Chapter 11: War! What is it Good For?

I thought that when I got back to the UW for the second time, I was done with the undergraduate interruptions. Just two quarters from the end and I was again dropping all my classes.  Only this time, there were no decisions to be made.  I had zero say so in the matter, which made the interruption only slightly less painful.  At least I retained my status on campus and all the benefits (like housing) that were our best hope for surviving the stalled, post-9/11 economy.

March 18, 2003

I had hoped I would never have to write in this book.  I promised your mother I would keep something written, for the two of you if I went to war.

Well, here I am, in Prestwick, Scotland.  My intentions are to document my experience to the best of my ability, but I also intend to include anything else I want you to know.  It is hard to describe time in this situation.  I left March Air Force Base, north of Camp Pendleton yesterday.  We had a 2-hour layover in New Yorks’ JFK airport.  We left there to arrive in Prestwick.  Because of the time change, it is 11 am on the 18th.  It feels a bit like we are flying into the future.  I have been to New York before, but this is the first time I’ve ever been off the continental USA.

As I mentioned, I was hoping to experience this Gulf War II from Camp Pendleton.  I was activated on February 13th and spent the last month in Southern California, getting shots for everything under the sun: small pox, typhoid fever, malaria, flue, even anthrax.  That one was the worse.  They put a little bit of the dead virus in my left shoulder and it took over a week for this disgusting yellow blister to stop itching and scab off.  Gross.

The Navy dentist pulled two teeth out (Ouch!) and we prepared our gear for ships and planes.  Our President, Bush Jr., has since elevated the threat of war, and here I am…

What do I think about here? Mostly, I wonder how long it will be before I am headed in the opposite direction, towards home.  But, I also find myself anxious about being off U.S. soil, out of my comfort zone.

From here (Prestwick), we fly to Italy, Rome I think, and from there, Kuwait…

March 21, 2003

Two or three?  It is hard to tell exactly how many days we’ve been here.  The first morning we arrived at 0400, which made for a long day.  We unloaded the plane ourselves, moving some 300 bags weighing as much as 150 lbs. and only 15 of us were on the working party.  It wore my body down.  We are currently stationed at Al Jabar, a US Air Force Base in Kuwait.  The first day, there was a considerable sand storm, and dust was everywhere.  A huge brown cloud descended out of the south and engulfed Tent City.  It was more a nuisance then anything. This first day was a chance to get a much-needed shower and some valuable rest.

wariraqOn that first day, March 19, the war had not begun, but the deadline was set.  On Day 2, March 20, Gulf War II officially began.  As we are on an air base, there have been F-18’s and A-10 Tank Killers taking off 24 hours a day.  From this base alone, no fewer than 50 missions have left, all with at least 2 planes.  The noise of jets is a constant, each with its own identifiable roar.  There are the elegant F-18s that, as soon as they clear the runway, go almost vertical to fly security while the slower planes take off.  The A-10s have a whine about them; a whistling of sorts as the engines strain to lift their heavy bomb loads off the ground.  The Marine Harriers are by far the worse.  They take off straight up into the air, which causes a prolonged, stationary, and utterly deafening roar that lingers on as the jet seemingly overcomes the laws of physics to ease into flight.  I can’t help but think I will leave here with a permanent aversion to the sound of jet planes.

Our presence here has thus far been spent in bomb shelters.  On Day 2, from 1230 until 0300 the following morning, we have, on too many occasions to count, been in a shelter dressed in full MOP gear and a gas mask.  I think I will be eternally sensitive to sirens, just like the jets.  Even now, we have down time, but there is the constant threat of another alarm siren sounding, followed by the panicked “Oh Shit” of the 12+ Marines in my tent, and the organized chaos as we fight to again put on the MOP suit, clear our gas mask, and run back out to the shelter.

I set foot in Kuwait with every intention of maintaining a journal I could take home to share with Cassandra, Alexes, and Mikey.  A week later, I was over that idea.  There simply was not enough happening worth writing.  The children probably did not want to hear about how I drove supply runs back and forth across Kuwait, delivering food and water to various units.  And, they were too young to hear stories about the Marine that jumped down from his truck but accidentally caught his wedding ring on an exposed, rusty screw protruding from the top of the mirror frame.  As gravity pulled the Marine to the ground, the force of his weight played tug-of-war with the immobilized ring.  Something had to give to allow the descent, and unfortunately, it was the skin on his ring finger, peeled off like the skin of a banana.

