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Dust and Shadow   (Chris Sullins, August 25, 2008)

I mentally went through all my gear I had just prepared. I was wearing part of it which included body armor with front and back ceramic plates, helmet, ballistic goggles lifted over the front lip of the helmet, a holstered pistol with spare mags, a Mossberg shotgun dangled by its sling from a carabiner clipped on my right shoulder strap, and pouches holding shotgun shells nested firmly to my front.

If we somehow got separated from the convoy or ended up on foot the most important piece of gear, my GPS unit, was also in a pouch. Sergeant H stood nearby checking out the gear of the two young specialists we were rotating in for their first mission outside the wire. It was 0400 and we would be lining up for the convoy at 0500. This moment in my memory was from sometime early in my deployment. It held great anticipation for me at the time. Now when I wake up at the same time I look back at it and wonder to myself “WTF was I thinking.”

One of the other pouches attached to my body armor contained a small first aid kit. Every item inside of it had a specific purpose –especially the CATS tourniquet. There was also my backpack and all the things it contained which would be in the back of the humvee during the mission.

I also carried a pair of nomex gloves and soft Kevlar balaclava that I would pull over my exposed skin. They were all in light tan and blended almost seamlessly with my desert camouflage uniform and skin. I would put these last three items on, re-helmet, and pull my goggles down over my eyes minutes before we would roll out. The final preparation before leaving the gate was chambering live rounds in the handgun and shotgun. The handgun would go back in its holster and I would hold the shotgun. The picture of the American soldier ready for battle was now complete in the mind’s eye.

During one mission I crouched on the back of an open truck with my loaded shotgun at low ready. We passed through towns and market stalls where people were walking. They were only a few feet away along the dusty road and it was easy to see their faces and expressions. I could read them all and the neon billboard flashing back at me was the sign of fear. I remember the moment one set of eyes locked in with my gaze from beneath the goggles and the immediate frozen horror it inspired. The woman looked like she had just seen a ghost.

I wondered for a moment where that had come from. This was not the sort of ignorance that would make me look back over my left shoulder as if someone else was behind me. I met her eyes from only a few feet away and there was no doubt it was me. I put myself in her shoes for a moment and reflected upon the image in the mirror. A tan out-of-proportion human form seemed to float upon the billowing dust of the road. For a second there was the sharp outline of a head, but no mouth, nose or ears. One big eye dominated the center of the alien head. Then it all disappeared into a tan talcum powder cloud. I did look like a ghost or maybe a Cyclops. Either way the emotional effect was the same.

By seeing this for myself I had broken an unwritten ancient rule for soldiers during this modern magic carpet ride to the Middle East: I felt empathy for one of “them”. And like little David being lectured by Mara in “Village of the Damned” (1995), I could almost hear my female colonel saying “your development of emotions is disturbing”. No small irony given that one of my tasks was measuring the emotions of “us”.

After the truck passed through the center of town we pulled into a new FOB and my team and I disembarked. Only a couple minutes after we got off the truck to unload our weapons, a handful of soldiers piled onto the truck along with their backpacks and duffle bags and loaded their weapons for the return trip. We could tell by their shoulder patches they were the unit who had just served their year in Iraq and were rotating out. This was literally their last convoy out of the sandbox. At least it was during this year’s deployment.

My team and I wanted something to eat for lunch besides MREs and were directed by other soldiers to a small building nearby. On the front building lettered in freehand English was “Welcome to Super Market” flanked by one painted Iraqi and American flag on each side. It looked like something a teenager would’ve done. A couple of doors were wide open revealing a large center room filled with pirated DVDs, bottles of pop, Persian rugs, and other small items. The only thing that separated this building from the rest of the town was a dirt berm no taller than a man in height.

I asked one of the soldiers inside looking at DVDs where there was food. He pointed to a hole in the far wall. There was a menu on the wall in English listing a few items. I ordered chicken nuggets and fries from the Iraqi face that appeared on the other side of the hole, paid in dollars, and received my meal in a couple minutes. I sat on a single bench with another soldier and ate. This gave a whole new meaning to the phrase “hole in the wall restaurant”.

