Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Odd Before the Storm

Sorry for the unannounced and unexpected hiatus. No excuses here; just needed a couple of days away from the computer. I appreciate your understanding.

Ultimately, tonight I would like to talk about the days PRE-Iraq War; yes, that blissful, happy time that found America united against a common enemy but yet bound by a world of total uncertainty. For me, the world was even more surreal as I found myself in the desert wasteland of Kuwait, contemplating and doubting my pending experiences in war.

Before the telling of that tale, however, I want to relate a personal current event. Since the inception of Educated Soldier (and, certainly – by other medium - before), I have affirmed my ardent support for the efforts in Iraq. I was separate from the masses in suggesting that I agreed with entering the country in the inception and, I was like many others, in declaring that we must follow the mission through until its completion- however “completion” may ultimately be defined. While I felt that I had weight in my words because of my experience in Iraq, I still felt hollow in my assertions. For this reason, and many others, I have been in discussion with the liaisons from my campus’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). While the decision is certainly not set in stone, I can say that I am thoroughly contemplating some future participation in the military via the Army’s corps of officers. To those that understand what the following means: I would definitely choose to branch Infantry, if available, and return to Active Duty.

The most daunting obstacle may not be my desire to participate but a few various blemishes on my credit record. I sure hope that these past mistakes don’t prohibit the opportunity to commission should I decide to do so. It is said that the purpose of gaining a security clearance (which dictates the necessity of an investigation where my credit record would be analyzed) is to find if one is trust worthy. I am certainly that. I just missed some bills. That shouldn’t reflect on my ability to be loyal but on my ability (or lack thereof) to make money. But I digress…

I will post more here concerning my possible continued progress in this regard as it presents itself. Until then, moving on...

Kuwait, 2002

While I am sure that the winter of 2002 was a trying and thought-provoking time in the United States, it was surely that and much more for those of us that were in the military at the time. In 2007, it is with no doubt that I can suggest that nearly all members of the Army are quite familiar with the idea of deploying. This wasn’t the case in 2002. While we had troops in Afghanistan, most of these seemed to be Special Forces folks or Airborne troops, either of which seemed steeped in a situation a world away from any mess that I would have to dirty my hands in. True enough, I would never smell the air of the Khyber Pass nor live life on a base in Kandahar; I missed the opportunity to fight in Afghanistan. This surely isn’t to say that I missed the chance to fight altogether, however.

Ultimately, I would get that opportunity – twice. I talked about some of those experiences here, here, and here. The first post told of a devastating situation that occurred while “invading” Iraq from the South. The second, a recovery operation that allowed me to meet the most amazing of United States warriors whom most definitely derived from a Spartan lineage. The third link leads to a story of a sensitive situation: a hostile mosque. My battalion found a way of dealing with and clearing the dangerous facility, but because of the peculiarities of the dynamics presented by a mosque, the results ended in both positive and negative sentiments. Tonight, though, we are tackling something totally differently; life in Kuwait. Life before the Iraq War and life with a band of troops that were absolutely naive towards the conflict that stood before them.

SCENE: Desert night, outside of the group immediately before us, there is no life visible in any direction at any feasible distance. While darkness would conceal such life, none is to be hidden. It simply fails to exist; this is Kuwait – land of only endless, rolling dunes of sand and waves of blistering heat. Tonight, the temperature is bearable. A slight breeze ruffles the flames of a large campfire that is the focus of the scene. Surrounding the campfire, in an unmeasured and roughly thrown-together circle, are humvees; the reflection of the dancing flames visible in yellow-orange on the sides of the lightly armored vehicles. These, however, are not the humvees that are prevalent in 2007. Instead of supplemental armor, many of these have doors removed. Almost all have gas cans mounted on every open piece of external body. Guns are mounted on the tops, ruck-sacks tied to the backs, and orange fabric panels attached to the hoods above the engine compartments.

Seated in folding chairs in various positions within the radius of trucks are leisurely looking soldiers. Most are wearing desert pants; many have no shirts on. Some are wearing sandals, while others wear boots. None of them seem occupied by any important task. Small talk is made but the scene is encompassed, in a general term, by silence.

