Dispatch from Iraq: Itching to get back on the road

Aug. 28 Camp Arifjan, Kuwait 0110 hours

For the first time in a long time, I was excited about something. It had been more than a month since my last mission and I was starting to get stir-crazy.

Sitting on my chevrons was not what I had envisioned when I volunteered to serve in Iraq. When word came that we would finally be going out, I was filled with a sense of purpose again.

This mission, however, I was going to fill in as the MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) truck commander. Spc. Tyler Miller-Cobb would be my driver, and Pfc. Joel Martin was assigned as my gunner. Together, we would be taking point on this journey.

During the convoy Intel brief we were warned about specific threats of attacks that were planned where we were going. It doesn't take an Intel briefing to know that things have gone from bad to worse in certain parts of Iraq. Anyone can figure that out reading the newspaper.

Most of the organized insurgency were assisted on their path to the infernal regions by allied forces. What's left are mostly a disconnected, half-assed group of hillbilly moonshiners. The only problem is that these same hillbillies were all taught how to set up ambushes and make IEDs by their former al-Qaeda mentors. Attacks were still occurring on roads throughout Iraq, and our route was no exception.

My excitement quickly turned to something else. I suddenly had a really bad taste in my mouth, kind of like I'd been sucking on an old penny, coppery and acidic.

Hope For the Best, Prepare for the Worst

While loading and securing our gear for departure, I was distracted by a sound behind me of something that reminded me of a riding lawn mower. I turned to see a Rhino, a kind of souped-up golf cart, come to a dusty halt.

The soldier behind the wheel stepped off and removed his helmet, replacing it with his patrol cap bedecked with a set of captain's bars.

Just above the "US ARMY" tab on his camouflaged uniform top was a black Velcro crucifix, identifying him as our battalion chaplain. I came to attention and saluted.

"Good evening, sir," I said.

"How 'ya doin', sergeant?" He replied, returning my salute.

"We're just getting ready to head out tonight," I told him.

"Well," the chaplain said, "Why don't you gather everyone around for a second."

I did as he asked and the squad formed a rough semi-circle around him.

The chaplain started by telling us how proud he was of us all and wished us a successful mission. He reminded us that things were still rough out there and to keep our heads down.

Then he led us in prayer and made sure to shake each of our hands, calling out our names as he wished us luck.

I was suddenly reminded of a scene from the World War II-based miniseries, Band of Brothers, in which a soldier replied after being given communion before a Battle of the Bulge combat patrol, "Rest easy, boys. If we die now, we die in a state of grace."

I surprised myself by repeating the line aloud.

Leaving the Wire

As we pulled away from the gate at Camp Arifjan, I wondered for a moment if it would be for the last time. I shook the thought from my head like a pesky insect buzzing around a light bulb, and told myself to snap out of it. We drove on, past the bright lights and industrial areas of Kuwait City, until the road gave way to the blackness of the open desert. We reached our first base several hours later and bedded down for a few hours of sleep before we met up with the rest of the convoy the next afternoon.

The next day, we climbed into our trucks, and drove toward our final stop on the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border before crossing into Iraq.

We crossed the border at 2035 hours and led the convoy into the blackest night I had ever seen. The two-lane main supply route stretched out in front of us and faded away into a crude oil-colored curtain.

As we neared identified danger areas, I stared excitedly into the night, trying to adjust my eyes and anxiously awaiting the first explosion or tell-tale "ping" of a round striking the side of our truck.

I was surprised to find myself almost hoping, wishing, that it would happen. I was tired of the anticipation and wanted to just get on with it. My only request was that if we were to be struck by an EFP (explosively formed projectile, a type of sophisticated IED) that I would only lose my legs. That, I told myself, was a survivable wound I could deal with it.

As we neared our first base of the night, the route became a rough dirt road. We pressed ahead of the main convoy, with Staff Sgt. Jake Roberts and his crew in Wolfpack 2 covering us. About 600 meters in, we suddenly found that our path was blocked with large pieces of metal wreckage, several large metal truck wheels, and a 50-gallon propane tank.

