Tuesday, September 29, 2009

No Words

When the sun sets, the sand flies always come out, inflicting some of the most irritating bites imaginable. No building, however tightly sealed the doors and windows may be, is free of them. Soldiers’ arms and legs are covered in scabs from scratching bites. Few, if any, have insect repellant.

When you climb out of the shower to dry off, they bite. When you sit on a broken toilet seat in the bathroom, they bite. While you sleep, they bite. As uncomfortable as it may be in direct sunlight, at least they aren’t biting you then. If this combat outpost had a PX, you could purchase some relief. But, none is scheduled to come. There are many things this base doesn’t have. It’s a far cry from the wireless internet hubs of the larger FOBs or the shopping malls on others. It’s small, it sucks, but it’s home for the next eleven months. It’s Iraq.

And how do you describe it to people who have never ventured to a third world country? How do you convey how aghast you were when you first saw cows, donkeys, sheep and goats grazing in a field of garbage? How do you describe wearing a uniform continuously for a year surrounded by people you’d rather not see and shaking hands with local nationals who usually demand you to give them something? How do you describe getting used to losing a few friends here and there to explosions or indirect fire? How do you explain the resignation that when it’s your time, it’s your time and there’s nothing you can do about it? How do you describe a car bomb scene where the street is covered in blood and loose, unmatched sandals? How do you describe Iraq?

You don’t. At best, you describe a mission, or an evening, or a conversation, or something you saw outside the wire, and wait impatiently to go home. And when you get there, you hope nobody asks you about it, because you still don’t know what to say. Months in the desert, even years, still seem unreal. There aren’t words for it all anyway. There are emotions which defy articulation. There are putrid odors and the sickeningly sweet aroma of Iraqi cologne. There are trash fires and clouds of dust. There are elaborate tangles of power lines that impede movement down every street. There are beautiful ruins of Bedouin mud homes in the desert near the oases. All around them there are tank traps to slow an Iranian advance across the border. There are palaces – some of them with bombed-out sections.

There are emaciated children eagerly waving at every convoy and portly older men demanding first place in every line. There are Iraqi soldiers and policemen asking you to give them every piece of gear you wear. There are flies everywhere, and open sewage, and dead animal carcasses with other half-living animals gnawing on them. There are immaculate courtyards with mountains of trash on the other sides of the walls. There are rickety mud huts and sprawling concrete estates. There are crowds of people who stare at you as you pass and a few who spit or give you the finger. In the past, children would throw grenades. Now you keep your eyes open for somebody throwing RKG-3s, which can easily destroy an MRAP.

There are endless miles of roads with guardrails removed because at one time they were used to conceal IEDs. There are other roads with a patchwork of concrete-filled IED craters – remnants of past deployments when driving anywhere was a dangerous roll of the dice. There are dirt roads which still hide mines and IEDs. There are hundreds who watch everything but never seem to know who emplaced the devices. There is a culture of apathy. There is the constant roar of generators. There are good people who care and don’t want you to leave, and others who you fear will shoot you when you turn your back.

There are filthy streets were the sewage runs and vendors selling food directly beyond the curb. In the past, sectarian violence used to see at least one marketplace a week rocked with car bombs. Now, there are people shopping, walking, and watching you. As you watch them, they throw their trash at their feet.

There are frustrating hours on long missions, and the days when you feel something isn’t quite right but then nothing happens. When you’ve finally convinced yourself that it’s all in your head, something does occur and you go back to your superstitions. You knock on wood when you say you haven’t lost anybody yet and pray it stays that way the entire deployment. You miss home.

You breathe dust all summer in unbearable heat and slog in mud throughout the winter. You fall down constantly when the rough ground freezes on the coldest mornings, and find yourself missing the heat. You spend months assembling scraps of wood to make furniture for your room, only to have them collapse when somebody leans against them. You fear electrical fires from all the haphazard wiring. You grow accustomed to sleeping at any time of the day or night, regardless of the din around you. A mission may call you out again at any time. You endure wearing 80 pounds of gear every time you’re outside the wire. You watch your commanders play dominoes and drink chai while you stand guard at the building’s perimeter.

You find yourself less and less caring about anything except simply going home to a normal bed, a normal life and normal food, but guiltily miss it all when it finally arrives. You spend years bitter at a command decision that you’re convinced led to the death of a friend – or perhaps many friends. You wear bracelets with their names engraved on them. You think about your family and hope they aren’t watching the news. It’s always bad news anyway, and just makes them worry more. You miss beer. You miss driving your own car. You plan to get drunk when you get home. You miss pretty girls or your wife.

You grow accustomed to the attempts on your life and start making jokes about it, but every so often there’s a really close call and you remember it’s not funny. Someone is still trying to kill you. You’re more alert for a few days and then you go back to joking. You look forward to not having to pay attention to the roadsides as you drive. You look forward to smooth streets free of craters and suspicious debris. You want to never see the guys in your platoon again, but you keep up with them anyway. As much as you may have disagreed about everything and hated each other’s guts, as least they were there with you. Unlike most, they know how it was out here. You hate MREs, sandbags, port-a-jons and mosque loudspeakers.

You compile elaborate lists of things you’ll do when you go home, amend it repeatedly, and end up following none of it. It won’t really matter so long as you get to see your family and wear civilian clothing. You create a mental picture of what home will be like, but find it disappointing and mundane when you finally see it. You get tired of answering questions about Iraq. Most have no good responses, some are grotesquely inappropriate, and some are laughably na├»ve. You’ll miss carrying a gun.

You swear that you’ll never take the little things for granted, like showers, soft beds and home cooked food, but find yourself surprisingly apathetic in short order. You get tired of hearing your civilian friends tell you their opinion of your war. For somebody who never served, they seem to have a lot of ideas. Most feel sorry for you, which is irritating.

You listen to horror stories from men who went through Sadr City, Baghdad and Baqubah and admit with a trace of jealousy that you didn’t see all that much and that your AO was relatively quiet. Your battalion only lost eighteen on the first tour. You observe as most of your friends’ long-term relationships crumble while their overseas and perhaps yours fails as well. Many are divorced. Many more are on their second marriages. A few refuse to marry ever again. You’re bothered by the number of troops your unit has lost to suicide.

You get nosebleeds in the dry heat of summer and sick in the winter, and still run missions. You lose relatives in the states, but if they’re not immediate family you’re not allowed to go home for the funerals. You watch every cheap, pirated DVD you can find and wonder why they seem to only pirate the B movies. You sleep a lot and get bored a lot, but then you get busy and you miss being bored. You read outdated magazines on subjects that don’t interest you, but it’s the only reading material you can find.

You want people to understand, but you don’t want them to see how stupid some days were, how borings others were, and how terrifying or tragic a few turned out to be. They’ll want to comfort you and say they’re sorry, but you just want them to understand what it was like. You get frustrated that people really don’t get it and aren’t making any attempts to learn. For the most part they’ve already formed their opinions – few are based on reality.

You want to go home. You don’t give a damn about the ugly backwards country that won’t stand up on its own, but at the same time you want them to succeed so you know you’ve done something and that your friends haven’t died for nothing. You miss normal. You miss your dog. You miss freedom. You miss your family. You’re angry. You’re tired. You’re living an adventure. You’re living a nightmare.

You’ll remember it fondly some days and other days with disgust. You’re proud of what you did, but wish you hadn’t done it. You figure out how to explain it to people, so you don’t even bother to try. War is a mystery to all those who have not fought in one, and waged so that they may remain ignorant of what happens in their prosecution. You wish they knew. You’re glad they don’t. You’ll spend your whole life trying to put it to words, but those words will never come. Laughter will. Pleasant reminiscing will. Tears will. Nightmares will. Anger will. But still, no words; just emotions.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, September 28, 2009

While They Waited

While nothing short of being here satisfactorily describes what it’s like in Iraq, conversations do provide a good window into the hearts and minds of troops. The following recounts the topics of discussion between four Soldiers as they waited for their shift on truck watch to end.

Initially, the debate was over which brand of baby wipes is the most comfortable and effective. On small outpost like this, where bathroom facilities aren’t the best, baby wipes are still preferred over toilet paper. One Soldier enthusiastically stated that his Sesame Street Elmo wipes were the best. Another believed his Looney Tunes brand wipes were softer and less scratchy. A third Soldier preferred his Sam’s Club generic wipes, but the fourth insisted that this Charmin Ultras beat them all. “They’re like soapy quilts,” he assured us. They were all better than the brand a fifth Soldier was using, which he described as too dry, scratchy, and deceptively ineffective. Baby wipes as a medium wouldn’t be so popular if it weren’t for the food, which was the next complaint.

With bases throughout Iraq contracting food services to third parties, the food is generally good. But on this outpost, military cooks still boil “UGRA rats” (military rations), tear open the bag, and serve it to the Soldiers. According to those present, portions are too small and the snacks are too unhealthy to be considered a viable augment to their diet, so most get by with protein shakes or Gatorade. They’re desperate to get real food in care packages, like tuna, canned chicken, etc. They’re all sick of unhealthy snacks and hard candy. One Soldier was irritated that somebody sent him a bag of coughdrops in the middle of summer. Out of hunger, he ate them anyway.

One remarked that he couldn’t wait to get home to buy his new gun. After carefully researching the best brand and make, he’s reached his decision. When he goes home on R&R, he’s looking forward to purchasing it and taking it to the range. It’ll make a fine addition to his collection.

