Friday, July 31, 2009

A Short Break

Though it is definitely a break from the norm of first person stories
that typically appear here, the mission today for 1st platoon, Charlie
2-35, 25th Infantry Division is worthy of a mention. In terms of
mission tasking in Iraq, this rivals the best as just plain good. It
made me smile, certainly, and I imagine it will do the same for
others. What’s more, I have photographic proof this time.

As many will recall from reading the news, a major component of
current US policy in Iraq is the reconstruction of essential
infrastructure. At present this includes schools, and throughout this
area of operations there are scads facilities either being built from
scratch or wholly restored from their condition of neglect. There are
also several others already operating. In total, more than
thirty-five primary schools are, or will be soon functioning in this
small, impoverished region of Iraq. There are children here, after
all, and they would benefit from something more than a hard life of
subsistence farming. This education gives them options.

Several times throughout this tour, Soldiers from C company have
gathered heaps of backpacks, pencils, paper, and other school
supplies, and prepared them for delivery to local school children.
They have also brought clothing with them, too – boxes of items
donated from the states that, while used, still have plenty of life
left in them. Rather than simply hand them out and appear the heroes,
US forces collaborate with nearby Iraqi Army (IA) commanders and even
local leaders to ensure that they are there involved, too. It’s a
combined effort, but it remains far more important that Iraqis are
familiar and comfortable with their own security forces than they are
with the US. We’ll be leaving soon, and the ISF will then be left on
their own.

Today I watched the latest school supply and clothing drop for a
primary school in this area. I could tell facts about it – how many
backpacks were handed out and how many shirts and pants were
distributed to the children, but that still strikes me as hollow.
Instead, I will tell you and show you what I saw.

The first thing I saw was a squat, concrete and block building
standing in the middle of nowhere. By the time we arrived, the
headmaster and his son (an English-speaking animal physiologist) had
herded a good fifty children outside and attempted to get them in some
sort of order. They were excited, so listening to directions was one
of the last things on their mind. With the assistance of our
interpreter, a few other teachers, some US Soldiers, a couple Iraqi
Army soldiers and officers, and the local sheik, they were formed into
a line. I must confess I’ve never seen Iraqis in a line (aside from
Iraqi Army boot camp), and certainly never children. In fact, I had
joked that the only thing I was going to capture today on camera was a
bunch of children beating each other, convinced that the backpack that
their friend received was somehow different and better than their own.
No such thing happened, however.

While a US Soldier went down the line handing out pencils and papers,
a small knot of IA, the school’s headmaster, and a few more Soldiers
quickly passed out backpacks to all of the children in this school.
Many, I believe, have never seen one before, much less owned one.
Their excitement was only tempered by my camera constantly shoved in
their faces.

Several things struck me as interesting about this scene. For one,
this is an infantry platoon trained for one primary mission: kill the
enemy and secure the area. Yet this mission finds them strictly in a
PR/humanitarian role. Few will likely admit it, but they enjoyed
themselves. Enough of them are fathers and uncles to not mind making
a child smile for a few minutes. They aren’t trained killers so much
as they’re trained fighters, at any rate, and this is a mission to
which they readily adapted – and did quite well. Quite simply, it’s

And they were also joined by their Iraqi Army counterparts. I
personally have had difficulty dealing with them in the past, mostly
because they were either unprofessional or downright harsh when
working with children, but they clearly enjoyed themselves too.
Slinging rifles in such a way that they didn’t bop kids in the head
every time they bent down, they directed children like fathers: gently
and patiently – despite the racket of the overexcited at the prospect
of receiving school supplies. I enjoyed watching their interaction,
particularly when it meant juggling a rifle, a cigarette, and
cumbersome gear that does little more than get in the way. Below is a
photo of the ‘Arif (Iraqi NCO) who would grab an item of clothing from
a box and walk around trying to match it with an
appropriately-statured child. He didn’t have to do this, but he did.

I observed a lot of cute kids, to put it bluntly, so I made an attempt
to photograph as many as would allow it. A number have the common
sun-bleached hair, giving it the appearance of burnished copper. A
number more have fingernails stained from working with newly harvest
dates. One loved having her picture taken, after she decided I wasn’t
really scary anymore. This is her below:

I did ask a number to smile for photos, but didn’t give up if they
wouldn’t. Maybe they don’t want to smile. After all, a backpack and
a few pencils isn’t going to change the fact they’re growing up
underserved and impoverished in Iraq. Giving them school supplies and
clothing doesn’t change the world. What it does do, however, is put
them one small step closer to receiving an education.

It is a known fact that the insurgency in some regions of this country
exists mostly because the locals are poor and Al Qaeda is the
highest-paying employer. This region is one such example. This is
why schools are so important here. An educated, equipped group of
children and teenagers is presented other opportunities besides the
few dollars that Al Qaeda offers them to dig in an IED. As much as
our own politicians always pontificate about everything being for our
children, there’s a bit of truth to it here. Kids that aren’t
desperate for income and food are less likely to make moral
concessions in order to find a job. In short, they won’t contribute
to the instability of this country.

Besides schools, there are also plenty of other unmet needs in this
community. I saw a few dermatological problems that needed attention,
and a few children badly in need of footwear. At least two bore
obvious signs of albinism – testament to high rates of birth defects
in this region of the world. Almost all could use a toothbrush.

Despite it being generally insulting, I have heard boys here referred
to as “pre-terrorists” or “terrorists-in-training.” Yet there’s some
truth to this. What solves this? It begins with parents that don’t
use their position as leaders to perpetuate a doctrine of hatred.
Another measure which definitely helps, though, is humanizing “the
enemy.” These children, having heard all their short lives that
Americans (or Iraqi Security Forces) are evil and part of the problem,
have seen a demonstration of something different. They met nice
people who joked around with them, played with them, and made an
effort to provide for them in some small way. Perhaps that lesson
will remain with them more than the violent rhetoric they may be
accustomed to hearing. It’s hard to hate somebody who you distinctly
remember being kind to you.

Iraqi girls don’t have it easy here, either. They are married off
young and often relegated to a life with little to no education. They
work hard and age quickly. An alternative to poverty will hopefully
improve their quality of life, too. Once again, it starts with an
education. Today I saw just as many female students as males. They
were all uniformly treated nicely by teachers and IA alike.

For those that are going to counter with some remark along the lines
of US troops were there so the Iraqis were on their best behavior, I
will say this: in the past, Iraqis have had no qualms about treating
children harshly in our presence. The fact that they did not today
indicates something: they didn’t want to.

I have worked enough with the population of Iraq to know that the
enemy are few and the numbers who simply want to live their lives far
greater. In short, I have put a face to this country. Those that say
we should leave them to their own devices are forgetting that there
are millions of innocents whose only “crime” was being born into a
chaotic, violent situation. Those that boldly announce we should nuke
them all and go home are boldly indicating their own ignorance (and
heartlessness). Those that insist that this country’s problems are
not our concern are overlooking the fact that basic human rights are
everybody’s concern. I don’t think there’s a good rebuttal to that,

Yes, this is a small act. Yes, a backpack and a few articles of
clothing isn’t going to change the world or dramatically shift a
culture from violence to progress. But it aims everybody in the right
direction, and that’s a great start. Additionally, this is only one
project of many. There are other schools, other projects, and other
efforts to improve quality of life.

It is always difficult for me to capture a “story” with a photograph,
so I find it easier to just describe the story and then show the faces
of those involved in it. Below are some of the players, and now
you’ve heard a little bit about them. It doesn’t hurt that they’re
all cute kids, either. However brief their encounter with us, it
leaves a good impression. In ten years time, they’ll still remember
us, no doubt. Will we remember them?

All Media Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


*Retold with permission.

Last time I was here in Iraq, we were temporarily attached to a unit in Baquba, kicking off what alternated between the most dangerous and most ridiculous missions we’ve ever done. From the very beginning, we had problems, starting with the unit that we relieved.

We arrived on the patrol base about midday, and we quickly discovered that we were going to need a resupply of food and water. There was a little, but nowhere near enough. In fact, we’d probably run out of water that day. Sure, they said. The small unit we’d relieved promised they’d take care of it when they got to the main base nearby.

Before they left, though, they announced that they’d show us around the area. We dutifully put on our gear and headed for the trucks.

“What are you doing?” one of their guys said.

“We’re going on a patrol, right?”

“We patrol on foot here. We have too many barriers throughout the town to make humvee patrols practical. Most of the patrols here are walking.”

