JSS Mushada with the Manchus
After a few hours of rest and writing, I rejoined 1st Lt. Lowe's third platoon, A/4-9 Infantry for their rotation to the joint security station just outside Mushada, a major overwatch point for protecting Main Supply Route Tampa from Sunni IED teams based in the Tarmiya area. We rolled out sometime after midnight and arrived at the JSS not long afterward, with time to spare, after moving supplies and gear in from the Strykers and posting watch in the rooftop fighting positions, for sleep.
Most soldiers seem to hate combat outposts (COPs) and Joint Security Stations (JSSs) with all their hearts (understandably). They hate them because the living conditions are often like something out of World War II - dust, fleas, cold food, cramped quarters - but mostly, I think, they hate them because they are mind-numbingly boring. At a given time a small patrol may be out, which breaks the tedium, but for the most part, the soldiers at the Mushada JSS spend their time either manning the sandbagged machine gun bunkers on the roof, being frustrated by the insurgent-riddled Iraqi Police detachment living with them, or doing absolutely nothing. On FOBs, there are things to do: internet and phone centers, movies, and gyms are all available to the soldiers there, in addition to the endless menial tasks required to maintain a unit's equipment and readiness. Not so at most JSSs (although some of the nicer ones, I have heard, do have computers) - the platoon's job, for the three, four, or five days that it spends at the outpost, is simply to be there, showing a presence. Some soldiers - Sgt. Wojo, for example - seem to deal with this by sleeping through every unoccupied hour, but that's more sleep than most have in them, even after a few exhausting days of patrolling, so they have to find other ways to pass the time.
This boredom, of course, means that they have plenty of time to talk, so I spent the morning of that first day circulating through the station (a two-story building, maybe an old farm compound, with a surrounding outer wall) and getting soldiers' opinions on Land Warrior, the individual information system that had gotten such glowing reviews from all concerned the day Petraeus visited this same JSS. The consensus now, without the brigade staff and a four-star general around: "It's worthless."
That seemed a little strong to me, but the complaints the platoon had against the system were serious: it weighed seventeen pounds, meaning that a fair amount of ammo and water had top be sacrificed to carry it; the GPS unit-tracker built into it could be off by hundreds of yards, an unforgivable margin of error in small unit operations; and, worst of all, the communication system faded in and out and could not be relied on. "It's not that the system's bad," 1st Lt. Lowe told me, "because when it works, it works well. But there's no way I can rely on it. It's not a trustworthy system, and the contractors we have here working on it know it."
Generals and colonels can tell soldiers time and again to give them straight feedback on systems or operations, I suppose the lesson is, but no soldier with reasonable ambitions of advancement, whether a major or a private, wants to be the bearer of disappointing or frustrating news like 4-9's about Land Warrior.
On roof guard, the soldiers will talk about anything to pass the time - their shifts up there are hours long, even in the day, when the heat is absolutely scorching, and 99 percent of the time the duty is painfully boring. Through binoculars, sniper rifle sights, and carbine optics, a fire team or so of soldiers at a time survey the surrounding area on all sides, carefully tracking any movement at all.
They are permanently looking out for specific vehicles that intelligence has told them could be suicide car bombs, by far the greatest threat to small, lightly fortified COPs and JSSs. The train station on the other side of the field from the Mushada JSS, the guards told me, pointing out a large, half ruined building, had been demolished by a car bomb a while back - "It was gigantic," a rifleman who'd been on guard at the time told me. "There was this huge cloud of flame way up into the air, way up, and you could feel it all the way over here, big time."
More often, they observe small groups of insurgents planting bombs or setting up small ambushes out on the highway; when this happens they either call in the Apaches, or, if they get their way, light them up with the .50 cal machine gun on the roof, which demolishes people and vehicles alike with its huge shells. "It's kind of disturbing when you see it through the binos," the same rifleman told me of the first time he'd seen the .50 fired in anger, "because it just rips them apart, but it's pretty awesome, too."
Back downstairs, between lunch and the arrival of a dozen rowdy Iraqi Policemen, the platoon medic decided that I ought to learn a bit about battlefield first aid - after all, he said, "If you bleed learning, you can say the stains are from something cool like dead terrorists." Of course. All the platoon's squads were rotating through a first aid training cycle, so today was my lucky day (really - it was a useful lesson). In a fast, information-packed class, the medic went through how to use a tourniquet, a splint, and an Israeli pressure bandage, how to apply Quick Clot to burn a wound closed, and how to seal a sucking chest wound with a special round bandage and tape.
Then he moved on to the fun stuff: IVs. All around the room that served as an aid station (and was where I slept), half of the squad popped out sterilized needles and bags of plasma to practice on me and the other half of the squad. The sergeant who stuck me apparently went straight through the vein the first time, judging from the amount of blood that ended up on my clothes and the armor sitting on the floor, but he got it just fine the second time - and wouldn't you know it, the medic judged by how fast the bag emptied that I'd been a little dehydrated, so it wasn't even a waste of plasma.
By the time the whole squad had finished, half a dozen soldiers were sitting around, bantering, while holding IV bags over their own heads, and the floor was spattered with puddles of blood from when needles had been inserted or removed too quickly. It was a good lesson - in first-year ROTC we don't have the resources for that kind of hands-on first aid training, but now I know a little of it and also have an aid kit, complete with Israeli bandage, Quick Clot, tourniquet, and the rest (although no IV - wouldn't get through airport security on the way home) that we could use for reference back at Princeton.
To get back to Camp Taji in time for my flight to Baghdad, I came back from JSS Mushada a day before the platoon did, hitching a ride with a detachment of MPs who train the Iraqi Police there. We rode in a squad-sized convoy of Humvees - a little jarring for a moment after a few weeks in the more spacious and heavily armored Strykers, but fine all the same. To be honest, I dozed off for a few minutes at some point during the twenty-minute drive, and woke up just a few seconds before the convoy was rattled by a loud explosion, very close - from the smoke trail, an RPG fired from the thick palm grove at the side of the road.
Just like Black Hawk Down, I remember thinking as I realized it was an RPG - it actually did sound exactly like the RPGs in the movie. The gunner spun in his turret and fired a quick burst from his M240 in the direction the fire had come from, while the MP sergeant in charge of the whole convoy checked with all the other vehicles to make sure they hadn't been hit, but the shooter or shooters were already gone - back into the dense palms, where they couldn't be found. A quick, typical, and poorly aimed al-Qaeda hit-and-run, too sloppy to have much chance at causing damage but still well planned enough to make pursuit all but impossible.
That's the nature of the war up here, in the rural areas north of Baghdad: based out of Tarmiya and blending easily into the population, the local footsoldiers of al-Qaeda strike at US patrols and convoys every day, and are hunted when possible by Apaches, Strykers, drones, and infantrymen, with special operations forces striking against high-value targets in the dead of night. The RPG attack, like the shooting and IED incident earlier on, was a reminder that in this AO, between Taji and Tarmiya, the Manchus are not building soccer fields or organizing neighborhood councils as on Haifa Street. Here, they are fighting Wahhabi extremists tooth and nail, with Hellfies, .50 cals, M4s - and willpower.
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