DATELINE — WITH THE 11th INFANTARY DIVISION, SOMEWHERE IN IRAQ.
Good morning, Men’s Fitness, Gear, and Power Yachting readers. Or should I say good night, because the time here is so different from what it is there. I am embedded with the 11th Infantry Division, which we all just refer to around here as “The 11th.” It is impossible for me know what time it is for you, where you are. It has been said that “In war, truth is the first casualty,” but for me it has often been knowing what time it is. The fog of war.
What I do know is that I am writing to you, live, from somewhere in or near Iraq. That’s somewhere “in-country,” or “near-country,” and that “country” is “in” or “near” the country of “Iraq.” I am not at liberty to divulge my exact location — that is classified. So I understood when our CO (Commanding Officer) thought it best I not be allowed to even know our location, or his name, or my location within our location, because that might endanger my fellow grunts (infantrymen). It’s just SOP (Standard Operating Procedure.)
What I can tell you is that we are in the desert. There is little doubt about that, because there is sand everywhere. In fact, it would be hard to overstate how much sand. If you guessed, say, billions and billions and billions of pieces of sand, you might not be too far off, either way. But nobody would probably know anyway. That’s just part of war. You take your best guess, you don’t turn on your brights.
Another thing about this desert, this sand, this most conflicted conflict, is there are sometimes swirling sand storms. These storms are like the rain or snow storms we have back home, where it is safe, but these are storms of sand. When they happen, you need your MOPPS (Mission Oriented Protective Posture Suit — $565, Dow Chemical Military Uniform Division). There is simply no way to describe the sand. It even gets in your NVG’s (Night Vision Goggles — $1,252, Raytheon), and under your cover (hat — $26, Old Navy).
But even though we’re out here somewhere in the desert, it’s not really about the sand, which is, like I said, everywhere. It’s about the soldiers. I can’t say enough about these guys. When you’re not embedded, you tend to just see them as GI’s (Government Issue, slang for people in the military), or scary people with bad haircuts who always seem to live in Texas. But when you’re somewhere in the desert, and there’s the possibility of H2H (Hand-to-Hand combat), or CQB (Close Quarters Combat), or GPB’s (General Purpose Bombs), they’re no longer GI’s, they’re men you’ve come to know, respect, rely on, your buddies, your brothers, your cousins. Your dawgs.
When you’re in the suck (loud noises, explosions, people trying to kill you), you trust each other with your lives, even if you, specifically, are not trusted to know where you are, which is completely understandable.
If you haven’t been through war, you won’t ever know what it’s like. No, not ever. But wartime is very much like a bonding experience. These guys have accepted me as one of their own. Like just last night. It was 0–900 Zulu (about 9:20 PM), and some Leathernecks (Marines) and I had just finished eating some MRE’s (Meal Ready To Eat — $45/case, Hormel). I retired to my hooch (two-man tent — $256, Wilson Military Supply) and was sitting on my rack (bed — $425, Allied Army, Ltd.), when I decided to go to the head (bathroom), with my new RNET (Remington Nose and Ear Trimmer — $13.50, Shaverware.Com, www.shaverware.com/remingtonnose3).
Just as I got in there, I heard someone yell “RPG!” (Rocket Propelled Grenade — $1,250, Heckler & Koch). This wasn’t Journalist Boot Camp. This wasn’t profiling Jennifer Aniston. This was like movies like Platoon, but real, and sandy. I didn’t have to time think. I didn’t even have time to pull up my fatigues (pants — $127, Spiewak). I came running out the egress (exit), which wasn’t easy, because I was totally FAR (Fatigues Around Ankles).
Apparently, the RPG must have been some sort of NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical Weapon — call for price, Union Carbide), because someone put a gunny sack (canvas carry-all — $12, IKEA) over my head and pulled it really tight, obviously to keep out poisonous gas. Then I felt myself get pushed into some sort of pool of water right behind the latrine. That must have been because RPG was FI (Fire Incendiary). I never actually heard the explosion, but that probably occurred when my head was pushed down in the water and held there for a few seconds. Those guys saved my life.
