THE LONG WAY HOME

Ten years ago, I spent two days convoying from Camp Victory in Baghdad, Iraq to Camp Doha, Kuwait.  According to Google, its approximately 418 miles.  By FAR the longest drive I took either year I was deployed.  I had been lucky enough to fly from Kuwait to Baghdad in June 2003, rather than convoying into Iraq like so many of the troops.

I rode in a freight liner truck, which was a manual, and we didn’t have a trailer on the back.  This convoy was a test-run for redeploying the brigade. Those of us leaving, were the ones who were too close to our 365 day mark, and we had to leave theater by 31 January.  If I recall correctly, I think the Army would have had to significantly increase our pay everyday for every day past 365 that we were in theater.

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Let me translate for you what this means in my life…

  • Our unit had no idea what they were doing and pretended to conduct training on a sand table (map in the sand) the day before the convoy.  This equates to a map we’re not taking with us and are hoping we’ll never need to remember.
  • I was unable to drive the vehicle because it was manual – if anything should have happened to my driver, it would have gotten interesting very quickly.
  • Not having a trailer on the back of the freight liner meant the ride was extremely bumpy, on the unpaved roads.
  • The Mark 19 mounted to the turret of the truck a few vehicles in front of us, was missing a firing pin (a key element to make it fire), so it was literally only a deterrent for show (as was the poor gunner).  The MP (military police officer) up in the turret, only had a 9mm pistol if he needed to fire a weapon.

I of course went to the PX and bought loads of snacks and drinks, because what would any road trip be without lots of fat kid snacks?  Armed with (at least) two enormous bottles of San Benedetto peach sweet tea (at least room temperature if not warmer… yum), loads of gummy candies, and who knows what else… we loaded up into the vehicles with little to no idea where we were going (other than following the leader), or what to expect.

Numerous things went wrong on this convoy…

  • The soft cover HMMWV (humvee) in front of my truck had unzipped the windows because none of the vehicles had air conditioning.  The box of computer manuals and notes started flying out of the backseat window.  They stopped and a girl started chasing after the pages into the desert.  She could have stepped on an IED or anything else, chasing after these pages.  Luckily, nothing happened to her, but it was a bit ridiculous to worry about them as they scattered.
  • At some point, we also had a possible IED threat along our route and we all had to dismount (get out) and pull security, while it was investigated.  Weirdly it was among the less memorable events of the trip.  I do remember the crowd that gathered while we pulled security outside the vehicles.  I remember wishing I could use a bathroom (a very common theme throughout the trip for me).
  • We lost radio contact with our convoy commander, who as the MP vehicle told us was letting us know we the convoy was leaving us behind and the MPs would stay with us.  We were going to tow a supply truck driven by TCNs (third country nationals).  No one asked if we had a tow bar – which of course we did not.  When we made our way to the supply truck, which was farther ahead of us, it was like a scene out of Star Wars with the sand people surrounding the truck.  The bedouins were attempting to steal parts off of the broken down truck when the MPs let off smoke grenades to scare them back into the desert.
  • At that same time, I had drunk (what seemed like) gallons of sweet tea and was hoping to pee somewhere… anywhere.  No that’s not true, I was hoping for a magical clean bathroom or even a Porta John to suddenly appear like a mirage in the desert.  Unlike my driver who just stood on the step every time we stopped for a minute and shouted we had a radiator leak like it was hilarious, while I was nearly crying I had to go so badly.  I tried to block myself behind the tire of our truck while the MPs, the driver were discussing hooking up the supply truck behind us…. and just at that moment, the MPs let off the smoke grenades.  Congrats… I would not go to the bathroom until our overnight stop HOURS and HOURS later.  And also, I’ve never had sweet tea since.

There was grid lock leaving the small camp in the morning, which I’m sure is hard to imagine, but true.  The second day was a little less memorable and much calmer as about half of it was spent driving through Kuwait.

