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August 2007: My Beginnings in Iraq

I have had a lot of opportunity to reflect today.  I woke up about 0430 in pain from my broken leg.  I was in enough pain to warrant a Vicodin which was the second that I had had since going to bed.  It knocked me out and after making a call to my staff to let them know that I was out of action I woke up aboutnoonto the sound of a MH-53E flying over my place toward the Marine Auxiliary Airfield a few miles from my place.  Vicodin makes my leg feel better but pretty much puts me out of action.

The memories invoked by the sound of the helicopter caused my period of reflection.  I haven’t written about my time in Iraqin a long time.  The memories of my time in Iraqstill evoke intense emotions which sometimes lead me into a depressed funk and can be brought on by many things.  However since I am doing better than the last time that I attempted to write them down I figure that I might as well start over and attempt to complete what I began in 2009.  Today marks the 4th anniversary of my arrival in Fallujah, the next to last stop before we arrived at Taqaddum and began our operations supporting the Marine and Army advisors in Al Anbar Province.

I arrived in Iraq with my assistant, RP1 Nelson Lebron.  We had detached from EOD Group Two in early July and after stops for processing and training in Norfolk, Fort Jackson South Carolina and Kuwait we arrived in Iraq on the 5th of August.  Our first stop was at the headquarters of the Iraq Assistance Group atCampVictory inBaghdad.  We remained there several days getting briefings on our mission and awaiting a flight to Fallujah.  Our last night at Camp Victory was an interesting night where for the first time I was in the line of fire of a hostile rocket which whooshed over my head to explode harmlessly about a kilometer away.

107mm Rocket on improvised launcher

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 produced in Iran and supplied to insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as to Hezbollah in Lebanon.  They are not very accurate but still the fact that a rocket had 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.Baghdadwas 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 myMarineDesertdigital 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.

CH-46’s landing

In 2007 the Camp Liberty airfield, which deals exclusively in rotor wing aircraft, was one of the busiest heliports in the world.  Hundreds of flights went through it every day.  They were 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 toVietnamservice 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.

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 ofBaghdadthere 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 fromCampLibertywas 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. As a historian I thought about the Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians and the fact that the faith of the Christian Church through Abraham and later the people ofIsraelbegan inIraqwith Abraham’s obedience to the Lord in theLandofUrof the Chaldees.

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 Iraqwas 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 retired from the Navy, 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.

Peace

Padre Steve

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Going to War: A Reflection so Far, Memories, PTSD and hopes and fears Past and Present

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As I have been writing of my experience in Iraq it is amazing to me the amount of emotions that I have experienced.  It is strange to feel like I am back there as I write.  I know that this is necessary but at times it is unnerving especially as I talk to friends who are going through much the same experience that I had coming home and sometimes worse.  I have been in e-mail contact with a friend from a NATO ally who has done a couple of tours in Afghanistan.  I can really feel for him as he is in a smaller military with a lot few resources that the Americans to deal with PTSD and other maladies from this war which seems to drag on without end.  Another friend on the West Coast has been dealing with the ravages of both PTSD and TBI and another Army Chaplain friend who has 2 Bronze Stars to his credit deals with PTSD as well as a very rare and eventually fatal lung and brachia condition.  Friends from my medical center are being deployed, I’ve been told that I am too valuable and needed where I am to deploy.  I do understand that at the same time deep in my heart I want to be with my friends from my ICU as they go to war.

The emotions took a big turn as I actually started writing about being in Iraq, beginning with the C-17 ride in to Baghdad.  In some sense the mirrored what I was going through two years ago.  It kind of came to a head the other night when I wrote about the rocket that went over my head at Camp Victory while waiting for my ride to head to the Camp Liberty heliport.  Then there was the flight to Fallujah and I can remember that flight.  I have never really liked flying in general and ancient helicopters in particular. Thinking that many of the CH-46s that I flew in while in Iraq had been in service in the Vietnam era was none too comforting.  They were almost as old as me.  Marine Helicopters are notorious for hydraulic fluid leaks.  The old joke goes” “How do you know when a Marine helicopter is low on hydraulic fluid?”  “When it stops leaking” is not entirely in jest.  I guess you can say that most of my career flying rotary wing aircraft in the Army and Navy has been just this side of terrifying.  I manage to survive every time but it takes forever to come back down from the anxiety of the preparation for and actual flights themselves it is no wonder that I still have problems sleeping and going on alert any time I hear a helicopter overhead.

