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A Lost Rifle on a Dark Night
"We don't have to do this tonight do we, sir? Couldn't we get our convoy delayed until the route changes?" I think I'll always remember the look in his eyes and the tremble in his voice as he asked me that question that rainy evening. I couldn't blame him for feeling that way — I remembered my first time commanding a convoy along a route I didn't know. The feeling of complete overwhelm and fear that you'll take a wrong turn and be out in the middle of nowhere, beyond the help of the better armed and armored route security forces. Getting caught in an ambush in a tractor-trailer convoy is like fighting off a bear with a toothpick. And this was precisely the reason I had decided to come with him to "ride in the backseat" during his first convoy through the combat zone. His senior sergeants kept saying he wasn't ready, and their hesitation was feeding his insecurities. He kept living under their shadow, and you can't become your own leader in that situation. Leadership is all about figuring out who you are and getting people to respond to that person, not someone else you're trying to emulate. Maybe they were right about him not being ready, but at their pace, he would never be ready. They were burnt out and needed a break from running these convoys, and SSG Noonz was their relief. "Maybe we could, Tom — but we're not going to. We can't hole up here, and there's no guarantee that we won't have to run the same route tomorrow. Let's go over the route again." Calling him by his first name softened the reply — he knew that I was right, and he was somewhat relieved that I had said it, even though none of us wanted to do it. I now know that he was relieved because he didn't have to make the decision. We covered the route again, did some rehearsals, and checked loads one more time. We were leaving the gate in an hour.
"Hey guys, check it out. That sign points to Abu Ghraib. I wonder how far it is from here." We were still dealing with how we felt about Abu Ghraib. We all knew that it was a complete sham — there's no way that those troops could have done all that without other people knowing. If their leaders didn't know, they should all be relieved for dereliction of duty. Sure, my troops did things I didn't know about. But not in areas that were under my watch. Luckily, the general fear that everyone was feeling kept the radio traffic to a minimum.
"Uh...Blackshirt31 we may have a problem...we can't find Burnett's weapon..." Shit, shit, shit! I grabbed the radio from SSG Noonz and started yelling "BREAK, BREAK, BREAK! STOP NOW!," but Garner was keeping his finger on the radio, so I couldn't get through. Damn, he talks so slow. Shut the fuck up! We have to stop! "He was getting tired...so we decided to switch out on the road...he thinks he leaned his rifle against the door...and when I got in and started checking for his weapon, I couldn't find it." Garner continued in that slow way that only Midwestern farmboys can. It wasn't that uncommon for troops to switch out drivers while driving. The procedure was simple enough: the passenger would put his foot on the accelerator and keep the wheel steady, and when the driver was ready, he'd jump out the door while hanging on the lift bar on the outside of the truck, walk around the catwalk on the back of the tractor, open the door on the other side, and jump back in. It was easy enough — but unsafe as hell. Troops only pulled this off when they really didn't want to stop, like when they were on a road that scared the shit out of them. "BREAK, BREAK, BREAK. STOP THE CONVOY NOW!" Garner had finally let go of the transmit button, so I was able to get through. The lead guntruck acknowledged and started slowing down. "Can't we just report it and keep going?...I don't think we're going to find it...this happened about a couple of minutes ago." It was clear that Garner didn't get it. Losing a rifle is a big deal. Whenever a weapon is lost, that information makes it up to the Secretary of Defense. It doesn't matter why it was lost or how it was lost — it gets forwarded, and that's somebody's ass. You can't just report it and drive on. "Garner, it's best if you just stop talking until someone asks you a question." Sergeant Andrews, one of our most senior junior sergeants, jumped in to give the convoy commander some relief. He was always good about that. At this point, everyone knew that I was in charge of the convoy, not SSG Noonz. This relieved almost everyone, not the least SSG Noonz. We didn't have time for hesitation at this juncture. I started analyzing the situation. We always ran our convoys in the wee hours of the morning, because if you're up and messing with the roads at 2am in the morning, you're probably up to no good. The Iraqis understood this, too, and many of them were asleep anyway; luckily, they haven't embraced the 24-hour lifestyle that Americans have. And the last thing you wanted to do is get caught in a mid-day traffic jam with a convoy that's spread out over a mile. Soldiers end up dead and missing that way. But this night was particularly dark. The clouds were still heavy from the rain, so no moonlight was making it through. We were out in the middle of nowhere — no street or highway lights, no city glow — just dark trucks on dark pavement on a dark night. Except that it wasn't pitch black. That would have been more comforting. There had been a car following us in the distance on a parallel highway. It was far enough that we could clearly see it, meaning that it could see us, too. And it had matched our speed for the last hour. Everyone knew what that meant. It meant that we were being paced and targeted — the car was relaying our convoy's speed, size, and destination to someone else. Sometimes this was just because they were collecting intelligence on us, and sometimes it meant they were setting up an ambush for us. They