Everything is a choice.
On the morning of January 16th, 1991, almost exactly 18 years after I was conceived, Sergeant Shaq woke us with my beeping watch in his hand and we got into the Humvee and turned the glow plugs and ignited the engine and looked up and saw dozens of bombers and attack aircraft flying overhead, and we followed them over our heads and across the border to Iraq in front of us, and the war began.
True to the hype, we witnessed an air assault unlike the world had ever seen. I can’t say it was impressive, but I can say that I watched and listened in awe, and couldn’t imagine what it was like to be on the receiving end of that assault. Until then, no experience and no movie had prepared me for the air attack on the first day of Desert Strom. Death rained from above. Bombers bombed, Specter gunships blasted gatling guns and howitzers, Apache helicopers launched their versions of TOWS, and new, highly publicized smart bombs navigated through Iraqi anti-aircraft guns and found small bunker openings no larger than a wombat, and it was incessant and coordinated and I though I don’t know why, I felt saddened instead of invigorated, like when I had felt hearing that Big Daddy had been rough on my dad. I couldn’t imagine anyone living through that air assault.
The French were too far away to see, but we relayed radio signals from station to station using our meager 3-5 mile range, and we received a signal that we should proceed. Like most of us, I had suspected to attack aggressively, like in the movies, but we crept along, barely moving, inching along so slowly that Achmed the Lizard was unpreturbed by the negligible wind on the hood of our Humvee. Mine fields blocked our way, and with our meager radios with only 3-5 miles of range we were unsure what laid ahead, so we crept forward and stopped every hour so people could take turns urinating and leaders to confer with maps and radio chatter. By the end of the first day, we had barely progressed, and we stopped in the evening and dug in and prepared for a possible counter attack, and no one slept because we had gone to 50% awake at all times, and the air attack was still raging and bombs were exploding where we were headed, and gatling guns rattled and kept us alert and made our minds race.
We crept forward the next day, but were directed to move faster so we called a Volcano team from the rear, and they towed their Volcano forward and launched 100 yard cables lined with explosives and blew up the mines in a narrow strip in front of us. They moved forward 100 yards and we followed in a more narrowly focused formation, and everyone repeated this process for several hours. We were still behind, and our squad was sent to scout ahead for the entire allied force; 550,000 people were behind us and waiting, we felt, and we focused as if our lives and theirs depended on us. In a way, it was true. No one knew what to expect, and we’d be the first to see it and report.
Begrudenly, Hermie set Achmed free. His V had faded and he seemed healthy enough to survive, and we couldn’t justify any distractions. We were tired after two days of no sleep and constant movement and coordinated fuel stops and hiegene challenges, but that doesn’t begin to describe the mental fatigue of being constantly alert and ready for a counter attack. No one knew what to expect, and we kept moving forward.
We drove at about 10 miles per hour, speeding compared to the day before, and were headed towards an elevated highway in the distance. It was a major road, built on a bern to minimize being covered by blowing dust, and we couldn’t see over it. Our mission was to see if the road would be safe for the convoy. Scattered between us and the bern were a few dozen blown up anti-aircraft bunkers, and we stopped a few times to inspect the damage and look for survivors. There never were any. Instead, every bunker smelled of decaying bodies and was a smoldering pile of scattered debris from Iraqi weapons and whatever supplies they had stored in their bunkers for the previous four months. The soldiers were dessimated, ripped into pieces and littered around the bunker like carnage outside of a mythical beast’s cave. It was obvious that some had been trying to run away but had been caught in the carange and had died lunging forward, as if the extra few inches could have spared their lives. It was at our first bunker that I took my first photo with my disposable camera, a snapshot of Sgt. Shaq and another squad leader gesturing at a partially intact anti aircraft gun with a mutilated body that, if we were to guess, had been clinging to the gun and resisting to the final moment, a hero in any other circumstance, and nothing more than a photo opportunity for the winning team.
I snapped the photo and reached down to pick up an unexploded anti aircraft bullet. It was longer than my hand and more like a small missile than a bullet.
“Partin!” I heard Sgt. Weber shout. “Put that down!”
I dropped it and he looked at it and shouted for me to get down, and I did, automatically and without thought, even in the middle of a war.
“Do you know what the fuck that was?”
“Yes, Sergeant. It’s an 88 round.” It was an 88 mike mike, an 88 milimeter anti aircraft round I had read about somewhere and had wanted to inspect. But, my Louisiana accent pronounced it wihtout the “T” sound in eighty-eight, but with a “D” sound, like in Baton Rouge. He heard me say it was an ay-dee-ay round.
“ADA? American with fucking Disabilities Act? Goddamnit Dolly, Push!”
And I pushed, realizing he was mistaken and embarrassed that I was doing pushups and that my team was watching me.
“Do you even know how it’s detonated, Dolly? You could have killed your team!”
His questions were rhetorical, and no one interrupted and he told me to get up and shouted to Skinny Foster that it was his job to ensure I’d stop fucking up.
An 88 mm round was safe. The firing pin was dented and therefore had been a misfire. Some types of ammunition, though, could still detonate. The MK19 was an example, because it was propelled by an initial strike that sent the grenade spiraling forward but didn’t arm the explosive part until an internal mechanism rotated through a couple of dozen rotations. Skinny had read that in the MK19 manual – few people had read it – and we had discussed why that was the case, and he had said it was to prevent short range explosions that could kill the gunner or your team by not arming the grenade until is was downrange. The 88mm didn’t have that feature, according to some Iraqi weapon manuals Skinny gave me, and I had wanted to see it and understand why it hadn’t fired and to envision what the Iraqi hero was thinking as he kept shooting at an overwhelming air attack. When Sgt. Weber had shouted at me, I was lost in thought and had dropped out of reflex, but something was amiss and I was thinking about that until I was interrupted and lost those thoughts because I was embarrassed and because it was really hard to do pushups in all that gear, so my mind focused on minimizing dust in my ammo pouches rather than finishing my thought on the 88mm round.
