In July 2007 my assistant at EOD Group Two, RP1 Nelson Lebron and I began our Iraq adventure. This is one of a series of posts which will be published periodically to tell our story. While they will not be daily posts, they will be sprinkled in on this site on a regular basis. Hopefully they will be something that will help those who have not been in the remote parts of either Iraq or Afghanistan what it is for Navy personnel to go to war, not as ship’s company, not with their own unit, but as individual augments to other commands. This is a different way to go to war…this is our story.
July 2nd 2007: I rolled into the parking lot for the Naval Mobilization Processing Site (NMPS) Norfolk. As usual parking on Norfolk Naval Station was a bitch to find. It had been a number of months since I had to make this commute. I transferred from the Marine Security Force Battalion where I had served from 2003 to October 2006 and had not made the trip since. Thankfully I remembered to leave early because traffic was as gooned up as ever going down I-264, I-64 and I-564 to head into the base.
As I looked for a parking space I really missed my designated parking spot back at Security Forces. I drove around for a while and finally found a spot, then after wandering around a found the NMPS offices.
I walked upstairs to the classroom in which we were to meet was located and found it empty, save for a couple of NMPS staff members. I reported there in my DCU’s, or Dessert Camouflage Uniform issued to me by EOD Group Two. They are an older type uniform similar to the old BDUs and unlike the Marine Pattern Digital Camouflage are not wash and wear. I still have a few sets in my deployment bag but figure that if I every get deployed to such a situation again that I will be wearing whatever Army or Marine Corps uniform the Navy sailors are wearing unless serving with the Seabees, Naval Special Warfare or an actual Navy command.
Camp Zarqa Jordan March 2007
I had worn them in March when I went to Jordan for the Jordanian Army/ UN Peace Operations Training Center course on Iraqi Culture, Religion, Politics and Language. Until the Marines came out with their digital uniforms they were common to all of the services. Now in 2013 I think there are 10 different camouflage uniforms in use among the armed forces and Congress is about to force us in the military to find a common uniform again. Not a bad idea if you ask me.
I looked around the empty classroom with every table stacked with folders filled with a huge amount of paperwork. I found a seat which is not hard to do with so many to empty seats choose from and sat down. I took an aisle seat about three rows back and plunked my EOD issue Blackhawk backpack down, grabbed my Book of Common Prayer and did the morning office before anyone else arrived while drinking the large cup of black coffee I had gotten across the street.
Shortly thereafter other people began to arrive in twos and threes, most enlisted dressed in utilities (the successor to dungarees) while most of the Chiefs and officers were dressed in khakis. A few Seabees had woodland BDUs on and a couple of folks wore DCUs which were obviously from previous deployments to the sandbox. RP1 Lebron, then an RP2 then showed up and we waited for the orientation and administrative stuff to start moving. We surveyed the situation and looking upon our fellow sailors realized that this would be a different deployment.
What we noticed as we talked the varying ranks and uniforms really jumped out at both of us. Most of our fellow sailors had never been deployed even in peacetime in such a manner. Most of those who had deployed had done so on ship with the exception of the Seabees and a Corpsman or two.
The sailors spanned the spectrum of age, rank and rating. There were the officers, mainly Lieutenants, Lieutenant Commanders and Commanders, Surface Warfare, Aviators, Supply Corps, Civil Engineering Corps and Medical Officers. The highest ranking officer was a Navy Captain. I was the only Chaplain.
The enlisted sailors also spanned the spectrum of the Navy. Fire Control Technicians, Operations Specialists, Gunners Mates, Boatswains, Yeomen and Storekeepers, Intelligence Specialists, Corpsmen, and even Culinary Specialists. They had qualifications as Submariners, Enlisted Surface Warfare, Aviation Warfare among others. Some like me and Nelson had volunteered, others were voluntold. The one that brought us all together was that we were US Navy Sailors and going to war and not with the Navy or our shipmates. We were strangers to each other and would be strangers to Soldiers, Airmen, Marines and Sailors that we would serve with overseas.
Nelson and I have deployed a lot. We had served together in Okinawa and at EOD where I did a “drug deal” with his chaplain and the RP detailer to get him to EOD. The guy is a hero. I think he has deployed about 10 times in his 20 year career from which he will retire this fall.
The year and a half prior to our deployment Nelson had been deployed to Afghanistan where he as an E-5 was awarded the Defense Meritorious Service Medal. On his way back from Afghanistan he was pulled off of his flight to the states and sent back to his old ship, the USS Trenton to assist in the evacuation of Americans and others from Beirut.
I think to some extent his frequent deployments actually hurt his career since the biggest part of making rank as a Navy enlisted man is to do well on the advancement exam. Unfortunately there were many times when he was forbidden to test because he was deployed, and when eventually allowed to test during a deployment was not provided the appropriate materials to study. That would happen again during the coming deployment and lead to a pretty funny incident on one of our trips in Iraq, but that story will be told later.
Nelson is a NY Rican and both a New York Golden Gloves boxing champ, a high school valedictorian, a full contact kick boxer, martial artist, MMA fighter and has fought on Team USA and won the 2005 Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic. He is the real deal. Proficient in many weapons systems from his service with the 3rd Recon Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment and Naval Special Warfare he is the ideal body guard for any Chaplain going to do the job we had been given to do, to work with Marine and Army advisers supporting two Iraqi Divisions. Our mission would evolve and expand once we got there, but we didn’t know that yet.
As people filed in a Chief Petty Officer brought us to attention and the processing site Commanding Officer came. He spoke with us a few minutes and then led us in the Sailors Creed. With that we set down and began to get our orientation to how our mobilization, training and movement would unfold as we got ready to go to Iraq.