Wednesday, September 30, 2009



“If you want to see guts, this is the place to see it.”

In the summer of 2006, I found myself working in Northern Iraq for a British contracting company. I was one of thousands of British former servicemen enticed to the region by big bucks.

Every American soldier I met when I worked alongside the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army was an ambassador for the U.S. military and a testament to the country they served.

My journey into Iraq was a three-day whirlwind, beginning with an interview in the Channel Islands off the coast of mainland England. Within twelve hours I was told that I was hired, another twelve and I was dropped on the tarmac at Kuwait International Airport.

Walking out onto the tarmac, I saw our transport, a twin-engine turboprop and I had my doubts as to its airworthiness. Luckily, the blinding sun meant that I couldn’t get a good look at the overall state of what the CRG recruiter had described as a “corporate jet.” Inside, the seats were ordinary chairs bolted to the floor. There was a Russian crew of five to fly the aircraft and during the flight, it appeared that all five were needed; indeed it appeared that five was a skeleton crew and that another four would have been appreciated. I made sure not to mention that I was a qualified commercial pilot for fear of being pressed into service.


The takeoff was about as uneventful as I would expect, a little too much shouting for my liking. In the air, we were informed that prior to Kirkuk, we would be landing in Basra and then Tikrit. A week previously, a British army helicopter had been shot down in Basra by a surface-to-air missile; Tikrit had its own reputation, too. After an hour of flying, the throttles were pulled back and we began to drop. I say drop and not descend because a descent would suggest a controlled speed. A siren wailed that I knew to be the overspeed horn; this meant that the structure of the aircraft (namely the wings) was being exposed to pressure that could be described as a load. Once the load reaches a critical level, the overspeed horn sounds. The dreaded warning sound was designed to warn that the wings would probably fall off.

The pilot continued to keep the nose down and went into a spiraling dive, much to my horror, as now I was absolutely certain that we were flying outside the envelope of the aircraft’s known capabilities.


In a rapid spiral descent, a surface-to-air missile would be more challenged to home in on the plane. As we dropped, the temperature increased until, as the pilot pulled the nose up to the angle where the plane was about to stall (now the stall warning siren wailed), he deployed full flaps and we slid onto the baking runway. The passengers were all drenched in sweat; mine was a cold sweat but soon warmed up. The doors dropped onto Basra runway and I felt like I had opened the oven door with my face too close.

We didn’t spend long at Basra, took on some supplies and made off again at greater speed than from Kuwait to avoid the unseen SAMs. We repeated the process at Tikrit and then again at Kirkuk, but this time we stayed on the ground.

Two vehicles were waiting for us in Kirkuk—one was a minibus, the other a GMC pickup with some welcome bottles of water, although they were as hot as a cup of coffee. This was Forward Operating Base Warrior in summer.

Inside the air-conditioned minibus, there was a euphoria that one would not expect of those arriving in a war zone. We had survived the lunatic pilots.


I was astounded at the size of FOB Warrior base and the facilities on offer; it had its own Pizza Hut, Burger King and Subway. There was even a bus service to get from one end of the camp to another. We were taken to the CRG accommodations, where we were assigned our own air-conditioned portacabins and allowed to get some rest.

The next few days we ran through weapons training on the variety of small arms that we were issued: the Sig 552 Commando Assault rifle, the Glock 17 and the Minimi Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW).

We practiced vehicle and foot contact drills, and “crossdecking,” which is the practice of moving wounded colleagues and clients from a stricken vehicle to a serviceable one under fire.

Our brief was simple; we would provide close protection for Georgian oil pipeline repair workers working on a two-mile stretch of pipeline that, if fixed, could pump millions of barrels of crude oil every week. The revenue from this oil was to be used toward reconstructing Iraq, defeating the insurgents and restoring some sort of normality to the region.

