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Mortar Fire and Ice Cream
Posted By Vanderbilt Magazine On July 13, 2008 @ 10:46 am In APOV, Summer 2008 | 2 Comments
When the Black Hawk helicopter I was flying landed at the American base near Al Qayyarah in early October 2005, ending my role in Operation Iraqi Freedom, it came as welcome relief from the maddening pace of the previous 12 months.
Naively, I had believed that this deployment would have little effect on me. During my 23 years in the service, I have completed assignments in Europe and all over the United States. As a pilot I was removed from the immediate cruelties of war. I thought I would do my year and go home.
As it turned out, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The coming year in Iraq would prove to be totally out of my experience, although at the time I did not realize it.
Alerted for deployment in 2004, my National Guard unit, N Troop 4/278 ACR, is a fascinating collection of citizen soldiers who serve because they want to. Our pilots have years of experience, and our crew chiefs are highly trained experts. “Guard” units evolve into stable, close-knit fraternities.
After training at Fort Bragg, we flew out to Iraq in the latter part of October 2004. The feeling of disorientation that comes with transcontinental flight was taking hold by the time we landed in Germany in preparation for the next leg of the flight to Kuwait. After settling in at Camp Udari Kuwait, we completed a short training syllabus and prepared to fly to our base camp up north near Al Qayyarah, site of an old Iraqi air force installation.
Americans call it “Key West” because the Arabic word Qayyarah sounds like “key.” “Key West” was a natural evolution. Although the area sounded exotic, Club Med it wasn’t.
The flight up-country from Kuwait revealed a homogeneous and vast landscape. Occasionally, you’d see a few camels or small villages, but nothing else. It has a certain beauty that I think you have to see to appreciate.
Southeast of Baghdad, while refueling at Tallil, I visited the Italians who were working nearby in their hanger. Three flight-suited maestros–apparently fresh from their naps–were very startled to see me. I was embarrassed at having surprised them, but neither of us really seemed to mind. They were gregarious fellows in the way you might imagine Italian aviators to be. In the future I would learn the importance of being able to rest anywhere, as the Italians had.
Our first days in Key West were hectic, and the learning curve was steep. We were replacing a regular Army unit from New York. Their young pilots had accumulated a career’s worth of experience and were ready to go home. We spent orientation flying with them and learning our way around. Skimming along the desert floor and weaving our way to the landing zone was the routine for safe flights. The low altitude helped reduce the possibility of taking fire. The Army guys were good people and went the extra mile to make sure we were ready.
Shortly after arriving in Key West, we were asked to provide two crews to the commander of coalition forces in Northwest Iraq. This was my assignment. We operated out of Saddam’s presidential site in Mosul, a city best described by one word: brown. The desert comes right up to the city limits, and buildings are a brownish earth-tone color. The Tigris River bisects the town and, aside from the mountains to the north, it is the major geographic feature in the area.
Now, Saddam’s former palace is known as FOB (Forward Operating Base) Courage. Occupied during the invasion, the grounds were suggestive of a small college campus, except now sandbags were everywhere. Protecting the perimeter was a 15-foot wall bristling with guard towers and machine guns.
Hard-core infantry units lived here now. These young men daily left the safety of the base to fight in Mosul, where they learned how cheap life was in the Middle East. They were good at what they did. Units like these do the “heavy lifting” associated with American policy in Iraq. It is messy work.
In a place like this, death is troublesome because it is so random. As an example, while picking up wounded we began taking fire. Mortar rounds landed just outside our helicopter’s rotors.
Fortunately, we escaped that day, but everyone didn’t. An incoming round careened inside a bunker where a young soldier had taken cover. It detonated and took his life. I think of those moments often, about what his family would do now. No happy reunions for them. Moments like these torment those who remain for a long time.
Survival while flying in a combat zone is sometimes a matter of inches. I realized this while approaching the Green Zone heliport in Baghdad late one night. A pair of reconnaissance helicopters passed in opposition, so close to our Black Hawk that our rotors overlapped, narrowly missing a collision. My crew laughed it off and talked about how we’d rather be lucky than good.
Days were long, often many in a row without a break. We did just about everything–flying from the Syrian border to the Iranian frontier, transporting troops, evacuating wounded, and hauling media and political stars who had come to check on the war. We never closed, and there was no saying no.
