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Firewatch

Most of the time MAP 8 (“Crazy 8”) split up firewatch, four hours on four hours off so each Marine in our vehicle served firewatch at least once per day. That meant that at no time were you asleep for more than four hours. When you did firewatch you usually stood up in the gun turret of the vehicle, the first thing you would do when you took over a firewatch from someone else was check the weapon to make sure it was in condition one, that way if you did see something on your watch the gun was ready to go. Usually firewatches happened when Crazy 8 was parked in the same location for more than an hour, but sometimes watches were setup on vehicles because we didn’t trust the Azerbaijanis that shared half of the Hadithah dam with us. There was word that they liked to steal gear, but I’m not sure that was ever true we just had to have someone on the vehicles, I think that was another thing they did just to fuck with us, I mean firewatch inside of the wire? come on now.

Night firewatch was harder to get through, I think than a day watch. Night watches I think I remember being only an hour to two hours long. We didn’t want Marines falling asleep on post because we were basically screwed if an attack happened. We wouldnt’ know what hit us. At times I’ll have to admit I caught myself a few times dozing, but normally we would just pop a few ripped fuels (before ephedra was considered illegal) or some would throw in a dip. Some liked getting woken up a half an hour before their watch just to get themselves up. I wasn’t one of those people. I freaking hated when Marines would wake me up when my watch was at 3am, they would wake me up at 2:30am and then hit the rack. Bullshit.

Another thing that was part of firewatch was an hourly radio check at the top of the hour, I think maybe sometimes twice per hour (once every half an hour). I wasn’t a radio man and I was not good with using a radio. I remember at one point I had to do a crypto change over where I basically had to switch channels and give a radio check. I was accused of doing a piss poor job, but this was by someone who was a real moron anyway so it didn’t matter much. I wasn’t a freaking radio man so I just did my best.

Areas where we did the most firewatch:

Training

Training was the biggest pain in the ass for firewatch. I can remember drawing this when I sat on the world’s longest firewatch where we were actually awake for 24 hours straight. All we would do is just switch posts from hour to hour. This was when we were training in the mock village and I think I remember it was one of the last days of the mock war we had. They basically gave us blanks and told us to have at it in so many words. Simulated situations would come over by radio like, “extremists just attacked the base and now they are hiding in the mosque, what do you do?”

Checkpoint 8 & 9

I would say that Crazy 8 did most of the firewatches at Checkpoint 8, a shitty little spot of flat ground just outside of Hadithah Dam where we would basically sit and do surveillance and ensure supplies came in and left the base. I forgot which road this is (MSR 8?) but I know eventually if you followed it, it would lead you do Route Uranium and eventually al-Asad airbase. I can remember several nights using the thermals to scope out the area. One good thing about it was you could see for miles so if anyone was coming for you it was easy to spot. The hardest thing was distinguishing hot items like rocks and other debris that stayed hot from the sun during the day, from humans etc. I know it sounds weird, like how hard can it be to distinguish a hot rock from a sheep herder? At 3am when you are wired on dip and ripped fuel, a hot rock through a black and white PAS 13 can look like something worth checking out. I think the AZ’s (Azerbaijanis) were worse at that then we were. I think at one point they even called us in to do a QRF on a rusted out refrigerator.

Combat Firewatch and Firewatches in the Cities

This sucked. Most of the time the firewatches during major operations lasted forever and you had to be alert at all times. I guess in a way it sucked less than checkpoint firewatches or training because you knew there was actually a chance of seeing something and opening up on them with the gun.

In Barwana, we actually had tanks sitting with us in the cities on watch. In this particular position we overlooked the Euphrates and large population in the city across from it. There was a cliff face where we were hidden from the rest of the city so it was a pretty good spot. I think we spent about a week there (?).

One day, during the day while I was on watch tanks and some of the guys up in the turrets observed some men walking across the cliff face and into a neighbouring town with huge bags of what looked like mortars and weapons. At that point I think we called it in while we were firing on these assholes. They never knew what hit them. At that point EVERYONE wanted to be on firewatch, I think I even got into a fight with this kid about how it was my watch. Once I got up in the turret I was marking targets with the 240 G for a type II airstrike. Eventually everything in that area was completely eradicated by either the aircraft guns, the coax guns from the tanks and our Humvee‘s guns. I heard from others, and it may be just scuttlebutt, but the following morning they went up to that area and found 6 or 7 dead enemies lying there, but I’m not sure that was ever confirmed officially.