That was a warning sign. We’d grown so accustomed to using humvees that we’d never even considered that we might have to do foot patrols. The fact that it was about 120 degrees didn’t make it terribly appealing, either. Begrudgingly, we headed out with them on foot, and later that day, the unit left, promising a hasty resupply.

Well, the resupply never arrived that day, despite the fact we desperately needed it, and the main base wasn’t very far from us. My guess is that they simply didn’t care anymore. Whatever. It wasn’t their patrol base now. So before the first day was even over, we already despised the unit we replaced. Their unit callsign was “Bonecrusher,” but we called them “Bonehead” – even on the radios, and just to irritate them. Even though they had left, they’d still provide our fire support [mortars and artillery] from their main base, so we had plenty of opportunities to tick them off. They deserved it.

Later that first day, sweating to death and almost out of water, I manned a checkpoint looking down a road. Off in the distance, maybe 500 meters, was a crater large enough to swallow a car. As I watched my avenue of approach, children wandered up and started to play in the hole, which was a problem.

Their presence wasn’t necessarily as innocuous as it might have seemed. In the past, children have been used to place IEDs, so it was possible that they were doing the same thing here, too. Yet none of us had any desire whatsoever to shoot them, so my team leader instructed me to fire some warning shots nearby to scare them off. I carefully aimed in, let off a burst, and they ran away.

My rounds had impacted more closely than I had anticipated, so I was momentarily concerned that I’d hit one of them. After all, he was limping. But thankfully, I had not. He had some other injury – none from me. I still felt really badly about scaring them, though. They were only kids.

Shortly after, our relief unit patrolled out to us and we went back to the base, still hot, and still thirsty. The water resupply had yet to arrive, and since nothing much else was going on, we tried to catch a little sleep. We’d be in and out for the remainder of the afternoon, evening and night.

No sooner had we started to unwind when we heard an enormous explosion not too far from our patrol base, and moments later, we heard over the radio that some of our guys, out there patrolling in humvees, had been hit. Everybody was okay, but the truck was going up in flames.

Wait, I asked. Isn’t that the truck with the AT4 in it? [Anti-tank rocked commonly used by US forces in Iraq] No sooner were the words out of my mouth, and we heard another huge explosion. There went the AT-4, and now my squad leader was running around in a panic. He wanted to get out there and help.

“ You, you, and you. Come with me. We’re going to go help them out.” He grabbed me and a couple of other soldiers, and we sprinted out of the patrol base and into town. It was faster to go on foot, since if we’d taken trucks, we’d have to go well out of our way to circumvent the concrete barriers.

Going on foot, though, wasn’t much easier. It was still over a kilometer to the blast site, and we couldn’t just run directly to them. So, in 120 degree weather, with all our gear on, and now completely out of water, we ran house-to-house, clearing the buildings, streets and courtyards all the way out to the burning humvee.

There was nothing left of it, either. Just a heap of smoldering metal, burned gear, and a few half-filled water bottles that had somehow survived the IED and the ensuing fire. Thirsty as hell and exhausted from our run, we jogged over and started sifting through the ashes to grab them. My buddy grabbed one and took a swig, but immediately spit it out. None of us has considered that it was boiling hot. We still had no water.

Somebody started hollering out that they saw movement in a nearby building. We found the triggermen, they yelled. We all opened up into the building with machine guns, rifles, and .203s, and in moments a Bradley lumbered up to reinforce us. My squad leader yelled me to take cover while they fired, but I ignored him. Their .25 [25mm main gun on a Bradley fighting vehicle] couldn’t be that loud, right? Wrong. When they started firing, it felt like somebody was crushing my skull.

Eventually things calmed down and we started doing our (slower) foot patrol back to base. I was feeling nauseous and half delirious with thirst, and I wasn’t sweating anymore.

“Hey High Speed, are you okay?” my squad leader asked.

“I’m fine, sergeant. I’ll be okay. We’re almost back.”

He could tell I wasn’t okay at all, though, and as he watched me, I collapsed. I don’t remember much from that point on, but they threw me into a passing humvee and took me back to the patrol base. My friend later told me that when I got back inside, I started shedding gear like a child. I peeled off my LBV [load-bearing vest] and tossed it down, then my flak, my helmet, and my rifle, leaving a trail of gear all the way from the door, across the room and to my cot. After our medic gave me an IV, I improved significantly.

Late that same night (still the first day on that patrol base), we went back out in town again on a night operation. As we patrolled, one of our guys spotted suspicious movement some distance off behind some houses. It was too dark to see clearly, and our night vision didn’t provide clear enough images, so I called back to Bonehead (on the nearby main base) and requested that they fire an illumination round .

Very carefully, I read off the grid, gave the azimuth and estimated distance, and relayed it to Bonehead on the radio. “Shot, over. Shot, out.”

Off in the distance, more than a kilometer from the target, we saw the round light up the entirely wrong area. I assumed I’d called in the wrong numbers, so I quickly confirmed that I was, in fact, completely correct. Bonehead was the one messing up. But, I called in the adjustment and tried again. “Shot, over. Shot, out,” they called. Nothing. We didn’t see anything. I radioed back to them. We’d seen no splash [impact].

“Um, we haven’t fired yet,” they explained, which made no sense.

You don’t say, “Shot, over. Shot out” until you’ve actually fired. I relayed their excuse to my squad leader, who was furious. He came down from where he was observing and radioed back to them himself. They changed their story this time.

“Uh, we’ve been having problems with our lum rounds, and sometimes they’re not working very well. If you’d like, we can fire an HE [high explosive] for you.”

Unbelievable. They couldn’t get within a kilometer of the target we called in, yet they were willing to lob high explosive rounds out there – hitting God knows who. Livid, my squad leader said forget it. Bonehead was too incompetent to even fire an illumination round. There’s no way in hell we wanted them firing HE out here. They’d probably hit us by accident. We ended the fire mission and just kept on patrolling. Without proper indirect fire support, there was no way we could pursue anybody on the ground.

All this was just the first day out there in Baquba.

Another time, they did manage to nearly wipe us out with artillery fire. We were positioned on top of a house and preparing to start a “terrain denial” mission [an artillery mission where rounds are fired in known insurgent hot spots to discourage them from using that location again]. The target was a shallow section of the river that Al Qaeda was using to smuggle arms across to other insurgent networks. We were about 400 meters away, so I gave them our position and told them to set up a 300 meter no fire area around us. No problem. They’d fire their first shot, and we’d adjust them if necessary. But it shouldn’t be needed, since it was an “on-call” target [a target already programmed into computers on the gun line, and usually hit accurately without any adjustments].

But their first shot landed right next to us in an orchard, sending shrapnel spraying against the side of our building, and humming over our heads. It sounded like a muscle car flying directly above me. Once again, I checked the map, determined that they were messed up, not us, and then called back the adjustments.

That impact, while closer to the actual target, still sent shrapnel into our building and over our heads. It was getting ridiculous. These guys were awful. I called in a second adjustment and told them to fire for effect. It was close enough. We hugged the floor and prayed that nothing would hit us. In the future, we were reluctant to call in any fire missions at all. They seemed more likely to hit us than hit the target.

The whole time we were there in Baquba, Bonehead never improved, and to this day you can inquire what any of us here think of them and they’ll quickly announce that they hate them. We’d been pulled away from our own AO [area of operations] just to help them, yet they didn’t even take care of us. Between the total lack of support, absurd assignments and frequent firefights, we all have stories about Baquba. Very few of them are good. Nor do any of us want to go back there, either – or deal with Bonehead.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

We Survived Them

*Retold with permission. (This post is more graphic than others, so please proceed at your own risk.)

I think every last one of us, at some time or another, has been tasked out on missions that make no sense whatsoever. Sure, it’s not our job to really know WHY we’re doing some of them, but there are orders that so directly conflict with our warfighting doctrine that we’re left puzzling over what idiot decided they were a good idea.

One prime example of this was when we were attached to a unit north of Baghdad in a particularly dangerous, deadly area. Before we arrived, they were getting hit badly, and it continued well after we arrived, too. We’d been called up to help control the violence that was spinning out of control. Aside from small arms, one of the largest threats was IEDs [improvised, explosive devices].

Typically, to help ensure safe passage along regular convoy routes, a team called “route clearance” will slowly creep along the shoulders of roads looking for IEDs. They use special, heavily-armored vehicles called Pumas, complete with mine flails in the front, and metal detectors under the body. Even in the event of a detonation, the occupant is relatively safe.