Yuck!

It was definitely not a story to be shared with children.  Needless to say, I stopped wearing my wedding ring altogether, and instead hung it from the dog tags around my neck.

We got lost returning from one of those routine supply runs and finally got back to camp 2-3 hours late, arriving to find an entire column of vehicles preparing to head north, towards the Iraqi border.   Our CO was mad as hell, almost yelling at the Master Sergeant in charge of the supply run.  We were given twenty minutes to pack, that is, stuff all our gear into a sea bag, refuel our trucks, and fall in with the column.  My section, not the entire HQ unit, but just our Motor T section, would be heading north with a combat support battalion for helicopters. I was hoping to stay in the rear with the gear. Unlucky again.

At zero-dark thirty, we found ourselves on a highway headed north, attached to a massive Marine convoy of trucks, Humvees, and fuel tankers numbering in the hundreds.  All told, the convoy covered some nine miles of roadway, and the sheer size of it exemplified the difference in wartime versus peacetime mentalities. Large convoys are strictly forbidden on US highways due to their disruption to the flow of traffic, but in country, the size of the convoy was limitless, always exactly as long as the mission required.

Trucks lined up at refueling positions while attendants topped off the trucks, completely indifferent as excess fuel spilled over and collected on the dirt below.  My truck came to the front of the line and I asked the young Marine about cleaning up the spilled fuel. He almost giggled his definitively “in-country” response: “It ain’t like the EPA is gonna be stopping by anytime soon”. We were there to conquer.  My Marine Corps training never did stress common consideration for either the environment or the locals.

In combat, convoys are regarded as sitting ducks.  Our tactical convoy was plagued with what amounted to nine miles of unprotected flanks.  Tanks, amphibious assault vehicles, even air cover was reserved for units that were on the front lines engaging the enemy. Security details were attached to the convoy fitted primarily with small arms weapons (e.g. .50 cals., 240 Golfs, saws). But otherwise, we were, for the most part, responsible for ourselves. To compensate for our inherent vulnerabilities, convoy orders required that we position all of our M16s in the windows, pointing outward, in a “Condition 1” status.  (There are four “Conditions” in the status of a military weapon, each appropriate for different scenarios.  A Condition 1 weapon represents a weapon at the highest alert.  It requires that the weapon have a round chambered, full magazine in place, hammer on, safety on.)

The last time I stared down the barrel of my M16 in a Condition 1 status I was on a firing range in Camp Pendleton, sited in on a Dog target (human silhouette) at 500 yards, celebrating the fact that I had just fired eight out of ten rounds in the black.  This time a truck window framed my image.  Down the barrel of my weapon were not paper targets 5 football fields away, but the faces of men, women, and children, so close to my truck I could make out the subtle nuances of their facial expressions that revealed more fear then menace.

Convoy orders also supported offensive driving as a strategy to force civilian vehicles out of, and away from the column.  More than once, an Iraqi civilian car would merge into the convoy.  The truck in front would immediately slow down while the truck behind accelerated, both trucks coming dangerously close to crushing the vehicle in the middle.  This would continue until the car had no choice but to veer off the road, at which point a Humvee, tasked with security and armed with heavy machine guns, would pull the car over and question the drivers.  Under no circumstances were convoys to stop in tactical conditions until they reached their destination.  Anything less just added to their vulnerability.

The column crossed the border into Iraq at Safwan with orders to move via the southern route towards Baghdad.  There was virtually no one in the streets of the small border town and we passed through without incident.  If I thought Kuwait was a wasteland, Iraq was even worse.  I acknowledged the stark change in the physical surroundings on each leg of my journey to Iraq.

In my opinion, the Pacific Northwest is the most beautiful place I have ever been.  When I left for Camp Pendleton, there was no comparison; Seattle was better in every way, even though I grew up in Los Angeles.  Then I left Camp Pendleton for Kuwait, and felt the same way about SoCal; Pendleton was sooo much better than Kuwait.  I crossed the border into Iraq and immediately recognized the ongoing pattern.  Compared to Iraq, Kuwait was the Promised Land.

We exited the border town and headed into what seemed like an endless desert.  Mountains, visible just outside of town at the southernmost section of the highway, faded from view as we headed north.  Before long there was nothing but dirt as far as the eye could see in every direction. The column pressed on with a clear mission: head north, some 10-15 miles behind the front, and provide support for combat helicopters.  Essentially, we carried all the supplies Super Cobras and Hueys required to fight a war:  a forward base of operations complete with fuel, ammunition, food, and water.