Being gone so far away and for so long understandably creates changes in perspective. After about three months in Iraq, one begins to appreciate what separation from home really is. During this period the deep bonds of friendship seen only in combat begin to form. Contact with home becomes less frequent. E-mail, packages and phone calls can only do so much.
Gradually, I began to see Iraq as my home, and these people with whom I lived and worked were now like my family. Military life has always required a good deal of separation, but a deployment of this length and under these conditions was definitely uncharted territory for me. My crew became my brothers, and each of us would have done anything for the other.
Even my Iraqi friends offered normalcy in an abnormal situation. We shared holiday traditions, treats from home and thought-provoking conversation. Some of the Iraqis took enormous risks to help us.
You feel marooned in the Middle East, and home is a distant abstract thought. Life is lived in the moment. There is no tomorrow and no yesterday. There is just “now,” and only your crew matters. Rank dissolves, and your team operates with a satisfying sense of purpose. You lose track of days, confidence builds, and you feel bulletproof. It is addictive.
All of this changes when it’s time to go on leave, about midway though your tour of duty. You are extracted from this madness in a rush of jet transports, and you arrive home only hours after dodging small arms fire. American excess is too much now. I was home, on leave, and yet my mind remained back with my unit where I was needed.
Afterwards, we told lies about great times we’d had back home, only to later learn the difficult truth: No one really did.
When my leave ended and I returned to Iraq, temperatures daily rose over 125 degrees and terrorists were more active in attacking our base. A long, hot summer lay ahead of us in more ways than one.
The things that one becomes accustomed to are amazing. Small arms and mortar fire seem routine. During the usual assault one evening, I headed for the safety of a bunker with a freshly scooped bowl of ice cream in my left hand. On the way I tripped and impaled the palm of my right hand on the edge of a counter. Blood gushed as I headed off for stitches, sewn by a disgruntled reservist medic who had just signed up for some college money. I still have the scar, which reminds me of the ribbing I got about the lengths that I’d go to for a medal or a bowl of ice cream.
In August 2005 rumors about going home began spreading, but I didn’t give them much thought. Finally, in September we learned our replacements were in Kuwait and would be flying up any day to relieve us. We knew then that we had to at least think about going home.
It sounds strange, but when we were asked about staying until January if Gen. Rodriquez or Gen. Bergner needed us, everyone instantly said yes. Such was our dedication to the mission, but really more so to each other.
Living near violent death as we had for so long had a price that would someday demand to be paid. So as the end neared, we vowed to leave this experience behind, in Iraq. It would not be fair to anyone to bring this home.
The new guys would learn this as I had. For now we tried to make sure our replacements had the knowledge to be successful, as our predecessors had done for us.
Before we left, the general gave a very nice send-off by saying that we would be missed. In the military no one is indispensable, so this was high praise. We had earned official awards for our actions; however, they pale when compared to the respect and trust our colleagues placed in us. This bond exists only among those who endure the hardships of this path.
The next morning we flew to “Key West,” joining friends we’d left there the year before. During those last days I thought about home a lot. For me, coping had required complete withdrawal from American life to live fully in Iraq. Now all that would need to be reversed–quite a psychological workout. After a few days we flew to Kuwait, deposited our unit’s helicopters on a ship, boarded a jet, and flew to Fort Bragg, N.C. I slept all the way.
My wife drove over the next day, and we began to get reacquainted. It was a happy time for us. I passed on the military’s C -130 ride, choosing instead to drive home and just look at America on the way. As we made our way through East Tennessee, I began to enjoy the clean, cool air of the mountains. I realized how much I had missed my home and family. Most people don’t get the opportunity to see the rest of the world from the perspective I have, but if they did they would realize as I do what a beautiful country America is and how very fortunate we are to be here.
After a few days at home, someone told me that it would be all right to look back at my time in Iraq because remembering those who don’t come home is important. But, I was cautioned, “Don’t stare.”
From time to time I think I will look back on that lifetime lived in Iraq that year. Staring won’t be a problem because there are still 160,000 troops deployed and I’m still in the military. It doesn’t take a genius to know what that means.
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