Another commented that his girlfriend loves it when he buys guns, so he’s never had problems with her thinking it a poor use of his money. Seeing as she’s a gun lover like him, and undoubtedly for a host of other reasons, he considers her a keeper. A third remarked that his wife is still nervous about firearms, but willing to learn. He’ll either find her a professional gun safety course when he gets back, or simply teach her himself. Gun safety is paramount to him, and he doesn’t want to see any more “accidents.” He’s already lost one friend in an incident that was listed as accidental, but everybody involved is fairly certain that the friend took his own life. “Nobody accidentally shoots themselves in the temple,” he said, which began a discussion about troops killing themselves. Few here understand how they can do that. After dead air for a bit, the conversation turned to entertainment.

One Soldier is an avid reader, immersing himself in what he describes as “war books;” stories about troops showing courage under fire and surviving insurmountable odds. He’s read several out here already, and one three times because it was so impactful. Another likes novels and sci-fi. Others prefer movies.

The Soldiers’ truck watch interrupted a movie that two were watching, and in deference to the plot, the other two elected not to talk about it, even though they thought it was a great movie and wanted to share their comments on it. Questions went back and forth over who has the more interesting movies, which ones showed so-and-so’s breasts, and if anybody had it so they could watch that one next. When they heard that one of their fellow Soldiers is a big fan of a particular film, they all swore not to watch it. None of them likes him and they presume he has bad taste.

And on that note, there are a few guys in the unit they don’t like for a variety of reasons. Some appear to be incompetent or spineless, and a few others they aren’t certain will perform well under fire. With some of the newer men, they’re concerned that they’ll either lose their cool in a firefight or break down soon after. What they might find great, purposeful, and the closest thing they’ve seen to doing their jobs, these newer guys might find horrifying or traumatizing. They wish they could trust the new guys. Trust that they’ll point their weapons the right direction, hit their targets, and cover their sectors. Nobody will really know for certain until they’re getting fired upon, and nobody likes the uncertainty.

One Soldier remarked that he absolutely hates using his military ID anywhere. He had done so recently to buy beer since his driver’s license had expired. The cashier looked at military ID, looked at him, and blurted out, “so what’s it like to kill people?” The Soldier responded in anger.

“Who the hell are you, man? I don’t even KNOW you.”

When one Soldier was stationed in Germany, the Germans, upon seeing his military ID, would always ask, “so what’s your opinion of George Bush?” which also received an irritated response.

“I have my opinions, but I keep them to myself; I just follow orders. I’m in the Army.”

One trooper’s wife likes it when he uses his mil ID because she likes the military discounts. He still prefers not to use it, though he admits he really ought to take advantage of the benefit while he can. He’ll be getting out before too long.

Wives. There’s always conjecture that “Jody” is back home with their wives or girlfriends right now. Two are confident it’s not happening; he just likes to joke about it. Another isn’t sure. The fourth withholds his thoughts and recounts the Soldier they heard about who came home to find his wife in bed with another man. According to what they’d heard, he shot them both with a shotgun. For the most part, they don’t worry about it out here. One will be taking leave early to finalize his divorce. Before he gets there, he intends to have his girlfriend serve the papers to his wife.

Many of the Soldiers here don’t particularly like the interpreters, not because they’re incompetent, but because they ask irritating questions about the US or girls, or constantly ask the troops to give them things – issued items they’re not allowed to hand over even if they wanted to. They also dislike that the “terps” are authorized to wear the same uniforms as they do. The Soldiers worked for theirs, but the terps were simply handed them.

As a whole, they much prefer the Ugandans (the Triple Canopy personnel that guard every entry control point and the base perimeter). Not only are they extremely friendly and typically speak decent English, but they either ask interesting questions about the United States or simply invite the Soldiers to come visit Uganda, which they all love and speak of highly.

Watches are long out here, and even longer in the states – when they’re mostly notional and unessential. The Soldiers swap stories about catching people asleep on watch, or standing watch in their sleeping bags. On stateside watches, somebody always falls asleep and half the guys never stand their posts. Nobody ever woke them up. They can’t wait for their watch shift to end this evening. They have games to play, movies to watch, and a couple would like to catch up on sleep.

They’re all waiting for something. For the watch to end. For their shift on Quick Reaction Force to end. For the holidays to come and go. For R&R leave. A few can’t wait to get out. They all can’t wait to go home.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Some Home Life

*Retold with permission.

When I arrived in the Dallas, TX airport for R&R [mid-deployment rest and relaxation], I was greeted by my wife, my mother-in-law, and my aunt. It was anything but a warm welcome. While my wife and aunt were certainly glad to see me, an incident with my mother-in-law quickly ruined my mood.

Dallas airport always has crowds of locals waiting to warmly greet troops arriving in the terminal. Though they don’t know you, they wave flags, cheer, and welcome us all back to the states. It’s something they take seriously, and we definitely appreciate it. Many others aren’t so well received. In my case, it was my own family who received me poorly.

As we walked out of the terminal, one of the greeters approached my mother-in-law and offered her a little pin. It ready simply, “I Support Our Troops;” nothing more. My mother-in-law waved her away.

“If I take that pin and wear it, it means I support George Bush’s policies.”

In embarrassment and disgust, my aunt simply walked away. This is not the first time something like this has happened.

My mother-in-law describes herself as an “unrepentant 60s hippie liberal.” I respect this, since she’s certainly entitled to her own opinion, but it’s not reciprocated. Every time we see her, even holidays and other family events, the only thing she’s interested in talking about is how the Army is doing terrible things in Iraq, George Bush ruined our country, and how everything the military is doing is shameless obeisance to an overly-aggressive, reckless foreign policy. She doesn’t even give me (or anybody else) the opportunity to disagree.

I remember when I first told her that I may be deploying, to which she responded, “well, I guess I can support you, providing you go to Afghanistan, since that’s a just war. But not if you go to Iraq. That war is wrong.” Yet when I announced that we were shipping out to Iraq, she gushed with relief. “Thank GOD! At least I know you’ll be safe.” Then she went back to saying negative things about the troops and the war.

She once asked if I’d get dressed up in my class A’s [military dress uniform] and let her introduce me around her workplace. Thinking she’d had a change of heart, I agreed to it. I also brought my newborn daughter with me, too. But when we arrived, she’d walk up to her coworkers and say, “this is my new granddaughter.”

“Who’s that in uniform holding her?” they would ask.

“Oh, that’s my son-in-law,” she’d say dismissively, quickly step in front of me, and turn the conversation back onto her granddaughter. After it happened a couple times, she grabbed my daughter from me. Giving up, I went outside to wait for her to finish. She never commented on my absence.

My wife hates the situation because, whenever we’re together, my mother-in-law is always trying to convince her that I’m wrong, she’s right, and my wife should therefore side with her own mother. Later, my wife will tell me what she said about me, which is usually either personally insulting or derogatory towards the troops as a whole. Though she hasn’t directly said it to me, I think my mother-in-law actually celebrates when things go wrong in Iraq. She considers it more ammunition for her argument.

When I was getting ready to deploy, she asked me if I could get her a bumper sticker that said, “my son serves in the US Army.” I bluntly asked her if it was to alleviate her guilt about speaking so negatively about the troops, which did nothing more than spark off another argument. All our encounters end that way: her accusing, me defending, and my wife caught in the middle. I do everything in my power to avoid her now, because there’s no point in even arguing. She’s already made up her mind – mostly from the anti-war propaganda she reads and casually leaves around my house. “I think you’d find this interesting,” she’ll say.

What she fails to understand is that I didn’t sign up for Iraq – or any other conflict for that matter. None of us did. I signed up to support my family and serve my country. Iraq happens to be where my country as asked me to go. My mother-in-law, however, believes we’ve all volunteered to go to Iraq because we agree with US foreign policy. Whether I do or not is irrelevant. I agreed to follow orders. Now it seems we’re being punished for the public’s disagreement with the war. In my case, her hopeless negativity is straining my marriage, distancing me from my wife, and sowing discord throughout the entire family.

My mother-in-law is already divorced because her husband couldn’t stand her, and over the years she’s alienated most of her relatives as well. Even her parents have a hard time being around her. But I, as the only family member currently serving in the military, receive the worst of her rants. Within five minutes of seeing her anywhere, she’s started off on an anti-military, anti-war speech, hushed anybody who dares disagree with her, and dominated the conversation. Because I’m family and she’s mostly unavoidable, I suppose I’m an easy target. As far as I can tell, she’s projecting her total discontent with life onto the most convenient target: me. I intend to raise my daughter with as little contact as possible. Nothing she says is edifying.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Din of Pigs

A few days ago, I sat in the back of a Stryker and listened to the chatter between the driver, gunner, vehicle commander and scout. The conversation, laced with off-color racial, ethnic and gender jokes, was largely unprintable. Since it is not a discussion essential to understanding the troops or one I could even secure command approval to write, I didn’t even bother to try. By most standards, it was extremely offensive. But as one of the Soldiers put it, “that’s every day in our truck. It helps pass the time.”

A day later, another Soldier noted how much he liked the fact that infantry doesn’t form cliques. Regardless of age, ethnic origin or religion, he remarked, you wear the same uniform, do the same job, and poke fun at each other constantly. You either develop thick skin, or you go mad.

