Operation Iraqi Freedom Journal - Part 2

If you haven't done so yet, please read Part 1 of this series of posts on my experience in Iraq,  Again, any text in caps are explanatory comments to help explain or fill gaps in the original journal entries.

 Departing Lawton. I am striking a dramatic pose (top) as we leave gloriously for war.

Departing Lawton. I am striking a dramatic pose (top) as we leave gloriously for war.

Feb. 12th: Depart Ft.Sill at 7-8 pm from Lawton Regional Airport on a C-5 “Galaxy”.  Arrive in Dover, Delaware around 11 pm.  It’s below freezing with snowdrifts.  Highlight is watching David Letterman in an AF chow hall.  

I remember that it was beautiful all day in Ft. Sill, unseasonably warm.  So it was quite the jarring difference when we arrived at Dover.

Feb 13th: Sometime around 1 am, we get the word that the “bird” is ready to fly.  I spread out on my row of seats (only 20+ on our chalk with 60 seats), put in my earplugs, and don’t wake up until we are about to land in Moron, Spain.  It’s around lunch time.  Remember getting off the plane and seeing 15-20 C-5’s.  Weather is beautiful; land is green with palm trees.  Our couple hour layover stretches.  However, we enjoy the meals (great chow hall), take a much-needed “bird-bath”, and get to watch the news we are making.  Eventually, we are sent to a big metal shed with bunk beds and catch a couple of hours sleep.

Feb 14th: SOMETIME in the morning (2 I think) we get the word that we are leaving.  Next stop, Kuwait.  Once again I slept most of the flight.  Arrive in Kuwait in the afternoon.  I stopped my stop-watch that I started when we left Oklahoma—38 hours of flying and layovers.  We taxied for 1 ½ hours as the C-5’s in front of us unloaded.  I slept more!  After unloading the vehicles, we had our ID’s checked (in-processed into the country/theater) by two soldiers with laptops in the back seat of a white SUV.  We were told to wait behind our vehicles so that nobody would take a shot at us from across the airfield.  We then drove our small convoy a few minutes to a huge tent (holding) area—our convoy to Camp Udairi wasn’t supposed to leave till late that night.  After an initial in-country brief (pre-war ROE’s handed out, “don’t mess with the wildlife,” etc.), we went to a tent to rest and eat MRE’s.  Someone grabbed a football, and, long story short, we played a pick-up game with some Marines and a couple of Brits—we won big!  At 10 pm, we left to convoy out to Camp Udairi.  Took about 3 hours.  After we got off the freeway, it was a very bumpy ride.

Feb 15th: Arrived at CU at 1:30 am.  Unpacked bags and sensitive equipment and were shown some tents to crash in.  We dropped our bags, I pulled out a poncho liner and slept…kinda (it was very cold).

'CU' stands for Camp Udairi.  The tents were long, probably able to hold about forty or so soldiers if I recall.  They had wood floors.  I believe they were built by nationals.

Feb 16th—Mar.18th: I didn’t make any detailed journal entries, but did make a brief list of things I did for most of the days.  Again comments that are italicized are additions to explain or help fill in gaps as best as I can remember.

Sat. 16th-Thurs.20th: Getting settled in. Set up the T.O.L.C.

Did a lot of un-packing, settling into the tents; setting up the “tolc” (pronounced “talk”—means Tactical Operations and Logistics Center I believe…it’s essentially the task force headquarters).  It was a pain in the butt.  Set-up a lot of tents (the officers wanted the huge metal pallets from the C-5 as floors in their tents), erected antennas, filled sandbags, strung concertina wire, etc.  On the 17th or 18th I was a part of a detail to set up a huge tent for maintenance.  After we set it up, I was closing the side gate on a HEMTT trailer and one of the three panels fell off and landed on my toe…it HURT!  Eventually had it x-rayed the next day at the camp’s tent hospital (nice—clean and air-conditioned), but it turned out all right.  The bruise didn’t go totally away, however, until a month or so AFTER I got back from Iraq.  This would be my only physical war wound.  Glorious, I know.

Fri. 21st: Joined MET-Alpha (MET-Mobile Exploitation Team).