These guys slowly scan the shoulders, and whenever they find something suspicious, they’ll call up another special, heavily-armored vehicle to dig up and detonate the device (if there is one to detonate – often times, it’s just trash buried in the dirt).

Well, for some reason these guys were terrified for their safety, despite their armor, cautious, methodical pace, and so on. And rather than just move even more slowly or cautiously, they asked for some infantry guys to help them.

No worries, that’s what we’re there for – to help secure the AO [area of operations]. BUT, rather than have us provide extra firepower or provide additional security, the route clearance guys wanted us clear the route for THEM. How? By walking along the road, in front of them, without armored vehicles, and visually looking along the shoulders for IEDs.

For reasons that were never explained to me, this ridiculous order wasn’t questioned. No, we’d be glad to walk along the roadsides for you. So we get out there, in front of route clearance, vulnerable as ever, and started walking along the shoulders.

One of our guys asked, “wait, we’re providing route clearance for route clearance? What the hell are we looking for!?” His squad leader was the one that answered, himself miserable.

“If we blow up, they stop.”

So we walked, convinced that at any moment we’d all be shredded with IEDs. To our utter joy and amazement, we completed that mission unscathed. I assure you it did nothing to improve our respect for the troops we were supporting. It seemed to me they were shirking their jobs and making us do them – at greater risk. Or maybe they were trying to get us killed.

Other missions weren’t as dangerous, but they were an utter waste of our time. One was the donkey hunt.

Apparently the mayor of that town, somehow finding himself and his life to be of far greater significance that it really was, called our battalion commander and complained that his donkey had escaped into town and he didn’t know where he was. Believe it or not, our commander felt it was high priority and promised the mayor that he’d do something about it.

We had been on base that day, standing by as QRF [quick reaction force] for whomever needed serious fire support, medevac, or assistance in the city. As we stood by, the radio crackled that we had a mission. Scrambling to throw on gear and load weapons, we ran out to get our brief. QRF missions are often intense, so we expected the worse. Somebody was in trouble.

“The mayor of the town has lost his donkey, so we’re being sent out to patrol around and find it.”

The CO [commanding officer] was serious, too. Furious, we drove out the gate to find a donkey.

After hours of fruitless searching, roasting in the trucks in all our gear, we spotted a donkey lying on the side of the road. It looked sick, and its legs were spastically twitching. But, it was the only donkey we’d found in the entire city, so we assumed it belonged to the mayor. Stepping out, our squad leader walked over and tried to haul it to its feet. It didn’t budge.

“This thing is dying, and there’s no way we can save it, either.” Drawing his pistol from the holster, he put it out of its misery. Some of our guys jumped in surprise. They weren’t expecting gunfire.

“Sergeant, we can’t just leave it there. It might get used to hide an IED.” The Soldier was right, too. It happened all the time. More than one animal carcass had been rigged with high-powered explosives in that area, and we weren’t going to provide the carcass for it to happen again. Not only were they extremely dangerous threats, they were revolting, too. Nobody, however, had any idea what to do with the carcass.

Somebody got the bright idea that it’d be smart to burn it, which really wasn’t bright at all. After a thorough dousing in diesel, they lit it – resulting in a rank, smoldering carcass still sitting in the road and posing a threat.

“We could shoot it, I guess.” So they fired a few rounds with a .50, which didn’t do anything. Meanwhile, people were starting to get sick from the odor of singed hair and flesh. Our platoon sergeant made a quick call.

“Open up on it. Now.” Two .50 cals started shredding the carcass into pieces. They were still fairly large.

“Screw it. I’m done. Let’s go home.” Enthusiastically, we returned to base and it was reported that the mayor’s donkey had been found very ill and been mercifully put out of its misery. Close enough.

These are just two examples, but we ran all sorts of missions that had no purpose or tactical intelligence. After a couple of months attached to that unit in the city, we were thrilled to leave before they got us all killed. They were perhaps the most screwed up units I’ve ever served under. If I stay in the Army, I’m going to spend my time avoiding that unit at all costs. I don’t want to end up like them: stupid – or dead.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Hardest Part

Getting home from a deployment may be the worst part of the entire tour. The first and only thing on your mind is to see your family and go home, yet there always seem to be stumbling blocks. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. There always seem to be delays. Families just want to see their Soldier, and naturally, we just want to see our loved ones.

This is my fifth tour out here, so I’ve been through the whole welcome home ordeal four times. The first two were with a unit that seemed to organize things quite well. When we arrived, all we had to do was grab our day packs, take the buses to base, and they’d let us see our families. But other units I’ve been with did things differently. And none of liked it.

We came back one time and rather than just letting us turn in our gear at the armory and go see our waiting loved ones, they shuffled us into a partitioned hangar. On one side, we turned in all our weapons and serialized gear, and on the other side, our families waited. That’s bad enough in itself, but they also had camera crews filming us as we turned in weapons, and on the other side they had monitors where they could observe us coming in the door. I guess they thought it’d make the families feel better knowing their love one was safe. But that’s not how it played out.

As we in-processed, we could hear our families on the other side, cheering, yelling our names, and impatiently waiting for us to be cut loose. It was hard to know they were on the other side, unable to see us, and we’re stuck here waiting until all the equipment was turned in. That time it took about two and a half hours, which was awful. And even after the gear was all collected, we still waited. We stood by, families screaming on the other side, until all our VIPs had come in and set things up. Then, they formed us up outside and marched us into the auditorium where our folks were waiting.

But rather than just let us go to them, we stood there at parade rest or the position of attention, in formation, while one person after another came up and gave a speech. They always started with, “I don’t want to keep you long, so I’ll make this brief.” And then they’d talk for fifteen minutes.

Meanwhile, children are getting grabbed by parents trying to keep them from running out to see Daddy. Wives are impatiently drumming their fingers. My wife later said, “I didn’t care at all what they were saying: I just wanted to see my husband.” But still, more speeches. Then they’d introduce another speaker, and you could see the people in the audience getting even angrier, and the children getting more impatient. It was audible throughout the crowd.

I really don’t know why they felt the need to talk so much rather than let us go. Maybe it has something to do with unit tradition, or to raise everybody’s anticipation of the whole thing. If that was the case, though, shame on them. They were “dangling” us in front of our families, who wanted nothing more than to wrap their arms around us. The anticipation didn’t make it better in the least; it made it worse. You could read it in the faces of our families as they waited. They didn’t understand why they were having their Soldiers paraded before them, but were still unable to actually greet them.

In the end, we spent almost two and a half hours waiting on the other side of the hangar and another hour standing in formation in front of them. It was stressful for us, and stressful for our loved ones. It was almost that bad after one of my tours, too.

All the VIPs want to stand around and make speeches about how the deployment went so well or how much we accomplished, but that’s furthest from our minds. We were out there, so we know what happened. It’s also behind us and done, and we’ve been gone for fifteen months. Instead, we have one interest: grab our bags, grab our families, and go home. We want to start the reintegration process, and drink an ice cold beer.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ask Somebody Else

*Retold With Permission

I’ve touched down in stateside airports before, in uniform, and I’ve been somewhat taken aback when people line up for us and clap. Frankly, it’s sort of embarrassing. I didn’t join for medals, for rank or any sort of accolade; I joined because I love it and I love my country. There are a lot of others that aren’t getting the thanks that they deserve. They don’t have uniforms, so the public completely overlooks them. I think my wife deserves a thank you, as do a many wives. Mine is back home holding down the fort and raising two children on her own.

It’s only by some grand stroke of dumb luck that I married the greatest woman in the world. I remember when we were dating, she once told me that I’d have to let her know by Wednesday if I was going to come visit on Saturday. I ignored her. Whatever. She’d drop what she was doing, I thought. I was incorrect. After I got in trouble for interrupting her studying, she explained it to me: there are responsibilities that can’t be shirked, no matter how much she enjoyed my company. I couldn’t have asked for a more loving wife and mother to our children.

So whenever I’m over here, I have absolutely no concerns. I’m able to devote my entire attention to my mission and my troops. Everything back home is covered. I don’t worry about the insurance not being paid, or my children being fed, the bank foreclosing on the house, the car getting repossessed, debt, nothing. I completely trust her. When I’m gone, she does everything. She mows the grass and does other household chores. She functions as both mother and father to the kids. She encourages them, disciplines them, and despite all this, I have normal, well-adjust children.

