Typical LZ at Night
That evening Nelson and I said farewell to our new friends at Iraq Assistance Group, went and got chow at the large Camp Victory chow hall. What is interesting on some of the larger bases is just how well fed the troops are. Of course there are those who are better fed than others who could use the “wide load” convoy signs hanging off of their asses. The main chow hall at Victory has a number of serving lines and drink, salad and dessert islands. It has the main serving line, a fast food short order line, a Mongolian BBQ line as well as variations of Giros, Indian food, pizza bar and of course soft serve as well as Baskin and Robbins Ice Cream. Breakfast is another “feeder” with almost everything imaginable to eat. I am not a big breakfast eater by and large so for me black coffee, hot or cold cereal and fruit was a normal breakfast. After dinner we went and finished our packing and waited for our ride to take us to the Camp Liberty airfield. Had I been stationed at Camp Victory I would have probably outgrown my uniforms as I look at food wrong and can add a pound.
We had a very late flight, about 0200. Since you normally need to manifest for a flight two hours prior it means that you back up at least a hour before the manifest time. This particular evening there was not much cooling going on and there was little illumination which meant in most places it was very dark. Especially in troop the billeting areas. We dragged our gear to the entrance to the billeting area. Nelson went back to his tent and I plopped my ass down on my bags. About 2300 I heard and felt a rush over my head. It was a rocket, probably a 107 mm rocket which is one of the most popular indirect fire weapon used by the insurgents or possibly a 122 mm rocket. Both are former Soviet systems and not very accurate but still the fact that a rocket has buzzed me was disconcerting. A few seconds later I heard an explosion. I later heard the rocket had continued on and hit an uninhabited area of the camp. Soon after it went over my head a very young looking soldier came running up to me in his PT gear with an M-16 at the ready. He shouted “Sir, what was that?” The young man appeared to be a bit scared to I simply quipped “Only a rocket son didn’t hit us.” He seemed to relax just a bit and I said “You okay son?” the good thing about being as old as I am that you can get away with calling the young guys “son” because in most cases they I’m old enough to be their father. I stay in game too much longer and the new kids could be grandchildren. This young soldier said, “Well sir I’m on the quick reaction force and that sounded close.” In the background to the east machine gun and small arms fire could be heard. A pair of gunships buzzed us going the general direction of the gunfire. Baghdad was definitely not a violence free school zone. I replied to the young soldier. “Son, if I were you I’d report to where you need to go, better grab your helmet and flak.” The young man looked at me in the dark, assuming I was a Marine officer since I was in my Marine Desert digital cammies, saluted and said “Yes sir” to which I replied “be safe soldier and God bless, keep up the good work.” Once again he thanked me and hurried off into the night.
A few minutes later, Nelson who has been in some pretty sporty situations in Afghanistan including once where he took out a knife wielding assailant at a checkpoint in Kabul with his fists, came up to me. “Hey Chaps, did you hear that rocket? Sounded like a 107.” I said to him, “Shit brother, it felt like it went right over my head. “ He responded quickly “Boss I think we’re in a war here.” And I said “sounds like it partner, definitely sounds like it.” Then he said “Chaps, you wouldn’t believe what I just saw.” I said “Really, what?” And he told me the story. “I was over looking for our boy when I needed to go to the head, so I opened one of the port-a johns and when I opened it saw this guy and girl having sex in it, like they didn’t have the door closed and you know how nasty those things are.” I said “Partner you’ve got to be kidding me” and Nelson said “Chaps I wouldn’t do that to you, those people looked at me like I was stupid when I opened the door and I just said excuse me and closed the door. That place stank sir; I don’t know how they were doing it in there.” I replied “Partner, I guess after a year of more here some folks will take whatever they can get.” “But, you’d think that they would find some dark spot rather that a port-a-john,” replied a thoroughly disgusted Nelson. As I laughed at the misfortune of my little buddy, bodyguard and protector I simply said “There’s no accounting for taste my friend, no accounting for taste.”
