Friday, December 08, 2006

Convoy to Nowhere

The last time I was in Iraq we had just invaded and we were riding across the desert just as I had envisioned it in my childhood memories of Rat Patrol. The Humvees were primarily fiberglass with canvas doors, soft tops and no armor. Interiors were barren except for personal gear. Only a few vehicles had radios and the wind blew freely throughout. Just prior to the invasion we were directed to remove the canvas doors in case we had to jump out to engage the enemy. With those adjustments made away we blazed, choking dust billowing into our goggle covered eyes. I rode to Baghdad with my feet dangling out the door.

Now it’s 2006 and everything has changed. As the Marine Advisor for a Seabee regiment, I travel throughout Al Anbar province to observe our battalions, consult with their staffs and advise the regimental commander and his staff on the regiment’s state. Occasionally I fly, but more often I move by ground convoy provided by the Seabees “convoy security teams”. These Seabees have been selected for a mission none of them joined the Navy for; escorting people, supplies and equipment across the most dangerous province in Iraq, Al Anbar.

Our four convoy security teams are organized into seven vehicle 48 man teams. Each is lead by a Navy chief. Most vehicles have a driver, vehicle commander, gunner and assistant gunner. Our large 7-ton trucks have a crew of 3. Teams are a mix of 7-ton trucks and up-armored Humvees. “Up-armored” means these Humvees carry 7,000lbs of ballistic armor.

The run I am going to go on this time is a short run of fifty miles from Fallujah to Ramadi, on a road called MSR (main supply route) Mobile, a divided six lane highway. Sounds easy right? Nothing is easy in Iraq, nothing is normal and nothing goes quickly. In the U.S. that would take how long? Half hour? Well this isn’t O’Fallon and tonight this trip will take much longer. The team I am riding with tonight is “Piledriver”; each team has a unique name that identifies them in communications and tracking.

At 8pm we begin with a convoy brief. During the brief, the convoy commander, Chief Burroughs, briefs his team on the mission, paying particular attention to intel about recent threats. Details like route, radio frequencies and actions for various situations are briefed. The brief takes place in the “chapel” a meeting room with rough pews that doubles as the chapel on Sundays. I glance around, everyone is loose but serious. They have a certain swagger that tells me they are now seasoned to a job only two months before they had never done for real. The mission is to haul “green gear” from Fallujah to Ramadi. “Green gear” means military gear only and that means a smaller group.

As usual I sit in the back of the chapel. Having an officer usually makes enlisted nervous but I’ve earned their trust for sharing these rides with them. I am dressed in a tan Nomex flight suit. Outside are my flak jacket with ceramic plates, kevlar helmet and pack.

The yard is abuzz with last minute preparations as vehicle commanders check everything from fluid levels to making sure there are ice and drinks in their coolers. I find the vehicle I have been assigned to and shake hands with the vehicle commander.

The Humvee of today is a massive cocoon of steel, armor and ballistic glass, bursting with electronics and is twice the weight of the old vehicles. It has more in common with a tank than the Humvee I rode into Iraq on. To counter the added weight they’ve added a much larger engine and industrial air conditioner. The interiors are jammed with new radios, electronics to combat IEDs and computers to communicate with virtually anyone in theater. It’s cramped and obvious from the moment you get in this was not designed for ergonomics. Before I get in I put on my PPE, which is “personal protection equipment”.

The flak jacket with ceramic plate inserts and side plates weighs thirty pounds and is awkward to put on. I hoist it up and slip my arms in. With a shrug I get the flak sitting right then fasten the large Velcro flap on the chest and then my throat protector. I check my pistol magazine pouch to make sure it’s fastened properly and I have all of my magazines. Inside where the breast plate goes I have placed a small picture book given to me by my daughter Ali that has pictures of all my kids. I always pat it for good luck. Next, I insert my ear plugs, put on my helmet and snap my chin strap. Finally, I pull on my Nomex gloves and ballistic goggles and I’m ready.

Once inside, I put on a head-set that is designed for internal communications. From here I can talk to people inside my vehicle or in all vehicles. Mostly, I just listen to what is being said, it gives me a sense for the fluidity of their operations. Except for the soft glow of a subdued computer screen the interior is dark. The vents are blowing warm air into the vehicle, just behind my head. Without the head set on it would be hard to talk without yelling. My knees are pushed up against the seat in front of me. My left side is jabbed by the sharp edges, rods and knobs of the latest armored door they have put on this vehicle. There is no place to put my arm and it soon aches with discomfort. Before we leave, I test my door several times to make sure it works properly. The sheer weight of the door is mind blowing, weighing several hundred pounds. It feels like a bank vault.

Once staged in order, a command is given to head for the ECP (entry control point) and we bounce through base. Each vehicle has a machine gunner in an armored turret planted right between the four seats. This gives me a view of his legs and the gunner constantly moves his turret.

Just before we leave base we step outside of our vehicles to load our weapons. Marines never leave base without having their weapons with a round in the chamber. However, this team loads their magazines of their personal weapons but don’t chamber a round, which strikes me as odd. As we get back in I ask over the headset why they don’t. The driver, a kid from the south drawls; “the way I figure it sir, these vehicles are designed to stop bullets…if they can’t get in, they sure as hell can’t get out”. I can’t argue with the logic and we all have a good laugh. The convoy commander radios the Marines and announces that we are “Oscar Mike”, phonetic for “OM” or, “on the move”.

