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Be the Change.
Lt. Col. Laurie Moe Buckhout ('84)
Lt. Col. Buckhout gave up command of the 32nd Signal Battalion in June 2004 in Darmstadt, Germany. Buckhout led the 600 soldier battalion known as the Warhorns for two years, including leading it to combat in Iraq and bringing the entire battalion home after a year in the Sunni triangle. She earned a Bronze Star, the Army's award for meritorious service in combat, and her fourth Meritorious Service Medal. Buckhout's diary details some of the challenges faced by signal battalions as they set up and maintain the Army's communications network in war zones.
The Warhorns, the 32nd Signal Battalion was organized and activated as the 32d Signal Construction Company in Chicago, Ill, on March 20, 1943. It was then transferred without soldiers or equipment to the Signal Corps Unit Training center at Camp Crowder, Missouri where, on March 25, 1943, it was ordered into active military service as the 32d Signal Construction Battalion.
When I took command in June 2002, I knew that there was a strong possibility that I would lead the battalion in combat. As a professional officer, it was a challenge I welcomed; but the thought of leaving my two small boys was tough -- the youngest was only 4 months old when I assumed command. Our preparation for the war had included participation in the V Corps' deep strike exercise, Victory Strike III, in Poland, team certifications and a series of drills and deployment conferences. We had almost no holiday in December 2001; for me, Christmas Eve was spent at the battalion headquarters in Darmstadt, Germany, where I talked on my secure phone and worked on e-mail. The 25th was a white Christmas -- my husband Paul, our boys John and Thomas, and I spent it at home in the dark woods of the little German town Heppenheim.
January kicked off with the V Corps exercise Victory Scrimmage as the corps hurriedly tried to address the training challenges of a new staff with reserve augmentees. We received our deployment order while in a snowy field at Vilseck, Germany; and I began sending small extension node communication teams to Kuwait.
On Feb. 23, 2003, I took the advance party to Kuwait -- two days before my youngest son's first birthday. I cried for 30 minutes after leaving my sleeping boys. As I finished packing my rucksack at battalion headquarters, the thrill, fear and excitement really hit me: I'm going to lead my soldiers in combat -- war face on. Like every group that had left the battalion before us, we had a ceremony in the little chapel at Kelley Barracks as a send-off.
After arriving in Kuwait, we took over the Kuwaiti network of various camps in the sandy desolation. I sent two platoons with their company headquarters forward to support the 3rd Infantry Division in the attack. I chose Companies A and C under Capts. Marne Sutten and Sang Han to lead their platoons forward.
While running the network in Camp Virginia in northern Kuwait as we ticked closer to war, I began e-mailing my father, retired Army Col. Wayne Moe, a commander in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, about the goings-on of the battalion. He, in turn, sent my messages to our local paper in Virginia. I also took personal notes. What follows are e-mail messages with my dad, some narratives written for J. Todd Foster, managing editor of The News Virginian in Waynesboro and those notes.
As I write this on Jan. 31, 2004, we have been all over Iraq -- from the border to Mosul, the Syrian border, Tikrit and Baghdad. The 32nd Signal Battalion soldiers never let me or anybody else down. Commanders at all levels called me personally and asked for our teams or to send communications through the 32nd node centers. Warhorn mechanics and cooks toiled endlessly. Our electronics maintenance gang is simply the best in the brigade. The staff -- the personnel officer, the supply officer, the chaplain and his driver -- always worked for the soldiers in this battalion. And every soldier excelled as only young American men and women can, as only Warhorns can.
The 32nd assumes control of Kuwaiti network.
I had planned for the 32nd to link up with 3rd Infantry Division and cross the berm with them, then move forward and support the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment; but this is not to be. The 17th is going to get the mission, and I will take the network back here. The good news is that there are good commanders here who will fall under me. Task organization is a headache. I need to talk to the 24th Core Support Group about supporting C Company at Camp Adder. I'm still trying to figure out where decontamination points will be, and I need official guidelines for writing letters of condolence and calling for medical evacuation.
While sitting in on a V Corps rear battle update briefing with Maj. Gen. Wojdakowski, we learn that Iraq has received shipments of antibiotics, atropine injectors and some nerve agent antidotes from Turkey and Jordan. Wojdakowski says his greatest fear is logistics -- we will kick ass and kill the hell out of them, but they will try to delay and muck up our lines of communications. He also says that we are going to Baghdad whether or not the president declares war. And he's very concerned about safety factors -- Kevlar protective gear, seat belt design modifications, fatigue. My personal concern is undermanned teams and not enough drivers. However, I know the soldiers will perform in combat.
Still don't know when the war will kick off -- do NOT talk to families about this!
Fighting at rear company -- our cable installers or "cable dogs" are doing hard, hard work; and the communication switches are doing GREAT. I sent Sutten over to the main company to work the staff over there; she's smooth.
Still no brigade plan to provide command and control to the critical berm crossing.
We learn at the deputy commanding general's briefing that an operational pause will be ordered to allow for capitulation. We're not happy -- it gives the enemy a chance to exploit us at the halt.
I received my smallpox shot today and reminded my company commanders that they have the authority to raise the chemical protective level for troops if they feel they must, but they cannot lower it. Sarin gas is considered the most likely agent, but memories of the Gulf War Syndrome and the effects of exposure to petroleum smoke coupled with the anticipation that oil fields may be torched again dictate that our soldiers must be masked if needed.
A final note; only a company commander or above can accept a surrender.
The talcum-fine sand is everywhere. It stretches away to the horizon in rolling waves; it is in our hair, eyes, noses, lungs, clothing and tents; it gets into Humvee air filters and computer keyboards. Periodic sandstorms whip it up to speeds of 40 knots. We walk across the camps squinting and leaning into it, or even backing into it, with desert scarves wrapped over the parts of our faces the goggles don't cover. Some of us don't have goggles yet, and our principal staff officer is fighting the supply system. C Company doesn't have them, and they need to cross the berm in a week. Soldiers use their compasses to navigate the 100 feet to the tent, holding on to each other's vests. In the dark, it's nearly impossible. The sand and the wind conspire to knock down our communications, so we carefully monitor the weather assessment every night. Driving through the sandstorms is nearly impossible.