At the briefing I hooked up with a former colleague, Mark. Six of us convoyed in an armoured white Toyota landcruiser crammed with supplies. Half an hour later, we had crossed the massive base, where at the front gate, the USAF soldier hauled up the barrier and we set off for our destination some twenty kilometers away down Route Cherry.


Exiting a protective US military base instantly identifies you as fair game for insurgents. The frontline follows you around. We speed along, never coming to a complete stop and never letting our concentration waver for a moment. We crossed the occasional Iraqi police checkpoint with a watchful eye, weapons cocked on the police, who were known to liaise with the insurgents.

We drove past craters in the road where improvised explosive devices (IEDs) had detonated, the wrecked remains of vehicles littered Route Cherry, serving as a reminder to remain vigilant.

Over the radio, the lead vehicle called “MNFI, MNFI!” The entire convoy braked and lurched off the road, as through the heat haze ahead a Humvee approached.

Multi-National Forces Iraq (MNFI) were, generally speaking, Americans, although the name implied an international presence.

As the Humvee drew closer, my eyes flashed toward the Union Jack in the windscreen. We kept our hands in full view and smiled and nodded at the driver and gunner perched on top manning the .50 Browning machine gun. Behind the Humvee were three more, all on patrol.

We had all cleared the road because we did not want the MNFI troops to open fire on us. This may sound incredulous, but in Iraq, a vehicle speeding toward your Hummer generally means either a suicide bomber or a suicidal driver. Either way, the sensible thing for any soldier to do is not wait to find out. Opening fire and killing the driver and occupants is the accepted practice.

If you find this savage or uncivilized, don’t blame the soldiers; nobody likes a tailgater. Satisfied that we were the biggest fans of the USA on Route Cherry, the Hummers trundled off behind us and we took to the road again.

Eventually, the view of the endless desert to our right was broken by a two-kilometre line of Hesco bastion defences, huge wire baskets that measure about six feet by eight feet containing a sleeve of toughened cardboard into which dirt is poured.

They provide effective ballistic protection from mere bullets all the way up to a 120mm rocket. I found that out to be true by unwanted personal experience. When the Hescos ran out, we turned off Cherry and drove alongside a new row of Hescos before coming across the welcome sight of a Humvee guarding the entrance whose crew waved us into what would be our home for the next six weeks.


The canals were hardly comparable to those of Venice; they were in reality waterlogged ditches in the centre of the huge rectangle of Hesco defences. A few hundred metres away was an enclave of Hescos of twenty meters square. We parked up outside the square and stepped out of the vehicles, stretching and making our weapons safe but still loaded, just not cocked.

Grabbing our bags, Mark and I entered the enclave to examine our new home. Our new home was built out of three canvas US Army issue tents with plywood floors The platoon of troops guarding the perimeter had been working hard for us.

We crammed 20 men in the makeshift tents designed for ten. The resident platoon had worked hard in anticipation of our arrival, erecting a shower tent outside the enclave and sealing off the Hesco cul de sac with the narrow end of two large steel portacabins. From one of the portacabins, the platoon leader (sometimes a lieutenant but usually a senior sergeant) maintained communications with headquarters and coordinated the perimeter defense. Fifty metres outside the Hesco enclave, they had situated a mortar pit with two 81mm mortars permanently kept in readiness, ammunition stockpiled neatly in a trench.

Littered about the larger perimeter were U-shaped reinforced-concrete structures, turned upside down and laid next to one another, serving as a crude shelter in the event of an attack.

For food, we were directed outside the enclave near the latrines where there were several pallets holding hundreds of MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat).


As I ate my first MRE, the sergeant left his command “bunker” carrying his M4 rifle and came over to talk. He introduced himself as “Jimmy” rather than by rank which was a good sign.

I noticed that Jimmy, like the others, wore the famous “Screaming Eagle” patch on his right shoulder but also wore the “Ranger” patch on his left shoulder.

Jimmy plugged some chewing tobacco into his mouth.

“So, y’all boys are mercenaries, huh?”

There was a brief stunned silence, we exchanged looks.

