I've been pretty spoiled as far as travel within Iraq goes. Most of my trips have been via helicopter. That's not really pampered treatment, generally speaking, but it is safer and more comfortable than riding in convoys.
I had my first full-fledged convoy experience last week when I traveled to Scania to cover a story about traffic lanes opening to Iraqi travelers along "Main Supply Rout Tampa."
Scania is the U.S. Army version of a truck stop that sits not far south of Baghdad. It is the main stopping point for convoys coming from or going to Kuwait. This camp, which engulfed a section of the country's main supply route until last week, offers a place for convoys to park safely, get rest and grab some chow. It is small, but a paradise in its own way.
The broadcaster who accompanied me on the trip and I joked about how Scania would be the perfect assignment if it had a pool. It doesn't have all of the luxuries of a post like Balad with its Pizza Huts, Taco Bell and Popeye's Chicken, but it also doesn't have all of the unemployed officers who get in the way of productivity, which makes it nice. The only downside is getting there.
Although I've ridden in armored vehicles through parts of Iraq before, this trip was the first time I had to endure eight hours of rattling around in the back of an armored vehicle in full battle rattle with a numb butt. I'm a pretty big person at six feet, six inches, so my body army is larger and heavier than the average Joe's. It didn't take long for the blood to stop flowing and, after an hour, I asked the gunner if he wanted to swap positions. He kindly refused as he peered down at me with a big smile and bugs in his teeth. It was obvious that he knew about the butt-numbing therapy.
Before we left, we had to attend a 48-hour briefing that described what threats were discovered the last couple of nights. We were set to travel with C Company's Crazy Horse platoon from the Washington State National Guard. They were the battalion's IED magnets, according to some soldiers, but I couldn't verify if that was true or just infantry romance. Regardless, the briefing told us that four Improvised Explosive Devices were either set off by vehicles or detected and safely removed during the last couple of days. About then, I discovered we had three atheists in the platoon because everyone was bowed in prayer - except for those three.
I know that security has improved in Iraq during the last year, but four IEDs didn't seem insignificant to me. I mean, these explosives are the leading cause of death for soldiers even still. We would have to stay alert and hope for the best.
As we got under way, I was quickly put at ease by the sound of chatter over the radios. The vehicles ahead of ours were calling out all of the potential hazards. It wasn't until they yelled "DEAD DOG, CLEAR RIGHT" that I began to worry. Dead animals can be rigged with IEDs and so it is best to drive way clear of it.
What bothered me, though, was the flashback I had to the 48-hour briefing. Apparently one of the IEDs found earlier had been placed in a dead dog. I don't know if it was because the warning had just been made, or because a dog was likely butched by terrorists so they could have a place to hide their device, but it bothered me.
Either way, this dead dog turned out to be no threat and so we continued on.
It was about another 20 minutes before the radios where filled with chatter: "IED, IED, IED!"
"Holy crap!" I thought to myself as my body tensed. An IED had exploded and hit a vehicle.
This made my heart race until I found out that it didn't hit our convoy, but the one in front of us. It disabled the vehicle but luckily no one was hurt.
The business of planting IEDs is a funny thing. A staff sergeant in our convoy told me that a lot of the IED explosions turn out like the one I experienced. He said if opposition forces wanted to get us, they probably could. He said that lame attempts like these are duds because they're set by poor Iraqis trying to feed their families. So many people in Iraq live below the poverty line now that they do what they can to make ends meet. One of those things is to plant bombs for money. Sometimes they are ineffective because they don't really know what they are doing, and other times because they don't want to hurt anyone. They just plant them to get paid.
Another theory is that the Coalition is so close to pulling out of here, that hostile Iraqis are willing to wait us out.
After we cleared the hit convoy, I found myself full of anticipation for the remaining six hours of the trip.
"Will I be earning a Combat Action Badge tonight," I thought, "or just an ulcer."
Relief finally set in a few hours later when the sunrise splashed my face with warm rays. There is something reassuring about daylight, even if it is a false sense of security. About an hour later we arrived at our destination. Three Tylenol PMs later, I was out.
Staff Sgt. Aaron Thacker is a former staff writer with the Ahwatukee Foothills News. He deployed to Iraq in November with the Arizona National Guard's 123rd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment and is stationed in Balad. You can read more of his writing at ArmyofMine.wordpress.com.