Monday, June 27, 2005

A typical day at work

The following is an article about our unit that was published in the Dallas Morning News. The author enumerates his experience with one of our platoons when he was imbedded for a day. The platoon was conducting combat patrols, which is something they do almost every day, so this is just a typical day at the office for them.

LT Garcia was one of my Platoon leaders when I was a company commander. He is an excellent leader and an outstanding officer and this article aptly reflects that fact. It's also interesting to note that if not for the young shepard boy the platoon may not have found the IED that day. But because of his help it is very likley an American soldier was saved from injury or worse. This is more evidence of the typical citizen's disdain for the insurgency.

It's a bit of a lengthy read, but well worth it.

For Texas unit, job is explosive.
Guard members hunt for deadly homemade bombs along Iraqi route.

By VERNON SMITH JR. Staff Writer
Published June 4, 2005

The young Iraqi shepherd spoke little English but found a way to get the Texas soldiers' attention.

"Boom!" he said, pointing to a culvert in his field.

The shepherd approached on a recent morning as the Texas Army National Guard convoy stopped to scour a section of highway for the deadly homemade bombs used widely by Iraq's insurgency.

Since they landed in Iraq in January, the 56th Brigade Combat Team has had the dangerous job of searching for roadside bombs along one of the U.S. military's major supply routes. The crude bombs have killed and maimed hundreds of U.S. and allied troops and have sparked intense pressure for the Pentagon to provide American forces with more better-armored vehicles.

After confirming the shepherd's discovery - two 122 mm mortar rounds bound together in the culvert - soldiers stopped traffic on the six-lane highway in both directions, and cars soon began to stack up.

It would be more than five hours before Navy experts arrived to destroy the mortars, enough time for the Texas soldiers to experience the improvisational rhythm of life in a world thousands of miles from home.

Hours before the 56th BCT soldiers inspected the highway, ditches and culverts for bombs, Lt. Ben Garcia of San Angelo reviewed the game plan for the morning's patrol.

"We're going to keep them off us, today, right?" said Lt. Garcia, standing in front of his team inside a room with a foosball table and shelves crammed with paperbacks and breakfast cereal.

"Hoo-ah!" they responded.

"Nobody is going to get close to us!"


The soldiers know the drill, but Lt. Garcia leaves little to chance. The briefing is as much a pep talk as it is a mini-lecture on the various insurgent tactics and threats that await outside Camp Scania, about 60 miles south of Baghdad.

Iraq's modern network of highways and paved roads provides coalition forces high-speed movement across the country. The same highways also make them vulnerable to enemy attacks.

Across Iraq, U.S. military convoys are routinely hit by attackers who try to crash their bomb-laden vehicles into a convoy.

Last month, 80 U.S. troops were killed, many in multiple blasts caused by suicide attackers, car bombs or roadside explosions, making it the second-deadliest month this year.

Signs warning motorists to stay clear hang on the back of each 56th BCT Humvee, and a driver who ventures too close risks a warning shot or worse.

Parked or abandoned vehicles along the highway also warrant concern.

"If we see a vehicle on the side of the road and nobody is in or near it, that's suspicious," Lt. Garcia said. "In this country, these people do not leave anything of value alone by itself."

The soldiers are reminded to stay alert for people and vehicles along traffic chokepoint areas where the convoy may slow and bunch up, making itself vulnerable to an ambush. Attackers have also dropped bombs, known by the military as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, from highway overpasses and dangled them from bridge guardrails, making Humvee gunners especially vulnerable.

"Anybody you see watching you intently could be somebody with an IED," Lt. Garcia said.

Maj. Phillip Lunt, an intelligence officer from Killeen, said insurgents have found creative ways of disguising the weapons along roads traveled by military convoys.

IEDs have been hidden in soda cans, plastic trash bags and animal carcasses and under piles of rubbish. They have been stuffed into the frame of a child's bicycle and encased in concrete to make them look like harmless concrete blocks.

"They can look like anything," Maj. Lunt said.

Many of the weapons are made from artillery shells, mortar rounds and other unsecured munitions that can be found across Iraq. The bombs often are detonated from a distance by a remote control device like a garage door opener, car alarm, doorbell or cellphone.

Since January, 56th BCT route clearance operations have uncovered at least 28 IEDs and munitions caches. Seven of the brigade's 3,000 soldiers have been injured in roadside bomb incidents.

