It was an eery gray outside. The black of the metal and cinder block buildings contrasted with the light grey of the night sky. I was able to make out most of what was around because my eyes were accustomed to the near pitch black inside of the aircraft from the preceding 40 minute joyride courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.
The first thing I noticed was the rancid smell of burning trash and rubber. It was a mixture of all the burning buildings, vehicles, and dead bodies that had been destroyed over the last few days of intense fighting in and around the airport. That smell will never leave me. It was the same smell that greeted me on all four of my deployments to Iraq as I exited the various aircraft that took me there.
We all exited the aircraft and took a knee in the milky dark Baghdad night awaiting further instructions. Someone from the Regiment was supposed to meet us and take us to the particular area of the airport where we’d be based out of. The cool night was filled with the irreverent noises of gunfire, the occasional explosion, four-wheelers screaming back and forth, and the non-stop sound of aircraft landing and taking off.
The airflow into Baghdad was now taking place at a monumental rate. Personnel and supplies were coming in around the clock to shore up the defenses around the airport, and to back up the ground forces of the 3rd Infantry Division that had arrived a two days earlier.
It seemed like forever, but eventually I heard someone walking around asking for the unit I was with. It was a young Ranger who had been tasked with rounding us up and taking us to our new accommodations on the other side of the airport.
Normally, this wouldn’t have been a big deal. However, we had to cross two active runways, on a blacked out airfield, in a blacked out Iraqi dump truck in the middle of the night. If friendly fire didn’t get us, I was sure this slow moving 1970’s era dump truck wouldn’t be able to make it across the two huge active runaways in time to avoid the incoming and outgoing aircraft.
Whatever. As long as I wasn’t on that plane I was good to go, so I jumped into the back with the help of another soldier and sat down in a small puddle of water. Fantastic, I thought to myself. Now, my ass is going to be wet all night long. Off we drove into the night.
Although a plane was beginning to take off just as we cleared the second runway, we ended up making it across without incident. All eight of us in the back of the dump truck cheered the young Ranger as he tried his hardest to get that old ass, rickety dump truck moving as fast as possible. Come to find out, he had hot-wired it earlier in the evening and had only just got the thing running again about an hour before he picked us up. This was my first time in a dump truck taxi, and it felt good.
As we slowly drove along cement roads that appeared endless, all I could see were the burnt out hulks of Iraqi tanks, old Iraqi airplanes, and the main terminal building of the airport. On a normal day, it might have been a strange experience riding in the back of a dump truck, but riding in the back of a dump truck in the middle of a war was even stranger.
We drove past the control tower at what seemed to be a frenzied speed. After about twenty minutes of driving in the pitch black, the truck suddenly came to a halt about 150 meters from the airport building. There were two Bradley armored fighting vehicles posted out front and I could barely make out the ghostly shape of people standing near the entrance of the building.
“We’re here gents, get your shit and let’s go,” said the Ranger in a muffled tone as if he were wheezing. “We’re staying inside. Watch your step, there are people sleeping on the floor.”
We all slowly unpacked from the rear of the dump truck and helped each other find our bags and gear. The moon shone brightly and cast a smoky hue on everyone’s face. I grabbed my ruck and the pelican case full of mission gear and began my slow trudge towards the doors.
It felt good to finally arrive in Iraq, something I never thought I would feel, let alone admit. As I walked into Baghdad International Airport for the first time I could smell death. The 3rd Infantry Division had fought a pitched battle with entrenched Republican Guard units only two days earlier and there were still dead bodies outside and, from the smell of it, inside as well.
It was pitch black inside except for a faint ray of light to the right that immediately caught my eye. The air was dead and still like a thick broth. Other elements of the Task Force had arrived the day prior and set up the operations cell in the baggage claim area. It had no windows and thus was good for not allowing any light out at night. I walked into the nerve center and began looking for a familiar face. I saw no one I recognized so I placed my ruck and pelican to the side and headed towards the pallet of MREs and water.
As I found a comfortable spot on the cold hard floor and pulled out my knife to open my midnight snack, I heard Eddie calling me from a short distance away. I looked over and saw him standing in a small room with a kiosk-like opening in the front. A makeshift curtain was half covering the gaping hole in the wall and he was standing behind it with a fire extinguisher in each hand as a set of makeshift dumb bells.
“Eddie, what’s up man? What the fuck are you doing lifting weights at two o’clock in the morning?” I asked.
“Just trying to blow off some steam and stay fit I guess,” he said as his temple veins bulged under the stress of lifting the hulking red canisters. Up, down, up, down, he must have done at least thirty reps in the minute or so since I saw him. He finally placed the two fire extinguishers on the floor and grabbed a bottle of water, drinking furiously until it was finished.
“How was the flight in?”
“Not too bad I guess. They said we took some ground fire on short final and the pilots had to conduct some evasive maneuvers or some shit. I was worried the vehicles were gonna break the chains that were keeping them in place.”
“No shit?” he quietly responded as he began doing military presses with the two extinguishers.
Eddie acted as if it were something to be expected, which I guess in some respects it was. This was a war and crazy shit was bound to happen. I returned to my meal of sodium-laden chicken chow-mein with Tabasco sauce and M&Ms with grape jelly. When I was done I went outside to smoke a cigarette and take a leak.
The latrine area was a long canal-shaped area about 200 meters north of the building. As I approached it, even the stench of death and burning metal in the air were engulfed in a perfect storm of urine and shit swirling together to form the most ungodly smell one can imagine. It was a veritable minefield at night, I presumed, so I decided to stand at the top and piss into it. As the warm urine began flowing from my bladder I heard a rustling noise…”Hey motherfucker, I’m down here!!”
Someone was in the trench taking a peaceful 3am shit and I had unknowingly come along and presumably pissed right next to the poor guy. “Fuck dude, sorry.” I explained. “I didn’t see you down there.”
“God damn man, go piss somewhere else, I’m trying to take a shit here,” the faceless, gravelly voice said back.
I moved further along the trench to finish off the deed while pulling deeply on my Marlboro Light, the bluish smoke floating from my lungs as I relaxed and finished taking a piss. At least the cigarette partially blocked the rancid smell that was hovering over the canal de merde like an early morning fog.
I buttoned my pants and turned towards the airport terminal. I walked far enough away from the latrines so that I wasn’t breathing the unctuous poisons and decided to stand very still for just a moment. “I’m in Baghdad, Iraq,” I thought as I looked around at the dark shapes and dim glow of some still burning vehicles.
The quiet was almost deafening, only punctuated by the sound of machine gun fire, and the occasional sound of an aircraft taking off or landing on the other side of the airfield. I looked up at the stars and wondered who else was looking at those same stars and what they were doing at that moment.
(Featured Image Courtesy: Wikipedia)