A door next to us led to a barbershop. One soldier had just finished a haircut. I stepped in and the Iraqi barber motioned for me to sit down as his partner swept the floor. I lifted off my body armor and helmet and placed them along the wall. I sat down in the chair with my shotgun across my lap. A hair cloth was draped over me and the shotgun I had unloaded earlier after we got off the truck.

The barber cut my hair and chatted away with his partner. I couldn’t understand anything they said in Arabic. After my hair was taken from very short to one click above bald, the barber flicked open a straight razor and quickly took it down the back of my neck. Use of this grooming tool instead of a disposable safety razor was something new for me, but I found it a little disconcerting given the environment and the holder.

I recalled stepping off a jet a few weeks earlier in the middle of the night and boarding a bus. Other than Canada, this was my first time out of the USA. I was disoriented and hadn’t slept a wink on the plane during my day-long flight which had added to the weeks of broken sleep even before that. The bus was taken by a police escort vehicle from the airport down a brightly lit highway in a dark desert and into to a walled area some miles away.

A major in full battle rattle burst through the door of the bus as soon as it came to a stop on the military base. He began shouting that we were in enemy territory and could be attacked at any time. He admonished us to remain on guard and alert at all times or we would be hit. An anonymous federal civilian sitting next to me said “Oh my God, I thought this was supposed to be Kuwait.” It was. I had thought the same thing and then wondered why I hadn’t been issued any ammo yet. I wondered just how soon human waves of shemagh-wearing RPG-wielding desert raiders would blow across the desert sands and storm the walls.

A lot of bad movies, sleep deprivation and little training experiences like that gave me more than a bit of heightened awareness during my first day up close and personal with the Iraqi populace. I looked about the room via the reflection in the shop mirror and wondered where that other soldier had gone who was just there. In fact, where was my own team? Loaded shotgun or not, in the land of the quick and the dead, I was now at a severe tactical disadvantage by less than arm’s length. In fact it was now measured in nano-units between skin and blade. I kept my poker face, though, during these thoughts.

There was no Wild West moment. The barber said “three dollars” which I gave to him with a steady hand. I re-donned my armor but left my helmet dangling by its chinstrap from a pouch and stepped out of the small room. It had just been a haircut and not the beginning of some Iraqi version of “Gunga Din” where garroting was replaced by decapitation as the small isolated outpost was overran by Islamic insurgents instead of Indian thugees.

I paused and looked around the walls at the items displayed in the main room. A couple of Iraqis sitting there were already chatting together and one made some cautious sideway glances in my direction. The English word “shotgun” slowly punctuated his faster Arabic speech at least twice. The pump action shotgun was not unknown in Iraq, but it was rarely carried by US soldiers or other coalition forces. As I perceived their increased nervous apprehension, my anxiety decreased.

A few weeks later I was told by an ex-SEAL turned security contractor that my shotgun was greatly feared by the Muslim Iraqis because they considered it a “pig-killing weapon”. The story went on that if they were killed by it this would keep them from going to paradise. At the time I wondered if by accident I had come to wield a potent scepter of pork power in this Islamic land between the rivers. The smoothbore weapon designed to blast forth hot balls of copper jacketed lead took on a mythic awe in my hands that was somewhere between the Excalibur of legend and the zombie-bashing “boom-stick” of cinema. However, considering every household had an AK47, I was more likely viewed by the Iraqis as a foreign crusader waving a sausage outside the local mosque.

Local opinion polls aside, the puffed up protection of my 12 gauge talisman had deflated in my own eyes after I saw my first few charred vehicles, punctured armor, and battered buildings. It didn’t take long to realize that holding it wasn’t going to keep me from getting completely blasted into carbon-scorched chunks of meat. In an explosion the weapons carried by soldiers became part of the volley of high-velocity shrapnel that would embed the holder’s flesh. This was the nature of modern war.