Mark began to answer “Well, I wouldn’t say…”

“Man, I’m just messing with y’all!” Jimmy cut in, grinning.

The three of us laughed politely, but relieved not only that the senior military man present didn’t think of us as mercenaries but more importantly, had a sense of humor.

“How long have you been out in Iraq, Jimmy?” I asked, eager to switch the focus of the conversation away from job titles.

“Me and my boys been here eighteen months come September.” September was four months away. The average British Army tour was just six months, and not without good reason either. Eighteen months is a long time to spend on dangerous operations with just a brief period of leave thrown in.

Most of Jimmy’s platoon seemed to be in their early twenties and younger.

Jimmy continued “We ain’t based in Warrior, we run out of a smaller firebase couple miles away. We’re out on patrol duty every day, worked six weeks straight without a day off so far. You’d think there’s only the twenty of us in the Army!” He spat some tobacco onto the ground where the sand absorbed it instantly and seemed to gaze off into the distance.

A head popped out of the portacabin and called Jimmy.

“Sergeant Hill’s here, Sarge” one of his troops called.

“Well, here comes the night team. I’ll catch you boys later,” Jimmy declared and traipsed back to the portacabin.


The day team provided perimeter security. It was relieved by the night team, run by Sergeant Hall, a fierce looking black Ranger-trained NCO who managed his men strictly by the book and was quick to punish those who deviated from his script. All Hall’s men wore all their body armour and their helmets all the time.

Jimmy’s’ troops wore T-shirts. Hall was striding purposefully toward us. His troops had obviously been told exactly what to do when they arrived and busied themselves behind him getting ready for the night. Brian, the operations manager for the project, emerged from the tent and intercepted Hall to talk business.

Brian had been busy; so had nearly every truck driver in northern Iraq. Apparently in Warrior were over a hundred trucks, all loaded with pipeline repair equipment. As soon as darkness had fallen over Kirkuk, the first trucks had begun their journey to the canals.

That night, while I was on duty with Mark, dozens of trucks came into the compound that was floodlit for the occasion.

We watched in awe as the trucks were speedily unloaded, left and were replaced by more trucks and the process repeated. A constant stream of trucks of all shapes and sizes was pouring in and out. Route Cherry was backed up for miles.

In the darkness behind us an American voice quietly remarked “Haji’s gonna notice all this going on. He’s gonna see what you boys are up to and he’s gonna fix you for messing with his oil.” There was no malice in the voice, no emotion whatsoever.

We might have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for the sixty-foot crane that was trundled into place sometime during the night; come the morning, the biggest aiming marker in northern Iraq towered above our heads.


The following evening, just as darkness had settled, I sat outside the tent shooting the breeze with one of the other Brits when a rocket screamed no more than ten feet overhead, its orange tail flame burned into my retinas and ruined my night vision. The explosion seemed to take forever.

Although I was prepared for the explosion, I was taken aback by its ferocity and my ears were left ringing. Luckily the rocket had just cleared the Hesco on its downward trajectory and slammed into a nearby berm. It struck with such force that there was no tailfin by which to identify it. I ran into the Georgians’ tent and began herding them into the shelters. Once inside, a quick head count satisfied us that they were all alive and well. After a few minutes we heard another rocket, but this one was hundreds of feet above us and didn’t land within a kilometre. Whoever was firing had lost his nerve after having exposed himself firing the first one. We returned to our tents and went to sleep.

The following evening at nearly the same time we were attacked by mortar fire. I was in my tent when the first of the blasts struck the top of the Hescos. The instant we heard the explosion we ran to the Georgians and once again corralled them into the shelter. As we waited inside, further explosions sounded outside. Somebody was operating a fair sized mortar tube to good effect, I would have guessed 81mm or thereabouts. I could hear the distant thud of the launch followed by the explosion. When it all stopped, we returned the Georgians to their tent and once again dozed off to sleep.

The morning light filtered through the shrapnel-torn tent that had been raked by the first mortar bomb without anyone being aware of it.