Years ago, while waiting in the dark for a mission to end, I remember listening on the radio to the banter between two gunners. One had an unusually large head and the other unusually crooked teeth.

“Wilson, I need help opening my MRE. Walk over here and use your teeth to saw it open.”

“Why don’t you smash it open with your gigantic head?”

“Your teeth actually might SCARE it open.”

“Like your huge head scared your mother when she had to deliver you?”

…And so on. In short order, every one of us was laughing – perhaps to the point of compromising our tactical readiness. Yet we all stayed awake and mostly alert. On long missions, boredom to the point of desperation trumps manners. And despite the undeniable hostility and decidedly offensive language, these two Marines were roommates and close friends.

There are places where such conversations are wholly inappropriate and hurtful, but Iraq isn’t one of them. Troops are often outside the wire, usually in the same vehicle, and have the same purpose: keep each other alive, complete the mission, and go home safely. Gentility becomes far less relevant.

Regardless of their brutality, one thing remains a fact: each of these young men and women are friends with each other and trusts them with their lives. And besides this, there are still rules to the “game.” Most consider racial jokes and “your mom” comments to be acceptable, but nobody says a thing about a man’s wife or children. In fact, remarks about spouses or children are always encouraging, edifying, and complimentary. If there’s nothing nice to say, they simply remain quiet. (Even when a Marine Corporal I know named his newborn son “Corporal”) These guys aren’t total criminals; they’re just pigs.

And thus, I have witnessed innumerable derogatory conversations about Mexicans, white people, blacks, Jews, Asians, fat people, skinny people, and any other defining title under the sun. Quite often, their sources are of the same ethnic or philosophical origin. For example, I know a black Marine with a German SS tattoo on his arm. It’s all in good fun. In fact, I’ve even observed this behavior in other armies.

While visiting an Iraqi army barracks a few years ago, Iraqi soldiers went around the room and identified themselves as Sunni, Shiite, Yazidi, and even a couple self-described devil worshippers. As they joked about each other, they stroked their chins and casually drew a finger across their throats. But they’re not serious. Many of them stated to me directly what most US troops quietly live by daily: “I don’t care what he believes; he’s my brother.” Their actions demonstrate it, too.

Our big headed Marine was often known simply as “The Head.” Everybody knew who it referred to. The one with the misaligned orthodontia was occasionally called “Chainsaw.” “Beak” had an enormous nose, naturally. The unit’s two Smiths were differentiated as “Stinky Smith” and “Stupid Smith.” A Hispanic Marine titled himself “Your Friendly Neighborhood Minority” (think Spiderman). Here on this base, “Radio” is named after a mentally retarded man from a movie. “Honeytrap” is a female Soldier called upon whenever looks might help get what the unit needs. As for “Trouser Snake,” I elected not to ask. It doesn’t particularly matter. They’re all in the same boat, working to complete the same mission, and all would unthinkingly do everything in their power to preserve the life of their brothers and sisters.

Besides, when everybody is home, they’ll find something besides vulgarity to occupy their time. But out here, it’s no holds barred. When the mission in the sun gets tiresome or the late night mission swatting sand flies runs long, the jokes, the insults and the verbal assaults begin. And when it’s over, they’ll all go home as friends. They’re not hateful in the least; they’re just bored, tired, and lonely. Why not make this forced marriage (and a bad one) fun?

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Whole Clip

*Retold with permission.

Even though I’m really thirsty right now, I can’t drink too much water. My stomach can’t handle it. I can’t eat much either. It’s a complicated story.

From about 2004 to 2007, I was fighting alongside my friends and neighbors in an attempt to keep Al Qaeda out of our area. We weren’t really a militia, but a group of locals just trying to keep our community safe. We’ve seen how they kill people for no reason, even women and children.

According to Al Qaeda, the Prophet didn’t cut his hair, so they kill all the barbers. The Prophet didn’t drink cold water, so they kill the guys who distribute ice. Even the people who make mattresses or pillows. The Prophet didn’t have those comforts, so they kill them too. Same with smokers, real estate agents, people who wear shorts, and so on. I don’t understand how they do it because it’s not what the Koran teaches. In fact, the word “Islam” itself means “peace.” We’re taught to respect and accept all people. We’re supposed to pray for unbelievers, not kill everybody who believes differently than us.

Al Qaeda would kill the innocent and hide the bodies everywhere. They’re like cavemen. They’d murder somebody, scrape out a shallow grave, and throw in the corpse. Often they’ll cover them with a little dirt, pour oil or diesel over the whole area to keep down the odor, and then sprinkle some dust over it to hide the evidence. Other times they hide bodies in walls and cement over them. I know they kill women and children because we’ve dug up some of these graves before and found murdered women still holding their babies. They were butchers, and we hated them.

But we hardly had enough bullets to defend ourselves, much less our whole community. Al Quaeda would attack with a hundred and we’d hold them off, but then they’d come back with maybe four hundred. We lost a lot of people. All I did was fight – nearly every day – for almost three years. We fought cowards; men who murder the innocent and run away. This whole country had plenty of them.

When I was home once, an old friend called me and asked if I wanted to stop by. I said I would and drove over. But when I walked up to him, he shot me, point blank. Somehow, even though I’d kept it a secret, he’d found out that I was fighting for Al Qeada. And he, also in secret, had been working for Al Qaeda. When they learned who I worked for, they told him to kill me. In an instant, he betrayed twelve years of friendship.

He emptied the 9mm clip into me. Of the fifteen rounds, fourteen of them hit me. The first hit in me in my elbow and the next few in my chest near my heart. Somehow I stayed standing for those, but when the next one lodged in my stomach, I collapsed. As the others fighters yelled “finish him,” he fired the rest of the magazine into me and ran away. I can’t describe the pain to you. It was worse than anything I’ve ever experienced.

A number of people walked up and stared at me lying on the ground bleeding, but nobody helped. I begged them to, but they were all too afraid to actually aid me. They were afraid that the fighters would come back. Eventually, I resorted to bargaining with them. I asked them to at least call my family so they could come get me out of the street. If they didn’t, the dogs would eat my body. I deserved to be buried, I told them. Finally, after two hours of bleeding on the side of the road, they called. By the time my family came to get me, I was nearly dead.

My parents rushed me to the hospital, but when they discovered how low my blood pressure was, they refused to take me into emergency surgery. The anesthesia would make my heart stop completely, they said. For two more hours, I waited in agony. Eventually they figured I wasn’t going to die and took me in to operate.

Four hours into the surgery, my heart stopped and I remember seeing a white light. Then I remember being jerked awake; maybe by the paddles. Not just back to life, but awake, IN surgery. I was still completely paralyzed, but I could move my eyes. Looking down my body, I could see my stomach held open and the surgeon working on me. I wanted to scream at them. I wanted to scream in pain, but I couldn’t. They knew I was awake, but they couldn’t give me any more anesthetics. My heart might stop again. After seven hours of surgery, I was moved to recovery. The doctor was amazed I lived at all. He said it was a miracle.

It was six months before I could walk, and another two before I could move my arm. The bullet had severed some of the nerves. Even now I only have limited use of it. At first, even blowing on my hand caused excruciating pain, so I had to wear a glove. More than a year later, I still don’t feel pain when I put it in boiling water. It feels cool for some reason.

This was all about the time my father died, too. He’d been alternately weak and ill for quite some time, but my almost getting murdered put him over the edge. Before he died, he told me that the best way to get back at them was to fight with the Americans, and he was right. I did what was right by him and by myself. Soon after his death, I reported as much as I could to the Iraqi army and police, watched them arrest my former friend and many others, and then went to work as a translator for the US. Since then, I’ve been all over here and Baghdad trying to turn in more of them.

The surgeon who saved my life has been killed now, too, but by Jaish Al Mahdi – which is probably worse than Al Qaeda. While Al Qaeda mostly killed just Shiites, JSM killed everybody. If they didn’t know you, you were dead. My surgeon, who saved my life and the lives of many others, ultimately couldn’t save himself.

And now, most of my friends are either dead from Al Qeada or Jaish Al Mahdi, or working for them. My father is dead, Al Qaeda bombed my house, I’ve lost all my possessions, and there’s a $20,000 reward for my head in my hometown. I’m a man with nothing to lose. I’ll work for the Americans as long as I can, turn in as many bad guys as I possibly can, and then, as the US leaves and this country descends into civil war, I’ll leave with them. There’s nothing left for me here now. Nothing but fear, violence, and eventually death. These people aren’t ready for freedom. They don’t know what to do with it.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Further Myths

Recently, I spoke with somebody in the states who believed that troops in Iraq, from the moment they set foot in-country until the very moment they departed, are constantly engaged in epic, house-to-house combat on the eminently dangerous streets of Iraq. When I got over my initial shock at this misassumption, I explained that this was not the case. Troops here, as always, spend most of their time waiting.

In the Mojave desert in California, I once waited fifteen hours for a flight to arrive. Elsewhere, I waited three for flight mechanics to replace a battery for our plane. Most formations, when a commander announces the time, will be “15 minutes priored” through every leader in the chain of command. The company commander said be there at noon, so the first sergeant says 1145, the platoon sergeant says 1130, the section leaders pass down 1115, and the squad leaders say 1100. The end result is that small clusters of troops will appear at random intervals outside a barracks, wander over to join other small clusters of troops, then walk a dozen yards to a third location to stand for another half hour. Eventually, usually some time well after noon, the commander will come out for the formation. Some people don’t mind it, but the vast majority of veterans I know are absolutely intolerant of waiting in lines. They’ve already done more than their fair share of it.

