(DISCLAIMER: The thoughts, opinions, and comments contained in this narrative in no way represent the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.)
King is dead in the back of the truck. He’s strapped to the litter with a foil blanket draped over top and tucked underneath his legs. It’s just me and him. The wounded are piled into the back of the other CasEvac humvee so that they don’t have to ride in the same vehicle as the KIAs. This is standard operating procedure. I’ve got the engine running so the heater will blow air into the back. King won’t shut up.
“What’s taking so long?” he says.
“We’re waiting on our security element.”
“Will you get me some Apple Jacks?”
“You can have Apple Jacks in hell.”
“I’m hungry, man.”
“You are the whiniest dead guy I’ve ever met.”
He makes a noise somewhere between a groan and a whimper and finally stops talking.
This is how it goes—a mad scramble to get ready, and then sit and wait forever. We’re waiting for Green Platoon to return from patrol to provide security for our convoy as we evacuate casualties to the rear. It has to have been over an hour, but I’m not sure, not wearing my watch. There was still light out when we spun up, and now it is full dark. My legs are starting to get stiff. I strip off my gloves and set them on the dash to warm up, un-strap my k-pot and place it next to the seat. The gravel sends a tingle up my shin as I step out of the truck and wobble my legs to get the feeling back.
Combat Outpost Wilderness is a square box, maybe one hundred meters per side, a small guard tower in each corner. The outer walls are made of wood, ten feet high, topped with concertina wire. Four pre-fab aluminum hooches and a series of ply-board shacks are spaced along the inside of the wall, leaving an open area in the center to stage vehicles. In terms of withstanding an attack, it’s about as safe as an eight-year-old’s tree house.
A few people are dashing from one building to another. I can’t tell who they are in the dark. I light a cigarette and lean against the hood of the humvee. The staccato whisper of small-arms fire carries down the road, from Jabr Nahr, or further. Red Platoon is out there, and Green. And Geronimo is out there somewhere, wreaking havoc and attrition on our patrols as they attempt to clear the village and surrounding area. Every patrol has returned with casualties. We’re on our way to becoming combat ineffective.
Green finally arrives, their string of gun trucks thundering through the gate and skidding to a stop in the gravel outside the TOC. Soldiers are climbing out, shouting a flurry of instructions back and forth, dumping brass out of the turrets, grabbing more ammo. Two more wounded are hoisted out of the trucks and carried to the casualty collection point. There are no KIAs.
I flick my butt on the ground and climb behind the wheel, strapping on my helmet.
“What’s going on?” croaks King.
There’s more shouting and scuffling outside. Green Platoon mounts up again. The passenger door opens and First Sergeant slides in.
“Let’s go,” he says.
“We’re going to be second, right behind the first gun truck.”
The lead truck makes a wrong turn out the gate, and we have to swing the humvees around on the narrow dirt road, trying not to get stuck in the low ditch on the shoulder. It’s a twenty-minute trip to FOB Anvil on roads rutted out by rain and mud. We make it to the ECP without incident and wind our way past the DFAC and housing area to the combat support hospital. Medics swarm the trucks as we pull up, assisting the wounded inside. I climb in the back and help lift King’s litter out of the truck and over to the emergency entrance, where a medic grabs my end.
“See you later,” King says.
“Dead guys don’t talk.”
We move the vehicles out of the loading area and stage off to the side as the First Sergeant heads to the battalion TOC to get a sitrep.
I light a cigarette and wait.
First Sergeant emerges from the TOC after fifteen minutes, and we’re underway again.
West of Jabr Nahr, the road runs through a low gully before curving around to the south of the village. The shoulder slopes away on both sides to join a thick tree line. Our lead humvee is two hundred meters from the turn when the bomb goes off. A white flash and an ear-splitting pop erupt from the left-hand side of the road, and the truck is stopped dead. The crippled vehicle is blocking our movement. The entire convoy is at a standstill. I scan the tree line on my side of the road but can’t make out anything in the shadows.
We are trapped in the killzone.
“Get ready,” First Sergeant says, opening his door. “They’re coming.”