Things start to get dusty as we navigate through the ECP and off base, or as we call it “outside the wire”. Two miles down a dusty and rutted road we are on MSR Mobile. The teams move fluidly as some vehicles set “blocks” and others “bump”. When a vehicle “blocks” he places himself to prevent traffic from entering our convoy. When someone “bumps” he is replacing the first blocker and therefore bumps him forward. Whether these seven vehicles are taking themselves or escorting fifty tractor trailers, their first priority is security of themselves and their cargo.

As we enter Mobile the dust recedes and we pick up speed. The single biggest threat for convoys are IEDs (improvised explosive devices). To counter that threat we have adapted vehicles in many ways, as well as adapted our tactics. Piledriver’s gunners act as the eyes of the convoy trying to pick out that one object out of 10,000 they see in a night that might be deadly. It could be simple like an artillery shell in plain sight but more likely, a device hidden in debris; under gravel, dirt, in dead animals, disguised to look like trash or even parts of the highway itself.

I glance through the thick ballistic glass into the night. I can’t see much but keep my eyes out for suspicious items or enemy forces firing on our convoy. The ride is loud and alternates between being smooth and sudden jarring thuds, as we hit a seam or hole. This isn’t I-70 back home. The shoulders are littered with evidence of past explosions with twisted guard rails and blackened holes. While we travel down the center lane, we periodically have to move around something and even cross the highway.

The roads are mostly deserted because of curfews. The Iraqi government allows over the road truckers, but they are limited and they have to pull over as military convoys pass. Periodically, we encounter another military convoy passing the other way. The gunners continuously scan shoulders, roads and overpasses for signs of trouble.

About half way through the trip we enter an area that is known as a “hot spot” an area where we have had a great deal of trouble of one kind or another. Suddenly, one of the members of the lead vehicle says he’s seen something suspicious. We all brake and lights go out as the gunner in the lead vehicle tosses a chem stick to mark the spot.

Stopping in Iraq is never a good feeling, stopping for a long time is even a worse idea. The report is called into our higher headquarters and an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team is dispatched. All traffic on the highway is blocked. Think of EOD as plumbers on the coldest night in the winter. They spend their days rushing from one problem to the next. As we wait for EOD to arrive we all scan the area for suspicious activity. A couple of hours later EOD arrives. They determine that we have encountered a “speed bump” IED, which is pulled onto the highway in the hopes you roll over it and detonate the device. EOD removes the device for further study and we are cleared to go. It turns out to have contained 200lbs of explosives.

The lights come on and we begin rolling. We travel only around 500 meters when I see a chem stick fly towards the shoulder of the road. Because we had not gotten up to full speed and spacing we are within five feet of the light and object. I glance out the door and there within feet is a plastic bag and the nose of an artillery shell of some sort. The two vehicles past the object move quickly forward to a safe distance.

“Back up….back up!! BACK UP!!!!” the vehicle commander shouts over his headset as the driver throws the Humvee in reverse and stomps on the gas. We stop a football field away, and then slowly the entire group continues to move backward until we are several hundred meters away. Once again, we turn off our lights, notify higher headquarters and they call EOD. We can still see the tail lights of EOD in our rear view mirror, but they are on to the next busted pipe and we have a long wait. For hours I peer through the ballistic glass with my night vision goggles. I see some small hills but no movement. As the hours pass I fight to not fall asleep and my head aches from the weight and pressure of the helmet.

An Army convoy gets tired of waiting behind us and crosses onto the opposite road, violating all the rules, but this turns out to be very common among their troops. We just shake our head.

Several hours later I can see the first rays of dawn on the horizon. I tell the Convoy Commander he needs to make a decision. He keeps three of his vehicles and sends the rest of us back towards Fallujah. We have a VIP package and we need to get it back in a safe spot.

We cross the median and pray there’s nothing there. Soon we are on our way back. The sun’s almost up and the roads are filling with local Iraqis about their regular business. We make it back to base seven hours after we left for a 50 mile trip and never made it. I drop off my gear, eat breakfast and get a couple of hours of sleep. This is not uncommon, nothing is easy here, and nothing is taken for granted.

Later that day I stop in our combat operations center to check up on Chief Burroughs and those who stayed behind. EOD finally had made it. The object in the trash was a 155mm artillery shell. When they blew it up in place, it uncovered three more 155mm artillery shells underneath. As they traced the wires, a lone man on a motorcycle shot out from behind one of the hills I had been staring at in the darkness. Where he had likely been, they found a wireless phone base station, often used to detonate IEDs. The reality hit me hard, the man on the motorcycle had been trying to kill us; and if not for the electronic systems our vehicles have on board somebody would have been vaporized.

Chief said that after the IED was fully destroyed, they got in their vehicles and crossed the same highway median we had earlier. As they did they hit an IED and were attacked with small arms. They engaged the enemy and as they broke contact hit a third IED. But today, the good guys won and the only casualty was some vehicle damage. When I talked to Chief he seemed nonchalant. But that’s how you deal with uncertainties here, you trust in your equipment, your training and your team. The rest is up to God.