Dispatch from Iraq: Watching the sun rise over the Euphrates

Courtesy Sgt. Gary UnderhillSunrise over the Euphrates River.

Courtesy Sgt. Gary UnderhillSunrise over the Euphrates River.

Taji, Iraq

Nov. 29, 2009, 0230 hours

The bitter cold wind of the Iraqi night beat against me as I tried to take advantage of what little heat made its way up into my turret from the crew compartment below me.

We cruised along the Iraqi highway, which could easily have passed for any large, metropolitan freeway in America, with one exception - it was completely deserted. I mean, post-apocalyptic deserted. The kind of deserted that makes you wonder if the end had come while we were sleeping, and maybe we were the last inhabitants on Earth.

There was not a single car, no sounds of dogs barking in the distance, no people. Just stucco and concrete buildings and blowing trash. It was both unbelievably lonely and unnerving at the same time.

The convoy made its way to an off-ramp and pushed slowly downward into the emptiness of the city center. I flicked the safety off of my .50 cal. with my thumb, and with my other hand moved the turret joystick, swinging the turret to cover down on the darkened buildings and alleyways as we moved slowly past.

The neighborhoods of northern Baghdad look eerily surreal. Iraqi flags and faded, tattered banners hung from overhead wires, fluttering silently in the wind as we passed. Every sense in my body was hypersensitive. It was then that I realized I didn't feel the cold anymore. I was suddenly very aware of my own heartbeat. We bumped along the potholed asphalt as my breathing echoed rhythmically in my headset.

I scanned every window and darkened alley for signs of movement as I felt the truck turn beneath me and roll back onto the highway. The smell of burning garbage intensified until my eyes began to burn and tear. I could literally taste the smoke from burning tires and God knows what else. I pulled my head wrap tighter around my face, but it didn't help. The smell began to burn in my throat. I reminded myself to note the date for my inevitable VA claim, certain that in a few years I would probably be diagnosed with some never-before-seen form of leukemia from whatever I was breathing - either that, or wake up one day with a third arm growing out of the middle of my back.

Possible IED

We suddenly came to a stop on a large, sweeping freeway overpass after an Army route-clearance team found a possible IED up ahead. The huge, armored mine-clearing vehicle, known as a Buffalo, was using its infrared camera and robotic arm to investigate the object. With no choice but to wait, we sat there.

Beneath the overpass, some 60 feet below us, was the largest garbage dump I had ever seen. Fires burned everywhere. The smoke rolled up over the overpass in billowing clouds until it was nearly impossible to see around me.

Several more long minutes passed before the silence was broken by the voice of Sgt. Scott Lynch at the front of the column in the MRAP, announcing over the radio that the route had been cleared. The Buffalo, using its robotic arm, had simply picked up the suspected IED and dropped it over the edge of the overpass into the garbage dump below.

We began to slowly pull forward and move off the overpass and back onto the main supply route. As Baghdad faded into blurry lights behind us, the landscape turned from smoky ghetto, to palm grove-dotted river valley, and finally, to inky, black open desert.

Basking in the glow

The next several hours were spent staring into the darkness until the sky began to lighten with the approaching dawn. The cold returned, but now it was refreshing. I stood up again in my turret to stretch my aching legs and take in the view of the Euphrates River. The morning sun burned red-orange as it crept slowly above the horizon. It flickered almost pure white off of the river, until it was too painful to look at. The sun warmed my face and I removed my head wrap and tilted my face skyward, closing my eyes and basking in its glow. I was amazed at how lush this part of Iraq can be. The desert was freckled with wetlands and grazing pastures. Two shepherds, seemingly oblivious to our presence, moved a large herd of goats slowly across the highway between our trucks.

Up ahead, a dozen camels plodded slowly along. Children ran alongside of us on either side of the road waving and shouting as they begged for bottles of water and treats.

I reached behind me in my turret where I keep a case of bottled water and grabbed two. I tossed them like a hook-shot in the direction of two small boys who couldn't have been more than 8 and 5.

Bad throw

There's a reason I never played basketball. I under threw and both bottles skipped off the highway and bounced and skidded at nearly 30 mph toward the two boys, striking them in the ankles. The impact took each off his feet, planting them solidly on their butts. They took the hits like NFL pro lineman, jumped back up, and waved and laughed as they ran with their bottles toward the next truck to beg more treats.

Despite being laid out by my poor aim and failure to judge distance, those two bottles of water and some errantly tossed plastic-wrapped muffins made those two little boys' mornings.

The mission which had started shrouded in poverty, despair and the choking smoke of burning garbage, ended 10 hours later in the clear, chilly morning air of the Euphrates River Valley, amid goat herders, a caravan of lumbering camels and small, happy children.

As we pulled into the FOB to bed down for the morning, I felt excited about the weeks ahead. In less then 30 days, I would be going on leave - just one more mission to go before I could see my own little girls and get back to making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for their school lunches instead of throwing muffins and bottled water from my gun turret to someone else's children.,


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