There and Back Again: Warfare HQ Reports from Operation Iraqi Freedom
Warfare HQ has many armchair generals, but we also have quite a few members who serve in various military forces around the world. Some of these members still serve today while others ended their military service many years ago. There are as many different types of jobs in the military as there are types of people to go with those jobs. There are mechanics, cooks, intelligence specialists, policemen, heavy equipment operators, and engineers in addition to the basic infantry, artillery, and tankers. "An army is a team. It eats, sleeps, and fights as a team." Those were the words of General George S. Patton and they are as true today as they were when he spoke them over fifty years ago. Each member of the team must strive to support every other member, else the unit will not be able to accomplish its wartime mission. And there are as many different missions as there are units to go with those missions. Units strive to support each other in the same manner that individual soldiers support each other.
I recently returned from a six month tour with the United States Army in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I learned a lot there, just as I did as a junior NCO when I was deployed to Operation Desert Storm. In many ways I already knew what to expect in Iraqi Freedom because I had been there before and I had some experience in that part of the world. In other ways it was a new experience for me. I had a very different job during Desert Storm and so my perspective of the battlefield was somewhat different. I thought some of you might be interested to see some of the things that I and my companions saw there. Some of the pictures below I took myself. Most of the others were taken by Captain Randall Hoberecht while we were carrying out our duties. We weren’t always in the same location due to the nature of the mission, so some of what follows I experienced directly, other parts were relayed to me by my companions.
Putting into words the things we saw, heard, and felt is far beyond my skill with works, nevertheless, I will attempt to give you some perspective of what you are seeing in the photos. Most of the really interesting stuff I couldn’t get photos of for obvious reasons. You can view a full size version of the photos by clicking on any of them. Be patient, some of the larger versions may take a few seconds to load as they are high resolution.
I guess I should give you a few basic facts so you better understand what you are seeing. I deployed as part of the the 7th Battalion 159th Aviation Regiment. This unit was assigned as part of Task Force 11. Apache helicopters of several attack helicopter battalions and cavalry squadrons made up the main combat power of the task force. You can read more about the organization of the task force here. 7-159th is stationed in Illesheim, Germany. Loading out a unit of this size is no small task in and of itself. There are about a million things that need to be done to deploy a military unit, and almost all of them seem to have ten things that need be done in order before you can do the next item. No matter how much you plan or inspect to make sure everything is going okay, you always end up forgetting something that you need. It never fails. However, we finally did make it to Kuwait.
Once in country, the fun is just starting. There are huge amounts of logistics to be transported, loaded, unloaded, and set up. Some will arrive by aircraft, some by truck, while the majority of the heavy equipment arrives by ship. Loading and unloading from these large ships would be a challenge in the best of times, but doing it while everyone is in crisis mode just adds to the frustration. Due to the limited port space in Kuwait there can be massive backups and traffic jams while different units attempt to sort out their assigned equipment and vehicles. Things can and do get damaged while in transport as well. Several of our containers arrived with holes through the side from forklift tines. Not all of the equipment can fit inside the cargo area of the ship so it is often necessary to "shrinkwrap" items that will stay up on deck to protect them from the saltwater.
Camp> Doha Kuwait was the first stop for many units that arrived in the theater of operations. It’s been around for a while and has many amenities that the other base camps lack. Good food, a PX (shopping area), phones, and a really great gym! I spent some time at this camp and it wasn’t bad at all. Just outside the camp there is a huge industrial complex with two big smokestacks. These serve as a good reference point to keep your bearings when you’re driving off the base, but most soldiers are a little superstitious about them. They are affectionately referred to as the "SCUD Goalposts." They churn out smoke 24 hours per day and there is always a noxious cloud hanging over the base. Leave it to the Army to find the most inhospitable piece of real estate available. Well, at least if I get cancer any time in the near future I won’t have to guess where it came from!
Life on Camp Doha is so much better than it is at the other base camps the guards will actually bar vehicles from other installations from driving freely on certain portions of the base because there are too many visitors. Most people come there for the PX, and for the KFC Chicken. The wait is about 90 minutes for a piece of chicken so you better get used to it. I don’t like waiting so I only ate in the regular dining facility, or chow hall as most soldiers refer to it. Waiting is a normal routine in the Army. You have to wait for everything. Food, haircuts, finance, phones, everything. You always expect it, but no matter how long you’re in the military you never get so it doesn’t bother you.
