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To Iraq and Back: A Last Night Together and a Kiss Goodbye

295_27076787058_8676_nJudy and I on the German Sail Training Ship Gorch Fock at the Norfolk Harbor Fest a couple of weeks before deployment

This is another of my “To Iraq and Back” articles about my deployment to Iraq in 2007 and 2008 with RP1 Nelson Lebron. 

Now the time has come to leave you
One more time Let me kiss you
And close your eyes and I’ll be on my way
Dream about the days to come, When I won’t have to leave alone
About the times, That I won’t have to say

Oh, kiss me and smile for me
Tell me that you’ll wait for me
Hold me like you’ll never let me go
Cause Im leavin’ on a jet plane
Don’t know when I’ll be back again
Oh babe, I hate to go

From “I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane” by John Denver

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vLBKOcUbHR0

The night before leaving on deployment and the actual day of departure are some of the hardest that any military couples or families experience. In time of war it is even more difficult. Judy and I have done this too many times in peace and war.

As I went through all of my preparations to go to Iraq in some was it was a replay of past pre-deployment situations. However, this time I was not merely deploying on a peacetime assignment or supporting a peace making operation, or even deploying on a ship and being part of a boarding team after the 9-11-2001 attacks. In that last instance  Judy did not know that I was part of the boarding team until about halfway through the deployment.

But this time going boots on ground into the most bitterly of Iraq’s contested provinces, Al Anbar. That lent at certain dark pallor to the occasion.

Our last night together was rather somber to put it mildly. Judy and I went out to dinner on Friday night. Since I knew that I would not be having a good beer for quite some time we went to the Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant in Virginia Beach. For us Gordon Biersch is generally a good time kind of place, it has become over the years our version of Cheers a place where everyone knows our name.

That last Friday before the deployment to Iraq it was not a festive occasion, it was almost a wake. Judy and I were both quite subdued. In between the silence Judy talked about her fears about the deployment while I tried to reassure her that everything would be fine. I am a man who is somewhat Vulcan in my use of logic. I figured that even though things were bad in Iraq that my chances of returning were quite high, even of something happened to me. I tried to be calm and reassuring and no matter what I tried it didn’t work, human emotions are quite intense at times.

I also reasoned that since I had taken out the extra life insurance that I would be okay.  For me such logic makes sense. I kind of believe that if I don’t get it I will need it and if I do get it I won’t. It’s kind of like Yogi Berra’s logic when he said “You should always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise, they won’t come to yours.”

After dinner and several half liter glasses of Gordon Biersch Märzen amber lager we went back home. Judy watched quietly while I finalized my packing. I ensured that all my field gear, uniforms and clothing were packed and rechecked my EOD issue protective gear.

I then packed my Mass kit, Bible, Prayer Book and my Marine Pattern camouflage reversible desert/woodland stole. The stole was special as Judy had made me a few years back from woodland and desert pattern shirts which were way too big for me. They are one of a kind items. I have seen similar, but what Judy made were far better than any others that I have seen. I still use that stole even when I am not deployed. It is simple but quite exquisite, adorned with an embroidered Maltese Cross in tan on the desert side and black on the woodland side it is unique and I treasure it.

The last items I packed were my books on counterinsurgency, a few DVD movies, music CDs and my hygiene items. It is funny to think that now all of this would be stored on my iPad which if I ever make such a deployment again will significantly simplify my life.

I wrestled the big bags down the stairs and put them in the back of my Honda CR-V so I wouldn’t have to fight them in the morning. That accomplished Judy and I just sat together, she was feeling pretty low, the look one of despair.

On the other hand I was a mix of conflicting emotions. I was excited by knowing that I was going to get to do what I had trained all of my life to do. However I was very cognizant of the reality that it would be tough on Judy and that it was a dangerous deployment.

My last couple of deployments had been very tough on her. When I deployed to support the Bosnia mission as a mobilized Army Reservist and newly ordained Priest three of my relatives in Huntington West Virginia where we were living died. One was my maternal grandmother “Ma Maw” who Judy had become very close to over the past couple of years. They had become buddies and Ma Maw had taken Judy in not as my wife, but as “her” granddaughter.

Ma Maw’s death hit Judy very hard and my mom and uncle in the midst of their grief over the loss of their mom they did not understood the depth of the relationship between Judy and Ma Maw. As a result, I was absent and there was much tension, misunderstanding and hurt feelings between them. In the week before Ma Maw’s death Judy tried repeatedly to get her to go to the doctor only to be ignored. The morning Ma Maw died Judy called me in Germany. She was frantic that I call Ma Maw and insist that she go to the doctor. I made the call and insisted that she go to the Emergency Room but she refused and said she would call her doctor. That night she died. I had lost my grandmother and could not go back to help and Judy had lost a woman who had become closer to her than her own grandmothers ever had been.

