The day after we arrived, we split teams and sent a forward party to our team house in Samarra, while the rest of us, myself included, stayed behind at Forward Operating Base Balad. I’ll tell stories about that hell hole some other time. Our forward party was welcomed promptly by incoming Katyusha rockets. Fortunately, none of them were accurate enough to cause any damage… except the one that landed right between where our vehicles were parked and the entrance to the compound as our guys were offloading equipment from the vehicles.
Thanks only to what must have been a miracle, the rocket did not detonate. Instead, it stuck in the asphalt like a damned lawn dart. Someone has pictures somewhere, I promise. One of my teammates was even feeling froggy enough to throw rocks at it from behind a t-barrier while they waited for Explosive Ordnance Disposal to arrive. Being trained in unexploded ordnance, I would have advised strongly against that, but I wasn’t there yet. But the thought probably would have passed my mind. Hell, I would have been throwing rocks too. Anyway, bottom line: Samarra was a hot spot when we arrived. Prime hunting territory.
After about three days of wasting away at the FOB, the rest of us got our asses and gear prepared for the movement up to Samarra. After hearing about the welcome gift sent to our forward party, the “pucker factor” increased immediately. I ended up assigned to the turret on the rear truck. In all, it was about a five vehicle convoy: one Light Medium Tactical Vehicle loaded down with our gear, four High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWV, aka Humvee), and our entire team plus four guys from the 10th Special Forces Group team we were replacing. Icing on the cake: we were driving at night with very little illumination to speak of.
This was the first trip to the sandbox for everyone on my team. All of my seniors had multiple trips to Thailand, Philippines and the Pacific theater, but not Iraq or Afghanistan. I had just turned 22, so my experience beyond high school, Basic Training, Airborne School, and the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC or the Q Course) was limited to a short Korea trip, and a good number of schools. The fear of the unknown was palpable. We finally loaded up and moved out.
All I can really remember from that first convoy was about 75 minutes of scanning every little bump, nook and cranny within my field of view. While scanning, I was simultaneously shivering my ass off (Iraq is cold in January, dammit) and praying that no vehicle would try to come up on our rear. I really didn’t have a strong desire to start throwing .50 caliber rounds into vehicles, but it was always a mental flow drill that was present in my mind. As often as I mentally flowed through the actions I would need to take if a vehicle did approach, I was also going through the actions for when the damn weapon jammed, which I had seen happen all too often during our trip to the National Training Center in California. For additional fun, as the rear gunner, I was basically driving backwards the whole trip. If you’ve ever been on a backwards roller coaster, you should have an idea of the unique sort of fun that can only come from not knowing what is coming up behind you at 65 miles per hour.
We eventually arrived in Samarra without incident. No cool guy story here, just a freaked out young NCO manning the rear gun on a convoy in a foreign land filled with potential threats. For the next eight months, life was living minute to minute, day to day. Constantly searching for ways to stay busy and then conversely, looking for moments of down time and taking your mind off the fact that you’re half a world away from your family, in a city with a healthy cross-section of people who want you dead.
As the Chinese proverb/curse goes, “May you live in interesting times.”