It is mid-March, 2003. Each of the men of this scene would soon be traveling on a journey unlike any other they have ventured. They are the Combat Observation Lasing Team soldiers of Echo Troop, 9th Cavalry of the Third Infantry Division. In just a few days, they will make one further movement to northern Kuwait, stage there temporarily, and then, ultimately, invade Iraq. However, just a few days before, many of them still doubt if the war is really going to occur.

And this is the unaltered truth. Up until the day that I stood beside a television reporter and watched from about 100 meters the first shots of the war being fired, I was on the side of the argument that truly doubted that this war was going to occur. In Kuwait, prior to the war starting, we – as soldiers – had pretty decent access to the “outside” world. By this point, having established bases in Kuwait for the past six months, we had dedicated internet access in all of our tents. We heard of President Bush’s demands and our leadership suggested that we may soon be entering Iraq. However, the word of confirmation came hardly a second before I was crossing some imaginary border.

What’s interesting is that I knew my role should an invasion occur the day I landed in Kuwait. This isn’t a statement that should ignite a conspiracy theory; this is just how war works. Battle plans and operation orders are developed in preparation for nearly any situation far ahead of the time of utilization. I am convinced that thorough and directed digging would unearth the plan to invade Canada via guerrilla tactics with only small arms and strong motivation; every possible scenario has to be prepared and planned for. What’s peculiar is that the plan regarding Iraq that I was briefed in September of 2002 held nearly without alteration when it was enacted in March of 2003. Of course, in 2002, I paid little note. The winds of war were most definitely not present in Kuwait and we were the only maneuver brigade present in the area of operations. The day of the briefing was only notable, to me, in that it was another of many that I could mark off my calendar until my six month tour in Kuwait would end.

I remember utilizing the makeshift gym on my camp in Kuwait one night early in my deployment. On a radio somewhere, after a weird mix of Arabic-chant-over-string-ensemble followed by Britney Spears-straight-from-America pop, came the “local” military news that is ever present on the only available station: the Armed Forces network. While working out that night, the newscaster explained that the Brigade of the 3rd I.D. that we had replaced would be returning. This was certainly unscheduled and unexpected but, to those of us following events back home, it was recognized as an act of might. My argument was that our President was building forces south of Iraq to force the hand of the dictator to our north to allow for the proper inspection of his weapons arsenal. Soon, we would find out that the 101st Airborne Division would be joining us in Kuwait and still, oddly, war seemed far, far away.

To those that have military experience in the Middle East, this paragraph is dedicated to you. The Kuwait that exists today is not the Kuwait that I struggled through during my initial six months there. Kuwait is sort of an odd country. On its east coast is the beautiful Kuwait City and the equally as appealing Gulf. However, as soon as one exits via highway to the west of Kuwait City, all becomes desert and all also becomes property of the worlds’ allied militaries. One passes a few checkpoints, losing track of all civilization in trade for endless sand, and is suddenly in the middle of the world’s largest military training center. Originally, all the camps in Kuwait were known as “Kabals” and, because no other word does the conditions justice, they “sucked.” At some point, it was decided that “Kabal” was a bad choice of designator and they became known as, originally enough, “camps.” Despite the change in their designations, they always held the same names in honor of the tragedies of September 11th. There were Camps New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Virginia. Soon Camp Connecticut would emerge as well.

If one were to visit these camps now, they wouldn’t have too badly of a time. However, some of the camps would be hard to find as they no longer exist. Instead, they have been replaced by enormous posts in the desert that feel more like home than would a base in Wyoming. The camps remaining are luxurious by Kabal standards. They have KBR-contracted dining facilities, internet access and other amenities. This isn’t to be holier than thou; I also enjoyed such facilities myself. However, in the beginning, these amenities were not to be. This is dedicated to those that suffered with me in those trying times. Remember, we didn’t know war was on the horizon. Had we known, we were too naive to believe. So, at the time, waiting in line for two hours for a phone that may or may not connect with your family members back in the states was a most dire situation. That was the Kuwait that I remember all too well.

Within my platoon, the debate was hot over the argument of whether we were going to war. I said, “No.” I read the internet, I was politically savvy, and I felt that I had a better grasp of the strategy being utilized by Big Government. I was wrong. It sort of worked like this:

A couple of days after the scene that was described above took place, all the units in Kuwait pushed north to tactical assembly areas to stage to fight. It sounds unbelievable, but even there –a few miles south of Iraq- I remained convinced that we were not invading. And little was done initially to refute me. To maintain all assurance of security, no one was absolutely informed that we were entering Iraq until we, absolutely, entered Iraq.