Iraq is similar to this. There are hours of briefings, hours of preparation for a mission, and then eventually the mission itself. If the mission is a planned one, troops will normally be gathered on the vehicles at least an hour prior to actually departing. There is gear and equipment to prepare, and then there is more waiting.

Even the missions themselves aren’t terribly action-packed. With notable exceptions, they are mostly driving or walking, a little bit of talking with locals, a lot of water-drinking, some more driving or walking, some more talking, and long, dull hours manning weapons in vehicle turrets. Firefights and IEDs, should they even happen, are usually short-lived. Thus, my most memorable time of four years and five months in the Marine Corps can be distilled down to about two hours of interesting or harried missions, firefights, and attacks. Everything else was just waiting.

During one EOD mission (for which unit provided the outer cordon), my vehicle was parked for several hours directly outside a mosque. Under normal circumstances, mosques loudly broadcast prayers perhaps five times a day. We should have heard them twice. But, as is often the case of religious leaders in Iraq, they will deliberately broadcast prayers (and anti-American messages) at other times just to annoy us. In this particular case, the local leader had a young child belt them out. Needless to say, it made the waiting all the more unpleasant.

Other wars have been different from this one (what such protracted engagements as the Battle of the Bulge, Okinawa, etc), but even still, waiting is what dominates most of a mission, most of a war, and most of military service. Junior servicemembers occasionally gloat that they’re overpaid to wait, but then quickly lament that they’re underpaid to get in firefights or hit by IEDs. I can’t say I disagree. My “war” is about two hours over almost four and a half years. For others, it’s a few days, or perhaps a week, or the month of combat during Operation Phantom Fury to finally subdue and secure Fallujah. It all depends on the individual servicemember’s experiences.

If troops were to be shot at constantly for the entire length of their tour, few would have good odds of coming home, despite the notoriously (and laughably) poor marksmanship skills of insurgents. Eventually, according to statistics, they would be hit. War is hurry up, wait, and then move quickly for a few minutes. In truth, troops spend months, years, or perhaps the vast majority of their careers training and waiting for something they may only occur for a matter of minutes. Is it ludicrous? Not at all. It’s proper planning.

The advent of IEDs certainly increases one’s danger outside the wire, but even still it has never been a sure thing. It’s a crap shoot. Whenever somebody announces that they’re going to Iraq, the first thing that flashes through peoples’ minds (however briefly), is that this person is going to get killed. The media has done little to help this. Frankly, nor have veterans. Quite simply, we don’t mention the waiting because it was terribly boring.

If my most memorable experiences from the military take place over perhaps two hours of action, those will somehow blossom into innumerable stories and a self-declaration of combat expertise, all at the expense of fact: we trained some, waited a lot, and fought a little.

I waited in formations until I felt like fainting (some did), as one outgoing commander yakked about how nice the command was and the new commander (invariably after assuring us that his remarks would be brief), spoke at length about his new command and how honored he is. I’ve waited at the position of attention until I fell asleep, tipped forward, and hitting the guy in front of me awakened me.

I’ve waited on the trucks for hours while mission start times changed, intelligence reports were verified, or various personnel were tracked down from wherever they decided to wander off and hide. I’ve waited countless hours outside the wire as EOD blows up an IED, or as an officer inside a local home, police station or compound has a meeting with a local leader. I’ve waited in the turret while the sun rose around me and the heat came back, or as the sun went down and the sand flies came out and ate all of us alive. I’ve waited for the rain to stop so I could finally get some sleep, or waited in my sleeping bag until my boots thawed enough to put them on. I’ve waited for the trucks to warm up, or for the truck to get fixed, or for the wrecker to come and tow my truck, or Motor T to loan me a new one, or for my commander to get a brief about what we’re doing next.

I’ve waited to get chewed out, to have my uniform or room inspected, or for the battalion sergeant major (who didn’t have a license because of repeated DUIs) to remind us all, once again, to not drink and drive. I’ve waited for my platoon sergeant and the chaplain to say the same thing. I distinctly remember waiting for whatever we were doing to end: the mission, the convoy, the PT session, the brief, the powerpoint presentation with photographs of various STDs, the search for a missing weapon, the “health and comfort inspection, the air flight status to return to green, the awards ceremony, the promotion, repeated speeches about why we leave our curtains open during work hours, how we should watch out for our buddies in liberty ports, etc. And of course, I remember waiting to get out of the military.

This is not intended to downplay the salaries that troops receive, or suggest that they serve no other purpose than standing by. The nature of standing army is that there will be waiting. Out here, they wait to go on missions, wait for the missions to end, and always wait to go home. That, more than anything else, is the thing most eagerly anticipated: going home. Barring the few minutes or hours where troops are engaged in combat, calling in medical evacuations, dropping rounds, sending rounds downrange, or closing with the enemy, chances are they are waiting for something else. Are they waiting to kill something or even to die? Not in the least; they’re waiting to go home. Their loved ones back home are waiting for them, too. And in reality, the whole nation should be.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Different Perspective

*Retold with permission.

Guys like to talk about how awful it is out here, how much they hate it, or how much they want to go home, but I’m not one of them. Truthfully, I absolutely love it out here. And running missions outside the wire – that’s my happy place. It’s taken me 22 years to find this.

I might be fairly young, but I’ve held almost every job you can think of already, and I wasn’t able to keep any of them for very long. They’re too boring; like you’re trapped in a state of meaninglessness. The Army – specifically the infantry – is perfect for me. I’d gladly do twenty years out here. All I need is ammunition, MREs and water. I’m not suited for a “normal” life, I guess.

I admit that I’m a thrill seeker and an adrenalin junkie. And this, far more than anything else I’ve found in the states (legally), satisfies the cravings. This is awesome, that is when we’re doing something – not just sitting around and waiting. The action is appealing, but so is the purposefulness. You don’t get that with most jobs. Whereas most people do things for money, I do this because I enjoy it. It’s an added benefit that I get paid to do it.

I also acknowledge that this is extremely dangerous. Believe me, hitting an IED the other day was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever been through. The reality is that people here still want us dead, and they’re still going to do whatever they can to accomplish that. Tragically, they may take out some of us along the way. I don’t have a death wish by any means, but I still want to be here.

I think that most people back home are under the impression that we do this for our country or that we’re fierce patriots giving our lives to protect Americans. I don’t believe that’s accurate, or at least not the reason why I’m do it. I’m not here for them, and I’m really not even here for my country. I’m here for my friends and family: they being the guys around me and beside me out here. This unit, like any other good unit, is a family. I think that’s how most of the Soldiers view it: they’re either here to dutifully protect the brothers that go with them, or they’re here to honor the brothers they lost. It’s certainly sacrificial, but not necessarily for America as a whole.

I didn’t volunteer to come fight the war in Iraq or because I particularly care about the Iraqis. Ultimately, this is their country, and very shortly it will be up to them to sort things out. We came here because this is where the US government sent us and gave us a mission to execute. People think we chose this, but we didn’t. We just go where we are ordered. Nobody really wants to be here, except for maybe me, because I’m an adrenalin junkie or something. At any rate, for the time being, the US government wants us here. Eight months after we get back from this tour, they will want us in Afghanistan.

As much as I may like it out here, it’s still not at all what I anticipated. The best part is when I’m actually doing my job: outside the wire, dismounting and patrolling. That’s truly my happy place. Unfortunately, we’re not doing that as often anymore. I was here nearly three months before I did what I was actually trained to do, and I have no idea how long I’ll have to wait before I can do it again. As the operations tempo continues to slow, we’re talking more, driving more, but “doing” less. I consider it a bad day when nothing happens, strange as that may sound.

But still, I like it. I like being outside the wire. This is far more exciting than any of the jobs I worked before I came in, far more purposeful, and admittedly far more dangerous. Maybe that’s the appeal: more adrenalin, more excitement, and great friends. After 22 years of searching, I’ve finally found my niche.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, September 21, 2009

Adopting Home

*Reprinted with permission of the Fluvanna Review

*Retold with permission.

Like many other units out here did, we adopted a pet on our last tour. Our case, though, was a little more elaborate. I guess at some point a dog had stolen onto the FOB [forward operations base] and had a litter of four pups or so. Then most of them died, only one survived, and she wandered off again and abandoned it.

It was extremely small when we first saw it. In fact, its ears may have still been closed. We saw it wobbling along out in the open, and didn’t really know what to do with it.

“We should shoot that thing. It probably has some sort of disease, or maybe rabies,” said one of the Soldiers.

“Well I sure as hell ain’t doing it.”

“Me neither. I’m not shooting a puppy.”

None of us would, in fact, so we did the only other logical thing we could think of: we fed it.

Not surprisingly, it grew big rapidly, and between hand-fed meals and the constant contact of an entire unit lining up to play with it, it grew pretty fond of us. We liked it. It was cute, and a refreshing break from day-to-day operations.

