Tal Afar was nothing like Mosul. We had been moved up from Mosul after our battalion commander, in a bid to get to ‘where the fighting was’, handed over our sectors to the Iraqi Police and Army and declared ‘Mission Accomplished’. He was bucking for a chance to go to Ramadi, where the marines were limited to moving around at night and the fighting was thick and furious. I reckoned that the ploy was transparent (I found out years after the fact that the CG in charge of Northern Iraq didn’t think much of our Colonel) in its attempt to get some serious war ink on his record and in all likelihood a lot of us killed. The 172nd Stryker Brigade was not what I would call the most ‘elite’ of organizations. I had come from the 1/501st PIR, and served a tour of duty on the eastern border of Afghanistan, so I had a frame of reference that many of the ‘captains’ who had promoted from second lieutenant to captain were lacking. Mainly that there was no need to go looking for fights in a hostile country, because sooner or later they find you.
The terrain around Tal Afar put me in an Afghanistan frame of mind. It was not the urban rat warren of winding streets mixed with broad thoroughfares that made combat a nightmare, but open desert and softly rolling hills out in the distance. The mornings and the dusk were the best time, with the sun turning everything a burnt orange and giving a soft focus to the sharp angles of military equipment and raising a desert wind to cool things down.
Being up well before the sun had broken the hills had helped with my mood, and I made my way over to the massive chow hall with our Forward Observer (FIST) Chief, a 6’5 and 270 pound hulk of a man named SSG Dettin. The news he had for me brought me crashing back down. We had gotten back a little late from a trip to Camp Spicher, dropping off assorted REMFs at the massive base in the middle of the desert. It was one of the many ‘rear areas’ that the generals claimed did not exist in this ‘COIN’ war, with its formation runs, hard structures, beautiful chow hall and mall like PX. The personnel there did not carry weapons as they moved about in the shorts, t shirt, and reflective gear that made up the physical training uniform, perhaps coming to and from the swimming pool that was rumored to be on base. We could never get a hard answer about the pool, just a lot of sideways smirks and non-committal remarks. Support personnel seemed to discover their survival instinct when alone with combat troops, especially infantry troops who were voluntold to take them away from the war we had to live with. They rightly assumed that we might have hard questions for someone who was fleeing the rocket filled nights we dealt with so they could talk to their girlfriends on webcam and lie about what they were doing over here.
The bad news Dettin had received came from a late dinner with the Captain and the First Sergeant. The Captain (Who we called Captain Head because of his massive skull that required special order soft caps) had heard there was a collection of officers from Special Operations Command (SOCOM) who were going to be at the Fort tomorrow, and he had some ‘hot intel’ he wanted to share. Hot intel is one of those military misnomers like friendly fire, which isn’t what it sounds like. Generally a hot tip meant us sitting on a village in cordon mode for 8 hours before we searched for the high value target that Intelligence or the CIA swore was somewhere in there only to find that the dude had the same name but looked nothing like the hard eyed young man who’s picture we had been given.
I had spent twelve hours rolling around in the vehicle commander’s turret of my Stryker yesterday, and turned in early to hit the empty gym, catch midnight breakfast and then go back to sleep for a little bit. However I appreciated the heads up, and assured the good sergeant that the Stryker would be sufficiently stocked with provisions for what was probably going to be a long ugly day. I finished my omelet and went to find my driver.
Murk was one of those guys who would have benefited from arriving at a high speed unit. Instead, he got the 172nd Stryker Brigade and specifically 4/23 Infantry. This unit had been stood up with a handful of NCOs scattered throughout the battalion with whole classes of basic training privates shipped up to Fort Richardson, Alaska. This led to discipline problems that included underage drinking, drug use, and one private knifing his Private First Class team leader and getting a 30 day trip down to Fort Lewis because of the incompetence of the MPs, as opposed to the long term in Leavenworth he deserved.
Murk’s discipline had never really developed, since his first FISTer Chief had been more concerned with completing his Warrant Officer packet, and SSG Dettin was trying to repair the damage that had been done over a course of years. As a Specialist and fellow enlisted man, I was allowed certain liberties that a non-commissioned officer was not. When I couldn’t or didn’t care to charm an unruly Murk, I would beat him with my fists. This was known as ‘wall to wall’ counseling in the Army’s parlance, and was considered an acceptable practice as long as I didn’t mark him too badly and kept it ‘reasonable’ as Murk’s disciplinary problems were well known throughout the company.
I went back to the trailer I shared with three other soldiers – all Forward Observers – and was surprised to see Murk was up already, blinking in the dimmed lights of our shared quarters. I handed him a pastry I had swiped for him and explained what was going on.
