a Someone should care, maybe not you....: Baghdad trip part 1 .comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Someone should care, maybe not you....

My thoughts on many things including the army, war, politics, the military corrections system, chaos, life, books, movies, and why there is no blue food. Feel free to comment on what I say. Feedback is nice.

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40+ year old former teacher, linguist, interrogator, soldier, and lastly convict. We all do stupid things every once and awhile. I am an economic conservative and a firm believer in civil rights. Starting a new life now and frankly not sure what I am going to be doing.

04 September 2006

Baghdad trip part 1

In the papers and on the news there is talk of a battle between the Iraqi military and the Medhi Army, a Shiite militia, in a town called Dinaweyah which is about 80 miles south of Baghdad. This isn’t really big news although it is nice to see the Iraqi army going after these militias. What is interesting to me is the town. You see, I had something of an adventure in Dinaweyah when I was in Iraq.
A convoy was being sent to Baghdad carrying mail, some supplies, and a few troops for various missions. I was tasked to drive one of the vehicles, a hummer. Not one of the fancy up armored ones they drive around Iraq now but the good old original with a canvas and plastic top. I knew this was going to be “interesting” when I went to the convoy brief prior to departure. I was in the Guard and had been in many a convoy and been through many a convoy brief. The usual format is a brief lecture about the route, an examination of a map, often maps, at least strip maps, would be given to each driver. Certain vehicles would have radios in them and the proper frequencies would be set out. In this case there were no maps. There was one strip map in the lead vehicle. And one of the people in the lead vehicle had been to Baghdad before. There were no radios. None at all. The lead vehicle again had a cell phone that would quit working once we crossed the Iraqi frontier and a satellite phone. Of course with the SatPhone, you had to stop the vehicle and get out to use it. The convoy consisted of about 6 hummers and a “Deuce and a half”. (2.5 ton truck for the non military) oh and a range rover joined us right before we left. I was about two thirds of the way back behind the Deuce. My hummer was sort of a pickup variety with an open cargo space in the back. The back of the vehicle was wrapped in concertina wire to prevent anyone from jumping into it. The was an M-60 machine gun “mounted” in the back. I say “mounted” because there wasn’t a mount for it. It was tied to the pole that would have had canvas on it if the vehicle had had a cover with parachute cord. God help us all if the guy riding back there EVER had to shoot the damn thing. But it was a requirement that there be a crew served weapon or three in the convoy and that was the best we could do. So here we go, heading out to Baghdad with no real map, one person who kind of knows the way, (another guy had a GPS, we were doomed), no Commo either within the convoy or with anyone else in the theater, and improperly mounted weapons to protect us. It was interesting crossing the Iraqi border.

The land changed and went from lifeless wasteland to farms. Literally. On the Kuwaiti side there was NOTHING, and on the Iraqi, once you got past the big berm, the wire emplacements and the minefield there were green growing things and farms. It was amazing. The first place we saw in Iraq was a small village which developed the name “Beggar’s Alley”. I am sure it is under better control by now but then the local youth collected along the road to beg from the soldiers. It wouldn’t be so bad if they only begged but they would actively try to steal things from you. They were known to leap onto vehicles and take things off. Hence the concertina wire around the back. The teenage boys were not above tossing small children, usually little girls, in front of the trucks to make us stop so they could try and get stuff. The 5 ton trucks carrying troops would often have the rucksacks of the soldiers hanging on the outside to give the guys inside A. some room, and B. Cover if they got shot at. The youth here would leap in close to the truck with knives and/or machetes and slit the bottoms of the bags so that everything would fall out as they vehicles drove on. It was not an uncommon sight to see a vehicle with a lot of empty rucksack flapping in the wind driving down the roads. Of course I didn’t know this. They hadn’t filled us in on this little detail when we left Udari. I learned this on the numerous trips I took through the Alley. I saw “kids” dive through the windows of vehicles and snatch sunglasses off the driver. On later trios we took bamboo supports from tents that had collapsed and cut them into clubs which we would use on anyone who got within range. Never actually had to hit anyone though, just having the threat there kept them away from my window.
But back to the trip to Baghad. You leave this first village and make a left onto a bigger road which very shortly crosses an Iraqi version of an interstate highway. Our lead vehicle went right instead of left and sent us off towards Um Qasr instead of Baghdad. A couple of miles down the road we turned around and headed north.
Somewhere along here we left the big divided highway and got on a smaller two lane road. I couldn’t help but wonder why but hey, I was just following the guys with the “map”.
Iraqis dive like maniacs and American convoys drive like maniacs too so life got fun. The guy on the M-60 in the back had learned how to say “good morning” and “how are you?” in Arabic and he yelled it at every car or truck we passed or that passed us. There were signs of the earlier battles along the road. Burned out vehicles etc. There were lots of stripped military vehicles because anything that broke down got left and the locals peeled it down to its frame pretty fast. There was one interesting thing that stuck with me, an American Combat bulldozer was sitting beside the road (these things are huge) with a hole blown completely through it. When you drove past, you could see the sunlight through the hole. It was the first thing I had seen that was clearly combat destruction of US equipment.
Most of the day was relatively uneventful. The Range Rover had a flat and we stopped in some Iraqi’s yard to fix it. While we were pulled over we got passed by this Iraqi family.

