Midnight Joyride

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When I set the watch rotation for our truck at the Waleed site, I asked the guys if they minded that I took the 1800 to 2200 each night.  It would give me a little time to unwind after my watch and then ample sleep before I had to get out of the rack to make coffee for all of the “Genuine Chiefs” within the borders of the encampment.  The amusement of continuing Transition training less than 100 yards from Syrian guard posts wore off very quickly, but my teammates were more than understanding and were happy to let me rest when I could.  Opie volunteered for the 2200 to 0200 each night, bringing with him an enthusiasm and certitude rarely seen in the overnight; time can stand still during the mid-watch and I think this particular duty was meditation for him, helping him to find a little serenity in that place.  Bodie and Stef would take up watches in the AM and were either already sleeping or quickly on their way.

I had spent the last few minutes checking on the Syrian border guards over in their bunker, which had windows protruding just above the berm.  The NVG’s gave me a great view of their movement around the single room, only because their cigarettes glowed like red dwarf stars bouncing around a night sky.  Someone had been smoking like a chimney in there all night, but shortly after 2100, the eerie glow abated and didn’t return.  Did a non-smoker finally take over the watch?  I slowly swept the bunker with my NVG’s for the next 30 minutes looking for any signs of activity, but even focusing all of my attention, I saw nothing more.  In the back of my mind, I was convinced that the sentries had just rolled over and went to sleep.  I wondered how comfortably a Syrian border guard slept on the usually deserted north western Iraqi border.  Regardless, I’m sure the sleep was at least a little restless tonight.  Even the world’s greatest military sleeps with their rifles when an enemy is within such short reach; they were fools to even be sleeping.  No, I thought after just a short while, someone’s awake over there.  Probably looking at me as I look over at him.  I thought about the razor’s edge for a moment, not realizing how much closer to falling off of it this night would take me.

I looked over at our “hooch”, the term of endearment used by generations of soldiers, sailors and Marines to describe the homes-away-from-home that we create for ourselves and realized that Opie was getting up and ready for his watch.  I could see him as plain as day because the home we had created in the middle of this God-forsaken place, just like our other teammates, was nothing more than a camouflage net draped over a few poles in the ground.  This was surrounded on the north and west by a three foot berm that Alpha Company had pushed up for us.  The Humvee made up the east wall of our sleeping quarters and it was from its gun turret that night watches were stood.  To the south was our portion of the concertina that encircled the entire project site.  Our fellow Seabees lived, worked and slept inside another berm and razor wire while our six mounted gun teams provided 24 hour security around the whole perimeter.

Opie came out at 2145 and hopped up onto the shellback of the Humvee looking to get to work.  “Ready to hit the rack Chief Select?” he asked quietly.

“Shane”, I answered switching to his given name, “how many times do I have to ask you to call me Michael?  For crying out loud, we were junior enlisted together and we’ve been friends for years.”

“Yeah, I know.  It’s just that you’re a Chief now.  No matter how hard I try, I won’t be able to set aside the military courtesy.  Besides, you’ve earned it and I don’t want to get into the habit and then make a mistake in front of anyone else.”

I thought about this for a minute before responding, “Yeah, well, we can still be old friends out here in this shithole in the middle of the night.”  I took a minute to relay the story of the dancing cigarettes and joked about it being the highlight of the watch before climbing down and saying goodnight.

I walked back to my rack, a standard issue OD green cot draped with a 3-part sleeping bag, stopping momentarily to grab a warm bottle of Saudi water and to pull a chocolate pound cake from the goodie box.  All of our leftover MRE remnants ended up in the box.  You could always be sure to find chocolate pound cake and matzo-like crackers layered in the bottom, but never lemon poppy seed pound cake.  Guys would fight their own mothers for lemon poppy seed pound cake.

After finishing off the dry and crumbly late-night snack and sucking down some much needed water, I stripped down to my tee shirt and underwear, rifle lying right alongside my body at a reasonable, and perfectly normal, approximation of order arms.  What was it about this place that made sleeping at order arms perfectly normal?  The same thing that made it normal in every other war that came before.  It’s impossible to explain to most outsiders, but out here you keep your eyes on the guys who leave their weapons behind or treat them like simple tools rather than the additional element of the human body that they quickly become.  Not having that M16 at my side would be like going to bed but leaving my arm in the living room while I slept.  The only thing that would have made my sleep more comfortable was to be able to rest as I did at home, but somehow I don’t think the guys would have enjoyed waking up to the full Monty.  I dozed off to the sounds of Opie checking the functioning of the mounted M60 while he waited for his comm check to come back from the COC.  Check the bolt, open the feed cover, check the links, replace the rounds, drop the…off to sleep.

