True, from a few thousand feet the arid stretch of land speckled with towns and forward operating bases seems harmless enough. Most problems do when you get far enough away from them. I know better. I've been over this ground before, on an earlier deployment.
I look back out the window, pressing my face against glass in an effort to blend memories with the here and now . . . memories of running the gauntlet of Iraqi highways and byways below. The roads are the front lines, and they cut through the heart of an irregular, murderous battlefield. That is the dusty, monotonous, and adrenaline pumping truth of convoying in Iraq.
Each day Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, and Airmen operate in a combat environment defined by the unlimited liability of Murphy's Law. Yes, Airmen. At first glance, and thanks to body armor, weapons, gear, grease, and sweat, we look just like any other convoy security company. We are, instead, an Air Force detachment composed of security forces, vehicle operators, mechanics, and logisticians assigned to an Army transportation battalion. The only markings identifying us as Air Force are the small wings painted on the gun turrets of our trucks. We protect all classes of cargo, from war-critical materiel to the mail. If our sister services cannot tell who we are when we mount up, then hopefully neither can the enemy. For different reasons, none of them cares.
Like Alice falling down the rabbit hole or going through the looking glass we experience another paradox. The world through the ballistic glass of a gun truck can be just as backwards and forwards as Wonderland. Sometimes I wonder if the rabbit hole is outside the wire or inside. Our unit was an example of Airmen conducting nontraditional deployment roles to supplement ground combat operations. As Air Force ground forces we found ourselves in an odd role reversal when supported by Army air assets for security.
Going into my first deployment I was not sure what I would see with my own eyes. I was anxious to see the country, but I was also anxious not to, because I knew seeing the world through the ballistic glass of a Humvee was going to be a lot like walking through Alice's looking glass, and, like Alice, some of us had more growing up to do.
I did a lot of growing up on that deployment; this time around I saw someone else achieve an unbidden, premature maturity. She was one of our youngest troops, a driver by trade and a gunner by on-the-job training. Not long after our arrival in-country she visited an injured buddy at a field hospital. It had been a busy night for the enemy on the roads and that translates into a busy night in the emergency room. I am not sure what she thought she might see, but the next day I found her crying in a bunker.
"It's real," she sobbed.
Yes, blown limbs with the consistency of minced meat are very real.
All of us in this profession of arms have been guilty at one time or another of acting with false bravado and self-righteous pride, as if we are bulletproof, which we are not. There is no shame in tears; definitely not the tears of any veteran living with the consequences of military conflict, because tests of character are found not only in combat operations, but in every day. As leaders we have to counter threats to all aspects of our Airmen's lives inside and outside the wire. A young officer awakened in the middle of the night bears the responsibility of informing a young man his father committed suicide just hours before. Simultaneously, another team member becomes a father.
It would be nice to think life back home stopped while we ran gun trucks, but it seemed only to accelerate. Hometowns were destroyed by hurricanes and a brother was lost to cancer. In a combat zone emotions are heightened and raw. Leaders at all levels from the fire team on up learned that inconvenient, irritating, and sometimes life shattering events require us to serve like lives, emotions, and tomorrows depended on it.
Service and leadership are interoperable on the road and it begins with training. Anytime during a convoy a crewmember may need to step into a leadership position or unfamiliar support role in a hostile situation. So personnel from fire team members on up to the leaders of the detachment trained in vehicle operations, weapons, communication, and tactics. Continual rehearsing, whether it's vehicle push relays, rock drills, or tire changing competitions, were not games to make time go by.
Necessity inspired many of our Airmen to volunteer off-duty time at the field hospital. Training is only as real as the teaching tools and nothing is as real as blood, triage, and a nurse saying, "Change out the IV bag and empty the bed pan."
Murphy's Law, anything that can go wrong will go wrong. A convoy does not have to make enemy contact for the plan to change. Something as simple as a flat tire can leave a two-mile long, 40-vehicle convoy at a dead halt on the nastiest stretch of highway. After days of driving, a blown tire at a chilly dusk adds to the anxiety to get home. The crew of the downed vehicle urgently sweats through the excursion of unbolting one tire, heaving it into the back of the truck, and bolting on a fresh one.
We take turns at the lug nuts. In the back of our minds is the question, "Who is watching us?" Several patrols later, when our convoy is ambushed in the same spot, it occurred to me that everyone was watching us—the grubby child without shoes, the gangly teenagers selling cigarettes, and myriad command and control centers tracking our movements.
Our convoy was hit a few miles from base. It had been a long trip up north; now we were on our way back. Temperatures were dropping and the gunners wanted to get out of the biting wind. As we approached a chronically dangerous marketplace I struggled against nocturnal biorhythms. My gunner kicked me in the back of the head.
"Stay awake," he scolded. The father of two with a fine arts degree, he never ceased to surprise me with such subtle and not so subtle reminders of my responsibility not to fail as his officer.
The town was dark; it seemed empty. After the last vehicle cleared the market a truck commander enthusiastically radioed the news that we were headed home. No sooner had he uttered the words than explosions shattered the darkness, rocking a gun truck ahead in the column. Truck commanders called in reports as the ambush expanded with a barrage of bullets. Gunners returned fire, flares lit the sky.
We called for help as we maneuvered through the kill zone. Our vehicle shuddered as rounds pierced the tires and frayed chunks of rubber flew off in every direction. Damaged vehicles, pushing ahead toward a rally point, slowed the column, and eventually stalled it. The firefight continued to the rear of the convoy as reinforcements engaged the enemy. Crewmembers focused on personnel, equipment accountability, and recovering multiple inoperable vehicles. It occurred to me while being towed home that Murphy's Law was more like a suggestion. Even when forces intended for everything to go very wrong, we can through trained response and Providence make everything go very right.
On returning to camp, and despite dehydration leaching fluids from my body, I experienced an urgent need to use the toilet. The sun was rising as I burst into the latrine. Women, bustling about the showers, stopped and stared as I shed my reeking body armor and uniform. My breasts, back, and hips, now free from binding equipment, ached with relief. Entering a stall I caught a glimpse of my grimy face and disheveled braids. With a grateful sigh, I finally relaxed.
Convoying was an adventure of the worst and best kind. In garrison, leadership fought the staff wars—Monday morning quarterbacking and perceptions that we were a taxi service for the combat action experience. We ran convoy security, not a one-way-ticket safari. Whether it is an IED, RPG, multiple AK-47s, or a daisy chain of all of the above, no one forgets the singular experience of someone trying to kill you. Nor does anyone forget the aerial footage of a lethal ambush of another company's convoy, or the wounded in the hospital, or saluting an empty pair of boots at a memorial. This is not the business for anyone driven by idle curiosity about combat.
The plane begins its descent to the base I had known not so long ago, on that first deployment. I can see the gate we passed through coming and going and the main highway beyond. The traffic has already started to back up. Perspiration rolls down my back.
This is what I learned on the roads of Iraq. It is the same in life. In this world we will have trouble. We will meet detours, roadblocks, and ambushes to our plans. We may even lose our way for a time. And since no plan survives the first contact with the enemy the constant threats keep us awake at the wheel.
So stay awake, guys. You must stay awake and lead like your life and everyone else's life depends on it, because we are not home yet.