10.16.2007

Ryan, I hope you don't mind me posting this...I read it and thought of you. Like we talked about before, I don't care if you think it's dumb when people tell you thanks because after all, you're "just doing your job"...you guys still put up with a lot. While I know this particular unit is from Maryland, it still reminded me of you. It's from http://www.democratherald.com/dhblogs/patrick_lair/?p=4.

Hats Off to the Infantry
by Patrick Lair

As our unit is only made up of about 20 members, we are usually thrown in with larger units for training purposes.

We recently had the opportunity to train with an infantry battalion from Maryland for a couple days. The experience just reinforced my respect for our riflemen.

This battalion is made up of several hundred guys from all walks of life, ranging from teenagers to men in their mid 50’s. Some are fresh recruits and some have been to Iraq or Afghanistan multiple times. One even served as a machine gunner in Vietnam.

Anyone unfamiliar with infantrymen is likely to find them gruff and rude at first blush.

When gathered in a training environment, they are not polite in most regards. They are often loud, aggressive, proud and vulgar.

This is forgivable, though, once you understand the nature of their job.

Infantrymen are treated like dirt most of the time, with the understanding that grinding labor under austere conditions makes a person lean and mean.

However, they are the backbone of the Army, keeping up skills which every other soldier aspires to replicate. And at the end of the day, they are good-humored, good-natured people, the kind you want to accompany you on a convoy.

These Maryland guys have spent the hot summer in tents, waking early in the morning and training till late at night most days. They are expected to carry heavy loads on their backs, fire the heck out of their weapons all day and then scrub them clean that night.

They are required to maintain their own vehicles, mount and dismount heavy crew-serve weapons each day, master emergency first-aid techniques and a host of other combat-related skills.

On the battlefield, they are the first ones to take a blast from the enemy. Instead of dropping into the fetal position, as human nature inclines us to do, their job is to grab their weapons and regain fire superiority.

As public affairs, I’ve become accustomed to scribbling notes and staring into camera monitors all day. So I always felt a few steps behind these guys during our training.

At one point, as we convoyed in humvees through a rubble strewn range, our trainers announced that the guy in front of me had just been hit with an IED (for training purposes).

We sped another 500 meters into a safe area, aligned the vehicles into a protective “wagon wheel” formation and prepared to call for an air evacuation.

Before I could get to the guy in front of me, the medic from another vehicle had already rushed to our position and taken charge of the situation.

Taking orders from the medic, we fanned out our weapons to secure the area, treated the soldier for fictional wounds, placed him on a litter and carried him to a waiting helicopter.

It was all done to textbook standards, according to our trainers. And it was accomplished at combat speed in the sweltering heat, thanks to the hard-driving mentality of these guys.

Not all of them, however, live just to soldier.

One specialist said he was in the middle of his final semester of college, with plans to leave the Guard and marry his fiance this summer, when he learned he would be taking a slight detour to the Middle East.

He was mobilized one month before graduation and whisked away from his bride-to-be for more than a year.

Just another example of American service members sucking it up and completing the mission.

At the end of the exercise, my unit climbed into air-conditioned vans headed for an office where we could throw together a DVD of all the video and photos we’d captured to give to the unit.

The infantry guys gathered their carbon-crusted weapons, loaded into steaming humvees and headed back to tent city to conduct a little weapons maintenance before returning for a night fire operation.

Although my job has a lot more cushion, and some of them probably envied the heck out of me, I couldn’t help envying them a little, too.

Part of me wants to drop the camera and all the politics to just focus on running and gunning, like these guys.

I’m glad somebody does it, and I’m comforted to know that there are people like them who’ll step up and carry the heavy load at times for the rest of us.

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"they are not polite in most regards. They are often loud, aggressive, proud and vulgar...[but] at the end of the day, they are good-humored, good-natured people, the kind you want to accompany you on a convoy."

That's you in a nutshell Doughboy... :)

10.12.2007

Mob Scene

There are few situations as fragile, volatile, and nerve-wracking as being an enforcer of sorts at a food drop. Hordes of hungry people can get ugly fast.

