Bastard Children of the Army
Next time you're stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, imagine someone on the crowded street wants you dead.
Delta-216-Air Defense Artillery, based out of Monticello, Minnesota, was activated in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in the fall of 2003. Delta was attached to the 81st Brigade out of Fort Lewis, Washington. When the Brigade mobilized to deploy to Iraq, they failed to include Delta on the orders. After having the oversight pointed out, the Brigade amended the mobilization orders to include Delta. The Brigade did not know what to do with an air defense artillery unit. During the four months we spent training, we were attached, detached, and reattached to three different battalions. One day we would be used as infantry; the next, it would change to military police. With each change, Delta would undergo a name change. After we were detached from the 81st Brigade and attached to the First Cavalry Division, we thought we could call ourselves Delta again. Then we found out our new battalion, 4-5 ADA, already had a company named Delta, so we would have to call ourselves Dakota. We could not keep track of the names, so we called ourselves "the bastard children of the Army."
Our overseas odyssey began forty miles from Iraq's border in Camp "New York." The tent city served as a temporary base in Kuwait to prepare soldiers entering Iraq. It was a couple of miles wide and a few miles long. The camp's perimeter consisted of a fifteen-foot sand berm beyond which lay sand as far as one could see. An occasional shrub or a passing herd of camels were the only distractions from the sparseness of the desert. "New York" was a tent city because there were no permanent buildings, just perfectly uniform rows of tents everywhere. The tents were not big, and my one hundred-forty-member unit was assigned only two. The cots crowded the floor space, pushed side-by-side with duffle bags and rucksacks tucked underneath, towels, clothes, and gear draped everywhere. It was nearly impossible to navigate the tangled maze of bedding and equipment without bumping into something. To make the tents waterproof, they had been soaked in kerosene, causing a slight chemical smell to permeate the sleeping quarters. A few days of loading gear in the desert heat with little access to showers soon resulted in a bodily smell wafting through the tent obliterating the chemical smell.
"New York" was centrally located in the Arabian Desert. Despite the miles of empty desert providing a safe buffer, the leadership required we wear Full Battle Rattle constantly. This meant wearing a sixteen-pound bulletproof vest, a four-pound Kevlar helmet, goggles, carrying an M16 with three loaded magazines, and a gas mask strapped over a Desert Camouflage Uniform. Our stay in “New York” was spent preparing our vehicles for the convoy to Baghdad. We began by transporting vehicles to a permanent camp to install add-on armor. Add-on armor consisted of one-hundred-pound steel doors that were an inch thick with three-inch bulletproof windows. Unfortunately, the armor failed to provide any overhead protection, so we constructed roofs out of plywood. Quarter-inch plywood does not offer much protection from explosions or bullets, so we filled sandbags and placed them on top of the roof. The armor also failed to protect the vehicle's undercarriage, so we lined the floorboards with sandbags. We killed a lot of time filling sandbags in hundred-degree heat. Lucky for us, we were smack dab in the middle of the sand capital of the world. We spent so much time filling sandbags that we began to sing. "All day long. Master makes me work. Work, work, work, he's such a fucking jerk. All-day long, I'm working in the dirt. Work, work, work, he's such a fucking jerk." Of course, if one of the higher-ups decided to check on our progress, this refrain would drop to a whisper.
Eventually, we got the order to line up our vehicles for the convoy to Baghdad. I was to drive a two-seater Humvee I nicknamed "Shitty-Shitty, Bang-Bang." Not a very creative name, but apt due to the plywood roof and sandbags everywhere. The Humvee calls to mind pictures of Dust Bowl-era trucks loaded with entire families' possessions fleeing dust storms. I nervously lit a cigarette, thinking about the previous night's briefing. Recent convoys had been ambushed an average of two times before arriving at their destination. We would likely exchange fire during this two-day convoy. Sergeant Williams, my passenger, turned to me and said, "You realize we are about to do the stupidest thing we have ever done in our lives." An odd thing to say and the most inopportune time to say it, too. Yet, I could not disagree with him. The call to move finally came, so we laughed off his comment and started to roll toward Baghdad.
