2004 Fallujah, Iraq
Panic throughout the camp. Military personnel shuffle to and fro in a frenzy, our pace quickening, the intensity increasing as our anxiety builds from rumors circulating via the unofficial intelligence source dubbed the Lance Corporal Underground—the frightfully accurate rumor mill of the lower ranking Marines.
My team, a Quick Reaction Force or QRF, forms up outside the aid station where day after day we’ve been sleeping and bullshitting. We gather in the scorching heat under the sand-blasted, camouflaged netting intended to disrupt any enemy radar. The wind cakes the station’s canvas walls with a new layer of brown moon-dust, then blows onward to the next building until all you see is tiny dust particles placed on every millimeter of everything in sight.
In the camp, our chairs consist of empty communication wire spools, empty ammo cans, and boxes of meals-ready-to-eat, or MREs. These boxes, once emptied and reinforced with duct tape, served as our toilets.
I wonder what my grandfather would say if he could see me here, a 20-year-old private first class deployed to Iraq. Apparently I was his favorite grandson. He never told me this in person. I had to hear it from my grandma, and I didn’t believe her. He’d said he wanted to bathe the rest of his grandchildren in my urine for being worthless. I saw none of this admiration. A man like my grandfather who grew up in Mexico and was left for dead in a ditch in the 1950s from a gunshot wound after a poker game does not show emotion. No wonder my father acted in this same machismo fashion.
Our gun trucks are Humvees. Some are for transport; some have machine guns; some are ambulances placed strategically so we can leave base as fast as possible. The war chariots creak as they struggle to maintain the weight of the added cheap armor we bolted on in Kuwait. Some Humvees are green and some are tan, and that’s okay because they match our flak vests. Perhaps the Pentagon ran out of uniformity. Now the higher ups come out to confirm or deny the rumors of the impending firefight ahead of us.
The Lance Corporal Underground is reporting that 500 civilian vehicles are convoying in our direction. So we anxiously wait for the rumors to be confirmed or denied.
“The rumors are true,” Corporal Kimmons reports to us. This convoy is full of military-aged males donning small arms, RPGs, and a pissed-off attitude as they shout at our helicopters while raising their weapons. Corporal Kimmons is a stocky, dark-green Marine whose accent suggests he was raised by rich hippies. I ask him why our air power hadn’t blasted these fine young gentlemen into the fucking Stone Age. He replies that the Al-Jazeera news network would surely be video-taping this event and spin the aggressive civilians in Bill O’Reilly fashion as a peaceful extended family heading toward a re-union. Then he nonchalantly says, “It’s very well we’re fucking dead,” and he leans towards the driver seat of his Humvee for his gloves. His helmet, raised to his forehead like a construction worker’s hard hat, reveals stress lines not indicative of a 22-year-old. The way he accepts death so casually and offers me no explanation bewilders me.
Death. Accepting death. In five years my grandfather would be on the precipice of death, but of course I don’t know this here in Iraq as I myself wander in death’s shade. How could I know that in five years I would be a platoon sergeant for 44 Marines, that on a long weekend I’d come home and my mother would urge me to visit my grandfather?
“We don’t have much time left with him,” she would say.
But I would not visit him, and I would not allow myself to see his weakened state, his incoherence.
I would instead be waiting for an announcement from President Obama. I would be part of a Marine Expeditionary Brigade who would augment our ground forces in Helmand Province in Afghanistan. I knew my grandfather might die while I was gone, but I could not see him. I spared myself the opportunity to seek closure.
We are all covered in moon dust and permeated with frantic anxiety. Everyone is. As we wait, we check our vehicles. Only so much to check. The sun continues its relentless harassment. All of our Wiley X sunglasses bead with sweat and dust. If only they came with wipers. That would have been grand. The vibrant stars, the mischievous wind, the gravel at my feet, the salt slowly soaking through my dirty stained cammies—all these things are now null and void as a factor for complaint. Fear has replaced the complacent normality of the day-to-day chaos. A new chaos has appeared; the bar is raised; a new norm established.
All day Camp Fallujah Marines run back and forth to do god-knows-what. I only know that every soul that day is operating on overdrive as a new source of intensity seeps into each step and the constant crunch of gravel from running boots makes deeper moon prints than yesterday, raising more dust in each thrust. More sweat beads. Heavier breathing. Then more. Just more.
We finally get the command to go. But the 500-vehicle Iraqi convoy has broken up into smaller groups, each determined to take their protest to other camps, to combat out-posts, and to forward operating bases. The bulk of these vehicles ends up blocking our main route into the city, so we take an alternate route. We re-enforce the highway clover leaf with equipment and personnel. The civilians park their vehicles roughly three hundred meters from the clover leaf, which is also our last military presence before entering Fallujah. They begin walking toward our main dirt road that connects into the entrance of the base, which is why we have to take an alternate route. They are blocking access to the main road.
