When the Iraq War started, I was assigned to a logistics unit at Fort Drum, serving as a battalion operations officer. From as early as September 2002, in light of the new crisis with Saddam, I knew we might deploy. After months of speculation, those deployment orders officially were published in February 2003.
I was going to war.
Anxious to get into the fight, I was frustrated when I saw the start of the war on TV rather from the Kuwaiti desert. We were only a few days from being deployed; but at the rate Allied troops were advancing into Iraq, I was afraid the war would be over before I arrived.
Our time would come, though. In March 2003 we arrived in Kuwait and were herded into a tent, given instructions and the procedures to be followed in the event of a SCUD missile attack, and then taken to another tent. It wasn't long before I would practice what I was taught.
Sirens suddenly blared. SCUD missile attack!
Within seconds, I had my gas mask on, soon followed by my chemical protection suit (which included thick trousers and coat, gloves and boots). When I was at Fort Drum, I had always had problems getting my mask on in under nine seconds (after nine seconds, you run the risk of suffering fatal exposure to chemical or biological agents). When I had to do this for real in Kuwait, I was motivated to be fast.
During SCUD alerts, there wasn't much you could do besides sit tight, check on each other and wait for the All Clear, a series of short siren bursts. The problem was that in those first few hours in Kuwait we had so many SCUD alerts that I was going in and out of my chemical suit every few minutes, which was physically draining in the heat. We also had to wear our body armor, helmet and other gear, which raised our body temperature even more. We were inside a tent, which worsened the stifling effect of the Kuwaiti heat.
I had eaten nothing since landing in Kuwait -- I had been drinking a lot; but in hot conditions eating is as important as hydration for taking care of your body. You can drink from a canteen while wearing the mask, but you can't eat. Just when I was starting to feel drained by this repeated exertion, the Iraqis launched another SCUD at us. Instead of following quickly, the All Clear signal was a long time coming.
My body began to shut down. I removed my flak vest and helmet, collapsed to the floor, and mustered all of my remaining willpower to not panic and rip off the mask. I tried to slow my breathing and to close off my mind to the reality of the moment. I was desperate, my entire existence focused on making it to the All Clear. I realized what a fool I had been to be so anxious to get myself to the middle of a war -- as I watched SCUD alerts on CNN a few days earlier, I though how cool it would be to be experiencing one myself, gallantly risking my life in the service of my country. Now, I was a pathetic sight. I begged God to forgive me for being so anxious to deploy. "Damn fool, I am," I wrote in my journal.
When the All Clear was given, I got some food and slowly rebuilt my strength. My T-shirt was drenched in sweat, and the people around me said I looked like hell. Throughout the rest of the day, I did everything faster than usual -- eating dinner, going to the bathroom -- in the fear that I would be caught in the middle of it during the next SCUD alert.
More SCUD alerts happened during the night and in the days that followed. That first day, though, left its impact on me -- I had heard that siren so much on the first day that throughout the following days I mistook almost any noise as the SCUD alert and was always nervously watching for other soldiers to put their gear on or asking if they heard the siren. I was jittery.
It should be noted that the United Nations had banned Iraq from having SCUD missiles, and Saddam had claimed he didn't have any.
We eventually left Camp Wolf and made the long bus ride across the Kuwaiti desert to Camp New York. Our equipment arrived a few days later, and we drove it from the ship to our camp. Soon we were using those trucks to move supplies north in support of the 101st Airborne Division and logistical units as they pushed deeper into Iraq.
As the weeks passed, I grew frustrated. Our mission was important, yet I felt like I was being left on the sidelines again, watching on TV from Kuwait as Allied forces helped angry Iraqi civilians tear down Saddam's statue in Baghdad, thus liberating the city from Saddam's butchery. I had recovered from the stress of that first day and was anxious now to move north and to do my part.
Finally, on April 20, 2003, Easter Sunday, it was time for my unit to move north into Iraq. Not wanting my fiancée or family to spend their Easter worrying about me, I didn't tell them I was heading into Iraq until after I had arrived there.
Before crossing the border, I locked a magazine of ammunition into my rifle and placed my fiancée's photo on the windshield of my Humvee so it would feel like she was with me. Within minutes of crossing the border, we encountered our first Iraqi village.
The drive soon became tense: Iraqi civilians were standing in the middle of the road to try to force us to stop so they could sell us trinkets. My driver -- a 20-year-old woman who had never deployed before -- began to slow down. But stopping would make us a target for attack. My operations sergeant -- who was sitting behind me -- got on the radio and informed the other convoy vehicles what we were experiencing. Simultaneously, I yelled in my driver's ear, "Speed up! Don't slow down! They'll get out of the way!" My driver fought her instinct to slow down, and we sped through the Iraqi civilians, who always scattered in time.
The encounter with the civilians gave us a preview to what we found throughout that drive and in the coming weeks -- the Iraqis were treating us as liberators and not as conquerors. Whenever we passed them, they stopped what they were doing to wave at us or give us a thumb's up. Iraqi children would salute, and I even saw one Iraqi child waving an American flag at us. Just a few weeks earlier, Saddam's forces had executed Iraqi civilians whose only "crime" was waving at Coalition forces.
Soon we saw road signs for Baghdad and Basra and made our way across southern Iraq. We saw things you would expect to find in Iraq -- herds of camels and sheep, oil pipelines, destroyed Iraqi military equipment. But I also saw green for the first time in a month, as some vegetation grew in the desert.
