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Heart of WarSOLDIERS' VOICES FROM THE FRONT LINES IN IRAQ
By DAMON DIMARCO
CITADEL PRESSCopyright © 2007 Tower Stories, Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSTEPPING OUTSIDE THE WIRE
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Senior Airman Anthony Modica WASHINGTON AIR NATIONAL GUARD, ASSIGNED TO THE 381ST EXPEDITIONARY SECURITY FORCES UNIT IN KUWAIT
Modica, age 23, tells me that the air force runs in his blood. "It was my dad's life, so it became mine, too," says Anthony. "And I don't regret a minute of it. The military has given me many incredible experiences."
Anthony's home unit is the 140th Security Forces Unit of the Washington Air National Guard. The 140th has an F-15 fighter wing attached to it, which provides homeland security by flying combat air patrols throughout the American northwest. At the time of this interview, Anthony attended a large state university as a full-time student, earning his bachelor's in international studies. He also worked part-time for Sears, Roebuck and Company in their loss-prevention department. Two weeks prior to speaking with me, Anthony proposed to his girlfriend, Winona. The couple plans to marry in 2006.
People have a misconception about the air force. Everyone thinks we're in the rear with the gear. I've read half a dozen books on the Middle East and Operation Iraqi Freedom, and noticed a total lack of information regarding the participation of the air force. We aren't always sitting behind computers or flying over battlefields dropping bombs. I was in the military police. I did everything from escorting convoys and running reconnaissance missions to making felony arrests overseas. I contributed.
The general public doesn't understand that Air Force Special Ops guys have hunted Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Actually, I don't think the general public understands what the air force does at all. Well, guess what? I was there in the beginning. I was there before it began, I watched the war start. Rear with the gear, my ass.
My unit got to the AOR [area of operations] on November 6, 2002. We were originally sent to Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait on ninety-day orders to support Operations Southern Watch and Enduring Freedom. Southern Watch had a simple goal: protect minority Shiites living in southern Iraq from any Iraqi forces, tanks, helicopters, soldiers, you name it, who were stupid enough to cross the No-Fly Zone. Ali Al Salem sent out air patrols every day for years to enforce the zone. When we left the States, everything was business as usual. The media had just begun to disclose the White House's deliberations over an invasion. There was a lot of smoke on the burner, but no fire. Then debates started raging in the UN over a Coalition Force attack on Iraq, and we noticed a rapid increase in base activity. That was January 2003. After that, the whole region turned upside down.
I spent my first four months pulling base security. I worked the gates, did body searches on incoming personnel, stood watch in the guard towers, that kind of thing. One of the places I guarded was a pretty high-level communications bunker. We did a lot of force protection for dual-country nationals who came onto the base serving food in the mess halls and so forth. We'd search their persons and vehicles for weapons, explosives, paraphernalia, anything that shouldn't be there. Pretty routine four months. Our THREATCON never left Bravo. Alpha's normal, Bravo is increased awareness, Charlie's high alert. Delta essentially means you're under attack, so Bravo was fine by me.
I got bored, though. I wanted to grab people by the nose and kick 'em in the teeth, but here I was pulling guard duty in thirteen-hour shifts inside the wire. Check IDs, raise the security arm, vehicles pass through, lower the security arm, that's that. I'd joined the air force to do this? I felt underutilized. So I applied for the most active unit I could find on the base, a team called Viper, basically a bunch of cops who did op-based reconnaissance, security escorts, surveillance of suspected operatives, and patrols outside the wire. I figured the only downside would be that maybe I'd get shot at, but it was better than the boredom.
I've thought about it a lot and I've come to a decision. I didn't join Viper out of bravado. I just wanted to use my skills. If you're a doctor, what would it be like to not use your skills? You go through four years of college, four years of medical school, rounds, internship, specializations-for what? To not save people's lives? How depressing is that?
Viper was an air force unit, but a lot of Viper guys had been with the marines, the army, the rangers, and special forces. These were heavy hitters whose job was to operate outside the wire without any support. Viper worked closely with American special forces and the British Royal Air Force regiment. It was a pretty big deal, but I'd only been in the air force for a year. I was a rookie, so they were reluctant to assign me. I applied every day to get assigned to Viper and got turned down each time.
Finally, four months later, they accepted me into the program. I wouldn't be manning the guard posts anymore, I'd be outside the wall, way beyond the everyday, dancing in unknown territory. It wasn't until I joined Viper Flight that I realized how serious the American mission in the area was.
There's a big difference inside and outside the wire. When you're inside, you feel safe. You allow yourself to relax and feel comfortable, like you're at home. You take it for granted that a barrier of barbed wire and some guys posted in guard towers will protect you. Who could possibly threaten the safety of a United States military installation? You don't admit to this kind of thinking, but that's what's going on inside your head. Everybody does it. We all have our cherished illusions.