Hundreds of Iraqis have come to protest the United States occupation of Iraq. I leap from my vehicle, now parked at the clover leaf, and I walk about 10 meters away from it. I do this in case the vehicle itself attracts bullets because of its sheer size. I don’t want to be too close if this happens. I point my M-16 toward the two buildings ahead of me, toward the city of Fallujah.
My grandfather will die from colon cancer as we welcome the 2010 New Year, just as President Obama announces that 10,000 Marines will be sent to re-enforce the province. I’ll have 48 hours to rush, rush, rush home to Oakland, California, to my Padrino, to the grandfather who baptized me, who now was gone. I will come to the viewing at the wake—el velorio. He was beloved and popular, but stubborn, hard drinking. His casket will be a beautiful wood finish. Hall full of friends, family, and more family. Mom will cry, grandma will be strong. I would leave for Afghanistan in less than 24 hours. I would not conjure enough courage to say goodbye to his resting soul. I drank tequila feeling the sense of urgency. Was he coherent enough to understand that I did not say goodbye while he still had breath? Did he know in his confused state that I would be flying to combat while he would be placed to rest? Was I indeed his favorite and, if so, why could he not tell me in person?
Now I hear sporadic gunfire, yet my sights stay true, fixed toward the road that looks like a road leading into the city of an objective in one of those video games. The feeling of nervousness as light armored vehicles to my left lie in wait, traversing their bushmaster cannons left and right, then left again. Pieces of gravel fall on my helmet from overhead and hit my rifle as the Humvees rumble above on the overpass. Still, I stay focused on those buildings that provide such good cover. Freeway dividers lie herringboned 50 meters in front of me as if to act as a shield against a vehicle suicide bomber. I think, “What if they just go around those dividers?” I keep my question to myself; perhaps this will not dawn on the enemy. No one said there would be a divider, the enemy might say, maybe turning and heading back toward the city.
I walk back and mount up on our valiant steed, a steed that will not stop urinating. As we swing around, we leave the shade of the overpass and again the antagonist, a kind of Sauron, sets its eye on us, ever so brilliant. Slicing through the cracked up road, I see a black blur in front of us, coming in and out of focus as the heat emanating from the road surface confuses my gaze. The blur is amorphous, the vehicles parked as disorderly as possible. If they have a leader, shame on him. They are smack in the center of our entry dirt road which runs about 600 meters to the actual camp gate. Camp Volturno lies to the right of the protestors, later dubbed Camp Baharia. Camp Mercury will later be called Abu Ghuraib and it lies to the left of the protestors. Our Camp—named the Mech by the 82nd Airborne whom we had relieved—sits in front of the protestors. The 82nd seemed thrilled to give this Area of Operation over to us. Then I wondered why. Now I understand. We renamed it Camp Fallujah.
As we drive back to the camp the way we came, I consider that everyone on my team has made peace with the possibility of death. I had never seen so many NCOs and higher-ups so nervous. They had been calm, cool, and collected. Not anymore. Now stress seeps from their pores. Their demeanor is serious. Weapons and personnel checks are not as casual as before. A lot of us place an ammunition round in our left breast pockets. I do this too. Be advised: this private first class was not built to be captured.
Night falls. We sleep like sardines in a dark back room of the Fallujah aid station. But now are woken from our slumber. We gear up, load our vehicles, perform communications checks, and head toward the front gate. Keep in mind, our camp was being attacked damn near every day and night like clockwork. We are fish in a barrel since the city of Fallujah was untouched during the initial invasion a year ago, and this being spring 2004, the city continues to be a safe hub for the Sunni Insurgency.
Corporal Perez says, “Let’s go.” My 50 Cal Gunner, Manny, says, “Come on, Boot, let’s go get some.” He racks his fifty and smiles; he seems to feed off of my nervousness. This is his second deployment while I have been in the Corps less than a year. Apparently to the whole team my name is Boot meaning new fish, cherry, fucking new guy, combat virgin, whatever. It doesn’t bother me. First time I was shot at was in junior high. I was headed to my buddy’s house when a radio-flyer red Impala ‘66 cut the corner, pulled out a rifle, and started shooting. I’ve been there and done that. So I thought.
Nearly six years from now I will leave my grandfather’s ceremony to catch my flight to Afghanistan. But worse, leaving with me will be my wife, my daughter, my mother, my stepfather, sister, brother-in-law, and nephews. I will drink on my way to 29 Palms because I will be buried, buried with guilt, with shame because I am causing the family pain while they are suffering painfully. I will be flying to Afghanistan, regretting that my immediate family came to see me off rather than see my grandfather buried. I will feel I am betraying him by stealing his audience. Not only will my grandmother have to say goodbye to her husband; she will have to say goodbye to her grandson.
