The few days here at this base outside of Baghdad turned into several weeks. I was told it was a military and an industrial complex built by the Russians, but not completed, to produce and store chemicals. Two silos stood next to a group of burn pits that had flames leaping out of them burning garbage.
There was a line formed of about 30 people for the outdoor latrines; people who waited out the sand storm now had to “go.” Patiently they stood in their gear, holding toilet paper that came in MREs, or a roll that they had brought or gotten as they stood in line. The flies around were epidemic.
The latrines were made of a wooden box with an opening and with wood slats to the sides for some modicum of privacy. They were outdoor and exposed to the sky, dust, flies, bugs and passing helicopters. The outdoor “freedom” toilets (so described here as to the liberating experience of having a bowel movement in the broad daylight with just a short piece of plywood on your left and right and nothing to your front) looked through a chain linked fence out to a landing strip. The landing strip was filled with helicopters. These were busy taking off and providing protection to convoys, picking up the injured, and going out on missions constantly.
It was more than a coincidence that when they took off or came back to land they lingered over our latrine. On two occasions as I sat contemplating my position in life, meditating and trying to relax as much as possible, a helicopter took off some distance away. I could feel the picking up of the wind and gradually noticed it increased.
Greater and greater was the wind as the helicopter approached lifting gradually off the ground and then flying straight at me low to the ground. Initially I thought it was cool but then became disturbed by the dust now picking up. In swirls making loops the backwash of the propellers generated a sand storm. In horror I stared as another storm brewed.
Stuck where I was, I watched bits of toilet paper flying out of the other unoccupied toilets joining the sand whirling about me. I looked up and saw that it was just at this moment that the helicopter was hovering just above me at low altitude. I imagined I could hear laughing. I simply endured the crap storm that was flying about me.
Our home for the next couple of weeks was this area, called Camp Dogwood. The airfield stretched out before us and with what looked like a palace nearby in the distance; all was surrounded by a wall that stretched around for miles. We were told we would wait here for “awhile.”
Three or four wild dogs prowled within our area. One was a bitch with four or five pups. She was aggressive, howling most of the nights as we slept, quiet for periods of time when hunting to scavenge our food or catch something else. The fire, smoke, and stench that arose from the burn pits cast a ghostly hue to our surroundings. Gradually the smell became less intrusive as we grew used to it.
Since we were the mental health “team” we talked and generated some “morale boosting” plans. In the middle of the vehicles, we put up a tent and unloaded some of the equipment we used for presentations. A movie projector was set up that evening and “Shrek” was showed on the side of the tent. The ground and few chairs were quickly occupied and for over an hour troubles were forgotten. People smiled and laughed and were absorbed in an outdoor movie on a tent.
Towards the end of the show, a wind began to pick up and the tent waved distorting the picture. Sand started to swirl again. Some people made their way back to shelter but most stayed where they were as another storm arose. Keeping the film running off the generator and sand out of electronics was a concern, but the movie ended, with visibility diminishing by the minute. Quickly equipment was packed up, and people made their way into vehicles. Night came early, the setting sun obscured by sand and darkness.
This account focuses on leaving my home and family near Ft Lewis, and getting to Iraq, experiencing a toll both emotionally and physically. For many soldiers and other service members, the transport there and the environmental hardships were a significant part of the deployment. Building positive relationships with your fellow soldiers was key in enduring the hardships that the environment produced. Supporting others when they needed support and taking their help when needed, sharing, finding humor and building comraderie was vital in maintaining mental wellbeing.
COL Kris Peterson is a retired Army Psychiatrist. The uncertainty of going to war and his experience of being deployed early into Iraq are related here. The pre-deployment events begin in January 2003.