Death or Glory Part II of IV:
Into the Desert With the Queen’s Royal Lancers
The intended target in an ambush never knows when it’s over. Yesterday’s ambush, which killed two soldiers and wounded three others, is a case in point. Once the Brits had dealt with the immediate aftermath of the ambush—setting up security, calling in air support, tending to the wounded and getting EOD in to deal with the remaining dozens of bombs—our convoy still had its mission objective. So we put the disabled vehicles in tow and continued our journey deeper into the desert.
This location was ideal for an area ambush, in which the enemy predicts or tries to shape your movements after the first attack, so that you move into other attacks. If the enemy does a good job, your force should be increasingly damaged and disorganized with each new ambush. If they do a very good job, they might wipe you out completely leaving nothing but burning vehicles, dead bodies, and maybe some prisoners.
We were naturally canalized, and could be attacked repeatedly on the way out. Knowing that another attack could be imminent, those of us positioned in front as a small recon element in unarmored Land Rovers also knew we were the trip wire. We’d probably get whatever was coming first and that would be the end of it even though we’d driven through the first ambush without a scratch.
I wondered how the soldiers back in the convoy were doing. After an attack that killed two of their friends, they spent hours in the hot sun cleaning up the wreckage and then hauling it into the night. They had to be exhausted; since we hadn’t had time to stop for a meal, they must have been hungry to boot. Their spirits showed no sign of wavering. The worse it got, the better they got.
Ash had been standing at that machine gun in the back of the Land Rover since 8:30 the morning before, and except for normal nature breaks, he’d been nearly continuously manning that weapon as we drove in the sun on dusty, bumpy roads, or he was standing in the sun (and later under starlight) for what must have been 16 or 18 hours straight. I’d gone mostly numb on my seating parts, but at least once an hour, like clockwork, Ash would manage to check in on me.
“How ya doin’ Michael?” he’d say. “Need any wata?” (Ash didn’t use the letter “r” much.) “Drink lots of wata Michael. We got plenty o’ wata and ya bein’ a civvy an all, I gotta look afta ya.”
I wasn’t always sure if he was still joking, but I liked him better by the hour. Along the way, he asked about American soldiers, those in Baghdad in particular.
“How ya mates doin’ in Baghdad?” he asked. “Heard they gotta rough time in Baghdad.”
“Our guys are doing great,” I would say.
“Yeah, but lots ’o ca bombs and that, yeah? And what do they think about spendin’ 15 months in Iraq?” (British tours of duty are six months in duration.)
“They ain’t gonna be happy,” I said, “But they can handle it.” (Big words from a writer unless he can handle it too.)
It must have been around midnight when road suddenly gave way, trapping a vehicle. Apparently, severe water erosion caused micro-canyons that were simple for man or camel to traverse, but impassable for large convoys. Driving heavy vehicles in this treacherous terrain without lights was begging for disaster, and now the road collapse had effectively split the convoy. But fatigue was becoming by far our biggest threat. So the Battle Group Commander, LTC Richard Nixon-Eckersall made a wise call that we’d stop here and move out again before daybreak. Unit commanders put out security and set out to get their soldiers some rest in the form of a few hours of sleep.
There isn’t much room in a Land Rover for extra baggage, so my sleeping bag had been placed on another vehicle. No matter, I was going to just fall asleep on the ground like I normally do in such situations, but several British soldiers would have none of that. A medic named Kate, God bless her, went to find me a sleeping bag. Meanwhile, the officers and NCOs kept working, checking on their soldiers and gear. Several, including LTC Richard Nixon-Eckersall actually apologized to me for being ambushed the day before, and for things not going so well on my first mission with the Queen’s Royal Lancers.
After Kate found a spare one, I was ready to slip into both the sleeping bag and some deep sleep, when another soldier said something like, “What ya doin’ mate? Our guests don’t sleep on tha flooa.” The soldiers had cots and I was going to sleep on the ground and I was not in the least disturbed at the notion. I have no idea who the soldier was, but he walked down the line and found me a place to sleep in the back of one of the Land Rovers. After telling me not to wander off into the desert, he disappeared into the darkness.
I took only one boot off to dry my feet at a time, in case of attack. Just before I fell asleep, two guards came up in the darkness (again I have no idea who they were) to check. “You the American writa?” one of them asked, “Just checkin’ that you all okay. You good mate?” the other one asked. Again, “Yes, thanks.” I’m not sure which one asked if I “needed a wata?” but I barely lifted my head to answer: “I’m good bro, just need some shut-eye and I’m good for another hundred miles.” They both chuckled and disappeared as I nodded off.
