Sweat and Dust

Posted: April 4, 2012 in Military, Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Nine years. Nine long years. That’s how long I have been coming to this country. That’s how long I have been involved in this war.

This place has changed me beyond recognition from the man who I used to be before 2003. It’s opened up my eyes to a world that many of us will never know outside of a tv show or a book. It’s damaged me more than I care to admit and in other ways it has made me stronger than I could have ever have been in my old life. I look at things differently now and realise how fragile our lives are. For men and women like myself Death is our constant companion and we can only hope that at the end of it all, when our time is done, that it was all worth it.

The patrol base that we had to visit today was only five kilometers north of our location. On a really clear day, if you stand on top of the compound roof you can just make out the radio mast located in the centre of the small base. The ground leading up to it is a mixture of fertile farming land broken up by mud compounds that have stood for generations and copses of blossoming trees. The mountain range in the far distance adds to the picture and you can not help but think what a beautiful country that this is. Another time and another place and this would be somewhere that I would come to get lost in, to just wander around and soak up the history, the people and the culture. But this isn’t another time or another place. It’s right here and right now and if I did let go to that feeling and decide to lose myself and go for a wander it would be a death sentence and no matter how beautiful that I think this place is I am not ready to join my Brothers at the finale RV just yet. That is going to have to wait. The task, on paper, looks simple enough. We are to escort our client to this patrol base five kilometers away so that he may observe a shura being run by the local Government figure-head. The shura is a chance for the representative to showcase the benefits of supporting his government to the local population by talking to them about the importance of education, a working infrastructure, health care and most important of all how they should not support the enemy and what (this is implied) will happen to them if they do.

So the task is no problem. We have the vehicles, we have the kit and we have the manpower. We also have ample supplies of Gator Aid, Pop Tarts and cigarets.

This isn’t the real world though and there is a reason that as we all meet at the vehicle park waiting to mount up in our designated vehicle of the four vehicle move we are chain-smoking, re-checking our weapon systems over and over, making sure that our kit is tight and that we have all of the correct protective gear on (one thing that you do not want to happen out here is to get blown up, lose both your legs and maybe an arm for good measure only for the insurance company to find out that you didn’t have your issue boots or the issue eyewear on. Payout, what payout?). One of my personal things is to make sure that the guys that I am with know where all of my personal med-kit is located. They all have to look in as I systematically point out where my first field dressings and tourniquets are located about my body. It doesn’t occur to me as they patiently stand there and watch me that I have done this so many times with them by now that they probably know where all of my kit is located better than I do. They don’t say a thing and let me get on with it. We all have our OCD side. Time for another couple of smokes and a couple of dirty jokes and then we get the shout to mount up and move out.

The journey takes us approximately 45 minutes from start to finish. The heat is unbearable and the air-con unit is non-functional. There are four of us crammed into the back of this wagon with all of our kit, wedged in between communications kit and ammunition crates like sardines packed into a tin. The driver and commander have the best deal, there was only two sardines in their tin. The route takes us along a dirt track that winds through the compound and cuts across the fields kicking up plume of dust as we move. It only takes us a couple of minutes until we pass the location of the first Improvised Explosive Device that I found in this area on a patrol – a school that has long since closed after the enemy opened fire on a class of children to let them know of their displeasure at the education system coming to their part of the world. We found the IED placed within the school itself – left as a little surprise for anyone who decided to come back and try to carry on with their education. Just about a 100 meters later and the vehicle commander calls back to us to let us know that we are about to pass the location where a vehicle of theirs was taken out of action by a IED the week before and just after that is the spot that the enemy keep on planting anti-tank mines in the hope of hitting a vehicle one of these days and sending a Marine or two back home to their families before their tour is up. If they succeed the Marine gets a fancy medal so it’s not all bad. We sit there and lose ourselves in our own thoughts while waiting for the sudden hot blast of pure violence to hit us. I sip on some water from my now hot bottle. The blast doesn’t come and we carry on with our road trip. We hit the next set of compounds and  immediately we hear the strikes of small arms fire pinging off the side of our vehicle. Everybody tenses inside the vehicle, for us this is the worst situation, stuck inside this mobile tin can unable to see outside and unable to react. There is nothing we can do, we are just passengers on this ride and have to trust in and let the crew do their job. My adrenaline starts to pump through my body, my lips go dry and my stomach goes into knots. I prepare myself mentally for what needs to be done in a dozen scenarios. If the vehicle is immobilized I need to get my client out quick and into cover or another vehicle. He is my priority and he is counting on me to look after him. That’s all I am worried about in that situation. The Marines know that if I become a casualty that they are to leave me get my client to safety and then come back and help me.  If the vehicle gunner gets taken out I have already cleared it with the vehicle commander that I will jump up and take his place on the .50 cal machine gun. If I become a casualty the Marines in the vehicle will get my client through. As long as we get him to his task location in one piece that is all that matters. I wonder if he realises how much we are all putting ourselves all on the line for him, what we are willing to risk on his behalf. These feeling and thoughts are over in milliseconds. And then it clicks in – the gunner is not returning fire and the vic commander is shouting back at us. It’s not gun fire. It is kids, lots of them, throwing rocks and stones at us as we go by. This should be amusing and is I guess except for the fact that the stone throwing, in this magnitude, means that we are not welcome around here. The convoy carries on rolling through this storm of rocks and stones to its finale destination.