Because of water shortages, we are supposed to take no more than two showers a week. The good news is that Camp Virginia is clearing out as units move northward, closer to the Iraqi border. I've attached two node centers and company headquarters to another signal battalion under my good friend, Lt. Col. Brian Moore, the 17th Signal Battalion Commander. They've already moved up to their tactical assembly areas; and there, in the open desert, they are living a better life by soldier standards. I heard of one soldier up there with my A Company who stood in a poncho-wrapped shelter made of 2 x 4s while his buddy stood on top of a truck and poured water over his head. With only five gallons in the can, it was a quick lather. But you can do it every day if you want, and there's no waiting in line. Many of my men are sporting shaven heads; much easier to keep clean.
Here in Camp Virginia, most soldiers are sleeping in large Bedouin tents of heavy cotton cloth with plywood floors. The tents, printed inside with Arabic designs, seemed odd at first after green Army tents but are now perfectly normal to all of us. The wind took two of them down last week. No one was hurt, but we know the worst of the season is yet to come.
The most popular commodities are baby wipes, toilet paper and waterless hand cleaner. Disease can be rampant out here with so many crowded into sleep and work tents, and keeping clean is a real challenge. The "Kuwaiti krud" is a rite of passage. Within their first week here, 90 percent of soldiers (including myself) develop a sore throat, cough and fever. I'm sure part of it is the choking dust and the adjustment our immune systems must make to a plethora of strange germs. The clinic does a hopping business in Tylenol(R) and cold remedies; and somehow, we all get through it.
Morale is still high. We all love doing our jobs, even though we go nowhere without our weapons and our Kevlar helmets and nuclear, biological and chemical protection equipment. Danger draws us close together, and there's something special about coming to work at a corporation where all your co-workers would lay down their lives for each other.
We are preparing every day to cross the line of departure. My forward soldiers are all equipped with chemical suits, ammo, spare parts, extra boxes of meal rations, water and fuel. We are digging foxholes and bunkers and filling thousands of sandbags, which will help absorb artillery blasts. We have gone through Scud missile alerts, and everyone knows where to go and what to do if we get hit. Communications must go on; I can't have all my troops drop everything and leave the combat soldiers hanging out there with nothing. I've had my company commanders identify who will stay and keep communications going in the event we are under attack. I will tell you that there is no trepidation in this; it's what we do. In between preparation and finally getting our equipment off of the ships, the troops trained on nuclear, biological and chemical protection tasks and rules of engagement (how to ensure local civilians are well treated and when, and when not, to shoot the enemy). During their sparse off time, they play cards, dominoes, listen to CDs or just nap.
It's started. We got the word a few minutes ago that the air war has just begun. We can hear the bombers roaring overhead. The ground war will be kicking off in about six hours, although limited ground forces are already crossing the border. We are less ebullient then we were last week. Soldiers are still confident, and morale is still high; but we are deadly serious about this business. The stakes have just risen exponentially. I am sitting next to a networked laptop that beeps and speaks to me, "Ballistic missile launch detected." On its screen, I see a map of the border and the movement of enemy and friendly units and artillery fire.
As retaliation to our air strike into Baghdad yesterday, three Scud missiles came into Kuwait this afternoon; and each time our Patriot air defense missile batteries knocked them out of the sky. One Seersucker missile, too low for the Patriots to take out, made it through the air defense umbrella and impacted about a mile from my command post at the Marines' Camp Commando. We heard the muffled thud and immediately streamed out of our work tents to hit the bunkers. The Seersucker blast injured no one, but it shook the tents and knocked out lights. Artillery fire in rear areas is intended not only to knock out communications and command posts but also to confuse and demoralize troops. An hour later I spoke to a young Marine gunnery sergeant, a reservist who, as a New York City fireman, had pulled the bodies of his sergeant major and commander from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. Undaunted, this young Marine, said, "Ma'am, after Sept. 11, I need to be here. I'll be OK." I was humbled.
Units have moved up to attack positions, and we've just been notified that we cross the line of departure in the morning. The engineers are ready to breach the berm, using tracked vehicles with iron bridging units that can stretch over the ditch of contaminant and oil filled 55-gallon drums. The vehicles will cross over one by one in long convoys that will be streaming across for days. About 150 of my soldiers are up there right now in line to cross the border.
Last night I took three trucks and went up to the berms, high hills of dirt bulldozed by both sides that stretch for the entire border, to place a forward communications platoon in the attack positions. The main supply routes -- actually no more than dusty trails across the desert -- were packed with Bradley Fighting Vehicles, fuel tankers, Humvees and M1 tanks. The dust, the noise and the sheer flow of steel moving forward to the border were overwhelming. I radioed my executive officer, Maj. Robert Ibarra, to take the communications platoon out of the convoy and run them up to the objective by themselves -- otherwise, they would never be there in time to facilitate the fight. I felt like my three trucks were mere bubbles in a rushing torrent. We jumped out of the stream, and I led the team cross-country with a Global Positioning System, lots of rounds, food, water, FM radios and an Inmarsat satellite phone. Finally, we were out of the choking dust of the supply route. There was a full moon illuminating the desert; and suddenly, we were completely alone.
It was an eerie desert moonscape, sculptured with abandoned tank fighting positions, more miles of berms and occasional pieces of dilapidated oil pipeline equipment. I saw the trail leading up to a tremendous wall of a berm and cutting into the berm like a dark hole. I stopped the team -- I had no idea what was on the other side. Dismounting my vehicle, I waved Chief Warrant Officer Two Nelsen Velez, forward with me. Together we stalked up to the opening and cautiously peered through with our night vision goggles. Beyond lay a tremendous wadi, an area of tortured earth reminiscent of the Badlands of South Dakota. We carefully traversed it in the moonlight; the only living thing we saw was a kangaroo rat.
Using our GPS and receiver, we met Ibarra at our site. Palladins, tall tracked artillery pieces with big gun tubes, were silhouetted against the night sky right next to us -- not a good thing since artillery draws counter-battery fire, but it's where we needed to be. My forward communications team's platoon leader, young 1st. Lt. Natalie Vanatta pulled her convoy up, and they set up the node center. We were there until about 0500, and I took a short nap by a berm outside a field artillery tactical operations center before heading back to my own command post.