I know this happens a lot out here, too, and each person does it for their own reasons. For me, though, it was the closest thing to America – a domesticated, furry pet to care for. We may be infantry and usually considered tough guys, killers or even lunatics, but we’re still human. We’re not out here to butcher innocent creatures, people or animals. For us, this reminded of us home.

More than this, most of us are also fathers or husbands, too. The desire to nurture and care for something is almost innate within us. We can’t really care for our children out here, or our wives, but we can definitely take care of a little puppy and make sure it’s well treated.

Despite us trying to keep the dog fairly well concealed, our first sergeant spotted it one day and demanded to know why the hell some well-fed stray dog would perk up and happily run over to us every time it saw us. We decided to come clean and explained we’d had it nearly since it was born. He relented a little, but told us he never wanted to see it again. If he did, that’s the last we’d see of it. Okay, first sergeant, we promised take care of the situation.

So, we built it a pen. Behind our living area we had some free space, so we rustled up some tools and materials and built a relatively large fenced area for it. The dog didn’t particularly care, since we still spent plenty of time with it. The pen was in the area where we all went to smoke and hang out when we got off missions, so it definitely received more than enough attention. Since we were there for fifteen months, we’d grown pretty fond of it. We set it loose when we left to go home, and I’m hopeful it’s still doing okay.

We found ourselves with pets on this tour too, in almost the same way. A little marmalade cat wandered up one day looking half starved, and out of pity, we started to feed it. While our company commander was on leave, it went into his quarters and had a litter of kittens. We knew it’d be trouble, too.

Sure enough, there was one kitten in the litter that liked to wander, and whenever we saw it, we’d quickly grab it up and put it back with the litter. In time, people started observing us acting somewhat strangely, and asked us what the hell we were doing. As before, we told the whole story. But, since none of us are really “keeping” them here, they’ve been allowed to stay. The kittens are getting bigger now, and even mom has warmed up to us, too. Besides, they’re helping to keep the rodents down. Lord knows there’s a lot out here – especially on a base that used to be a granary.

We do this because it’s normal, and it reminds us of home. We all miss our families back there, so it’s nice to have something to focus our affections on – even if it’s a semi-wild animal that more adopted us than we adopted it. It happens all over Iraq. We find furry things and take care of them. This whole badass image we have really doesn’t hold much water. In the end, we’re all humans and we all miss home. This helps bring it a little closer for us. And in the absence of something better, it works quite well.

Copyright © 2009, Fluvanna Review, All Rights Reserved

Coming Soon

"A Din of Pigs"

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Good 15

*Retold with permission.

We landed in Kuwait at the beginning of my second tour expecting to head out to western Iraq, but those plans quickly changed – the first of many surprises. Before we’d even begun heading north, a frag-o [fragmentary order] came down the line directing us to Baghdad. With sectarian violence spiraling out of control, we were among a number of units diverted to central Iraq to help stanch the flow of blood.

As the first Stryker unit to operate within Baghdad, we quickly found our vehicles relatively unsuited to the narrow streets and confusing alleyways of the city, but we maximized our maneuverability as best we could. Wherever our vehicles couldn’t reach, our dismounted Soldiers certainly could, leaving us with 100% coverage of our battlespace. We would need it badly.

Our AOR [Area of Responsibility] within the city was bisected by a single large road. To one side lay Sunnis, and to the other, Shiites. Without question, their behavior was a godawful representation of humanity. On any given day, we would find between one and ten bodies, mostly murdered execution-style. We frequently be out on a patrol, hear a brief report of gunfire nearby, and rush around the corner to find somebody else dead or dying in the street. Of course, none of the locals ever saw anything. They were either terrified for their lives or part of the problem. We could never tell.

Various Shiite militia and terrorist groups would even go so far as to create fake checkpoints along the road, too. They’d set up quickly, murder a few Sunnis as they came through, and fade away just as quickly. They were always too brief for us to pinpoint and respond. They were so prepared that they’d have weapons and other material stashed along the roads at random intervals. They simply walked up empty-handed, “fell in” on their weapons, killed a few people, dropped the weapons again, and disappeared into the city. It was completely lawless.

We were assigned to work in partnership with a local element of the Iraqi National Police, which, at least initially, was a disaster. The unit, a predominantly Shiite group operating in a mixed Sunni and Shiite area, was rife with corruption. We suspected that many of the officers were acting on personal interests rather than the law, and in some cases working directly for various local terrorist organizations, to include handing over people to the terrorists. We’d have our interpreters monitor their comm traffic and hear them talking about us using code words. Our first order of business was getting them in line.

It took a month or two to vastly improve that police unit, but we were successful. When we first started working with them, we’d tell them we would begin our joint patrol at 0600, but arrive at 0545 to find them all still asleep. After immense effort, we changed that. We’d arrive at 0600 and find them geared up and ready to step. In time, they become some of our greatest allies.

The bulk of our operations were clearing missions. Using company-sized forces of US personnel and augmenting with national police, we would completely cordon off various sections of the city, bar all entrance and departure, and methodically search every home, every room, and property, documenting every “atmospheric” we could obtain.

Abandoned properties (and there were plenty of them) were usually either safehouses for terrorist operations, or housed weapons caches. We found several caches with an alarming number of silenced weapons. Homemade though many of them were, they were highly effective. If they were fired nearby, we’d never hear a thing. We even found a torture house, complete with chains, drills and other torture devices. It was sobering, to say the least.

One neighborhood and block at a time, we cleared our entire AOR, then started over again – this time at random locations, on a smaller scale, and with absolutely no warning. It turned out to be a highly effective form of terrain denial that left the terrorists confused, constantly on the run, and unsure what area was safe, clear, and welcoming to their presence. We were highly successful.

As our AO quieted down, we were temporarily relocated down into a more rural region on the outskirts of southern Baghdad. The units down there were getting hammered constantly and overwhelmed with IEDs along one particular stretch of dirt road, and the whole area was a known hotbed of Al Qaeda activity. Just as we had before, we worked with these units to methodically clear the fields, canals, palm groves and houses.

We also helped them man checkpoints every 600 meters along the road to help reduce IEDs. Somehow, the insurgents still planted a few – even 500 pound aircraft bombs. I have no idea how they pulled that off without detection. At one point, they managed to destroy an Abrams tank down there – so catastrophically that the turret was blown off of the vehicle. We never took the same route twice. We’d go in one way, and return another. Retracing our steps was virtually suicide.

Our outpost down there was a three story house bristling with weapons. Not only were we dealing with constant attacks outside the wire, but our base of operations was equally threatened. On just the roof of this building we had counter-mortar radar, at least ten crew-served machine guns, and within the small compound we stood by with multiple dismount elements, tanks, Strykers, and a quick reaction force ready to spin up at a moment’s notice. Rockets and other indirect fire, and sniper attacks were a daily occurrence.

Directly to the south of this position was the terminus of our AOR, and an area that nobody dared venture. Anyone who did was pretty much guaranteed an attack. One tank platoon tried it, but lost a tank within a few hundred meters. Not even helicopters entered that battlespace very often. They kept getting shot down.

We were mostly successful in securing our area, and as a new unit arrived to replace us, we prepared to leave, this time for the green zone. But unfortunately, that new unit wasn’t well prepared for their mission, despite our efforts to ready them. After we left, it wasn’t long before the three story house was overrun in a complex attack.

While a maneuver element of fighters distracted perimeter security with small arms fire, a suicide bomber in a dump truck drove as close as he could and detonated himself. They’d fired on him, but he made it within 50 meters of the compound, and the blast was still so powerful that it took down the t-walls and destroyed part of the building itself. I don’t know the exact figures, but the unit there sustained a horrific number of casualties.

After a short time in the green zone, we were pushed out to Diwaniyah to help a Polish unit that was having difficulty with their area. We literally had to fight our way across the city to reach them. We were also attacked as soon as we arrived inside the base, too.

It was actually a joint base, with Polish, Latvian and Mongolian forces. I had no problems with the Latvians, but the Polish weren’t very impressive, and the Mongolians had been restricted to base for being “overly aggressive.”

As was the case on the other outpost, we sustained daily mortar and rocket attacks – deadly accurate ones, too. Even on base, we wore all our gear. We had to. We began conducting round-the-clock counter mortar patrols with air support, and little by little began killing off all the ground fighters in the region. By the time we readied to leave again, the only significant threat that still remained was the indirect fire [mortars and rockets]. All the other fighters had been killed off.

I remember the day we left that place. I was parked next to a generator on the base, so I couldn’t hear anything. I was installing the .50 cal barrel when I looked up just the right time to see a mortar make a direct hit on the laundry facility. I’ve heard that laundry soap was a major component in a lot of the homemade explosives in the area, so I think that was the reason the entire building went up in a Hollywood-style fireball. A few of us jumped in a humvee and ran to see if we could help, but we didn’t move but perhaps two feet inside the remnants of the building before the heat and the smoke pushed us back. I don’t know if we lost anybody in there, and we were literally on our way out the gate when it happened, anyway. As we drove away, we received word that we were being extended from twelve to fifteen months. Morale, as you might imagine, slumped pretty low.

Our next assignment was the infamous Haifa Street, an area of Iraq known for its enormous high rises apartments, and some of the most derelict slums in their shadows. Our base was the most heavily fortified and defended in the theater. We, unfortunately, were the guinea pigs as we rolled through there. I remember being asked if I could elevate my .50 high enough to reach all sixteen floors of the nearby buildings from our position. I could not. The best I could do was the sixth or seventh.