Faith at times is an ongoing struggle. While I believe I question God more, especially when I see little kids suffering or read about young men and women killed in action or maimed by combat.  I find that I am less compassionate toward those who have not deployed who make suicide gestures and screw with their friends and families and then blow off help.  It angers me that their narcissism takes time and resources away from people who have been in the shit who need help and have to wait to get help.  I also find that religious people who have trite answers for everything really annoy me, especially those that are constantly talking about “spiritual warfare” when they have no clue about war, suffering and death. They are what Luther called the “theologians of glory” and they have no real answers, just platitudes that work fine until a real crisis comes.  Despite this I believe somehow in the God who is willing to be with me in the middle of the Valley of the Shadow of Death and at the foot of the Cross.

One of the things that tears at me now is the deep division in the United States as the obviously enlightened zealots of the extreme right and left push their agendas so hard that it seems impossible to find and amicable solution.  I wonder if we have entered “Weimar America.”  I guess I can understand how the moderates of the conservatives and socialists in Germany were ground to dust beneath the anvil of the Communists and hammer of the National Socialists in the later years of the Weimar Republic.  I really understand the military men who found both alternatives distasteful and tried in vain to seek the middle ground and maybe restore some sanity to the country.  That article is yet to be written.  I think I will call it “Weimar America?”  What really gets me is that both the right and left have dropped all pretense of civility and are now engaging in physical altercations at political meetings or “town hall” meetings and some have even be brandishing automatic weapons near venues where the President is speaking.  I have seen the results of this type of no-quarter politics in the Balkans and in Iraq.  I wonder what the hell all these demigods on both sides are thinking and if they in their devotion to their alleged “principles” would attempt “to destroy the country in order to save it.”   I have become ashamed of the leadership of both political parties as well as the special interest groups that drive the agendas of both extremes, especially as in the case of some who use the Christian faith to justify their actions.  When I see these people in action my anxiety level often returns to what it was in Iraq and on my return.  I can honestly say that the people on the extremes make me fear for my country.  I feel that they are pushing us to the abyss and that I can’t do a damned thing to stop it.  I’ve matured enough to know it is not simply the fault of one side or the other; as both are at fault and it seems that the most extreme on both sides have actually been wanting this to happen, at least from my viewpoint as a passionate moderate.

I have come to realize that my true countrymen are those that I have served with to defend this country and protect others abroad, especially as the insanity continues to spread.  Though I struggle and have to deal with emotions as if they were brand new every day just as I think that I am getting better I know that I have to keep going.  I owe it to my brothers and sisters from the current war and wars such as Vietnam.  Sometimes I wonder if all of us PTSD afflicted vets are the only sane people in the country. We are a brotherhood.  “We we happy few, we band of brothers.”

brothers

I’m glad that I have friends, especially vets from Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gulf and Vietnam.  Limey and Barney with the Hue City Vets, Ray and Charlie the Vietnam Veteran of America brothers who man the beer stand on the concourse behind home plate, and so many others like my trusty assistant Nelson Lebron who helped keep me safe and sane in Iraq.

In the middle of all of this I grieve for my Vietnam Vet and retired Navy Chief dad who wastes away in a nursing home with end stage Alzheimer’s which according to his doctor should have killed him months ago.

