News: Crossing the Finish Line After Eight Long Years
CAMP VIRGINIA, Kuwait — The date was March 20, 2003. Do you remember what you were doing? I was in college at the University of Minnesota. My friend and I would both turn 21 on the same day during Spring Break. So we organized a group of friends to celebrate our golden birthday on March 21, 2003 in Las Vegas. We planned to walk the Vegas Strip in suits with open shirt collars channeling our inner Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Tony Bennett, enjoying life and friendship. We traveled separately planning to meet up in Vegas to enjoy a birthday drink at the Bellagio. Along the way however, the world changed.
I had decided to stop first for a couple days in Arizona to see my aunt and uncle near Phoenix. I hadn’t seen them in a few years and thought this was the perfect time to do so, allowing us time to go to dinner to celebrate my birthday before I made the quick flight to Las Vegas. While we waited for our meals, we looked up at the TV to see an explosion. The infamous shock and awe had started. I sat there staring at the TV, not knowing at the time I was one year away from enlisting into the Minnesota National Guard, four years away from earning my commission as an engineer officer, and eight years away from putting my boots on ground in the very region I saw light up on TV that night.
My story is far from unique. Over eight years many of my college friends put down their backpack and picked up a rucksack. My brothers served, one in the Marine Corps, one in the Air Force. We all joined the U.S. Census Bureau’s estimated .47 percent of the U.S. population who has fought in the Global War on Terror. Each one of us with a unique and special story, along with the families we left behind. Eight years of war leads to countless missed births and birthdays, holidays and anniversaries, children’s dance recitals, concerts, and sporting events. Eight years of war reshapes families; there have been many marriages and many divorces. Young, fresh faced soldiers leave time and again, only to return with weathered, more matured faces. Eight years of war has led to scars, some seen, some unseen. And eight years of war contains inconceivable, untold acts of valor and the pain and sadness from losing far too many of our brothers and sisters in arms who laid the ultimate sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
The war in Iraq has most certainly been a marathon. As any distance runner knows, even though you finish the race and cross that line, you are not done yet. You need to catch your breath and reset before you leave the race area. Welcome to Camp Virginia, one of the bases in the Kuwaiti desert where soldiers and equipment come to catch their breath and await their flight home. While the fight continues in distant lands to our east, after eight long years, the guns here will soon fall silent and it will be all quiet on the western front.
Eight years of war has led to a large, well-established footprint by U.S. and coalition forces. A significant amount of equipment and resources that were moved into Iraq now needs to be moved out of Iraq. To accomplish the largest draw down of military personnel and equipment in nearly four decades, convoys are organized, gun truck escorts are spun up to provide security, routes are planned, and equipment is packed. Think of it as Uncle Sam’s moving crew with an armed security force.
I rode along in one of the gun trucks, as part of the Convoy Escort Team. This is a group of armored gun trucks in the Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected family of vehicles, itself a product of eight years of war. The group I’m traveling with is the St. Cloud, Minn., based Delta Company, 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 194th Armor of the 1st Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry “Red Bull” Division, led by the CET Commander 1st Lt. Christopher Bingham, an armor officer from Sartell, Minn. This is their story.
We started on Nov. 13 at 10:30 in the morning, having already received an intelligence and pre-mission briefing the night before. We arrive at the trucks to load our gear before moving to the weapons vault to draw our weapons for this week-long journey. The destination for this mission is Contingency Operating Location Warrior, a round-trip journey to Kirkuk, Iraq over 1,000 miles in distance. To get there we’ll travel by Main Supply Route Tampa, a well established paved highway and one of the main highways through Iraq. We’ll travel up through Kalsu, Taji, Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, before arriving in Kirkuk.
We began our journey by heading north to Camp Buehring to link up with the transportation battalion we’ll be escorting, as well as the trucks contracted to assist with the draw down driven by third country nationals. Known as “white trucks,” these trucks are flatbed trailers used for hauling equipment, shipping containers or vehicles out of Iraq. Bingham described how working with TCN drivers can be challenging, “We have drivers from Pakistan, India, the Philippines, countries in Africa, so there’s definitely a language and cultural difference. Having to work with them in the event of an emergency, whether it be a breakdown or altercation with the enemy, how they react is different every time and some of the things we’ve seen them do just kind of makes you scratch your head, they’ll definitely keep you on your toes.”