Sgt. Weber stormed off and Skinny and I chatted and I calmed down and he agreed that something was amiss that he couldn’t articulate, either, and then he and Hermie and Shaq joked about my accent. They knew I had said 88 and Weber had heard ADA, and they knew I knew as much about weapons by then as they did because I spent time with Skinny. Shaq said he’d talk to Weber when things calmed down, and that I was okay with them, and everyone agreed and I felt remarkably like I had in my early days of my wrestling team, making mistakes but being trusted and coached. We loaded up in our Humvee and lamented the loss of Achmed the Lizard and moved forward towards the bern, and I silently mouthed 88 mike slowly, deliberately, trying to articulate each sylable and avoid the same mistake again. EighTy EighT Mike Mike, I said again and again.
Stand down was approaching, but no one knew what to do about it when we were moving, so we kept moving and summited the bern and saw thousands of dead bodies flayed across the asphalt. Pockets of melted tar dotted the highway, and abandoned Iraqi vehicles lay in ruins for as far as our eyes and binoculars could see. The bodies had already dried out in the desert heat, and the skin on each was stretched tautly. All had looks of horror and despiration, and many were lunging for a few more inches of distance between them and the vehicles that had been targeted by our planes. Later, we would debrief and presume that the anti-aircraft heroes were trying to give just a little bit of extra time to their teams so they could escape. They sacrificed their lives so others may live. I didn’t know if Iraq had a version of Arlington cemetery, but I felt that if anyone deserved to be honored, it was anyone who stood in the face of our air attack and knew they’d die but didn’t back down so that a convoy of their commrades could get a slightly better chance of surviving.
None of them had survived. For miles and miles, we saw nothing but decimated vehicles and decomposing bodies. We were silent, then Hermie shouted.
“Oh shit! Tanks!”
A company of Iraqi tanks was on the far side of the berm and moving towards us. Shaq shouted to turn around and to open fire, and Hermie accelerated onto the road to enable us turning around, and we heard Iraqi helmets crunch under our wheels and the sound of Skinny loading a round in the .50 cal we had ended up with, and suddenly our Humvee was rocking to thunderous rounds of a .50 cal shooting 1,800 rounds a minute with armor piercing rounds. Hermie was skidding on debris and body parts and Shaq was shouting into the radio and Skinny was firing bursts and trying to stay on target as Hermie drove us away.
“Ammo!” Shaq shouted at me while he held the radio mike in his hand and simultaneously shouted to Sgt. Weber what was happening. I bounced around and stuggled to grasp a .50 cal ammo box and get it through the rooftop gunner’s hatch and resupply Skinny. We both banged around and slid and struggled, and the .50 fired it’s last round and I held up the opened box and Skinny tried to reload but couldn’t with us slipping and sliding across bodies and between vehicles, and T54 and 55 shells exploded near us and I knew how many rounds they could fire per minute and that we were well within range; and, just like I had felt when the SCUD missile hit, I felt sure we were about to die, and I allowed myself to feel peace.
Suddenly, an American M1 Abrams tank appeared in my peripherial vision and it was racing towards us and hit the berm at full speed and went up and launched into air above the road and piles of bodies and its turret rotated in mid air and it’s cannon began pelting the T54’s and T55’s with armor piercing 25mm rounds.
It wasn’t an M1 Abrams, it was a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the M133. The M1 Abrams was a tank with a 105mm cannon; the Bradly was an armored personnel carrier that looked like a tank and had a 25mm cannon capable of shooting 200-300 rounds per minute, and, like us, it carried TOW missiles. Both were supporting us, and my swapping the names was probably driven by what I assumed would be my final thoughts, and those thoughts were of Mrs. Abrams.
But we didn’t die that day. A lot more Iraqis would, especially when the full companies of Bradleys and M1’s came racing over the berm and decimated the aging soviet tanks and everyone in them. The T54 and 55 rounds bounced off of M1 Abrams, and those tank pilots would rotate their 105mm cannon and quickly pick off tanks in the distance. The Bradleys took care of nearby tanks and a few straggling bunker guns. After the battle, when we grouped to perform an After Action Review, the image of Mrs. Abrams saving me was so strong that I continued to swap Bradley and Abrams names, and almost like a joke my teammates would know what I meant, similar to how they joked about my ADA antiaircraft guns, and together we decided how to proceed.
The Bradleys, the armored personnel carries with TOW’s, would remain closer and plow through the dead bodies. Their 25mm cannon was perfectly suited to nearby threats, and the Bradley’s armor was infinitely more protective than our flimsy Humvees, especially with the gunner sitting on top without any protection from even the smallest caliber weapon. An Iraqi with a slingshot could take out Skinny, a point he liked to make clear when our Lieutenant and the Bradley leaders were plotting our path.
We were running low on ammunition, but that was a good thing for me because I had more space sitting on top of ammo cans and MRE’s. I was sore and tired and wanted to stretch, but didn’t complain, especially because being cramped inside the Humvee was better than sitting on top and being vulnerable to sling shots.
With my new freedom, I watched through the front winshield as Bradley’s drove over Iraqi bodies. In a surreal manner, the horror changed to a type of apathy similar to the boredom I had expressed before. One Bradley began doing donuts on the pavement, forcing one set of treads in reverse and the other forward to make tight circles and slinging blood and body parts out of their way while their gunner, who poked his head through their armored turret, laughed. Hermie responded by rev’ing our Humvee’s engine, and we entered a improved race. The Bradley was said to max out at 80 mph, but when we were going that fast they blew past us as if we were standing still, so perhaps military specifications aren’t always accurate.
The next three days progressed similarly, with unusual adaptations that allowed thousands of us to pee and poo while moving through mine fields and surrounded by enemies. The details are irrelevant and changed daily, anyway; but, all of us became used to seeing each other squat in the desert in full chemo suits while our friends stood guard. I wrote letters to the Abrams around time, using plays on words, like comparing my deuces, our slang for dropping a #2 in the bathroom, to a deuce and a half truck because eating chicken and rice for a month had blocked me up so much. I drew sketches of the holes we dug to drop deuces and how, because of the raging desert winds, I had to stand two feet away and let Kentucky windage carry my deuce to it’s hole. In days of war, sometimes we need small things to make us smile, and I took a photo of a deuce in the hole that I was particularly proud of because of the harsh winds and sand that had blinded me from my target. And, inside the hole, dozens of dung beatles instantly bore through the sides of the hole and dropped in on my deuce like paratroopers falling on a target. “No shit!” I wrote, and included sketches of the hole, dung beatles, and an elaborate physics formula showing the parabolic arch of my deuce from two feet away. I even included crude analysis that calculated the surface area of a deuce and the wind force necessary to push it two feet horizontally during a two foot vertical fall, and I was surprised to find that my calculation, 40 mph, was surprisingly close to weather reports listed in our briefings, and I asked them to share that with my physics teacher. I had gotten wiser, though, and chose not to decorate the outside of their envelope with my artistic renderings of pooping in combat.
