(Note: “PMCS” is Preventative Maintenance Checks and Services, the military’s process of periodic checks on all kinds of equipment. It’s something that we do ad nauseam as a unit with a lot of vehicles.)
Here’s part one of my convoy narrative – it’s a long one, so grab a cup of your favorite beverage (maybe have a drink for me) and read up…[cue lights]…P-M-C-S! [ESPN SportsCenter theme plays]
29 OCT 0800 – Camp Udari, Kuwait
The last night before departing was cool and cloudless, like all nights in the desert. I laid on top of my humvee, listening to Melissa Etheridge, and I actually smiled, thinking of Mrs. Melobi…unbelievable! There I was, in the desert of Kuwait, about to roll into a potential hostile fire zone, sleeping on an uncomfortable canvas roof under the open sky, and I was actually happy!
Today it’s more waiting – the enemy today will be boredom, as the drive is wholly inside Kuwait – just to “Navistar.” Tomorrow the real journey begins, as we cross the border into Iraq and lock and load.
30 OCT 0515 – CSC Navistar, Kuwait
The first elements of the convoy are leaving, departing group by group for the Kuwait – Iraq border, rolling out in the predawn darkness. I’ve been up since 0330, awakened by the beep and crackle of the convoy’s radio checks echoing across the speakers in various vehicles. Under the diesel-powered floodlamps I’m struck by the image of a young woman standing in the back of a humvee. Her eyes are glittering in the blue-white floodlamp blaze; a cigarette dangles from her lips as she does the one-two slapping motion to seal her body armor’s dual Velcro strips. An M240B machine gun – 7.62mm, not the wimpy 5.56mm like my own M249 – rests in its mount beside her, muzzle skyward, awaiting her command. I think to myself: this is why the enemy can’t win – if these are our *women*…
30 OCT 1700 – CSC Cedar II, Iraq
We left Navistar before dawn. From there it’s only 3km to the Kuwait-Iraq border; as we approached, anxiety twisted my gut – this was it, game time, the big show, the Superbowl of PMCS, the culmination of every Army thing I’ve ever done. All the marksmanship, maintenance, first aid, navigation and radio training – all that endless repetition, the struggling to stay awake during classes – could come into play here.
We crossed the border just as the sky was hinting morning’s arrival, painting everything in shades of indigo, navy, and black. The call came to load our weapons; I flipped open my M249’s feed tray cover. It wouldn’t stay locked open. WTF? Looking down, I saw that the barrel – easily removable for quick changes during heavy firing, when hundreds of rounds fired in rapid succession would simply burn out the barrel – wasn’t fully locked in place. Not a problem, I thought; I locked the bolt back, held down the barrel locking lever, and thrust the barrel back into place. It wouldn’t move an inch.
I started to panic a little bit. There I was, just over the border into a hostile fire zone, and my weapon was broken! I examined it more carefully – the gas piston retaining tube had worked itself loose, and when I had removed the barrel earlier to clean it (in near total darkness), I somehow didn’t notice that the loose tube had prevented the barrel from locking in place.
I repaired the weapon and I was back in operation, and we were on our way.
Almost as soon as we were across the border we were met by kids, jumping and waving, giving the thumbs-up and also asking for food. In the south, closer to Kuwait, the kids looked quite poor – many of them didn’t have shoes and their dwellings were mostly mud buildings (though many sported TV antennas or satellite dishes).
Unlike Kuwait, Iraq is relatively green, and there is an abundance of bird and animal life. Even in the south, which seems more arid than the area around Baghdad, there are scenes that border on the pastoral. Shepherds herd their goats and sheep, which graze on the green-brown scrub plants and scattered grass that dots the landscape; others herd their camels or cows through ditches and over hills. One shepherd, managing his herd of goats near the highway, gave one of his charges a swift whack with his goat-herder-stick to keep it away from our speeding convoy, then turned and smiled and waved at us.
31 OCT 0700 – CSC Cedar II, Iraq
I certainly didn’t expect to be awakened by the sounds of birds singing in Iraq.
The birds here are numerous. I’ve seen analogs to cattle egrets, following cows around; falcons speeding over the scrub plains; hawks and eagles soaring overhead; strange, huge crows or ravens with white bodies; and a few different types of shore birds, with long legs and bills, wading in the shallow pools and marshes along the highway.
Birds of a different kind are numerous here too – every half an hour or so you can hear the roaring-tearing sound of a pair of fighter jets flying overhead. Mostly they’re just on their way to or from a mission, but one pair of F-15s seemed to be play-fighting, banking and weaving right over our parked convoy.
Strangely, the food seems be getting better the further north we get. Why aren’t the Army DFACs (Dining FACilities) this good in the US? A wide variety of food, any kind of drink you can imagine (even non-alcoholic beer!), desserts galore – and best of all, they rarely seem to run out of anything (unlike in the US, where if you don’t get there early, your favorite item is likely to be gone). Christ, we even had an elderly Pakistani guy scooping up ice cream cones for us! Though he did get a little angry at PFC Leemo for dropping his cone on the ground…
Just before my part of the convoy left, I walked across the empty staging area to use the porta-potty one last time. As I did, I heard the familiar roar of a Black Hawk helicopter; I turned and saw it hurtling straight at me, maybe fifty feet off the ground, going probably 100 miles an hour or more. The chopper roared right over my head, and the pilot banked as he passed me, waving. I just grinned like an idiot. Hey Mr. Black Hawk pilot, you just made an Army dork’s day!