At first, they lined up, the way they were supposed to, and everything went just fine. We'd help them carry the massive bags of flour out of the gate to where they had been waiting. These bags are ginormous. It was emasculating for me to be struggling with them, and watching frail old women pack them onto their shoulders and shuffle away. The fact that I also wear 75 pounds of gear might help offset this.

I felt good about the mission. We're bringing FOOD to HUNGRY people? But it makes so much SENSE! Wow, so I'm NOT here for nothing? Who'da thunkit.

Before, I didn't have any idea that these people were so hungry. We just never heard about it, not at the low level I operate on (which is absolutely minimal knowledge. On any given day, I will have absolutely no clue what the mission entails, partially because I'm oblivious and should be tested for ADD). The situation in some places here is so sensitive and difficult, it's just mindblowing. I mean FUCK, this is NOT the United States, let me put it that way. It's Everything Gone Wrong. It's the scenario you pray and plead and beg never manifests itself in your home.

Because you know there isn't enough food for everyone out there, and the crowd is growing.

The lines got longer and longer, and people stopped using them. They'd all seem to think that they could be exceptions and wouldn't have to wait like everyone else. They'd come up to you in droves and start talking to you and motioning with their hands, trying to reason with you despite the fact that you know only three phrases. Your shoulders already hurt, by the way.

This is the part where you look around and yell over the crowd for the interpreter, who is busy listening to everyone else's sob stories and trying to help.

"Dude! Come on man, get over here!"

He listens and then shouts over the mob to me, "She say, 'Please, I am poor, we need everything. My husband, he killed by insurgents'..." Et cetera. We were hearing the same story from everyone. I didn't like it, but you have to be firm with these people.

"Look at those lines! Every one of them is hungry and poor, just like you! And every one of them has lost someone! You're all in this together! The only way you're getting food is if you wait in line like everyone else!"

An Iraqi soldier drops his weapon and it discharges. People move away, and like the dumbass I am, I run toward it, thumb on my safety, til I realize what the deal is.

At one point, we had to close the gates and wait inside until they finally agreed to wait in lines and you know...follow basic order. Kindergarten stuff. Except in Kindergarten, you usually aren't starving.

Before long, they're getting unruly again. The same sob story from everyone. And it's not like they're making it up either. Stories like that are very plausible in this country. So how the hell do you balance being The Good Guy with Not Getting Swallowed In A Crowd Of Zombies? You can't win them all, can't be the sweetheart all the time. The crowd of women keep pushing forward, disregarding the simple rules we set out. My skinny ass storms to the front of their group.

"WE AREN'T FUCKING SAYING IT FOR OUR GODDAMN HEALTH!!! BACK THE FUCK UP, SIT THE FUCK DOWN!!! RIGHT NOW!!!!" I raise my hand and force my open palm down, motioning for them to sit. And then I scream at them with as much Feigned Manliness as I can muster.

I'd feel like a badass for setting them straight with my thunderous voice and whatnot, but the truth is that I was armed. That was really the only negotiating tool I had that mattered. But for the purposes of this harrowing story, I'll make myself out to be the man's man. So yes, my sheer masculine roars sent the crowd into timid obedience (and not the presence of .50 cal machine guns or anything).

I was constantly moving back and forth our lines. It felt like the beginning of the Boston Massacre. My interpreter kept getting swarmed by pleading, demanding people, and he's more of a bleeding heart sucker than I am, so he was solidly swamped.

"Tell them all the same thing: We WANT to help them, we care a LOT, but the only way we can do this is if they wait in line."

"They say same thing, all of them. 'I am poor, I am hungry, I have nothing, my brother or my father or my husband, he killed before one year...'"

I shook my head, what else could we do? "I know man. You're doing just fine. Just keep telling them to get in line."

And then the food ran out.

They wouldn't seem to believe us. We'd tell them, "Maku" (it means "nothing" or "no more" or something like that) and they'd just start pleading with us. Like we were going to hold our hands out and materialize bags of food for them. There wasn't shit we could do. Except get aggressive.

