Sunday, April 19, 2009

Into Iraq: Early Morning Day Two

We were up early.

The military doesn't wait for anyone.

The 17 of us were bused to meet up with an infantry unit on Joint Base Balad. The Green Team was the humanitarian group. We were here to deliver school supplies and Crocs shoes to school kids.

In our body armor, helmets and our sleepiness, we were briefed for our mission. We were now Army.

We were briefed like the 20 other soldiers. We would leave the base and head for Forward Operating Base Poliwado.

Camp Paliwoda, formerly known as FOB Eagle, was renamed in memory of Capt. Eric Paliwoda, who died January 2, 2004 when an enemy mortar round scored a direct hit on his room. Forward Operating Base Paliwoda is a former training base for Saddam Hussein's elite fighters.

Balad is ground zero for Baath Party sentiment in Iraq. At one time, about 80 percent of the attacks against coalition forces occurred in this triangle area formed by Baghdad, Tikrit and Ar Ramadi.

Nobody bothered to share this history with us.

The 17 members of the Green Team boarded five MRAPs with the best soldiers you can imagine. A driver and a passenger up front who was in charge of the vehicle, a gunner standing up in the hatch manning a 50 caliber machine gun turret, two men in the back of the truck. None of them over 30. Most under 25. Upbeat, tough, brave, knowing their job, got each other's back.

These behemoth vehicles are the most armored up vehicle we have. They have been designed to withstand most of what the enemy can throw at us. However, the enemy keeps ratcheting up and even the MRAP is not impervious.

A primary concern is rollover due to the top-heaviness of the vehicle.

We were briefed on what to do in case of rollover, rollover into water, attack by IED, and small arms fire. In case of rollover and rollover into water, we were briefed as to how to exit the vehicle and where the emergency oxygen tanks were on the vehicle.

In case of IED, we were informed that we would roll past the "kill zone" and then they would cordon off the patrol and assess damage and injuries. We civilians were to stay in the trucks.

Puckering and "what the hell are we doing" was common amongst us.

We rolled out at 0830.

Before we could leave the base, there was a test firing range for every vehicle. This wasn't Disneyland. This was battle ground.

We rolled "outside the wire" of Joint Base Balad, past the multiple checkpoints, past the multiple concrete blast barriers.

We are now on the road. In the Iraqi countryside. Farmland. Cows, goats, grain are growing along the road. A number of houses that look unfinished but are lived in are visible.

We pass thru checkpoints every quarter mile or so. Manned by Iraqi military of some sort.

We rumble along the road for about 30 minutes until we reach FOB Paliwoda.

This road had been built and kept open with a price. Lots of US and Iraqi lives had been lost here.

The Green Team had been green indeed until this. We were now experienced. We were outside the wire. We were in it.

Early morning, we arrive at Camp Paliwoda.

It is a dump in the middle of a dump.

Bordered by cement blast shields backed up by more blast shields.

Once we past the gate, our unit rolled to a stop and we exited the vehicles.

Seventeen wide eyed American civilians had had their first taste of what these guys do everyday.

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