After 45 long minutes we arrive at the patrol base. We disembark, saturated in sweat and covered in dust and leave our ‘road warriors’ to look for our shura area while they moan about broken mirrors, smoke and discuss the pro’s and con’s of lighting up the stone throwers – the theory being that if you shoot a couple of them then the rest will get the point. I don’t think that they will get the point myself and if anything the stone throwing will turn to gunfire.

We find the shura area after a short walk. There are about 200 males all sitting down in the middle of a sun-scorched compound. They have no water, no shade and can not leave. The only thing that they have to look forward to is a two-hour lecture from someone who they have never met before and probably will never see again. And just to make them feel more comfortable they are being watched from all sides by a score of armed men in uniform. At the front of the compound, sitting under a sunshade with a crate of bottled water at his feet is the government rep for this area. He reminds me of dictator or emperor of old, fat and over fed, sitting upon his throne looking down at his subjects. He starts his speech while I stand at the back with my client, he watches the man give his speech while I watch the crowd for any kind of sign that may tell me that someone is about to jump up and push a button so that he can finally go and meet his 40 virgins in heaven while sending some of us the opposite direction. I’ll be lucky if I spot him before he goes bang….but it’s always worth looking. The speech goes on and on and on. No-one but the man in the chair talks. This isn’t because he doesn’t give the now slightly dehydrated crowd a chance. It’s because none of them seem to want to talk. They all sit there in silence, every now and then casting nervous glances at the armed men stood around them and at un-seen foes sat amongst them. The problem is that we are stood at a spot on the very edge of the baddest of the badlands. We are at the frontier. This is the modern-day wild west. The O.K. Corral. This base is surrounded on three sides by land controlled by the bad guys. When we leave it will still be controlled by the bad guys. This is not a place where anyone wants to be seen to be talking to a government rep. None of these people would have come to this shura if it was not for the armed government men who walked into their villages and rounded them up like cattle and told them that they had to attend. The future of their country depends on them attending. Their children’s futures depend on them attending. So with a gun at your back you are going to attend. Inshallah. The un-seen foe amongst them is our enemy. They are there, dressed the same as everyone else and un-armed so that the Marines can not do anything about them, in force watching the proceedings and ready to take note of anyone who appears to show any interest in what is being said – if anyone does they can expect a visit from a different group of armed men during the night. The meeting ends and everyone is allowed to leave, on the way out smiling Marines hand out free prayer mats and copies of the Holy Koran as a way of making up for the lack of water. The enemy never give out free prayer mats. Maybe this government isn’t so bad after all.

I stand beside my vehicle grabbing a last smoke before I mount up. As I do so I contemplate the 45 minute journey back and hope that this has all been worth it.

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