At 1800 hours I called forward to Vanatta. Like me, she is the daughter of an Army nurse. Vanatta is very bright and loves being a soldier. At 23 years old, she is cool, calm and always smiling -- perfect for the mission of leading troops into danger in a forward deployed location. Her platoon enables the field artillery to tell their batteries to put steel on the enemy and the engineers to coordinate their efforts at the berm crossing. Vanatta tells me that firing batteries have been moving around her position all day. For an hour-and-a-half, the Palladins fired 155 mm artillery on the enemy; and when they moved on, a battery of multiple launched rocket systems -- powerful and long range -- showed up and began to fire missiles from around her site. She and her soldiers watched the arcs of fire as the missiles whooshed through the air. "The MLRSs were the coolest; the Palladins were just loud," she tells me, remarking, too, that all of a sudden the soldiers showed a renewed interest in digging bunkers, deep fortified holes with overhead cover.
Final note on all this: There is nowhere any of us would rather be. This is our destiny, what we're trained for, and we'll be fine.
567 personnel in Task Force Warhorn; two surface-to-surface Ababil missiles launched and intercepted; 80 percent of Iraqi missile force moved to border.
I was just getting ready to send this message when the Scud missile alarm went off. As we raced out to the bunkers, getting our masks on, the nuclear, biological, chemical alarm went off. Just great. Not only might a rocket land on us, it might have nerve gas in it, too. So we all struggled into our protective suits and waited.
I remember the first time this happened. My 6-foot-2-inch noncommissioned chemical officer looked at me and said, "Ma'am, I'm scared." I looked back at him through the lenses of my gas mask and said, "Me too, my brother, me too." Then we laughed and high-fived and finished dressing each other.
There was a great deal of hilarity after this attack. Sgt. 1st. Class Little got caught in the portapotty when the alarm went off. He staggered out into the open, pants half up and heading for a bunker. Later, he said, "Lord, I did not want CNN to report I was hit in the portalet!" Ibarra put his rubber chemical boots on the wrong feet. For some reason, all of this is really funny. My brigade commander says, "War is made up of a thousand small adventures." Sutten's A Company convoy was moving up when mortars came in. One of my Warhorns took the first brigade casualty of the war -- mortar shrapnel to his shoulder. Ironically, it was Tom Ironside, our communications-electronics command logistics assistance representative, not a soldier. But he has stayed with us throughout every hardship. He is going to be fine, but it has changed us all; and I know it has especially changed my ebullient young commander, Sutten. I'm mad as hell that I did not find out until about four hours after it happened -- my chaplain was over at the brigade administration and logistics center and heard it from the brigade chaplain. I called the deputy brigade commander to find out why he didn't pass on the info -- I'm extremely frustrated with headquarters right now. I hold a meeting in my tactical operations center to let everyone know they're OK and to quell any rumors.
Han, my other forward commander, is tucking in near the old Iraqi airfield of Tallil. His mission is to start the first wideband belt, a communications oasis, for others to tie into and leapfrog forward from. He has spread triple-strand concertina wire around his site and is augmenting it with a perimeter of soldiers dug into foxholes. Along with their M-16 rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers and anti-tank weapons that will disable the old Soviet tanks used by the Iraqis, they have fragmentation grenades and thousands of rounds of ammunition.
The locals make our soldiers nervous and with good cause. One never knows whether a loose black robe conceals a shepherd or a terrorist with an rocket propelled grenade. Han called me yesterday, "Ma'am, what do I do about these civilians who won't leave our site? They want fuel!" I tell him to shoo them away and, with hand gestures and headshakes, emphatically explain that they will get nothing from us. They eventually leave. We're here to liberate these sad people, but we can't afford to be giving them war-fighting assets right now. Moreover, civilians milling around a site can obscure any real enemy who will use them to gain proximity. I can't write too much about the goings-on of the war; so much of it is classified. Besides, CNN reporters are traveling in units as they go forward. I am sure that you are being inundated with front-line reports. In fact, we have our own "embedded media," a reporter who is a former Israeli army field artillery officer. He can take care of himself, and the soldiers like him. I can tell you that we did get into some heavy fighting forward as we began to encounter the Republican Guards Medina Division. My soldiers are in the thick of it. Give us all your prayers, please.
We are all carrying something to keep us safe. If there are no atheists in foxholes, neither are there skeptics. I myself carry a plethora of things: photos of my husband and sons; a little cast-iron soldier waving signal flags that my mother and I found in an antique store; a small plastic figure of Sulley from Monsters, Inc. that my son John gave me -- a prized Burger King(R) toy and no doubt quite a sacrifice for him to pass on to me; a lighter from the Korean War that my father gave me -- sterling silver with his regimental crest, the Manchus; the first pocket knife he gave me -- blades dark with age; and finally, my husband's compass. Other soldiers carry St. Christopher medals, lucky airborne wings, family photos, a baby sock, locks of hair, family crucifixes and rosaries.
All for now. We're all fine.
This is not Desert Storm. Our folks are slowed down up front; the Iraqi special operations are harassing our rear areas and interfering with moving supplies north. Some of Han's troops had to stay buttoned down in a defensive perimeter for a couple days, waiting to have their proposed position cleared by combat troops. My folks are brave, but they do not have the weapons to conduct offensive operations.
One thing we are pushing forward is mail. Although they take a back seat to bullets and fuel, care packages and letters are treated as near-sacred objects. Every soldier knows how precious they are. Some families are better than others at sending packages, and the lucky recipients are quick to share their wealth. Junk food and baby wipes remain high on the "most wanted" list. We all find it hard to divert our eyes while someone else opens a box, even though the moment is almost as personal as disrobing. There is a voyeuristic thrill as layers of hometown newspaper (carefully unfolded and smoothed to be read later) are sedulously peeled back to reveal a bag of trail mix or homemade tortillas or Emily Coleman's chocolate drop cookies.