He dismounts and grabs his rifle, jogging ahead towards the disabled truck. I swing my rifle up and check the magazine. My NVGs are in the outer pocket of my vest, but they are out of batteries, and I gave my rhino mount to another soldier. In any case, the left iris is broken, allowing me only partial night vision at best. I open the door and angle my weapon at the woods, waiting for the ambush, scanning for moving shadows or flickers in the light breaks between trees.
A quick splutter and a burst of light from the woodline to our nine o’clock, not twenty-five meters away. The machinegun makes a noise like an angry woodpecker digging in your ear. Behind me, the gun truck answers with a long belch from the fifty cal. And suddenly the trees explode with rifle and machinegun fire. I jump out of the truck, firing a short burst toward the shadows, and scurry around the hood to the other side of the truck.
Our guns are thumping away now, but there doesn’t seem to be any decrease to the enemy’s rate of fire. I squat behind the right front tire and brace my rifle on the hood. I still can’t see any bodies, so I’m just firing at muzzle flashes, trying to talk my weapon with the bursts from the fifty.
When I crouch down to change magazines, it occurs to me how pointless this is. And I laugh. My MILES gear is malfunctioning. It has been screwy all day. And after the third time I had to have it reset, I decided to just switch it off. I can’t be “killed”, but neither can I hit anything, as the laser on my weapon isn’t sending out any signals. All I’m doing is making noise.
But who cares. This is the most fun I’ve had in weeks. I slap the magazine home and keep shooting.
After a few minutes, Geronimo breaks contact and retreats through the woods. They’ve scored several casualties on us. Who knows if we hit any of them. First Sergeant is conferring with the TM. They are performing a battle damage assessment and debrief on our reaction to contact. The stink of it is that many of our tactics and procedures are neutralized by the training environment. Our first response to a real IED attack, for example, would have been to immediately push out of the killzone. I would have gunned our vehicle and rammed the humvee in front of us to get it out of the area. But here, we have to stop so that the referee can assess the casualties to the downed truck, allowing Geronimo the perfect ambush opportunity. They know this, and they turn it to their advantage.
Back at COP Wilderness, we park the humvee in front of the CCP, and I head back to the hooch. Sergeant Harris, Specialist Rosas, and I are sharing a plywood shack no bigger than a walk-in closet. It has one electrical outlet, a single bare light bulb suspended from the low ceiling, and no heat. I strip off my vest and tuck it underneath my cot, and I lie down and close my eyes.
“What’s up?” Rosas says.
“Not much. Me and First Sergeant got into a gun fight.”
Winter at Fort Polk is wet and cold, at least by Central Texas standards. It doesn’t look the way I pictured Louisiana—no swamps or alligators—just acres and acres of dusty, low-rolling hills covered in swatches of some sort of pine tree with needles that turn bright orange. I think they’re pines. I don’t know much about trees.
Fort Polk is the location of the Joint Readiness Training Center, a massive range designed to simulate a realistic combat deployment scenario for brigade-sized units. Every combat brigade is required to complete a training rotation here, or at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, prior to going overseas. The Second Brigade Combat Team of First Cavalry Division has been at Polk for three weeks now, since early January 2011.
The majority of my time here has been spent doing inventory and signing out MILES and other training equipment to the line platoons. Now that the company has moved from the rear to COP Wilderness, my primary occupation is ladle jockey, as Supply does not have much to do other than serve chow. I try to play it off, joking with the guys that I’ve started a new MOS—Eleven Lima Lima, Infantry Lunch Lady. But I’m miserable. The other infantrymen get to play in the woods and kick down doors, while I’m stuck scooping mushy eggs out of mermites. I jump at every chance to drive for the First Sergeant, as menial a task as it might be.
After six days at the COP, the main exercise concludes, and we relocate to FOB Anvil to begin preparations for leaving JRTC. All the vehicles, radios, MILES gear, and other assorted equipment on loan from Fort Polk have to be collected and turned in. We’ve got three days to do this, whereas it took three weeks to issue out. Luckily, apart from a few damaged items that require some additional paperwork, we manage to get everything sorted out with minimal trouble. We board up on coach buses and make the trip back to Hood.