Fate, God, and Coincidence

Who knows what the future holds
Not me that’s for sure
A brush with death is enough to make:
Me pause and reflect
Tony Northover

That’s my Gunner, he Stays with Me

When MAP 8 first arrived at FOB Hit, a small shitty outpost just outside of Hit City, Iraq, our accommodations were severely lacking. The gear we had fallen in on from the previous unit was absolutely terrible, particularly the vehicles which had little to no armor and a high back that had no attached gun turret. The funniest experience that I remember was getting there and looking at the vehicles we would be riding around in for our tour. Do you remember that scene in that Chevy Chase movie, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation where the family is out in the woods and Clark Griswald finds the perfect Christmas tree only to have left the saw back at home?  I could hear that sound they play and felt my heart sink into my stomach when the Humvees rolled out and the previous unit was going to conduct left seat right seat missions with us, where the driver from 3/25 would take instructions from a Marine from 3/2 in the passenger’s seat.

So the gear and Humvees were so awful we had to just laugh at it all and eventually we adapted and overcame like Marines do. It seems like Marines are always put into these situations and in some ways it makes us harder, stronger, and extremely pissed off. Somehow MAP 8’s high back, where I was assigned was able to attach a crude “gypsy rack” atop of a canvas that covered the gunner and a gunner inside. From there, we just started taking pieces of junk from an old scrap yard. For any of you who are married, its kind of like when you go to pick out stuff at the Bed Bath and Beyond or some store like that, and she says oh hey that would look nice in the kitchen wouldn’t it? I guess it would! At this Cpl. Bray started singing the tune by Stealers WheelStuck in the Middle with youIt seemed more than fitting, as I though we were just a bunch of jokers, and the joke was on us.

Within a few weeks we settled into the hacienda style FOB (Forward Operating Base) and were ready to go out on patrols. LCpl Brian Montgomery and I were SAW gunners, somehow we got roped into training on a SAW, and although an M-249 SAW is a bad ass weapon it was literally our cross that we had to carry for the entire tour there while others carried a much lighter M-16 A4. Since the unit before us didn’t leave a whole lot in the way of guns like the 240-G or even an earlier version of that weapon, the Vietnam style M-60, I of course had to bungee cord a SAW on top of a scantily clad high back.

At the time, Sgt. Jenkins was MAP 8’s patrol leader. He was rebellious, renegade style Marine who I did not know very well, but he seemed to conduct himself and our patrols well. When it came time to go out on patrols, half of us stayed back in the rear and built up our fortress of bedding from the lumber lying around in the scrap yards, that and fill sand bags to prepare for the next barrage of Muj mortar fire that was a frequent occurrence near Hit. I can tell you even now that I would rather go out on a patrol than stay back in the rear. Even though the prospect of a good bit of sleep sounded great, it never turned out that way because there was always some bored-off-thier-ass NCO who wanted to send us on working parties the entire day.
The sun beat down on MAP 8 as we gathered our gear for another 8-12 hour routine patrol, although it was still quite cold in Iraq at the latter part of March. For whatever reason, I was chosen to stay on that shitty Humvee and patrol some of Iraq’s most IED infested roads. I can tell you right now, I think about a few of these moments all the time.  I was about to throw my SAW up onto the makeshift turret of the high back, when a Marine from one of the sniper platoons came out and was talking to Sgt. Jenkins. He said he needed a SAW gunner for one of the MAKO teams. “No” Sgt. Jenkins replied, “we need Wojtecki in the high back, he’s my gunner”. At that point, there was no way of knowing what would transpire over the next several months

A Game of Backgammon

Crazy 8 sat quietly in the middle of the open desert in a tight 360. Smokin’ and jokin’ while others were vigilantly on watch in the gun turrets. It’s now about July and we have been in Iraq for several months now. Better Humvees with at least a little armor. I’m now the driver of the first Humvee; Sgt. Carr, LCpl. Ross, LCpl Gurgol and LCpl Perry were sitting around. Sgt. Carr was playing a game of Backgammon with LCpl. Perry and Gurgol. I guess he got it in one of the care packages we got. All of a sudden a distress call comes over on the PRC, “QRF needed a MAP platoon (i forget which one?) was hit by an IED on route Uranium, we need you to provide support!” “Roger that, Crazy 8 out”. Soon we were Oscar Mike with me driving the first Humvee.