As we had done before, we began our clearing operations, going from one high rise to another, clearing floor after floor. I was surprised at the number of foreigners in the apartments. Most were well educated, and perhaps one in three spoke English. Sixteen stories of stairs isn’t fun in full kit, believe me. One of the more interesting things we did was paint enormous numbers on all the roofs so we could call air support on specific buildings as needed. God knows we couldn’t reach their higher floors with our weapons.

Between the clearing ops, extensive atmospheric operations, and hiring a local leader as a valuable informant, attacks dropped off significantly in the area, and we focused our attention on the corruption within the local Iraqi Army units.

When we determined who the most corrupt officers were, we set up a sting operation. Under the guise of giving those officers awards, we lured them all to separate vehicles, closed the doors, and arrested them. The culprits included a few of their company commanders and even the battalion commander. That day, as we conducted a joint patrol, I distinctly remember that our weapons were pointed inboard – on the remaining soldiers. We weren’t sure if they intended to revolt. Thankfully, they did not. The arrests didn’t really disrupt our day-to-day operations.

What did, however, were the “isolation zones.” As part of the effort to cut down on free movement of fighters in vehicles, every neighborhood or “muhalla” was surrounded by high t-wall barricades and only one vehicle entrance was left open. At random intervals, that entrance would be closed and another opened. It was highly effective in reducing EJKs [extra-judicial killings], but severely impeded our own movement.

We’d get a drive-by shooting from a dude on a moped right outside the gate, he’d cut through a gap in the barricade, yet in order to respond, we had to go out, drive completely around the compound to the entrance, and then try to find the guy again. While we found it extremely frustrating and I personally thought it was stupid, over the long haul it was very beneficial. Violence was greatly diminished in each compartmentalized area. Our part in the surge, just as it was for many others, was a rousing success.

Despite our extension to fifteen months, despite the danger, the lack of sleep, the constant movement and stress, I actually had a good time on that tour. We were doing good things. I’d lost a few close friends on the first tour, and none of it had settled well with me when I’d come home. I didn’t feel particularly connected to anybody or anything. In many ways, I felt lost.

Though I have no idea what caused it, this second tour was good closure for me, like I was finally taking care of unfinished business. Despite all that happened to us, I came home in much better shape than from the first tour. Maybe it was my age. I wasn’t a year out of high school on that first tour. Whatever the reason, I walked away from the second much more settled than after the first.

Now, things are different. We’re in a supporting role instead of a kinetic one. Rather than conducting missions with an Iraqi Security Force accompaniment, THEY conduct missions and we accompany them if they request it. Since we’re here to enable them rather than do our own thing, the operations tempo has slowed considerably.

Personally, I think the Iraqi forces need more guidance. When we help them, they usually do quite well, but they’re not so good on their own. I think they’re unready to assume total control of operations. I also think they’re stretched pretty thin in some areas. They lack the personnel and equipment they need to fully control their own battlespace. As it is, they’re more reactive than proactive.

But I’m hopeful that it’ll work. It’d BETTER work. I don’t want any more US personnel to lose their lives for a country that seems increasingly ungrateful for our help. We’ve lost enough here already. Furthermore, while I’ve received closure for my service and my tours, I want closure for this war. In fact, the entire United States needs it. It’s time for the Iraqis to take over things and fully secure their own country; and it’s time for all of us to go home. We’ve been at this long enough.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

It's Normal

The mission today was routine for this area of operations: drive out to a nearby Iraqi Army compound and facilitate a key leader engagement (KLE) between the Soldier’s troop commander and a senior Iraqi Army commander. For US personnel, these missions, while potentially lengthy, are often relaxed. Soldiers sit with Iraqis, drink chai (the Iraqi Arabic word for “tea”), chat with the Iraqi soldiers, and go home. But when the IED went off, the mission changed completely.

As the front vehicle rolled over the crush wire or pressure plate initiator, the device detonated under the front right tire, sending it outwards and airborne perhaps 50 feet. The associated suspension was sheared off, as the blast pressure ripped off the forward skirt armor and swung it back around to hit the vehicle again. The engine, fully eviscerated, lost all its oil and coolant onto the ground in a 30 foot slick before all forward momentum ceased. Inside, communications were down and alarms were sounding. This, believe it or not, is largely irrelevant.

Two things, however, are quite relevant. Foremost, save for a few rung bells and bruises, no Soldier inside the vehicles sustained any serious injuries. Of nearly equal import is what happened after the blast itself.

Inside the vehicle, a few gear items were dislodged and tossed about, alarms screamed into headsets, radios didn’t work, and a heavy layer of dust stirred up by the concussive wave, added to the confusion. Nobody spoke at first. But, as all three “topside” Soldiers lowered themselves back inside, the yelling began.

Each Soldier turned to the man next to him and, hollering above the din of the alarms, asked if he was okay. From the front of the vehicle, the driver scuttled back and checked on the vehicle commander, who in turn checked on him. The coaxial .50 gunner scrunched himself down around his periscopes and electronics and yelled to confirm that the vehicle commander was alright. In the back, the rear gunner demanded the condition of the rear sentry beside him, who more quietly posed the same question back to the gunner. He was still reeling from being struck in the back by two loose ammo cans.

Everybody, it seemed, was fine. Within moments, signals were sent to nearby vehicles, Soldiers snatched up weapons and serialized gear, and then retreated to cover behind another vehicle. Never were the words “I” or “me” uttered. Instead, only “you.”

While being assessed by the on-scene medic, the most common phrase was “I’m fine.” Seven hours later, while watching uninvolved troops take their own photos in front of his totaled vehicle, one involved Soldier had something very memorable to say:

“This isn’t funny, assholes. I could have lost a lot of friends in there.” Neither he, or any other, mentioned anything about himself.

In chaotic situations, it is a natural inclination to panic. “I’m scared” or “I’m going to die” are perhaps the most common statements, but not here. After determining that his eyes and mouth both apparently worked, every Soldier concerned himself with somebody else. How amazing, and how rare.

Later tonight, these same Soldiers will scour every obscure corner inside their totaled vehicle and pull out sensitive items, weapons, and gear. The vehicle itself will be shipped out of theater for total overhaul. In short order, the Soldiers will be issued another vehicle, into which they will transfer all their equipment. Tomorrow morning, they will head back outside the wire once again. Things will quickly return to normal, or at least to what’s normal out here. What might that be? Concern for somebody else, not oneself.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Not By Logic

For those that really want to know “what’s it like in Iraq?” simply eavesdrop on a few snippets of conversations while a unit is conducting a mission. Very little of what is said requires explanation. It familiarizes the listener with what’s on their minds, what’s in their hearts, and their past experiences in a combat zone (These are all reminiscent of previous tours in Iraq. The security situation is now, thankfully, much improved.)

“After the IED blew, they discovered that the gunner had slammed his head against a brick wall and died. All they found of the other guy was a torso covered by a flak vest, and a head.”

“The EFP [explosively-formed penetrator] actually saved his life. When it went through his knees, it was hot enough to cauterize the wounds. If that hadn’t happened, he would have bled out.”

“Can he walk?”


“A buddy of mine ended up losing one of his legs, the lower half of the other, and one hand. He’s a triple amputee now.”

“The turret was about 150 meters down the road with the guy still in it – or what was left of him.”

“They didn’t find much of anything of the two guys inside. Just a hand, I think.”

“No, getting shot isn’t much fun. I certainly didn’t like it when it happened to me last tour.”

“This is my fifth tour out here.”

“The two hits that really screwed with my mind were the one that mutilated my gunner, and the one that went off right next to our truck but didn’t hurt any of us.”

“I’ve seen guys shit themselves when IEDs go off. It happens. Others get back to base, see all the shrapnel damage, and when they realize how they were only a fraction of an inch from dying, they finally break down.”

“After the IED where they found the guy against the brick wall, that was only the beginning. When EOD showed up, one of the guys ended up getting his legs mangled when they got caught under the mine plow. Then a sniper took out another Soldier.”

And to these stories I can add the Marine in my battalion whose remains were picked off the roadside by a first sergeant carrying a trash bag, or the guy they found in pieces on a nearby roof, or the Navy Corpsman whose legs were both traumatically amputated when an antitank mine went off under a tire and caused the vehicle’s armor to fold back over him. There are others. And although these incidents are certainly (and thankfully) on the decline, it’s still Iraq and these events have replayed countless times. It’s not normal.

But it is reality for the troops, and consequence of the fact that they are well acquainted with their own mortality and the fragility of human life. Most people, I submit, would be utterly immobilized with fear or horror, but there is no place for it here. These conversations take place on missions, while vehicles navigate known insurgent hotspots, weave around filled-in IED craters and some not so refilled. The possibility remains that it may happen again.

“I don’t worry about it, really. If it’s my time, it’s my time, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

It would be a lie to say there is no fear here, because it is a natural sentiment in the face of imminent danger. But paramount to any fear or apprehension is duty. And what it illustrates is that nearly every man in combat arms is well aware of what fate may await him, but nevertheless reenlists, redeploys, volunteers to man the turret, to dismount and inspect the roadsides repeatedly. They will run hundreds of missions per tour, and many will be back here or in Afghanistan in less than two years time.