I was dreaming of my infant son, sitting at home with his mother, enjoying their dinner without me when a droning in the distance caught my attention.  It was just a dream, but I wanted to stay here a while and enjoy the brief fantasy of my family.  The droning became clearer and evolved into a slow, sleepy voice.  I turned back around and my family was gone.  The voice became clearer still and I recognized the slight Hispanic accent of our truck commander Bodie, nicknamed for his mispronunciation of the “Buddy Lee” jeans character, seemingly talking in his sleep.

“Falk…Stef…Opie needs you man.” he mumbled, sounding like a half-stoned Cheech Marin.  I sat up slowly, wondering what kind of ridiculous dream was invading his sleep and waking me from mine.  I started to pull on my boots to make the walk over to his rack and shut him up when I heard Shane yell out, “Stay where you are! Show me some ID now!”  In a split second I was wide awake and reaching for my rifle with one hand as I threw on my boots with the other.  As I dove over the west berm of our hooch and rolled down the other side into a “Crouching Dragon” mess that I couldn’t repeat if it meant a free pass through purgatory, I brought my rifle to bear on one of two vehicles stopped just feet from our living quarters.  I glanced over to my left and saw Shane holding off one vehicle and again demanding the occupants ID’s.  A quick double-take confirmed what I thought was just my over-adrenalized imagination: Shane had dismounted the Humvee with the M60 and was now holding it up mere inches from the driver’s head with nothing but his right hand.  In his left he held the driver’s ID and was calmly, but forcefully, scrutinizing it.  Over in my own personal world of shit, I approached the second vehicle with my rifle sights still welded to the occupants as if they were magnets that would draw my rounds right through their bodies.  Thank God for vigilant training; it’s the only thing that saved those four men that night.  I mimed a small card with my hands and screamed at them for their identification, in my blind battle haze assuming, as everyone does, that volume makes people miraculously bilingual.  I’ve never been more aware of my ability to end someone’s life than at that moment, standing illuminated in their headlights with one brother standing just twenty feet to my left and two more sleeping peacefully behind me.  The only thing that passed through my mind was squeeze smoothly when they draw.  I yelled out the only Arabic that had stuck in my head over the past two months, “Ir faa ya dyecka! Put up your hands!  Now!”  As the two men in my truck slowly raised their hands, ID cards within, I approached to investigate with a hairpin trigger and a heat pouring off of my body like I had never felt before.  This fever pitch in my head slowly began to recede and I called over my shoulder to Shane asking if he had his situation under control.  Neither of us looking at one another, we exchanged brief reports confirming control and imminent resolution of the respective interrogations.

As we checked, and then rechecked, each man and his credentials it became possible to imagine that this adrenaline soaked, midnight gun show might just end without bloodshed.  Each man held a card identifying them as members of the Iraqi Border Patrol contingent.  In fair but broken English, the senior soldier explained over and over that they had just received brand new pickup trucks from the Americans and were just trying them out on their first nightly patrol of this section of the Syrian border.  The men had no idea anyone was out here and fully expected an uneventful night of kicking up dust in the desert.  How about that shit?  They were out on a joy ride, playing games while we walked their lineIn trucks that we bought for them!  When they saw our small camo-net structure they simply tried to go around what they probably thought was an abandoned lean-to and found themselves staring down the fully-charged barrel of our midnight watch stander.  Did they think we were Bedouin sheep herders who just happened to camp out this close to Syria in the middle of the night?  After Shane and I finished checking their identification cards we released them to their “patrol” with harsh words of warning regarding how close they had come to giving their lives to their country.  Complacency and foolishness can kill the best of us.  Unfortunately, that was a lesson they learned the hard way.  I’m glad to have been there to enlighten them.  Shane and I each walked around the berm, returning to the Humvee as we tried to shake off the endorphins and adrenaline still running our bodies.  All we could do was look at each other and laugh.  Was it funny?  No, but when this job gets to the edge, you have to express the build up of emotion somehow.  You laugh, cry or go insane.  Once again I bid Shane goodnight and retired to my rack, only to lay there staring up at the stars that could be seen through the holes of the netting.  I wouldn’t find sleep again tonight.

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