin’ alright, but his mother, well she’s pretty well devastated.”

We pulled up to the baggage claim and parked.  I stepped out and went inside to retrieve my bag.  I came back out and slipped it into the back of the hearse next to the casket, and we drove on.  Bill and I talked some on the way to the funeral home.  He asked about the Army, and told me that he had served many years earlier.

“Jimmy’s father retired from the Navy about ten years ago.  He was real proud that Jimmy decided to enlist.  He never could understand why the boy wanted to join the infantry, though.  Sure is a shame how he died.”

I sat there talking, but really I was thinking about how this first meeting with Jimmy’s mom and dad would go.  I had no idea what to expect.  I wondered if they would blame me for their son’s death.  They let him go off into the Army, and his leaders allowed this happen. 

We arrived at the funeral home, and there were several cars there waiting for us.  As we pulled up next to the double doors a woman got out of the passenger side of a blue truck.  Bill gestured towards her.  “That’s Jimmy’s mom, Wendy, there.”

Mrs. Smith looked to be in her mid-forties.  She was short and appeared to be in good shape.  Her hair was blonde, but there was some gray in her roots.  She wore a black dress, and her makeup had been smeared.  I could see that her eyes were red and puffy from crying.

The funeral director came out through the double-doors to meet us with a rolling cart.  Bill opened the back door to the hearse, and they pushed the cart up to the back bumper.  After unfastening the clamp that held the casket in place, Bill and the funeral director slid the casket onto the cart and pushed it inside.  I walked in behind them.

Jimmy’s mom followed us inside.  I quietly asked Bill to keep her occupied and away from the casket for just a moment.  Part of my job was to open the casket and check the uniform.  I had to make sure that everything was neat and crisp, and double check the placement of all of the medals and badges.  Funeral homes made mistakes sometimes, and occasionally things shifted in flight.  Usually everything came out okay.  Regardless, I really didn’t want a dead soldier’s mother watching while I checked his uniform and made adjustments to it.

Bill tried to talk to her, but Jimmy’s mom demanded to see the body.  She stood at the center of the casket while the funeral director opened the lid.  She immediately became hysterical.  Even I was surprised at what I saw.  The makeup was caked on Jimmy’s face like paste.  His fingers were shriveled as if he had spent too much time in a bathtub, and they were still stained black from postmortem fingerprinting.  Doctors had performed an autopsy, and Jimmy’s fresh military buzz cut did nothing to hide the sutures that ran over his crown from one ear to the other.  It looked like the thick red stitching that holds the leather in place on an old baseball.

I took a deep breath and glanced over the uniform hoping that everything was correct.  Jimmy’s mother was weeping in the arms of another family member who had come into the viewing room.  Damn it!  Of course there would be something wrong, I thought.   The unit crest that was supposed to be centered over Jimmy’s right breast pocket was crooked.  I was really hoping that I wouldn’t need to move anything on his uniform.

Jimmy’s mom watched closely while I unbuttoned his jacket.  As I reached inside to remove the pin backs, I felt the stubble on his cold dead jaw scratch against my wrist.  I carefully adjusted the pin, and then I buttoned his jacket.  I turned to his mother and promised to find some white gloves to cover his hands.  Through tears she thanked me for bringing him home and turned back to her family.

I walked to the back of the viewing room.  I was angry that I had been picked for this escort detail, and I wanted to tell someone at the casualty assistance office that the preparing funeral home had done a really lousy job on the makeup.   The funeral director walked up and said that his makeup artist would clean up Jimmy’s face and hands before the visitation the following day.  I thanked him and stood alone at the back of the room.

A minute later the side door opened again, and Jimmy’s dad walked in.  Jim Sr. was a brawny man with hair over his ears and collar and a thick graying beard.  He had big tattooed arms and wore biker boots, faded jeans, and a plaid button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled halfway up his biceps.  It looked like he could have come straight out of a biker magazine.  Jim walked into the room, and the handful of gathered family members parted for him to walk through.  He approached Jimmy’s casket, and I heard him mumble something.

With his hands on the rail of the casket, he leaned over it and said, “That’s not my Jimmy.”  He repeated it more loudly and finally turned to his wife.  “It can’t be him.  That can’t be my son.”

They held each other sobbing, but his gaze searched the room and found me standing near the back wall.  I straightened up a bit, and he stepped around his wife in my direction.  His face was filled with hurt and wet with tears.  He walked toward me like a man on a mission, and as he got closer, I wondered what was going to happen.  When he was only a few steps away and still hadn’t slowed his pace, I half expected him to swing at me.  Instead, he ran right into me, wrapping his arms around me and crying on my shoulder.  He sobbed loudly and thanked me over and over for bringing his boy home.  Relieved that he didn’t try to take out his sadness and anger on me, I returned his hug and expressed my condolences.

Soon after the initial shock, the family thanked me again and began to clear out.  I was glad when Bill said he was ready to drive me back into San Antonio.  Jimmy’s mother offered to make arrangements for me to stay with someone in the family, but I politely declined.

Climbing into one of the funeral home’s black Cadillac sedans, Bill said, “You gonna get a rental car, Sarge, or are you gonna need a ride for the visitation and funeral services?”

“I’ll have a rental car for the rest of the week.  You can actually just drop me back at the airport, and I’ll be fine from there.”

“No problem, Sarge.”

The ride back to the airport was quiet.  I thanked Bill and double checked the times for the visitation the following day, and then we parted ways.  I checked into my hotel room and found a nearby bar.  I was hungry and tired, and I needed a drink.  I hated escort detail, and it bothered me to think that this kid was getting the same military honors that were performed for my friends who were killed in action.  I raised my glass in a private toast to myself for another mission accomplished and then a drink for Jimmy.  “Welcome home, kid.  Pills and booze, what a dumbass way to die.”