Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Fog (Smoke) of War

Combat photography is an interesting subject, full of cool photos, but often I can't help but think to myself, 'Self, why does this guy not have a rifle in his hands and why is he not killing someone right now?'

Well, I found out the answer to that one... sorta.


The distinctive "Wwwwwwwhhhhhrrrrr!!!!" preceded the inevitable explosions as the enemy mortars and rockets exploded within the Forward Operating Base (FOB) perimeter. Inevitably, curses and joyous shouts filled the air from my Marines.

Myself and my squad were hanging out in the 'morgue', so named for the large empty rooms filled with the slabs of concrete, about 25 of them, that would be perfect for bodies... except for the whole being in the middla Iraq, no A/C, and all that jazz. This being the Corps, said slabs were topped with 3 inch high foam pads and called, 'beds'. 'Morgue' was just another name for our quarters.

We'd made do with what we had at hand, filling the odd sand-bag that had emptied out and re-stacking them in the windows, re-hung a black-out curtain in the doorway, 'acquired' an odd mattress and some cots, enough for each slab, and even appropriated some spare lumber for the cause. I had a number of amateur and semi-pro carpenters, mechanics, computer super-nerds, electricians, and assorted riff-raff to take care of the odd jobby here and there, and while it was still far from approaching a comfy level, my guys had managed to work between patrols to add some appliances, hang some speakers, and construct a few lofts. One enterprising bugger had made his loft about eight feet high, hung curtains all around his rack - from top frame to concrete slab, organized a veritable dry-goods grocery / uh... 'alternative reading' aisle on the slab, and hung a sign from the head of his rack entitled, 'The Jack Shack'. Even had a little platform for his DVD player that angled down to his rack, I guess to leave his hands free for... whatever. His favorite line before getting in the rack wasn't the infamous 'Prepare to mount...' that most every Marine remembers from boot, but 'If the rack is a rockin', don't come a knockin...'

That's my war, baby.

The slab next to his was empty and served as the community care package, extra pogey bait, 'instructional DVD', 'reading material', and etc collection point. It also was the MAPs card table, as needed.

Marine will gamble and bet on darn near anything.

Call it too much time and money and not enough sense, but Marines will take bets on how long they can avoid taking bets. They would bet for firewatch, chow, DVDs, bragging rights, money, trinkets, and just about anything you can imagine.

They would even bet on stuff like enemy action.

If I remember correctly, the longest we went without enemy mortars or rockets was something on the order of about 9 days, so whenever we'd get to about four or five days free from incoming, you better believe that there was some interesting bets going on. Whenever the inevitable would happen, there were a few phrases that you could always expect to hear;

1) Incoming! / Cover! (no kidding)

2) Get some!

3) QRF up! (Quick Reaction Force, or the guys that go looking for trouble when it's already found you.)

4) Yeah, Five and a half days! Pay up, bitches!

Number four was what I heard immediately after the explosions.

I mumbled and grumbled and jumped out of the rack. We weren't officially the QRF (Quick Reaction Force), but the assigned QRF had already been launched for some suspicious activity in the AO. As we were the only MAP (Mobile Assault Platoon) on the reservation at the time, it wasn't a leap to figure that we'd be tasked with going to the party. My guys, seeing me grabbing my gear, muttered their own commentary and grabbed their own gear. Not that it needed to be said, but I sounded off to my Assistant Squad Leader across the room, 'Comm and weapons checks, stage the Victors by the CoC, stand by to Oscar Mike!' He gave me a sleepy thumbs up and scratched his nuts whilest looking for some gear. Guess it was nappy time for him too.

I hustled down the stairs at the end of the building, narrowly avoided getting run over by one of my own Hummers tearing ass over to the staging area, and jogged to the Command Center.

It was hoppin'.

I blew a kiss to the new PFC manning the radio, sidled up to the Staff Sergeant at the map table, and asked if he knew where the POI (point of origin) was. He nodded as the building rattled with more incoming. I told him that I was going to the vehicles, my call sign, and that we'd be ready to launch in about 3 minutes. He nodded as the room began to flood with Officers and Staff NCOs. I exited the room, turned the corner and was pretty much at my vehicles. Victor 1, my own, was staged just beyond the edge of the building, facing the road that eventually led out of the FOB. My guys were tightening down straps on their flacks, fingering their mags, and re-checking their gear - basically just killing time before we launched. I yelled at one knucklehead and asked if he heard the incoming, then asked him why his kevlar wasn't on his head. My ASL came up to me, told me that all Marines were present and ready to go, victors were good, the radio on victor 4 was acting froggy, but he had the comm Yoda on it. If Yoda could get it up and running before we left, great; if not, we'd just swap out vehicle positions.

I grabbed the command dedicated radio and did a comm check.

"Command, Command, this is Black 1, radio check, over."

"Last station, say again your last, over?"

"Black 1, comm check, I'm good to go and ready to launch, how copy, over?"

"What's your pos, Black 1?"

Come on, PFC, get with the program...

I leaned over a few feet and pounded on the wall with my free hand.

*thump, thump*

"Roger Black, stand by."

Turning back to my vehicle, I looked through the windshield and noticed a curious sight from the palm groves down the way... smoke, and lots of it.

I looked up at my gunner standing in the turret, behind the 240G and with binos to his eyes. "Is that what I think it is?" I asked him, and he responded in the affirmative. "Fuckers look like they are just inside / behind the tree line, but yeah, Sergeant, that's where it's coming from."

"Do we have the range?"

"Nope. Our mortars do, guys at the gate do... maybe, but not us, not here."

I rogered up on the radio to tell command that we had eyes on, and to request permission to leave friendly lines. I got told to stand by. Again. My Marines were getting antsy, looking to kill something, anything, wh-

There was a massive explosion that rocked the buildings, shook the ground, and rattled your teeth.

As we still hadn't gotten the go ahead to depart the FOB, I told my guys to leave the (unarmored) victors and get inside the (sandbagged) building. They immediately made for the nearest building, and probably got a few looks as they tried to occupy the same space as nearly all the FOB's Staff & Officers. Hey hey hay! - Party time!

I had stayed with the vehicles to maintain eyes on (my vehicles - heck, there's Marines about) and to welcome any unexpected visitors should they over-run the combination USMC and ING gate guard contingent (unlikely). Probably a good thing that the ING guys didn't cut and run (more likely), because if they had come running around the bend in front of my vehicle, well... it probably would've sucked to've been them.

About the time when I started to wonder if I was gonna have to run down to the FOB's 81smm gun line and start kickin' ass and takin' names, the FOB resumed their return fire.

'So there I was', hanging out at the vehicles, out of return fire range, well within enemy range, on orders to 'stand by to stand by'... business as usual. I just happened to have the camera that my folks sent me...

Mortars: Reach out and touch someone.

It got kind of busy after that but all in all, it was a good day.