On March 3rd, 1991, we were directed to approach Khamisiyah Airport deep in Iraq territory. The plan was to capture the airport and use it to fly in supplies and as a staging area for the 82nd to load onto planes and parachute into a Baddhad airport and capture it and lead the way for overtaking the country. We were to be first in, and probably last out. We were tired and hadn’t slept measurable amounts in four days, napping at quick stops at night and while people pooped in the daytime. We joked often, because that was better than the alternative, and to help us stay awake a few of us began checking in on our own radio frequency. I had suggested 5150, the new Van Halen album that was pronounced Fifty One Fifty and was simply the address of their recording studio, and everyone agreed and we would do hourly radio checks on the frequencies that changed daily based on shared codes, and fifteen minutes later we’d check in with each other on 5150. Just for a minute, too fast to be triangulated and discovered, and never for anything serious or using our names in case enemies were listening, but just quick jokes or banter to know we weren’t alone. In that banter, my nickname became “Secret Agent,” pronounced with an exagggerated southern accent and referencing the James Bond film set in Louisiana, Live or Let Die, where the southern sheriff kept calling Agent 007 a “See-cret Aaygent.” I told the Abrams that, and resisted the urge to sign my return address as Secret Agent Partin.
Sgt. Weber and Shaq still called me Dolly, and when we encountered a fortified bunker en route to Khamisiya, Weber and Shaq discussed the situation briefly and Shaq shouted, “Dolly. Foster. You’re up.”
We didn’t know how many people were inside the bunker, and we were now far from our Bradley and Abrams support; though tanks aren’t effective against a dug in bunker, anyway. We debated on calling in a “bunker buster,” one of the new types of bombs specifically designed for the heavily dug in Iraqis. One could penetrate through 30 feet of rock and concrete and burst into the bunker and presumably kill everyone inside, and the other exploded nearby with a fireball so enormous it consumed all nearby oxygen and suffocated people inside. We’d never discuss why Foster and I were chosen over bunker busters. Partly it was time; we were under orders and in a hurry to reach Khamisiya, and every time we began the process of relaying radio messages for air support we’d loose precious hours. But, I would always remember that we had spent less and less time calling in random bombings, and after seeing nothing but death and suffering day and night we were tired. We were good men, and I sensed that we wanted to give others a chance to live.
I’m unsure why Foster and I were selected. Later, people would joke that of course we’d send in Skinny Foster and Secret Agent; he was thin enough to navigate through bunkers built for relatively diminutive Iraqis – on average, American soldiers were about 4” taller and 40 pounds heavier than Iraqi’s – and I was the youngest therefore should be first in. It was known that leaders are supposed to lead, hence the infantry motto of “Follow Me!” but that in airborne history, we knew privates went first; the Fort Bragg practice drop zone is named Private John McCall airfield after the first paratrooper to die in combat, and Private McCall died standing in the door after his leader told him to jump first. But, in reality, Foster had four years of history with D-Company and was revered as much for his marksmanship as his knowledge of military history – he was the one who told us about McCall – and his calm demeaner.
He was temperate – a word others would use to describe him years later – and that’s what’s most important with new situations that no one understands and many lives depend on you. Skinny had been nominated for the 82nd’s soldier of the year before, no small feat considering there are 12,000 paratroopers to choose from, but he didn’t maximize his physical fitness test and had instead coached the other nominee on battle history and tacticts to prepare for reviews.
He knew his stuff.
As for me, I was his team mate and he trusted me and I trusted him, and by March 4th even Sgt. Weber had stopped reacting to my mispronunciations and swapping tank names and had let me make more and more decisions without explaining myself. I had proven to be reliable, and that’s a story upon iteself, and this isn’t the time.
Shaq and Weber let Skinny and me chat quickly. We chose weapons. Our M16’s weren’t designed for bunkers or urban warfare, where soldiers poked around corners more often than not, they were designed for long range shooting, and trying to aim the long barrels in close quarters was awkward and therefore dangerous. Shaq offered his M203, but Skinny pointed out that the kill radius could harm us, too, especially because we didn’t know what it would look like deep inside the bunker. Sgt. Weber’s vehicle had a shotgun, which we thought was ironic because it was against war codes because it was too harmful, and the concept of war codes seemed ridiculous to each and every one of us by then, because we no longer cared. Skinny chose the Berretta, and I chose the shotgun.
To my surprise, Skinny suggested going first. He was thin, and we had learned that Iraqi bunkers often had several sharp turns that made navigating inside difficult, especially with combat vests on. I didn’t argue. We took positions outside of the opening, and he said in Arabic to surrender, that we wouldn’t harm them. No one answered, but we heard the movement and scuffling of several people and knew we’d be entering their defensive space, the most risky way to approach anyone, especially armed soldiers.
Skinny went low around the corner and I went high, and we saw a corridor barely illuminated by daylight and another corner at the end. It was about ten feet away, and we crept along and paused before the corner. Skinny lowered his NODS and turned on the small infrared light on his and so did I, and when he looked back at me I was blinded. The light is miniscule, but because NODS amplify even the tiniest of light to bright levels I was blinded as if staring into a cars headlights or a hunting headlamp and I couldn’t see. Even when he looked away, my pupils had dialated so much that I was still rendered blind. No one had considered that – we were all new to this – and on impulse I turned off my infrared light so I wouldn’t blind Skinny.
There were more than a dozen witnesses to what happened over the next few minutes, though only Skinny and I would be inside the bunker. We’d have an After Action Review, and the only thing everyone else was certain about was that we were inside the bunker for approximately two minutes and that we exited with fourteen of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard as our prisoners, and that former Navy SEAL and professional wrestler Jesse The Body Ventura was never inside the bunker; I’ll explain that in a moment.
I’ve tried to describe those two minutes with close friends and family for 40 years and have yet to find the words. Many of those stories evolved over the years based on pop culture references, and I’ve yet to find the perfect example. It’s more a conversation based on what another person believes or has experienced, and as a 50 years old man I still don’t have the words. My memory isn’t reliable for this two minutes. But, I have no doubt that everything’s a choice, which is the only advice Granny ever gave me, other than to invest wisely.
