My life in Iraq was that of a nomad, I was always on the road and each FOB I moved to was more austere and crappier than the one before. As much as I loathed travelling so much, this nomadic lifestyle is likely why I survived my tour and remained relatively physically unscathed. Because I travelled so much, I rarely worked with a unit more than a week or two before moving to another unit or another FOB for a different mission.
The Military Transition Team (MiTT) however, was a unit I worked with more often. Their mission was unique compared to the other units I worked with. They were responsible for training Iraqi forces to take over the security of their country when we eventually pulled out. My original mission (See: “When time stood still”) was behind me and I’d been at FOB (Forward Operating Base) Gabe for over a week for a humanitarian mission that was postponed indefinitely.
Idle Minds = Distraction = Death
Being idle for a week was painful. I spent every waking moment up to then finding and prepping for my next mission. Spending a week with nothing to do but think sucked. It was counterproductive to maintaining my focus and shutting off my emotions. I couldn’t afford to be distracted by thoughts of home, my baby girl and everything else I’d avoided thinking about since I arrived at FOB Warhorse a few months earlier. Distraction was what could get me killed.
FOB Gabe was once an active base with hundreds of soldiers, but by the time I arrived there, it was nearly empty. The DFAC (dining facility) was almost empty at peak meal times. There was no internet, no outgoing phone calls other than from base to base, no other people to talk to and worst of all, no missions going out. I had nothing to do but spend my days lying on a bed in a trailer with a radio on my pillow next to my head. Just WAITING for a call that there was a mission for us. ANY mission at that point would’ve been preferable to being idle. I don’t think I’ve ever been that bored in my life, well until my second deployment that is.
My only chance at leaving the base on a mission was to respectfully harass the Sergeant Major of the MiTT team. One evening I finally heard chatter on the radio about an outgoing mission. This was my chance to get out! I peeled myself off my bed and sprinted to the Sergeant Major’s office and begged to get on the mission. I couldn’t take doing nothing anymore. I didn’t care that I didn’t know where or what they were doing. I just needed OUT!
The Sergeant major said, “It’s too dangerous.” It was infuriating to hear that because at that point I’d been shot at, hit an IED and had a dud mortar land next to my Humvee. Were those instances not dangerous enough? I know I didn’t hide my aggravation well. I turned around in time to see two civilian journalists from CNN getting into one of the Humvees. I was pissed.
I know the Sergeant Major could see the disappointment, confusion and irritation on my face. He asked me if I was upset with him and I said no. I just didn’t understand why they would take civilian journalists with no training, no weapons, and substandard armor rather than an actual asset to their unit if shit went down.
Too Dangerous? Seriously?
I can only guess it probably was someone higher than him that coordinated that particular mission. So instead, I stood there like a sad puppy watching the guys prep the trucks and left when everyone started mounting up. The Sergeant Major’s words kept playing over in my mind. “It’s too dangerous” and I thought “Wow! I almost got my head blown off on my last mission with the same unit and I wasn’t told that one was too dangerous! You’ve gotta be effing kidding me!!!”
I went back to my room and resumed my position of lying on my bed staring at the ceiling and waiting for a call on the radio. Right as I started to fall asleep, I got a call to come to the Sergeant Major’s office. As soon as I walked in he broke the bad news, one of the Humvees hit an IED and there were three KIA (killed in action). His intuition was right.
There are many things I would’ve given my life for, but not for a drive around night mission. Nothing I could’ve shot on that mission would’ve been worth dying over. If I had to die in Iraq, it would be doing something heroic, not for video that wouldn’t change or improve anything or end the war.
A few days later I was in the smoking pit at Warhorse when a young female soldier sat down. She was distraught and obviously upset. She mentioned that she’d lost a good friend recently to an IED. I asked her where at she said from FOB Gabe. I told her I was sorry about her friend and that I saw him right before they went out. It was beyond real to me. They were there right in front of me and then they were gone and they were never coming back.
After that, I became obsessively superstitious. I wore the same boots, gloves, eye pro, and carried rosary beads and the same photos of my daughter in the pocket over my heart. I had an personal rule that I would never switch seats with anyone unless I was told to. It wasn’t so much for self-preservation as it was that I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if someone died because they were sitting in my seat. In the end, I don’t think any of it mattered, but at the time those weird rituals and my good luck charms made me feel like I had some semblance of control, even though it was all in god’s hands.
In hindsight I see how I walked the tightrope between safe and stupid, mostly to due to my inexperience and ignorance. What I took away from that deployment was that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. Facing your own mortality at such a young age was both sobering and damaging.
Honoring Their Sacrifice
It’s been 12 years and not a day goes by that I don’t think about the guys that died in that hell hole. I think of their families and especially their children. Their sacrifice isn’t being honored if I’m not living a life, and not just me, but all of us that made it home.
I vowed to live my best life, because they can’t. It took me many years to get to a place where I could even appreciate being alive. Over the last year things have changed for me. I’m working on living again. I’m spending more time with family, I’m being social, I’m planning a trip overseas and I’m doing things I would never have done before, because I felt so completely broken.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m by no means whole yet, but I’m trying to get there.