My family readiness group leader has been a joy. Travona Lowe is the wife of a young Army specialist, who is in my B Company. She has volunteered to coordinate the spouses of the battalion and to bring them together to share experiences, to support the troops and to keep in touch through hard times. This thankless job of cat herding young wives and husbands generally goes to the commander's wife ... or in this case, my husband. However, he's an active duty lieutenant colonel as well, so I asked for a volunteer. Lowe stepped up to the plate. She's young, tough, very smart and very articulate. I admire the way she raises two beautiful kids, works as an investment advisor, is always flawlessly dressed and made up, and still finds time to love my whole battalion.
All for now -- more to come ...
Ibarra returned yesterday from a trip north. He traveled over 300 miles on dusty roads through Iraq, stopping at my signal sites along the way and ending up about 60 miles short of Baghdad. It was a five-day trip, starting at the infamous berms, the long lines of sand hills bulldozed between Kuwait and Iraq. There, the convoys going north bearing fuel, bullets, rockets, water, food, repair parts and almost anything else combat soldiers need, await the military police escorts who will protect them during the dangerous movement through enemy lands. The sheer number of vehicles headed north staggered the 16-year Army veteran's mind. "I never knew the Army had so many trucks," he said.
Ibarra was traversing this land during a key period of the war. The 3rd Infantry Division's attack through the dangerous Karbala Gap did not occur until midnight last night, but the days leading up to it were marked by deep air and artillery strikes into Iraqi territory. The Saddam Fedayeen terrorist groups have been operating intensely in southern Iraq, harassing convoys and threatening the populace. They kidnap women and make them ride with men in explosive-rigged suicide vehicles so as not to arouse suspicion, threatening to kill their families if they resist. They force children into the town streets to keep the Americans from shelling them. They wear our uniforms and try to get into our installations. They infiltrate and run down our soldiers as they stand in lines to buy commissary items like shaving cream at the little PX trucks.
The soldiers were on edge; there are bunkers next to the bridges as they move north -- who knows if they are occupied or not? The people, adults and children, too, run up to the vehicles as they pass, motioning for food and water. This is heartrending but chilling; the Fedayeen are everywhere, masquerading as innocent civilians. The fact that no one can be trusted has every soldier ready to shoot. Civilian vehicles, small pickup trucks and SUVs are everywhere. If manned by the enemy, they are usually outfitted with machine guns, impossible to see until they are put to use on the Americans. Rocket propelled grenades are a threat as well. Although the route is better guarded now, as recently as a couple of days ago the enemy was switching convoy signs and luring trucks off the road to ambush them. As they drove through the country, my soldiers trained their weapons on every civilian vehicle they passed.
Ibarra was struck by the speed with which the initial advance took place. Carcasses of disabled and abandoned U.S. vehicles dot the main supply routes, the relatively robust roads marked for convoy use and somewhat secured by military police and infantry soldiers. When a vehicle broke down or got stuck in the deep sand, it was simply left behind. The soldiers had to leap out and get into another truck. There were enemy trucks, too, with dead bodies still in them.
My soldiers up north got their mail and some badly needed supplies -- circuit cards, desert camouflage uniforms, protective goggles, and water. The care packages brought the greatest joy. The soldiers, says Ibarra, look hardened; their hands and faces are roughened by the wind and the sun. But the smiles are still there, despite death, fatigue, and endless filth and dust. I have at least 10 soldiers who want to reenlist. Many of them want to wait until we get to Baghdad.
Last night I heard a report in the corps rear command post about Iraqi children mutilated by our own fire. Their father, driving a van, sped towards a U.S. checkpoint. He would not stop, and our soldiers could not take the chance that yet another suicide bomber would kill them. It goes on. I still feel that this is my destiny. I love this battalion, and I still think that God put me here and now just to do this job. And I hope one of these soldiers asks to reenlist when we get to Baghdad.
Final note: just spoke to Lt. Col. Perry Blackburn, a special forces guy back in the corps command post. He spoke to one of his friends on Seal Team 6, who rescued Pvt. Jessica Lynch. When they got to her, they asked how she felt. "I hurt all over," she said. "If it hurts too badly," her rescuers replied, "we may not be able to move you." "Oh, I don't hurt that bad," she asserted. "Get me out of here!"
All for now,
I took a journey north to visit some of my soldiers last week, departing across the desert to the checkpoint at the Kuwait-Iraq border. I checked into the convoy support center set up by our troops -- no more than a dusty tent and some fuel trucks -- where north-bound vehicles congregate to form up for logistics runs north to Tallil, As Samawah, Karbala, and now, Baghdad. The unwieldy tankers, lowboys and heavy equipment transports meet up with formidable military police escorts in armored Humvees bristling with MRK-19 grenade launchers, AT-4 anti-tank weapons and military police with .50-caliber machine guns standing in the turrets on top of the trucks.
That day, however, the route was classified as "amber" for minimum danger, so I was permitted to take my three trucks north without an escort. We were briefed that irregular forces were still firing upon convoys, but the speed of the road was in our favor, no intersections or small towns to slow us and make us vulnerable to ambush. We were cautioned to get off of Main Supply Route Tampa before dark because, as one young captain told me, "the freaks come out at night."
We crossed the border and immediately the roads were lined with hungry Iraqi families flashing the "V" for victory sign and motioning for food and water. We moved forward about a mile to get in line to cross the infamous berm, the 20-foot-high bulldozed line of dirt marking the true border between the countries. Every few hundred meters, 63-ton Abrams M1A1 Tanks were tucked into the berm with their 120 mm smooth-bored main gun barrels pointing north. We passed through the berm under the watchful eyes of more military police, immediately crossing an immense manmade ditch, which the Iraqis had filled with oil to set on fire. On the horizon, I saw the first trees so far and some sparse vegetation in the landscape. More children clustered around the road, boys and girls dressed in long robes. I saw women, all in black with faces covered, carrying baskets on their heads filled with tomatoes, the only crop I saw throughout this long trip. Apparently, they have found a way to irrigate this inhospitable place. Soon after, we cut over to the main supply route.