Granny had always bought me book club subscriptions, like The Hardy Boys and the related “how to” books on becoming a detective, and the “Encyclopedia Brown” series about a kid detective nicknamed “Encyclopedia” Brown, who could solve crimes with his knowledge of science, history, pschycology, and history; if he used his library card and differed judgement until he understood the situation; his books were “choose your own adventure,” and you’d often be able to jump back and forth in chapters and choose what you’d like to read. I believe that everything’s a choice, and in the chapter, “Two Minutes,” I’ll try to describe those two minutes half a century later.
In a way, that’s the story.
What was witnessed and documented is that we exited the bunker and were almost shot by a few of our own men whose names I won’t repeat; we were all tired and on edge and no one knew what was going on. Skinny calmed them and said everything would be fine and that we were backing out and that many men were following. He said they should be unarmed, but to be prepared just in case, but he emphasized that we should be fine. Skinny had always shared military history with us, and emphasized that in every U.S. military action since the beginning of our country, we lost more Americans to friendly fire and accidents than to the enemy. No doubt, he didn’t want to become a statistic, and he seemed to put as much effort into calming our fatigued colleagues as he had into focusing on entering the bunker. Skinny had a history of calming that team, thankfully.
Our platoons secured the prisoners by binding their hands with zip ties, and we made a large circle of consentena wire and directed them to kneel inside. While that was happening, Sgt. Weber debriefed Skinny and me, and though Skinny did most of the talking I interrupted and asked about Arnold and Jesee. He didn’t know what I was talking about, and a few guys joked that I had lost my mind.
Sgt. Weber assigned a few guards to watch the prisoners and he and the LT got on the radio to update company headquarters, and a small group of us reentered the bunker with flashlights to inspect for information that could help us capture Khamisiyah.
The movie poster that Skinny had somehow missed was placed in the doorway and was obvious with our flashlights. It was a life sized torso of Arnold Swartzenegger in the 1985 film Commando. This was before he’d become governor of California, when he’d have the nickname The Governator based on his Terminator film series. He was probably the most well known action hero of my time, and in the Commando poster his bulging biceps held a big knife and his enormous chest was decorated in a combat vest with a few grenades dangling from it. He was a former Mr. Universe, a veriable stark raving badass, and in the Commando poster he was holding a machine gun and wearing a similar combat vest as us. I would never learn why they put it there, and we were split about whether it had been a moral boosting joke for the 14 men living there, or had been placed in the doorway to terrify anyone foolish enough to peek inside.
My mind must have augmented the Commando movie poster with Arnold’s 1987 Predator film, starring Jesee The Body Ventura before he’d become governor of Minnesota. At the time, Jesse was a famous professional wrestler, known for being a former navy SEAL. Though he wasn’t on the Predator movie poster, my mind placed him there, perhaps because I related to him and his wrestling background. I’m pretty sure that the movie Predator had been on the back of my mind, because in the film a group of commandos faced an alien predator who hunts humans with technology that allowed him to see infrared and in pitch black, just like our nightime TOW sites and NODS, and the movie images seen through the alien’s eyes were remarkably like the real world images I had been seeing every night for months. My mind did whatever it had to do to make sense of the moment, and I had turned that corner having seen through my NODS that Arnold and Jesee would have my back.
Inside the bunker we found stockpiles of canned tomatoes and paprika by their stove, and another pile of discarded uniforms. Our prisoners were wearing simple uniforms typical of the ones on bodies littering the road to Khamisiyah, but the uniforms near the stove were of Saddam Hussein’s personal guard, the equivalent of a special operations unit called The Republican Guard. Beside those uniforms were boxes full of what we quickly and accurately surmised as booty from Kuwait. We had captured Saddam’s personal guard and people who had probably overseen his invasion of Kuwait, and they probably had information on Khamisiyah’s defenses.
We began unloading the bunker and going through their notes, and Shaq called me over.
“Hey, Fartin’ Partin!” Skinny had told him that I had delivered my own chemical attack inside the bunker; nicknames are more contagious than the flu.
“Come help us talk to these guys.”
He mistakenly assumed I spoke more Arabic than I did because I had practiced out loud so often when I was being loquatious, vociferous, or garrulous. We had only had written booklets and guessed at the pronunciations, but I had noticed that Arabic words and numbers sounded a lot like the Hebrew Mr. Samuel’s had taught me through his mathematical magic tricks, when he’d toss in a few words of yiddish or Hebrew. I was not an Arabic speaker, but in the land of the blind a one-eyed man is king, and I was the best we had at that time. I grabbed a notepad and pencil and sketched and gestured and listened and waited, and the mustached man nodded and pointed his nose towards one of the piles – his hands were still bound behind him – and Shaq searched that pile and we had his officer logbook.
The LT radioed higher up, and we were told to wait until morning for translators and intel people to meet us. It was becoming dusk, and we began a modified form of stand-down that we had developed over the past week, putting on the time consuming suits but leaving off the masks, which were more easily donned and only obscurred our vision and made us breath heavily. Afterwards, we kept 50% of us awake all the time and took turns napping and guarding the prisoners.
We moved their zip ties to the front of them so they could eat, and everyone donated MRE’s. I stopped AT4 and swapped a few of my chicken and rice’s for whatever they were giving to the prisoners – I don’t think that qualified as cruel and unusual punishment – and Skinny collected a few wool blankets we had salvaged from a bunker a few days before and distributed it to the prisoners. The desert gets cold at night.
I was given the least desirable guard shifts, as expected of a cherry, and soon I found myself at 1 AM standing under a receding full moon with a M16 pointed at 14 men who, only a few hours before, I would have imagined as my enemy. I looked up and quoted a line from one of the commandos in Predator, “Hello, moon. Looks like it’s just you and me.” But that wasn’t true, there were about eight of us awake then, and two on guard duty focused on the prisoners. The mustached man looked at me, and I wondered if he knew I was the one who had first spoken with him in the bunker. He hadn’t had NODS.