After nearly three hours at Camp Buehring, we headed up the road to Khabari Crossing, known as K-Crossing or K-X. Khabari Crossing is the border crossing into Iraq where convoys are lined up and checked by both Kuwaiti and U.S. Navy Customs going in and out of Iraq. As we pulled in we topped off our fuel as well as the spare fuel cans, known as Jerry Cans, we’d need to top off in Iraq during the journey between bases. With the draw down taking place, there are fewer places to stop for fuel, so you have to bring extra in case you are delayed reaching your destination. Once complete, the vehicles are lined up, checked, weapons mounted in the turrets, and a final coordination meeting held.
We go through the route, latest intelligence information, go over safety procedures and say a group prayer for protection before crossing into Iraq. We put our body armor on, weighing about sixty-five pounds. We don our Kevlar helmets, eye protection, flame retardant gloves, and strap in for the first leg in the long journey. To equate what this feels like, drive from Minneapolis to Chicago with a two year old child strapped to both your chest and back with a sack of potatoes on your head, and you can’t take them off. After all is set, Bingham gives the command to move out. As wheels begin turning, he calls out the procedural security checklist, ending by confirming we are all buckled in with our NASCAR style five-point harness seatbelts, playfully stating, “And the kids are tucked in.”
At 5:30 pm we cross the border and enter Iraq, loading magazines of live ammunition into our individual weapons. Inside the truck you can hear the click of the magazine being seated in each of our weapons. You instantly recognize that this is not a training range back at Camp Ripley with green inanimate pop-up targets, this is the real thing. Welcome to war.
Three hours later, we stopped on the side of MSR Tampa to conduct a “hot splash,” adding fuel from Jerry cans with the truck running. Stopping in Iraq is full of concerns for possible threats. While we stop, our gunner, Cpl. Andrew Matthews, an infantry sniper from Elk River, Minn. is actively scanning in his turret, the truck crew’s external eyes and ears. “I like it,” he says. “I can see what’s going on and if something happens I can handle it properly.” Fueling procedures entail holding the fuel can with one hand while keeping the other hand on your rifle. Once complete and back in the truck, we find out there is an issue with one of the white trucks, prompting what turns into an hour and a half unexpected delay. The truck crew keeps the mood light and passes the time with conversations ranging in topics from Christmas music, to the best dining facility in Iraq (waffles made at Camp Adder was the winner), to sports and the upcoming Monday Night Football game featuring the Packers playing host to the Vikings, to the history of the area and current events.
Finally, at 3:00 am, we arrived at Forward Operating Base Kalsu. We are given a large tent with no working heat. On this cold desert night, we dress in layers and lay down on our cots. We’re told the dining facility caught on fire the day prior, so we’d have to eat prepackaged military field rations called Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs. Delta Company’s first sergeant, 1st Sgt. Dale Klitzke, a tank soldier from Woodbury, Minn. adds a surprising comment about the draw down, “I’ve had two deployments to Iraq, and this is the first time I’ve had to eat an MRE.” It’s also a blackout base, meaning that to prevent sniper and mortar risks, no lights are turned on at night, causing everyone to travel with a flashlight to find their way. We stay at FOB Kalsu until 8:47pm. As we leave, we hear over the radio a convoy was hit by an IED with casualties on the road we will travel through in Baghdad. The level of alertness increases even more while our thoughts, and prayers, turn to those hit.
Driving through Baghdad means traffic, just like any large city in America. Unlike in America however, Iraqi drivers often decide they don’t want to wait and will cross over into oncoming traffic, throw on their hazard flashers driving against traffic before crossing back over. We drive past bullet riddled street signs and Mosques adorned with fluorescent lights, similar to those seen on casinos in Las Vegas. We sit in stopped traffic while the scene of the IED strike is cleared; carefully scanning all around our trucks for signs of what the crew dubs “shenanigans.” It’s serious business, and you can tell the camaraderie of this crew is strong.
From time to time someone will make a radio call pointing out their observations; movement on the side of the road, vehicles approaching, and description of people seen in the area. Cars cross from the northbound lane we are in over to the southbound lane to travel against traffic while southbound trucks, cars, multiple High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles, commonly known as Humvees, full of Iraqi army soldiers, even a scooter with two Iraqi soldiers on the back travel south, heading right at these impatient drivers as they try to navigate their way north, erratically dodging each other. Meanwhile an Iraqi Policeman shines a green laser at drivers to get their attention while all this is taking place. We all just wait for what seems like an inevitable crash. Tension is broken with comments of disbelief in what we are seeing on the road, “Imagine this happening during rush hour on 35-W…” (I-35W, a major highway in Minneapolis). We witness a near miss between a car trying to wedge its way between two southbound vehicles traveling in neighboring lanes, causing swerving all over the road to avoid a head-on collision. Someone keys the radio adding his commentary, “You just can’t make this stuff up.”