In 2001 during my deployment with 3rd Battalion 8th Marines to Okinawa, Japan and Korea we lost our 16 ½ year old Wire Haired Dachshund Frieda. Judy did her nest to keep Frieda alive for me, but there was nothing that could be done and finally with Judy being worn down to nothing herself, she was persuaded to have Frieda put down. The interesting thing is that after Frieda died she visited me in Okinawa and Judy about the same time in dreams. Frieda was always a weird animal and even in death has continued to find ways to remind us of her presence.

My 2002 deployment on USS HUE CITY to the Middle East and Horn of Africa came less than six months after my return from my deployment with 3/8. That deployment, coming on the heels of the 9-11-2001 attacks was also very difficult on her. In the space of 6 years we had been apart almost 4 1/2 years. Much of the time following that last deployment was spent on the road as I travelled to visit Marine Security Force and Navy EOD Mobile Units in the Middle East, Europe, the Far East and the Continental United States. In a four year period I averaged 1-3 weeks a month away from home.

With all of this in the background we spent our last night together. That night neither of us slept very well. When we got up I had a light breakfast and then accompanied by a friend from Judy’s Church choir we drove to the base.

Saturday morning traffic is generally not too bad so our trip was uneventful, but tense.  You could cut the tension between us by now with a knife.  It was about the time that we were nearing the base Judy said something about our relationship that I took really wrong. I sarcastically snapped back “Well I’ll just get blown up by an IED then.”

That sarcastic comment really hit her hard and I knew immediately that I had blown myself up with it. The words were harsh and devastating. I should have known better and should have kept my moth shut. After all I’d deployed a lot and taught pre-deployment classes talking about the emotional cycle of deployments. I was supposed to be an expert at this sort of thing, but instead my comment was very cruel.

To be sure the stress on both of us the preceding weeks had taken its toll and both of us were on edge.  For two months we had each in our own way imagined the deployment, me as a great adventure and her as a threat to our mutual existence. I wondered just what I would face when I got to Iraq and those were unanswerable questions. Judy’s great fear that something might happen to me and that she would be alone, not just for the time of the deployment but for the rest of her life.

That is one of the tensions in a military marriage that many people who have not lived it fail to understand. It is not just the wartime deployments it is the cumulative effects of multiple short and long term separations on the health of a relationship.

We got to the base pretty quick, maybe 15-20 minutes but the tension made me feel that the trip was three times as long. As we pulled up in a parking spot near the baggage drop off area we sat there for a few minutes. I got out of the car as did Judy.  I asked if she wanted to wait a while with me and with tears in her eyes said that she couldn’t handle the wait.

I unloaded my gear with the help of Nelson. He looked at Judy and said, “Don’t you worry ma’am we’ll do good and I’ll keep him safe.” Judy gave a soft “thanks” and gave him a hug.

With my gear unloaded I went back to Judy.  We looked at each other, embraced and kissed each other, each of us wondering if it was possibly the last time. We parted our embrace, and she the turned and walked back to the car, handed her friend the keys and they drove off.  It was a moment that I will not forget as long as I live. As she left I said a prayer under my breath and asked God to keep her safe while I was gone.  Then I turned to Nelson and said, “Okay partner, let’s get this done.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, marriage and relationships, Military, to iraq and back, Tour in Iraq

To Iraq and Back: Reporting for Duty

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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.

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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.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, to iraq and back, Tour in Iraq, US Navy

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: 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: Reflections on My Journey to Iraq and Back- Part One

Two years ago today my assistant at EOD Group Two, RP2 Nelson Lebron and I began our Iraq adventure.  This is the first 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 having transferred from the Marine Security Force Battalion where I had served the past three years but 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.  At that point I really missed my designated parking spot back at the battalion.

I looked around and finally found a spot and then after wandering around a bit 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 in my DCU’s, or Dessert Camouflage Uniform issued to me by EOD Group Two.   They are an older type uniform and unlike the Marine Pattern Digital Camouflage are not wash and wear.  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.  In fact until the Marines came out with their digital uniforms they were common to all of the services.  I looked around the empty classroom with every table stacked with folders filled with a butt-load of paperwork.  I found a spot, not hard to do with so many to 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 others began to arrive in twos and threes, most dressed in utilities or officers 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.  RP2 Lebron, who I will now refer to as Nelson from this point forward 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 maybe a Corpsman or two.  They spanned the spectrum of age, rank and rating.  There were the officers, mainly Lieutenants, Lieutenant Commanders and Commanders.  We also had one Captain.  These officers were Line Officers including Surface Warfare Officers and Aviators as well as a number of Doctors and Medical Service Corps Officers and some other Staff Corps officers.  The enlisted likewise 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, not with the shipmates that we had served with, but with strangers, well except for me and Nelson.

Now Nelson and I have deployed a lot and had served together in Okinawa and at EOD where I did a “drug deal” with his chaplain and the detailer to get him to EOD.  The guy is a hero, in the year and a half prior to our deployment he 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 that he has done about nine or ten deployments now.  Unfortunately this has 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.  Even if he had them it would have been difficult since we were always on the road, just as he was in his last four or five deployments.

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 last year’s 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, the processing site Commanding Officer came in and spoke with us 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.

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