Here’s a woman with a graduate degree, who aspired to be a Fortune 500 businesswoman, and she’s content to be a stay-at-home mom and raise a family. I could call her and say, “honey, we’re moving to North Carolina in November, and she’d say, ‘okay. I’ll have the kids ready.’” She’s amazing. More than being highly responsible and a great mother to our children, she’s supportive, and encourages me while I’m deployed. She listens, advises, and loves unconditionally. She could have any man in the world and she chose me: a short, stumpy, fat guy.

But many others here aren’t so lucky. I can walk back inside and point to the soldiers who I know are coming home to divorces, financial woes, or some other unforeseen relationship complications. It’s tragic to watch, obviously, and I can point specifically to why most of it is happening.

My wife and I have been married for years. She’s been with me as I’ve gone through the ranks, through one command after another, but more importantly, we were married long before the war kicked off. It was a garrison Army back then. Aside from time in the field and the occasional command that kept me working long hours, I was typically home fairly promptly. The result is that we had sufficient time to develop the relationship, to solidify it, and prepare for a time when I wouldn’t be so available.

Yet for these younger soldiers, it’s different. They joined an Army at war. The stateside training tempo is fast-paced, and then they deploy. Then they come back and do it all again. More than marrying in a time of war, they married INTO war, and it’s extremely challenging to hold things together under these conditions. The marry, they leave, and they both get lonely. In truth, they haven’t fostered strong relationships. Many of them fail. I imagine it will continue until this is all over.

This war, conflict, or whatever we’re calling it now is exacting a toll on the troops in other ways, too. As a whole, it’s blurred our warfighting doctrine. I’m an aviator, for example; not a statesman. But these are the positions that many leaders are finding themselves occupying. They do fairly well, given the abrupt assignment of a completely different mission, but it comes at the sacrifice of their actual MOS [military occupational specialty]. We have soldiers that join at war, complete basic training, then come out here and never function in their MOS. Thankfully, though, the Army has begun implementing training changes to reflect the varied missions in which our soldiers may serve. As a whole we’ve stumbled, but we’re quickly righting ourselves. Historically, we have always adapted to the mission, and we’re doing it now.

In terms of the caliber of troops, that’s also suffered too. I don’t doubt that these men and women love their country, but some are just here. They’ve trained up repeatedly, deployed repeatedly, and if they choose to stay in, they’ll continue to do this for the immediate future. But they’re tired, and it’s reflected in the loss of military standards, discipline, and even leadership. Are they bad people? No. They’re just burning out. In many ways, all of us are. After fifteen years in the military, I’ve been gone for a total of five years. Two of those have been since 2003.

My soldiers, though, I love them to death, and I’m proud of them. I’m honored that you want to talk with me, but they’re the ones out there getting things done. I fly missions every now and then, but for the most part, my war is conducted at a computer. Well, two of them. I type on one then I roll my chair over and type on the other. I’ve worn marks into the floor.

If you want to see the ones fighting hard, go talk to my soldiers. Talk to the captains, who are providing daily, hands-on leadership to their troops. Go talk to the troops themselves, who sweat over engines, pump fuel, cook our meals, and do it well. We have our fair share of lemons, but so does every unit. They represent our society. We simply work with what we have, and as a whole we have good people.

In fact, the privates are the most creative ones out here. They’ve helped me out repeatedly. They’re brimming with creative ideas. We present then with problems, and they formulate solutions. They may be low on the totem pole, but that’s irrelevant. Their thinking isn’t as rigid as us old guys. It’s our job, as officers, to listen to them and give them a voice. But they deserve all the credit out here. Unsung though they may be, their actions are winning this war.

Will the Iraqis ever be able to put aside their differences and pursue amicable solutions? In time, yes. Will the Sunnis and Shiites ever stop killing each other, or the Kurds ever get along with the Arabs? Again, in time. Are we perhaps making the mistake of holding them to a higher standard than we hold ourselves? We have problems of our own with inner city violence. We have corruption in politics, too. We shouldn’t forget that. If you consider that in the course of six years we’ve dismantled the Baath party, disbanded their Army and then helped them construct a new one, impatience is misplaced. These things will take time.

And at any rate, I don’t think it’s hopeless over here. I do feel that using the word “democracy” is a misnomer, however. We’re not so much instilling that as we are instilling peace. They will always have a different system of government than us, and that’s fine. So long as it promotes peace. We’re getting more of that incrementally. Province by province, city by city, Iraq is demonstrating that can stand on its own, provide security, and maintain a stable government. In time, I’m hopeful that they’ll be contributors on the world stage at a level equal to other non-Arab countries.

For us, it translates to boring, but boring is good. Boring means we don’t lose soldiers. Boring means Iraqis are taking the lead. And eventually, boring means we all go home. That’s victory to me – all of us going home.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Standing Among Us

*Retold with permission

Not long ago, we got a new piece of equipment in our battalion that let us do on-site finger printing and iris scanning while out on missions. We just called it “the camera.” We’d carry it with us on patrols, and whenever we saw somebody suspicious, we’d just do a quick retinal scan, record their fingerprints, and keep on moving. If they were wanted, we’d haul them in for questioning. If they weren’t wanted, we’d at least have them in the system if we caught them again.

We did a patrol once where we’d put soldiers out on the ground and the humvees would shadow them on the street. The dismounts would walk from courtyard to courtyard and scan all the residents with the camera. We were looking for a specific person. Biff was carrying the camera that day.

That area, Mandita, was already known to be a stronghold for a small insurgent network called Na Shamani. They had no idea what the camera was, but they knew we were methodically moving down the street – apparently towards their leader, our HVT [high value target]. And I guess they were prepared for us, too.

In hindsight, the whole disposition of the neighborhood was different that day. The kids weren’t running around like they usually did. Even the adults were scarce. They never seemed to move more than a few feet from their doorways, then they’d duck back inside. They knew something.

Right before the lead humvee out on the street was about to make a turn down the next road, a white sedan pulls up and blocks the way, almost like it was an accident. In the rear of the convoy, the same thing happened, pinning us in.

Biff was standing in one courtyard holding the camera, and the rest of the dismount team was there, too. He was about to start a scan on the Iraqi standing there, and then suddenly we heard a distinctive hiss, a soft impact, and a rifle crack off in the distance. The first thing I thought was, “oh shit; that somebody’s been hit,” but when I looked around quickly, everybody was just standing there doing the same thing. Everybody seemed okay.

But then Biff’s hand came up sharply and he grabbed his chest. Blood was pouring out between his fingers. He’d just been sniped through the heart. Somebody outside yelled “take cover” and soldiers started jumping behind cars, walls, or running to the trucks.

This wasn’t a stray bullet that happened to connect. This was a skilled sniper shot. Whoever it was knew our body armor, knew its weak points, and also knew how to still hit the heart with a single shot. Biff fought it, though. He fought it hard.

He looked down silently, and slouched forward little as LT grabbed him in a bear hug. Then he dropped to his knees. Finally, he laid himself gently on the ground like he was going to go to sleep. The whole thing seemed like it happened in slow motion. Blood was absolutely everywhere by then, and a huge pool had already formed on the ground.

Doc rushed over and started working on him, but I know he recognized that it was hopeless. It didn’t matter, though. He was going to do everything he could. Doc just didn’t want us to lose him right there.

As everybody scrambled for the trucks, Doc loaded Biff into the nearest one, and then we took off for base. We’ve never driven that maniacally before. I think we did about 80, which is hard to do in the city. In fact, we blew out the truck’s engine, but it didn’t fail us until we arrived on base. Later, we had to tow it away.

When we got inside the wire, Doc rushed Biff into the aid station where they were prepped to receive a casualty. We just parked outside and waited. The whole thing was horrible for us. It’d happened fast, and back on the FOB was really our first chance to actually think about it.

After a time, our LtCol comes out with a female medic and tells us to huddle up. That meant bad news. He gets us close and quietly says, “he’s gone.” Every one of us broke down. When we’d had a chance to comfort each other a little, we had a moment of silence for him, and then they let us go inside in pairs and say goodbye to him.

The sniper didn’t have a clue with the camera was for, and they sure as hell don’t know our rank insignia, but since it looked like Biff was carrying an expensive piece of equipment and a radio, he was the one they shot. They’d assumed he was the one in charge.

We wanted to retaliate immediately. We wanted to go back to that street, kick down doors, and take in everybody that looked in the least bit suspicious. More than anything, we wanted to kill the sniper. We wanted to do something, but they wouldn’t let us. In fact, they strictly forbade any US unit enter that area for a long time. They did it on purpose.

