Dispatch from Iraq: A tiny click, the sound of victory

Courtesy photoSgt. Gary Underhill rode in the turret Sept. 11 protecting the back of the convoy.

Courtesy photoSgt. Gary Underhill rode in the turret Sept. 11 protecting the back of the convoy.

Sept 15, 12:20 p.m.

Somewhere in Northern Iraq

We arrived just as the sun was setting Sept. 11 at the Kuwaiti/Iraqi border to await the rest of the convoy. On this day I would cross the border, not in the rear seat, but up top in the turret, charged with protecting the back door of our convoy with deadly force if necessary. Protector - the role I was most comfortable in.

I climbed down from my armored perch and wrestled the .50-cal receiver and 4-foot-long spare gunbarrel from the back of the Humvee. As I lifted the .50 into the turret, I began rehearsing in my head everything I needed to remember to make my gun functional.

I grabbed the barrel, slid it into the barrel shroud, and screwed it into place until I heard the familiar "click-click" sound telling me that it was in.

Now, I began to sweat, and not from the heat. NCOs are supposed to be "technically proficient," and I was feeling anything but, at that moment. I hadn't set up a .50 or even fired one since Camp Atterbury, last April. Now was not the time to look like I had no clue what I was doing in front of the squad, or worse yet, my commander, whose truck I was going to be gunning for in just a couple of hours. I knew that if I could just get through setting it up this once, and get through the test fire, that it would all come back to me.

"Psst ... pssssst," I hissed to our driver, Spec. Humberto Gamboa, as he loaded our bags into the back of the Humvee. "Come here a sec."

Gamboa climbed up on the back of the truck and met me in my turret.

"Hey, bro, can you give me a hand?" I asked. "It's been a while since I set up a .50."

I was a bit embarrassed, but swallowed my pride for the sake of making sure that my gun would fire when and if I needed it to.

"Sure," Gamboa said, walking me through the process of setting head space and timing.

This is a delicate process that will ensure that the gun fires as it should and doesn't jam or blow up in your face. I silently wondered if John Moses Browning, who designed the .50 in the early 1900s, could possibly have made it more complicated.

Moment of truth

I charged the gun and inserted the timing gauge between the barrel and bolt face. This was the moment of truth. When you hit the trigger, you should hear a metallic "click." This sound tells you that you have properly set your timing and that your gun is now ready to fire.

I depressed the trigger, and rejoiced in the resounding symphony that rang in my ears - a simple, little metallic click. To veteran machinegunners, it's a sound like any other, but at that moment for me, it was as joyous as my child's first words.

I grabbed my helmet, body armor, chest rig and weapon and set them on the hood. I then climbed back up top and opened a 100-round can of .50-caliber armor-piercing incendiary ammunition and placed it into the feed box next to the gun cradle.

Now I was ready. The squad then spent the next hour or so waiting for word to jump off. I sat in my turret with my iPod blaring Daughtry's new album in my ears.

With Staff Sgt. Robert's words, "All right, let's go," I jumped down and grabbed my gear. I pulled on my armored vest, snapped my chest rig on and placed my helmet on my head. I climbed up in the turret and broke off 25 rounds from the 100-round belt of ammo for our test fire.

Capt. Derek Imig climbed in and began loading data into the Humvee's navigation and messaging computer. Gamboa fired up the Humvee and we pulled last in line behind nearly 50 huge transports and flatbed tractor trailers and slowly drove toward the chain-link and coiled concertina wire fence that separates Kuwait from Iraq.

Getting in position

We crossed the border and drove into that all too familiar black curtain of night. I rotated the turret 180 degrees so that my gun faced the rear and reveled in the view. Even in the blackness of night, I was amazed at the vastness of the desert. The cooling wind blowing past my face was heaven compared to the stale air conditioning that couldn't blow out a birthday candle that Imig and Gamboa, seated below me, had to contend with.

As we neared that familiar spot in the desert where we conduct our rolling test fire, Sgt. Baum's voice crackled in my headset. "Wolfpack 1, test fire, test fire, test fire."

Over a mile ahead of us I heard Wolfpack 1's gun bark out 25 rounds and turned to see red tracers streak across the night sky.

As I turned back to face the rear, I saw three sets of headlights quickly approach and begin to flash their high beams at us. I turned on the floodlights on either side of my turret shield, lighting up three vehicles and blinding the driver, who was aggressively trying to pass us on our left. I recognized the trucks, three tricked-out Ford F350 pickups, as armored gun trucks belonging to a private security contractor, KBR.

The lead KBR gun truck sped past us, quickly followed by two others.

"Well," I thought. "They'll find out in about 30 seconds."

As I watched them speeding toward Wolfpack 2 about a quarter-mile ahead of us, Wolfpack 2's gun fired, sending 25 rounds of .50-caliber armor-piercing incendiary ammunition streaking across the desert.

The sight of tracer rounds must have spooked the driver of the lead KBR guntruck because he hit the brakes and swerved into an open spot in our convoy, disappearing from view.

"Ha! Told you so, jacktard," I muttered.

Now it was my turn. I fed the belt of ammo into the gun and pulled back on the charging handle twice.

"Okay, sir, gun's hot," I said into my headset to Capt. Imig.

"Go ahead," he replied.

I swung the turret around to the 9 o'clock position, gripped the spades and depressed the trigger with my thumbs. The gun rocked in my hands as I fired several long bursts. The muzzle flash lit the night, and red tracers streaked into the darkness, exploding into the desert floor like fireworks 100 meters away.

Several rounds ricocheted off the rocky desert, glowing red and spinning wildly off into the night sky until they petered out. Empty brass casings and metal links rained down on the turret roof until the gun went empty.

"Good test fire," I calmly said into my headset, like I had been doing this forever.

Inside my head, however, I was laughing hysterically and doing a victory dance as I cleared my gun and loaded a fresh belt of ammunition.

I'd cleared my hurdle, and as we drove off into the Iraqi night, the cooling air rushing past my headset in a low roar, I suddenly felt at peace about a lot of things - not to mention 10-feet tall and bulletproof.

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