Friday, August 28, 2009

A Big Hole

August 25
Much has been written about the first explorers who crossed the oceans of the world in search of treasures, glory, and cinnamon. At first heroic, brave, and daring, lately they are remembered as being cruel, greedy, and sadistic. Every one of those first voyagers brought with them a crew who probably shared a combination of those traits, but more likely set sail riding waves of cautious optimism, fear, excitement, and obligation. It was their stories of golden cities that led to the massive movements of people that ultimately conquered the New World.

Tuesday we set out on the first leg of our trek to plot "The Canals of Iraq." Although I doubt school children in the years to follow will use "In mid-August of oh-nine, the engineers set out at half past nine" to recall our exploits, the trip was important and I, like most of the soldiers along for the ride, and the crew members of explorations of old, carried a mix of optimism and duty one might expect. The objective of our mission was to observe and record the condition of a length of the Great Eastern Canal of the Tigris River Valley (I have added "Great" for effect), including any patches of heavy vegetation or breaks in the canal, and keep an eye out for the Giant Spotted Dodo, the nearly extinct (and completely fabricated) mammoth flightless bird native to central Iraq. Digital camera and notebook in hand we took our turn onto the canal road and thus began our grand adventure.

In the back of my truck, it felt like we were going on safari. The narrow and oftentimes uneven driving surface adjacent to the canal slowed our progress to a crawl and I was free to climb from side to side in the back of the MRAP, snapping pictures of reeds, mud-brick pumping stations, and long pipes dipping delicately into the water's edge like long elephant trunks sipping at the slow-moving current. Periodically we stopped to take measurements. At one canal-crossing our soldier/engineer escorts produced some measuring tape and a long pole. Leaning over the edge of the bridge with the pole, two other soldiers holding his legs, one sergeant discovered that the depth at center of the canal was 9 feet. One of his M-4 magazines also found this out as it kerr-plopped into the channel past his head as he scrambled back to his feet. "Casualty of war" he grumbled. Still, I admired his efforts to train the younger soldiers. Placing a glow-stick into an empty water bottle he had one soldier measure off 100 feet down the bank and they timed the canal's velocity by timing the bottle as it drifted downstream; 100 feet in 59 seconds. He joked that the bottle would probably beat us to the end. It was no joke.

Of course what I have failed to mention thus far and what adds to the absurdity of the journey was our proximity in regards to the base. Joint Base Balad is situated in the middle of the bread basket of Iraq. In all likelihood, the land it now occupies was, and will one day again be fertile farmland. We know this because canals practically encircle the base. On 3 sides they act as moats with the perimeter fence coming almost to the water's edge. 1,000 years ago boiling water or oil may have been poured from the watch towers spaced at regular intervals along the c-wire topped chain-link defenses as intruders charged across the canal. Now, they are a place for the Ugandan security guards we've hired to sit and watch as we inch our way down the northern perimeter canal roughly 200 feet from the fence. It is comical really, that we in full gear with guns cocked and helmets snug are close enough to carry on conversations with our friends who instead wear t-shirts and shorts on the other side of the chain-link fence. Either they are not as safe as they think, or we are being far too cautious. Either way, it's hard to disagree with whomever I overhear saying "Too bad they couldn't move the fence a couple hundred feet this way. We could have done this mission in pick-ups." Still we lumber on. The illegal taps won't count themselves.

We wear headsets in the vehicles so that directions can be given if need be or we can shout out warnings to each other over the drone of the engine. Mostly the conversations shared through the system fit neither description, talk of food, women, and home tend to dominate. Today, the conversation is slightly more focused. The group we're riding with are still relatively new here (with less than three months in country compared to our four, we've actually been here longer than they have). They call out vehicles on the road parallel to us beyond the fields, reporting farmers, children and stray cows. The road we're traveling on is narrow and weak. Warnings about ditches and potholes have me just a bit nervous. As my NCO later reported from his vantage point in a Buffalo, a vehicle even larger and more imposing than the Cougar I'm riding in, the view alternated at intervals between sky and sea not so unlike being in a boat. All this being said, when I heard our truck commander call out "Watch out. That's a big f-ing hole," it didn't strike me as a surprising comment, us having made it past several such described obstacles already. It was when we stopped that I realized something was wrong.