We reach Taji in the early morning hours, grab a bite to eat at the dining facility before bedding down in a barn-like heated structure where soldiers are gathered around a TV to watch the Green Bay Packers play the Minnesota Vikings on Monday Night Football. We leave Taji at 6:30 pm, traveling through areas with young military-aged males standing around in groups while our gunners scan attentively in their turrets. They notice every detail, every person, and after traveling these roads multiple times, notice even when rocks and garbage are moved. We get word we have a friend upstairs, an Apache helicopter gunship is following us, providing a security blanket in the air. Suddenly, a white truck makes a wrong turn off the road causing the convoy to stop while a gun truck diverts to turn them around, another unexpected delay in travels.
Different areas of Iraq have different feelings towards the U.S. Some are favorable, some are not. Tikrit, home to former dictator and president of Iraq Saddam Hussein, is the latter. We are greeted with an Iraqi Police checkpoint, one of many of these along MSR Tampa, and a sign written in both Arabic and English welcoming you to Tikrit City. It is calm, almost seeming too calm for 11:00 pm. We continue to be attentive to our surroundings, relaying observations throughout the convoy. We drive past a riverside palace Saddam had in Tikrit, cross the Tigris River and drive through some sort of marketplace area. Suddenly, we are called to stop. A fist-sized rock has been thrown through a white truck’s window, hitting the driver in the head and he needs medical attention.
Rock throwing is regular threat. We are not talking about pebbles you skip across a calm lake on a warm summer day. These are usually big rocks, bricks, chunks of broken concrete or cinderblocks, varying anywhere in size from fist size to bowling ball size, or even larger. Calling it a rock is metaphorically like saying the Titanic bumped into an icy object in the night. Boulder tossing may more accurately describe this act. They are hurled at the white trucks in anger that the drivers are assisting Americans. They also know their rocks will do little if any damage to the armored behemoths we drive. Our combat medic sprang into action providing medical aid to the driver. As a young Specialist, Tyler Sparks is a motivated soldier from St. Cloud, Minn., who loves his job and that he can help people in need. He assessed the situation and treated the driver for a cut that will need stitches at the medical facility at COL Warrior once we arrive a few hours later.
Two hours later we stop again, another white truck is having mechanical troubles in a very hilly area in this more northern region. White trucks frequently break down because they are not well maintained, are often jerry-rigged in some fashion and regularly run on bald tires. Their standards are significantly different from US standards. We have also now lost our air cover and we see lightning in the distance. At 3:07 am, we finally arrive at COL Warrior, but it takes 2 hours to finally get through the gate. There is a language barrier and confusion between us and the Ugandan TCNs contracted to secure the gate. Frustration builds as we sit waiting hungry, cold and tired; however knowing we are safely at COL Warrior helps ease the tension.
We park our trucks and head into the dining facility for breakfast. At 6:07 am sirens suddenly sound, warning that incoming mortar fire was detected. Eight mortar rounds land in COL Warrior, one only about 300 meters away from the reinforced dining facility that we safely sat in waiting for the all clear to sound. Later we’d see explosive ordnance disposal clearing the mortar that landed near us.
Our convoy came to COL Warrior to haul equipment out of Iraq. With the shifting of the draw down timeline over the last few months while the US military presence in Iraq was discussed, adjustments to the plan to leave Iraq have been frequently made. This has led to confusion over what equipment to take, when to take it, and what equipment will simply be left behind and turned over to the Iraqis. Cost analysis is conducted to determine what it would cost to haul items out and ship them elsewhere in the world, including the risk to soldiers’ lives, rather than leaving it. But everyone is still amazed by the amount of stuff left behind. Only half of the white trucks and transportation trucks are loaded; there will be more to pick up as we travel south in Taji or Kalsu.
Information reports indicated enemy mortar attacks were likely in the morning; stemming from tribal disagreements. We are told senior U.S. commanders have recommended that anyone that can leave tonight do so, even going so far as to line up F-16 and F-18 planes to provide air support for those convoys that can head out the gate tonight. This information convinces us that we will need to leave COL Warrior earlier than expected, even though it means traveling through areas that are unfavorable to the U.S.
We decide to mitigate any additional risks by leaving quickly, at midnight, in order to avoid morning traffic in Tikrit. The leaders hastily assemble the best plan possible based on knowledge and experience. No one doubts the plan, confidence is high. Everyone is rolling tired, but there is no option for more sleep. Everyone is on high alert nonetheless, hoping for a calm drive, but not fully convinced we will have one. Welcome to life in a convoy escort team.