The road to Baghdad is a six-lane divided highway that rivals any Virginia road. It is smooth, well maintained and cuts a stark swathe through death, destruction and desolation on either side. The road speaks volumes about where Saddam Hussein put his country's money -- it is lined with starving Bedouin children and still traversed by the Saddam Fedayeen in white Toyota trucks. Destroyed huts made of mud brick dot the desert, as do the carcasses of U.S. and Iraqi vehicles. The people pick the bones clean, taking tires, fuel pumps, seats and practically anything else large enough to transport away. A pair of Cobra gunships roared menacingly up the supply route.
The desert stretched away into infinity.
We crossed oil pipelines and passed hundreds of nondescript sheep of no particular breed: some with long dreadlocked wool and some smooth and spiral-horned. Flippant kids and lambs weaved in and out of the flock. Teenage boys, thin and brown, herd them. I wondered where the water comes from, and then I saw brackish oases, shallow and brown. The water here is so salty that even the Army's reverse osmosis water purification units cannot use it; it is four times as salty as seawater. I was amazed at the windblown children in the middle of this strange place, no house or family in sight. The few homes I saw were mud shelters fenced in with lashed-together rushes. Wild donkeys roam the desert. This is the land of ancient Babylon, the land of Old Testament harshness. I had my 9 mm Beretta and the rest of my little convoy had AT-4 light anti-armor weapons, M-16 rifles, squad automatic weapons and grenades. Of course we all had radios, rucksacks, water and meal rations, as well as fuel and extra vehicle fluids. Passing Iraqi vehicles took one look at the muzzles pointing out of the trucks and swiftly moved on. I stopped to examine my map about an hour before sundown. Immediately all of my soldiers got out and formed a 360-degree perimeter around the convoy, crouching with weapons at the ready. In the opposite lane a white Iraqi truck approached. The driver was alone. I drew my pistol and let it hang down by my side as the truck stopped. My maintenance officer, Velez, pulled back the slide on his rifle with a loud click, chambering a round. The Iraqi driver's eyes got big, but he did not look threatening. I waved him on impatiently, and he gunned the engine, spewing a trail of dust behind him.
We arrived at our destination, a former Iraqi airbase, shortly after dusk. We turned off our lights as we approached the sandbagged guard points, driving with our night vision goggles that show features as glowing green. The guards came out to check us cautiously -- the points have been fired upon almost every night by irregular Iraqi forces that drive up and fire small arms or throw grenades. We have turned this area into our own airbase, supporting aircraft (both rotary and fixed wing), military police and of course, Han's Charlie Company. As we drove into the compound, still in pitch black, we made a turn past an arch and then saw in front of us an enormous ziggurat, an ancient pyramid with a staircase spiraling around it. The ziggurat is said to be older than the pyramids of Egypt.
We finally found our way in the dark and pulled up to Han's cluster of tents and trucks. The mail we brought was welcome, as was the cooler full of ice we managed to cadge from a dining facility in the south. The ice had mostly melted, but the cold water drew soldiers from all over the site. I talked with Han about soldier issues, and then we bedded down beside our Humvees for the night. My driver had pulled out our cots, and with the desert breeze in our hair and millions of stars overhead, we slept.
We woke at about five in the morning to find the day already tinted yellow with ever-present dust. The cool desert breeze, which had felt so blissful in my hair the previous night, had in fact deposited the fine stuff all over us. Lt. Carie Moorman and Velez peered down at my cot from their rooftop perch on the Humvee adjacent to mine, sitting up in their sleeping bags. Staff Sgt. Bridges, an all-American young man and one of my finest noncommissioned officers, rolled over on the hood of the vehicle and sat up fully dressed. Sgt. Robert Hines and Pvt. Marquez were short enough to sleep across the width of my truck's canvas top; they looked down at me from directly above. We dug out meal rations and water bottles while performing our hasty ablutions -- the comb wouldn't go through my hair clogged with dust and sweat, so I pulled my fingers across it. I took a baby wipe to remove brown stains from my face and throat and sat up and ate my chili and macaroni. Then I went over to Han's operations tent for a canteen cup of coffee.
Iraqi forces had hastily abandoned the air base as the 3rd Infantry Division (one of my old units) came roaring in. There are some low buildings of mud brick and bad concrete, shelled and bombed out. The sparse trees are broken, shattered and covered with yellow dust. The area is dotted with ammunition and arms bunkers -- I can't tell you how many, but they are everywhere -- low, dirt-covered hummocks. Their presence had created a severe problem for my company. Not only were the soldiers initially unable to drive onto the installation because of tons of unexploded bombs, shells and mines; but also once they did get into the site, Saddam Fedayeen soldiers were attacking the area to get their arms and ammo back. Still, at least once a night, some Iraqis will pull up to the guard shack and shoot or throw grenades at the guards. On the base defense operations center network, the security police are called to come shoot the dogs that are digging up Iraqi corpses.
Han's company had set up on a pockmarked dirt site scattered about with dilapidated Iraqi buildings and bombed-out trucks. His soldiers looked rough but cheerful as they sat on crates eating their breakfasts. Shaved and sunburnt heads are de rigueur. As I walked around the site, I saw that one soldier, Spc. Beamon, had used an existing crevasse and mud bricks to build a replica of the ancient biblical city of Ur that once thrived in this area. Waist- and head-high brick towers filled the little ravine. At one end, there was an overhang with a cot in it where I was told he spends much of his time when things are slow. There's a strange "Apocalypse Now" air about the place.
Han has managed to find coveted burn latrines as well and in the early morning, a soldier desultorily stirred the jet fuel-drenched stuff in half barrels. I asked him how he likes "shit detail" and he laughed, "It gives me some time alone!" Time to one's self is at a premium out here.
My driver and I roamed around the site in my Humvee. We ventured into one of the Iraqi shacks, apparently an electronics maintenance facility. The floor was dirt; I found primitive phone and communication analog equipment, manufactured in Norway and Japan with Arabic characters. A twisted wire hanging suspended from a metal bicycle tire rim on a 10-foot pole served as an aerial. As I carefully walked farther into the building, I found living quarters. The ground was littered with the soldiers' last meal -- flat bread and some small green nuts. Cheap rubber sandals lay on the dirt floor along with a tin bowl containing a spoon and a syringe -- drug paraphernalia. My soldiers already turned the heroin they found in to the military police. Iron cots without mattresses lined two cracked concrete walls. These soldiers were not of the elite Republican Guard; they were maltreated and malnourished and not paid. Still, some of them were patriots, and some of them died for their country.