Past the gunner's dangling feet through the front windshield I could see that the MRAP in front of us was off-kilter, leaning awkwardly to one-side, still upright, but in trouble. Noting that we conveniently also were stopped beside another of the now three illegal taps we'd seen already in the 2.5 km we had travelled down the canal, I opted to step out of the vehicle to snap some photos of them and the trapped vehicle in front of us. My architecture history classes reminded me that the pump house was no exception to the buildings that have been built here for generations, with just a few minor differences. While the walls are still mud-and-straw bricks; hard, yet made brittle in the sun, crumbling to the touch and I'm not convinced I couldn't have punched through them, with log roof rafters covered with mud and straw, there entrances are now sturdy steel doors with frames, carefully locked with padlocks. This does not seem so unlike locking the doors to your convertible, especially considering that the pumps and most of the machinery are situated outside, adjacent to the fragile station.

Maybe getting a vehicle stuck is not a rare occurrence. At first, this doesn't appear to be anything out of the ordinary to our escorts. The driver has his passengers exit the truck as a safety precaution, they talk things over amongst themselves, and then attach a tow strap from the back of the Buffalo to the front of the disabled truck. Encouraged by the ease with which all of this is set up, I'm not expecting much when I raise my camera to capture the scene as the towing begins.

There is a moment as the lead vehicle lurches forward that everything appears to be ok. Then, in what someone later perfectly described as something resembling an elephant toppling to its side, the mechanical beast gave up and died.

In my video you can see the truck start to go. As it breaches the point of no return my camera drops some, not so unlike my spirits at the prospects of us continuing our mission from that point on. Then, you can see my shadow as I run to the side of the wounded truck. In a cloud of dust the soldiers survey the scene. Once it was clear that the vehicle was stable on its side, and the driver was okay (he climbed out through the gunner's turret) everyone stood back and surveyed the scene as if saying "Ok. Now what?" This part of the process was not normal. Gasoline and transmission fluid oozing out from open wounds of the truck's exposed belly into the farmers' fields; I cringe to think of the environmental implications. More urgently, this truck is rapidly becoming a danger to all of us as it bakes in the oven of the midday sun, basted by its own flammable fluids. We rush to secure sensitive items from inside the truck passing them on to be stored in the other vehicles and when this is done we retreat to the quiet safety of our own trucks stuck to sit and guard the crippled MRAP while we wait for help.

There are a multitude of lessons learned that I assume will make their way into the soldier's playbooks for future missions. Most of the afterthoughts from our experience will explain what not to do if your MRAP gets trapped on a small dirt road adjacent to a canal. The number one lesson, of course, will be that our next canal-observing safari will likely be made in smaller vehicles. It really should come as no surprise that the dirt donkey paths, when trampled by our multiple ton mammoths, eventually gave way. Next, as we found out, help, although the base was in sight had a very difficult time reaching us on the narrow banks of the canal. The only way to lift an enormous vehicle like ours is with an even more enormous vehicle. And there was no way to get one to where we were. Still, I don't want to blame the leadership of our failed expedition. No one could have predicted everything that went wrong to lead to this debacle. The challenge now was to figure a way out. As a passenger, all I could do was retire to my truck to wait it out.

For the next eight hours the three of us in the back of my truck took turns sitting on the two open seats and an ammo can. My wide open carriage I'd moved so freely around in earlier was now packed with half of the contents of the rolled MRAP and two of its passengers. The question rapidly became not if I could keep a part of my body from falling asleep, but rather which I could live without temporarily. We wrapped ourselves around boxes and bags and slept for 15-20 minute stretches at a time, mustering all of our strength upon waking to shift our now dead-to-me legs to other positions, leaning to the opposite side to restore the blood flow thereby sacrificing the other side to its neighbor's former fate.

I made my stomach and my bladder hold out as long as possible, but eventually both required my attention. There is no easy way to pee in a bottle. Kneeling in the back of an MRAP in full body armor in a space roughly equivalent to the passenger seat of a Mazda Miata, I did my best, sure that at any moment someone would open the back door of our truck and see me, all of me, staring back at them. The cold, fajitas with spread cheese and "formed" chicken strips was not exactly what my stomach had in mind when it requested a meal, but it was all we had and it sufficed. Thankfully, each truck carries several days worth of provisions and there is always a cooler with ice on board so cold water and a Pepsi kept me hydrated and had me repeating the pee-in-a-bottle experiment again not too much later.

