Ten years ago today, on Veterans Day, I climbed aboard a plane at the Moline airport. I was headed for Fort Dix, New Jersey, to train before heading to Iraq. I was a young private in the Illinois Army National Guard and had graduated basic training just a few short months before we left. This was my first Veterans Day as a veteran of the armed forces and my new uncle, Uncle Sam, was kind enough to buy me a plane ticket and offer me the opportunity to add “combat” in front of the word “veteran.” This is what I had joined for. I was young, in great shape, well-trained, and well-armed. I was excited. I returned home in February of 2006 after being deployed for 16 months. So here I sit ten years later, reflecting on that first Veterans Day and the things I have done. I have traveled to 7 different countries and most of the states, including another deployment to Afghanistan. I’ve jumped out of perfectly good airplanes and helicopters. I’ve gotten a Bachelor’s Degree and now I am working on a Master’s Degree here at WIU-QC, utilizing the benefits I earned. As I sit here today and reflect on where the time went since that first Veterans Day, all I can think of is a quote from a song. As Jerry Garcia put it, “What a long strange trip it’s been.” Enjoy this short story I wrote and please, take a minute today and call or text your family and friends that have served and say a quick thank you.
“Welcome to Baghdad”
It was early January 2005. I had just left Kuwait on a U.S. Air Force C-130 and was on my way to Baghdad International Airport. I was a young Private First Class in the Illinois Army National Guard, the newest member of Alpha Battery, 2nd Battalion, 123rd Field Artillery Regiment. I had no idea what Baghdad had in store for me, I just knew that this is what I had joined for.
We had been flying for hours, the plane packed so tight you couldn’t move a muscle. It was so hot, when would we get there? The guy next to me had thrown up twice already, thankfully into the nice little barf bag they had handed out. It still smelled awful in that cramped little plane, like vomit and sweat. Finally the pilot came over the intercom, “Welcome to Baghdad, fellas. We’re coming in hot for a combat landing.” I remember thinking, “What the hell is a combat landing?” About that time we banked hard to the left, then hard to the right, and then, in what I imagined as a nose dive, straight towards the ground. The guy next to me barfed again, mostly on himself, mostly… damn. We landed hard and came to a stop fast. The back opened up and our Commander and First Sergeant were the first off the plane. Squad Leaders started yelling, “Let’s move, go, go, go!” I was 21 years old and a whopping 150 lbs. with what must have been at least 200 lbs. of bags and gear. I had been cramped in a plane for hours without being able to move. “Go, go, go?” I thought, “I’ll be lucky if I can get up out of my seat.” Luckily everyone else was just as cramped and stiff, so I wasn’t the only one trying to move while my body was not working with me! Finally, we were off the plane and over to our staging area, hopefully with some time to stretch out and grab a bite to eat!
Well, no time for chow. The unit we replaced were already there and waiting to take us to our new home for the next year. My platoon had been tasked to a Private Security Detail and was heading to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Union 3 where we would take over the mission of guarding Ibrahim Al Jafari, the Prime Minister of Iraq. We met the guys who would be taking us to our new FOB and got a quick convoy brief on the route and enemy situation. We were heading down Route Irish, which had a few nicknames like IED Alley and Sniper Alley. Fun. A few minutes later we were loaded up on the Humvees and on the road. It wasn’t too long of a drive, maybe 45 minutes to our new FOB. My eyes were peeled the whole time, but thankfully it was an uneventful trip!
Finally we were at our FOB, where I could eat and rest. Or not. “Welcome to Baghdad,” our new Commander said. “This is where you guys will be sleeping until we move out. We will need two Soldiers to man the observation point at the top of the Baath Party headquarters building,” he says as he nods to the imposing 10-story tall building behind us. Being the new guy, I knew I was going to be picked first for guard duty. “What the hell,” I thought. “I’ll just volunteer.” So, it was me and Specialist (SPC) Olson on guard duty. He was my gunner, and where he went, I went and where I went, he went, so he had volunteered to join me. One of the guys we were replacing walked us up to the top of the building, a nice little stroll up to the 10th story with 70 pounds of gear and machine, followed by a terrifying climb up a rickety ladder onto the roof. Finally, we reached the top. “There is a wooden shack with a little DVD player in it and a few movies. There is the radio. If you see or hear anything, call the Tactical Operations Center (TOC). Oh, and you can drop your body armor and helmets,” he said. Just like that he was gone.
We had the most breathtaking view of Baghdad. It was beautiful. We could see most of the city from where we were. There aren’t a lot of lights in the city, so you can see every star in the sky. The cross sabers at Saddam’s parade ground were visible from just down the street: two sets of giant hands holding sabers that are crossed, molded after the hands of Saddam himself. It was a little surreal. Naturally, we dropped our gear and popped in Shaun of the Dead! After about an hour of a nice, quiet night, we took a break from the wooden shack and the movie so SPC Olsen could smoke. “This is so not what I was expecting,” I said to Olsen. “I know, man. When do we get to get out there and kick some … (thunk, thunk, thunk) … Hey, that sounds like mortars.” Olsen got about half of the word mortar out as the mortars arced over our heads so close that we could hear them cutting through the air. This was about the time I realized we were in the highest point in the city, and therefore a pretty easy target. My mind filled in the blanks of what Olsen was saying as we dove to the ground as fast as we could, the mortars ripping right over our heads. They quickly reached their peak and gravity took over. A second later, I heard them explode. The building shook as the mortars slammed to the earth, not that far away from us, but thankfully not on our building (or us for that matter)! We both sprung to our feet and threw our body armor on! “Shit man! That was close,” Olson says as he moved towards the edge of the building to peer out into the night. I gave a half laugh, not so much a funny one, but the kind that said, “No shit? You think?” My heart pounded as I rushed to the radio. “Cowboy main, Cowboy main this is OP 1, over,” I said excitedly. Adrenaline was pumping through my veins and it was hard to stand still, let alone speak in anything other than a yell. Olsen was looking out into Baghdad. “Did you see where they came from?” I asked. “OP 1 this is Cowboy main go ahead,” came a reply in a calm voice. “No I didn’t see where they came from. They were probably in the back of a truck and they just stopped, lobbed a few mortars, and took off from somewhere that way,” Olsen said as he pointed out towards the Tigris River. “Cowboy main this is OP 1 we have just been mortared, over,” I said, trying to keep my voice calm so I wouldn’t yell into the radio. “No shit. Where did they land, over?” was the calm reply I heard back. Was that a little laugh I heard in the response? “They hit across the street at FOB Grey wolf, over,” I said back. There was a second of silence. “Roger that OP 1, call us back when they are landing on OUR FOB…. Welcome to Baghdad, Cowboy Main, out.”
I looked over at Olsen; he looked at me. “Yeah, welcome to Baghdad” I said. Olsen laughed. “Some welcome party,” he said. We wore our body armor the rest of the night, and thankfully it was quiet so we could finish our movie. Welcome to Baghdad.