But the brigade has suffered no fatalities, a fact that the brigade commander, Col. James K. "Red" Brown, attributed to the armored vehicles and the protective helmet and vest each soldier wears.

Col. Brown said although armor can't guarantee total safety, "every Humvee we put outside the wire is Level 2 or better." Level 2 refers to factory-made kits with thick steel doors and anti-ballistic windows added to trucks or Humvees. Col. Brown said he was awaiting delivery of 60 new factory-armored Humvees.

"If you look at coalition vehicles, no other country has anything that even comes close to the level of protection the United States has on its wheeled vehicles," Col. Brown said.

Spc. Jerome Hawkins, a member of the unit, was riding in a convoy a few months ago when a bomb exploded between two Humvees approaching an overpass near Abu Ghraib, a western suburb of Baghdad. Two men were seen sprinting from the scene.

"They didn't time it right, which was a blessing on our part," said Spc. Hawkins, an Arlington resident.

Fifteen minutes after the explosion, another Army convoy up ahead found a bomb hanging from a bridge overpass and closed the highway, he said.

"I think everybody was a little shocked that day," Spc. Hawkins said. "We had just rolled through Ramadi, where they have Marines in tanks on all the bridges. So everybody got a little bit relaxed. I think when all this happened, it got everybody's attention."

Back on the highway where the shepherd located the latest bomb, a few Iraqi drivers waved tentatively to the Texas soldiers at the roadblock before turning onto an impromptu detour that sent them in the opposite direction. But in the relentless sun, most of the drivers wore resigned, grim-faced expressions.

The detour required sedans, pickups, station wagons and buses to drive off the pavement and across a winding, rutted dirt path more suited to four-wheel-drive sport utility vehicles. Dust clouds swirled around women in black abayas and other passengers forced to step out of vehicles so that drivers could get past the worst spots.

Although pleased about the morning's discovery, the soldiers grew more anxious by the hour. Wide open and stuck on the highway, they were a perfect target for trouble. At one point, a gunshot from an unknown source sent them sprinting for cover.

"I got eyes on a guy standing straight up at 3 o' clock," shouted Sgt. Brad Raphelt, a Humvee gunner from Arlington, training his binoculars at a figure in a field about 300 yards from the highway. "He's been standing out there ever since we pulled up."

Sgt. Jose Peredez of San Saba, the Humvee's commander, grabbed his binoculars for a look. He told Spc. Michael Scantling of Dublin to get on the radio and alert the rest of the convoy so that more soldiers could help watch the man.

At one point, an ambulance crept up to the roadblock, creating a brief frenzy as soldiers pointed their weapons and yelled for the driver and passenger to get out of the vehicle. Soldiers searched the ambulance because insurgents in Iraq reportedly have used them in car bomb attacks and to transport weapons.

The driver told an Iraqi translator that he needed to go through the roadblock to reach a hospital, but soldiers told him to turn around and find an alternate route.

The tension on the road eased when a flock of sheep paraded past the convoy to an adjacent field.

Finally, the team of Navy bomb demolition experts and Polish army soldiers arrived, and a small camera-equipped robot attached an explosive charge to the mortars.

Some soldiers reached into their pockets for cameras, hoping to document the blast for their scrapbooks. With a thunderous explosion, the mortars in the shepherd's field were destroyed. The highway reopened and traffic returned to normal.

"It's just a typical day out here," said Spc. Bruce Grove, a self-storage company operator from Lewisville, who pulled sentry duty at one of the roadblocks. "We see it all, and anything can happen."


Friday, June 24, 2005

Patience, America.

I'm hearing a lot of rehtoric lately regarding the growing concern over our progress in Iraq. In my previous post I took issue with Senator Chuck Hagel who made the assertion that we are "losing in Iraq". Today I've seen headlines about the grilling Defense Secretary Rumsfeld took from a Senate committe and caught snippets of the exchange on CNN.

Then they start throwing the poll numbers around. The one I've seen quoted the most along with some verbiage along the lines of how America is growing weary of the war in Iraq:

CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll. June 16-19, 2005. N=1,006 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3.

Do you favor or oppose the U.S. war with Iraq?

