After the first two missions to conduct an airborne assault on Saddam International Airport were cancelled, I began to think that maybe we weren’t going to die after all in a hail of hot Iraqi bullets. Landing in a hot LZ at 3AM surrounded by enemy armor and mech infantry would most assuredly resemble Dante’s 8th level of Hell, and wasn’t exactly my idea of fun.
Peter kept telling Roy and I that it would be fun; this, of course after he had expressed his doubt of us actually surviving the operation. A day or so prior he had given us what he thought was his motivating speech, wherein he told us we probably wouldn’t survive, but that he was willing to risk our lives for the mission. In any event, the Airborne assault into Baghdad airport was deemed too risky by someone up the chain and it never came to pass.
As the ground units continued to make advances towards Baghdad, we readied for our insertion into what was formerly known as SIAP, or Saddam International Airport. The military authorities changed the name to BIAP, or Baghdad International Airport, once the initial ground units had broken through the Republican Guard defenses and had occupied a portion of the airport grounds.
Rick and I sat in the dirt next to the runway with the Rangers as they prepared their gear for the initial insertion into the airport. Reports were coming in that fighting was still taking place and that when we landed we’d probably see some action as we arrived on station. Rick and I were both wearing of a set of low-profile, chicken plates (ceramic body armor), sanitized desert cammies and we each carried a Sig Sauer 9mm. Compared to the Rangers we looked like a bunch of pussies, as they were loaded down with chainsaws, smoke, flares, ammo, shotguns, and demo packs to blow the fuck out of anything that got in their way.
Our Special Access Program didn’t see fit to outfit us with anything as awesome as a fucking chainsaw. When I left Germany to meet up with the rest of the Task Force I was in receipt of a gas mask, a 9mm and some cold weather gear. I guess intel guys don’t need long guns when they’re about to go to war, as we all know a 9mm pistol has amazing stopping power.
The Rangers were a funny bunch to be around. You could see the disdain in their eyes whenever we would show up for headcount. They’d look at us like a bunch of outsiders, which we were; we had long hair and beards, they had no hair and baby faces. They probably thought we would be a liability to their missions, deadweight so to speak. Most, if not all, of them were graduates of Ranger school. They wore their Ranger tab and unit scroll with pride. Anyone that wasn’t a member of the boys club was nothing to them.
It felt strange that my first combat unit was from the Regiment. This entitled me to wear the Ranger Bn scroll as a combat patch on my military uniform the few times I actually wore my uniform. There were Rangers who had waited entire careers to wear their Bn Scroll on their right sleeve, signifying that they had been in combat with the Bn. I hadn’t even gone through basic infantry training, let alone Ranger school, and I was earning the very combat patch that these guys would’ve literally killed for.
It was a mark of respect and a badge of honor to them, a time-honored tradition dating back to WWII. I guess in a sense I earned it, but I always felt weird wearing a Ranger scroll as my combat patch. My patch caused great consternation every time a Ranger saw me in uniform. They would quickly approach and ask me a litany of questions hoping to trip me up and discover that I had been wearing “their coveted scroll” illegally, hoping that I was some dumbass that had gone to the base uniform store and picked it up so I could look tough. Each and every time I would explain that I had actually been in combat with the Bn and would throw around the names of some of the Rangers I had tenuously befriended during my time with them. Most times they would just shake their heads in disgust and walk away. Others, I would end up telling to “fuck off” and I would walk away as they wrote my name down in the hopes that they could “get me in trouble.”
I was pulled from my thoughts by the Ranger Sergeant Major (SGM) calling for us to make ready. We all stood up and began moving towards the line of C-130s that had landed only moments earlier. They hadn’t even shut down, and their turbo-prop engines blasted dust and rocks around like a summer storm in the plains. Rick and I looked at each other in that same vapid manner that Peter and I had looked at each other the night of the POW rescue mission, almost as if to say, “Well, it was good knowing you, I hope we make it through this shit.”