Insurgents around here typically brag about what they did, then immediately leave town to let things simmer down. That’s just how they operate. In this case, the command was relying on it. They’d let the guy brag, let him run, and knew that he’d come back in time and brag some more. That’s when we’d move in.

Sure enough, it worked. When the Iraqi police received intelligence that the guy was back, we planned a huge hit on the place. Actually, it was the last combat raid conducted by US troops in Iraq, and it required the written approval of a 3-star general.

Four platoons of our soldiers converged on that place, along with over 200 Iraqi swat police. We even had Kiowas overhead for aerial reconnaissance. We detained 44 from the raid, and well over half of those where known criminals with some involvement in either the insurgent network, or the sniper attack on Biff. They even got the sniper himself, too, and some of us testified in Iraqi court during the trial.

The Iraqis did an aggressive and thorough investigation on the whole incident, reenacted it, gathered a lot of intelligence, and eventually they even traced the trajectory back to its source – a two story building where they’d sneaked onto the roof without the family’s knowledge or permission. It was a coordinated effort: two drivers to block the convoy, lookouts, a sniper, and even a spotter for the sniper. In total, at least six were involved in that one attack.

They officially closed the investigation a week ago, but the whole matter is far from closed to us.

The morning of the sniper attack, Biff was the one that did the prayer before we headed out. He asked God to watch over us and protect us, but then he asked that God soften the hearts of the Iraqis so they could ensure their own safety and we could go home. In my mind, that shows where HIS heart was: with the Iraqis, with us, and with his family.

I don’t think there are any good words that fairly explain who Biff was to us. At best, it just sounds like we’re raving about our favorite NCO, but he was infinitely more than that.

LT called him his “reality check,” and whenever we were doing something stupid, he’d politely approach the LT and suggest we do it another way. And you couldn’t argue with him, because was always right. Somehow he did it tactfully, respectfully, and with a smile on his face. He was always smiling, or telling a joke, or lightening everybody’s mood. He was like the glue that held together the whole battery.

When we were stateside, he was always over at one of our houses, either visiting with his entire family, or just hanging out with us. His three little girls would play with some of our other sergeants’ kids. His wife was a highschool teacher, his own highschool sweetheart, and they were inseparable.

He loved the Army, he loved what we were doing here, and he believed in us, in the Iraqis, and in the mission. When we got back home, he was going to submit a warrant officer package and make a career of the military. His absence leaves a hole on all of our hearts.

At the police station nearest to the attack site, one of the commanders approached our LT and emotionally admitted that he blamed himself for the attack on Biff. He was on the verge of tears. He felt it was a complete failure on his part, and that his police officers had missed something. He and the other police viewed us as their guests, and our safety was their duty – and they felt they had completely failed.

When we did the raid on the suspect’s house, it was that police commander’s unit that eagerly volunteered to storm the buildings. “Let us go in,” they insisted. “You’ve already lost one of your own.” It was personal to them because they’d loved Biff, too.

We all wear bracelets engraved with his name now, and some of our commanders do as well. Now, the whole brigade wants them. We just want to keep his name alive. We have to. Forgetting him is like disowning one of our own family members.

About a month ago, they did an enormous memorial service here on base. All the other units stopped everything and everybody attended. Air Force, Army… everybody. Their commands wanted them to know who Biff was, and that this is real. Many of those guys never leave the wire, so it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that this is still Iraq, and still a combat zone. It wasn’t just our platoon out there, either. It was our US police advisor and our interpreters. And the terps cried just as much as we did. They loved Biff just as much as we did.

When Biff got hit, he dropped the Lt’s green book he was holding, which contained the names, locations, photos, and even aerial reconnaissance for all our HVTs. In the chaos of getting Biff loaded onto the truck, nobody remembered to grab it. But Alex did [our interpreter], and he sprinted back into the courtyard and retrieved it. If he hadn’t, we never could have done the hits we did, and we would have been robbed of any sort of payback.

On the day of Biff’s funeral back home, the entire state of Iowa flew their flags at half mast. And three days ago, the Air Force named this base’s landing strip in his honor. Those are nice gestures, I guess, but I’d rather just have my brother back.

When he died, it brought us closer together, really the whole battery. Whatever disagreements we once had have completely disappeared. There’s no fighting anymore. There’s nothing to fight about. And we’re more cautious, too. We’re hyper alert. We look for cover constantly, and we watch the locals and the terrain like hawks. We don’t want this to ever happen again. One was enough.

Replacing him is basically impossible. We lost one sergeant, but it’s taking the combined efforts of at least three just to accomplish what he did with ease. Everybody’s trying, but it’s not the same. He was a gifted leader and role model for all of us. Some of us don’t talk about it, but that’s not me. I could talk about it for hours. It keeps him fresh in our minds and close in our hearts. The more we tell people about him, the more he’s standing right here next to us. And that’s all I really want right now. I want him back.

In memory of Staff Sergeant Leroy O. Webster, killed in action on April 25th, 2009. He was 28. Share his story...

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, July 20, 2009

Small Thinking

*Retold with permission

As I was growing up, I sort of felt like I was missing out. I don’t mean to suggest that I had a sheltered childhood or I was deprived, because I wasn’t. I had great parents, great brothers and sisters, and good friends, too. Everything I needed, I had, and I even had some of the things I wanted. I guess home felt small. It seemed boring, mundane, and all people worried about was their own miniscule facet of reality. The world carried on without them. Even at a young age I knew there was a lot out there; and I wanted to see all of it. But now, though, after years living around the country, years in the military, and years overseas, home is all I really want.

I’ve decided the world is a big place now, and there’s no way in hell I can see all of it. Besides, what’s the point? Just to say I’ve seen it? That seems sort of self-indulged. There are better things I could do with my time. Each culture and area has its little appeal, and it’s home to somebody, but there’s only one home to me. That’s what I miss out here.

I miss being with my family and catching up on what they’re doing. I’ve spent so much time away from home that I’ve missed first words and first steps, graduations and birthdays, Christmases…everything. I love my family and I love my friends, too, but there are gaps now in our relationships. Gaps when I was gone and something important happened in their lives when I wasn’t there to enjoy with them. They’ve told me about it all in phone calls, emails and letters, but it’s not the same to me. I didn’t SEE it, so it doesn’t carry the gravity that it rightfully should.

When you’re at home, I think it’s easy to get bored. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gone to visit, said hello to family briefly, then felt a wave of boredom wash over me. To some extent, military life becomes normal. Everything needs to be done yesterday. Everything is fast-paced and important. You’re constantly in a state of panic, or at least in a rush. Home is different. It’s slow.

But at the same time, this isn’t normal, not at all. Getting shot at isn’t normal. Living in a tent isn’t normal – at least not for modern Americans. Living out of a green bag isn’t normal. Disavowing all responsibilities and relationships in pursuit of a mission, while noble, isn’t something that’s meant to be sustained over a lifetime. I think that the people who do that, the guys who spend their entire lives in the military: they’re missing out. Yes, they did something good and selfless for their country, but what about their families? What about a normal life?

Sometimes I think that you can either be married to the military and to the mission, OR you can be married to a wife and family. It’s hard to do both. One or the other will suffer. Besides, is it really fair to expect my wife to raise a family alone? I don’t think so. My dream is to own a house, have a family, and grow old with my wife. If I keep doing this, it’s not going to happen. There’s no way I can even meet somebody. I’m never home for long enough.

Do I regret getting into the military? Not at all. I think it’s been one of the most important and meaningful things I’ve done with my life. Yet I also think it’s going to be something that I will do, remember fondly, and then pursue other things. If having a wife, family, and a house wasn’t normal, why would people consider it the American dream?

It’s easy to fall in love with combat operations. It really is. I don’t mean the actual combat part. That never lasts long, anyway. I mean being deployed. Everything is taken care of for you here. Somebody cooks you every meal. Somebody tells you when to get up and when to get on the trucks and run a mission. You really don’t have anything to worry about. You know what you’re doing is good, but I think there are other good things, too, like home.

If we were a nation of warriors, what would we be fighting for? The idea is to fight, win, and go home. Not fight forever. People sometimes make the mistake of aggrandizing the warrior above the victory. But victory is what lets us all come home. We’re supposed to fight to win, not fight because we enjoy the conflict.

Part of the initial appeal of the military, and specifically a combat zone, is that I wanted to see what I was made of. I wanted to know if I could do it. It’s wasn’t a fascination with combat, per se, but more of a desire to test myself. But that’s done now. I’ve been tested, and I came through it okay. It doesn’t make me a man or anything, but I’m still pleased to know that when things get chaotic, I can still think straight. What makes me a man isn’t this; it’s how I care about people.

