Dispatch from Iraq: Preparing for the mission ahead

Courtesy Sgt. Gary Underhill

Courtesy Sgt. Gary Underhill

Camp Arifjan, Kuwait,

11 Sept., 0924 hours

Another mission. After several days of rumors that no missions would be allocated for at least two weeks, our squad was surprised and excited to find that we were back on deck.

This will probably be our longest mission to date, taking us further north into Iraq than we have ever been before. And due to a few non-combat related injuries (Spc. Joe Keith has been airlifted to Germany for a torn ligament in his foot, and Spc. Jamaal Uzziel has a shoulder injury) we are short on men. Both Keith and Uzziel are gunners. As it worked out, I will be filling in as a gunner on this mission for our company commander, Capt. Derek Imig, who is going to be commanding one of our trucks.

I'm greeting this new assignment with a sense of excitement and trepidation.

I've been wanting to take a few missions as a gunner anyway, and look at the chance not as something new, but as a really great photo op.

On the other hand, I haven't fired the .50 since Camp Atterbury, Ind., last April, and I am gunning for my commander's truck. To make matters even worse, we will be Wolfpack 4 on this trip - the last gun truck in the convoy. The insurgency has been known to target the last gun trucks with IEDs. No pressure, there.

In these few days before our mission leaves, I've had time to think a lot about things I can control and things I can not control. To say I am a bit rusty on the workings of the .50-caliber machine gun is an understatement. I mean, if you break it down into its simplest terms, the .50 cal hasn't really changed in design or function since it was first developed in 1913. It's the original "point and click." I know it will all come back to me in time. In a pinch I can always rely on our top gunners, Spc. Jake Sere, or Pfc. Joel Martin, to bring me up to speed.

What I can not control is what happens out there beyond the safety of my armored turret. What's been on my mind most of all are the increased reports of bombings and unrest throughout Iraq.

I don't think it's the possibility of death that scares me as much as the mechanics of it. In my 20 years as a police officer, I've seen more homicides, suicides and fatal car wrecks than I care to remember. I've seen time and time again what a bullet does to a human body. Through it all, though, other people's trauma never seemed to bother me.

But, when I was 12 years old, I smashed my finger in my dad's car door. My finger swelled up and turned black and blue as the blood pooled under my nail. Dad, a former U.S. Army medic, heated the tip of a straightened paper clip and melted a small hole in my nail to release the blood and the pressure. The sight of my own blood oozing from my finger nearly caused me to wet myself.

I've tried not to think about the possibility of dying, and although the overly brave and phony tough among us will probably read this and give me good-natured hell for it, I know that they think about it, too. It's just not something that we discuss, as though discussing it will somehow reveal vulnerabilities within ourselves that we don't want others to see, or make what is a slight possibility an inevitability.

Courage is not charging your enemy with a fixed bayonet while running into a hail of gunfire, cigar clenched in your teeth, as you clamber over the trench wall into battle yelling, "Follow me, men!" Courage is knowing that you're scared, but going anyway. Courage is putting the possibility of dying out of your mind and giving your situation over to a greater power and letting Him handle the rest.

In the past several days and weeks, that's what I've tried to do. I told someone recently that whatever happens while I'm over here has already been written, and there's little I can do to affect the outcome.

It doesn't matter whether we or anybody else agrees with the war or not. After eight years of war at the cost of nearly 5,000 American lives lost on two fronts, it's safe to say that we're all tired of it - soldiers as well as those at home - and just want to come home. But, agree or disagree, we have a mission here that we've been asked to complete. We're here, and we have to finish the job.

So, in a few hours I'll put on my uniform one more time. I'll grab my helmet and my ruck, my weapon, my ammo, and my body armor one more time, and I'll walk out to my truck and get to work.

I'll mount my .50, climb into my turret and enjoy the best view in the house. As we cross the border soon and disappear behind that black curtain of night into the Iraqi desert, I have no idea what's on the other side.

What I do know is that if we are called upon to fight, I can see myself getting mean real fast.

Like I told my 23-year-old daughter Ashley online last night when she told me to please be careful and that she worries about me, "Don't worry, baby, I'm too mean to kill that easy."

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