I was initially assigned to the security platoon but was getting the impression that our job was going to be pretty boring (a lot of tedious details).  As soon as I heard that they wanted to take some guys from security and place them on the MET teams, I was quick to volunteer (again).  I knew generally that the MET’s were going to be doing some of the most important work in regard to our task force's mission to find WMD’s.  I had a brief interview by some of the leadership of the MET teams (including CW2 Chief Gonzales of MET Alpha).  They described our job as providing security for “50 lb. Heads”--scientific geeks from the Pentagon, etc.--as they “exploited” possible WMD sites.  They also told me about the danger associated with our mission as we were the teams that were most likely to be exposed to contaminated environments, which meant long hours (perhaps up to 12 at a time) in MOPP (Mission Oriented Protected Posture) 4, the highest level of NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) protection—full MOPP suit, boots, gloves, and gas mask.  Scenarios were described to me, such as how I would respond to the order to go into a contaminated environment to save another team member that had already been affected.  I told them that while the idea of being in MOPP 4 in 115 degree heat and dealing with some of the most dangerous materials known to man didn’t sound like “fun”, I would do my duty and go in after my fellow team member.  I think they found my college background and the fact that I was in an MOS that required a security clearance as good reasons to take me, but I am just speculating on that.  One thing I did find out later on is that they assumed I had been in the service for at least a few years (since I was a Specialist).  They were a little surprised that I had only been in a little over six months, but by then I had already been chosen and Chief seemed to like me.

 One of my new MET Alpha friends, SPC Peniche (after day of training)

One of my new MET Alpha friends, SPC Peniche (after day of training)

Sat. 22nd: Trained with SF guys

Starting on the 22nd, we began a fairly intensive time of training that lasted about a week.  On this day, we focused on room clearing and urban warfare.  We trained with a former SF (Special Forces) guy (now privately contracted; side note, those guys make serious $).  We had several SF guys, some active and some retired, as apart of the 75th XTF.  It was implied that some of them were there because of their knowledge of NBC weapons, such as one retired Navy Seal and his knowledge of Nuclear weapons.  However, we only knew them by their first names (their uniforms were “sterilized” meaning they had no rank, name, or unit patches) and as a regular old “Specialist” I of course was not privy to more detailed information.  They were “colorful” but pleasant with a ever-present sense of humor (probably a necessity given their line of work)  Of course they were “SF”, which to a bunch of FA rocket boys was pretty cool.  Thanks to Hollywood and Tom Clancy video games they had taken on a mythical, near god-like reputation among the garden variety soldier.  Needless to say, we thought it somewhat ridiculous that we would be serving as their “security” on missions, especially since several of them were carrying more weapons than we were!  As far as the training goes, it was the beginning of a week-long “crash course” on basic urban warfare infantry skills that included things like...

  • Situational awareness: what to pay attention to such as roof tops, windows, hands, loose-fitting or unusual clothing like a heavy jacket on a 90 degree day
  • Movement: how to move down streets, such as in a wedge formation or usually a “Ranger (singe])File”; identifying staging points before movement and contingency plans; hand signals for halt (open hand), freeze (closed hand), rallying point (circling hand), etc.
  • Room clearing: how to approach a room or building (staying clear of windows, etc.); preparing to enter (hand singles for an open [open hand] or closed [closed hand] door, placing either 2 on each side of the door [“cross over’] or all four together [“stacking]); using a “breacher”; the signal to go (thumbs or rocking); how to enter (“1 goes deep”, etc.); fields of fire; communicating to your team after completing a clearing (“1 up, 2 up, 3 up, 4 up, ALL CLEAR” or “coming out” when exiting).  With logs laid out in the sand to simulate the walls of a room, we rehearsed over and over again.  We emphasized the danger zones (“fatal funnel”, i.e. doorway and “coffin corners” corners of the room, especially left and right) and other crucial rules, such as “Never sweep your buddy” with the barrel of your rifle and never leave an unclear room behind you.
  • Weapon readiness: how to sling our weapons using 550 cord and the existing sling that comes with the M-16 so that our weapons hung “at the ready” (i.e. on your lower chest/upper stomach); how to position your clips on your LBV (Load Bearing Vest) so that you can quickly load and re-load your weapon.

We would review and practice these things many times in the weeks to follow.

Sun 23rd: Trained on sling loading (dry run). 