We sat on our gear and waited, and waited. The time when we should have been picked up went by and after about 15 minutes of chatter about not being picked up on time, Nelson said. “Boss you want e to go find our ride?” I responded that I wanted him to as it was so dark that he might not know where to find us. A few vehicles had come and gone but none were our assigned wheels. Finally after about 45 minutes our ride showed up, Nelson had found him on the other side of the compound in his truck listening to AFN radio. He had come to the wrong side of the billeting area and was chastising me for not being there. I said, “Sergeant, I said to meet us over here and I’ll be damned f we have to lug our gear a couple hundred yards to make you happy.” I paused as he started to interrupt and then cut him off “Sergeant, don’t go there, you’re talking to a field grade officer who wasn’t always a chaplain, you went to the wrong place and you didn’t take the initiative to try to find us. We had to find you so don’t push your luck.” He replied, almost dejectedly, “Yes sir” and I said, “consider this matter ended, get us to the airfield, we have a flight to catch.” Nelson and I piled our gear into the back of the truck, got in and rode the airfield.
The Camp Liberty airfield, which deals exclusively in rotor wing aircraft, is one of the busiest heliports in the world. Hundreds of flights go through it every day. They are primarily Army, but a fair amount of Marine aircraft pass through as well. We were flying Marine air tonight. When we got to the heliport our chauffer had a difficult time finding a place to park. Eventually we sort of double parked and Nelson and I and Nelson and I unloaded our gear with a bit of help from our chastened chauffer got up to the manifest desk where we were greeted by a civilian. He took our names and our mission number and then took out a marking pen and wrote it on the back of our hands. I found that that at each place this was the primary way to identify who was getting off where or if you should even be on the aircraft. I found a seat and then because I couldn’t get comfortable walked outside for a while. Nelson on the other hand, ground his gear, threw himself upon it pulled his cover over his eyes and took a power nap. He can sleep almost anywhere.
With about 10 minutes to go I woke up Nelson, and I find it amazing how he can wake back up the way he does. When I take a nap I am useless for about 30 minutes after I wake up as my body tries to figure out what time it is. We both took turns guarding our gear as the other hit the head, once again a darkened port-a-john that stank to low hell. When done we staged our gear near the lineup point. Our mission was called and we lined up with about 30 others, a mixture of Marines, Sailors, contractors and a few soldiers. We geared up, securing helmets, flaks, our packs as well as our massive EOD issue sea-bags. Nelson helped me with mine as we got ready to walk, once was over my back and the second strapped across my chest, actually going from my chin to just above my knees. Many of our fellow passengers had very little gear, and one fairly large contractor offered to help me with my gear. I took him up on it about half of the 100 yards to where our bird had landed.
Watching our aircraft come in, a flight of 2 Marine CH-46s which date back to Vietnam service I was amazed at how surreal they looked coming in out of the night, their haze gray fuselages almost having a ghostly appearance as they set down. Of course we had the bird that was farthest from the line up point and I was really glad for the help of this generous contractor. As we loaded our bags onto the aircraft, stacking it in the center of the deck with everyone else’s gear, we each took one of the jump seats along the side and strapped ourselves in. Sweat was pouring off of me and I felt totally winded, no amount of running, pull ups, pushups and crunches had prepared me to lug our heavy and ungainly gear around. The dimly lit troop compartment was hot and I looked around the aircraft. I noted the machine gunners in the front doors and the crewman in the back who took a seat with a 240 series machine gun mounted on a swivel. It reminded me of the films I saw of the inside of World War Two B-17s, except that the flight suits were different. The crew gave the let the pilots know that we were ready, and I wondered what we were heading into. Nelson got my attention and gave me a “thumbs up” and I returned it as the lights went out that our flight lifted off.
