How does a man get to be a 44-year-old Corporal in the U.S. Army without ever being court-martialed? It’s a short story.
On Wednesday and Thursday, this week, we moved an even $1 billion from New York to the underground vault in the Central Bank of Iraq in downtown Baghdad.
Standard procedure for these tasks is that we schedule the delivery via USAF aircraft from the Federal Reserve Bank and at the same time I coordinate the physical land movement and tactical security. The U.S. Army provides a Cavalry or Infantry unit for security. We begin holding planning sessions a couple of weeks out and, a day or so before the actual movement, the soldiers attend the last one. They do this sort of thing on a daily basis and the only part they need lead time for is to assure that they have enough soldiers on hand for the mission.
The night of the joint briefing, the platoon leaders showed up in their PT uniforms, as opposed to combat fatigues. This was at 8pm and that is not unusual. When we went over the linkup with the Iraqi’s, they asked good questions. Most of the questions involved recognition procedures. How would they know that the armed Iraqis in the approaching vehicles were on our side? Good question. (You might notice I’m not providing the answer.)
We all rendezvoused at the appointed time and place in a wind blown, sun burned, dust covered parking lot and I noticed that the soldiers on the escort detail were all wearing 40 Infantry Division patches. The 40th Infantry Division is a polite name for the California Army National Guard. I don’t know why, but this surprised me. I’d spent a little over four years in the 40th, in the 70’s, and I hadn’t been impressed. Under normal circumstances, the nicest thing that I was inclined to say about the California Army National Guard was that none of my female relatives ever belonged to it and that it was currently at least 12,000 miles away from me.
I was surprised to see the California National Guard actually deployed in a combat zone.
So, I’m standing there in the 100 degree plus heat looking at a bunch of gray haired E-4’s (Corporals and Specialists 4th Class) many of whom looked like they were much closer to my age that the age of the average active duty E-4. In the back of my mind, I’m thinking that even in the Guard it’s tough to spend “that” much time and still be an E-4 without benefit of an annual court martial or some other event that results in a reduction in rank. At the time I thought, “Typical Guard.” But, I also noticed that they had regular Army haircuts and they looked to be in good physical condition, their uniforms were fresh and had been pressed, and, in the middle of the dustiest place on earth, having just driven through the dustiest streets in the world, their weapons looked dust free. Except for the 50 cal’s atop the gun trucks, and somebody was wiping those off. I looked around at names like Gomez, Leal, Tell, Ibrahim, Shelton, Collins, and other names from the ethnic smorgasbord known as Southern California.
For the most part, the patrol briefing was different from the start. The Patrol Sergeant looked pretty old for this line of work and I wondered if he had as many grandkids as me. He looked at us and asked, “You gonna take notes.” I didn’t put a question mark at the end of that sentence because it was more a blunt instruction than a question. The Colonel and I both got our notepads and pencils out and the good Sergeant laid his map out across the hood of the gun truck and proceeded to brief. He touched his pen to the map, “This is where we are now.”
Even though the man came across as a bit abrupt, for a mere Staff Sergeant briefing a full Colonel, this was a good a patrol briefing. It was thorough and it was complete and the man giving it had obviously done a thorough job of planning the mission. For example, “Actions on contact” are things that you do if you are ambushed or blown up or both. This was the only patrol briefing I’ve participated in since I got here that I didn’t have to ask questions about “Actions on contact”. This is not to say that the other briefings were short in this area, they simply weren’t as complete. No need to ask questions, he made it clear. He covered checkpoints, actions on contact, medical evacuation procedures and lots more. He outlined the route to and from the objective, critical intersections and landmarks in between and pre-determined rally points in between.
When he finished the briefing, he looked around at the patrol force. A couple of 3 stripe Sergeant E-5’s were standing immediately behind him with the platoon’s 2nd Lieutenant. He looked at them, “Ready?” They all nodded and said something like “Yep.”
He looked at the Colonel, “You ready?”
The Colonel looked at me and raised his eyebrows, I said, “Yep.”
The Colonel looked back at the Patrol Sergeant, “Yep.”
The Patrol Sergeant turned and started walking toward his guntruck, “Mount up!”
A couple of minutes later, we were headed out the gate down Route Irish.
Now, driving in Iraq isn’t much different from driving up and down Highway 1 in Viet Nam or the old Highway 1 from Tijuana to Ensenada in the 60’s and 70’s, or cruising down the Pan-American Highway in Costa Rica or Panama. You share it with a lot of goats, and other farm animals, and an occasional horse or donkey drawn cart as well as very old trucks hauling chicken’s or produce or even manure. And, sometimes, they change lanes without looking first.