My shift ended and I still had an hour of being awake, and I sat down, fatigued. I set my M16 aside and took off my helmet – a luxury allowed to anyone at 2AM, I felt – and I rubbed my sore head and the surprisingly bushy hair I had grown after a couple of months of no haircuts, and I mindlessly pulled out a half dollar and played with it, like anyone with nervous energy who distracts themselves with a fidget device or chewing tobacco or any type of mindless action that distracts our thoughts. Soon, my mind calmed from focusing on the half, and I went from mindless playing to trying to do Chris Kenner’s impossible vanish and reappearance. I tried again and again, focused on my fingers rather than my sore head and tired and aching body. Eventually, I looked up and saw 14 faces illuminated by moonlight and staring at my hands, and I realized I had every practicing magician’s dream: a captive audience.
I smiled at my pun but no one smiled back. I realized they were scared. I hadn’t considered that before. I gained eye contact with the mustached man – they all had mustaches, but his was thicker and he was the tallest and he stood out – and displayed the half dollar between my right and thumb and forefinger and slowly placed it into my left hand, and then kneaded my left fist and slowly opened it to show it had vanished. All the men did something similar to gasping, but silently, except the mustached man. He and I remained in eye contact.
I rotated my right hand to show the half dollar in finger palm, and displayed it again and angled my body to show him what was happening that only I could see: The French Drop. It’s probably the most common way of vanishing a coin, and is simply pretending to take a coin displayed but actually allowing it to drop into finger palm. The hard part is timing your hands to form a fluid motion, and following the imagined coin in your left hand with your eyes and ignoring the palmed one. To really work, the magician must either deeply believe they have taken the coin and can make it vanish, or they must be excellent actors who can fake the motions so well that an audience is sure where the coin is and, because of how memories work, forget that you had transferred it from display and into your fist. The few moments of handling a closed fist were probably more important than the French Drop itself, but seeing the drop from my angle was enough for the mustached man to see what was happening. He smiled, and said something quietly, and his team relaxed.
I rotated and showed more of them the French Drop, and more smiled. Then, I vanished it differently, and they all gasped. A few were audible that time. Then I did it again, more slowly and impossibly, but smiling to let them know it was an elaborate setup. Finally, I had them focused on my fingers and looking for all possible ways I could be vanishing a coin, and I felt ready to try Kris Kenner’s impossible vanish; what had made it so impressive was knowing all the other ways it could have been done, and still being fooled.
I failed, and the coin fell to the ground. I picked it up and noticed several of my team watching me, surprised that I had been so focused for almost ten minutes.
I really enjoyed performing magic, no matter what the situation. But, I felt awkward being observed and put away my half and finished my shit and tried to nap in the two hours before my next shift.
After stand up, a few Humvees showed up with senior officers and translators and military intelligence personnel and they took our pile of things we confiscated, minus the souveneers we pilfered, like Republican Guard patches and airborne wings, Kuwaity coins, an Iraqi AM radio for personal use, and a few pamphlets teaching them what our weapons could do, similar to the pamphlets we had on them. Sgt. Weber handed them the information on Khamisiyah that the mustached man had nodded towards. The intelligence personel seemed pleased, and they held up the military ID’s we discovered hidden in a box under one of their bunks along with their personal wallets, and the photos showed our prisoners in Republican Guard uniforms and identified the mustached man as their captain. In their personal photos, almost all had families. These were career soldiers, older than I was by almost ten years, and the mustached captain had at least four children and a wife that looked like she loved him. His face saddened when an officer held up the photos and verified the photos and ID were, in fact, of our prisoner. I noticed that all of them were much, much thinner than in their photos, and I surmised that for four months they had gone hungry. Then I realized that they had been hungry and inside their bunker as the air attack rained death around them, and that if I was fatigued and farting from too much food they must be fatigued and terrified. Suddenly, I didn’t feel tough, and I kept quiet as Sgt. Weber expounded on Skinny and my bravery and bragged about me speaking Arabic. Both were exaggerations.
The prisoners were carried away and we continued on to Khamisiya. The morning air attacks had already begun, and we saw Spectres blasting whatever they were circling and several A10 Warthogs rising up into the air and diving down like a faclon or bird of prey diving on a squirel, and the gattling gun in their nose rattled and pierced through the roofs of Iraqi tanks fleeing the airport like squirels running across the ground. By the time we arrived, most vehicles were destroyed or abandoned, and our ground forces began emmerging from the deuce and a halves and Bradleys that carried them. Our gunners and a driver stayed with the Humvees to provide midrange cover for us with the .50 cals and MK19’s, and the rest of us joined on foot. The air attack moved into the distance, presumably following retreating Iraqis, and the rattling of gattling guns and explosions from 105mm Howitzers grew more faint and the sound of paratroopers shouting back and forth dominated the otherwise still airport.
Shaq joked that I had my bayonette and should be fine, and he joined Weber and I was left alone. I walked across the airport, listening to the explosions fade and watching the increasing number of American troops arriving on the airport we had just helped capture. For some reason I realized the date, March 4th, wasn’t even a year after Big Daddy’s funeral and was only a week after Hillary Clinton had broken my finger. “Hmph,” I exclaimed to no one in particular. A lot had happened. Nothing I felt was important then felt important now, and that realization was powerful. I realized that one day I’d look back on March 4th, 1991, and feel the same. It was just another day after days of challenges, and tomorrow would bring its own challenges and today only served to better prepare me for the unknown.
I walked slowly towards a soviet Mig fighter jet and, our of habit, removed my bayonete and got to one knee and was about to puncture the tires, rendering it temporarily useless like we had with several other high end weapons, and what I had started doing a few days before when we were running low on ammunition. Mine was a Vietnam era army bayonette, not the newer ones that everyone else had that was the same across all forces and modeled after the marine k-bar. Mine was thin and sharp on both sides and purpose built for piercing between rib cages; modern ones were thick and had serations on one side and looked more like Rambo’s knife. They were thick, and had holes to clip onto their sheith and form a cutting tool for consentina wire. The serations were, theoretically, for cutting down trees to make camoflauge covering for your bunker or vehicle. They dull and, in my opinion, useless in close up combat because thick blades don’t penetrate clothes or navigate between ribs or go deep into a body and make several organs bleed profusely. And they were horrible at punturing tires, and of the entire 82nd Airborne I had been the only one disabling Iraqi vehicles with my bayonette, and now I stood in front of a Mig and was about to defeat the most powerful combat jet outside of America with my knife. I smiled and thought that Big Daddy would have thought that was interesting.