knew where we were going and how long it would take to get there, and they also knew that security was light on this road tonight. And now we were stopping! There's a deep fear and dread that comes over every transporter when you start talking about stopping the convoy. We were in the fastest vehicles in the Army's fleet — ironic that it's a tractor-trailer — but it was still the least maneuverable. Take the average semitrailer you see on the highway and paint it green. That was, quite literally, what we were driving. It would be bad enough if it were just one 60-foot, 20 ton vehicle. But it's loaded with crap. These trucks can carry 34-tons of cargo on their trailers. So you're talking about a 60-foot, 50-ton monstrosity that you're trying to manage tactically. Still worse is when you have 20 of these things that you're trying to keep together. When we kept our intervals, our convoy stretched out over 2 kilometers. That's a lot of real estate to defend, but at least if you were moving, it was hard to hit. We simply outdistanced our enemy's weapons if they set them up. But when you're at a dead stop, you're a sitting duck. If you do get your ass handed to you, you can't really run, since it takes 10-15 minutes to get all the vehicles going again when they're organized. In the chaos of a firefight...forget about it. You own a piece of land, and you've got to fight for it. And what do you have? A bunch of truckers that, historically, were never given the priority in training and allocation to become warfighters. Up until 2004, tactical training was a low priority for transporters because, doctrinally, we weren't supposed to be on the frontlines. But there are no frontlines anymore. And given that this war is being fought on the cheap, there aren't enough guntrucks to go around. We're having to defend this convoy with two guntrucks — Humvees with a turret-mounted machine gun — and one Humvee that's dual-hatting as a guntruck and a command/control vehicle, meaning your convoy commander has to be in the fight to control the fight. Note: you can't control the fight and be in it at the same time, just as you can't be in the trenches of your workflow and have some perspective on it. The last bad thing about stopping is that the foreign national (FN) truckers that we had with us were chaotic as hell. Again, because this war was on the cheap, the only way we could get enough supplies where they needed to go was by augmenting our logistical capabilities with those of civilians. Because it costs too much to hire Westerners — you know, because it was dangerous and you had to pay accordingly — the civilian contractors hired people from the developing world. The problem was that they often had no idea what they were doing and didn't speak English. I've met few braver men than these FN truckers. They had no idea where they were going, had little to no training, and were isolated, scared, and tired. Our frustration at having to deal with them frequently boiled over to us treating them more like cattle than human beings. (There's a lot of regret and sadness here for me and it's sometimes hard to deal with; overall, I did a great job of humanizing our FN compatriots in my treatment of them and the way I taught my troops to treat them, but there were times in which I was viciously forceful, mean, dismissive, unsympathetic, and/or condescending when I could have been otherwise if I had maintained my composure.) But when we stopped, there was no telling what they'd do. Some would run and jump in ditches. Others would stay in their trucks. Others would run into the surrounding fields to relieve themselves. Others would find their friends and start talking. None of this sat well for a tactical commander, because they were your responsibility, yet you couldn't control them. The dark. The fear of this new route that none of us had been down. The car in the distance. Being underarmed. What will our FNs do? Will we be ambushed? It then occurred to me. Burnett wasn't just carrying a normal M16; he was carrying a M16/M203 — a M16 with a grenade launcher attachment. Hopefully he hadn't loaded it. There wasn't really an option of leaving it in the first place, but now we had to find it. Let's see. We were moving at 55-60 miles per hour. It had been three minutes or so. I knew the weapon would be pretty far back, but the part of my brain that could realize it would be at least three miles back had shut down. My immediate concern was getting the convoy stopped and in a defensible position. The convoy had finally formed up in the best position that it could. This was a skinny two lane road bordered by sand. We couldn't turn around, and doing so would have made matters worse. It would've taken too long, even if a truck didn't jackknife or get stuck, and what would be the point? It's not like it would make finding this weapon any easier. We had to find the weapon quickly and get the convoy moving again. It was clear: one of our Humvees had to go look for this weapon. I quickly decided that it couldn't be one of our dedicated guntrucks, since they'd need to defend the convoy in case we were ambushed. Which meant that my vehicle and crew would be the ones to go searching for this weapon. We took off, driving at a snail's pace and scanning the road with our spotlight. An eternity passed as I thought about our lone Humvee separated from the convoy, announcing its presence in the dark desert with the spotlight. I imagined how quickly we'd be torn to pieces if that car had managed to coordinate an ambush. We kept radio contact with the convoy and had gotten so far out that we couldn't see them any more. They had followed my instructions and shut down every light from every device they had. If you didn't know they were there, you would run up on them before you realized it. This was intentional: if they were going to be immobile, they'd at least have the element of tactical surprise in their