I’d better stop while I’m ahead.  I need to catch myself, maybe have a beer and focus on some baseball for a while before I get ready for work.  I have duty tomorrow and I expect that I will be busy the next couple of days.  I hope when I get off Wednesday afternoon that I will be able to see the Tides play.  I can use the view of the diamond at Harbor Park that helps calm my soul about now. Maybe between no and then I can get in with my buddy Elmer the Shrink.

pub2

Pray for me a sinner,

Peace, Steve+

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Filed under alzheimer's disease, Baseball, iraq,afghanistan, Military, Political Commentary, PTSD, Tour in Iraq, vietnam

Going to War: It was Just a Rocket and a Night Flight to Fallujah

helos at nightTypical 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.

AIR_CH-46_Brownout_Landing_lgCH-46 Landing

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.

1002CH-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.

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Going to War: Flying Into Baghdad and a Blast from the Past

050Outside the Al Faw Palace, Camp Victory the HQ of US Forces and Former Haunt of Saddam Hussein, the Palace was Named after the Victory of the Iraqis over the Iranians on the Al Faw Peninsula toward the end of the Iran-Iraq War.  The Palace sits in the middle of a lake

We made the trip from Camp Virginia to the Ali Al Salim airbase to catch our flight to Baghdad.  As usual there was the seabag drag to the waiting baggage trucks, an accountability formation in the blazing sun and the shuffle, this time in full protective gear to our buses.  Riding in a foreign tour bus in full “battle rattle” is even more uncomfortable than the regular ride.  Packed tightly into the buses the air conditioning of which did little to help after coming in out of the heat, we took our places jammed into the bus and once again with armed personnel in the bus and convoy escorts as we pulled out of the high security entry control point at Camp Virginia and drove to Ali Al Salim.  The trip was uneventful and rather boring as there is not much to see between the two bases except sand and occasional nondescript buildings.

Ali Al Salim is a large Kuwaiti and American air base and logistics hub for air movement operations in the Arabian Gulf.  We arrived there and once again formed up, went through a staging area where were we were able to pick up some water from one of the ubiquitous pallets of bottled water and waited inside the terminal.  Some folks grounded their packs and used them as pillows or recliners, others found seats in the waiting area and others looked around to see how the Air Force lived.  A couple of TVs set to AFN played as we chatted, wandered or dozed.  It was not long before we were moved to yet another staging area and began to get our aircraft briefing and manifested for the flight.  Our group that had began the trip at Fort Jackson was a lot smaller now as the sailors who had gone on to the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan and those assigned to Kuwait were no longer with us.  As we trundled down the tarmac we were guided into position directly behind the aircraft.  We filed into a waiting C-17 Globemaster and sat down in airline style passenger seats which can be added or subtracted by in 10 passenger pallets as needed for the particular mission.  Additional permanent seats lined the bulkhead.  Our gear was loaded at the aft end of the aircraft as we took our seats.  We pretty much filled the seating which at maximum load is 134 passengers and we waited for the aircraft to load.  A loadmaster came through to check that we all were wearing our personal protective gear and had our seat belt fastened.  The C-17 unlike many military aircraft has at least an asthmatic air conditioning capability once the cargo door is closed.   Unfortunately when the door is open it is pretty much like whatever conditions are outside, in our case 130 degree heat with the exception that the sun was not beating down on our heads and that there was no air movement.  It was just a tad hot inside the aircraft.  Eventually the cargo ramp and door were closed and the aircraft prepared for takeoff.  With the door closed we began to feel a little bit of relief from the air conditioning.

For a large cargo aircraft the C-17 has a pretty smooth take off, the four Pratt and Whitney PW2040 engines producing 40,400 pounds of thrust each pushing the hug aircraft which is capable of transporting an M1A2 Abrams Main Battle Tank or 3 Bradley Fighting vehicles into the blue Kuwaiti sky.  In a few minutes the pilot announced that we had crossed into Iraqi Airspace and that it would take us about 45 minutes to arrive in Baghdad.  When the announcement was made there was an almost collective deep breath knowing that we were now going into the war, this was no longer in our future we were there.  I could feel the adrenalin being released into my body and can remember how quickly I became instantly aware of every noise or movement on the aircraft.