Months later I easily handed off the smoothbore shotgun like a baton to another soldier and prepared to move to Baghdad. I waited for a Blackhawk helicopter with two Special Forces soldiers who had just arrived in theater. We all had our duffle bags with us. The two soldiers wore the new camo pattern of the Army Combat Uniform while I continued to wear the older Desert Combat Uniform. I had my combat patch stitched above the US flag on my right shoulder and they were minus a similar patch at this early point in their tour. One was a sergeant first class (SFC) while the other had the three stripe rank of the more common sergeant.

I remembered the Special Forces Master Sergeant who got mixed in with our group of individual replacements back in the States. He was relatively older than many of the soldiers and closer in age to the commissioned officers, the majority of the medical personnel, and the civilian workers who were deploying. This was the first deployment for all of us including him. When we arrived in Kuwait, he had also noted our lack of ammo. This became a point of concern for him as we counted down the hours prior to our C-130 departing for Iraq.

He seemed surprised that I had found some 9mm ammo for my pistol. I said a redneck like me finding ammo was like the needle on a compass pointing North. He expressed some concerns about what could happen if our plane went down over Iraq and he had to “E and E” (Escape and Evade capture) without any ammo. No problem, I said, I’ll get you some. Minutes later I had him hooked up.

I hadn’t even completed my deployment in Iraq when I later contemplated the odds of E&E after the downing of a C-130 by hostile forces. I supposed ammo might be helpful if you survived the following: the explosion of the surface to air missile near the plane; the resulting secondary mid-air explosion of the plane itself; and the impact after a crash-landing. Would someone be physically capable of even putting up a fight after a fall from the sky that wasn’t totally at the mercy of gravity? The odds weren’t very good. I then surmised this also explained why if soldiers weren’t planning on leaving the plane by parachute in the first place, the military doesn’t bother putting any parachutes on the plane.

The two Special Forces soldiers and I boarded the Blackhawk along with all of our duffle bags. We lifted off from the helicopter flight line that wasn’t too far from where various Air Force planes landed which had probably just brought the pair into country just hours before. I sat back, buckled in, and relaxed on the flight which I knew carried far better odds for survival during travel in Iraq than ground transport ever did.

As we descended into the city of Baghdad and I noticed that the smog looked particularly thick that day, the Special Forces SFC suddenly inserted a loaded mag into his rifle and charged the action. The younger sergeant took the cue and with rapid precision did the same thing. We continued a wide circle while some buildings and a river remaining further away forming a crescent and we began to descend yet lower over part of the city. The senior sergeant then pointed his muzzle outside of the helicopter and planted the stock deep into his shoulder. The junior sergeant followed suit of course, matching the gross motor movements with precision, but with some anxiety beginning to show in the face.

The SFC looked at me sitting calmly in the center still tightly buckled in my seat. My rank and my branch insignia opposite each other on the butterfly collars of my old style uniform were on the outside of my body armor. He seemed to note this and my untouched holstered Beretta. I imagined if he surmised the medical officer and his little pistol might be next to useless if some shooting had to be done.

These soldiers were definitely trained to be the tip of the fighting spear. The time taken just to hone their combat edge far exceeded not only my training, but that of most soldiers anywhere in the world. By comparison I was a nerve cell somewhere between the skin under the memorial bracelet on the wrist holding the spear and a synapse in the limbic system deep in the brain under the helmet.

Buildings and compounds that were familiar to me came into view as we came yet closer to the ground. Something burned in the distance and made a thick column of black smoke against a cloudless blue sky. The SFC pressed his cheek hard against the rifle stock with the sites lined up to the right pupil of his open eyes. Despite the noise, heat, and turbulence, he looked calm and cool on the outside. I watched him. I took note. I measured. I perceived the coiled spring tightening within him, but his finger still hadn’t touched the trigger. We didn’t receive any fire from below. We landed without incident.

We had been over the Green Zone the entire time during our circling and descent. All of the people below us were part of the multinational force –mostly from the US. The only armed people in civilian clothing who had been within eyesight at any time were security contractors and plainclothes Iraqi police. A Blackhawk bristling with weapons was nothing new to any of them.

End of Part 1.

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