“I’m constantly war-gaming in my head how I’m going to maneuver my trucks and how we’re going to react to any possible scenario that might come up” states Bingham. He is active on the radio, maintaining contact with his gun trucks and with the transportation unit we are escorting. Cpl. Matthews, our gunner, is actively scanning, checking every object on the side of the road, every bridge, relaying his observations. The other gunners do the same, sharing their observations over the radio. The smell of burning tires fills the air. Tires are regularly burned in large batches and the smell is easily identifiable with how common the practice is. To our relief, we arrive at Taji at 6:55 am after a calm, non-eventful drive. We clear our weapons and refuel our trucks. You always fuel your truck and prepare it in case you need to leave quickly or react to a situation. We sleep and prepare to leave later that evening.
As we get ready to leave we learn we would not be rolling out tonight and we turn around and head back to get some more rest. In the Army, change is constant, and soldiers constantly adapt and overcome, adjusting to always accomplish the mission. Soldiers start joking that as soon as we lay down we’ll get word to leave tonight. It’s almost like they experienced this before. And, true to form, not fifteen minutes into unloading the trucks, we get word to pack back up; a change in plans now has us pushing to FOB Kalsu tonight to pick up a load there instead. The soldiers look dejected, yet you could tell they saw this coming. Lt. Bingham comments, “We haven’t had a hard [start] time yet, especially lately.” This has led to frustrated soldiers and challenges in mission planning. But they are used to this by now and there is no time to dwell. What might have been is quickly forgotten about as attention is immediately turned to what needs to be done to prepare, and conversation shifts to other topics.
We don’t have a time yet as to when we’ll leave, but we sit waiting. Soldiers comment how the draw down seems very reactionary in nature; loads aren’t prepared or fully allocated. The previously light-hearted and high-spirited mood faded quickly as fatigue sets in. Yet despite all of this, soldiers find humor stating that this is the Army and nothing new to them. One jokes, “This plan probably briefed well in a good looking PowerPoint.”
We finally leave Taji at 11:22 pm and get to FOB Kalsu three hours later. Seven convoys arrived at FOB Kalsu, so we sit at the gate waiting our turn to enter. We learn we will stay at FOB Kalsu for 24 hours. It is a nice extended rest that is needed by all. Some take advantage of the extra time and go to the gym ahead of the eight to ten hour drive back to K-Crossing. We leave at 3:54 am traveling south, ready to be home.
Almost three hours later, a white truck driver signals he has a breakdown. TCN drivers got out, looked at the truck, then almost in a pre-planned choreographed manner, they knelt down and began praying. We realized we were duped; the break down was a feint in order for the drivers to take a prayer break. Chuckling, we decide to make the most of the stop and conduct a hot splash.
Prayer time finishes, fueling is completed, and we begin to move again. We are within eye sight of the Ziggurat of Ur. Dating to the Biblical times of Abraham more than 4,000 years ago, the Ziggurat of Ur is one of the oldest buildings in the world still in existence. It is impressive to see, even in the distance. We finally reach K-Crossing at 11:08 am, Nov. 19, six full days after we left Camp Virginia. Days have run together, only separated by legs of the journey and timelines rather than what a calendar says the day is. We clear Navy Customs, refuel our trucks and leave for Camp Virginia 40 minutes after arriving at K-Crossing. The convoy will take the equipment we escorted to Camp Virginia or another base in Kuwait to await movement out of the region.
In a few days, these soldiers will do this process all over again, going to another base in Iraq, providing security for equipment leaving after eight years of war. “I really enjoy it,” says Lt. Bingham. “It’s always different when we go out, we’re always stopping at a different base, meeting and working with a lot of different people when we go out. We’ve been all over the country of Iraq. It’s never boring; it’s never the same mission twice.” He also has observed many changes during the draw down process. “The bases have become very bare-bones. Before, the bases we’d stop at would have a fully functioning PX (Post Exchange, an on-base store), gym, eating establishments on the base, billeting was always guaranteed. But now when you go up, you never know where they are at in their closure period, whether hot meals are available, showers, so it forces us to be proactive in what we bring. We never used to have to bring cots or MREs, but now that’s a staple we have to bring.”
These soldiers have a front row seat in history, witnessing the biggest post-war draw down since the end of the Vietnam War. Every day more soldiers and equipment cross the finish line, one step, one convoy closer to the end. After an eight year marathon, soon it will be all quiet on the western front.
Date Posted:12.13.2011 07:41
Location:CAMP VIRGINIA, KW
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