We never said anything to each other until we reached the runway and took a knee behind the hundreds of Rangers lined up in front of us. Rick dropped his ruck and I followed suite. The exhaust and wind from the engines of the eight or nine C-130s that would soon fly us into what would most likely be the most dangerous situation either of us had ever been in, brought a sense of chaos to the air. We both wore earplugs, not only for the impending airplane trip into Baghdad, but also to protect us from the inevitable cacophony of machine guns, anti-tank weapons, and the noise of war that would soon be upon us all.
The heat from the exhaust of the four engines was overwhelming. It smelled of sweet petrochemical by-products and felt like a bad sunburn on my face. I couldn’t hear shit with my earplugs deeply seated in my head and I wouldn’t have been able to hear anything anyway with the almost deafening noise coming from the aircraft.
As we saw the SGM give the signal to load up, Rick grabbed his ruck, which probably weighed about 100lbs. He tried to sling it onto his back as he bent forward, veins bulging in his neck and temple. In a Hollywood minute, the momentum and weight from the ruck had smashed him face first into the runway as he crumpled into a pile of man and equipment. I immediately tried to grab the ruck off his back and help him up but was met with a violent wave of his hand and an angry look on his face as if it had somehow been my fault.
Rick, who I had met only days earlier at Ft. Bragg, was a serious but funny guy. He had been in the program for a long time and was well-respected. He was a big dude at 6’4 and 200+ lbs and looked like a fucking monster next to me. Maybe he felt embarrassed that he had taken a spill in front of everyone. When I had tried to help him up I guess he saw it as a sign of weakness and ceremoniously dismissed my gesture of assistance, while his faced turned blood red with anger, glistening with sweat and oil from sitting in the hot, desert air for the last 5 hours.
As we continued to endure the blasts of super-heated, heavy, milk-like air from the C-130 props, the sand, and the weight of our gear, I began to wonder if the mission had been delayed. By this time, we had been waiting for almost a half hour on the runway, waiting to get into the aircraft. Within moments, the Ranger SGM had signaled us all to move away from the aircraft and reposition back to our original dirt patch that we had lazily guarded with contempt for almost five hours that day, waiting for the mission to take place.
As we angrily trudged back towards the assembly area, we heard the sound of the aircraft engines begin to change, signaling their imminent departure. Had it been part of a larger deception plan to fool the local authorities in case they were sending information to the Iraqis? Had something else happened at the airport that would’ve precluded us from landing? We would never know why the mission was cancelled. Rick and I both looked at each other, the relief unable to hide itself in our vacuous stares. Another time out. Hurry up and wait.
I had gotten used to this shit after nine years in the Army. But when it happens in war it tends to feed your worst fears and it allows you time to slow down and think, think about the what-ifs again. We had been ready to get on those damn aircraft and fly into battle. Now, after each surge of adrenaline that had forever changed the chemical composition of our brains, preparing us to face possible death, we had to return to our tents, download our gear, and head back to the ops center while we waited for the next mission time which would certainly come.
The next night we did the exact same thing. Except this time, it was a go. The moon was brilliant and lonely in the sky, its brightness made me think of other peaceful times I had laid on the ground and thought about the immensity of the world, the universe, even human consciousness. Was there a higher purpose to life like I had been taught in Sunday school and church for so many years? Was God somehow playing chess with us humans and laughing as we stood on the precipice of what would result in the death of so much of his creation? If he wasn’t, then what was he doing right now as I and thousands of others prepared for war?
I was snapped to from my momentary philosophical questioning by a hit on the back of the helmet from Rick. The line of Rangers and other specops folks were scurrying towards the open cargo door at the rear of the C-130 in front of us. It was difficult to stand up straight and walk forward towards the aircraft in the gale of rotor-wash that seemed like a category 3 storm. Rick and I were the last two in line as we weren’t part of the Bn. As we finally neared the ramp and looked inside the blacked out aircraft, the Air Force loadmaster waved us off with a torrent of hand gestures. “There’s no more fucking room? You’ve got to be kidding me. FUCKKKKK!!!!”