We traveled around the base and saw more bunkers; large, modern aircraft hangers camouflaged under dirt hills; and more dilapidated buildings. U.S. soldiers can make a home any place, and they have made some of the better Iraqi constructs into command posts and barracks. Windows are broken out and doors splintered, but there are roofs. Outside some of the buildings are demolished American vehicles, hit by rocket propelled grenades. One had a sign chalked on it, "Organ Donor." Some of my own mechanics took parts off of the vehicles. In fact, one of Han's Humvees has become "Frankentruck," made to run again with wiring from a wrecked Iraqi vehicle, a Russian track and various parts from U.S. trucks. Staff Sgts. Showers and Advincula can make anything run.
We left the site in the early afternoon -- we wanted to be back to the border by dark. The ride back was much as it was going north, more Bedouins, camels and salt ponds. We got a better view of the mud brick fighting positions built on all the overpasses and watched the endless flow north of our own trucks.
My network is moving forward; I am leapfrogging my node centers to an abandoned air base north of Baghdad. In this location, we will set up one of the largest logistics bases in the country that will eventually house thousands of soldiers. This is an exciting challenge for a communications officer. I have already had several convoys make the 500-plus kilometer drive north with all the precautions we take when we move anywhere. The local civilians are no longer so grateful. Now that we've tossed out Saddam, this Muslim country is ready for us to go, too. They are increasingly hostile to us, firing random shots at our convoys and holding demonstrations against us. The regime removal has created the inevitable power vacuum that religious factions rush to fill. We are not particularly popular with any of them.
As one of our early convoys passed from the Kuwait border into Iraq, the road, as always, was crowded with civilians. Children habitually dash in front of the vehicles without warning, and our drivers are literally sweating with stress as sometimes-angry men push against the trucks. Soldiers in a truck in front of my convoy decided to toss out a box of meal rations to the throng. This misplaced humanitarian gesture incited a riot. In a flash, the restless crowd turned hostile -- 12 small bags of food only whet the appetite of a 200-plus mass of hungry humanity. Men and children started to pull open the doors of vehicles, taking anything they could put their hands on. They pulled sunglasses off of soldiers' faces and took bottles of water. One of my soldiers had his load bearing vest with 180 rounds of ammunition stolen. Finally, the road cleared enough to get away. Command Sgt. Maj. John O. Graves in my convoy wisely decided not to follow the thief into the local village. The Iraqis have not been disarmed; it is a common sight to see men strolling along the main supply route carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles. The guns, left from fleeing Iraqi soldiers and snatched up by civilians, are sold on the street for $10. Graves is a Desert Storm veteran, and one of the very few members of the battalion with more experience than I. Quiet, steady, dry, he is my chief adviser; and I trust him utterly with any soldier's life in this battalion.
As I write this, I am listening to a conference of signal officers located throughout Iraq -- one has left abruptly, my soldiers at the airbase are taking fire. The base's quick reaction force has been dispatched to investigate and protect. I have the feeling this will be as it always is: they will find no one, and no one in the small village adjacent to the air base will admit to knowing anything about this. We'll stay in our flak vests and wear our helmets for a while longer. One of the military police picked a round out of his flak vest last week; it went right through the door of his Humvee, which was enough to slow the momentum of the bullet so that it did not kill him.
The day before yesterday I flew with the deputy commanding general up to our new location, an Iraqi airfield north of Baghdad. It was a three-hour flight in a Black Hawk helicopter, going nap-of-the-earth -- flying only 50 to 100 feet above the ground, following the curves of the landscape and buildings. We were also flying fast. All of which conspired to make me extremely sick. I could not help but be captivated by the unfurling landscape, however. I am accustomed to the desolate desert now; but as we flew north, the landscape changed to salt marshes and green fields. Palm trees predominated as we moved farther north, and the canals and ponds -- the first water I've seen in a long time -- were a brilliant turquoise. Next to an aqua salt pool, I spotted a civilian truck, burning furiously, while outside a Humvee several soldiers watched. I don't know the drama behind the glimpse I caught from the air -- did our soldiers take out the truck because of some act of aggression from the drivers or was it part of the rising Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence that is taking over this country?
I staggered off the helicopter green-faced and nearly retching. Sgt. Maj. Perez seemed curiously impassive until I realized he was suffering the same way I was, albeit too proud to say so until we were alone. My executive officer met us at the landing zone in his Humvee and took us to the closest combat hospital. A dose of meclizine later, we were ready to check out the area. The doctor told me that my daily pill of doxycycline, taken to prevent malaria, likely contributed to my nausea.
Our new home is a well-looted former Iraqi air base like Tallil, full of domed bunkers but with very few planes. The Iraqis hid the MiG jets off the base, under camouflage nets, to prevent them from being hit by coalition forces. The jets never made it off the ground -- before the pilots ever got a chance to take them out from under their covering, we had already bombed the runways and bunkers. Russian tracked vehicles lay upside down in the airfield, and our smart bombs had dropped very neatly into a bunker that contained the telephone switch for the area. This is unfortunate as it hampers my plan to take over some of the Iraqi communications facilities.
A smudge of black smoke on the top of the bunker was the only clue to the carnage inside. The buildings had all been looted and defaced. Wild dogs are rampant on the base and need to be shot daily. The glass had been broken or stolen and everything that was not a roof or a wall was gone -- all furniture, doors, light fixtures, plumbing, sinks and toilets. Looters had defecated in most of the rooms. Iraqi workers help with our clean up; they earn a dollar a day -- a princely sum in this country, especially since it is in hard American currency. I have a decent building for my command post, and I've sent out my soldiers still in Kuwait to buy brooms, buckets, Drano(R), insect repellent, mops and screens. I am sending out a convoy tomorrow to bring more supplies up here. The convoys are more dangerous than ever; now the Iraqis have their children stand in front of our trucks while they attack and loot the vehicles.