The convoy would station itself on the side of the seemingly endless road with a nearby rise in the terrain, or an adjacent space that could accommodate several helicopters side-by-side.  Pilots would land in our position like it was the local gas station, exit the aircraft, and grab a quick bite to eat while their helicopter was refueled and topped off with ammunition.  In the interim, they would share stories about Iraqi units they caught in the open and attacked, having spent all their ammunition. They recharged as fast as logistics would allow, anxious to get back in the air, hoping to again encounter other targets of opportunity.

It is hard to say exactly when the sandstorm happened, or where it came from.  In retrospect, it was the same massive storm that was covered stateside in the national news media, though I had no way of knowing that at the time. We travelled with all the haste a nine-mile long convoy can muster, focusing on the simple task of maintaining the appropriate following distance to the truck directly in front of us at about 25 miles per hour. 6-8 Marines road in the back of my 6X6 with the tarp rolled up commando style to help manage the severe heat. I only remember it being very bright and very hot on the road, then, out of nowhere, the desert rose up and consumed the convoy.

One minute it was clear, and the next, we were blanketed in a dense cloud, like a San Francisco fog made not of a water but rather, of rust colored, fine sand silt.  Visibility was reduced to about 30 feet and we could neither see the truck directly in front, nor the lights of the truck to the rear.  There was little choice but to slow down to a dreadfully slow pace, maybe 8-10 miles per hour.  We hunkered down in the cab, happy to don the goggles we purchased outside the gates of Pendleton; the same ones we all swore were probably a waste of money.

We travelled with all the windows rolled up and made do with whatever we could find in the cab to try and seal the air vents.  Despite our best efforts, a fine cloud of red earth filled the cab and covered everything inside with a thick layer of accumulating silt.  The Marines in the back of the truck were completely exposed to the storm.  They had little choice but to cover their faces and try to keep a low profile, hoping the cab would somewhat shield them from the storm.  As miserable as I was, it was far worse for them.

14 hours passed in the grasp of the storm such that by the end of the day, the convoy had only travelled about 20 miles.   As if that was not bad enough, the storm fractured the massive convoy into two smaller ones.  Somewhere, within the hazy gloom of the storm, a driver failed to see the forward truck take a turn onto a major highway.  My unit was in the second half, separated from the convoy commander and left to find our way back to where we belonged.

Our segment pulled to the side of the road, presumably so that whoever was running our show could get us back on track.  While we waited, relief from the sandstorm came in the form of rain.  As quickly as the sandstorm had arrived, so too did a torrential downpour.  It rained maybe ¾ of an inch in about 45 minutes and while we were happy to be free of the sandstorm, all remnants of joy turned to mud along with the fine sand layer in the brief drenching.

The CO called for a weapons function check.  Marines emerged from their respective trucks to line the road.  Facing outbound, we each, in turn, and under the watch of our Senior NCO’s, attempted to fire our M16s into the endless desert.  Something like every fifth weapon successfully fired, roughly a 20% success rate.  The dismantled convoy and the failed weapons became a training opportunity for our First Sergeant.  In typical Marine Corps fashion, we were called into a hasty formation; where NCOs yelled at us about the importance of maintaining strict compliance with convoy march orders and the importance of keeping our weapons clean, at all times!

My rifle happened to be one that successfully fired off a single round, though it jammed on the second round and luckily, the Staff Sergeant had already moved to the next Marines, failing to notice.  Regardless, I got their point: what if we came under fire and only 20% of our weapons worked?  It would be tragic.

We were dismissed to return to our trucks for a few hours of rest before we would attempt to catch up with the first half of the convoy.  I returned to the shelter of my truck cab and opted to break down and clean my weapon before I got any rest.  And, while overall it may not have been perfect, the bolt and the receiver, the most important pieces, were “parade ready”.

It was probably the very next day, after we had successfully caught up with the front half of the convoy, that the importance of the “clean weapon” lesson was reinforced.  While at a brief rest position, a message came down that there was a division of Iraqi Republican Guards a few miles off of our western flank.  We were ordered to take cover in hasty fighting positions, using whatever we could find to take cover.  I lay in the dirt on the ground near my truck with Eddie and Eric close at hand, weapons pointed outwards from the berm that kept the desert at bay.  The enemy never materialized, but thereafter, all of our weapons were kept clean enough to pass a formal inspection.

