Memories of War
As many of you are tracking, I have recently transitioned from the active duty military (Army) serving just under 12 years. Officially, Feb. 18, 2015, is my “final” day in the service, and I’m currently on “terminal leave” until then. Most of my family and friends initially wanted me to stick it out and get my “20” for retirement, and there was a time when I wanted to do just that. But war has a way of changing a person.
I first enlisted in the Army on April 22, 2003, shortly after the Iraq invasion began. Before raising my right hand, I knew there would be a good chance I’d be sent over there, and to be honest with you, I was scared. During basic training I’d often think about where I might end up when I was done with basic, and I would fall asleep wondering which part Iraq I’d end up in. On a daily basis, our drill sergeants would give us updates about what was going on with the wars, and we’d listen intently as they’d give us the details.
Once I was finished up with BCT and AIT (job-specific training) for public affairs (combat journalist), I finally received my official military orders for my follow on unit and assignment, and was on my way to Fort Bragg. This was the first time I would travel outside of the state for employment purposes, and it was hard to say goodbye to my family knowing I’d be living in another state and possibly be shipped to war. But it was also exciting, as I loved not knowing what was going to come next in life, as it kept me on my toes.
In November 2003, I reported to Bragg and signed into my unit just before Thanksgiving if I remember correctly. The first night in the barracks, I had the room to myself and it was a Friday night. So I thought I’d treat myself to some Amstel Light and a microwavable pizza, and play some Grand Theft Auto for PS2. While heating up the pizza, I forgot to take the wrapper off and when I took everything out of the microwave, smoke billowed out and ended up setting off the fire alarm to the entire barracks complex. And yes, the Fort Bragg fire department showed up to shut the alarm down while I explained to them that there was no fire, just burnt Tony’s pizza. I was certain I’d be in for a world of hurt come Monday’s formation, but luckily for me, a burnt tongue was the extent of my troubles for my first weekend in the Army. 45 days after that, I was driving up to Baghdad in a soft skinned Humvee with a loaded M16 rifle and a Nikon D1H camera at the ready. The time for combat had finally come, and I hadn’t even reached 9 month time-in-service mark yet. Needless to say, I was a little scared. Very ready, but scared.
Come to find out, the unit I was a part of (16th Military Police Brigade) took over for two National Guard units (800th & 220th MPs) who directly caused the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Being a private, I wasn’t read in on the details before deploying, but I was serving as the brigade’s public affairs officer (PAO) and since this would turn out to be a major public relations shit storm for the Army and government, I was essentially a part of it from the very beginning. And though I didn’t really know it at the time, this Abu Ghraib thing would turn out to be a career defining experience for me — especially considering my undergrad degree was in Communication and Public Relations and I was an Army journalist with direct access to the whole thing.
I remember finding out about the whole thing while sitting in front of my computer at our unit’s area at Camp Victory, Iraq. I received 2-3 emails from CNN and Fox News asking if they could visit the prison to cover the improving conditions there. Now, here I am as a newly minted public affairs soldier fresh out of DINFOS, and not more than 2 weeks into my deployment, I’m getting emails from some of the largest news outlets in the United States, if not the world. Needless to say, I was excited at the thought of CNN and Fox News emailing me directly. And by name too! Immediately after receiving the emails, I ran into my brigade commander’s office, which was unheard of for a private to do, especially considering he was a Colonel, and I was just a lowly Army PFC (but I was 23 at the time, so a little older than the usual private). But as the public affairs dude for the brigade, I knew it was my duty to keep the commander informed at all times, and I obviously felt this was one of them. After apologizing for entering his office, I proceeded to tell him about the growing media interest, and he nodded and told me to have a seat. He would then “officially” fill me in on the details, and as he was describing the particulars, in my head I was thinking, “holy shit – this is not what I was expecting right out of DINFOS.”