A Mig is a beautiful plane. Sleek, black, and foreboding. Its capabilities were shrouded in mystery, and most people knew that because of a famous scene in 1986’s Top Gun, when Tom Cruise’s Maverick character flew upside down over a Mig and he snapped a Poloroid photo of it and flipped his middle finger at the surprised Russian pilots. I decided not to puncture the tires. It was beautiful, and no longer a threat. I stood up and stepped back and snapped a photo with my disposable camera and saw that I only had four shots left. I replaced the camera and surveyed the airport from beside the Mig, realizing how interesting life could be if you paid attention to your memories and looked around now and then. I had become, by every definition I knew, a war hero just like the people I had seen in films for years. I had experienced what few had, and I was standing beside what even intelligence officers didn’t understand, and I had done it without killing anyone. Everything was fine, and I felt more relaxed than I had since before joining the army and I was sitting on Mrs. Abrams sofa watching movies on their big television.
Shaq called me over and said plans had changed. Iraq surrendered, and we wouldn’t be going to Bagdhad. I felt disappointed, like a lot of us who had been bored or apathetic or simply wanting to do our job as best we could. He said we were ordered to destroy the airport so it couldn’t be used against us later, and all across the airfields our soldiers were loading back into deuces and Humvees and driving away.
Our job was to provide security for the combat engineering compay to set explosives. They were the ones who had overseen the Volcano a few days earlier, and had followed us closely since. They worked quickly and we stayed nearby, partially facinated by all the explosives they were rigging and partially watching into the distance for surprise counter attacks; even though we knew the war was over, we didn’t know if all of the Iraqi soldiers knew that.
I didn’t tell anyone, but I felt saddened watching them rig the Mig with explosives. It really is a beautiful plane, and I had shared a memorable moment with it.
The engineers finished and we all pulled back and one of our officers called in an air strike with a 15,000 pound bomb timed to detonate with the engineer’s ground explosives. As it’s name implies, a 15,000 pound bomb is big and powerful, and a C-130 carried it over Khamisiya and dropped it by parachute, and soon we saw a brilliant flash of light obscure the horizon and heard a deafening explosion and felt waves ripple through our bodies and rattle loose equipment in our vehicles. A giant mushroom cloud reminiscent of a nuclear explosion formed. Shaq and Timmy were so impressed that they couldn’t stop laughing from the sheer overwhelming special. I snapped a photo.
“Man,” Timmy began in his cheerful, singsong voice that told us he was about to rap.
“I’ve been a lot of places, and I’ve seen a lot of things. I’ve been to Maine, Spain, and Spokane; went to war, jumped out of a plane. But brother, I ain’t ever seen no shit like this!”
We all laughed, and, grateful for the release of pressure, we began sharing our favorite song bytes. We had plenty of time now, having been told to hurry up and wait until the explosions were over, and we doubted there were any threats nearby. We could use a break.
When my turn came, I told them about 5150 and how a few of us had been using that as a personal radio channel, and Timmy thought that was brilliant and said he’d start joining in. But, Van Halen under Sammy Hagar didn’t have as many catchy sound bites relevant to us, unlike David Lee Roth’s Jump and Panama, and mostly I listened to heavy metal with friends or electronic dance music when jumping rope, and all I could think to contribute was two songs from my senior prom only ten months prior: “Can’t Touch This” and “Ice Ice Baby,” by MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice. Both began with “Stop!” though Hammer’s continued with “Hammer Time!” and Vanilla Ice’s with “Collaborate and listen!” and then he tells a story of rolling down the street in his Mustang 5.0 convertible, pronounced Five Point Oh in street slang.
“Wait wait wait!” Timmy said, laughing so hard we laughed with him in anticipation. He straightened up, collected his breath, and rapped to the beat of Vanilla Ice.
Rollin’, in my Humvee TOW;
The hatch is open so my hair can blow.
Iraqi’s, on the stand by,
Waitin’ just to say hi.
Do we stop and shoot?
No, we just drive by.
We were all laughing so hard that we must have fulled him to continue, and he did.
Stop! Collaborate and listen;
AT-4’s on a brand new mission!
Rollin’ in my HumVee daily and nightly,
When we gonna stop?
I don’t know,
Just put on your NODS, and let’s go!
We all joined in humming the easily repeated beat of Ice Ice Baby, and we’d all laugh at the irony of stopping because our radios erupted and we were called on a brand new mission. As we drove away, I glanced at the mushroom cloud behind us and watched it only just begin to change shape and blow away in the wind.
We’d be called for several new missions seemingly every few moments for a long time. The war may have ended, but few Iraqi’s had received the word and we’d spend two more months there, not unlike the more famous end of the second Gulf War when President Bush Junior stood on an aircraft carrier in a pilot’s uniform and told America the war was over 12 years before our troops withdrew. We were tasked with escorting the hundreds of thousands of support troops that had joined us in the front back to the rear. First in, last out, as the saying goes. Of those two months, two events remain ingrained in my memory and would shape who I am as much as preserving the Mig or wrestling Hillary Clinton.
The first happend a week after we blew up Khamisiya. We were escorting a convoy of deuce supply trucks and they were stopped for the evening, and we drove in a wide perimeter and found safe hills to oversee our convoy and look off into the distance. A small village was nearby, probably Kurds who lived in central Iraq. But what worried us was the company of Iraqi armored carriers outside of their town. We had seen a few straggling teams recently, and all had ignored us and we were under strict, unambiguous orders to not fire upon them unless fired upon. We learned that many units knew the war was over and we were retreating – the plan had always been to get Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, not to take over Iraq, and they knew that. We were told that old rivalries within the Iraqi people were surfacing, and that Saddam had ordered retribution against the Kurds and Chaldeans who were not the same sect of Islam as him and that he and other fundamentalist viewed as unfaithful to Iraq and, worse yet, why they had lost the war. Kurds were said to have helped us, and they had become targets for surviving Iraqi soldiers. We sat on our hill and knew those words, but didn’t understand it or feel it deeply yet.
A old, rusted civilian truck approached. A handful of men were in back, dressed in traditional desert robes, and two drove. The driver and passenger got out and held up their hands and spoke to Shaq. He called me over, though that wasn’t necessary. The driver spoke better English than many of my southern friends. The passenger was an old man partially blinded by cateracts and he stared forward and didn’t speak at first. The men in back of the truck had gotten out and were standing in the distance, their faces showing and their hands outstretched to hold their robes open and to not be a threat. To be sure, our gunners kept .50 cals sited on them.