Sleep came quickly. Morning came even more quickly.
“Les’ go, mate!” said one of the soldiers, “Up an’ at ’em!”
The convoy now was split because of the road cave-in, but the commander wanted to establish a proper base camp and security.
Suddenly—and it seemed to happen all at once—we must have gotten half a dozen vehicles stuck. And I mean they were properly stuck up to the axles.
It looked like we might be stuck for hours, but the soldiers knew this drill. Even the larger vehicles were extracted within minutes and we just kept rolling into the desert.
Despite the British press reports that make their own soldiers out to be cowering on bases in Basra, truck after truck of them here were in high spirits. News flash: Those reports are false. Derelict media coverage is another aspect of this war British and American soldiers share, and it rankles here in the southern part of Iraq as deeply as it does everywhere else. Practically no one writes about the Brits down here. Important pages in history remain unwritten, while policy decisions are based on the public perception that all is lost here. That this public perception is based on what I have called “The Green Gator Phenomenon” is an irony that is noted, but not appreciated.
When we rolled into a base camp, these soldiers didn’t need to be told what to do. First they dug holes in case we came under mortar or rocket attack, which can happen sometimes even out in the desert. The pit above would be used for the generator. Putting it in a hole not only protects the generator; it also muffles the sound.
After security was set, soldiers were given a short break and called to a meeting, which I thought was for the normal dissemination of information. So I grabbed my camera and headed off with them.
But I was mistaken. The soldiers were filing into the sand dunes amphitheater, and since I was sitting there with the camera, I made this photo before realizing that LTC Richard Nixon-Eckersall and the priest had just begun a battlefield memorial for the two soldiers lost the day before. Suddenly, the camera weighed a hundred pounds and I saw that soldiers who had smiled at me before would glance at the camera and glance away, but it was far too late for me to leave or bury the camera in the sand. Although a few soldiers took note of it, nobody said a word. But no one had to; this was not my first memorial by far and it was like bringing a camera to someone’s funeral. I had been to many memorials and now mostly stopped taking photographs unless someone requested it, such as when CSM James Pippin and LTC Eric Welsh had requested it in Mosul earlier this year.
The Queen’s Royal Lancers is the third unit that I have embedded with to lose soldiers on my very first mission with them. The American 1-24 Infantry Regiment (“Deuce Four”) lost 3 on April 2005 to a suicide car-bomb in Mosul. One of the rescuers that day, Victor Quinonez, got shot in Baghdad about 10 days ago in May 2007.
[An aside: I just talked with “Q” on the phone last night and he is fine. He said Vice President Cheney had just stopped by to say hello and give him a Purple Heart, but what really made “Q” happiest was when his old commander, who also got shot three times in front me, heard that Q had been shot and called him up in the hospital, and then tried to recruit Q for Rangers!]
In that same city this past January, I embedded with the 2/7 CAV and on our first mission, they lost 5 to a massive IED. Both these experiences taught me that when a writer is new to a unit which suffers KIA the first day, some soldiers can have a tendency to turn against the writer. It is bad timing that can easily be amplified by bad manners, so I strive to be sensitive.
During one mission, when we hit an ambush, I was making video. Soldiers burned to death during that attack, and although I did not realize it at the time, their screams can be heard on the video. I never released the video, but still it left a hard impression on my own soul. The presence of the video camera understandably caused some soldiers to become very angry with me but the dispatch about the attack resolved most of that. Like a good soldier who doesn’t need to be told what to do, this writer knows when to turn off the recorders, internal and external, and when that turns out to be impossible, what to keep off the record, though I have little doubt that I will be shooting photos or videos again, and it could be as early as days from now, and soldiers will die. Or maybe I will die and my video will be running as I lay there burned or shot or missing my arms or legs, blinded and bleeding to death and saying things I don’t want the world to hear. And I hope that the soldiers or Marines who find my camera are as sensitive to my family as I am with theirs.
With the Queen’s Royal Lancers, although most noticed my faux pas, all continued to treat me very well and I was not made to feel unwelcome at the memorial. Every combat soldier has a bond with his fellow soldiers that is deep and abiding. Shakespeare first coined the phrase “band of brothers” to describe it. And that day, heads bowed in reverence, the soldiers seated in a canyon that seemed carved for such a solemn purpose, they remembered with honor the service and sacrifice of their fallen brothers. There were some tears for the lost men, and even more for the families now left behind.
