Notes From Iraq

Going Home by Eric Smith

I ducked to avoid the hot, oily blast of rotorwash and walked up the ramp into the back of the last helicopter. Inside the aircraft was at half capacity, my companions buckling themselves into the red nylon seats along the wall. After the crew finished strapping down the duffel bags and rucksacks in an orderly pile in the center they, too, sat down. No one spoke, or tried to, and if we wanted to talk, the twin engines above us created such a din the only option was to put in earplugs and enjoy the ride. It was late in any case, far past midnight, and we were tired.
            The engines changed pitch as the pilot lifted the ungainly machine into the air. We circled the FOB once while we gained altitude and then headed for Kirkuk, and FOB Warrior. After we left the dust on the ground behind, the crew chief lowered the tailgate and I watched the lights of Hawijah, prominent in the dark countryside, grow smaller and smaller until they disappeared. In the darkness below I imagined the routes and checkpoints, villages, sheiks, projects, operations, craters, and ghosts and watched them disappear into the night. The pilot banked around the oil fields on the outskirts of Kirkuk, dodged the exhaust vents belching orange flames and asphalt smells into the night, and turned to the airport. I could see the silhouette of our companion aircraft behind us and to one side as it followed. Then it faded into the shadows.
            When we landed at the airfield it was our turn to be hustled off the aircraft. 'Grab a bag!' 'Get your ID card out!' 'Move to the bus!' We walked past the long lines of Soldiers, several days ahead of us in the process, waiting for the Air Force to take them to Kuwait, and then home. An orderly ran my ID card through a bar-code scanner and it was done. I write this as we sit in Kuwait, waiting for the flight back to Fort Drum. There are only fifty of us left, the other 600 Soldiers from our battalion are already home.
            The battalion that has landed has begun to change, and over the course of the next few months we will become a different unit entirely, barely recognizable from the one that existed a few weeks ago. The stuff that makes up a unit, the daily dramas and little legends, will fade into half-remembered stories and anecdotes. What was so relevant and pressing to us on FOB McHenry is past, evaporated into the ether, gone to memory. 

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Volume 5, Issue 2, Posted 11:23 PM, 01.27.2009

Coming and Going: Replacements Arrive

The Soldiers standing at the edge of the helicopter landing were in a single file beside the earthen barriers, shifting their feet back and forth, talking in low, muted tones, lit only by the faint glow of red landing lights and burning cigarettes.  Their bags were piled around them, not more than an arm-length away, looking in the midnight darkness like a random jumble of sacks, strewn in the same formation as their owners.  Other Soldiers, distinguishable by the lit chemlights hanging from their shoulders, moved back and forth, counting and recounting, checking names against the manifest.           

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Volume 5, Issue 1, Posted 10:16 AM, 01.14.2009

Sleepless in TaqTaq

Lakewood native Eric Smith has been serving in Iraq since May. Major Smith is stationed at Forward Operating Base McHenry, near Kirkuk.

A’salaam aleukum.” Hello.“A’salaam aleukum,” the portly sheikh replied. “Issa ra’id Smith, bejeishi Amerikani.” I’m Major Smith from the American Army. The sheikh burst loose with a three minute welcome speech, unaware that I had just exhausted my Arabic vocabulary. I waved my hand, smiled, and fired off my last word, “mudjerd.” Interpreter. He laughed when he realized that his welcome had been received in spirit, but not understood. He reached out, grabbed my hand, and walked me to the city council room, still speaking a mile a minute, while I nodded politely...

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Volume 4, Issue 25, Posted 8:02 AM, 09.25.2008

Notes from Iraq: I Tapped My Eye

*Lakewood native Eric Smith has been serving in Iraq since May. Major Smith is stationed at Forward Operating Base McHenry, near Kirkuk.*

“Pass me up a bottle of water.” The gunner reached down from his perch halfway out of the top of the MRAP while keeping one hand on the machine gun he was using to provide cover for our vehicle. Matt, our interpreter, who was sitting closest to the cooler in the back of the vehicle, handed him a bottle...

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Volume 4, Issue 24, Posted 7:01 PM, 10.12.2008

Notes from Iraq: Lakewood Native Eric Smith writes home: An IED, sad LAD, and Soccer Diplomacy

Last week we were reminded that Iraq remains a very dangerous place when one of our vehicles was hit by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device). An unknown insurgent buried some type of explosive along the side of a road and when one of our vehicles drove by, he detonated it. Fortunately, the vehicle was an MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected, pronounced em-rap). The MRAP is extremely popular with the Soldiers and we have had numerous cases of Soldiers choosing MRAPs over other vehicles when they are assigned missions outside the wire. It’s fully armored and designed to withstand blasts from mines and IEDs.In this instance, the Soldiers inside bailed out of the truck. No one was hurt. Chips and divots in the MRAP’s steel armor on the side of the blast attested to the lethality of the IED, and had it been another type of vehicle, we would have suffered casualties...
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Volume 4, Issue 19, Posted 9:05 PM, 07.22.2008