Here are a few pictures from my trip.  Please excuse some of the dirt and blur as I was in a moving vehicle.

Camp Victory, Iraq – Summer 2003

Eighteen years ago, I spent about seven months at Camp Victory in Baghdad, Iraq (most living in a rat-infested tent).  I flew from Kuwait where I had spent five months (and convoyed back to Kuwait when it was finally my time to go).  I had a fairly cushy Army experience, but it was still a big culture-shock to me.

When I arrived at Camp Victory in June, there was a shortage of water and M.R.E.s (meals ready to eat — the food) which were being rationed but heat was in excess.  I was sleeping during the day and working nights, which literally meant chugging most of my water ration and then passing out on my cot in my own sweat.

I showered in an inflatable shower tent, which deflated around sundown (my shower time while working nights).  In the shower tent, two men could shower on one side and two women on the other side.  When it deflated, you had to bend your knees and shrink with it, in order to remain modestly covered.  When it collapsed completely, you had to race to cover up before exiting as there was always a game of ping-pong hoping for a real show.

The hardest part of that first year deployed, was not knowing how long it would be for, and the rats chewing on my bra hooks and hair brush.  If you are interested in hearing about the REAL Army deployments during this time period and not the cushy life I had, check out Carrying the Gun.

I pretended the two sheep were pets and named them: Mr. Woolsworth and Lambchop.  I’m pretty sure they were killed and eaten at some point or at least that’s the rumor I heard.

FEAR AND LOATHING IN KUWAIT

I arrived in Kuwait on January 28th, 2003.  I lived at Al Jaber Airbase until mid-June.  My initial overall feeling was excitement, at seeing my boyfriend again and to be involved in a unique and exciting experience.  My boyfriend had deployed in November.  I was so naive and had no idea what was really happening.  Did I think this was going to be some sort of party? This complete confusion over world events and naïveté was becoming a familiar feeling, as it happened on 9/11 as well. I have learned gobs more about the world, history and myself since I left the safe confines of schools. I graduated college without a class covering the Middle East with any depth, is that still possible?

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When I was settled at Al Jaber Airbase, I lived with two Air Force Security Force women in a nice trailer with indoor plumbing and a dayroom.  When I met my roommates, one was proudly showing off an Arabic newspaper (souvenir) she had gotten on her last trip off of the base.  The large front page picture has stayed with me ever since, although I haven’t been able to find it on the Internet.  On January 21, two American contractors were shot in Kuwait, a country I had thought was safe, one was killed, the other seriously injured.  The picture showed the passenger of the SUV shot with his head laying on the dashboard.  Up until this point, I had never seen a dead body in the flesh, but this image put a fear in me that I couldn’t acknowledge or admit to anyone at the time.  I pretended not to be bothered by this or to show much interest, but researching it eleven years later, it clearly bothered me.  If you are interested in the story, you can find it here.  Don’t worry this is an American version of the story and thus follows the American journalism “breakfast test.”  The American public does not want to see pictures, that may be unsettling if viewed while eating breakfast.  As important as this is, I do think that it allows us as a country to live in a bubble of naivety.

Soldiers are known for “topping” each other’s tall tales.  During that same first week or two, other soldiers would tell stories for the shock-value.  The key was to always look unaffected.  I did this either by practicing my poker face, zoning out or simply not believing anything anyone told me.  The problem was there was no one to talk to about the nagging fears of which stories were real.  You may think just Google it, but access to Internet was very limited and was used for communication home.

A memorable story was that Saddam had hung Kuwaiti military leaders from the seven arches decorating the entrance to the very base I was stationed.  This is scary because a) you are not so far south that Sadaam’s military could not reach; and b) I remember the last invasion.  This is modern history.  I remember that time… I was in Middle School and had a brother in the Navy.  Remember Kuwait is less than 17,000 square miles – smaller than New Jersey. I had been so sheltered as a child, I had no idea what dangerous was.