“You’re fucking kidding me,” he said in between bites, washing it down with an energy drink he had rat holed. “We were on the road yesterday all fucking day.”
“Yeah, I know,” I responded, rising. “Just get your boots on cause we’re low on drinks and stuff and have to get ice before we roll.” I was about to walk out just as Lieutenant Zig was walking in.
“Sir,” I said as I stepped outside, snapping off a quick salute.
“Specialist,” he said as he returned the salute, looking in the dark interior of the trailer. “I just wanted to see if you gentleman had gotten the word.”
“Yes Sir, we did. I was just going to stock up before we got moving,” I responded.
LT Zig nodded and looked thoughtful for a moment. “Do you need a hand?” he asked.
As far as officers go, and especially second lieutenants, I liked LT Zig. He didn’t make the two most common mistakes of trying to be everyone’s buddy, or trying to be a hardass. He wasn’t interested in playing politics among the officer’s coven, and generally you knew what you were going to get with him, and he would turn a hand towards manual labor as well. Most importantly, he knew about discretion. I had met him when I was coming back from R&R in Qatar and he was arriving for his initial posting, and had been less than glowing about the state of the unit. As far as I knew, that conversation had remained private. I felt like I could trust him to ‘walk away’ from a situation he felt like he shouldn’t be involved in and not drop a dime on me.
Murk came out of the trailer, closing it behind him and carrying two rucksacks. Rain and Finger were still sleeping, and weren’t required for today for some reason unknown to me. Murk was the driver and I was the vehicle commander, and while Finger or Rain could drive the Stryker, I guarded the vehicle commander’s turret jealously and rode in it rain or shine so I always left with my vehicle.
Murk looked at the lieutenant with some surprise, snapping off a salute with a smirk, which LT Zig returned cheerily enough. The three of us made our way over to the supply trailers. Imagine a hollow square with the edges made up of boxcars with the doors facing inwards and you will have the layout of the supply depot in your mind.
The ‘guards’ had fallen asleep, and they were curled up against each other as we approached, their rifles on the ground and curled up in a poncho liner. LT Zig moved as if to kick them awake and berate them for a bit, but I grabbed his arm and made a calming gesture with my hand.
“We need to get the supplies first,” I explained.
He looked back at them, and then continued to walk over. He looked in, I saw him write something down and then move back to where me and Murk stood. “The Chief gets what he deserves,” LT Zig said as we continued to walk into the storage depot, Murk handing me a rucksack.
Quickly, we raided the supply depot for energy drinks, sports drinks, and snacks, all known colloquially as ‘pogey bait’. We were only allowed to take one energy drink and one ‘snack’ from the chow hall when we left, and they enforced this rule with guards. The three of us filled two rucks with enough energy drinks to operate a power station, among other goodies, and beat feet out of there.
“Does the Captain know that’s why we always have drinks and such?” LT Zig asked as I handed him a honey bun that he tore into.
“He knows, but he doesn’t dig too deeply. I just get what he asks and we leave it at that,” I responded. I was the company scrounger. To many civilians, a scrounger does not seem like an important task. To soldiers, especially senior soldiers, he is the most important man in the company. A scrounger gets what is requested, and it is understood that there are no questions asked. A scrounger is part scout, part hunter, but mostly a bullshit artist. Some people claim there is no difference between a scrounger and a thief, and I disagree with that. A scrounger simply acquires public goods that would be available anyway, a thief steals your personal shit. The line may not be that visible to some, but it is there. I would not touch Murk’s personal supply of energy drinks, for example, but we were all sick of seeing REMFs driving around with cases of them in the back of their trucks whenever they had to leave the wire while we were told ‘that’s why we have a PX’ by smirking support troops when we asked for some as well.
My justifications aside, we split off from LT Zig and headed for the Strykers. I saw that the medics were already up and about, and had brought ice for us as well. I handed them a good number of cans, bottles, bags, and pouches, and they stowed in them in their cooler while Murk did the same for us. Opening up the Stryker, we began to run our checks as the rest of the personnel slowly filtered in for the day’s run to Tal Afar. Murk was responsible for the actual guts of the Stryker, while as a part time RTO when I was working mortars I had familiarity with the magic of Army communications. For the unlearned, this consists of unwieldy plugs and ports being spit in to get some sort of connection so you can maybe possibly upload some data to the radios. Sometimes.
Sitting down on the bench, I felt something under my ass and chucked a big black rubber fist & forearm ‘toy’ up towards Murk’s driver hatch. This was the Forward Observer vehicle, so their peculiar sense of humor bled into the vehicle as well. Once there was an inflatable and anatomically correct sheep that rode around in the crew bay. It was lost when, as a gag, Corporal Finger had tossed it into a crowd asking for ‘baksheesh’. There was a fist fight followed by one young man running down an alley with it, chased by the others.