For the next five weeks while we lived under the shadow of the crane, we were attacked again and again, never more than a few rockets or mortars so that the firing point was hard to locate and return fire to.

As the weeks passed, we became admirers of the troops that were protecting us. They brought us fresh rations when they didn’t have to and every day they travelled along some of the deadliest roads in the world to protect us.

I witnessed one 101st soldier reading a comic, sitting on a chair in a portacabin, seconds before a rocket smashed into the ground nearby. The blast sent a piece of shrapnel the size of a quarter through the metal wall behind him and through the gap between his legs. He barely put down his comic.

Miraculously, we managed to avoid one single casualty. I can’t think how because everything around of any size had been hit by shrapnel; tents, cars and trucks were equally peppered.

Eventually we finished work on our section of pipeline and moved a couple of kilometres farther down the road to carry out a relatively quick repair job on a smaller pipeline near the village of Riyadh. This repair job lasted two weeks and passed without any more near misses. The mortar fire had become less accurate since the crane had been collapsed. It seemed as if we were on the home stretch.


Helicopters were arranged to take us back to FOB Warrior, as our vehicles were needed down south for a new project. We were all happy to be travelling by air rather than trundling along Route Cherry.

“Chalks” were compiled which detailed who would be on what flight.

Two choppers would land and eighteen of us were to be taken away in this first lift before the choppers returned for the rest.

The lucky eighteen took positions next to an improvised LZ and watched the skies, listening out for the much awaited extraction. Sergeant Hall stood with us, relaying on the radio that the choppers were delayed slightly due to an ongoing operation.

We didn’t mind and waited happily, looking toward Hall for any news.

After a few minutes, Hall said “Controlled explosion, four minutes.”

This referred to a bomb disposal team that had joined us earlier that day and were sweeping the area for unexploded ordnance and had apparently enjoyed some success.

After about twenty seconds the explosion sounded and I looked at my watch, thinking “That was early”

I remember looking at my left arm and seeing my bicep suddenly distort and ripple before I heard a metallic clang. Then my hearing was gone and I fell over.

Every one was lying on the ground and there was a little dust in the air and I remember thinking “This is not good.”

Sergeant Hall was lying down clutching his left leg and I could see a huge lump of metal like a ball of aluminium foil sticking through his pants. As I looked over the rest of the eighteen it dawned on me that most people had been hit.

I looked toward a colleague nearest me and saw him clutching what appeared to be a broken leg. I unpacked a sterile field dressing and applied pressure to stop the bleeding. I knew something was wrong when I couldn’t keep the dressing on and my colleague said “Lie down, you’re hit too!” I looked down toward my arm and saw that there was a neat hole running through my bicep from one end to the other. I checked the rest of my body out and found that my left leg had taken some shrapnel. I couldn’t stand or kneel.

Before I knew it, my colleagues had rushed out and were working in perfect unison with 101st troops to get us out of the open. A medic appeared from nowhere, no more than 22 years old, and was running a triage centre, prioritizing injuries and deciding who needed medical treatment first.

In what seemed like minutes after that, Jimmy’s boys came roaring into the base and helped as many casualties as they could into their Hummers before taking us back to their firebase.

Emergency medical staff were waiting for us there and put me on a drip. My colleague with the broken leg, Sergeant Hall and I were loaded into a medical Blackhawk and lifted back to FOB Warrior.

A few of the Georgians needed minor operations, but on the whole we had been lucky again. An airburst mortar had landed smack in the middle of us and claimed 15 casualties. We were all seen and treated by the men and women of 506 Emergency Medical Squadron, who did a superb job of patching us up and sending us on our way.


The next day, as I was being driven to lunch, we came upon the lone figure of Sergeant Hall limping determinedly to the same destination. We gave him a lift which he reluctantly accepted and he ate with us. I remember watching him digging into a T-bone steak and thinking “That’s a tough bastard.”

1 comment:

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