It didn’t take long before Operation Iraqi Freedom was about to begin. We didn’t have nearly as much time as we needed to get everything ready, but the political situation and the coming heat of summer were factors that simply couldn’t be ignored. None of us were very happy about it, but we also didn’t want to be in MOPP4 (mission oriented protective posture) when it was 120 degrees in the shade. MOPP4 involves wearing a suit of chemical protective over garments, a mask, and rubber gloves and boots. Needless to say, soldiers absolutely hate MOPP4 even for short periods. When it’s terribly hot and you haven’t had a shower for a week it’s much worse. I’m glad I’m not a female soldier!
During this time leaders do what leaders always do: talk to soldiers, explain what the mission is and what is expected of them. Soldiers usually function best when they are kept informed of the situation. They can make better decisions and they are generally happier. That’s why it’s one of the Army’s eleven principles of leadership. In this photo you can see our battalion commander addressing the soldiers of the unit during the early stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The environment in the Middle East is as much of an enemy as anything else you will face. The dust is a constant problem as it gets into everything and clogs up filters, causes additional wear, and generally just makes life miserable. The dust storms that sweep the area are something that really has to be experienced to be appreciated. First, the desert in this area isn’t really sand. it’s more like a brown powder. Even the slightest activity will quickly stir up a small cloud and vehicles stir up a lot more. Helicopters are in a class by themselves and can stir up a mini sand storm in a matter of about thirty seconds. There is next to nothing that can be done to keep the dust out, so you just have to learn to do preventative maintenance and be extra careful with sensitive equipment.
Once the operation began it was a long hard road to Baghdad and a lot further than most people realize. Iraq has few good roads and most are in a state of disrepair. Even if they weren’t, driving a hundred 65 ton main battle tanks over them did help much! In this photo you can see what would eventually come to be referred to as the convoy from Hell. This was a massive convoy of support units that trailed along just behind the BCTs (Brigade Combat Teams). At times it’s easy to get lost amid all the confusion, especially when soldiers haven’t had proper rest in days or even weeks. The ill-fated 507th maintenance was a prime example of this. I was one of the lucky ones who was spared this convoy. I traveled north by helicopter instead.
If you haven’t actually been part of or seen a convoy like this in action it’s a little hard to describe. These convoys can be several miles in length and they are stacked up one behind the other. Just getting sufficient food and water to the soldiers is a major undertaking. Needless to say, food consisted of MREs only. These are ready made meals that come in plastic pockets, sort of a modern day C-ration. Some are okay and others are just this side of completely hideous. They have improved over the years though.
It was about this time that Saddam started with the missile attacks. I experienced the SCUD alerts during Operation Desert Storm, but those most went right over us and were headed for cities deep in southern Saudi Arabia. This time the missiles were aimed at us and were generally smaller than SCUDs. Nevertheless, some carry a 2,000 lb warhead and they will certainly get your attention when they explode. Despite our training most of us were still a little slow at putting our MOPP gear on. The attacks came by both night and day and were a source of both worry and amusement. My partner and I had several inside jokes going as to when the last attack would come. To be honest, I was somewhat surprised by both the number of attacks and how accurate some of them were. If it were not for the Patriot batteries, which were ever vigilant and did a great job, I might not be writing this now. The first time the alert siren went off and the Patriot battery next to us launched two missiles I think most of us set a new speed record for putting on our MOPP gear! I lost count of how many alerts there were, but I can truly say I’m 100% proficient at this task.
Several of the missiles got pretty close and were literally destroyed right overhead. At 2AM I can tell you it’s an eye opener you won’t soon forget.
During my time in Operation Iraqi Freedom my contact with Iraqi civilians was fairly limited, but the majority that I did have contact with were either friendly, or at least not openly hostile. How do they feel about the whole situation? I can’t really say. My sense of it is that nearly all are glad that Saddam is gone, but at the same time they aren’t terribly happy about having a foreign army on their soil. These Iraqi children were waving to American convoys passing on the road. They quickly learn that GIs often carry candy and are pretty free with giving it out.
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