Some days I love this, but then I catch myself and remember that this isn’t normal. In fact, it’s very abnormal. This is a temporary suspension of reality. If it was so great people would be flocking to do it, and they’re not. It’s something you do, and then you move on.

Other days I absolutely hate it out here. It’s not that I don’t believe in the mission, because I do. It’s not like I regret joining, because I don’t. What I don’t like, however, is what this has required me put aside – a real life. I have some time left before my contract is up, but I imagine I’m going to get out and go to school. Hopefully I’ll meet my future wife along the way, too. I know it doesn’t sound like much of a plan, but I have time to think about it. Besides, thinking about it too much out here is going to distract me. I’ll start staring at all the Air Force girls or something, which isn’t going to accomplish anything. They think we’re all disgusting grunts, anyway. And we probably are.

Years from now, I hope to tell my kids stories about Iraq. I want to show them pictures and tell them about the friends I’ve lost. I want them to understand that it’s a good thing to do, but it’s not something you do forever. You do it, then come home to your family. If I keep at this forever, I’ll never have kids to tell this story to. Maybe I will if the war ends and we go back to the states, but I don’t think that’s going happen any time soon. We’ll be out here for a long time, or somewhere else.

I’ve always heard people say that you don’t know what you have until it’s gone, and they’re right. Home was like that. So, years after thinking home was small, now I think this out here is small. Home is what seems appealing right now. I’ve had enough of war.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, July 19, 2009


*Retold with permission

My soldiers and I were attached to an Army EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] team during one operation while Marines swept a small town for any insurgents. While we traveled with them, EOD would float within the secured perimeter and disable any IEDs the Marines found or suspected as they cleared the buildings and streets. I don’t think they were expecting to find too much on their own, though.

We walked up to a dump truck and started to poke around, and then I heard one of the EOD guys call out to another. “Um, I just found five Italian 750s [artillery rounds].” A moment later, I heard him call out again. “Okay, if you’re not EOD, you need to get out of here right now.” I’m thinking if EOD’s getting nervous, it’s definitely time to back up. I headed back to my truck and we moved off a distance to provide them overwatch.

The EOD team started focusing their search on the dump truck, and before long they radioed up to the Marine commander, explained that they’d found an enormous VBIED [vehicle borne IED], and that he needed to back up all his Marines a full kilometer from this site. When they did the controlled detonation, EOD warned, it was going to be enormous.

“Absolutely not,” was the reply from the Marine commander. They’d pushed too far to voluntarily give up ground they’d just finished securing. The Marines would be fine if they weren’t that far back. He’d move them back maybe 300. Anything more was a waste. EOD, didn’t like this response.

“Sir, you’ve have heard our recommendation, so we’ve done our part. But you need to know what’s out here.” He rattled off a huge list of ordnance that they’d found in the truck, and continued. “If this VBIED was to drive into the middle of a unit of M1A1 tanks, it would kill every single tank and every single occupant. As it stands, with this much ordnance inside the vehicle, it is the second largest VBIED that’s ever been found in this country. But, we’ve made our recommendation. One kilometer. What you elect to do is your concern.” The radio was silent for a long pause.

Begrudgingly, the commander radioed back that he would compromise and move his Marines back 900 meters. No more. Fair enough, said the EOD guys.

We helped EOD set up for the detonation, and we ended up rolling out a good 750 meter of det cord [detonation cord used to ignite C4]. As they were working, I looked over and saw that a house near the blast site had a rickety little stable with two donkeys in it. I also knew they wouldn’t survive the blast, so I asked EOD if I could set them loose and give them a chance. In terms of public image, it looks bad to not even try. No, they said, we don’t have time. I walked back to the truck to sulk.

When it came time to detonate, we all pushed into a narrow alley with high mud walls on either side. I asked if I could hold my camera around the corner at the end of the street and film the detonation, but the EOD guy tells me hell no. I have to stay down for this one.

“Fire in the hole, fire in the hole, fire in the hole.”

It was like nuclear holocaust. I saw red for a second, and then I watched the mud walls on either side of the street ripple with the concussive wave. When I could see again, I stumbled to my feet and peeked around the corner to see what the blast site looked like. Sure enough, there was a huge mushroom cloud pushing high into the sky.

One of the EOD guys grabs me, yelling. “You idiot! For the next minute and a half, shit’s going to be raining down. Take cover!” I got back down just as we started to hear little “tinks” all around us, and then the occasional “thud” as a larger piece of debris hit the dirt.

When it was finished, EOD went over to do a post-blast analysis of the scene. They’d wired the one dump truck (which was FULL of rounds), and left a similarly-rigged car nearby alone. They figured the main blast would take it out too. And they were right.

The crater was a good 50 feet deep, more than 100 feet wide, and still smoldering. The car was completely gone, and so was the dump truck. The largest piece I could find was the transmission differential and half a tire. Everything else was too small to even pick up. Even a nearby warehouse was completely flattened, as were several small buildings around the perimeter.

We showed the blast site to the Marine commander, and he was pretty apologetic. “You’re right that this would have killed a platoon of tanks. Next time, I’ll listen to your recommendations.” As he rode off, I looked over towards the donkey stable. I assumed it was flattened, too.

To my utter amazement, the building was mostly intact. A second later, I see a donkey head slowly appear where the door used to be. Then another. One cranes its neck out into the street and nervously looks both ways. As I watch, they slowly emerge, briefly look at us, and walk off into the city. Somehow, they’d survived. I doubt we’d have been so lucky.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Unholy Water

*Retold with permission

I kicked off this tour with a big dose of stupidity, but unlike a lot of other calamities, this one was entirely my own fault. It was one of those situations that you never really live down, ever. It’s been a good seven months since it happened, but people are still lining up to hear the story. It’s humiliating, but I guess it’s funny.

When we were in Kuwait waiting to fly north, all the water to the base was trucked in, so our water usage was strictly rationed. Each person was authorized fifteen gallons a day. Any more than that, and you were taking from somebody else. And if you didn’t get to the showers early in the morning, the tanks would be bone dry.

When we first got there, I put it off all day because I was busy, and I really didn’t believe all the stories about the tanks running empty. It was probably just a scare tactic intended to make us to cut back on water usage. Well, I got ready for my shower that evening, walked in there, and nothing. The tanks were sucking air. All ticked off, I stormed back to the tent and went to sleep smelling my own B.O. I vowed to get up early the next morning and get my shower.

I got up about 0500, grabbed my towel, and headed over to the trailer. This time, the tanks were full, and since I hadn’t used my water ration from the day before, I was going to take a long, 30 gallon shower. I figured I’d earned it.

I climbed in, got the temperature adjusted, and just stood under the water. I had a thick layer of desert dust all over me, so it was nice to just relax and soak. Eventually I got cleaned up and rinsed, but as I was starting to shut off the water, it occurred to me that I was still standing in ankle deep, filthy water, full of everybody’s foot funk, hair, soap scum, and whatever else was in the shower. It was absolutely disgusting.

I stepped out of the stall carefully and carried the shower head with me so I could rinse the grime off my feet. The place was mostly empty, so I didn’t care I was standing out there naked. I held the curtain rod with one hand, sprayed off my foot, then switched hands and did the other. Excellent; I was finally clean. As I held the rod again and leaned in to hang up the shower head, I fell. Right into the pool on the floor.

It was more than just a simple fall, though. It was like a swan dive into a pool of sewage. Naked, cussing, and floundering on the floor of the stall in a panic, I struggled to stand up, a complete mess again. The two guys brushing their teeth at the sinks had turned their backs to me, but I could see the buttheads were laughing hysterically. Still cussing, I jumped back in and started to wash off again.

I didn’t care that I was over my water limit now. I had to get that stuff off of me. I washed down again, carefully cleaned off my feet, and got out. And of course, my towel was soaked with scum water. I looked over at the two guys at the sinks – they were still looking away, and still laughing.

I wrung out my towel, used my dirty shirt to dry off a little, and started to dress. But I noticed there was blood on my shorts now. Somehow, I’d cut my finger on the soap dish as I fell. I hadn’t noticed it before, but now I was bleeding everywhere from a tiny cut on my hand. I never knew such a small wound could leak so much. I stuck my finger in my mouth, finished dressing, and stumped back to my tent. It’d taken me an hour to get clean, and instead of being covered in sweat, now I was covered in blood. And I was furious.