The driver introduced themselves and said that the men in said the Iraqis outside their village would kill them, and he asked for our help. Shaq said we couldn’t, that we were under orders not to. The driver said he knew that, and repeated that they would be killed and asked for our help. Shaq apologized and said he couldn’t. The driver conferred with the passenger and I had no idea what they said, but the driver turned back to us and said in a humble yet brave voice, “Please, then, just give us weapons so we can defend ourselves.”
Shaq said no, and after a few comments I don’t recall I pulled out my camera. One of our guys said I hadn’t been in any photos and took it from me and I stood with my team and the Kurds and our guy snapped the photo, and they loaded back into their old rusted truck and drove home.
That night we watched the Iraqis rain death on that village. They left before sunrise.
In the morning we radioed in and received permission to inspect the village. Almost everyone was dead. The driver was alive and covered in blood, and he held his young daughter in his arms and bellowed in sadness and anger and despair. Her leg was missing, presumably taken off by the soviet .51 caliber machine guns we had heard going off the night before. I was behind a .50 cal on guard duty, and our guys rushed around and did what little first aid they could on survivors, because though people morn their dead, survivors still have a fighting chance. I didn’t see the old man with cateracts, and I wouldn’t have recognized the men who had been in back of the rusted truck, but I will never forget the driver bellowing in anguish, nor will I forget his simple plea to have weapons to defend his people, nor our refusal to do so.
We received orders to move out, and our priority was getting the supply trucks safely out of Iraq and back to Saudi Arabia. We followed orders and left people to die.
I became reticent after that. So did others. Even Timmy stopped joking. That night, the convoy stopped and we patrolled the area and saw no one else, and because the terrain was flat it made sense to be closer to the convoy. They were a national guard unit that had been called up to support the allied forces build up – when America stopped the draft, the national guard and reserves were seen as an obvious way to quickly increase troops. They were having a party to celebrate going home, and had taken tires from Iraqi vehicles that, ironically, I had punctured almost two weeks before, and set fire to them and huddled around the burning rubber and said how cold it got in the desert at night and told stories about how they had shot a few Iraqi enemies and had never imagined being war heroes. I remained silent, remarkably so, and people who had called me loquatious asked if I was ok. I said yes, just tired, and that was mostly true. But, what I was reticent to discuss was a new thought in my mind, above whether or not you could kill someone directly and focused on what it means to be able to stop someone from being killed but choosing not to.
I recalled the lesson from the Centroplex, the shooter who said that a gun was a strong motivation but ultimately everything’s a choice. I agreed. Shaq was mistaken; it wasn’t that we couldn’t have helped them, we chose to not deal with consequences of helping them. In the absolute worse case, we’d be court martialed and demoted. We chose to allow that little girl’s leg to be blown off and for her to bleed to death while her father held her in his arms, unable to defend his people. My mind wasn’t forming those words, but I felt them and didn’t want to talk with anyone about how I felt. Instead, I remained silent and observed how others were dealing with the war, especially those who hadn’t seen what I had seen. I felt they were talking about how coins disappeared even though they had only seen the French Drop from the front, but I had seen war from more angles and therefore knew that nothing was as it seemed at first. Like all things, I assumed, time would put what was happening now into perspective because I’d learn more and more. But, at that moment, I didn’t feel much like a hero, and I couldn’t recall any American war movie conveying the sense of sadness I felt from the look in the driver’s eyes and the sound of his anguish combined with his simple plea for help.
The second event happened a few weeks later, when we were convoying with another unit and approached another small village. By then, most of us had returned to normal and we hadn’t had any encoutners with armed Iraqis in days, so everyone was in a good mood. We had even been sleeping well, and had stopped doing stand down and stand up and had lots of energy and weren’t bored because we had been on the move and meeting new people every few days. We punctuated our official radio communications with banter on 5150, and every now and then would hear Timmy’s new rhymes or someone making fun of me and imitating the Louisiana sheriff saying, “Secret Agent!” Our favorite joke had become calling to Bart Simpson, a famous cartoon character kid, after someone said they picked up a recorded AM radio show of “Bagdhad Betty” still playing and telling American soldiers to quit fighting, because our wives were at home loving our celebrities, like Arnold Swartzenegger and John Wayne and Bart Simpson. “Aye, Curomba!” someone said into 5150 using a pitiful immitation of Bart’s nasally voice, and we all laughed and it felt good.
We rode through the village as happy as could be, and they welcomed us as heroes. Many villages had come out to thank us for defeating Saddam, at least temporarily. Apparently, he had been known to kill entire villages and had even used chemical weapons against Kurds several times. No Iraqis stood outside of their village, and they felt safe and happy to have us. Kids lined the streets to see the American heroes in a scene reminiscent of WWII films where occupied territories cheered Americans because we had freed them. I began to feel a twinge of pride.
We were the entire company now, AT1 through AT5, and I was just beginning to meet and know the 90 to 100 men in D-Company. I was sitting on a Humvee behind a .50 cal, just like most other lower ranking soldiers, because the more senior gunners encouraged us to get practice gunning. That sounded good at first, then I realized that gunner practice always occurred in sand storms and during the worse guard shifts and, a recent phenomenon due to seasons changing in Iraq, thunderstorms. Not just rainy thunderstorms, but thick, oily drops of water pelting our faces as we drove in the exposed gunner hatch. Iraqi soldiers had set fire to Kuwait’s oil fields before retreating, hoping to decimate their economy or slow down Allied reactions by getting us to focus on the fires, or simply as malicious acts of vandalism. The skies had been black with oily smoke for days, and that smoke mixed with rain clouds and we felt slimy and unclean in the afternoon thunderstorms that seemed to coincide with gunner training.
Over time, we hadn’t seen threats and gunner training never seemed to stop, and I had spent a week in the gunners seat. It was refreshing, even with the oil fires, because I didn’t feel cramped in the back seat and could stretch and look around more easily.
D-Co drove through the village on a clear morning, and I waved at the kids who waved at us. I debated doing quick magic tricks, and had practiced folding one of my bandanas into a brown mouse, just in case the opportunity arose. I was looking forward to being a good influence on kids.
