The Cheese Doodle Incident

38S LB 94704 83959

          When we rolled into Camp Fallujah late that night, tensions were already high among the team members.  The cloverleaf was still a “no-fire” zone, due to the dug-in Marine fire-teams, despite the fact that the insurgency kept firing on anything that tried to roll through there.  Someone must have forgotten to pass out their laminated index cards listing the Rules of Engagement.  Working all day and then into the night takes its toll on the human body, especially in that heat.  It was around midnight as we pulled in and even though the harsher heat of the day was behind us, the temps inside the Humvees made up for it.  Months ago the vehicles had been stripped of anything that could cause unexpected problems on the road and that included ventilation systems.  We quickly found out that the hoses and wires under the dash hindered quick movement in and out of Driver/A-Driver spots even without all of the required personal gear.  The small open-air vents down in the knee-holes couldn’t do a damn thing about the heat radiating off of the big diesel engines.  Everyone was hot, tired and ready to roll into a rack.

Pulling into yet another home-away-from-home within Fallujah’s Seabee Compound, we were greeted by our very own Camp Concierge, SK2 Mason, who always found a rack for our cranky, grizzled road dogs no matter what time of night or how unexpected the visit.  While the Convoy Commander, Chief Ben Slaughter, trudged into the COC for a hopefully quick debrief, the team began to unload their personal gear and weapons, stowing what they could and carrying what they couldn’t over towards the armory.  Some men waited for the opportunity to turn the weapons over to the armory watch for the night, while others helped out and carried their brothers’ gear in the direction of our temporary quarters.  Ten more minutes to rack time…we’re almost there.  As I stood there making sure this midnight transition from road to rack went smoothly, I pulled off my Interceptor vest and threw it up on the hood of our Humvee.  As I looked down at my blouse and tried to peel it away from my undershirt, I realized just how hot these trips really got.  My desert camouflaged shirt was streaked with white tiger-stripes of salt that had been leached from my body, right through two layers of material, and onto the outer fabric.  Time to find some potato chips and a bottle of water before I drop right here in the gravel.

Fortunately, when you hit some of the bigger bases, there was always good, home-grown gedunk to be found, if you only knew where to look.  The absolute best place to find anything was the Chief’s Mess (on any command, ship or shore) but since I was still a “Selectee”, walking into that utopia uninvited was a death sentence that I didn’t feel like bringing upon myself right now.  I settled for the combination chapel/movie theater/library that NMCB 4 had set up in the corner of one block building.  Jackpot!  I walked back to the line of trucks with my stale bag of Lay’s and the ever-present warm bottle of Saudi water, only to find that things had not gone so well in my three minute absence.  Chief Slaughter had returned with word that the Watch Officer was not going to allow us to store our weapons in their armory and that we could not bring them into the hooch while we slept.  Neither would anyone be allowed to sleep with the weapons left on the trucks.  We would have to set a watch bill through the night because, as it turns out, the armory watchstander didn’t want the added responsibility of another unit’s weapons in his shop, even for one night.  Hoorah teamwork.

I asked our security team leader, CM1 Steffener, to set up the watch rotation for the night, which turned out to be a fairly simple process: one man from each truck would stand a three hour watch while the other two slept.  Stef, or Froggy to many of us, was a natural choice to lead all contingency security operations within the team, having been a Navy Special Operator during his first enlistment so many years ago.  He handled everything from simple watchbills to reactionary force operations within the convoys.  As the team leadership, Chief Slaughter, myself and Stef were exempt from the watch because we had to be available on a minutes notice and usually spent much of our off time awake and working anyway.  With the plan intact, those who could fell into their assigned racks, thankfully air-conditioned against the stale desert air.  After spending another thirty minutes going over the details of our next assignment with Ben and Stef, I collapsed into my own bunk and began the nightly routine of pushing the thoughts from my head.  If I didn’t focus on this purge of daily information, I would often find myself still awake and thinking about this work hours after I had first lain down.  Clear your mind.  Focus on the darkness of the room and the breathing of your teammates.  Focus on the darkness of your eyelids and your own breathing.  Focus on nothing.  Rest.

The first explosion rocked the building and jerked me into immediate consciousness.  I leaped from the top rack, almost landing on the man below me as he tried to roll out himself.  Dust drifted down onto my head as others were waking up around me.  EO1 Felthousen was rolling from his rack and donning his boots as he went.  Having never taken mine off the night before I started to run towards the door as another explosion shook the concrete block structure.  This mortar, having obviously landed much closer, created a deafening roar inside the small, enclosed space.  Felt and I looked at each other and realized one thing, seeing it in each other’s eyes-the guys on watch!  We bolted for the door and out into the adjacent equipment yard, not wanting to imagine the worst, but preparing for it anyway.  What we found wasn’t the worst, but it wasn’t the best either.  Our Communications Chief, CE1 “Rowdy” Craig had grabbed a healthy piece of watchstander ass and was chewing on it like bad plug of Redman.  Felt went over to the farthest trucks to check for damage or casualties while I cautiously approached the scene that was playing out near the truck I shared with my gun team, Blue Two.