My visit was a short one; I had to go back with the general in the late afternoon. As we flew past the city of An Najaf, the Black Hawk dipped to the east, and we saw one of Saddam's country estates, golden in the glow of the setting sun. In the middle of a manmade lake, the former dictator had built two palaces, one reminiscent of a Grecian temple, Ionic columns appearing to float on the surface of the water, and the other with towering minarets and onion domes. A tall, smooth stone wall zigzags around this magic city and separates it from poor farmland with hand-tilled fields, ragged rows of crops, and mud brick and stucco homes. The farther south we flew, the poorer the country -- we transition from mud brick huts, to shanties with no roofs, to Bedouin tents. The sheep were leaner. The people were hungrier. Oddly enough, the miles of rolling sand in front of the helicopters looked like home to me now.
Another flight, this time with Capt. Jason Svoboda -- I asked the pilot to have some fun with us so he does the roller coaster thing -- lots of fun. He tell us that we freed him from the mundane VIP ferrying and put him back in touch with why he became a pilot in the first place.
During our night's stay, I felt a roach run across my face, right above my lip. When I heard him hit the ground, I turned on my red light; and there he was, on his back with his feet in the air. I squashed him with a boot, and a host of others ran in to eat him. I felt a tickle on my arm and looked down -- his little brother -- oh, HELL no! I got all my crap together and slept in the middle of the damn logistics section of the command post on a folding table.
It is still the Wild West out here. We went into a small town today with a robust military police escort -- two armored Humvees with .50-caliber machine guns front and back, grenade launchers and lots of assorted small toys. We checked out their municipal switchboard and think we can fix it -- it's mostly a power problem. The Iraqi technicians did not want us to touch anything. They are so afraid that something will break, and they will get in trouble. The old regime hangs on still. Intelligence reports that Saddam's sons, Uday and Qusay, have been seen just one hour north of here in Saddam's old home town of Tikrit.
When I was up in Tikrit last week, I stopped by to see one of my teams. They're attached to an engineer battalion that has put a float bridge across the Tigris River. They took over one of Saddam's old palaces, and it is FANTASTIC. They have all the power back in and hot and cold running water as well. It is a far cry from this roach infested place ;) but that's OK. My team is happy, and the engineers use the float bridge boats to water-ski on the river -- 1,500 horsepower engines can pull your arms off if you're not careful! It's a funny war, there is still lots of shooting northwest of here in Al Fallujah. One of my good buddies is the military police battalion commander, and he is up there right now. He took a rocket propelled grenade round in his truck the other night, but he is OK. We are all sort of competing to see who can get through the war without losing anyone. Sure do miss you guys.
Dear Laur, I'm glad you are taking proper precautions when you travel around.
I was thinking if I were over there the first thing I would do is mount a .50-caliber machine gun on my Humvee and train a good gunner. I wouldn't move without that .50-caliber loaded -- when a .50-caliber starts barking, people take cover. It has such good range and is so accurate.
We used them tripod mounted in Korea for sniping. A good gunner with a good piece could hit a steel helmet at 1,000 meters. When we were in defense in the winter overlooking the capital, we would identify the target, measure the exact range on a topo map, pull a .50-caliber gun off the line and zero it for that range, take it back on the line, and shoot. That gave us a lot of first round hits. Usually if we didn't get a first round hit, we lost the target. Tell John that gramps and grandma have a gift on the way and that we love him.
Here's a picture of me on a recent trip to Mosul (about five hours north of Baghdad) to check out a team. The tough looking crew, mostly field artillery soldiers, went with us to provide protection -- we have no .50-caliber machine guns or up-armored Humvees. All is well, we are staying safe.
My battalion brought American Forces Network radio to the place we're staying! It began today with rebroadcast Top 40 music on FM 107.3. It is a kick to finally tune in to American music in the middle of the Sunni Triangle; it's especially great since the broadcast covers a 12-mile radius around the camp. The Iraqis will be able to hear it, too. Good stuff! Sure love you guys, take care.
I may be wrong, but I think it's time for a "Count Your Blessings" message.
You are engaged in a major conflict -- a war. Your unit has performed all missions in a superb manner without the loss of one trooper. These accomplishments will reflect well on each one of you during the rest of your career.
Why are you blessed? You're not in the mud, the cold, sleeping on the ground, eating meal rations with no PX, no showers and no clean clothes, under heavy and continuous artillery fire, digging foxholes, getting little sleep. I could go on, but I think you get the drift.
What to do? Check your attitude -- a unit reflects the attitude of the commander! Walk tall, be confident and positive, SMILE, visit your troops, show your concern for their well-being, and compliment them with a pat on the shoulder. Ask how they like the food, do they need anything, how is their equipment holding up -- I could go on, but I'm sure you know what to do. Have a meeting with your company commanders. Give them your "Count Your Blessings" speech, and tell them to have a meeting with all leaders, from platoon to squad, and deliver their CYB speech. Tell them to spruce their areas up. Have the troops watch their dress and comportment, so they can show the rest of the troops what a hotshot signal unit looks like. Smoke a cigar. Tell your company commanders you're going to start bragging about your unit, and they better not let you down.
I had a small extension node communications switch mortared Saturday night at the interrogation facility south of Baghdad. One soldier, Spc. Dugan, was cut on his head and arms, but the military intelligence folks had two dead and nine more wounded. My soldier is fine, but my combat lifesaver, Spc. Hardy, was the real hero. Hardy had to lay upon the body of a soldier who was bleeding out through horrible fragmentation wounds in his back. The soldier, writhing in agony, kept throwing himself off of the stretcher, causing the wounds to bleed afresh as the pressure was released. He did not live. I walked in the tent where the round hit and stood on the blood of dead soldiers and felt incredibly humbled. We were escorted to the interrogation facility by the C Battery, 1-12 field artillery commander and his soldiers -- the captain stood with me in the carnage ... we were speechless.
In May, the battalion command post moved up to Balad Airbase, and over the next eight months, we sent a lot of small extension nodes and radio-access units out and brought others in. My command sergeant major and I spent a lot of time on the road, first with Pfc. Elizabeth Bragg and then Hines driving us. We often took along gunners and made the Balad-Baghdad trip more times than I can count, going to the 22nd Signal Brigade palace surrounded by a man-made lake in Victory Camp.