CH-46 Door Gunner
Banking around to the left the 46 gained altitude and flew back across the camp as it did so I got my first view of Iraq after dark. As we flew into the city of Baghdad there were lights and sometimes lit streets. In a few places I could see the flashing lights of emergency vehicles. We soon began to descend into the city surrounded by tall buildings, mainly hotels and government buildings and I knew that we were in the “Green Zone.” We sat down on a small landing pad, the dim lights came back on and a couple of passengers got out of our bird which a couple of more boarded the flight. The scene from Camp Liberty was repeated and gear was off and on loaded, passengers boarded and debarked from the flight and the lights went off and the bird lifted off. Gunners took their positions and chatted on their headsets obviously scanning for threats and assessing what was going on, or they could have been talking about the new video game one of them had bought at the exchange.
Banking left we gained altitude heading east, with Baghdad fading into the night the lights of the communities along the Euphrates came into view as we flew on toward Fallujah. For me it was a fascinating experience, surreal and a bit of anxiety making but interesting as I thought of the history of the ancient civilizations who had settled here, the Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians and the fact that the faith of the Christian Church through Abraham and later the people of Israel began here with Abraham’s obedience to the Lord.
The flight only took about 16-18 minutes and we flew into Fallujah. The bird sat down on a large tarmac and the crew motioned us to get up grab our gear and get off of the aircraft. I was praying desperately that it would not be a long walk to the terminal from the helicopter pad. As we hauled our gear off the 46 to get to the terminal I was about tapped out. The 46 had landed about 100 yards from the terminal where our ride waited. It might as well have been 100 miles. I loaded one bag on my back and commenced to drag the other. Nelson was ahead of me and realized that his old Padre was not doing well. I was about halfway to the terminal when Nelson showed up with a Marine on a John Deere Gator. My gear was loaded aboard the Gator; I gave a hearty thank you to Nelson, the Marine and to the Deity Herself as I dragged my sorry ass to the terminal.
The Fallujah terminal like most terminals at heliports in Iraq was a plywood building constructed by the Seabees. It was well lit inside, had air conditioning which I sucked up and a large refrigerator with bottled water stashed in it. Once inside I took off my helmet as we checked in at the desk. By now it was about 0245, I had been up since 0530 the previous day, done PT a Camp Victory, had a rocket fly directly above me and dragged 200 pounds of gear more places than I wanted to in 100 degree heat and I was a spent round. War is a young man’s game and even though I am in good shape for someone my age, the key is that I am in good shape for someone my age, not a young guy. Sweating profusely I found a liter bottle of water and downed it. About that time a large African American 1st Class Petty Officer came in the door. RP1 Donnie Roland was the LPO of the II MEF Forward Chaplain’s office and worked for Mike Langston. Donnie, who is now a Chief is a guy that you definitely want on your side. He hooked us up. Normally personnel in a transient status in Fallujah are housed in tents with cots in varying degrees of disrepair. Donnie got us rooms in the VIP quarters, nicknamed by the Marines the “Ramadan Inn.” The place had once been the haunt of Uday and Qusay Hussein, Saddaam’s sons. It had a pond in the center of the court yard and was reputedly a place where they would entertain senior members of the Ba’ath Party amid scenes of debauchery. We were given a small room that had a desk and two small Iraqi beds, both of which had thin concave mattresses which had little support but were a definite step up from a cot. Sheets, pillows and a blanket were included. Our gear took up the majority of the room but it didn’t matter. After a shower I crashed hard. The bed might have been from a 5 star hotel, all that mattered at 0330 was that I could get to sleep. RP1 Roland told us that Chaplain Langston said that we should get some sleep and come in when we could. With outgoing artillery fire going off in the background I laid my worn out body down on the waiting mattress, I thought about the day and it came to me that the rocket that had went over my head could have killed me and a chill went down my tired spine. Another salvo of artillery lashed out at the enemy, and my mind drifted back to the present. I was now in Fallujah. One more stop on the way to my war, Nelson was already asleep, I am amazed at his ability to go from 0-60 and 60-0 so fast. More artillery fire boomed and as a former forward observer I found outgoing artillery fire to be comforting, amid it’s lullaby I went to sleep.