At one point I nearly had a head on collision with an Iraqi semi truck. All along the road you would see small scale capitalists set up with a fifty gallon drum of gas, some oil, and other vehicle fluids selling to drivers. There were huge gas stations along the road but all of them were closed here in the south. Nearer some cities they were open but had lines of cars that extended for miles. We of course didn’t have to buy gas from any of these options. The Army had set up a giant refueling station about half way to Baghdad. This was a horror. The big vehicle, especially the tanks and really big trucks ground the dirt into a talcum like powder that hung in the air. Since there was no wind the refueling spot looked like a giant brown cloud that sat on the ground. When you entered the area you couldn’t see much beyond your bumper. I pitied the poor guys who stayed inside that dust cloud all day fueling vehicles. It must have been hell on their lungs. All around the outside of this fuel base there were convoys waiting their turn to go in a fuel up. And all around them were crowds of Iraqis selling stuff. The most common thing being sold was “Saddam money” Everyone knew the old money was going away and the locals figured they could get more for it by selling it as souvenirs to the Americans. They were probably right too. There were also people selling pieces of Iraqi uniforms, bayonets, booze, and sodas. Pepsi and Mountain Dew for the most part. On our way back I bought a case of Dew for less than I could get it at the PX. I have a friend who was in the #rd Infantry during the invasion. He told me that when the looting broke out after the fighting ended the locals that worked in the Pepsi bottling plant near where he was based went and took up arms and defended their factory. Smart folks.
At any rate after refueling we headed on again and we came to a town. We drove in going past a big “Tire Factory”. Why a tire factory has walls, concertina wire, and guard towers I don’t know but this facility did. Right past this we turned right. This turns out to have been a rather large mistake. It looked right, the main road seemed to turn right too but we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a town. We were pretty obviously some of the first Americans to drive through town. EVRYONE stopped and stared. Some waved, some scowled and looked away. Some people actually ran into houses and brought others out to see us. There was one fellow I saw walking along the street who sticks in my memory very strongly. He was a large heavy set man dressed in local attire with a very light complexion and red hair. He was very, very, European in appearance. When we drove up next to him he did a double take that would have fit nicely into a comedic film, stared briefly at us them turned and ran through the nearest door. He was without a doubt someone who deserved being grabbed and talked to extensively but that wasn’t why we were there at the moment. We drove on.
Unfortunately, it soon became apparent to us that the lead vehicle had no idea where they were going in this town. We eventually reached a roundabout and rounded about and headed back. Then they took a corner and we were soon wandering at random through the very narrow crowded streets. I and my co driver were getting increasingly uncomfortable and I suspect everyone else was too. The convoy looped back again and then we wandered some more. We eventually got into a very run down neighborhood the lead vehicle flipped a u-turn and headed back down the road. He was followed by the other Hummers until the deuce and half tried to turn around. The street was too narrow. After about a 10 point turn the we, and the vehicle behind us turned around too. By this point a rather large crowd of locals had gathered in around us. Lots kids had gathered in and adults were watching them. Some of the adults were chasing the kids away from the vehicles, others were just standing and watching. The front half of the convoy was gone. They hadn’t looked in the mirror after they turned and didn’t realize that we weren’t behind them anymore. So here we were, lost in the middle of an unknown town in a country that we were more or less at war with. No one in our vehicles spoke Arabic, we had no radios, we had no maps, we were surrounded by local who looked reasonably friendly but who really knew and they kept pressing in closer and closer to our vehicles. One might say that life kind of sucked right then.
We quickly gathered together for a discussion of what the hell we should be doing now. One person, who if I recall correctly was actually the highest ranking person in the group said we needed to quickly mount up and drive off to find the front half of the convoy. I expressed the idea that that would be foolish. It was later afternoon, they were god alone knows where in the maze of streets, and we would just make ourselves wandering targets. The nice thing about being with a bunch of National Guard soldiers is that while rank is recognized as an issue it is not the end all be all it is in the active army. If I had pulled that with some other folks I worked with later I would have been eviscerated. But here they listened and we decided to try and get out of town. Someone said we should chase the locals away and it was pointed out that they outnumbered us, and were possibly better armed than we were and if they got unhappy no one would ever find our bodies. So we decided that a wave, smile, take pictures and be happy approach would be much better. Standing on the hood of my vehicle I could see a highway overpass off to our north. We decided to head for that. When we got there we had a choice, go left and we would be heading north, furthe3r into Iraq towards Baghdad. Turn right and I thought it would take us back towards the refueling point. I have always had a pretty good sense of direction and I was pretty confident in my speech. They listened to me. We turned right and headed south. The sun was becoming a large red ball and sinking fast when we suddenly saw a VERY welcome sight. A large number of M1-A1 tanks laagered up for the night. We approached, talked to the guards who passed us on to their boss to whom our situation was explained and they let us pull in for the night. It was a Marine Corp armor regiment and we were happy campers. They got out on the net and the front half of the convoy which had also bugged out to find a safe place to spend the night was located and they drove up to our location and rejoined us. I asked one of the tank crews where we were and they said the town was called Dinaweyah, they had been camped outside it since the fighting stopped. During the fighting there had been a fairly large battle here on the outskirts of town. They hadn’t actually been in the town since the fighting ended.
So there was my adventure in getting lost in Iraq. It wasn’t a lot of fun and some harsh words were had between the drivers in the back half of the convoy and those in the front about looking in their damn mirrors before leaving. The next day we headed off again towards Baghdad and I’ll tell the rest of this tale another time as this post is long enough. Suffice to say the convoy got separated twice more, although not as badly, before we reached Baghdad.

Note the nice canvas armor and the 70's era flak vest. A roadside bomb would have turned me to jelly. I was in violation of the regs too because I did not have my brain boiler on. (kevlar helmet)


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