Trust me, it's a false sense of security. It goes away fast the first time you step outside.
I remember the first time I rolled out the gate with Viper. My blood started pumping so hard and I couldn't even tell you why. The unknown, I guess. Just leaving those walls behind. Suddenly, the only idea roaming through my head was that I had no idea what would happen to me. Anything could happen at any moment. We drove a little further out and suddenly I felt my stomach tightening as the base fell further and further behind, along with all the stuff you took for granted. There aren't any toilets in the empty desert. They don't serve hot meals in the badlands. You're out there with whatever you bring with you. You're out there with each other and that's it. You're alone, you're vulnerable all of a sudden, and it's frightening.
If you're not the kind of person who can imagine danger lurking around every corner, that's okay. The landscape outside the wire would tip you off. It's barren, scorched earth, blasted by war. Munitions and the burnt-out shells of vehicles left over from the original Gulf War dot the terrain. There are land mines, unexploded RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades], and occasional corpses. All these things are dead, but they still retain the power to kill. I was on patrol with Staff Sergeant Vasquez one time when we ran over a land mine. Thankfully, it didn't go off.
There were other, more alive dangers, too. When you're inside the wire, watching TV during downtime, you don't stop to consider someone's out there, watching you, keeping the base under constant surveillance. But they are. They always are. Al Qaeda operatives. Someone who's never met you but hates your guts all the same and wants to attack you. They'll wait, and they'll wait until the time is right. One of our jobs on Viper Flight was to deter that.
One time, our patrol stopped four Kuwaiti nationals who were trying to break into our perimeter. We got into a high-speed vehicle pursuit with them and chased them all over the desert until they wrecked their car. Three turned out to be Kuwaiti military personnel. The fourth was a Kuwaiti police officer. They claimed they were lost-obviously not true. We arrested them. Because of international agreements, we had to hand them over to the Kuwaiti Ministry of the Interior police, but not before we'd found some falsified documents on them.
Another Viper Flight member used this evidence to track down a cache a couple miles from Ali Al Salem. He handed over what we'd found to plain clothes detectives from the Office of Special Investigations. These agents confiscated the cache, which turned out to be weapons and more falsified documents. Then the cache bust led to the arrest of a man on Kuwait's Top Ten Most Wanted list, and that arrest, in turn, led to the arrest of other criminals, including Kuwait's number one terrorist, a guy who the Kuwaiti departments of State and Defense had been dogging for years. When it was all said and done, our arrest of the four initial perps led to the arrest of twelve high-level al Qaeda operatives, all of whom wanted nothing more out of life than to kill American citizens.
Recently I was awarded the air force Commendation Medal for being a link in that long chain. Which I have to say is pretty cool. See, when you're inside the wire, you never get a chance to do anything like that. In fact, I sometimes wonder if I'll ever have a chance to do something that worthwhile in my life again.
Viper Flight was divided into details 1 through 4, and members rotated through each team according to a schedule. Each team was geared toward a specific tactical purpose. Viper 1, for instance, was responsible for protecting the base's Coalition gates, which were manned by Kuwaitis, Brits, and Americans. Viper 1 also protected Echo 1, which was a gate for American use only. Viper 1 drove an up-armored Humvee with an M-60 machine gun mounted on the back. The guy manning the 60 also had a 9 mm Beretta sidearm-that was usually me. The Humvee driver had an M-16.
Viper 2 drove a regular four-door Humvee-no armor. The driver and gunners had M-16s, but the gunner's rifle came equipped with an M-203 grenade launcher for use on special occasions.
Viper 3 was the most dangerous detail. Viper 3 hung out south of the base along Highway 70, a major route that connects Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq. There's tons of traffic along that road, especially during the month of Ramadan. You're exposed to a constant stream of foreign nationals who come bombing down the highway in a variety of vehicles; you never knew where they were coming from or what they wanted. Viper 3 rode in what's called a Barvee-a light Humvee with no doors, no roof, it's totally open to the elements but man, it's really fast. The driver for Viper 3 had his M-16. The gunner carried an M-249.
Pulling duty on Viper 4 meant that you were the shift supervisor. Command and control. Your job was to coordinate the other units. Viper 4 always had a senior NCO on duty, and whatever they wanted to arm themselves with was fair game.
Something unusual began to happen in February. On the first of the month, our population at Ali Al Salem was, at maximum, 2,500. That included Kuwaitis, British, Americans, soldiers, cooks, and cleaners. Then, suddenly, troops started coming in out of the woodwork. By February 28, the population exploded to 12,500. Something was up.
