There was a time early in my military career I could create my own earthquake. I could make the earth shake. When I was a young troop, I quickly realized it was easy to feel “cool and liked” when you’re the big guy carrying around an M16A2 Carbine/M-203 grenade launcher armed with M433 high explosive dual purpose (HEDP) rounds. Suddenly my self-esteem wasn’t so low and other people began to treat me differently.
At first, I really didn’t understand it. It wasn’t until I began to study psychology shortly after I was armed with this thing that I understood people were viewing me based on how I viewed myself and what I presented to others. I’m going to brag because I earned it: I was a big dude and I was carrying a big gun. To most people it’s like some magic boom stick that makes things “over there” no longer continue being “over there,” now those things are either all over the place in pieces or they’re just “not there.”
To myself, it was a heavy hunk of metal and plastic I knew almost everything about (right down to how much it weighs, cycle of operations and the twist ratio) and often consider it the bane of my existence. I learned in training you do a lot of running as a grenadier, and everyone is happy to see you when you finally get to where you need to be. During training I once saw someone shatter their lower jaw when they misfired their M-203, deploying a round prematurely and sending the launcher hurtling toward their face.
It gave me an understanding of how real this thing was. That feeling of 40 millimeters slamming into the ground as the round detonated would steal your breath away and send shivers up your spine knowing you just made the earth shake and everyone felt it.
Today the earth shook back. Today she was pissed.
The invasion of Iraq, 2003
Part of my duties while assigned to Camp Bucca, Iraq was working with contractors addressing the infrastructure of our perimeter defense. My goodness it was hot. The humid evenings are always preferred over day and the slight cool breeze that would creep in from the nearby port city of Umm Qasr was welcome and refreshing. The Takfiri were pretty pissed off lately at the local population because they felt employment by the Forward Operating Base (FOB) showed support for the American cause.
To be quite honest, these people could care less about the priorities and desires of Americans or the American Government. They were often contractors and laborers living in a war-torn country, just looking for a means to survive. When we removed Saddam, the country of Iraq went from barely stable to Mad Max.
Employees are often only as loyal as the paycheck they are receiving (or being offered by someone else) so it often went without saying I tried to treat my contractors as well as I could. Plus, I really liked having to worry about the locals and third country nationals (TCNs) trying to kill me as little as possible if I could arrange it.
What is a Takfir? Or the groups who commonly attacked us Takfiri? Well, just like how us Christians have our embarrassing religious purists and zealots so do the Muslim people. Trainwrecks, forget the Bullshit you were (and still are) being fed by CNN, FOX News, your bible-humping uncle, MSNBC etc. The majority of Americans don’t know what to think or even how to understand Muslim culture simply because we don’t try. I am neither an apologist nor am I an expert, I’m simply an observer. Much like us Christians, only a fraction of Muslims desire violence.
A Takfir is a part of that fraction of Muslims who desire violence because of their beliefs. The Takfiri widely believed any Muslim who acted in a manner against the solidarity of the people were declared Apostate and deserving of death. The Takfiri believed anyone who cooperated during their internment was an Apostate. Finally, the Takfiri believed us, the Americans were a threat to their way of life. It was during my time at Camp Bucca I saw the rise of ISIS spread like wildfire.
The local defiant population wanted that place destroyed at all costs and ordered any American to be shot on site. Many former residents of Camp Bucca would go on to participate in attacks against the compound after their release.
The Theater Internment Facility (TIF) was home to over 20,000 pissed off detainees who were suspected of terrorist activities against United States and allied resources. But here’s the thing, these people are almost all considered “pre-trial.” That means they haven’t been convicted of anything by a formal trial. For many of these people, they were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, we had repeat offenders who were referred to as “frequent flyers.” These were usually intelligence gatherers. However, the majority of these people were simply scooped up for questioning en-masse during bombings and shootings. Were you involved in planning or carrying out an attack on a convoy in Baghdad? Don’t fucking care, you’re looking and acting suspicious and your story doesn’t add up so you’re coming with us.
You’ll get your chance to explain your side of the story one year from now at your hearing, till then I hope you enjoy the color yellow and the scent of hot ass and cheese.
As the sun rose that morning, I got off work and went about my routine like most days. Eat, sleep, work and spend time in the gym. That’s how you make a deployment go by, establish a routine and stick to it. I read a lot while I’m deployed. Many troops will sneak in booze, even take advantage of the fact there are no drug tests in a combat zone, just to break up the monotony.