As I came within the circle created by Rowdy’s whiskey & cigarette influenced voice, I noticed that his aggression was directed at the gunner who I shared Blue Two with, EO2 Shane Overfield.  Here were two of my closest friends, both of them as open, honest and stubborn as they come; now nose-to-nose over God knows what.  As I did my best to ease into the one-sided tirade, I soon realized that this whole thing was a product of the mounting tension brought on by this place, nothing more.  Rowdy had been wounded just a few short weeks earlier in a mass-casualty mortar attack that claimed the lives of five of our fellow Seabees and wounding three dozen more.  He had walked out of Charlie Med doped up on morphine and returned to his rack so that he wouldn’t be sent home.  He returned to the team that had been ruined by that day’s events and returned to his post at the comm center in Blue Four.  He still ran the roads with those few who hadn’t been sent into Germany or Bethesda and those of us who volunteered to rebuild the team.  To say he was on edge would be an understatement; he hung over the edge connected only by his comm wire and his dedication to this mission.  Besides, the edge wasn’t so bad once you got used to it; we all found ourselves there before long, hanging right alongside him.

The mortar attack that had just taken place awakened something in him.  He had raced out to the yard faster than any us to check for casualties.  When he found everyone shaken but unhurt, he couldn’t come down from the adrenaline rush fast enough and reacted to the rest of his surroundings.  A soda can lay on it’s side, still dripping it’s contents onto the gravel; a bag of Cheese Doodles lay crumpled in front of a Humvee, it’s contents strewn out like little orange caterpillars who had been caught in a Polaroid snapshot, running for their lives before a flock of hungry birds.  Rowdy latched onto the disorder of this and began berating the nearest watchstander for not keeping his post in an acceptable condition.  Shane hadn’t even dropped the gedunk on the deck; another watchstander had been standing close by chatting with him when the first mortar round detonated.  They had reacted to the explosion the way anyone would, by hitting the deck; the soda and the Cheese Doodles were just incidental casualties of that reaction.

After calming them both down, I organized an effort among the three of us to clean up the area, hoping that the act of just picking up the neon orange puffs in that stale pocket of gray and green would somehow lighten everyone’s tone.  We cynics should never hope…things never work out the way you hope.  Rowdy walked around to the passenger side of the truck, while Shane and I worked the front and driver side of the vehicle.  Both men were still steaming at each other and kept making angry jibes at each other over the hood of the Humvee.  Strangely, Shane stopped in mid-sentence, glanced at me and said, “Hey, that’s the sound we heard”.  I barely had time to ask when his face dropped as he exclaimed, “The sound we heard when they were coming in!” and dropped from view.  Dawning comprehension struck me a fraction of a second too late as I heard the mortar explode to my right, just over a concrete block wall, merely twenty yards away.  I heard the low buzzing coming again, from my left; from Fallujah.  Before I could react, Shane had grabbed my left leg and was pulling me down trying to drag me into the relative safety of the Humvees underbelly.  I went down onto the hard gravel and pulled myself into the small crawl space, not knowing if this was the safety we would need to survive.  I looked over to my right to find Shane and laying prone next to him, Rowdy, who had managed to squeeze under the passenger side just in time.  We three lay there under that Humvee as other mortars landed in and around the equipment yard.  How many more would fall?  How close would they get?  The adrenaline of the moment and the years that have passed since cloud my memory on how many mortars fell while we lay there that day, but I remember looking over at my brothers and feeling calm.  All anger and harsh words were forgotten, each of us glad to at least be with friends if this should be the last of it.

Just as quickly as they had come, the explosions stopped and dust began to settle.  No one moved for a full minute, wondering what, if anything would come next.  I looked over to my right to see Shane looking over at me.  We both looked over his right shoulder at Rowdy who had a tired smile on his face.  Shane and I followed Rowdy’s gaze down to the area of gravel right in front of Shane’s face.  There, in a neat little pile, as if Shane were laying down in his living room to watch a movie and enjoy a snack, was the pile of Cheese Doodles that had been the focus of so much tension.  It appeared that we had just found the secret squirrel’s hidden stash of Monday Night Football snacks.  Who’s got the Chex Mix damn it?  We each started laughing, a little madly at first, but than with a healthy sanity that felt good to be a part of, even if for just a short time.  A completely unexpected circumstance of a completely unexpected event and just a touch of insane sanity in an unreal place.