During the ceremony, a Bedouin riding a camel popped up—just his head and the camel’s head—like dual periscopes from behind a sand dune. The Bedouin dropped back down like a submarine, disappearing into the desert sea.
The excellent American organization Soldiers’ Angels helps British and American soldiers. Those bags of mail “to any soldier” get posted around British Army walls same as they do on American walls. Soldiers tack up cards all over the place from kindergarten classes, and I love reading those things.
Kids ask funny questions. Sometimes I wonder how many get censored by teachers and never make the mailing. I’ve seen cards asking things like, “How many times have you been shot?” More often, there are questions like, “Do you get to eat sometimes? How do you go to the bathroom?” Not surprisingly, soldiers love those unfiltered cards. Usually, about the time I’m feeling down because soldiers just got killed or wounded or I’m at a hospital where they are being treating, I’ll see those cards up on a wall and start reading, my spirits lifting with each one, until it’s time to go.
Out here in the desert, there’s no place for cards on the tent walls, but they have Iridium satellite phones, and can send text emails, and messages from home are hugely welcomed by the troops.
That night’s resupply was a scheduled air drop. On uncommon occasions, a parachute might fail, sending a package that weighs a ton or more rocketing down to earth. But even if the parachutes all open, if one of those crates lands on someone, it’s goodbye. This stuff happens, especially in wars. People get crushed to death.
As the C-130 approached overhead in the darkness, I held a PVS-14 night-vision monocular (an expensive gadget bought by reader support) up to the video camera (also by readers), and watched as maybe 18 parachutes popped out. As the video captured the luminous green sky and the puffs of deploying white parachutes, the rumble of the blacked-out airplane blocked out the sounds of soldiers around me yelling, “Where’s- Michael-Where’s-Michael-Where’s-Michael-Where’s-Michael!”
One of the parachutes had not opened. Like normal—e.g. the times when I’ve gotten into firefights—somehow I managed to turn off the video camera! The initial jolt seems to make my thumb jump. So now this package is rumbling through the sky and part of it can now be heard loudly as it barrels toward us. Something was about to be crushed and I was in a Land Rover gun turret trying to video the stupid thing, but was startled by all frantic shouting: “Where’s-Michael-Where’s-Michael-Where’s-Michael!”
The soldiers were scrambling to save me, as if they were all going to get fired if I got crushed. In the confusion, I cracked my head on the Land Cruiser (that’s right . . . I had taken off my helmet to film the impending crash). And then— phuuuupp!!! The pallet splatted onto the earth hundreds of yards away and nobody got killed. The others floated down and landed safely. I thought it best not to gripe about the bump on my head. I told the soldiers I had not been afraid and they clearly knew I was lying.
The gas fires along the horizon were creating amazing light effects and while I should have helped the soldiers unload the pallets I started taking photos instead. Normally I would help, but there seemed limited time and the photos might be spectacular. Knowing the decision not to help was probably a bad one—a writer needs to show he is pulling his weight—the payoff was that readers would get the photos. Now it can be revealed that even the soldiers got some payoff, because when I lay down to get the best angle for a still picture, there I smelled . . . camels. Nasty, smelly creatures one and all. But off in the distance was the orange of Iran. Good grief.
The gas fire in Iran that looked like a giant candle. There was zero moonlight, yet the giant candle burning off the gas from the wells, apparently, glistened off the sand dunes. The soldiers quickly unloaded the food and water and packed it onto trucks.
British soldiers often make fun of each other’s accents, saying people from such-and-such area are inbred, or that others are wimps or dolts. These observations, offered as scientific fact, are then followed up with strings of jokes that leave everyone rolling. But the jokes are often just foreplay for the hardcore wrestling matches, which invariably end up with one guy taking on two or more and getting pummeled. And then, they brush each other off and go back to work as if nothing untoward happened.
Young American soldiers wrestle like this, too. But not nearly as often, and never with quite the same ferocity. American soldiers don’t usually beat each other as hard during the wrestling matches. The Brits actually punch each other in the body, while American soldiers sometimes choke each other into unconsciousness. It’s the young soldiers’ way of saying they love each other.
I had been with the Queen’s Royal Lancers for about 36 hours. In a few hours, we would head out on a mission to the Iranian border, and barely miss running over a land mine. And that would be only the start of a long strange day, the subject of Death or Glory Part 3.