I knew those two guys in the bathroom would tell everybody what they say, so I figured it’d better tell the story first, before it got blown out of proportion. So I when I got back to the tent, I told everybody about it – me flailing naked on the floor trying to get out of a cesspool of a hundred soldiers’ foot grime and God knows what else.

But I guess I shouldn’t have told them. I don’t think I’m ever going to live it down. Now everybody wants to hear the story about how I “purple hearted” myself in Kuwait. See, there’s even a crowd listening right now. You do a hundred good things, and nobody remembers. But you do one stupid thing, and they never let it go. They’ll probably write this one up in the yearbook – minus the bad language. What did I do in Iraq? I fell down naked in the shower and got covered in foot water. Quit laughing.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Friday, July 17, 2009


*Retold with permission

We had a lot of weird experiences when we were manning the ECPs [entry control points] into the International Zone. There was the usual array of local vendors, political guests and day laborers, but every now and then it was something completely unexpected.

I remember one situation vividly, mostly because it infuriated me. It was obscenely hot out, and I was already pissed about that – standing there for hours listening to each person tell me why their business in the IZ took precedence over everything else. Then this three car convoy rolls up. We in-processed high-level guests all the time, so I just assumed these cars were more dignitaries. They were all BMWs or Mercedes, new, and impeccably clean. But the passengers were a different matter.

Each car had a single driver, and in the back seat of each sat one young girl. All three of them were gorgeous and well-dressed, right down to the perfume. That was kind of odd, but whatever. We asked them to step out, and then we conducted the security search of the vehicles.

That was when I started to suspect something. Each trunk had a suitcase in it, full of lingerie, body oils, fragrances, and basically what’s best described as sex worker clothing. None of it was typical attire for this region, this country, or for girls their age. One of the three drivers was pretty mouthy and spoke broken English, so I asked him what their business was in the IZ.

“We have meeting with minister.”

Okay, that’s nothing new. Why, though? What for? Is this an appointment?

“I have gift for him.” When he said that, he gestured towards the three girls. That’s when I knew exactly what he meant. He was pimping them.

They were young, too; maybe thirteen or fourteen, and they stood there on the side of the road silently, looking down, like they’d just been caught doing something shameful. I’m fairly confident they knew exactly what was going to happen to them, but I have no idea if they consented to it. They were only children.

I also knew the guy wasn’t going into the IZ to sell the clothing in the suitcases, since none of it was packaged or marked. It was loose, and it’d been worn before. Besides, we dealt with vendors all the time. They’d come in with trunks full of DVDs or truckloads of produce. The clothing wasn’t for sale here; the girls were the merchandise.

I don’t have a sister, but the first thing I thought about was this: what if they were my sisters? What if they were my daughters? They were only kids, and this guy was about to permit an unspeakable crime to take place. I looked at him squarely in the eye and told him to get out of there. Go.

Then he started to fuss and complain, which made me even angrier. I got in his face. You need to go. Now. Leave. I guess he figured out that I was genuinely pissed, so he and the other drivers put the girls back in the cars, climbed in, and drove off.

I have no idea who he was or even who he was going to see, but I wasn’t going to let that happen. This isn’t my country and they may have different rules here, but that doesn’t matter. As a Soldier, I have a warrior ethos; and as a civilian and an American, I have a code of ethics. This wasn’t acceptable under any terms, and I wanted no part in what was going to happen to those girls. I didn’t matter if they consented or not. They were only children.

I called in the whole incident to my NCOIC (non-commissioned officer-in-charge), and to my amazement, he chewed me out. When he’d calmed down a little, I explained the whole situation, and then he completely understood. In fact, he told me good job.

Later on, my CO [commanding officer] got after me, too. But again, when I explained the circumstances, he agreed with my decision. He simply said I could have handled it more diplomatically. Maybe I could have, but I really don’t regret what I did. In fact, I wish I could have done more. That sort of behavior is completely unacceptable, and those men should have been arrested. The worst part is that these girls were purchased by a high-ranking Iraqi political figure – the very ones we protected and supported. But if he had no moral objection to having sex with three children, what else was he willing to do?

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Gunny

We were sent out west once near the Syrian border to attach to a Marine unit doing a big sweep operation through some relatively hostile towns out there. We’d been attached to Marines before, so we knew the drill. They’re sort of strange, and they seem to be in a contest to see whose unit is more miserable. I think some of the went out of their way to make things suck as much as possible. I’d already briefed my guys. This is just want they do. Let them be. They were good guys, but they were nuts.

It was a long convoy, so we didn’t arrive until well after midnight, and it was winter, so we asked around to see about getting some cots or something.

We finally talked to one Marine who told us he’d have to wake up Gunny. “Wait, don’t do that. We’ll just sleep on the ground or something.” No, he said. He’d ask Gunny what to do about it.

A moment later, this burly, barefoot man stalks out and crosses his arms. He was wearing those little green silky shorts that Marines wear.

“Who are you?” he spits.

“Gunny, we’re the psyops team that’s attached to you guys for a couple weeks. The four of us were looking to find some cots or something to sleep on for the night.”

“Come with me,” he grunts, and storms out the door into the night – still barefoot. It was winter, mind you. He walks across the lot to a trailer they’d converted into a bunk house and steps in, and starts kicking racks.

“You and you. Get up.” A Marine groggily mumbled a “what” and Gunny barked a reply. “Get the hell out of here. Now!” Marines start grabbing sleeping bags and stumbling out into the cold.

“Gunny, they’re going to kill us in the morning.”

“No they won’t. They’ll be fine. I’ll see you in the morning.” And he left.

We were out doing an op with them one day, and before long they had a small foot patrol pinned down in the city. A whole lot of us were already outside the wire, so we just diverted from our missions and rushed over there to put more firepower into the fight.

As my humvee crested a hill on the edge of town, we looked down into the city and saw a mosque with a bunch of insurgents firing out of windows and over the courtyard walls. Not far away, there was a small group of Marines huddled behind a low wall trying to return fire. They looked badly outgunned.

As we’re halted up there for a moment, I saw the concussion blast of a grenade right next to the Marines, and then I saw a body fly through the air. One of the Marine officers in a nearby truck recognized the guy, too. It was Gunny – an old friend of his. “Shit! Gunny’s been hit!” he yelled, and he threw open the door of his humvee and hauled ass down the hill towards the firefight.

Completely ignoring that there’s a firefight going on, he runs out there into the middle of everything, hauls Gunny to his feet, grabs his hand, and starts running up the hill with him. Gunny ran with him, keeping his injured hand above his head, blood streaming down to his elbow. When I saw that he was injured, I started calling around on the radio looking for a Corpsman [Navy medic attached to a Marine unit], since I knew he’d need some sort of medical attention. I was still on the radio when they ran up.

When they stopped next to the truck, out of breath, Gunny sharply snatches his hand back from the Marine officer and looks at him squarely. “You know how goddam gay that looks?”

That man was a Marine’s Marine, and tough as hell. He’s just been yanked out of a firefight, bleeding profusely, and all he’s worried about is looking gay. That guy was awesome.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, July 13, 2009

Hot Guns

We conducted a lot of really badass missions on my last tour – things that most people don’t even know we have the capability of doing. One my personal favorites was the seismically activated cameras, which proved invaluable.

There were a few areas in our AO [area of operations] where the insurgents would emplace IEDs repeatedly, so the command set up cameras wired to sensors that activated when somebody started digging. When they did, the imagery was relayed back to base in real time. It was almost comical.

We’d see an image of a guy with a shovel in his hand, breaking ground. Then in the next shot he’d be digging. Then he’d be throwing the dirt. Usually the next photo would be of him looking around, like he’d heard something. Then he’d go back to digging for a couple of frames. Next shot: a huge cloud of dust and smoke. We’d dropped artillery on him.

Our artillery battery was always on standby for those missions. As soon as an insurgent started digging in an IED, the command would relay us the coordinates, and we’d fire a volley of HE [high explosive] rounds on top of him. Best of all, it worked. No more IEDs there. And they had to find new people to replace the ones we blew up.

The whole tour was pretty amazing, actually. When we got there, the arty unit we replaced told us they hardly ever fired any missions. It was pretty quiet. We could expect to just hang out, sleep a lot, and work a little. It sounded good, but it wasn’t true. The very first day we were on that gun line, we fired more than 200 HE rounds for call for fire missions. That isn’t “terrain denial,” but real targets. In fact, we fired so many rounds that we had to put bags of ice on our computers to keep them from overheating. We stayed busy.