Of course, it’s always the most monotonous days that turn to shit the quickest. The most peaceful mornings seem to erupt into chaos when we least expect it. This day was no different as I abruptly awoke in my bunk having to go to the bathroom so hard, I immediately bent over in pain. One of the luxuries of “going on vacation” at Camp Bucca was your chances of getting food poisoning are pretty fair, so I really got the opportunity to watch my girlish figure through regular evacuation.
I would hurl my guts out at least once a month and occasionally it felt like an alien was about to rip through my stomach when I’d move my bowels.
I arose from my bunk and slid into my sandals, peering over at my armor vest, ammunition and helmet. My interceptor body armor (IBA) weighed a LOT. The armor plates alone weighed close to twenty pounds, add one hundred eighty bullets loaded in magazines, my hydration system, radio, GPS, helmet blah blah blah. I decided this time my hastened desire to go potty outweighed the luxury of taking my “office” with me. I let out a loose sigh as I rolled my eyes, grabbed my rifle and quickly walked to the bathroom trailers.
The short walk was less than a minute before I arrived at my throne room, ready to perform some royal action. I breathed a long sigh as the putrid latrine smell wafted through my nose. No sooner had I dropped my drawers and settled onto the toilet; the first attack of the morning commenced.
Suddenly the realization of the predicament I’d suddenly found myself in came to fruition and my breath froze in my throat and I began to tremble. I heard the high-pitch scream of turbo-charged diesel engines that power our gun-trucks roar into action. Suddenly just how vulnerable I found myself became all too apparent. My life was now at risk and I was half-naked; I was armed with my rifle and the one magazine holding thirty rounds in it.
I had no gear, no radio, no armor and no coffee. Hell, I was barely even awake for that matter before the first round slammed into the ground close-by, shaking the earth around it like a small earthquake. It was mortar Monday, ladies and gentlemen and today the Takfiri were in a rather festive mood.
Now to be fair, it wasn’t unusual to get your day disrupted by indirect fire (IDF) at Camp Bucca. I mean I’ll be honest; it often didn’t feel like a proper week in Iraq unless some Asshole disrupted it by launching artillery your way to let you know he was thinking about you. Today however, they apparently brought a shit-ton of them and I think they decided to use every single one.
Today some of the rounds were landing close to the shitter I was currently sitting in and I could neither get myself together enough to run for a bunker or assemble a better plan that did not involve sitting helpless in an aluminum and plywood trailer as a rocket exploded through a building close-by, spraying gravel and dust through the air. I really wished I had brought my armor loadout and helmet.
As the rounds slammed into the rocky earth, sharp cracks would split the air, echoing the percussive wave for miles. When a rocket commonly used by the Takfiri was employed, it never sounded as cool as the movies do. Rockets would whistle like an angry Nerf football as the stabilizing fins spiraled through the air around it. When a mortar strikes the earth, it does not sound like the movies. Trainwrecks, only the movies sound like the movies.
When a round hits a target in real life it is strangely unimpressive yet fearsome sounding afterward. If you’ve ever heard someone bang a wooden bat against a slab of concrete, I guess that would be an accurate comparison, just multiplied by about 100x in intensity.
So, this was the predicament I found myself in today. I let out a slow breath as I slowly crept toward the door several times, peeking out at the concrete bunker a short sprint away. “GET YOUR ASS MOVING SGT JULIANO!” The words echoed through my brain as I tried to muster the courage, I would need to expose myself long enough to make it to that bunker I could see a short distance from me. I froze in fear and my legs refused to move.
Safety was right in front of me and yet it seemed like every time I would gather my wits and pop the door open, another round would detonate nearby, sending me into another fear-stricken panic. On the one hand, if I remained in that trailer, I didn’t have to directly deal with the fear of dying. On the other hand, if artillery hit the trailer I was in, I’d likely never feel it as the plywood and aluminum would give way to the horrible explosion. Christ, what a dichotomy to find yourself in.
Suddenly I paused and asked myself an honest question. Was this really the way I wanted to die?
As those mortars landed over and over one thing became clear to me. That is, one thing became as clear as mud to me. Something I believed but wasn’t exactly the case. My sense of reality was warped by the fear I experienced. This asshole, whoever he was, he wanted me dead. This person I never met before was intent on taking my life, I was sure of it.
