My pickup from Justice was apparently the last convoy in B Company history, so it’s lucky I got the grand tour.
The state bought our unit a video camera and SPC C had brought it along, so instead of holding my M249 I ran the camera during the trip. It was one of those new-fangled cameras that uses a writable DVD instead of a tape; I was less than impressed, because each disc could only hold about 25 minutes of video, and every time you switched discs the camera would have to access the disc for literally five minutes before being ready to operate.
We cruised the highway at about 55 miles per hour, with little excitement except for SPC C popping off a couple of warning shots from the turret at a car that somehow a) didn’t see a trio of 6000-pound American Army trucks and b) didn’t hear the continual blaring of our horn and siren. Red2Alpha writes about how stupid Iraqis often act; reading his descriptions it’s hard to believe but it’s true. People often don’t see our trucks coming until we’re literally right on top of them, just a heartbeat away from ramming their car or putting rounds into their vehicle. We passed cars full of people jabbering, oblivious to anything happening on the road; others were chatting on their cellphones while driving, like it wasn’t Baghdad but rather Bloomington.
The first leg of the journey was to the Green Zone (or International Zone, as it’s also known), the walled-off area of downtown Baghdad where all the western reporters hole up in nice hotels and file “hard-hitting” reports from the “streets” of Iraq. The place was guarded by Iraqi Army, US Army, and some coalition military that I couldn’t identify – they carried Eastern Bloc weapons (AKs and RPD/RPKs), but wore the old-style PASGT Kevlar helmet and were caucasian and had names that ended in “ivili.” (They weren’t Estonian and they weren’t Polish.)
We pulled in to what used to be a street but was now a corridor of tall concrete barriers, parking the trucks at the far end. The Al-Rasheed loomed beyond the barriers; I saw civilians of various nationalities walking about in the sun, men and women, many well-dressed, carrying on like any other city in the world. Any other city, that is, with fully armed and armored American troops walking around. Either their presence was incongruous or ours was; I couldn’t decide which.
We made our way into the hotel, still wearing our “battle rattle” – helmet, body armor, weapons – and I’d like to say that it immediately felt totally bizarre but it didn’t. In fact, it seemed completely normal: duh, I’m walking into a marble-floored hotel with suit-wearing men walking around and well-lit shops peddling various trinkets lining the halls, and I’m carrying an automatic rifle and 26 pounds of kevlar + ceramic composite body armor. I always wear that shit when I go to the mall back home!
It wasn’t really until I stepped into the “DFAC” itself that I noticed something was amiss. I use quotes because the sign said “DFAC” but the voice in my head said “ballroom”: the ceiling was maybe forty feet high, with yellowish incandescent lamps set in elaborate fixtures; the walls were dark wood paneling; the carpet was probably green and the tables and chairs were…well, typical hotel furniture. The food itself was unexceptional – typical KBR DFAC fare – but the servers were all wearing bowties. And after a month of cold hamburgers and doughy uncooked pizza at Justice, the chili mac and potatoes were like a party in my mouth – I wolfed it down like I was a starving man just rescued from a desert island.
The next stop was FOB Honor to visit our team living out there. Honor is still inside the International Zone, so it was just a quick hop over to their site. Their barracks are in the huge Ministry of Defense building, but they spend a lot of time in the sweet shack they constructed around their vehicles. (See photos #20 for visuals.)
After getting the grand tour, courtesy of The Bear, it was back to the streets again – earplugs in, goggles on, rifle loaded, camera rolling. The final stop was a recon of SSG Jay’s possible future signal site, a place none of us had heard of.
We rolled through a gate manned by a couple of partially-awake Iraqi Army guys, then proceeded down a dirt road between a vast garbage-littered field that might’ve been a soccer field one time (judging from the rusted goals) and a cluster of tan one-story buildings that looked all sorts of shitty. There didn’t seem to be anyone around, though there was one Humvee parked nearby.
Surprisingly (to me, anyway), there were some signal troops there from the 10th Mountain Division, waiting for replacements (I’m sure they were hoping we were them). They were living in a ruined building behind their trucks; as far as I could tell there was no running water, no facilities of any kind – and no security. In fact, it looked like about the dumbest place to be – you might as well set up on a corner in downtown Baghdad. It wasn’t their fault, of course; the whole area just seemed shady and I was thanking my lucky stars I didn’t have to live there.
As we waited on the trucks while El Capitan and LT talked with some major, a pair of guys in Iraqi Army uniforms came walking down the dirt road toward us. They were in uniform, but they had sandals on their feet, which seemed strange. I jokingly asked SPC K if sandals were an authorized part of the Iraqi Army uniform; he didn’t know. The guys approached and they looked like kids, maybe eighteen years old. They grinned and said hello and we shook hands, then they placed their hands over their hearts in a gesture of respect. We did the same. They used their minimal english to try to ask when we were leaving, which seemed a little questionable to me (it’s not like we were occupying a village or anything – the place was abandoned), but I tried to convey that we were on our way out. They seemed to get the picture and smiled and wandered off.
We mounted back up and just as we did, an Iraqi Army truck followed by a pair of ambulances came screaming down the road at us. They stopped right next to us and started to unload a casualty on a cot (guess they didn’t have a stretcher); SFC We’re-All-Gonna-Die leaped out (our resident medic/salty sea-dog or land equivalent) to help, but apparently the Iraqis had taken a wrong turn and were looking for the hospital or something. We hauled ass down the road so we could get out of the way of the ambulances; we pulled over and the ambulances blew by, finding the turn they missed.
Then it was back out the gate and back to Camp Liberty, which, sadly, felt like home.