We also began to see the impact of Saddam's oppression of his people; many Iraqis lived in small huts made from sun-caked mud. What we would consider to be poor in America would be filthy rich in Iraq. We sometimes passed an Iraqi woman who would wave at us with one hand while motioning with the other to her mouth to beg for food.
Whenever a vehicle suffered a breakdown, it forced us to stop the convoy. As convoy commander, when this happened I would hustle soldiers out of their vehicles to post security. During one of these breakdowns, a couple of Iraqi civilians had walked up to our trail vehicle before anyone from that Humvee had dismounted to pull security. After nothing but friendly contact with the Iraqis that day, I figured they were harmless. However, I couldn't take a chance. Without hesitation, I confronted them, made a shoo-ing motion with my hand, and repeatedly said "Go! Go!" Fortunately, the scowl on my face was enough, because the Iraqis soon walked away. I have photos of myself taken minutes after this confrontation -- between the scowl and my helmet, body armor, weapon and sunglasses, I looked much meaner than I really am.
This incident occurred before the insurgent attacks began causing a steady flow of casualties among American forces. With the advantage of hindsight, I wonder now what the hell I was doing that day -- the two men could have been armed with weapons or explosives.
Aside from dodging Iraqi civilians, the only danger we faced on that Easter Sunday was from the blinding dust, which increased our chances of getting lost or having an accident. My watch and my travel alarm clock still are encrusted with sand from Iraq and Kuwait.
Our destination was an Iraqi airfield south of Baghdad. Being in Iraq was having an impact on other soldiers in my unit. Talking to my driver, I learned that she had not previously been supportive of this war. However, now that she was in Iraq and saw the poverty Saddam had inflicted on his people, she said she realized we had the potential to help the Iraqis improve their lives. At a refueling point, she walked up to a group of Iraqi children and gave them some candy.
As I settled in for bed on my second night in Iraq, I was sleeping on the hood of my Humvee with the sound of wolves and other wild dogs howling in the distance. It still hadn't fully sunk in yet that I was in Iraq. It was surreal.
After two weeks at the airfield south of Baghdad, we headed to another airfield, this time north of Baghdad. We occupied a building that had not been used since the Iraqi army was driven from the airfield a few weeks earlier. As we cleaned the building of its immense amounts of garbage, we saw something that scared me more than anything else did in Iraq: vials of white powder surrounded by abandoned Iraqi gas masks and chemical protection gear.
We didn't know what it was, but in the aftermath of the anthrax scare in the United States we weren't going to take any chances. As we shoveled these items into trucks to be hauled away and disposed of, all of us wore gloves, and one soldier even donned his gas mask for added protection. I never found out what that powder was, and my health has been fine since returning from Iraq. However, at the time, seeing it shook me up some.
The building serving as our headquarters also had an eerie legacy from the recent fighting: bloody hand imprints left on the walls by wounded or dying Iraqi soldiers.
My time in Iraq also gave me two opportunities to fly across northern Iraq to Mosul, near the border with Turkey. I welcomed these flights because they gave me the chance to see more of the country and also broke the cabin fever I had from staying on the airfield. With the enemy still active in northern Iraq, though, a fellow officer once gave me an ominous farewell: "I hope you don't get shot today." I took additional ammo and cleaned my weapon extra well.
Northern Iraq was downright picturesque, with its mountains and lush greenery from river valleys. Golden-topped mosques gloriously reflected the sun. The flights also exposed me to more effects from the war -- the remains of Iraqi jets, tanks and missiles dotted the landscape while bomb craters could be seen on the runways of several airfields. Wherever we went, Iraqi civilians would stop what they were doing to wave at us as we flew overhead.
These flights also gave me exposure to some of Saddam's 200-plus palaces that dot Iraq. I flew over one such palace near Baghdad and toured another in Mosul. It was beautifully landscaped, and on the inside sported a swimming pool, magnificent artwork, endless rooms and brilliant color detailing in the walls. It was also a sad contrast to how most Iraqis lived.
During our Memorial Day ceremony, I had the honor of reading the names of the 162 American military personnel who had thus far been killed in this war. Within a few days after my reading, five more American lives were lost. Each one broke my heart.
My time in Iraq was destined to be limited, however. With another duty assignment awaiting me, I flew from Iraq to Kuwait on June 14, 2003, and caught a flight from there with other members of my unit that were also heading home. After a layover in Spain, I returned to the United States the following day. During the layover in Spain, I watched reports on CNN about Iraq. It already felt like a dream.
Back at Fort Drum, there were no parades waiting for us. This was fine to me, because the real heroes were still in Iraq, or had already come home in flag-draped coffins. My fiancée picked me up on post. That was the only heroes' welcome I needed.
Note: by Captain Andrew DeKever
This Day in History
France and Spain sign the Treaty of Madrid.
Congress authorizes the construction of 6 frigates, including the USS Constitution
"to provide a naval armament".
The Treaty of Amiens is signed, ending the French Revolutionary War.
The French Revolutionary War ends with the signing of the Treaty of Amiens.
U.S. troops under Gen. Andrew Jackson inflict a crushing defeat on the Creek Indians at Horshoe Bend in Northern Alabama.
The Mexican army massacres Texan rebels at Gohad.
The USS Constellation
departs New York with food for famine victims in Ireland.
Japan leaves the League of Nations.
Tokeo Yoshikawa arrives in Oahu, Hawaii, to begin spying for Japan on the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor.
Britain leases defense bases in Trinidad to the United States for 99 years.