Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Strange Story on Range 17

Exactly six years ago today my husband returned from a year-long deployment to Iraq. I remember it like it was yesterday. To celebrate the anniversary of his return, I want to share one of my favorite stories he has ever written from that 2005-2006 deployment. This is a true account of something he experienced as he and the other soldiers waited for the word to enter Iraq...

"A Strange Story on Range 17"
The desert in Kuwait is a barren and desolate place. If you take the time to stand in the middle of it, you could look around in all directions and see nothing surrounding you but sand and sky. The feeling is comparable to being on a deep sea fishing trip; the girth of absolute solitude wears on the mind and the winds shift the sand like waves. It's nearly impossible to track where you are, where you've been, or even where you're going. This foreboding place is where the 2nd Platoon Roughnecks call home. 

This platoon of 33 infantry soldiers fall under the leadership of myself, 1LT Martin, and SFC Rainer, their platoon sergeant. The boys, as I like to call them, all come from vastly different backgrounds, and to the casual observer appear to be the perfect manifestation of the great American melting pot. Upon more thorough inspection, it becomes apparent what all of these young men have in common. Joining the Army was, more often than not, their best and last option. 30%  of this platoon is Hispanic and hails from such infamous locals as Watts, Compton, South Central, and Long Beach. To this 30% or so, life in the Army couldn't possibly be more dangerous than life back home. They have mixed emotions reading emails about their friends back home being locked up, dying in gang violence, or even worse, dying inside as a result of drug addiction. There are others too - a couple from the industrial complexes of New Jersey who joined the Army as jobs were outsourced to India and other places. They joke about the outsourcing potential of Iraq when we're done there. There's one African American soldier, a transplant from the Navy, no doubt a product of the Navy downsizing its enlisted force. Overall, they're just normal people in other than ordinary circumstances. Irregardless of the circumstances surrounding them being here, the "Roughnecks" of 2nd Platoon perform their jobs admirably and excel at whatever task they are given. As a leader of men, I could not as for a better group of guys. 

It is not a surprise given 2nd Platoon's record for mission accomplishment that we were tasked with planning and conducting a battalion-wide M16/M4 marksmanship competition. This is no doubt an odd tasking for an infantry rifle platoon. However, the battalion commander considered this range a high priority, and in my humble opinion, selected the right guys for the job.

SFC Rainer came up with a plan, and once it was approved, we were prepared to execute. We left out of the gate our compound to head to the range and to start setting it up. I was in the lead of a small convoy of 3 vehicles: a HMMWV (HummVee to civlians), which I was in, a bus, and a LMTV, a large ungainly truck, the cab of which is covered in thick steel armor. With my map and radio in hand, the convoy stabbed out into the dry heart of the desert. We moved along seemingly lost trails and deeply rutted improvised roads for about 26 or so miles before finally arriving at our destination. By nightfall the range was set up and ready for business. We all ate our MRE's and went to bed, knowing we would have an early morning ahead of us. The morning came, the sun announcing its arrival through the comfy confines of my black sleeping bag with the visual audacity of a cannon blast. 

As I shed my sleeping bag and asserted myself into the cold desert air, I observed the soldiers preparing themselves for the long day ahead. Four bus loads of soldiers arrived shortly after and after a range orientation and a safety briefing, we were ready to begin. Before shooting it is policy to conduct a "downrange sweep" of the area you plan to be firing in to ensure no animals or people are located in that area. While conducting our sweep. we noticed a large herd of camels. It is an idiosyncrasy of this region that camels roam everywhere. These camels are not wild. They have a shepherd who tends to them similar to how cows were herded in America's wild west. Unfortunately for the shepherds and the camels, the best grazing areas here are locations set aside for US forces to test and train with their various weapons. Hundreds of thousands of bullets and bombs are dropped or fired into this grazing area. Interestingly, none of the herders themselves are Kuwaitis. They are all poor immigrants who herd the camels and/or sheep for wealthy Kuwaiti owners. The herders makes less than 10 US dollars a day. Upon learning this, I immediately formed parallels in my mind to the immigrant experience in the US. I guess every country has its Mexicans, and your success in life is widely determined by where and to whom you are born. I digress.

Camels on our range, regardless of why they were there, was a problem, so we began herding them with the HMMWV. One large camel we pulled up to was sitting on its haunches. SFC Rainer leaned out of the window and yelled to the camel, "Get up, Private!" through his megaphone. We all laughed to each other as SFC Rainer flashed back to his days as a drill sergeant. Our laughter soon ceased as the beast complied and stood up. 