 

The convoy kept up the frenzied pace to support the rapid advance for the better part of three weeks.  In that time, we passed through many small towns and communities.  We crossed bridges captured and held by US Marines, passed gargantuan structural fires that burned out of control, and drove through the wreckage of enemy tanks that never made it off the Low Boy trailers that carried them to the front.  I photographed what I could to document my experience on disposable cameras I had brought from the states.

Then we crossed through a small village just a few miles behind the front.  It was clear the infantry had recently taken the city.  Several enemy bodies lined the roadway, some tended to by crying family members, and others left alone, covered head to toe with linen veils, tragically reminiscent of a family of rabbits encountered on a freeway by a car travelling too fast to slow down. Eddie had the presence of mind to warn us that some things we would never be able to forget, with or without pictures.   He was right. We did not take those pictures.

There is an uncertainty in combat situations, a “Fog of War”, as it is commonly known, that can undermine troop morale.  We existed in a Fog of War on our march north.  There was almost no communication with the outside world, much less with home.  I was completely ignorant as to what part my truck, my unit, even my convoy played in the big picture.  I was indifferent to such information as it was completely irrelevant in the day-to-day grind of my march northward.

There was only the mission: Move.

That was enough to divert our attention from the lack of basic home comforts like hot food, showers, cold beverages, or toilets that flushed. The convoy out-paced even the mail distribution and it was 4 or 5 weeks before we received our first letters from home.  The lack of mail wreaked further havoc on our morale.

On more than one occasion, Eddie, Eric, and I would drive a couple of 6×6 trucks to the flight line to pick up supplies. There we would watch C-130s, vulnerable to attack from the ground, execute tactical landings to minimize threats of ground attack. The huge plane would spiral towards the ground, leveling out only to make its final approach, and then make a 180-degree turn at the end of the runway.  With engines still running, the rear door would open while the aircrew unstrapped huge 9×9 foot aircraft pallets laden with supplies.  They would signal the pilot and as the plane began to taxi back down the runway, the pallets, free from their shackles, were drawn across the hundreds of steal castors that lined the floor of the cargo plane, and exited out the back of the aircraft, exploiting the forward momentum of the accelerating plane. Once completely clear of the pallets, the doors closed with the aircraft still in motion.  The plane would take off, spiral aggressively upwards to its cruising altitude, and only then, head away from the landing strip.

We often got stuck out there for hours, waiting for planes to land, with nothing to do but shoot the breeze and smoke cigarettes.  If we were lucky, Eddies’ portable CD player was working and we could past the time watching the few movies we had collected over and over again.  Nobody needs to watch “Super Troopers” that many times in a row, so Eric and I often preferred to pass the time smoking on the ground, trading memories of home and hopes for the future, while Eddie was content to watch movies alone in the privacy of the truck cab.

It was not until Eric was pulling his feet into a pair of socks one morning, perplexed, wondering why they were crusty and sticking to each other, that it became clear why Eddie was content to watch certain movies over and over.  Apparently, on one such trip to the airfield, Eddie had “mastered his domain” while watching sex scenes and cleaned up with the only thing in the cab within arm’s reach: a pair of Eric’s socks. (It STILL cracks me up!)

 

April 23, 2003                                                                                                      1640 here            0640 there

My Dearest Cassandra,

I’m not quite sure where to begin, but I guess “Hello” is perfect.  It is Wednesday, but the day of the week means nothing to me here.  Every day sucks equally.

It’s been hard to bring myself to write, and for that, I am truly sorry.  My attitude is crappy and getting steadily worse.  I don’t like burdening you with my shitty attitude, and when I sit down to write, it is hard to overcome.

Why, you ask, the bad attitude?  I’m tired…

I’m tired of being dirty all the time.  I’m tired of MREs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  (In fact, I’ve only eaten one in the last 2 days.)  I’m tired of the utter confusion, tired of waking up at 5 or 530 in the morning, only to see more dirt, more shitty leadership in our section, more hypocrisy, and little or nothing to do.  To be honest, our unit does not currently have a specific mission. What does that mean? It means we are everyone else’s working party (i.e. bitches).