This wasn’t the first time we drove down Route Uranium, this was probably the hundredth time, I wasn’t counting. Every time I drove down this damn road I always got a sick feeling. Maybe it was the nearby train station and sparsely populated Iraqi huts that littered the area, or the numerous craters that were left from previous IED explosions. The survival instinct you have is 100% real. God only knows what it is or how it works, but tucking my left leg underneath me while driving, Gurgol’s crouching down into the Humvee turret were some of those things that we didn’t know why we did, but we were later thankful for doing them. I drove down the IED laden road, one second I’m cautiously driving down Uranium, the next I see this glitter in the corner of my eye and before you know it a large explosion envelopes the entire vehicle. I thought for a second I was fucking dead, dust and smoke were billowing out of the Humvee. All of a sudden I hear Sgt. Carr, “Wojtecki, shut off the vehicle!” I kept switching the Humvee switch on and off and nothing was happening, so I put my head out the window and the entire front of the Humvee is gone! It was a very close call for the first truck that day indeed. All of us made it out alive, with Sgt. Carr having some hearing problems and Gurgol some shrapnel in his legs.

It seemed like this was a reoccurring theme throughout the tour. Close call followed by close call. If you believe in God, or fate, or whatever higher power out there I can tell you that time and time again these events were so rare that it seems like there was no way they could be a coincidence. After being back from Iraq for seven years now I can tell you that these daily encounters with death bring a whole new appreciation for life for me everyday. Whether it is fate or God that helped me through, I know not to waste life, because we only have a limited time on this earth. Appreciate what you have everyday, be happy and live life to the fullest.

-Wojo

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Souvenir Gallery

All photography by Sgt. Daniel Dmytriw, Marine Veteran of Weapons Co. 3/25.

Bayonet

The story is known all to well. A man walks for days in the desert. Tired, exhausted and thirsty he comes to grips with the fact that he may not make it to nourishment alive. Suddenly a river of water appears on the horizon. The man uses the last ounce of energy he has to reach it, but the last hope he has, just within reach does not exist. This is kind of like the feeling that came to mind when our Mobile Assault Platoon (MAP) team traveled to a distant “Oasis” in the desert, a 20-30 square mile stretch of farmland in the middle of an otherwise barren desert of Iraq. It was the third or fourth day of searching the area for weapons and ordinance. The residences there, scarcely spread out over the island like mirage, mostly housed farmers. It is still a wonder how the inhabitants of this area sustain themselves with no other resources in site, aside from wheat fields, sunflowers and the neighboring Euphrates River. Everyone was now bitching up a storm, morale was low, especially among the 03’s who had to hump the entire stretch of land,  leaving no stone unturned and finding numerous weapons caches. The operation know as “Cache Sweep” was dragging on and on; the ability to call home and get a shower just within reach but never making it.

MAP 8’s (or as we liked to call ourselves “Crazy 8”) Humvees stopped next to a small farmer’s house and dismounted the vehicles for a routine sweep for weapons. Only a Marine that has been to Iraq would understand the mentality and demeanor of some Iraqis. It was as if though the guy had thought we were aliens coming to abduct him with our highly technological equipment, body armor, Kevlar and M-16’s. Two kids run out of the house and start approaching the high back where I am sitting. All of a sudden our gunner LCpl Rick Turner starts trying to talk to the kids, “Do you know what a frisbee is? FRISBEE, DO YOU KNOW WHAT THAT IS? Here!” Turner shouts as he looks as his military issued Arabic to English dictionary.

LCpl Turner throws the frisbee and the kids watch it whiz by, absolutely clueless about what it is. There is a strange-looking Iraqi man, probably one of the brothers of the house, who was standing off to the side talking to one of his other brothers. They both were dressed in American cloths. A strange combination of sweat pants with early 90’s flannel shirts. From their body language they looked pissed off that we were there. All of a sudden Cpl. Stalker and others in Crazy 8 walk out of the house with some AK-47 rifles, grenades and other weapons, “Do you need these grenades for sheep herding?!?” Stalker shouts.