I had experienced several close calls lately and I began to take it personal. Through my fear I was convinced this random insurgent had made it personal and absolutely would not stop until he knew I was dead. As crazy as it sounds, this person who had never seen me, knew what I looked like or that I was even in this toilet personally wanted me dead. I hated him and I hated the world.
Sitting in that plywood building and listening to mortars rain down while smelling other people’s bodily waste fueled my anger, my arrogance and incorrect observations of my present situation. While I understand there was a very real threat of death I was facing, it was ultimately myself that controlled how I chose to react.
In all honesty, if it were not me stuck in that bathroom it could have very well been someone else, anyone else. This asshole didn’t even know I was there. Insurgents do not care who you are and why should they? It’s just war, it’s nothing personal. Trainwrecks as fucked up as it is to say, just because someone is trying to kill you does not mean it’s personal. War sucks so get over it and yourself.
Just because we get caught in each other’s web of activity, it still does not make things personal. We cannot control the actions of others and it is only “US” that can make things personal. Sometimes people just want to kill someone or something and you cannot let that shit bother you. When we take things personal, we seek to control the actions of others.
I began to take things personal.
There was nothing personal about it. The reality was, I didn’t give a crap about this Asshole launching artillery in my direction and he didn’t give a crap about me. Things would have been no different had we been standing in an open field twenty feet apart, aiming rifles at each other’s faces. It was the ugliness of the situation at Camp Bucca.
We are taught as combatants we are not supposed to care about each other on any level as human beings during engagement, just want to rip each other’s throats out. I didn’t realize it but after weeks of mortars falling from the sky onto us, I finally resolved if I was going to die, it was just going to happen. I was, for the most part coming to grips with the reality of my situation.
The mission requirements at Camp Bucca had been underestimated and we were losing the initiative. These bouts of fear were the flaw in my courage. After months of rocket attacks, my once-iron nerve was beginning to crumble and fall. During some moments of the attacks I felt like I was once again back in Delaware as a small child and John Lachette, my first rapist was holding me down and using me until I cried like he did for years.
I felt powerless and unable to move. At other times I would spring into action the moment the first blast of an attack would rock the compound. I know this shit is crazy to read but at times I even strangely believed since I wasn’t dead yet, I was somehow invincible, immortal. I often took notes when I spoke to others who were involved in attacks on the compound and our convoys.
“It was as if I became the master of my gun turret like no one else ever has and I would become so laser focused as our truck barely missed getting pounded by a rocket propelled grenade (RPG), it was unreal.” Days later I wrote this quote in my journal spoken to me by a young NCO who was attacked on a convoy.
I recognized the young man entered his flow state when he transcended his fears and accepted reality for what it was. Quite a few of us entertained this insanity. This same insanity led to me thrill-seeking back at home on motorcycles and doing other stupid shit like running red-lights in Springfield, Illinois that will be discussed at another time. I’m ashamed of the things I’ve done which makes it even more important that I talk about them.
As another artillery round slammed into the ground nearby, I felt the force deep in my unarmored chest as I sat back down on a bench just inside the bathroom. I held my rifle against my face in a white-knuckled grip as I began to laugh, and tears welled in my eyes. I was losing it; I know I was. All the indicators were there, and I especially knew what to look for. Looking up and realizing how deep the gravity of my situation, my laughter rose to a loud audible roar. Yep, there I was losing my shit. I wasn’t laughing because I thought anything was funny.
Quite the contrary, I was laughing because I found myself in yet another fucked up situation that put my life at risk. No matter what I did, I just kept getting into trouble everywhere I went and now here I was and all I could do was sit there and just take it. I spent my whole adult life trying to become this tough soldier, yet once again, another person was trying to hurt me, and I was powerless. No amount of training or preparation would save me if I was struck.
As I sat there, I laughed, and I wept until the all-clear sirens sounded their call. I don’t know how long I sat there to be honest. I knew I had gotten through the event in one piece despite finding myself at times unable to accept the harsh reality surrounding me.
As one of my favorite authors, Ayn Rand pointed out, we can ignore the consequences of reality, but we cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality, so it is best to embrace our difficulties. I was reminded once again the only way out is through.
You’re Welcome. Internet.