Some soldiers tossed out bags of M&M’s from their MRE’s, and kids and adults pounced on them not unlike families back in New Orleans pounced on plastic beads during Mardi Gras parades. But, some began fighting over the food. They were hungry. Life under Saddam had never been plentiful, and the Allied embargo had left civilians starving in our effort to apply pressure to Saddam. I looked across the field of gunners and saw them still laughing, perhaps not noticing the fighting over M&M’s. Many were reaching down into the Humvee and grabbing more MRE’s to toss to the crowd, just like a Mardi Gras float resupplying plastic beads to toss out. Many kids looked happy to see us, and that’s what most of our soldiers saw, but I began to notice the ones fighting for food. I had tossed out my spares, and, selfishly, kept some more than I needed because I had been growing hungrier and hungrier lately, probably a sign of being in a good mood and being able to move a bit more in the gunners seat. I looked behind me and saw another gunner open an MRE and keep some parts behind before tossing some parts out, and I felt relieved that I wasn’t the only one withholding. One of the gunners I had heard on the radio but hadn’t met yet tossed out an empty bag and laughed as kids pounced on it, and then he began emptying their trash and laughing about how quickly kids scrambled to get a few crumbs of food. I felt sickened and disappointed in my colleague; he knew what he was doing. But I didn’t say anything. It was one thing to imagine stopping kids from dieing, but it was another to tell someone your opinion, especially when that someone outranked you and had a mustard seed from parachuting into Panama. By most definitions, he was more experienced, and I didn’t have the confidence to exert what wasn’t a moral absolute but was just my opinion that we shouldn’t laugh about kids being hungry. I had been hungry before, not including wrestling, and I probably related to them in ways other people did not, and I felt so saddened watching kids scurry for a few crumbs that I tossed out the last of that day’s rations and rotated in my gunner seat so I couldn’t see them fight over it. I returned to silence.
Timmy had seen what I had seen and had watched me, and when we left the village his voice popped up on 5150.
“Uh… Secret Agent?”
I could see his face smiling at me from his commander seat in a nearby Humvee, and anyone listening would have heard him rap:
Rollin’, in my Humvee TOW
When we gonna stop?
I don’t know
Just put on a smile, and let’s go
I couldn’t help myself, and I smiled and we rolled on.
A few weeks later D-Co was in Kobar Towers, a magnificiant and abandoned city built of marble and the finest European appliances, funded by Saudi Arabian royalty and intended to bring the Bedoins from their nomadic desert lives and into cities where they could live and work and contribute to Saudi’s future more measurably. They hadn’t wanted the city, and the Saudis offered Kobar Towers to Allied forces preparing to go home. By the time we arrived, it looked more like the images I had seen on television before the war, of temporary bases with volleyball nets and bbq grills. The Saudis kept strict villagence against alcohol, but most of us were cheerful and the scenes were festive and we spent most days scrubbing nine months worth of dirt grime and oily rain off our vehicles and coughing up thick black chunks of phlemn from the countless sandstorms we had encountered. The REMFS didn’t seem to be coughing up dark phlemn, and their uniforms were much less grimy than ours, and they seemed to enjoy playing volleyball in their t shirts.
Instead of volleyball, most of the 504th played a game with knives and bayonettes called stretch. A group stood in a circle and took turns throwing their weapon of choice at each other’s feet. If you stuck a knife in the ground within a knife’s distance of their foot, they had to move their foot to that spot and then take their turn throwing. The goal was to stretch someone so far apart that they couldn’t remain balanced and fell over. The winner would be the last one standing. I took off my shirt to free up my arms and used my bayonette and won several games in a row to the surprise of current champions. We finished and squeezed back into my jacket, and a few guys commented that I was “a big mother fucker,” though I thought they were joking. A few said Secret Agent was too long of a nickname and they tried to make a nickname for me based on being good at throwing a bayonete, but nothing stuck.
By then end my stay at Kobar towers, most people called me Dolly, and I recalled how much time had passed, similar to when I was standing beside the Mig at the Khamisiya airport. I had hated being called Dolly only a few years before, but now I sort of liked it and it was much better than being called Fartin’ Partin again. I was glad that one hadn’t lingered.
A few days later I arrived in Fort Bragg on a C5 packed with 504th soldiers returning home. Supply found my green uniform and it seemed small and at first I thought it had shrunk, then I realized that I had grown. The desert uniform that had been too big for me now fit comfortably, and looking around the supply room I realized I was taller, too. I walked out of supply lost in thought, smiling broadly that I had become a big mother fucker named Dolly, like a boy named Sue or a wrestler named Hillary, and I was happy about that and ready for whatever happened next. I didn’t envision words to describe my feelings, and I had gone through enough to know that words never captured feelings, anyway. A lot had happened in the ten months since I graduated high school, and though I no longer had expectations about the army, I looked forward to the next three years because it already had been more than I could have ever imagined. I was satisfied, and felt that I had, indeed, lived up to my promise to be all that I could be, and that felt better than words could express.
A year later, my photos would be collected and used as part of a congressional inquiry into the Khamisiyah explosion because of alleged chemical weapons exposure from the stockpiles of serin nerve agent we had left behind before dropping the 15,000 pound bomb – in all fairness, that thing is terrifying. After twenty years of congressional inquiry, the summary was that we had, indeed, unleashed chemical weapons, and anyone within 100 miles was affected. The result is controversial, because so many symptoms overlap with symptoms that civilians experience. Our symptoms included mental associations called PTSD, sore muscles, fatigue, etc, Labels would be applied, like fibromalaysia and Desert Storm Syndrom. In the decades of tracking 560,000 Desert Storm veterans, the veterans administration would compare their findings with symptoms in the civilian population and try to separate the two using surprisingly simple statistics called “a student’s t-analysis of random variables,” and the conclusion was that 60,000 people would be affected by Desert Storm Syndrome and that everything was related to the chemical weapons released from Khamisiyah. Interestingly, Desert Storm Syndrome was handled by the Office of Agent Orange, which was still researching claims of cancer from the chemicals America sprayed on Vietnam and American soldiers in Vietnam. That office, I was told, could be traced to research on WWII soldiers claiming to suffer from shell shock. That office has continued to overlap with soldiers from the twenty plus years of the second gulf war, and the cycle has perpetuated and history seems to repeat itself.
In a way, I really was a small part in history, just like Big Daddy, and I think Mr. Vonnegut would think that was funny.
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