When we first arrived in Kuwait, engineers were busy building a place called Camp Commando, a facility that lay kitty-corner to our base. I remember because we were rookies back then; we got assigned to set up C-wire around the new perimeter. The new bodies coming in quickly filled up Camp Commando. It wasn't nearly enough. Personnel kept coming in so fast we had to literally stack people on top of one another, dicks to assholes, pardon my language.
Helicopters began landing. Truck convoys of navy Seabees and army wreckers stopped in. Suddenly, six thousand marines found themselves crushed in with six thousand army personnel who, in turn, were packed on top of the air force. The chow hall was packed, the bathrooms became inaccessible, you couldn't jump on a computer to check e-mail. Forget all about trying to call home. It was life in a tuna can, with everyone shoving each other for elbow room.
The camp crime rate skyrocketed. Incidents of petty larceny broke out all over the place. There were assaults galore as soldiers lost patience with one another and started fixing problems with their fists. At one point, a team of navy SEALS stole an incredibly expensive piece of air force equipment. The piece they took was radar equipment that allowed us to perform the primary mission of Ali Al Salem, monitoring the skies for incoming attack. The theft forced us to shut down operations for at least a day, maybe longer. The base commander issued an immediate order to have the SEALS arrested and sent to his office. Air force cops found them, slapped cuffs on them, took them in and did all the paperwork, but everyone knew they'd only get slaps on the wrist.
Think about it. We were on the brink of war. SEALS are valuable U.S. government property, too valuable to waste by putting them in jail, no matter what they've done. The military's got 6 to 10 million dollars invested in their training. The SEALS knew it, too. Apparently these big, stocky guys were sitting in the post police station, handcuffed together, laughing like the whole thing was a colossal joke. They couldn't believe somebody'd had the nerve to arrest them.
As it turns out, their commander came down to the police station and met with our commander. I don't think anyone really knows what they talked about behind closed doors. The SEALS were released, the equipment got reinstalled, and everyone just shook their heads. We didn't dwell on it for too long. We all had other things on our minds.
It was obvious that war was approaching. On top of all the military personnel, we began to notice members of other agencies floating around, the CIA, the DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency], FBI, probably the NSA [National Security Agency], you name it. We figured this out when the FBI came to investigate the Failaka Island incident. You can tell spooks by the way they conduct themselves.
Spooks have a professional demeanor, but it's not a military demeanor. Spooks drive different vehicles, too, usually up-armored Chevy Suburbans, and they all look like Jack Ryan. They all wear sunglasses and khaki pants with khaki vests over polo shirts. They're conspicuously inconspicuous. Without divulging too much information, I can also say that you could tell which spooks worked for the CIA because they were the guys conducting a very specific type of aerial reconnaissance from the base, using unmanned aircraft.
Troops from the chemical warfare department came in and taught us the procedures for biochem combat. Medic teams came in to refresh us on how to bind wounds and stop bleeding. A day before we were supposed to leave for home, the air force extended our tour indefinitely. You didn't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that something big was about to happen.
I was in my tent watching Fox News on my day off. We had sheets strung up to cordon off private sleeping areas and I was alone in my bunk. The president came on and gave his speech to the nation. He basically told Saddam Hussein and his sons that they had forty-eight hours to surrender or leave the country. It's our way or the highway. And it was one of those moments when you feel the apple in your throat grow large. Your mouth tightens up. You begin to think, Within two days I will be at war. I will see combat. I will be afraid. I already am afraid. You have that sensation like you're falling over the edge of a cliff and there's no way to stop it. Your life is about to change dramatically.
Then, just as suddenly as they all came in, the marine and army units began to move out. Many of them went north and began setting up sites along the Kuwait-Iraq DMZ [demilitarized zone]-Camp Pennsylvania, Camp New York, and so forth. Once war was declared, ten thousand soldiers might leave while seven thousand more came in behind them. The cycle became nonstop throughout the month of March. After that, as quickly as it all started, everything got quiet again. By then we were in the thick of it.
You know what I'd want people to know? That fear you have when you think you're going to get killed or seriously injured. I'd like people to really appreciate that because there's nothing else like it. Until you've felt it, you really don't know what it's like to be over there.
For us, the war started on March 19. That night, I was out on patrol with Senior Airman Mike Lucans. The war was already in full swing. Tomahawk cruise missiles shot out over the Persian Gulf, there were distant explosions, flashes of light, but everything was silent at Ali Al Salem. In fact, it was the quietest night we'd had in a while. Eerie quiet.
Excerpted from Heart of War by DAMON DIMARCO Copyright © 2007 by Tower Stories, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
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