So, away we went for the second night in a row as the adrenaline that was freely pumping through our veins began to decrease ever so slightly with the sign that we wouldn’t be going anywhere tonight. I can’t explain this feeling other than perhaps likening it to perhaps being on death row, and as you’re ushered into the room for your lethal injection, at the very last moment, the executioner receives a phone call from the state governor granting you a stay until the following night at the exact same time. It fucking sucked, hard. Now I knew what chicks meant when they used the term “playing with my emotions.”
The following day, in preparation for our big rush into Baghdad, fingers crossed of course, I accompanied some local interpreters headed to the local goat-ass food stand by the control tower for the last supper, so to speak. I was the only non-Arab that went. Most of the guys warned us that the food would eventually make us sick but we had eaten there at least three times by now, so we blew them off.
As fate would have it, I guess the local hajji hamburger maker forgot to wash his hands after he took a shit, rubbed his balls, and touched his little boyfriend’s ass behind the shed that day.
Within a few hours I began to feel very hot, and not awesome. I was sweating way more than normal and the San Andreas fault in my colon began registering frequent and powerful tremors on the Richter scale. I knew immediately what it was and ran out of the ops center with no hat, goggles, or weapon. I’m sure as I grasped my stomach and looked as if I had just seen Jesus Christ himself, the others were able to make an educated guess as to what was wrong.
As I half-ran, half-speed walked, sort of like you see in that fantastic Olympic sport that in no way looks ludicrous of course, I pontificated, “Oh God, am I gonna make it? Oh shit, wait, oh God, am I gonna shit myself and have it run into the only pair of god damn boots I have? Fuck…Fuck…Fuck…”
Of course, as if I hadn’t expected it, when I arrived at the line of 6 porta-potties that always looked and smelled like someone had just murdered a cow and spread its shit-filled entrails about the walls and floor, each handle showed the sign of death, the red disc of hate: “Occupied.” “You gotta be shitting me!?” Normally, I would’ve thought my pun funny, but in this case, I was almost in tears, sweating like a pair of camel balls in the Sahara desert, and ready to unleash my weapons of ass destruction on an unsuspecting pile of sand of sand. People were walking to and fro, going about their camp business as I silently screamed for one of these motherfuckers to open up, quick, fast, and in hurry.
Alas, there is a God! As I danced the moonwalk back and forth in front of the shitters, I heard the sweet sound of a plastic door handle turning. By this time, I already had my pants hovering around my waist ready to go, my fingers strategically placed about the tops corners of my boxers, planning my landing on the almost assuredly hot, moist plastic seat that would be my saving grace in my time of suffering. While I knew it was wrong, and as I auditioned for a spot as a Michael Jackson back-up dancer outside the porto-potties, a sacrilegious version of Psalm 23 kept going through my head:
“The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of shit,
I will fear no diarhhea,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort my bowels.
You prepare a porta-pottie before me
in the presence of my enemy.
You anoint my head with sweat;
my innards overfloweth.
Surely goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
if I could just get in one of these shitters!!!!!”
God did come through for me that day as I knocked the former occupant out of the way as he slowly exited through the shitter door. He didn’t even have time to say anything before I was inside, door locked, pants around my ankles, detonating what was probably close to a 1-megaton thermonuclear device into the depths below me. So laugh it up reader, it’s funny – hell, I’m laughing about it as I write it, and starting to sweat just thinking about it again…
My mangina hurt for the next two days and I was unable to accompany Rick on the flight that actually went out that night. Peter took my place and I laid in my sleeping bag for the next 36 hours alternating between vomit and shit, hot and cold, life and death. When I finally came to, I felt like I had been subjected to a colonoscopy every hour for the last 36 hours. But wait, it gets better – it was my turn to finally fly into Baghdad…
(Featured Image Courtesy: Sebastian Meyer)