“People might think we’re bloodthirsty warmongers, but we actually want to go home more than they want us home. Nobody hates war more than those fighting them.”

What’s it like in Iraq? Dangerous, and sometimes people die. They did so doing their jobs, though, because their nation called them. Is it illogical? Perhaps, yet nations aren’t purchased and preserved by logic, but by men with hearts for duty and selflessness. You will find no greater demonstration of this than here. So again, what is Iraq like? Again, it is dangerous. But you will find yourself in good company, for it is also where America has collected her finest citizens.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, September 14, 2009


For perhaps the first time since coming out here, I directly asked two Soldiers what they felt the public most needed to know about them, about Iraq, and about the war. The following remarks, retold with permission, was the response from one of them.

“What I most want the public to know is that we’re out here acting under orders and executing a mission, and we’ll keep doing that until the mission is complete. Yeah, we think about things – we’re not stupid – but we’re here to carry out the mission with which we’ve been tasked. We’re unique in that we’re the ones the volunteered to trust the decisions of our leaders and take their orders. The options are to do that, or sit at home, bitch and complain about everything, but ultimately do nothing. I think it counts for something that we care enough to volunteer. It’s only maybe 1% of the population that does that.

“I think that if people came out here, they’d be a little more understanding. They’d see what we go through, and they’d also see what the Iraqis go through – and what we’re trying to prevent. They’re out here killing each other, and we’re attempting to intervene. Better that than nothing, I’d say. It’s better than just complaining about it.

“In general, I’d say people really support us. A number of folks back home understand us and understand what a combat zone is like – they always take care of us with tons of care packages and letters. They’re good people, and I think they should be recognized for it. Same with the people who don’t really understand, but really support us anyway. They have an idea that it’s difficult out here, they admit that they don’t really grasp everything in full, but they still stand behind us 100%. I admire that. And even the folks that don’t really support the effort, but definitely support the guys fighting it. I’m thankful they’re taking such good care of us.

“The ones I don’t particularly like are the ones that don’t get it, don’t support what we’re doing, and then somehow ‘punish’ us for the policies they oppose. But they forget that we’re not setting policy out here. We’re following the orders of our commanders, who are in turn following the guidance from THEIR commanders – all the way back to the elected leadership of the nation. In the end, it’s they who decide what’s going on here – even though most of them have never been to Iraq. If this is a chess game, we’re the pawns. You have to go a long way before you reach any bishops, castles or queens.

“I think that people back in the states are reluctant to blame one person for whatever they disagree with over here. They’re hesitant to put full responsibility on either an individual or a small body of leaders for their objections to things. It’s easier to blame all of us – the pawns – the 1% of the population that volunteered to do something for their country. We didn’t volunteer for the mission; we volunteered to serve. Sadly, we still get blamed a lot for the mission, which makes no sense.

“I think the hardest thing for us is that we didn’t expect to operate this way. We spend months training on machine gun and rifle ranges. We practice gunnery skills and clearing houses and detaining suspects. We practiced combat missions, because our job is to kill the enemy. Nowhere in our pre-deployment package did we get any classes on being ambassadors, statement or politicians. That job is best reserved for politicians; not men and women who were trained to shoot and destroy the enemy.

“How many people would have joined if they knew this was what they were going to be doing? I don’t know. I really don’t know. I think it depends on the person and their specific reasons for joining."

He seemed finished with this monologue, and the vehicle went silent for a few minutes before he returned to chatting with his partner up front.

“Hey, so how long do you think we could survive in this town by ourselves? Think we’d make it through the night?”

“I dunno man. If I barricaded myself in a fortified building and I was heavily armed, maybe.”

“Yeah, I was thinking either that or run and hide all night. No way in hell we’d survive the daylight hours. They’d kill us…”

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Haifa (By Ben Shaw)

*Reprinted with permission from the Fluvanna Review.

*Retold with permission

Until about eighteen months ago, Haifa Street through Baghdad was known as one of the most dangerous roads in central Iraq. You’d had a good day if you didn’t get blown up or shot at moving through there. None of us particularly enjoyed missions that took us along that route, since it was usually just a matter of time before we were hit with something.

We did a patrol through there in Bradleys one night, and as we hit a straight stretch, we started hearing rounds ping off the armor. We weren’t exactly sure where it came from, so my vehicle commander stuck his head out the commander’s hatch and peered out into the dark with night vision goggles. A second later, a round impacted right next to him, so he ducked back down and used the internal optics. In back, I switched on the screen to see what he was looking at.

There on thermals, plain as day, an Iraqi Army soldier was shooting at us from the balcony. You could even see the shell casings flying from the weapon as he fired. Then he stopped, looked around, took off his flak vest and helmet, and tried to look innocent. A moment later, he put his gear back on and resumed shooting directly as us.

Friendly fire isn’t unheard of in Iraq, but there are times when there’s simply no excuse for it. There’s no other vehicle like a Bradley. It’s loud as hell and easily identifiable. If you’re shooting at it, you’re doing it deliberately. It’s not like a single guy on the ground; it’s a huge, loud, armored vehicle with a 25mm cannon mounted on the turret.

My vehicle commander radios up the chain to see if we have any friendly troops in the area. Are there any known IA positions nearby? If yes, then why the hell is an IA soldier shooting at us? His inquiry went all the way up the chain, then back down. The answer: there are no friendly troops at that position. All fire is hostile. Yeah, no kidding… We all start dismounting as the 25 opens up.

A second later, the entire side of the building explodes as HE [high explosive] rounds level the entire structure. It was awesome, like the fourth of July. I was standing there in awe when a bullet from the opposite direction rips through the cargo pocket on my pants. Shit; we were getting shot at from the other side of the road, too.

Over the next hour and a half, we fought hard. People were coming out of the woodwork to shoot at us, and it got pretty harried a few times. We kept gunning with everything we had on the ground, both small arms and our main guns [25mm Bushmasters]. Overhead, helicopters fired away with their 30mm cannons as the hot, heavy brass rained down us below. Dangerous as it was, it was absolutely beautiful. We were finally doing something – and definitely taking out the enemy. Eventually, everything fell silent, and we headed back home. After that night, nobody really ever got hit hard on Haifa. Whoever they were, we’d pretty much cleared them out.

Sometime later, we were doing another night patrol on Haifa, and our driver turns a corner and plows into a tangle of concertina wire somebody had left in the middle of the road. Sure enough, it snagged in the treads and then wrapped around the sprocket. It was massive enough that we couldn’t continue to roll. We’d have to cut it out before we moved any further.

When we dismounted, the birds nest was so bad that thought we might have to break tread, which is complex, time-consuming, and just a major pain in the ass, especially in the dark. We figured we could get by without doing it, but it’d still take awhile.

As we screwed around trying to cut out the wire, we sort of lost track of time, and before we knew it the sun was up – and we’re stuck there on Haifa Street, vulnerable as hell, trying to get our Bradley operable. People were starting to come out and stare at us, too, so we pushed out dismounts and got the interpreters out to explain the situation.

The terps told the locals that we’d run into a heap of concertina wire and now we were stuck out there trying to cut it loose. To our surprise, they said no problem. Even more than that, they said we’re welcome there because we were out killing the bad guys. Then, to everybody’s total amazement, they came out, grabbed their own tools and equipment, and pulled out the wire for us. We were so thankful that we gave them all the waters and Gatorades we had on our vehicles, said a bunch of thank you’s, and headed back to base.

Haifa Street hasn’t been the same since that morning. Nothing happens through there anymore. It’s not a gauntlet now; it’s just another road.

Copyright © 2009, the Fluvanna Review, All Rights Reserved

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Roger (By Ben Shaw)

*Reprinted with permission from the Fluvanna Review.

It is the habit of people when they lose a friend to pontificate about how well they knew him or her and how dearly they will be missed. Such talk, however, is often hollow, spoken by distant acquaintances or those that attempt to borrow grief out of some great desire for self-flagellation. Those that know them closest are silent in their grief. They have nothing to say.

As for Sgt Roger L. Adams, I will make no such claim of knowing him closely, for I did not. I knew him only briefly, but what I remember of him was good. He had character.

During our tour in Iskhandariyah, Adams was sent as a replacement for another Marine who not long before was killed in action. He volunteered for the position.

He was friendly, to say the least, and not the sort of leader who needed to resort to screaming and threats to relay orders. If he asked you to do something, you simply did it. Chances are he’d be helping you, anyway. I don’t ever recall seeing him angry. He laughed a lot.

After thirteen years as a Marine Infantryman, Adams moved over to the Army National Guard, and was serving with the 120th Combined Arms Brigade in and around Baghdad. Like all others who choose to make a career of the military, he was doing what loved most.

He rode in our second humvee, which I believe sustained more hits than any other in our unit. Humorous to all of us, including him, it was never hit again after he arrived. Yet that fortune departed him on June 29th, when he and three other Guardsmen were killed in a catastrophic IED attack in Baghdad. He leaves behind a wife and four sons. He was 36.

I spoke with several of the Guardsmen who were serving with Adams when he died, and they miss him dearly. Though it was painful, they wished to tell me more about him and why they liked him. They told me about the memorial service held for him and the three others, and how they found it powerful, tearful, and meaningful. There in Iraq, more than a week later, several still carried the memorial service bulletin in their pockets. One gave me his copy.