I radioed up that we had been stopped by a makeshift road block, and immediately told Martin up in his turret to keep his eyes on several buildings and large dirt berms off to our left.

I knew that we were being watched and was sure that if we were going to be ambushed, it would come from either side of the roadway where insurgents had plenty of cover. Our MRAP posed a sizable target, but I also knew that we were protected from RPGs and small arms fire by our armor.

Still, it's a very uneasy feeling being all alone in the middle of a road like that, knowing that somewhere in the darkness, there's someone probably wanting to pull me out of my truck and make off with me into the night so they can cut my head off on the Internet. I took comfort in knowing if we were attacked, Martin would be VERY generous with his return fire.

It seemed like an eternity before the four QRF (Quick Reaction Force) gun trucks arrived to assist us.

Two of the trucks took up flank security and called for the Iraqi Police to remove the roadblock. After all, it's their country and what better time for them to learn how to take care of it than now. The Iraqi officers showed up about 10 minutes after being called - not too shabby a response time, I thought - and hopped from their rag-tag pick-up truck. While two of the officers with AK-47s provided cover for their comrades, the other two began tossing bits of wreckage off to the side of the road.

"Hell," Martin said as we watched. "Those guys are probably the ones who put that roadblock there!"

At the very least, I thought, they most likely knew who did. Their outpost was only a few hundred meters back down the road.

As soon as the roadblock was cleared, we were joined by the rest of the convoy and together we proceeded along the dusty road and through the safety of the FOB's front gates.

Staff Sgt. Robert's decision for our MRAP and his gun truck to push ahead of the convoy prevented the entire column from getting hung up on that road. It also undoubtedly threw a wrench in the enemy's plans and prevented our convoy from being attacked.

Despite the success of what will go down in history as the "Wolfpack Maneuver," a part of me was just a bit disappointed that we had not been ambushed - but not too much.

A Haunting Sight

After a fitful night's sleep in a tent with broken air conditioning, we proceeded to a nearby base, picked up a load, then escorted the convoy back to Kuwait. This was the first time that we had really driven during the day time, and I was surprised by how different Iraq looked in the light of day. As we drove slowly down a rough dirt road, Miller-Cobb was careful not to hit too many dips and potholes. As it was, the rough road was tossing Martin around in the turret like a gerbil in a blender.

Still deep inside southern Iraq, we passed a small group of Iraqi tents and mud huts. There on the side of the road ahead of us, I saw something bright red standing out from the sand and mud-colored landscape.

As we got closer, I realized it was a little girl.

No older than my own daughter Alyssa, maybe 7 or 8 years old, she was dressed in a beautiful, bright red flowing Iraqi dress and customary head wrap, adorned with small brightly colored beads. She was holding tightly onto the hand of whom I assumed was her little sister, a child of maybe 4 or 5 years old, dressed in a dirty, tan-colored one-piece dress that covered her from neck to ankle. The younger girl had short, bobbed hair, just like my 5-year-old daughter Olivia.

Smiling and waving, they watched us as we passed.

Standing there alone in the desert in the noon day heat, they were two of the most beautiful little girls I had ever laid eyes upon. Immediately I thought of my own girls. The only difference between my daughters and these two desert angels, was that these girls had known only war in their lifetime.

I wanted to tell Miller-Cobb to stop the truck right there. I wanted to climb down, take these two little girls in my arms and take them somewhere where they would never again have to stand alone by the side of the road in the dusty heat. I wanted to protect them from all that they had seen or ever would see. But I couldn't do any of that. Instead, I watched in helpless sadness as they disappeared from view, and faded away into the dust cloud.

Later the next day, as we drove silently through Southern Iraq toward the Kuwaiti border, my thoughts were of little girls in red dresses, and how lucky my own girls were to have never been witness to so much horror and devastation. I thought of lost childhoods, and of little lives and memories forever marred by war.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't shake those two little faces from my head. The helplessness I felt at not being able to make their world right again was just too much, and I stared out my window and thought of home.

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