Sling loading is attaching cargo or vehicles (small one’s like a HUMVEE) to the bottom of a helicopter (such as a Chinook or a Blackhawk).  We never had to do this for a mission, but there was a possibility so we had to train for that contingency.  The first day, we went over how to prepare a vehicle that is going to be sling-loaded (“X”ing tape over the windows, dropping the windshield on the hood, etc.) and preparing the rope (depending on the vehicle and how it’s weight is displaced, you have the ropes—attached to the front and rear—set at certain chain lengths to balance the vehicle while in flight).  We also went over the basic hand motions for the person designated to guide the helicopter over the cargo or vehicle.  We eventually found out that this was a mere formality as most helicopter pilots and their crew—who spot the cargo through a small window on the belly of the chopper—are more than capable to position the chopper…certainly more than ourselves!

Mon 24th: Received 1st letter; trained loading Blackhawk. 

My first letter was from Uncle Ralph and Aunt Nan I believe.  Letters were tremendously important to all of us, especially during this early phase when communication was so poor.  I will dedicate an entire entry in the future to letters received and written.

 Just a portion of the massive airfield behind me (LOTS of Apache helicopters)

Just a portion of the massive airfield behind me (LOTS of Apache helicopters)

We walked over to the airfield—an IMMENSE strip of asphalt in the middle of the dessert—that had Blackhawks and Chinooks as literally as far as the eye could see (its my understanding that most of them made up most of the air support units of the 101st Airborne Division).  We were instructed on how to approach a helicopter (between 2-4 and 8-10, if you were to look at the nose of the chopper as 12 on a clock; make sure to DUCK, especially for a tall guy like myself!).  We learned how the low point of the blade is in the front of the chopper, so "HUG THE NOSE" if you ever had to go around to the other side. 

 MET Alpha

MET Alpha

We had quite a few people on our teams, and we were told that the likelihood of us riding on a Blackhawk were minimal (turned out to be true since we never rode one), but we had to prepare for the possibility.  We would take turns (MET Alpha and Bravo) running up to the chopper, getting in and buckling up.  It was somewhat humorous since we had A LOT of gear and some of the guys from the Pentagon were a little chubby to say the least.  This was all done with the Blackhawk not running.

Tue 25th: Sling loaded Blackhawk. 

This was one of the highlights of my time oversees.  That evening we went over to the airstrip where they had a “Gator” (one of those small John Deer/Golf cart deals) slinged up.  Basically we would train as teams (one person to hold the hook that attaches to the chopper and two to hold him as he stands on top of the vehicle).  Once we were in position, the Blackhawk would come in and hover over us until we hooked it to the bottom (see video below, though we did it at night).  Then we would hop off the vehicle and run to off to the left side of the Gator (chopper pilots are trained to break to the right if anything goes wrong).  I got to hold the hook twice, and it was a blast (literally).  First, to see this faint silhouette of a Blackhawk chopper floating maybe 20 ft or less of the ground until its right over me (I could reach out and touch the belly if I wanted to), and to feel the blast of the “rotor wash” as it approached, the calm while it was directly over us and then the return of the blast of air as we ran away (nearly knocks you over), was amazing.

Wed. 26th:Blackhawk down.” 

It was very sobering to find out the next day that a couple of Blackhawks from Camp Udairi nearly collided and that one of them crashed, killing all the crew.  I have no idea if it was the helicopter crew we trained with, but it pointed out that we were involved in a very dangerous business even BEFORE the War started.

Wed. 27th: Training mission #1 (convoy) 

The first of 2 dry run training missions on exploiting a potential WMD site.  We convoyed out to a remote television or satellite station that the US blew up in the first Gulf War and myself and a couple of the other guys essentially pulled security on the perimeter while the rest of the team took the “50 pound heads” into the site to do a mock exploitation.

Thurs. 28th: Training mission #2 (chopper/Sea Knight)

Again if I recall correctly, we went back to the same site but this time we rode a Sea Knight (Navy/Marine version—smaller one at that—of a Chinook).  Have to admit it was a lot of fun running out of the back with sand flying everywhere and then feeling the blast of the rotor wash as it took off.  I don’t recall what we did the rest of the time (probably similar to the previous day).  The only other highlight was getting picked up again.  It was later at night and you could see the sparks flying off the rotors (believe it is an effect of the static electricity coming off the blades and the sand colliding).

In Part 3 we will review journal entries from March of 2003, the month that the war in Iraq began.