We busted our asses trying to disperse the crowds, making sure to stay close together, and get back to our trucks to get the hell out of there. It was probably the most intense mission I've done, mainly because the tension is always there, right in front of you. Not like one of those sudden situations, this one was obviously delicate and could go sour with frightening ease.

On the other hand, it WAS kinda cool to take charge and scream at people. Even though you speak completely different languages. It doesn't matter what you say. One dude started screaming something like, "I LISTEN TO COUNTRY MUSIC AND BUDWEISER IS THE BEST FUCKING BEER EVER BREWED! NOW GET BACK!!!"

The worst part was that we all knew that there was enough food to go around if they all helped each other out. You know, if the people who had gotten the bags and whatnot had gotten together with the people of their community and just had a massive pot luck, it could have been so much easier. But it's like they have no communal bonds.

I'm an insufferable idealist, but fuck... Look out for your brother. We're in this together.

10.08.2007

Munchkin Land

Oh yes, the same old repetitive song and dance, how I love it. Drive one day, walk around with the radio the next. I swear I'm just along for the ride, truth be told.

The kids today all swarmed me. It's pretty much the only somewhat interesting thing about going out anymore, and even that gets old quick. Hordes of kids poking and prodding me, yanking on my gear, competing for my attention, all wanting to high five and handshake and facemake and babble to me in Arabic. I use this time to practice my Japanese.

"Mista! Shismeck! (What's your name?)"

"Batman."

They repeat it to themselves like they're trying to word out, getting a taste for it. Like feeling a new car or something. That's right, I'm Batman.

They'd crowd around me, asking for candy or soccer balls, overwhelming me with little-kid-chaos, and I was for the most part cool with it. "That's right, little children, swarm! Swarm around me as I take a knee here. Hopefully no one will shoot me now."

To me, it's all the same faces, the same streets, same everything. Meet new people but they're still the same. See new houses but still, you've already been there. Post the same post I did last time because it's all one huge deja vu, repetitive and surreal.

Someday the dream will end.

Yes, I'll wake up in my bed in Montana someday and just lay there. I'll lay there and ponder, until I start to question whether I was ever in the army or not. Because one day, I'll leave this place, and it'll be almost like I was never here. That alternate life discontinued, the original life taken off hold, off the back burner, put back in the driver's seat with a new perspective. Enjoy it. The clean country, advanced civilization, taking things for granted, the good life, a house on Easy Street. Complaining about little shit. Why not?






Perspective is easy to lose out here, I gotta tell ya. All them fancy ideals and beliefs and all that delicious horseshit we swallowed by the shovelfull just doesn't cut the mustard some days, and all the wasted time, the countless hours spent waiting at an outpost or sitting in a truck or walking around a neighborhood that'll be completely quiet and peaceful and bad-guy free until you leave and someone gets murdered, it all just seems like a big messy nothing. A paradox of bullshit.

That's why you have to have something, ANYTHING to keep you into it. The politics of it don't make sense? You said it pal. So what then? Your recruiter lied? Hahaha, you too huh? Failed operation, repeat of Vietnam? You really think that? You being a liberal, boy? So you lost the taste for all of this, and that's the bottom line?

Well fuckin A, Suspect, that just isn't good enough. You're still here [YOU SIGNED A CONTRACT, JOE, NOW EAT IT!], so you should make the best of your time and try to do something. Well what then?

"Cover the story." Simple enough, right? Let them mad little piss and vinegar keystrokes of yours flurry until yet another barely comprehensible rant is slapped onto the web, because there isn't really anything else constructive to do. You're here to survive and forget about it all right? Well people are reading, for who knows how many reasons. So cover the story, pal.

Yeah, I can do that. Seems simple enough. But there's just one problem. It's so boring and monotonous most of the time? Guess I have to make things interesting however I can huh?



Sidenote [obligatory action scene]

"Hey, any of your guys wanna blow this?" an EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) guy asks. My team leader from firefighting looks to me.