In your normal Stone Age traffic environment, this doesn’t create much of a problem. An occasional squashed chicken, perhaps, but not much in the way of life and death trauma.
The situation changes when the “George and Donald Show” comes rolling down the highway on 5 ton guntrucks hauling an even $1,000,000,000 in cash. Ten million blue plastic wrapped one hundred dollar bills, to be exact.
One common tactic used to avoid being blown up by an “Improvised explosive devise” (IED) or ambushed is to drive fast and not stop.
We didn’t have the money yet when we left the Green Zone rally point, on the way to the airport, but that’s the way we do these things and, cargo or not, that is the way we were executing this movement, too.
My vehicle had just passed under an overpass–overpasses are popular places for ambushes–when I saw the guntruck behind me spinning like a top. The other guntrucks were dodging and weaving and skidding sideways down the expressway, narrowly avoiding each other and the Iraqi vehicle traffic as well. I was looking in my rearview mirror and I could see the soldier with the 50 cal on top of the spinning vehicle, flopping back and forth like a rag doll trying not to fall off. Then the vehicle began sliding sideways until it came to a very sudden and abrupt stop on top of the guard rail. The soldier in the left rear seat was ejected from the vehicle and skipped across the median like a rock across concrete until he came to an abrupt stop against a tree. All of this happened in a cloud of dust.
I couldn’t tell if they had been ambushed with an RPG or blown up or anything else. I could see the dust cloud but I couldn’t see any smoke from an explosion. Plus, I couldn’t hear any explosions. I didn’t know what had happened.
We couldn’t very well go on without them, so we turned around and went back to get them.
It turned out to be what it was and not something more serious. An old Iraqi farmer, hauling chickens to market, had changed lanes in front of the rapidly approaching guntruck, the driver swerved to avoid hitting him, and lost control.
Round and round and round they went, until that stored up energy was spent.
All of this happened in an eye blink in a place where life and violent death share the same heartbeat, and not a single shot was fired by the California Guardsmen. Not a single Iraqi was killed. Not even the driver of the vehicle.
But for the good eyes, cool nerves and quick thinking on the part of these California Guardsmen, a lot of innocent Iraqi farmers could have died on the way to the market that day.
We called a tow truck for the broken down gun truck and waited until it arrived. The main reason we waited was to prevent someone from booby trapping it and killing or injuring the operators of the tow truck that came to remove it. Then, we took the injured soldiers to the medical unit inside the BIAP (Baghdad International Airport). The doctors looked at them for a couple of hours and released them to return to their units.
The soldier who bounced like a skipped rock is twenty year old Ibrahim. He was born in Palestine but raised in Riverside, California. He is a Political Science major at the Riverside Community College and plans to eventually transfer to UC Irvine to complete his bachelor’s degree. He joined the National Guard because he wanted to do something in the American military but didn’t want to do it full time. His mother and father are both medical doctors and they think he is on some kitchen detail in Bosnia. He was worried that somebody will send them notification that he has been injured and the first words out of his mouth when they pulled him off the tree that he was stuck to was, “Don’t notify my mother”.
He doesn’t want that to happen because he doesn’t want them to worry. He’ll have a bruised butt for a couple of weeks but he’ll be finishing his tour. The other injured soldier may have a broken arm, but he’ll be finishing his tour, too.
These guys are all doing an 18 month tour of duty in Iraq. They were originally scheduled to do twelve. Then it was changed to fifteen. Now it’s eighteen. They expressed pretty dark humor about the extensions, but nobody complained outright.
We spent that night at the end of the runway sitting on the money before making the final movement to the downtown bank the next day. It turns out that the older guys are all teachers, police officers, sheriff’s deputies, firemen, railroad engineers, and so on. To a man, they said that they had been in the Army or Marines 20 years ago and wanted to come to Iraq but didn’t want to go back on active duty to do it. So, when they heard that the 40th ID was sending people to the war, they signed up. Since they are all prior service, the National Guard made them all Corporal E-4s.
That is how a man ends up a 44-year-old Corporal in the U.S. Army without ever being court martialed.
So, if you come across the families of the 40th ID guys who are over here, tell them that those of us who depend on these men and women, these California Guardsmen for our lives, send our “Thanks.” Tell them that their men and women in uniform are good soldiers-good men and good women-and are doing a good job.
I know I feel safer when I’m with them.
But, don’t tell Corporal Ibrahim’s mother that he is in Iraq.
Oh, hey, did I tell you that I was once in the California Guard? Yep. Four years. It’s a good unit.
(Author’ note: This was originally published to an email distribution list in 2004 and is being republished now for wider distribution and it’s insight into the lives of the men and women of the 40th Infantry Division.)