Bragg and I were at headquarters outside of Taji in June when a rocket propelled grenade went over; and Ibarra hit a booby trap, what we call an IED -- an improvised explosive device -- on the way to Baghdad in July.
At Tikrit we saw the floating bridge that is kept in place with constantly running boats. I was told the engineers water-skied when the boats were not being used in the bridge system. At Mosul we saw Spc. Showers and the C Company small extension node that supports a medical brigade from Iowa. On the way back, escorted by gun trucks, we went to the ancient temple of Hatra, over 2,000 years old. It was surreal to see a convoy of Humvees pull alongside those ancient temple walls. To keep cool as we convoyed in the 130-degree heat, we poured water on our uniforms. The bottled water sitting between the seats was actually too hot to drink. At a little school we had built outside of Balad Airbase, we got caught in what we thought was a firefight. Staff Sgt. Cristoffer had the soldiers circle the school. Meanwhile, Spc. Ahkrid, who speaks Arabic, found some Iraqis passing by in a truck who told him it was celebratory gunfire from a wedding.
I'm most worried about force protection for the Warhorns. We finally did get .50-caliber machine guns, and they are as great as Dad said they would be. I pushed like hell to get trucks and ranges and ammo -- the hardest thing I've done since I've taken command, believe it or not.
I lost Ibarra, a beloved executive officer, through a change-of-duty-station move but gained another great one, Maj. Kevin Payne. I also lost Perez and gained Sgt. Maj. Vargas -- they could not be more different. We honed the command post into an organization that can swiftly execute a commander's intent and get the job done right. Military intelligence became incredibly important -- and although I never had a battalion intelligence officer, both Sgt. Roth and Sgt. Jackson have done a great job in that area. Svoboda, my ex-adjutant, became my historian, although I hid him as my battalion maintenance officer on paper. He did a great job on the battalion history and memorabilia -- I have my own Warhorn thong. I had another great adjutant, Vanatta. My command sergeant major stayed steady, my logistics officer did great -- my favorite hero was Sgt. 1st Class Torres. Velez and all the mechanics did great -- kept us going better than anyone. Commanders and first sergeants stayed steady, too -- got a new one for B Company -- John Aguilar, very promising. The lieutenants learn and learn and learn -- they will be great company commanders one day. Noncommissioned officers really took great care of the soldiers, and the soldiers just kicked ass every day -- they don't get any better than these. If you want to see some really great troops, come see the Warhorns.
Mortars and rockets are still coming in on the logistics support area as I write this. I called over and spoke to Spc. Dugan; he had received mortar fragmentation in his arm when his team was down in the Abu Gharib prison south of Baghdad in September. He's as lighthearted now as he was then. I hear three Bradley Fighting Vehicles from the 4th Infantry Division leaving my headquarters now -- they were just using the phone and looking for a place to park.
The 1st Squadron, 10th Cavalry took rockets yesterday; no signal troops were killed but one cavalry troop was killed in action and 12 were wounded -- a rocket hit a sleep tent and also took out a Black Hawk helicopter apparently. Although Balad Airbase is no longer the wild west it was when Ibarra led his team north in April -- it now has speed limits and parking areas and there are no more tanks allowed at the PX -- it's still a combat zone. Mortars come in daily.
We want to leave before it gets too civilized. We can't push north; may as well go home.
Another rocket hit the logistics support area today -- this one went right into a sleep tent, through a mattress and into the floor without exploding. The guy using his PlayStation(R) on the other cot got a big surprise, but there were no injuries.
Later, I went by to visit Spc. Sergeant. He was in the radio-access unit that we took up to the berm -- it provided the only communication up there for the berm crossing. I told him he was a hero, and he only said, "Well, I don't know about that." I think even when this thing is all said and done, these soldiers will still be too modest about the lives they saved in this war. I did the transfer-of-authority brief with the 29th for the signal officers today -- can't wait for them all to get here.
I take my last flight to Baghdad on a Black Hawk helicopter from Lt. Col. Dan Werthman's battalion, the 3-158 Aviation Regiment. The pilot tells me before we take off that there is a serious threat from shoulder-launched missiles north of Baghdad. We fly very low and fast, soaring over telephone and power wires, undulating like a roller coaster.
On my last visit, probably ever, to Baghdad, I walk around the artificial lake surrounded by Saddam's palaces. The place has been GI'ed -- engineers have graded and graveled roads through Saddam's orchards, and there are tents everywhere. Civilian contractors have moved in en masse as well. I visit some friends and then say farewell to them with a hand pressed against the Plexiglas(R) window of the Black Hawk as we roar away from the palace to head north.
At 1100 hours, I'm up in front at the administration and logistics center's transfer of authority ceremony. It goes great -- the soldiers look terrific. Tomorrow we head south at 0600.
We travel south all day with no incident, our .50-caliber machine guns bristling off of our up-armored Humvees. After we cross the border, we stop and throw the sandbags out of our vehicles -- no need to have them on the floorboards taking up legroom anymore. We stop at Camp Cedar on the edge of the old Tallil Air Base formerly occupied by Han and his gang and see some old friends. As we toast with near beers, 1st Sgt. Potts and I have a good laugh together. It's a short night, and then we push on to Kuwait.
Some hard days are ahead -- washing trucks, pushing them to the port, getting custom inspections of all our vans and baggage -- but it all seems trivial right now.
The plane lands at Ramstein Air Base, and we take a bus home. As we march into Kelley Barracks, the gym is filled with Sousa music and cheering family members. The noise, the crowd, the balloons, the signs -- it's all overwhelming. I keep it together until, as I'm standing at present arms to honor the colors, I see my boys. My son John, up in his dad's arms standing behind the flag, locks eyes with me. The sight of him and of my son Thomas right next to him, takes my breath away. I can hardly stand, but we keep saluting as the national anthem plays. "I love you," he mouths, and I mouth it back to him. The speech I wrote on the plane remains in my pocket as I go to the podium and struggle to stop the tears ... this is no time for words. Moments later, we are in our families' arms; single soldiers embrace one another, and the music goes from Sousa to Toby Keith singing An American Soldier.