The radio checks complete, I opened my turret and stepped up into the desert air. The thing I enjoyed most about being at FOB Sykes as opposed to FOB Marez in Mosul was that we weren’t inside the city. Instead we were several miles away, and the air was fresh and without the open sewer smell of the Tigris on a hot day. My good mood had returned as I completed the head space and timing check on the .50 caliber machine gun, followed by a systems check. I slid a piece of brass underneath the butterfly trigger to act as a safety, and hauled the can of ammo from below into its bay next to the gun.
While preparing for the day, SSG Dettin had arrived with Captain Head, the First Sergeant, and several of my mortar comrades who were going out to the field today. Wolfman and Greek piled into the medical Stryker with the First Sergeant, while Corporal Howser and Sudler moved into the Captain’s Stryker with the Scout/Sniper team. Jericho was not present, so I assumed he was staying in today. I was not ‘close’ to the rest of my team for the most part, with the exception of Greek and perhaps Corporal Howser on a good day.
Howser was not one with ‘presence’, and relied on being friends with Wolfman, Sudler, and Jericho, all junior soldiers, to get what he wanted done. Howser had invaded Iraq with the 101st, but never got his Air Assault wings for reasons he did not expand on beyond “I got fucked”. It could be safely assumed he simply did not possess the ability to pass Air Assault School, since nearly everyone in that division has their Air Assault wings. He had failed Sergeant’s School (PLDC or Warrior Leader’s Course, whatever they’re calling it now), and what had been a quiet dislike when I showed up a year ago turned into open resentment after that. It nearly came to blows, but eventually we settled down and could respect each other and get along in a friendly enough fashion.
Greek was another old hand, having rolled into Baghdad with 3rd ID and on his second tour. He was a short, friendly, unpretentious good old boy who had a surprisingly poetic frame of mind. I regret not staying in contact with him after I left, as he was ‘one of the good ones’. He was currently driving the medical Stryker, and gave me a wave as he went through his pre-operation checks.
Captain Head stood about, jawing with the scouts and waving his hands grandly in the direction of Tal Afar. I could imagine that he was promising grand things, and Dettin’s large head popped out of a hatch that opened. His massive shoulders followed, and he tracked my gaze. We both knew what the other was thinking, and so we said nothing.
The drive to Tal Afar was uneventful. Once it had been a tempest of insurgent activity, but General McMaster (famous for the Battle of 37 Easting in the first Gulf War) had settled things down. He had accomplished this by putting a checkpoint at every corner and instituting a strict curfew that would see you shot if you wandered around outside of your house once the sun went down. The saying was that McMaster had killed a third of the original population, made refugees out of another third, and the last third had nowhere to go.
The Fort we were heading to was the remnants of an old Roman fort from the first century that had become a combined Iraqi Police and Army headquarters and barracks. It also held the US ‘advisors’ who were there to ‘train’ the IP and IAs, but spent a lot of time bunkered away in the air conditioned area watching satellite television. Captain Head took off with his scout entourage, while the other mortars and forward observers wandered off to buy some local food from vendors that had been allowed inside of the Fort’s walls.
I stayed behind with the vehicle, lit a small cigar, and opened up a camp stool. Stripping out of my armor, helmet and top, I sat in the shade of the Stryker reading a book while I sweat through my clothes and tried to stay hydrated. I looked up as I heard footsteps, and before I could dive into the Stryker and get my top back on at least I saw a full bird Colonel wearing his full ‘battle rattle’ staring at me as he approached. In my defense, I had my M4 right next to me, but that was going to be of no help.
So I stood at attention after marking my place in the book. “Good morning Sir,” I said carefully.
He paused, licking his lips. He was a short, stout man of either Latino or Filipino extraction, as the name SANTIAGO could go either way. “Pretty hot today, isn’t it troop?” he asked neutrally.
“I’ve sweated through everything I’m wearing,” I admitted.
He nodded. “I thought so. I was going to come over here to ask you why you weren’t wearing your body armor, but I about passed out walking over here. That Stryker doesn’t have air conditioner?”
“No Sir. Just whatever wind we can get blowing through it,” I admitted.
“I thought as much. So yeah, I don’t blame you for trying to cool down where you can. Besides, if I chewed your ass, you probably wouldn’t offer me something cold to drink for me and my Sergeant Major in that cooler,” he said.
I smiled at that, and he returned it. He went his way with a few cans, and I went back to my book until Dettin came up to the truck in a fine lather. Tyler
To be continued. pl