When the sun started to set some locals came out to investigate the scene. First I see a boy leading cows past the truck. He hits the brown one with a stick when it starts to wander too close to the edge of the canal. Soon a small crowd of old and young men and boys has gathered. Several soldiers dismount to keep a closer eye on the fallen truck. They hand out water bottles and chips retrieved from the belly of the beast as a friendly gesture to the throng. The soldier next to me in our MRAP wonders aloud why they're eating the chips outside in the daytime, it being Ramadan and all. The real purpose of their gathering becomes clear when several of the young man ditch their outer garments and take off out of my line of sight towards the canal, coming back laughing and dripping wet. One less modest boy, skinny as a rail, takes off naked towards the water running back to guard a small pile of water bottles he has claimed as his own, wailing on another child with his fists for wandering too close to his stash. They make quite a scene, but by nightfall they wander off leaving us alone again in our trucks.

A Wrecker with two Humvee escorts show up shortly thereafter. An hour and multiple tries later they've managed to pull the truck out of the hole. It's still on its side though so our conversations about missing lunch, that have since evolved into conversations about missing dinner, now focus on whether or not we'll make it back before daybreak the next morning. I am not optimistic because it's looking increasingly more likely that they'll have to call in a chopper to upright the truck and the logistics of that kind of rescue are even more daunting. But instead of spending the night in the truck, my Master Sergeant and I are rescued by the departing Humvee escorts who the Army LT has requested take us home. The relief beats out the guilt at leaving the soldiers there at the scene and after nearly getting stuck ourselves and a 10-point turn that would have made Austin Powers proud, our Humvee begins the slow crawl back to the front gate.

The previous Sunday I had joked about all the training we'd done in Humvees at CST in New Jersey before coming to Iraq and how I would never even ride in one in theater. Lesson learned: Never joke about anything "not happening" or else it will.

Our evening should have ended there but my driver opted to take the long way back, needlessly driving around the entire interior perimeter of the base adding thirty more minutes inside a cramped vehicle to my day. The MSgt and I ended up getting split up with him going to our truck, left parked at our embarkation point, and me going back to our office. I picked him and myself up some sandwiches at the 24-hour food point and jumped in another one of our trucks to go find him. We ended up passing each other on the road. When we got back to the office and I climbed out of the truck I noticed something wet in my right pocket. I reached in to find my kiwi from the chow hall turned to liquid goo. Of course.

Twelve hours after we set out on our failed expedition, soggy pocket and all, we sat down in my office, laughing as we recalled the day's absurdity. Unbeknownst to me, his vehicle, farther up in the convoy, had "taken off into some field" at some point in the afternoon and gotten stuck as well. This time, the tow strap correctly placed, they were able to pull it out to safety although what possessed their truck commander to embark on this unnecessary side adventure he did not know. His biggest shock of the day was the lack of quick response we saw from the soldiers after the truck fell over. "They all kind of just stood around" he reported. He jumped up on the truck to try to assess the condition of the driver (I have photographic proof!) and when they started unloading key materials from the back he and I stepped up to help cart it off. Some of the soldiers were posting security, but others just didn't seem to believe they had seen what they just saw.

When we returned to our CHUs at midnight, my roommate was still awake. We went to let the boss know we were safe and of course he wanted to see pictures. In my rush to show him the video of the vehicle falling I instead erased it. Maybe it wasn't meant to be. For me, in a long day full of painfully cramped quarters, waiting, cold MREs and peeing in bottles, it was the icing on the cake. My crowning achievement: capturing the vehicle's tumble on film, gone.

I will not cry over lost video, but without the cinematic proof backing our day's one true excitement it made the whole experience seem even more of a waste. I have the still-shots though; tools by which I'm sure the story may one day grow to epic proportions beyond what I've written here, stories with explosions and Giant Spotted Dodos and where the naked natives charged us with sharp sticks and angry cows.

When my office mates drove out to see the scene of the accident in the early morning of the next day they found nothing. The vehicles either driven, towed, or flown out. I'd like to think their metal hulks were carved up and dragged off into the fields by the locals, a headlight becoming the shining jewel of a farmer chieftain's necklace and the four tires anchoring the walls of a new mud house.