Coming that close to being WIA (Wounded In Action), I’d never been so happy to be alive. When I finally managed to get the sack off my head, I could tell the guys in my unit felt the same way. They were all around me smiling and laughing. We were all smiling and laughing. One soldier, a young man from Oregon who had, until then, made many, many jokes at my expense, had the biggest grin. “Look at the ASSWIPE!” (Amphibious Surface To Surface Writer Idiot Person), he said. I smiled back. But the reporter in me had to ask: “How do you feel?” He slapped me. Hard. I never knew my father, but then, there, I thought I had an idea of what it might have been like to know him.
Then I showered up, watered my Victory Garden, and went back to my hooch. I’d never felt as close to a bunch of guys as that night, not even the night of my brother’s — my real brother, Tim — bachelor party in Las Vegas. “Semper Fi.” (Marine saying, Latin I think, maybe German, but untranslatable, more of a feeling, you just have it or you don’t. Like courage, or great abs.)
As is our BDR (Basic Daily Routine), we were up early the next day, moving out at 0–600 Zulu (about 7:15 AM). There wasn’t much going on, but it’s times like this that men really bond. After the previous night, there was just a closeness that’s hard to explain to civvies (civilians). It might sound like idle chatter — “Where you from?” “You got a lady back home?” that kind of thing, but it’s not. It’s the way we deal, the way we heal. I was just commenting on this when some guys assigned to make sure I didn’t accidentally throw away our supply of potable (drinkable) water again suggested I’d be safer by myself in the back of a HUMVEE (High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle — $116,000, AM General Hummer). I didn’t have to say thanks, so I didn’t.
One thing you soon realize about war is that when you’re kind of itchy, you know you’re alive, still in the thick of it. As I sat in the Hummer, rolling through the desert, like thunder — not even thinking about the state of my hair — the air-raid siren, an EWA (Early Warning Alarm,) sounded. We had incoming. Again. Bastards.
My battalion stopped, and the men sprang into position. I couldn’t be sure if we were being targeted by AAMs (Air-to-Air Missiles), AGMs (Air-to-Ground Missiles), AIMs (Air Intercept Missiles), ALARMs (Air-Launched Anti-Radiation Missiles) or ALCMs (Air-Launched Cruise Missiles). A soldier grabbed me and got me out of the Hummer, pronto (right away). I immediately asked him about the THREATCON (Threat Condition), but he apparently wasn’t familiar with the term, because he didn’t answer. Maybe I mispronounced it.
He motioned for me to crouch down alongside him behind the Hummer. Pretty quickly, though, he stood up, motioned for me to SLAS (Stay Low And Still), and ran around to the front. I lost sight of him, but I was under orders to SLAS. And then, there, at that moment, I was alone. I would be lying if I said I didn’t take stock of my life, that I didn’t consider several women I had been really fortunate to sleep with, one an actress, and the three or more who were still on my list. Minutes seemed to pass in hours, and seconds in minutes. Finally, the THREATCONN must have abated (stopped).
Yet again, we’d survived another true, gripping, real moment of real war. I was gazing somehow both vacantly and contemplatively into the desert sky, when I heard the engines start up. Apparently, we were pressing on, for our purposes here, let’s say East-ish.
At least the 11th was; as says their motto, “Faster, Faster, Kill, Kill.” And that’s no joke. Because while I was still SLAS, my own Hummer started rolling. I didn’t know what to do. After a few seconds, I just made an ED (Executive Decision) to break SLAS. At this point, my Hummer, and most of the Division, was about 50 yards ahead of me. I started running. Really hard.
But I quickly grew tired, and my foot helmets (boots — $375, Prada) began to hurt. It was clear that even though some vehicles were actually coming up on me from behind, with all the dust being kicked-up, my guys just couldn’t see me. Soon my unit was just a sandy cloud on the horizon.
Again, I was alone.
Again, I noticed all the sand, how much of it there was.
From there, things could’ve gotten ugly for me. Or worse. But luckily I was picked up by a unit from the 7th Cav (Calvary). They’ve got some embeds too, but they’re from Fox News Channel, and were armed, and no matter what they say, I wasn’t crying when they found me. We’re all scheduled to hook up with The 11th tommorrow … Yeah, tomorrow. Funny, suddenly not always being exactly sure how to spell that word doesn’t seem all that important anymore.