After moving to this new logistical area just south of the Iraq border, the first event occurred that suggested that war may, indeed, be around the corner. Everyone in my camp was instructed to keep their chemical protective suits within reach at all times. The standard performance time for donning these protective suits is eight minutes. It had been since basic training that I had taken any chemical training seriously enough to actually properly don this suit in the allotted time. However, about the same day that we arrived at the assembly area, we would be met by the sound of something never heard before: the siren warning of incoming rounds. Worse, the chemical alarms also sounded. We were being “slimed.” My chemical protection suit, all buttons buttoned, all zippers properly fastened, was in place, on my body in little more than three minutes. Nobody was timing this event, but I can attest that this was true. I helped a couple other buddies don their protective suits. Should I successfully navigate ROTC training in my current situation; events like this will cause me to always take training seriously. I hadn’t in the past and I was lucky that I maintained proficiency despite my lackadaisical nature. I can’t always count on being so fortunate. We weren’t harmed that day in the desert. Saddam had fired a SCUD in our general direction but it fell harmlessly in the desert somewhere near Kuwait City and it contained no chemical materials. Even at this point, I still had strong doubts that we were going to physically enter Iraq.

Sometime that night, my team was ordered on a mission. We were to escort this peculiar gray humvee to a specific point on some map. It wouldn’t be dangerous. In fact, it wouldn’t even take us any closer to the border. The atypical gray humvee happened to be manned by journalist Greg Kelly, his camera crew, and assorted video and computer equipment. My truck and another escorted Mr. Kelly’s to a seemingly random point in the vast desert. All was black; I could hardly discern fifteen feet ahead of me with the naked eye. Mr. Kelly’s crew set up his cameras and equipment and prepped a satellite feed to Fox News headquarters in America. As a lowly driver, I was totally unwitting to what was proceeding before me. On this same note, I truly believe that everyone in our two trucks from Platoon Sergeant to fellow low-ranking Joe were equally as uninformed. Quickly Mr. Kelly’s cameras were rolling, a light was on his face and he was about to go on air…


Let me tell you, as a forward observer, I work with our guys on the cannons often but I had no idea that there was a Howitzer any where near me that night. It was that dark and the tracked vehicle was that quiet. Its eruption echoed throughout the vastness of the night. Suddenly, everything became frenzied. The cannon bellowed several more times, sending rounds into Iraq. Mr. Kelly reported that he was live and the first rounds were being fired in this new war. And I was no more than five feet away. The journalist turned to my platoon sergeant and asked what was going to happen next. My platoon sergeant, ever dedicated to duty, answered truthfully. However, I truly believe that had he suggested that pigs were going to fall from the sky, Mr. Kelly would have informed America, via Fox News, that pigs were about to be fired into Iraq. And that was it; the war had started.

Mr. Kelly did some further journalistic things and, eventually, packed his gear and we returned to the assembly area. After the frenzy of “war” that I had just witnessed, things became again oddly serene upon returning to the logistical area. The war was only open on certain fronts and this wasn’t one of them. My emotions went from “up,” back to steady. The following day I would enter Iraq and they would peak again. Days after, they would flat-line as the “invasion” through southern Iraq proved mostly eventless. The biggest news on any given day during the early ride through Iraq would be the compromising of our team on any certain song to be played in the C.D. player that we had rigged for the journey.

And this is how it started. The night before we rolled into Iraq, I was still convinced that we were not going to go. As we rolled into Iraq, I remained convinced that modern war was fought with air forces and Special Forces soldiers. I even suggested that the only chance of injury for my team would be a wanton missile, which was an act of eerie prophecy.

You know, looking back, I can say, in retrospect, that I was naive in so steadfastly believing that I wasn’t being sent to war. That naivety has comforting values, I guess. It could be suggested that when I first engaged an enemy or when I first saw pure devastation that a loss of innocence occurred. However, I can say this wholeheartedly: I don’t want that naivety back nor do I desire the return to innocence. I am proud of my war experience, proud of service in a just cause and, ultimately, the more I write, the more I yearn to return…