Arriving in the skies above Baghdad International Airport our aircraft circled and received permission to land.  Due to the possibility of enemy fire the approach to airports in Iraq is not like you would experience at a commercial airport in the United States, Europe or most other parts of the world.  Unlike most airports where there is a long and slow approach to the runway the descent is a steep spiral as the aircraft comes down from altitude to land.  If the airfield is under fire the aircraft will not land.  Once we were down we had been briefed to be able to move at a brisk pace in case the airfield came under fire, something that was happening on a relatively frequent basis in 2007.

The tail ramp and door opened as if they were a gigantic rearward facing mouth, or maybe like one of those weird fish that have teeth in their ass.  I think I remember some weird science show that talked about such a creature, if there isn’t one there should be.  As soon as the ass-backward maw opened a rush of hot air killed any semblance of what had been an almost bearable air conditioned compartment. Gear in hand we filed out of the aircraft heading for the ramp. Just for your information, it is easy to slip on these ramps; I came close to such an event but caught myself just in time so I didn’t go ass over tip down the ramp.  Nelson certainly would have made me pay for such a breach of protocol.  As we left the aircraft a ground crewman directed us out of the jet blast area and another led us to the terminal.  At the terminal we were greeted by Staff Sergeant Assi, the Chaplain assistant for the Iraq Assistance Group and an RP assigned to the Multi-National Corps Iraq Chaplain Office.  Sergeant Assi was a mobilized reservist  originally from Nigeria.  At least here our gear was palletized and was brought to a gear staging area.  Once it arrived we gathered a total of 4 EOD Issue super-seabags, two regular seabags, our packs, Nelson’s rifle case and my computer bag.  We were assisted by Sergeant Assi and the RP who helped load our stuff into the back of the white Chevy SUV that they were driving.  One thing about military vehicles in Iraq that are not tactical vehicles  is that there is a strong chance that they are the color white. The white paint contractor at GM must be making a killing on vehicles destined for the Middle East.  Once we were checked off the manifest as having a ride were able to depart walking out through rows of Califonia and Jersey barriers.

The ride was interesting as we wove our way around the ever present California and Jersey Barriers as well as “HESCO’s,” which are large wire and canvas containers standing anywhere from5 to 8 feet tall filled with dirt, rock and sand.  All of these are designed to minimze the effects of incoming ordnace by preventing the explosive force of them and teh associated shrapnel from spreading outward. We transitioned through a number of checkpoints where armed soldiers kept a wary eye out on our way to Camp Victory.  Victory which is the home of Multi-National Force and Multi-National Corps Iraq lies next to  Camp Liberty.  They are on the north side of Baghdad International Airport.  As we looked across the runway the only aircraft visible were military transports and contracted cargo carriers.  Unlike a major airport its size anywhere else in the world Baghdad did not have regularly scheduled airline service from any major carrier yet.   We wound our way around the compounds which blended together almost as one, much like the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles.  Passing palaces and villas that ringed a lake in the center of the compound we continued on.  In the center of the lake connected by a causeway sat the massive Al Faw Palace, built by Saddam Hussein to commemorate Iraq’s victory in retaking the Al Faw Peninsula at the close of the Iran-Iraq War, a victory that resulted in Iran deciding to cut a peace deal with the Iraqis.  Despite a Shi’te majority in Iraq there is no love lost between Iraqis and Iranians.  Iraqi Arabs refer to the Iranians almost contemptuously as the Persians. This goes back centuries to the times when Persian occupied parts of Iraq and treated the Arabs badly.