After I left the commander’s office, I went back to my desk to respond to the emails, but this time, I was aware of the true nature of their requests and turned on the standard PR bullshit in my responses. “Dear BlahBlah, I truly appreciate the email, but we’re having issues with transportation due to the increase in IEDs on Route Irish and Michigan, but as soon as we get the opportunity to coordinate for route clearance to clear the roads, I’ll get in touch with you as soon as I can.” Or it was something along those lines, but either way, I completely pulled it out of my ass. And boy did I think I was hot shit, at least that’s what I was thinking in my head. Once I hit send, it was time for myself and the rest of the Brigade S1 crew to head to the DFAC for some chow, followed by some Xbox. (Yes, I’m talking about OG Xbox here.)
One thing that I have to say about deployments, was that the food was amazingly good — but only if you were on the larger bases in Iraq, like Camp Victory and the Green Zone. I mean, you could go to breakfast in the mornings and order omelets, french toast, waffles, home fries, and whatever you could really imagine. On top of that, all the pastries, cereals, “fresh” fruits, and juices and coffees you wanted. You really needed to keep up with your PT in the off time if you wanted to maintain some sort of professional appearance, and since we were an active duty airborne brigade, PT was a daily occurrence. Even in combat. And it was especially important if you wanted to stay attractive for the ladies if you know what I mean. You just never knew when the time would come when some Army gal would give you that “look” while eating some pancakes and Apple Jacks at the dining facility. After a couple months went by, the day to day drag of the usual deployment cycle settled in. For myself and others in particular, our days started at 0600 and ended about 1930 every night. At about 0530, most of the guys would get up early and trudge to the nearest shower trailor so we could shave and brush our teeth in preparation for morning PT formation. Now, I know some of you guys are saying to yourselves, “Pfffft, PT formation in combat? This guy is a pogue.” And my answer to that is, you are correct. But, since we were blessed to be living on one of the largest and most secure bases in Iraq at the time, we could pull this off without much issue.
Following PT, we would come back and shower and get ready for the day. Work call was always 0900 at the office, so that would mean most of us would head over to the DFAC at 0745 for breakfast and then rush over to work to start the day. Since I was the outlier in the S1 shop (I was the only journalist/PAO in the entire 3000 man brigade), my days would be somewhat different. My schedule would vary between laying out the brigade newsletter called “The DropZone”, to writing news articles and press releases, documenting various military police operations, and so on and so forth. Every so often, I would be tasked to pull guard duty once a month, which entailed getting up at 0430 and heading over to the main gate at Camp Victory so you could basically babysit some local nationals for roughly 14 hours. Looking back, I absolutely despised this particular part of the deployment, but since I was a private, I had to perform the bullshit duties just like every other lower enlisted soldier did.
The first time I attended a memorial service for one our our fallen soldiers, it was February or March, 2004. I was at the brigade headquarters, and CSM came and told me to get my gear ready because there was an MP killed outside of Forward Operating Base Kalsu. FOB Kalsu was a small outlying outpost south of Baghdad located just off MSR Tampa. For those not aware, MSR stands for “main supply route”, and Tampa was the name of the main highway that leads from Kuwait all the way up to Turkey. It was the main route used to bring supplies like food, water, ammunition, and other necessities to sustain the war. I believe most mail was brought in via C-130s, but I could have some of this information backwards. From what I can remember, the soldier involved was leaving Kalsu at night to conduct a combat patrol with his other MP troopers. But as he was leaving the gate, an M1 Abrams tank was entering the gate at the same time, and essentially, the tank crushed the vehicle and killed this soldier. He was a sergeant in the Army National Guard, and once I got word of what happened, it was heartbreaking. The service itself was held at Kalsu in a small chapel, and it was the first time I came face to face with the realities of war. Here was a man who died a horrible death, who had a wife and family, and was serving his nation doing what he loved. As I was photographing the memorial display, it finally became clear to me just how fragile life really was. Once I was finished photographing everything, I sat in the back of the chapel and tried to hide my tears as “Taps” was played. I’ll never forget that moment, and that was my first taste of how real this war really was.