Favor Oppose Unsure

% % %

6/16-19/05 39 59 2

3/18-20/05 47 47 6

11/19-21/04 48 46 6

54 43 3

4/22-23/03 71 26 3

72 22 6

68 28 4

70 27 3

3/29-30/03 70 27 3

3/24-25/03 71 27 2

3/22-23/03 72 25 3

First, I'd like to know why we are still asking this question. To me it is the equivalent of asking a first time sky-diver if they "approve" of jumping out of a perfectly good airplane as they stand on the edge. Most likely you'll get a "thumbs-up" since they are at least commited to the "idea " of jumping. But let's imagine you were somehow able to ask them the same question once they have left the plane and are hurtling towards the earth at a very high rate of speed. At that point the answer is completely irrelavant since they are already commited to the cause and there is no turning back.

We (the troops on the ground) are just as committed, and we need to know we have the support of the American people. We believe in this cause because we are here and able to look into the eyes of the Iraqi people and know we are making a difference.

We've jumped, ladies and gentlemen. Now let's finish the job we set out to do.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

We're losing?

I ususally try to stay above the fray when it comes to voicing my opinions of the ongoing rehtoric about the war in Iraq. But I can't be silent after reading this article which quotes Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) as saying "that we're losing in Iraq."

Excuse me?! By which criteria are you making this assertion, Senator? As of this morning I have heard nothing from my chain of command indicating that we have lost the will to fight, have failed to hold key locations, or are on the verge of withdrawl or surrender. At least one of these criteria would have to be met in order for us to be "losing" here in Iraq. To the contrary, we continue to capture or kill insurgents daily through audacious, offensive operations. The Iraqi people have elected a government of their choosing for the first time in half a century, and I personally have talked to many Iraqis who are elated and have a new found hope because of the changes they are seeing in their country.

I did some reseearch on Seantor Hagel and learned that he is a Vietnam Veteran and earned two Purple Hearts as an Infantry Squad Leader. I am extremely grateful for his service, but I am also extremly dissapointed since he, above most, should be keenly aware of the impact of such statements. Is he entitled to his opinion? Absolutely! But he had better make darn sure he has his facts straight when making such bold statements. Otherwise it only appears that he is trying to draw attention to himself just like any other self-serving politician.

You can visit the Senator's web site here.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Balls instead of Bombs

Some of the soldiers in our unit get together with some of the local villagers for a weekly game of soccer. Soccer in this part of the world (they call it football) is like football in the U.S. They are very passionate about the sport, begin playing at a young age, and follow their favorite teams. Personally, running up and down a field chasing after a ball in 100+ degree weather looks a little like "work" to me so I haven't actually played yet. Not to mention the Iraqis are really good at this sport so we usually take a schlacking (They even loaned us some guys in order to even the odds). However, I did take some photos at the last game in order to show you some more good stories you won't see on the evening news.

This little guy was a bit too young to play, but he anxiously stood on the sidelines anyway.

They take their soccer very seriously.

Team mates discussing strategy.

They even beat us playing bare-footed. Since most of these guys grew up without any shoes they can tolerate just about anything. It wouldn't surprise me a bit to see one of them walk over a bed of hot coals.

Having an irrigation ditch on one side of the field and barbed wire on the other presented some interesting challenges. I think you'll agree by the picture, however, that it presented some opportunities as well.

Regardless of the score, I think both sides won.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005


This was taken at about 3:00 The themometer was out of direct sunlight so it was literally 120 degrees in the shade. Of course, this themometer only goes up to 120 so it may have been warmer.

I've been asked what it feels like when it gets this hot. The best way to describe it is; set your oven on 150, stick your head inside, take a blow dryer with it's hottest setting, and blow it in your face. That's pretty much what it feels like.

Now if there is anyone who would actually try this experiment it would be my brother, Jessic.

Let me know how it goes, bro'.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Another perspective

Michael Yon is a freelance journalist travelling with 1-24 Infantry, 25th Infantry Division also known as "Deuce-Four". I have been following his blog for a while and find his accounts from the frontline both gripping and honest.

In this particular story, Michael shares the story of time he spent in the city of Dohuk located in Northern Iraq. Dohuk's population is largely Kurdish, who have sought an independent state for decades suffered immensely under Saddam's regime. Michael's account of his time spent there is a refreshing contrast to the daily reports of car bombs and civillian casulaties. Stop by and give it a read. You'll be glad you did.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Knock, knock...

I rose to the sound of someone knocking on the door of my tent at about 2230 hrs the other night. I opened the door to find the Operations Sergeant Major standing before me. I was surprised it was him, and instantly curious since this was an unusual visit.