We turned down an asphalt road which quickly became a packed clay and gravel road over which a tanker truck sprayed water to keep the dust down.  into a pulled up to a wooden building near a tent city where personnel coming in and out of theater were billeted at Camp Victory.  Row upon row of tents, each surrounded by a HESCO barriers were to our right. The ground was a mixture of hardened clay and rock which when driven over or walked upon emitted a cloud of dust which Sergeant Assi told us turned to a sticky goo which is almost impossible to get off of boot when it rains. Overhead helicopter gunships patrolled the skies occasionally flying quickly to the sounds of gunfire just off the base not far from where we were. In the background we could hear the sound of heavy machine guns and automatic weapons.  Not far from our billeting area sat a Navy Manned CWIS, or as we call tehm Sea Whiz.  This is a 20mm gatling gun which directed by radar is designed to shoot down incoming missiles or rockets. Nelson and I looked at each other and almost on cue he said, “Chaps I think there might be a war going on out there.”  I looked back and said, “Don’t you know it partner.”   The area to the east of the tent city was bordered by a line or shower trailers and heads, all protected by the large 15 foot high California barriers.  To the north of the tents lay a large Dining facility or as the Army calls them, a DFAC.  After getting signed in we drew an odd mixture of linen for our beds. I ended up with a couple of sheets, pillow cases and a multi-colored comforter. If I recall Nelson got some superhero on his blanket, which suits him fine as he is a big comic fan and can tell you more than you can imagine about all the different super-heroes. Instead of being together Nelson was assigned to a tent for NCOs and I ended up further away in a tent for field grade officers.

Once we had secured our stuff we met back together and walked to the DFAC for dinner.  This DFAC was not as large as it appeared as it had a large protective roof designed to keep mortar shells and rockets from impacting the building itself.  Two Ugandan soldiers working for security on the base checked our ID’s after which we washed our hands as we entered the building.

Upon entry we were almost overwhelmed by the amount of food present.  These DFAC’s were definitely feeders and the number of soldiers that should have been wearing wide-load signs across their asses was amazing.  But then who could blame them, many were on a second or third trip to Iraq of 12-15 months each. Maybe for the first time they were not in some isolated FOB with a poor quality of life, in a place which all things considered safe except for the occasional incoming rockets and mortars.  The quality of the food was better than in Kuwait as was the dinning area.

As I was finishing stuffing my gear underneath my bed a young Army Major came into the tent.  He looked at me and I looked at him as if we had met before and we greeted on another politely.  I saw his shoulder patch which identified him as a member of the Maryland Army National Guard.  We struck up a conversation and I asked to what unit he was assigned.  He replied  that he worked at the National Guard Bureau and had been attached to the Maryland unit as an operations officer for the deployment.  He remarked that I looked somewhat familiar and I asked if he had ever served in the Virginia National Guard.  He replied that he had and I asked what unit.  His response about floored me “1st Battalion 170th Infantry” located at Fort Belvoir, Virginia just south of D.C.  I told him that I too had been in the battalion and then he figured out where he knew me from.  With a look of near amazement on his face he replied “You were our Chaplain back in 1995!”   I patently acknowledged this fact  while he continued saying that he had been the TOW Anti-Tank Missile  Platoon Leader in our Headquarters Company. Our conversation meandered through old times at AP. Hill Virginia, talking about our careers, people that we knew and life in general.  After a couple of hours we both realized that we needed to take care of a few personal things to settle in for the night.  Eventually my old lieutenant fell asleep and I began what was to become a persistent pattern of insomnia which plagues me to this day.  Since I couldn’t get to sleep I walked through the darkness to the DFAC which had a late meal.  I was standing  in line amid a few Americans, some British soldiers and contractors when Nelson appeared beside me. He said “Hey boss, can’t you sleep?”  I said “nope” he said “me too, so I thought I would get some chow in this place.”  We had our meal together and when we were done picked our way through the darkness over the rough ground to our tents aided by our red lens flashlights.  After looking for about 5 minutes we found Nelson’s place and I headed off to my hooch only becoming disoriented once. Patently the Deity Herself must have kept me from tripping on a tent rope or some hole in the ground and I arrived back in my place at about 0145 and finally got to sleep.

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