The roads were rough from years of neglect. They bore black smudges from recent bombings. Burnt-out husks of vehicles pushed off to the shoulder served as a warning sign to remain on guard. The constantly blowing sand obscured the scenery, and it wasn't easy to keep the vehicle in front of you in view. At times the wind would die down and allow brief glimpses of Iraq. The landscape was a desolate desert with a few bushes and the occasional palm tree. In the distance, I could see where people lived in houses best described as mud huts. Standing alongside the road were Iraqis waving to the passing troops and hoping to get tossed some food. There were herds of sheep, cows, and camels but no fences to keep them off the highway; you would often see dead carcasses on the road. Because dead animals are prevalent, intelligence warned of insurgents stuffing corpses with explosives. Each carcass sighting triggered a call over the radio warning all vehicles in our convoy to avoid the remains. The idea of an Army convoy swerving to avoid roadkill was incredibly comical. We came to Iraq searching for WMDs, but now a dead, stray dog was enough to change our course for fear we would become roadkill. The scourge of the American soldier in Iraq is the improvised explosive device (IED). IED’s consist of any easily concealed explosive and are constructed to detonate via a tripwire or a pressure plate. IEDs are such an effective weapon because dead animals, pop cans, the shoulder of the road, and freshly paved potholes become hiding spots. Trash litters many roads, so it is challenging to distinguish an IED from a harmless piece of garbage. Thus, IEDs became the insurgency's weapon of choice.
On the first day of the convoy, we had risen at two-thirty, begun driving at a quarter to four in the morning, and moved at an average speed of thirty miles an hour, two hundred-forty miles. So, we were exhausted as we pulled into Scania, a fueling and staging area for convoys, but we were also relieved that we had not drawn any contact or hit any IEDs. I began wiping the still-dripping sweat from my body with baby wipes. Luckily my body odor was concealed by the smell of diesel fuel permeating the air. I sat down to eat a slimy meatloaf from an MRE (Meal Ready-to-Eat). I chatted with my fellow soldiers for a while as we played cards. Unfortunately, everybody was too tired to say much or concentrate on the cards.
Setting up my cot, I could hear an eerily faint but distinct call to prayer reverberating through the stale air. Crawling into my sleeping bag and attempting to unwind by listening to my MP3 player, I drifted off to sleep. Mere minutes passed before I was roused by a steadily increasing rain. I could not believe it was raining. During the three months we spent in Fort Lewis, it rained constantly. During our three weeks of training in California, the skies opened, setting daily rainfall totals. A light sprinkle greeted me as I stepped off the plane onto Kuwaiti ground. Now, it was pouring in the middle of the Iraqi desert. I felt like I was living tucked between the pages of A Farewell to Arms. I do not recall the song playing as I drew my head into my waterproof sleeping bag, but the replay in my mind has U2 imploring me not to let the beautiful day get away.
The following morning, I woke from a restless sleep at six and prepared my Humvee for the final fifty miles to Baghdad International Airport. The sun had yet to rise, but the previous night's rain had evaporated upon contact with the scorched land. As I sat behind the wheel of Shitty-Shitty, Bang-Bang, desperately trying to shake the sleep from my body, Morris, a platoon member, rapped on my window with a goofy grin on his face and handed me a big fat cigar. Via the commander's satellite phone, word had arrived that Morris’s wife had given birth to a baby girl the previous day. This news represents the beginning of a trend that would persist throughout our year-long deployment. Though we were over 6,000 miles from home, news of births, deaths and other typical day events would filter through. Of course, it was good to hear news from friends and family, but it made concentrating on the mission harder, with thoughts of home consuming your mind. It's a strange feeling to be stuck in the desert, worried about dying while the rest of the world goes about living. At any rate, I did not have much time to congratulate Morris because the order to begin the final leg of the convoy came over the radio.
As we drew nearer to Baghdad, the desert landscape slowly receded, and a bustling urban area began to take shape. This area consisted of concrete houses two to three stories high, and while most were neutral in color, some of them were striking shades of pink, red, and purple that made the cityscape appear very vibrant. Occasionally we would see, towering above the houses, the tall, slender towers of beautifully designed mosques. On the highway's shoulder were shacks constructed from palm trees that sold water, pop, food, gas, and many other things. Walking dangerously close to the congested streets were groups of kids, some waving small American flags and some carrying rocks that they would hurl at us as we passed. The children wore western-style pants and tee shirts and, more often than not, were barefoot. Among the adults in the area, it was a mix of western clothing and the traditional robes and headdresses of the region. The foot traffic was heavy, and it was fascinating to catch a glimpse of Iraqi culture on display, but we had to bear in mind that we were not tourists and hidden in the crowds of people were insurgents that wanted to kill us.
I only had time to soak in part of the scene because we arrived in the area during rush hour. The highway had three lanes, but the local commuting population had little patience, so they sometimes took to the shoulder or the meridian of the road to pass vehicles. This erratic driving was a significant problem because we were under order to prevent Iraqi vehicles from mixing with our convoy. A successful insurgent tactic was to insert a slow-moving vehicle into an American convoy to break a large convoy into smaller, more easily ambushed parts. We worked hard to prevent this from occurring, but the traffic was so heavy that it was nearly impossible to prevent cars from zooming in and out of our convoy. The constant mix and traffic flow were unnerving because any vehicle could attack us at any moment, so we had to maintain continuous awareness.