"What's up?" I asked.

"We've got a KIA coming in," he replied with a deadpanned face.

I looked down and cursed the air. "Is it one of ours?" I asked before I could stop myself. As soon as the words left my lips I began chastising myself internally. "What the heck difference does that make, Upperman? Is a soldier from another unit somehow less valuable?" A life was gone and a family would be getting a dreaded phone call. That's all that mattered.

"No. It's not one ours," he replied. "Another unit had a vehicle accident north of here and they're evacuating the body to our location."

I cursed the air again. Every life cut short over here is lamented. But losing soldiers because of an accident is particularly painful because we're so certain it was preventable. Either a procedure wasn't followed, or a detail was overlooked. Something could have been done to keep it from happening.

After this short and painful conversation I quickly realized that the Sergeant Major wasn't looking for me. Rather he was there for my roommate. A fellow captain who is also a funeral director back in his civillain life. Unfortunately, this isn't the first time he's been called upon for this sort of thing. This happens about once a month because of our location on the route. All of them from different causes…

but all equally painful.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

One medal I'd rather not have

We presented our first Purple Heart the other day. Hopefully it's our last. The impetus for this particular award was for an event I chronicled back in February. (Yes, it takes that long to process the paperwork). As you can see by the pics below, the soldier is fine now. He was pretty banged up by the IED that hit his vehicle, but thankfully he and his crew members are back on the prowl.

I find it amazing to look at this kid and consider what he has been through at such a young age. He barely looks old enough to vote and yet he's taking enemy fire in a combat zone. Just a few short years ago he was probably conemplating what pretty girl he was going to take to prom. Now his only girlfriend is his M4 rifle that is always by his side.

It was a good day for a ceremony. The weather was pleasant and the soldier's brother, who is a contractor in Baghdad, was able to attend. He's a quiet and humble kid and he didn't want to have the ceremony, but we all wanted him to know we were proud of him, and most of all...that everything turned out okay.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Road Warriors

I just returned from a short trip. My destination was six hours round trip, and the three hours each way just about sucked the life out of me. The ride is monotonous and the barely-working air conditioner was struggling to make a difference in the 115 degree temperature outside. Combine all of this with an extra 40 pounds of body armor and gear, and you have a sweat-drenched uniform at the end of the trip.

Yet I only do this a few times a month. The troops in our unit are doing this daily, and sometimes they are travelling ten or twelve hours round trip. They are either providing security for re-supply convoys, or they are performing patrols along the road looking for IED's or any other signs of bad guys. As they repeatedly drive along these routes they are watching and waiting for the next ambush. I'm sure they feel like moving targets as they wonder when the next IED, RPG, and/or the next round of gunfire goes off in a less than desirable direction. A vast majority of the time nothing happens, but sometimes there is that "brief moment of chaos" that I have referred to previously. So far we have been fortunate with no serious injuries. But there have been some very close calls.

I guess my point in all of this (and yes, I do have one) is that I see these guys doing this day in and day out, and it makes me proud. It reminds me of why we have the greatest Army in the world. Because men like these (some are barely old enough to be called "men") are willing to do a job that no one else will do. Do they gripe and complain? You betcha! Griping is practically an art form in the Army. If Joe isn't complaining about something, then he's probably sleeping. But despite all the monaing and groaning he crawls out of the rack every morning and does his job in a manner that should make you proud. Every day he puts his neck on the line for a place he doesn't call home and for a people that he doesn't know... and he does it with honor and integrity.

Let no one convince you of anything less.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Time Remaining

I know some of my friends at Dell are really going to appreciate the spreadsheet below, but unfortunately I can't take credit it for it. Apparently some staff officer somewhere had too much time on his hands and put together this tool that calculates how much time you have left on your deployment.

Based on my arrival date of 5 January, and assuming I have exactly 365 days of "boots on ground" I have completed 41% of my time here. As of this writing I have to still have to complete the following milestones:
  • 7.2 months
  • 31 weeks
  • 216.06 days
  • 5,202 hours
  • 311,148 minutes
  • 18,668,050.44 seconds

I usually try not to dwell on how much time I have left and just focus on one day at a time. But now that I only have two months before my R&R leave I find myself thinking about it more often. I've got five months under my belt and at the end of July I'll get to spend two glorious weeks with my family. I can hardly wait.

I'll be on the road for the next few days, so this will probably be my last blog until I get back.

Until then,