A Few More Convoy Adventures
We woke up early and loaded our equipment into the vehicle. We waited and waited again some more until finally we rolled out. We got on the highway after a short drive through several towns.
As we drove SGT Gonzales my driver, and I noticed the vehicle would periodically shake, or jerk. We smelled smoke. “Psycho Doc Pappa, you are on fire, pull over now.” We pulled to the side of the road, the convoy pulling over as well. We jumped out with people pulling security alongside their vehicles.
I ran to the side of the vehicle, 9 mm drawn, but was soon occupied less with security, and more with putting out a fire on the trailer tire. The ball bearings had frozen and the rubber wheel was smoking heavily. Pilecki, our mechanic looked at it and deemed it a total loss. We quickly unloaded the vehicle, redistributing what we could into other trucks and HMMWVs. We were on the road again.
This was typical of most of the days we were convoying up north. We stopped along the way outside of cities and towns that would become infamous later, such as Fallujah.
Nearly any long delay near a town or city led to crowds gathering around our vehicles. Directions to the convoy soldiers of “don’t let anyone get near the vehicles,” shout “Imshee,” “get away,” was what we were told to do as a result of threats. We would also have our weapons at the ready just in case. For me this meant typically having my 9 mm pistol drawn and at the side of the cloth door.
One time, there was a vehicle from an earlier convoy destroyed, burning on fire in front of us. We could see the smoke. We waited as crowds gathered around. Most seemed similar to previous groups that had looked to us for food, water and trading things through the windows. The difference this time was the burning vehicle about half a mile up the road.
A number of the individuals walking along the side of the road were young men. One person in particular caught my eye as he walked back and forth along the vehicles looking at the names and ranks in the window. He noted mine, walked along looking in the windows of several others, then came back towards me. He was wearing a white sarong and seemed to pause a moment.
Seemingly making up his mind, he walked rapidly to my window. I was watching him and he had made me nervous. My 9 mm was drawn and to my side. He came up to my door and reached rapidly into his shirt. I quickly raised my 9 mm and pointed it through the window in response. The muzzle was inches away from his face, and he jumped as I shouted “Imshee.” He ran. I shook from fear.
Soon we were back on the road. It was a Shiite holy day. It marked the death of a mullah named Hussen who 400 years ago had died in Karbala. He was taken prisoner by enemies. He called out to the “faithful” to free him but they did not come and he was killed. For centuries ever since, the Islamic people had come to Karbala for a religious pilgrimage, and a form of repentance. For years the Shiites had not been able to make this pilgrimage, for under Saddam Hussein and the Baath party there would be roadblocks and soldiers preventing them from making the trip. At least this was what I came to understand. This was the first time that the Islamic pilgrims had been able to make the trip to Karbala without interference for decades.
The roads as a result had even greater congestion with hundreds of vehicles out filled to over-flowing with people in religious fervor. Open trucks were filled with men, buses were packed with people chanting and beating their chests in rhythm. They drove by mostly ignoring us, as they seemed in a trance, but some would glare and even shake fists at us as they were passed.
During this time security within the convoy became a nightmare. There was a sense of powerlessness. The only combat support or security that we had on occasion was the 101st helicopters that joined us for short periods of time either on their way to someplace else or adding security. I chose to believe the latter just because it made me feel better.
We were now in areas that still had smoking tanks, trucks and artillery. Often we saw these weapons right next to homes. Impressively and typically only the weapon was destroyed (by our side), with little, if any, damage to the houses. A few of our helicopters had been destroyed, lying as wreckage along the road.
Dead animals were also decomposing along the roadside and the smell of rotting decay was ever present. At night we still pulled over, slept in our vehicles or cots outdoors, using the door of the Humvee as part of our bedchamber. We were still peeing in bottles as we drove and throwing them out the door or making cat holes along the way. The women in the convoy had difficulty; peers would hold up a poncho so they could do their business when we did stop.
The heat, dust, and unrelenting stress were taking a toll on morale. We ended up stopping in another forsaken place just west of Baghdad. It was a former Iraqi military base of some sort. We were told we would be just a few days here, and so we kept sleeping on our cots or in our vehicles.
Sand storms hit and the misery index soared. We crouched in the HMMWV in the heat, doors shut, windows zipped shut, wet wipes shoved into the cracks, while jets of dust forced their way into the vehicle. With our eyes and mouths sandpapered with Iraqi landscape, my driver and I sat in silence for hours.
Needing to get water we finally opened the door and trekked to our water buffalo. The visibility was horrible and what portions of our body were not already saturated with sand now became so. It was a necessary task to fill our canteens, but it was nearly futile. It was impossible to fill the water without significant amount of sand getting in. Fortunately there were also some plastic bottles of water nearby as well.
Taking those and what we could from the buffalo we came back to the HMMWV and got in pulling off our goggles and bandanas to readjust and take some sips of the water. SGT Gonzales after a swig looked at me and smiled with raccoon eyes and a white sand covered mouth and said “mmmm good, crunchy” as the sand in the water added texture. We laughed and resumed trying to exist in the heat and sand.