As soon as we got on the gun line early one morning, we sustained a direct rocket attack on the guns. Thankfully, the rockets all hit the barriers directly in front of us, but it was obvious that we were the targets. Moments later, we fired a counter battery back at them, which we figured would put a stop to it. But amazingly, it didn’t; they fired again, so we unleashed hell on them and then everything went quiet. I’m pretty sure we got them that time. And that was just the beginning.

Later that day, an infantry company in the city was trying to approach a suspected weapons cache, but every time they moved in, they’d get repulsed by heavy insurgent fire. So, they called us for help. They gave us the coordinates, backed up, and waited for us to do our thing. We did a full fire for effect.

For about six minutes, one high explosive round hit that place every three seconds. There was no way anything there could survive the barrage. Five minutes after we fired our last volley, the infantry moved in, and everything was silent. And sure enough, they found the cache, which actually turned out to be an entire warehouse full of ordnance and weaponry.

The whole tour was like that: productive. When we first got there, we’d get incoming rocket or mortar attacks ten to fifteen times a day. We took care of that immediately. As soon as we’d get hit, we’d fire back with superior firepower. I’m sure they were thinking, “What? That’s not supposed to happen. The last guys didn’t do that.” Well, we did, and it worked well.

Before long, we’d killed most of the teams firing on us, and we went a full five days without a single attack. If I had to guess, they had to recruit entirely new teams – and find them new guns to use. Then they started changing their tactics.

They knew that artillery can’t fire on close range targets, so they’d either lob one round and run, or they’d move closer to the base where they thought we couldn’t hit them. Well, WE couldn’t hit them, but our own mortars could – and did. Those insurgents were taken out quickly, too. Long story short, we took care of the problem, and the whole area has been pretty quiet since.

That was two years ago, though, and Iraq is much different now. We still keep a “hot gun” ready all the time, but there really aren’t any more targets. Between us and the other indirect fire units, the insurgents don’t have a prayer. They’ve either been killed or they’ve given up. Either way, they don’t pose a threat anymore.

We may not have left the base as much as infantry guys did, but when they needed us, we were there, and we took care of them. The funniest part is that in the states, not a week went by when one of our guys didn’t get in a fight with one of the infantry guys. But none of that happened here. We put aside all the squabbling and we got the job done – and we got it done well. We saved the fighting for when we got back home. Out here, we’re on the same team.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, July 12, 2009

To Be Elsewhere

*Retold with permission

I’ve spent four birthdays and three Christmases over here so far and I imagine I’ll spend a few more here, too. Since I enlisted in 2003, we’ve been deployed every other year, except for the year they extended us and we stayed out here 16 months. But again, we did a year back, and then left again. You could say that I’ve spent most of my twenties at war. The rest of my twenties I wasn’t here, but I was in the Army.

Iraq changes every time I come here. It used to be absolutely awful, but it’s a little better now – at least in terms of the risks. I’m not with a very good unit this time, though. They don’t take care of their own like they should. I picked up sergeant maybe three years into the Army, but after that everything stalled. I’ve been eligible for E-6 for a long time, but for reasons nobody has ever explained, I’ve never been promoted. They’re supposed to give you annual counseling to tell us our promotion schedule, but they don’t give them to me here. My old unit cared, but this one really doesn’t. I know the company first sergeants hates me personally.

When that first sergeant released the soldiers for R&R, he’d make them wait for a convoy to take them to the airbase, which sometimes took days. But when he went, he made us drive him down there in our own convoy so he wouldn’t have to wait at all. And now he’s not even coming back. He only did six months over here.

When I finally went home on R&R, rather than relax a little, I spent almost half my leave trying to get treatment for injuries I’ve sustained over here in Iraq. They could have done it here, but that would have caused them to reschedule my R&R. Thing is, I was going back to Germany so I could spend my fiancé’s birthday with her (and propose to her).

I was able to get some of the treatment I needed in Germany, but there was one more undiagnosed problem that the doctors wanted more time to observe and examine. But when they asked, the command flat out refused to give me any convalescent leave, even though the request came from medical professionals. No, they wanted me back immediately. I guess it was really important to them that I hurry back here to sit behind a desk all day. So, I came back with stitches still in my hand and only halfway fixed. Now they’ve placed me on light duty until my shoulder injury heals.

I proposed to my fiancé while I was on R&R, but that’s turning out to be a huge disaster. Not the engagement at all, but getting her to the United States. See, I wasn’t supposed to go on this deployment at all, and I've been planning my future with my fiancé. I had orders for recruiting duty back in the states, which meant at least three years without deploying. One night, however, I was pulled over in Germany and accused of drunk driving. But when they tested me, I was far below the legal limit to drive, and the charges were dropped. That’s when the company first sergeant started hating me. He couldn't cancel my orders to recruiting duty, but he did call up the chain and tell them to send me to the worse possible recruiting station they could find. They selected White Sands, New Mexico. I asked if I could extend to stay with the unit in Germany, but they said no. My reasons weren’t good enough.

Well, at some point, they just decided to make me deploy with this unit anyway, to hell with my orders (even though they don’t really need me out here). So this is where the problem arises with my fiancé. I was going to move back to the states with her. But with those recruiting orders nixed, she’s stuck in limbo in Germany, and until we’re actually married, she won’t get command sponsored. And since I don’t have orders anymore, she can’t go stateside. She’s going to be stuck in Germany. At this point, I have no idea when we’ll get married, when she’ll get command sponsorship, or even when we’ll be able to live together. Do they expect her to wait around forever while they try to figure out what to do with me?

I actually have PTSD pretty badly, but until recently I didn’t tell anybody. I was afraid they’d pass me over for promotion and maybe even send me to see the shrinks. They might talk about an open door policy in the Army, but here, any problem like that will make them conclude you’re unfit for leadership and then you never get promoted. It’s not like I’m making up the PTSD, either. There are lots of reasons for it, and they’re real.

During the first tour, I remember we set up a VCP [vehicle checkpoint] just how they told us to, and then we’d search all the cars coming through. Well, an E-7 with us walked up to the driver of one car and when he asked them to step out, they shot him in the face, point blank. We were so surprised at what happened, we didn’t even shoot back at the car until it had sped through the checkpoint. They got away, too.

Another time, we got called out to help recover a Bradley that’d been hit by an IED. The unit was still engaged in a firefight, but they needed that Bradley moved, and the soldier inside needed to be evacuated fast. When the IED went off, it had blown off the guy’s arm completely.

When we pulled up, we bandaged him up, found his arm and put it on ice, and then started dragging the Bradley out of the kill zone. While we were doing this, EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] comes rolling up in their special IED sweeping vehicles, and then we realized that the area wasn’t even cleared yet. There could be more IEDs. Sure enough, right as the Cougar got a little distance in front of us, another IED went off. That blast was the fiercest explosion I’ve ever experienced, and I’ve seen many.

I was in the turret at the time, so when the shock wave hit me, I was pushed backwards until I was looking up into the sky. There, overhead, I saw the torso of the EOD guy flying over me like a ragdoll. I have no idea where his legs went.

Another time, we were manning a checkpoint and when a car pulled up, we ordered the driver to get out, but he refused. As two of my buddies approached it to pull him out, he detonated the car. There wasn’t much to pick up of those two. The young guys talk about how much they want to gear up and go outside the wire, and I keep telling them that they don’t. It’s safer if you don’t. I’ve had enough of war.

I have a hard time sleeping now. I hear voices or have nightmares, and sometimes I just lay awake for hours and can’t fall asleep. Those are the worst times, too, because all you do is think too much. Like a hundred thoughts at once, which is completely overwhelming.

I tried to kill myself four days ago because it got so bad. Between this command, the PTSD, thinking too much about things and not being able to sleep, I was losing it. I couldn’t take it anymore. See that guy over there? He’s my escort. They’re making him follow me everywhere, and they took away my rifle, too. I’m a little better now, I guess. I wasn’t really myself that morning. And if I’d really wanted to kill myself, I guess I still could.

They’re still not sending me home, though. We’re on the way back to the unit right now, and I imagine they’re either going to give me an Article 15 or court-martial me. At this point, I really don’t even care. They can go ahead and kick me out if they feel like it; I just want to go home. I don’t think there’s any other way they’re going to let me out, and I still have almost three years left on my contract.

I’d like a reason to be hopeful, but that’s only going to come if I see changes. Right now though, not a damn thing is happening. As soon as we touchdown on base, they’re putting me right back to work.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved
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