Next time you're stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, imagine someone on the crowded street wants you dead. It could be any, all, or none of the cars a mere two feet from either side of your vehicle. Everyone is a suspect because the killers wear no uniform, and their intentions are unknown until they attack. Do not assume they are enemies because a person is carrying an AK47. Nearly every male has a weapon, but you are only allowed to engage them if they point their gun at you in a threatening manner. Furthermore, you must note every piece of trash within twenty-five meters of your vehicle because it could be an IED. Garbage lines the streets, so concentrate on looking for wires coming out of the trash. Wires can be hard to see through the sweat dripping into your eyes despite the goggles you wear as protection from the sand. As your goggles start to fog up, with one hand on the wheel, you clumsily pull them on top of your Kevlar helmet. A flash in the corner of your eye reveals a little boy running directly in front of your vehicle. Of course, you slam on the brakes and your vehicle, despite the added weight of sandbags and steel doors, comes to a screeching halt just inches from the child. As you loosen the snaps on your body armor to relieve the pounding in your chest and the constriction in your lungs, the boy's uncle hits you broadside with a rocket-propelled grenade. This scenario is extreme but not unrealistic, and it represents precisely the type of pressure we were under as we convoyed through Baghdad.
Insurgents would do anything to attack American convoys, warned our pre-convoy briefer. Reports stated insurgents would push women and children in front of trucks to get them to stop. Our instructions were not to stop, slow down, or swerve for anything or anyone. Once a vehicle has stopped, the opportunities to attack are limitless. In short, we were ordered not to swerve around pedestrians because they could be trying to redirect us near an IED.
At one point, our convoy got caught in a stop-and-go situation as we attempted to get through a busy intersection. Stopped, I scanned the area for any threats. I spotted a group of five or six Iraqi men on the road's right shoulder. One man slowly but surely pushed a bicycle closer to the highway's center lane and our convoy. When we stopped, he would push the bike closer to the convoy. When we moved forward, he would stand still and wait for us to stop so he could begin inching closer again. When I was thirty feet from the guy, he had managed to creep his way within inches of the convoy. I looked into his eyes in an attempt to understand his intentions. Was this just a guy wishing to get across the road? Is he the insurgent we are continually searching for? His face betrayed nothing.
When we started moving again, the guy positioned himself directly in front of my Humvee. As I began to accelerate in his direction, he held his position. Seconds before I would have run him over, he pulled back. I have never witnessed a bullfight, but I imagine this is what it looks like when a bull is charging full force only to have the cape and bullfighter slide deftly out of the way. Of course, the difference being a bull has no conscience. Without looking at me, Sergeant Williams asked, "Would you have run him over?" My answer was a quick curt "Yes." We did not speak another word about this incident as we continued the convoy.
I do not know if the guy intended to harm me or cross the highway. I do know that I would not have stopped, swerved, or slowed down. I do not know if this guy realized how close he came to being killed. I know I came within inches of becoming a killer. What does this say about me and my country that placed me in that position? I am certainly no saint, but I have always tried to do the right thing in my life. This non-incident has forced me to reconsider my self-identity. Can someone willing to take a stranger's life out of fear for their own be good? Springsteen's "Devils & Dust" succinctly describes the feeling of killing parts of your soul to protect your life. Removed from the situation, I often wonder what I have lost.
As we pulled into Camp Blackjack, the camp that would be our home for the next year, our sweat and sand-coated faces broke into smiles. We had run the gauntlet without being shot at or hitting any IEDs. We fully realized the improbability of this happening when EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) swept the last five miles of our route, revealing seven IEDs a few hours after our arrival. Additionally, a convoy an hour earlier came under small arms fire. How we managed to avoid an attack, I will never know. After arriving safely, we felt like we had accomplished something incredible. In a picture taken immediately after our arrival, I wear my dust-covered Battle Rattle. My M16 casually slung across my back; I am staring into the camera doing my best tough guy impersonation, smoking the fat cigar Morris had given me. The moment captured by the photograph, I felt I had just walked through fire and come out unscathed on the other side. The reality of the situation was that this was day two in Iraq with three hundred sixty-three left to go.
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Elvis Leighton is the Program Manager of the Credentialing and Privileging Office at the Minneapolis VA Healthcare System. He has worked in numerous positions within the VA for the past nineteen years. Elvis served in the Minnesota Army National Guard from 2002 to 2008. He served with Delta Battery 216th ADA, attached to Task Force 4-5 ADA of the First Cavalry Division in Baghdad, Iraq from March 2004 to March 2005. Mr. Leighton’s story American Cliché was published in the anthology These Fought in Any Case: A Collection of Poems and Short Stories by Veterans.