I will be in the viewing room when I hug my grandmother.
“I’m sorry, but I have to go, Ma.”
She will sobbingly bless and pray for me. Frail and short, this 100-pound, 75-year-old woman with the typical Spaniard look will put on a strong face for show. I feel I should have refused orders and stayed home another day, tried to explain and seek understanding in the chain of command. Should I have fought to stay? Me, now in charge of more than 40 Marines, most of whom had not deployed before? Should they—could they—go on without me for a few days? I will be torn.
But that will be then, years from now, and today only the immediate future is my concern. So on one of our runs we head to re-enforce the clover leaf currently under attack. The drivers use night vision goggles so as to not alert the protestors still at our doorstep. The vehicle in front of me crashes into a huge cement post, and so do we. Both vehicles, now with broken axles, have concertina wire tangled all over the undercarriage. The truck in front of us is what we call a high back, used as a troop transport so the Marines can jump out and provide 360-security while my gunner orients his gun toward the protestors. Thank God we do not drive with lights lest we alert the protestors of our predicament and location.
We are stuck.
Corporal Kimmons gives me his night vision goggles. “Go to the top of the berm,” he says. “Don’t give yourself away. This is your sector. Keep eyes on the creeping enemy.” I do as I am told. Suddenly we can see the clover leaf being lit up; explosions and spectacular flashes backlight the dark sky. Then artillery from 1st battalion 11th Marines behind us starts going off. Now the protestors have shed their robes and uncovered small arms. The sky above my berm lights up with tracer rounds. It seems Darth Vader and his minions have joined the fight. Red and white illumination rounds sway left and right, working their way across the battle space. Illuminating them, us, the trash-filled streets, the miles of concertina wire, and the endless mounds of dirt and sand that could serve as micro terrain.
The boneyard—a military-vehicle junkyard next to Camp Fallujah and behind our position on the opposite side of my berm—starts to see some action. The opposing force likes to use the hundreds of broken-down military vehicles, tanks, and trucks as cover as they slither toward an optimum attacking position. Here we are, sandwiched between two berms. Ten Marines, one fifty cal. machine gun, and hundreds of military-aged males who do not know we are here.
The hurricane starts.
We are ordered not to open fire. The convoy pushes ahead without us and we are fully engaged at the clover leaf; thus, we are on our own. Amphibious tracked vehicles rumble by us. Goddam they are loud. If we open up they might engage us. Five hundred insurgents against ten Marines are great odds; however, we neglect to test the water, and we wait. Pinned down. We are caught handicapped in the eye of the storm, unable to act, pursue, engage or retaliate. The front gate and protestors exchange, while artillery from behind us rages on. The camp ahead of us lodges mortars and small arms, while the clover leaf fights for its existence. The tracer-round gods clash in a violent unchecked raging romance and consummate right above our heads. It would be beautiful if it was not so frightful. I pray while I scan my sector, my legs continue to dig deeper in the berm. I cannot stop moving them. Fucking blurry night vision goggles procured by the lowest bidder are perched on my face. The rest is a blur. Not being able to shoot back is the worst feeling in the world.
Well, almost the worst feeling, because one day I will arrive at 29 Palms with a feeling worse than this after driving all night to prepare to deploy to Afghanistan. At 4 a.m. I will rush to pack my gear; I must be at the armory at 0530 to draw weapons. I will get dressed and proceed toward base.
I had told no one that I did not expect to return home. I was truly scared of deploying this time because Afghanistan is not Iraq, and this would be my first time in Afghanistan.
As my 44 Marines arrived, I would hold formation and take role. I would instruct my platoon to briefly say goodbye to their loved ones and proceed to the bus. I knew that some of them would not be coming home. I took role as they boarded the bus. I hugged my wife and daughter. After all my Marines were on board, I would be the last to climb onto the bus.
It would all happen so fast. I would not see my grandfather before he died, even though I would have the chance. I would regret not arguing my necessity to attend his burial. I would regret giving my family yet another reason to be sad. My mother, sister, nephews, step-dad, brother-in-law—none of them would attend the funeral of my grandfather because they came to see me off to war.
And even though my family would tell me not to feel that way, for that I would feel an unending regret.
So here in Iraq, pinned down in the shadow of my own possible death as illumination rounds dance their tango through the beautiful starlight Iraqi sky, the reality of consequences sets in. This private first class had volunteered for everything so he could live up to his seniors’ stories, so he could crush any perceived shortcomings of us new guys. But now, after a couple of months, I just want to go home. I’ve had enough of getting shot at, of losing friends. The reality has transcended the romance of combat innately inherent in every boy. My youth perceptions are now shattered; the beauty of young omnipotence, of blissful ignorance, of naivetés in all their glory are no more. I have a family to get home to. A grandfather I want to see again.
For the first time in my life I really might die.