Once the war started, there were new scary things like donning our MOPP gear (better know as our gas mask and protective suit).  We had the news on at our work site, and I found comfort watching my childhood hero, Chirstiane Amanpour putting her mask on and taking it off with us.  She was located at another Kuwaiti base.  We watched as Saddam Hussein launched Seersucker missiles at Kuwait.  At the time, I had a brother in the country as well.  It was a lot to deal with all at once, being so far from home and being somewhere where not only should you keep track of what is happening in the world, but you were going to be part of it whether you wanted to or not.

I should have gained some comfort in seeing other people struggling with what was going on and we should have leaned on each other. That isn’t how it worked though. One soldier shot himself to go home. One soldier had such anger issues he punched other soldiers and an air conditioning unit. One soldier nearly shot himself with his antropine the first time the gas alarm sounded. One soldier was stock-piling MRE cookers to make bombs. One soldier scratched at his smallpox shot so much he became infected in multiple areas and threatened to spread it to another soldier who was unable to get the shot. One soldier lost his toothbrush and used a washcloth for a long time (out of laziness not unavailability). These were not the people I grew up around. These were not the people I wanted to depend on during a tough situation, like say…war.  So I closed myself off a bit and didn’t think about any of it much. I learned to depend on myself.

Seventeen years ago: Baghdad

Seventeen years ago today I went on a convoy from Camp Victory to the Green Zone in Baghdad.  It was not a long drive, but it was the longest I’d been on outside of the wire, up to that point.

The purpose of the trip was to take another soldier in my unit to a medical specialist.  She had some sort of spider bite or bacterial infection that was nearly eating her skin away, and the most common thing she was being told was “huh… I’ve never seen anything like that before.”  Amazingly, helpful and soothing to hear, I’m sure.

So in the morning, I was told to PMCS (preventative maintenance checks and services) a HMMWV (Humvee) so that we could convoy.  The vehicle I was checking, had been sitting stationary in desert sand for about eight months and there wasn’t an alternate we could substitute if there was something wrong.  So, with the formality of the checks complete, we were off with two other vehicles – our lieutenant was in the second and the third was our military police (MP) with a gunner in the turret.

Shortly into the drive during downtown Baghdad’s rush hour, I hit the brakes and they locked up.  The vehicle spun a full 360 degrees where I ended up next to some Iraqi in his sedan, before it spun 360 degrees  the other direction where I ended dangerously close to the MP vehicle and the gunner looking scared I would have knocked him out of the turret.  Who knows how on earth I didn’t hit either one of them or anything else.  Really shook up at this point, but with no choice but to continue driving, I did.

The next scare was nearing the entry control point to the Green Zone.  I had been told not to let ANY vehicles pass on the driver’s side of the vehicle.  This was a common technique at the time.  A black SUV tried to pass me and I defensively blocked it.  As we pulled up through the barriers it passed on the passenger side and stopped ahead of us breaking us off from our other vehicles.  Someone got out (probably Blackwater or something) with a full load of ammo strapped on their chest, screaming at me for not letting them by.  Although getting yelled at was not my favorite, my larger concern was that we were surrounded by very tall apartment buildings – again they may have been home to Americans, but as it was my first time off the base, it was all I could think of.  The lieutenant took the blame for me not letting this gentleman pass and we continued to the hospital.

I wandered around with the MPs to a small cafe, talked to the children selling dvds, bought a little Saddam money just to kill time till the hospital visit was over.

On our drive back, of course it couldn’t be uneventful.  Shortly into our drive we were diverted by another military unit because of a suspected IED.  We were then forced to drive the wrong way on a few roads in order to get back to base.

All in all, a pretty boring day that I’m glad I won’t be reliving.

Sadly, part of the stress I felt that day wasn’t because of the day but because it was an old boyfriend’s birthday and I didn’t want to be yelled at because of his OCD tendencies.  I was on time with the birthday call and mentioned nothing about my day’s stress.