"Butters? Wanna set it off?"

I took off for the EOD truck quick fast and in a hurry. Like hell am I going to waste another day. I've got to do SOMETHING, right? Well this'll do it. I haven't blown anything up in two months now.

"All right, ya take this wire and plug it into that yellow deal, press that button to charge it, then this button to blow it," explains an EOD guy of obvious Southern origin.

Little yellow detonator rests in my hand and I rip my gloves off, hang the Oakley eye protection on my vest, and crawl to the back of the truck to watch out the window. They call up the countdown on the radio and I hold the little button to charge it. A light slowly illuminates.

"Fire in the hole, fire in the hole, fire in the hole."

I press the tiny little button. A minute amount of pressure, and explosives in the house 70 meters away explode. I can visibly see the shock wave travel across the sand in wild ripples. In movies, there are awesome fireballs. In reality, every speck of dust you never knew was there is kicked up and it swells and dissipates in the wind, but not in any quick fashion. BOOM! and then dust obscuring everything. Makes for some confusing aftermath.

"...Cool. Thanks guys," I say.

"No problem. Now, they're calling up for you. They want you on the truck behind us."

And so I walk a few dozen feet down the road to one of our Strykers. Groups of people stand in their gates from every direction, staring at the spectacle, and at me. For a moment, I wonder if they think or know that I set off those charges. Then the ramp drops and I pile in. Who cares, right? It was kind of cool.

[Resume monotony.]

10.01.2007

Stryker Sandwich

It was yet another boring horrible mind numbing monotonous nauseating suckfest of a day, repetitive and relentless with more than a dash of dull. I was sitting in the back of the Stryker, looking at my assault pack holding my radio with a complete and absolute disdain that would melt the face off of any average Hot Topic goth wannabe. Being that we were undermanned, I was the only one actually sitting down. I contemplated standing in the unoccupied air guard hatch, my friend was in the other. After a careful bout of deliberation (a solid three seconds), I decided that no, I would not follow that course of action. I was going to be walking around with that radio on my back all day long, and to be honest, I'm a whiney little baby.



So I slouched on the bench while my ass went steadily numb, and I hooked my hand through one of the straps hanging from the ceiling. It held my wrist like an untightened noose. We slowed or stopped or something, and all this dust started pouring through the hatches.



"Wow, that's a lot of dust," I thought, and I was immediately thrown in the direction of the front of the truck.



I stopped, pondered. Felt like I had ALMOST maybe been close to pulling a muscle in my arm, nothing more. So what the hell was that? Did we get blown up? Was I so disoriented that my mind processed the dust BEFORE it could grasp the impact or explosion or whatever the hell that was? Can't be, because it wasn't quite like that when we got blown up on top of that house... so what then?



A second impact buried my face in my assault pack again. I now knew that it was obvious that motor vehicles of some sort were striking us. But come on, our own trucks? That can't be.



My friend is writhing around inside the truck, apparently in pain. I don't know, I guess it hurts when a massive military vehicle rear ends you doing 30-40 miles an hour. But that's probably just hearsay. Everyone's yelling at each other, shouting, "Is everyone all right?" and all that other AllState commercial gibberish. I decide that perhaps I should stand up in the hatch, since my compadre is banged up, and I don't feel like being yelled at.



"Whoa, don't drop the ramp," I told the driver. "Our ass end is like... on TOP of their truck."



What had happened was we were about to cross over a median to the other side of the road, but a seperate convoy was oncoming, so we stopped on the median to let them pass. This was also a dusty area, and kicked up a brownout. The other two trucks didn't see us stop, so the second nails us, and the third manages to slow down before smashing the second up.



A friend of mine from one of the other trucks cut his forehead pretty deep and had to be checked out for concussion and whatnot, but he's fine now, munching on percocet and watching Spongebob or something. The other guy is doing well too, just a bit stiff.



The cages on the trucks took a pretty severe beating, but it was amazing how little damage the Strykers actually took. So uh...thanks for the tax dollars. They seem to be keeping my ass quite safe.