A few Guardsmen volunteered with Adams at the local fire department, where he was known for his extensive knowledge and enthusiasm. Another used to spend his free time with Adams, his wife, and four sons. One offered to give me photographs from the service. Several members of that Guard unit are headed home on R&R, and rather than spend time with their own families, they’re planning to attend Adams’ funeral in North Carolina. Adams was family to them, and they loved him.

That I was no longer serving with him is irrelevant; I still take his death personally. And so should this nation, for they have lost a son. He joins the ranks of several over comrades and leaders who I knew but briefly before Providence saw fit to take them home.

For those who believe the war is over here, think again. Continued attacks on US troops prove otherwise, resoundingly. There is still an enemy here, and that enemy demands the attention and ferocity of the United States Armed Forces.

We will release a sigh and solemnly utter, “rest in peace, Roger,” but he shall have none. At least not until there is no enemy, but peace. There is still a war to fight and his brothers will fight it for him, and for his memory, and for the young family that he leaves behind. Victory is his memorial.

Copyright © 2009, Fluvanna Review, All Rights Reserved

Friday, September 11, 2009

8 Years Later

Eight years ago today, America was awakened to a threat which had been developing for quite some time. 2,974 people (mostly US citizens, but still representing 90 different countries) died in four separate aircraft hijacking attacks – one into the US Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, two into the Twin Towers on Manhattan Island New York, and one more hijacked over the mid Atlantic states before ultimately crashing into a field in rural Pennsylvania. We were all Americans for a few days and weeks. Soon after, we concentrated on finding somebody to blame. Yet rather than targeting an enemy for attacking us, we often preferred to blame our own for negligence.

But these were far more than unprovoked tragedies. The western world was awakened to the fact that there is an underclass of humanity who, for no other reason than that we breathe free, hates us and will devote every last man to killing all those not like them. They do not negotiate, and will only stop when they have exterminated anybody who dares adhere to a different philosophy.

Eight years later, the United States has more than 170,000 forward-deployed troops serving in a two-front campaign commonly known as the War on Terror. Most people have nothing positive to say about their presence. How quickly we forget our own loss of life.

For the better part of a decade, extremists have been flocking to the Middle East to kill Americans. Some have been successful. However, they have largely ignored US consulates, embassies, and our homeland. US forces have kept them preoccupied. The fight, so to speak, was taken to them and distanced from our own backyards. The United States has sustained no serious terrorist attack since September 11th, 2001. This is a magnificent triumph.

Nowhere in the states are there long lines of cars waiting to pass through vehicle checkpoints every few miles. Nor are concrete barriers compartmentalizing entire cities to limit vehicular traffic and reduce the kill radii of VBIEDs and other explosives placed in crowded areas. For the most part, Americans are free to travel throughout their own country without fear of bombs and executions by rogue police or army personnel. Christians aren’t fearful of attacks at churches on Sundays, and nor are Muslims concerned for their safety as they worship on Fridays. Additionally, enhanced stateside security measures have ensured no air hijackings, rendering airlines the safest means of travel once again. As a whole, Americans are free from the bonds of fear. We win.

We win because, while both fronts of the war continue, Americans are still safe, and still welcome to exercise their Constitutional rights to speak, think, and worship freely. They will not receive “guests” in the middle of the night that order them to leave their homes or face immediate death. No Americans have observed as these visitors carve up a child, cooked his flesh, and fed it back to them. Few Americans have suffered the disappearance of a family member, only to find them in a ditch a few days later, dead by execution. NO American has gone to a store or market and experienced a suicide bomber detonating him or herself in their midst. By and large, Americans are still safe, and woefully unaware of how nice it is.

Their safety has been purchased by the efforts and sacrifices of the United States military, which serves as the final line of defense between a free nation and a world which is increasingly dedicated to forcing their way of life on others. They have paid heavily to maintain our freedoms, and no doubt the death toll will continue to rise.

Is it worth it? Yes. And now is not the time to diminish our footprint. Those that hate the United States continue to pose a legitimate threat to our way of life. They are not a class of human with whom to negotiate, for all kindness is misunderstood as weakness. We are best served to continue acting as the merciful warriors we have trained our military to be. We offer clemency to those who wish it, and we kill those who do not. They will not stop until they are dead, so we must hasten that.

There is worldwide concern these days with being internationally liked and understood, but I would argue that it is of greater import to be right, with only moderate regard to how others feel about it. For, we do not simply support the Constitution for ourselves, but as basic human rights applicable to all humanity. Our efforts are not to simply protect our own, but provide freedom for others worldwide. The nature of our ideals requires they be shared.

Clearly, preservation of these ideals comes at high cost, and there are more than 5,000 families in the United States who have lost a loved one in either Iraq or Afghanistan. And more will fall, too. Few servicemembers over here are unfamiliar with the loss of a comrade. It doesn’t get easier, either.

But it must continue, because the threat also continues. Our eyes are now opened to the clear and present danger to our way of life. They can never be shut again, or not at least until there is no enemy. There are humans worldwide that wish to kill us. We must kill them first, for ignoring them simply emboldens them. There is no room for political correctness, because this is not politics; this is war. It is heartwrenching that it took nearly 3,000 innocent lives to awaken us to this threat. It is tragic that the human investment in our national defense has now far exceeded this number. But, it is absolutely self destructive that we are quick to quit the race. Where went our national spirit? Long passed like the memory of two towers crushing thousands, a jet liner plunging into our Pentagon, a famous phone call from Flight 93? We must choose to fight, lest history repeat itself.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Thursday, September 10, 2009

When Words Fall Short

Yesterday morning I received a short e-mail which, despite being but a handful of words, broke my heart: "3 KIA,6 others hurt.  I need some words of wisdom."  Yet I had none.  Three killed?  Six wounded?  What am I to say?  I'm not even in the military anymore.  Any words I utter, however poetic or powerful, ultimately change nothing.  There are still three men gone, and I cannot bring them back.


I am reminded of how I reacted when my unit sustained one killed and another wounded.  I remember hearing the news from the platoon commander and walking off to sulk for a bit.  I remember not wanting to be inactive, and instead investing all my energy in going down to Motor T and working with the mechanics to repair the damaged vehicle and replace the one destroyed.  I remember cannibalizing a windshield off another commander's humvee, and swapping out our shattered one.  I remember a friend bringing me a belt of ammunition still covered in blood and saying, "we're all going to load these in our magazines.  You want some?"  Two hours after the incident, we were ready to run another mission – should one have been assigned to us.  The point is we didn't deal with it.  We simply couldn't right then.  Five years and thirteen days later, I'm not sure I have still.


A few guys cried, mostly the ones who knew the victim more closely than I, but most of us just remained silent.  There weren't words to describe how we felt.  We'd only been in-country for about six weeks, so we didn't have the luxury of slowing down to think about it.  In truth, it had only just begun.  Welcome to war.  Awful things happen.


There are times when words fail completely.  There are times when no single sentence or remark, however heartfelt, will change a situation and reverse or lessen the tragedy that just took place.  As a Marine on deployment, I stomached it and did my job.  We all did.  And now on the outside looking in, I want to help, but feel impotent to do so.


When anybody suffers a loss or tragedy in the states (at least from my observations), there is a custom of calling or sending them cards to express how sorry we are for their loss.  Well-intentioned though it may be it falls far short of what is needed.  Others will deliver an array of casseroles and buckets of fried chicken, but it's probably more to ease their own feeling of helplessness than render any comfort.  None of us knows what to do.  But when words fail and actions are insufficient, one great thing remains: presence.


Presence.   I may be unable to say anything of substance, but I can bring my full presence to this person.  I can sit with them in silence, for at least they will not be sitting alone.  They are entering a furnace.  They won't like it there, and nor will I, but if I want to help, this is the only way.  They are saved from going alone.  Words carry little weight here, but WE carry much more.


I cannot claim to understand what it is like to suffer 3 KIA and 6 others hurt.  I've had similar experiences, but every single situation is different.  Similarly, everybody processes it differently.  I am simply able to empathize with the sensation of devastation and loss.  While I cannot put it into meaningful words, I can join them where they are.  "I will go there with you," said a friend to me, and I have learned much from it.


It is pointless to recite the mantras to the effect of "you still have a mission to accomplish," or "take care of each other so it doesn't happen again."  They already know these things.  Their grief is at the loss of three loved ones, and the broken families they now leave behind.  I can join them, and say nothing.  I can show up.


Most troops will not process tragedy in full until they are far removed from those situations, so it stands to reason that their friends and families will see the grief first hand when their loved one returns.  How can you help?  Say nothing, but give them your full presence.  This, perhaps above all else, is why attempting to overload a returning servicemember with questions and attention is so poorly received.  They know you won't understand, so they don't bother trying to explain it.  Nor do they seriously take comfort in your assurance that you know what they're going through.  You do not.  But they do respect your presence.


More than simply spending time with those in grief, you are wordlessly expressing love.  You are fully there, and entirely because you wish to be.  You offer no words of comfort or casseroles or flowers; you offer yourself.  And this is the greatest gift you can bring.


For my friend who lost three companions, I have no words of wisdom.  Nothing I can say will bring back the three fallen men or restore their devastated families.  But, should our paths cross out here, I will offer myself.  I will say nothing, for there is nothing to say.  Better that than grieve alone.  I will attend because that is the best I can do.  And may every one of the three go swiftly to God.


Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

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