Wednesday, May 13, 2009
I am traveling in a convoy east from my home to a forward operating base. It is my first time in a convoy and I am tense. I hadn’t realized the impact visual media has had on my perception of this part of the world until we passed by a woman covered in black from head to toe not far out of the gate. It is a fear based on the unfamiliar, a prejudice, I’m afraid, and it turns I’m not much bigger than anyone else who fears what they don’t know. Fear is better than complacency, I suppose, unless you follow through on Yoda’s train of thought… “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Said only as Yoda can, emphasizing each of the three syllables in suff-er-ing as if they were three separate words. As for now, I don’t hate anyone here, any more than I would hate anyone back in the states. However, I know the fragility of the human psyche and I haven’t had a friend, comrade, brother, gunned down in this foreign land. That understandably can wear on a man. It could never justify discrimination or violence but would be heavy nonetheless. As we pass the woman working in the field she lifts her head slowly. I can’t tell if she’s tired of seeing these heavy vehicles roll by or if she’s grown used to it, merely lifting her eyes as an acknowledgement of our presence. In the distance, goats graze on a sparse field. Children play soccer in a dirt clearing. They don’t even look up at us—too immersed in their game. And more… this… us… perhaps it’s all they’ve ever known, now seven years into our stay in their land.
We roll through Iraqi police-manned checkpoints. We pass through with no questions asked. Later we enter a village. Old men chat outside a small store. Goats, sheep, cows, chickens, and many dogs (mostly down to three good legs) wander aimlessly about, rummaging through garbage and stagnant water pools on the side of the road. Kids run out from weary buildings approaching our convoy like it’s the Fourth of July and we’re throwing candy. One stands up on a chair from his porch making a thumbs up with his right hand, a peace sign with his left. American gestures, our gift to this generation. We throw nothing. I overhear the truck commander complaining to the driver about the kids. I don’t think he hates any of the people here, but I wonder how many friends he may have lost during his three deployments to this country.
At one point we are forced to come to a stop. One of the vehicle's trailers has come loose and they can’t make it to the next checkpoint without fixing it. So we stop right there in the middle of the town. Two men in traditional garb and headdresses on foot don’t stop as they lead two cows by us on the right hand side of the road. Farther back, what looks like a family watches us from their porch. I’m nervous. My training is kicking in as I scan the small crowd of observers for possible threats. How hard would it be for someone to run up and throw one of the hand-made grenades you're hearing about back home on the news. At several checkpoints we’ve passed billboards with pictures of a baby and one of these grenades overlain with Arabic saying something. I’m not sure if it’s a warning against the dangers of the things, or a promotional advertisement.
I’m glad when we finally roll again. If you’ve been to Mexico, places like Tijuana or Ensenada, you won’t find the scenery here much different. Take out the dress and the Arabic signs and it’s the same small convenience stores with similar crowds of men, young and old, loitering around in the evening light, not wanting to go home, or more likely, they already are home. Kids are everywhere. Most are barefoot in shorts and t-shirts. Many play soccer in the streets. Makeshift goals are fences or two poles. Most of the kids are boys but there are little girls out there too, running around in the mix. I wonder at what age gender rules no longer allow this sort of mingling.
We cross a river on a one-lane bridge. My partner for the drive up there calls out to the TC, “Hey. Is this the Tigris?” “Yeah, sure. Hell if I know,” he mumbles back. He’s been driving this and similar routes for months. You’d think he’d know (or care) what river we’re driving over. “Yeah,” I reassure my buddy. “It’s the Tigris.” I don’t really know, but the other guy’s answer didn’t really cut it for me. We just passed over one of the two “cradle-of civilization” rivers and he says he doesn’t even care. He and the driver go back to their discussion about some resort in Illinois, and then off on a tangent about Chuckie Cheese… His daughter can’t get enough apparently. It’s mindless talk, talk to pass the time, talk to get them through the trip, and it’s all coming in over the radio system into my headphones.
The sun’s gone down and it’s hard to stay awake. My butt and my right foot are already asleep. The padding on the chair’s not bad, but the gear and armor I’m wearing wears on me. The V-shape of the vehicle underbelly forces me to prop my left foot up thus leading to the added weight on my right foot. I wriggle around to push the blood back around and stay awake. The gunner’s feet, knees and butt swivel in the sling seat in front of me. His head is out of sight in the gunner’s turret. He is our vehicle’s primary defenses and I wonder how he stays alert up there hour after hour. The driver turns the spotlights on to either side of the road to spy for any hidden dangers. I stare out the window, but in the darkness beyond the small bubble of light it’s impossible to see. I can see a bit out the front windshield. Approaching local cars and trucks pull off to the side of the road as we roll by. While Iraqis are allowed to drive alongside our trucks no one seems to want to risk taking a few rounds in the hood of their car for getting too close. I don’t blame them. But I do think about traffic back home where the worst thing we usually have to worry about is a pile up or rush hour commuting. It’s hard to imagine seeing armed buses roll through your hood on a daily basis.
When we finally arrive at our destination it’s late. Our TC gets out and ground-guides the vehicle into its parking space as we gather up our gear and guns to disembark. I’m eager to find out where we’re sleeping and to send out some emails to let folks know I’ve arrived safe. Midnight chow starts in a few hours and I’m starving. Somehow, in the tangle of bags and darkness my friend has lost a shoe that was hanging from the side of his bag. One small casualty from an otherwise uneventful journey. As my mom would say, uneventful is good. It means we got here safe. Thank God for that.