SSG Tucker was first to speak about what we all saw. "He's taking a dump!" he said. I was second to speak as I reached across the cab and touched his arm. "She's having a baby!" I said. We all fell silent, our jubilation replaced by the shame that comes with blatant insensitivity. I immediately went to get the herder and inform him of the good news. Once we told him, I told SSG Tucker to slowly take us near the female camel who by then had resettled herself. We slowly crept up and found her lying on her side. We all exited the truck and waited for her caretaker to arrive. When the shepherd arrived, he misunderstood our intent and began to strike the soon-to-be mother with his staff. She reluctantly stood with her little one's legs and head sticking out. We shouted and waved for him to stop, and soon the camel was lying down again. All 5 of us who were present had kids, and I can't speak for the others, but the torment of that poor camel while she was giving birth made me feel a deep sense of sympathy for her pain, and it took me back in my mind's eye to the birth of my daughter. 

The herder removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. He grasped the calf by his legs and neck, and with a tug and a push from mama, the baby was out. He was small, skinny, and helpless. While the mother looked on trepidly, the shepherd rubbed the calf down with sand to help dry off his fur. We offered the shepherd a bottle of water to wash his hands, and he thankfully obliged. He then took the empty water bottle and filled it with fresh milk from the mother camel. The herder then fed the milk to the young calf. We all stood there in silence for a moment, five warriors lost in the universal power of birth and life. It had been there all along as we trained others how to kill and how to use instruments of death. Life found a way and continued on as it has done forever. We named the little guy Jared Brown after a soldier in our platoon, snapped some photos, waved at the herder, and then, as quickly as we had come, we were gone, off to continue our mission.

Training went well that say and that night. With soldiers firing around me and tracer rounds streaking across the sky from a distant range, I found myself looking upward. A huge full moon burned brightly in the otherwise black sky. The moon had rings of color around it - blue, yellow, orange, and red. It was covered with a delicate lace of thin, patchy clouds. SSG Tucker joined me, smoking, as we stared at the same glowing orb, and he remarked, "It would be perfect if I was looking at it with my wife." Lost in thought, all I could say was, "Yeah." In my head I tucked my daughter in and gave her a kiss goodnight. Then I turned and yelled for the next firing order.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Nine Years In

In two weeks my husband and I will reach our 9 year wedding anniversary. It's ironic that our anniversary falls on Flag Day, the Army's birthday. Our 9 years of marriage have been completely entwined with everything the Army life contains ... worrisome deployments, long separations, too much time apart even when he's home, Army first, family second, moving every few years, etc. And if I could pat myself on the back for a second, I think I have handled it well.  I have learned how to be the primary parent in his absence. Like I heard in a movie recently, he's the back-up parent. We have made it through, and although it hasn't been easy, we're still looking forward. It will get better. As a mother of 3 kids, ages 6 and under, my whole life revolves around them. They are what have gotten me through the deployments. Without them, I would be lost and alone when he's gone all the time. When I learn of yet another upcoming separation, I immediately think of the kids and how it will affect them, not me. I think of all the birthdays he's missed, the ballet recitals, the T-ball practices and games, the kindergarten graduations, the first day of school, the first time our child rides the school bus, the holidays, and not to mention everything Maddy went through as an infant. He's missed a lot in our life together, and he will miss a whole lot more. Although it makes me sad (for the kids, not me), it has undeniably made me stronger. I am strong for my kids, and I am strong for myself because if I wasn't, I could very easily be miserable. It has been 10 months since he returned from Afghanistan. We are less than a year away from the next deployment. He will spend quite a bit of time between now and then preparing and training for that deployment, and he will be gone on multiple occasions for weeks at a time. Meanwhile, our family keeps moving right along, footloose and fancy free. We'll continue with the ballet and T-ball, and eventually school will start back again. We will celebrate what events he is present for and overlook the ones he's not. I am teaching myself to delete the rolladex of events he's missed because that can only create bitterness. It's our life. It's the way of the beast. And as we celebrate yet another anniversary apart in two weeks (and Father's Day and my birthday and a ballet recital), I will not complain because at least he is here today.  And tonight I can stare at him as he sleeps in my bed and soak up his presence to make up for the days he will miss. And we will be ok.