favor on anybody who tried to assault in a vehicle. After yet another eternity, we hadn't found the weapon. We'd been driving so slowly and time was amplified so much that we had no idea how far we'd gone. We couldn't see the convoy. The static in our chatter indicated that we were starting to get out of range of radio communication. We were alone in the darkness, doubting we'd find the weapon yet unable to turn around yet. Finally, the driver thought he saw something. Normally, he couldn't see shit, but apparently the adrenaline had turned him into Superman. There, on his side of the road, lay the weapon. It had to be on the side of the road, didn't it? A common insurgent tactic was to place bombs along the side of the road in stuff that you either wouldn't suspect or in stuff that would draw your attention. If they did it right, you couldn't see the detonator wire buried in the sand next to the object. When you got close enough to be in the blast range, they'd detonate the bomb, hopefully catching you in the blast. I told the driver to stop and back up. He instinctively knew why — I wanted him to get out of the blast range of any bomb or grenade that might be there. Where was that damn car now? When was the last time we'd seen it? Dammit! Someone would have to get out of the Humvee — and if this were an ambush, that person would surely die first. The Humvee stopped. Without saying a word or looking at anyone, I got out of the vehicle and started approaching the weapon. I didn't have to tell everyone else to get ready to fight and cover me — they were already ready to fight and cover someone. What they weren't prepared for, though, was that person to be me. I think everyone expected that one of the junior soldiers would have to do it. I hadn't yet told my troops that this would be the last convoy that I would go on for the rest of the tour. I had found out a few days earlier that I was being reassigned to a staff position at the battalion and I was still processing it — only a few people knew, and none of them were on this convoy. The double entendre of this being my last convoy was not lost upon me during the forever that it took me to cover 20 meters. I had just turned 25 and wondered if I'd see 26. As I approached the weapon, some relief washed over me. There was no wire running from the weapon. I could see that the grenade tube was disengaged — there was no live round sitting in there. I wasn't going to be blown up, at least. I grabbed the weapon and ran like hell back to the Humvee. Everyone looked at me, relieved — and the driver managed to turn the vehicle around before I was even in it. Everyone was still quiet; we weren't out of the woods yet. I held the weapon and looked at it for a while. I was still furious about it all, and the adrenaline was pumping through my veins. As stupid as those two troops had been, they put as all in jeopardy and could have gotten us killed... But everything thus far was okay. Despite my anger and fear, I resolved not to blow up and take it out on those two. They didn't mean to, and they were tired, scared, and by now didn't need to be lectured about the gravity of the situation. We approached the back of the convoy and I got out. Burnett looked as if he were expecting to be hit, yelled at, or insulted. He flinched as I quickly handed him his weapon. "Keep your hands on your fucking weapon." I noticed how much my hands were trembling as I handed him the weapon, and I honestly don't know whether it was out of fear or anger. "Y-y-ess, s-s-s-ir." He was still waiting for more as I quickly turned around and moved smartly to my vehicle. My anger at them quickly turned to anger at myself — I wish I hadn't cursed at him. Once back in the vehicle, I reached for the radio. "Mount up... Let's get the hell out of here, like, now." It's hard to relay the tone of victory I heard in the voices that acknowledged the order. We were still alive and we were moving. "SSG Noonz, you're in charge now." He smiled. "Yes, sir." I don't remember what happened after that. I'm pretty sure it was a routine trip or else I'd have another story.
For the first time ever, I sat down this morning and wrote this story. I've told parts of it a few times, but never in writing and never to people outside of my comfort zone. In case you're wondering: yes, it's autobiographical. Names have been changed and I have a really good memory. Angela has always hated this story, and, before today, she's never really heard all of the information since I've never taken the time to tell it in its full context. She still can't decide whether she wants to hit me, hug me, be mad at me, call me an idiot, be proud of me, or what, but that's to be expected, I guess. Life is complex — why should the complexity be reduced to one emotion? This all came up because I've been struggling with writing some media info for a radio show I've been invited to do. I've never written a bio for a general audience (as opposed to an academic, online, or military audience), so I've been struggling with what to include and what to exclude. What I've been trying to do is come up with a more streamlined bio that doesn't discuss my military background so that people can understand who I am a bit more. A lot of people I've met have a hard time reconciling what they see as three separate aspects of who I am — the philosopher, the entrepreneur, and the officer. Yet stories like these illustrate how we become, or manifest, who we are. We are complex creatures with complex histories — why should the complexity be reduced when the complexity is the part we care about? I wrote a lot more about why I decided to post this today, but this post is already long enough as it is. Perhaps I'll post the rest later if it continues to harass me. I hope you enjoyed the story and that it stands okay on its own — I don't normally post stories without their being some point or moral to them, so this is new for me.