This week we have been driving from An Noumaniyah to Al Kut, twice a day. It is a distance of about 20-30 miles and passes thru two different, highly populated urban areas.  This country makes Tijuana look like Beverly Hills.  There are donkeys, sheep, goats, some camels, and stray dogs everywhere.  There are some cows, too.  Children line the street waving and begging for food.  Old men glare mostly and some wave.  It’s the 18-30 year-old, military aged ones that make me the most nervous.  The convoy roles thru with 15 or so loaded trucks.  Marines with light weapons are the convoys’ only security.  To compensate, I’ve been pointing my loaded M16 out the window at women and children per the convoy march orders.

There are only two things that I look forward too: mail from you and going home.  So far, we have only received mail 2-3 times.  Every day, we transport truckloads of yellow mailbags from the flight line to the post office, and it is always for other units…totally depressing!!  I have yet to receive a package from you, and I know you have sent at least 3.  My stuff, sent especially by you, is probably floating around this shithole of a country.  But where, who knows?

You can see why it is difficult to write.  I hate burdening you with my complaints when I know you have so many of your own.  Writing these complaints to you, knowing how much you care, how you would do anything in your power to help me is comforting, even therapeutic.  I feel a little better already, so I’ll try to change my tone, at least for your sake.

In order to help keep my head up, I find myself reading your letters over and over and over and over again.  Each time, I’m regenerated, happy, and yet desperately homesick.  You mentioned in your last letter that you would respect the time I need before jumping my bones.  Ha Ha! That takes the cake.  I will take it as a personal insult if you don’t.

The rest of the letter takes the usual NC-17 turn for another 3 pages (double-sided)…this is probably not the time to share it:) The letter concludes:

                I love you, Casey!  All my love to Alexes and Mikey.

Yours, Mike

 

Meanwhile, back in Seattle…

 From Cassandra’s Journal:

2-16-03

What I feared since the minute you became a Marine came true today.  You went off to war, but unlike in the movies, the honor and patriotism of the moment was overshadowed by deep fear.  I have never felt the sadness that took over my heart.

The kids and I went to the soccer clinic in an effort to pull them out of the funk they were in since the moment you left.  You would have been so proud to sit on the mid-pitch: on one end of the field your daughter dominated everyone and shined like a superstar and on the other side of the field your son scrapped every ball and surprisingly made every cross and tackle.  They did exactly what you asked, “EXCELLED”.  They are so amazing: focused, driven, and tough.  Just like their daddy.  We already miss you.

 2-17-03

It’s the middle of the night and I have already cried to Gene.  I feel utterly helpless.  I feel that if I forget to breathe I may die. To try to sleep…I close my eyes and imagine your head buried in my shoulder like the last night you were home.  I was smart enough to pay attention to what you felt like.

2-18-03

I know you do not believe I care whether you graduate or not. But if you had seen my tears as I went dragging the kids from office to office to erase your existence from UW, you’d see it is also important to me.  You deserve to accomplish all the goals you have for yourself.  I regret that I made you put me first.  At times I feel like I haven’t gotten a job because I am being punished for being selfish.  You have never been anything but supportive.  You deserve to have it all.  And lord knows you deserve your degree.  To me, it symbolizes all the dedication and commitment that you have given us, except it is all yours.  When you receive your degree it will be such an understatement.  Sweetheart, I am so sorry it won’t be this June, 2003.  It will happen. I promise.

The help from the University of Washington was amazing during this time.  They allowed Mike to withdraw from all his classes without losing any money.  They were kind and so thoughtful while filling out all the necessary forms for me.  Our biggest stress was our housing situation. Because Mike would not be enrolled in classes, we technically were not eligible to live in UW student housing.  Fortunately, the housing department said we could stay as long as we needed.  Whew!!! It was a huge relief!

2-25-03

Alexes had a crisis last night.  She woke up crying around midnight wanting her daddy to come home.  After the tears were over, both Mikey and her slept clinging to me.  I could barely sleep but they seemed so sad I didn’t want to wake them.  This morning was hard.  We couldn’t get our act together and were late to school.  Alexes told me she was really upset because she wanted to talk to you but could not.  I told her there may come a time when you won’t be able to have any communication with us and days if not weeks may go by without us hearing from you.  That did not go over well.  I’d better get back to studying for the Bar, only 2 more days.  OH CRAP!!!!  I worry they have already sent you overseas and I don’t even know about it.  I love you.  We all miss you tons.

 

 

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