Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Just another Monday

It was a busy morning and I was running a little late. “Did I miss the brief?” “Yessir, but there’s not much today. I was saying that there was an IED at the second overpass on Irish yesterday, followed by small arms fire. Standard Haji TTP. No one was hurt, but keep an eye out. And BDOC says everyone is riding red until further notice.” “Okay, thanks. I’ll take chase today.” “Roger sir.” “Let’s lock and load everyone!”

It’s been a while since I rolled with the guys, and we have new trucks now. Well, not really new, but they have all been upgraded with GPS, re-engineered roll-down style windows (the old ones opened like a vent and sucked dust like you wouldn’t believe), and external bolts for removing the doors after they’ve been half caved in by an IED. Plus, they installed new radios and a fire suppression system for the crew compartment too. If they crammed much more into these things there wouldn’t be room for the crew. As it is, it’s, a bit of a cramped ride for anyone over, say, 4 foot-eleven.

Our little band makes it through the ECP with the usual wave. We used to travel with either two gun trucks, or two guns and a slick - but now all convoys outside the wire have to include at least three vehicles and each has to carry a crew served weapon. As we speed up onto the highway, I glance up at the gunner with his tan coveralls, fire-proof Nomex gloves, and scarf-and-goggles combo covering his face, and, for about the hundredth time, I am reminded of that old Rat Patrol TV series.

We pass the Route Irish Birdman (a statue of a skinny man with wings that Saddam had set in the median), a number of conspicuously whitewashed walls that used to have pictures of el Presidenté on them, an small MP convoy, and, off on the left, the squat stone building that serves as an Iraqi Police station. I am always slightly surprised to see that it is still there, but it’s still standing. Although I know the route by heart, traveling it always elicits that tingle of expectation.

There are an unusually large number of checkpoints set up along Route Irish today, mostly manned by Iraqi troops - probably it’s because of the surge they are supposed to be taking the lead in.

Iraqi patrol closes the road

Iraqi checkpoint

At one point all westbound lanes were closed off and we actually had to cross the median and travel against traffic, sirens blaring. Usually we only use the sirens for intersections or traffic circles, but, well, there it is. Armed convoys don’t stop for other traffic regardless of where it is. I wouldn’t bet that particular trick makes us a lot of friends on the road.

We pass a sand-bagged Iraqi checkpoint manned by a bored machine gunner. He’s wearing a black baseball cap on backwards and points his machine gun at us as we pass - this is so typical, typical of their laquadasical attitude towards the whole war. Even their officers seem to believe that if they can’t make any money off of it, it’s not worth bothering with. Only the holy rollers act like they have any type of mission in life, and unfortunately it is to make everyone else think just like them. What a fucked up country.

Traffic is relatively heavy. I am watching the other cars, observing. I focus on the passengers, sort of leaning forward to the side window, and then back – even though the glass is bullet proof, I’d rather not make myself a visible target through the window for too long. I am wondering which one of them might hate us enough to try to blow us up… the angry looking teenager in the tee shirt, maybe? The unshaven older man with the veiled woman and two kids in the back? The beat up grey sedan with three middle-aged men, all talking at once?

Then, there’s smoke ahead. A lot of it, white & billowing up and out. The turrets all swivel towards the commotion - that’s always a problem because everyone wants to see what’s going on. “Gunner, get back to your six! [watching behind us]. “Rog.” As we approach, it becomes apparent that the smoke is enveloping an overpass, but it’s coming from the street below. I hear the police sirens now, as we start up the incline… “Slow down, lead…” You can hardly see the truck ahead. No one says it, but we’re all wondering, was it a chlorine bomb? What does chlorine gas look like, anyway?

Turns out a car blew up under the overpass, but it didn’t seem to affect the overpass itself. At least our humvees made it across. Emerging from the smoke we picked up speed again. There are two Apaches overhead, headed for LZ Washington in the International Zone, I assume. Corporal Jaeger in the turret waves towards them - it’s always good to have friends overhead.

I am still watching the helos when Jaeger suddenly shouts: SMALL ARMS!!!” “WHAT?” “SMALL ARMS FIRE ON THE RIGHT!! I saw the flash!” Just then the gunner ahead of us opens up, the rat tat tat tat of his 240 seemingly far away in the distance.

Returning fire

Our diesel engine whines loudly as Sgt Lane stomps on the gas… these trucks always seem to struggle with the weight of the armor. We slowly pick up speed… finally, ages later, it seems, our own gunner lets loose: RAT TAT TAT! Empty cartridges glint and tinkle in slow motion as they fall out of the turret…. Combat patrols are taught to stop and engage the enemy - routine convoys like ours are just supposed to clear the kill zone as quickly as possible. “Keep going!” “Can you still see them?” “No, I only saw the flash!” “Oh shit, are they still firing?” “I don’t think so. I can’t see anything.” “What was it?” “Two reports, two flashes, but they could’a been targeting the helos…” “Maybe, I didn’t see any flares.” “That’s only for heat seekers, you dumb shit - not small arms.” “Okay everyone, that’s enough. Keep an eye out in case there’s any more.”

But there was no more that trip, no more bombs or smoke or firing. There never is, it seems, once you’re all keyed up like that, ready to go. After a while the chatter on the radio calms down and once again I am the observer, watching… watching the war and wondering.

In front of the Embassy


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