One of the items that we confiscated from the farm was this bayonet for an AK-47. I’m not quite sure what these Iraqi farmers were doing with it, but I would have to guess at one point, along with the majority of other Iraqis, were in the military and it was probably something the guy just hung on to. We could only dream of what they needed all this shit for. The guy still had the deer in the headlights look, “Why did you lie to us?” Stalker said in his thick southern accent. The truth was we could have arrested the Muj brothers, but we were so far from our base that it would take days to get these knuckleheads to processing, so we took their weapons including the bayonet and moved on, sweeping the rest of the area for ordinance and finding quite a bit over the next several days.

Today, the Bayonet sits on my shelf. I pull it out every once in a while and feel its dulled blade, smell the sand on it and play around with its pliers the blade and the sheath made designed for cutting concertina wire. A constant reminder to me of that story you always hear of that hopeless man in the desert.

HEDP Round

Shortly after a tank was blown up by an IED outside of Haqlaniyah, MAP 1 was assigned to overwatch positions within range of the crash site. I was assigned to the Humvee next to a mansion which was equipped with a MK-19 automatic grenade launcher. Having just experienced one of the most awful things in my life, witnessing the death of the Marines in a Humvee explosion, I wasn’t exactly feeling very well. I asked the Doc to give me something, anything to get my mind off things. He of course handed me a Motrin and some water. I swear to God my fucking arm could have been blown off and he still would have handed me a Motrin and water.

I was now up for firewatch. I got up into the turret with the MK-19 and PAS 13 (thermal scope). From my position I could see the mansion to the rear of my POS, just to the front was the crashed tank, its hulk still smoldering.  They were saying it was the type of IED to deliver an extra explosive impact due to the fact that the Muj used a combination of PE4 (like C4), oxygen tanks and old artillery rounds. To my 11 o’clock was the abandoned concrete factory that we just got out of hours earlier.

About 30 minutes into my watch, I was doing a routine scan of the area and saw a white Nissan car / truck (I forget which one) approaching. “Shit!” I yelled. The vehicle commander and others ran over after I described the car. Two MAM’s (Military Aged Males) got out of the vehicle and started fucking with the crash site. I suppose they were hoping to steal some shit from the tank in hopes of selling it. We ended up calling it in to battalion and got the go ahead to go hot. “Light um up!” I heard a voice say from the driver’s side. I racked back the MK-19 and got a round into the chamber. “BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM!” The MK-19 fired 4 or 5 rounds in the general direction of the crash site. I kept trying to look for bodies or a crashed vehicle. I don’t think anything was ever confirmed but if I didn’t kill them I sure as hell scared the living shit out of them. One of them got into the vehicle and tried to drive away “BOOM BOOM BOOM” three more rounds. The vehicle started smoking. I picked up one of the empty shell casings,”I’ll keep this to remember”I thought as picked it up and felt it was still hot.

The HEDP round sits in a box with some of my other memorabilia. It is amazing how well you can remember the event just by picking it up, holding it in my hands, reading the writing on the outside of it. Gripping the round extra hard in my hands, I can almost feel the recoil of the MK-19.

Ring Holder

What the hell is this? I thought as I picked up the silver finger welded to the embossed plate. Later I found out it was a ring holder. I imagined what kind of rings were thrown onto the small item maybe near to a large amount of jewelry. Before I took it, it was probably used to hold an Iraqi ring or something similar. I try to imagine what type of person the owner was. Obviously rich and powerful, maybe a woman used it to keep some more important pieces of jewelry. Today it holds my Marine Corps graduation ring. The silver ring holder is tarnished, although I tried to use some silver polish to clean it up a bit a few years back. It looks so out-of-place on my dresser, but its a constant reminder of how different it was over there to say the least.

Brass Plate

One of the items I grabbed when we explored the mansion in Haqlaniyah was a brass plate. I just basically looked around the house for anything that looked valuable and although the house was well picked over, the brass plate stood out to me. What the hell does it say? I wondered as I put it into my cargo pocket. I tried applying some Brasso to it to make it shinier and that seemed to help. Later on that day I showed it to one of the terps (Iraqi interpreters). “Be Patient and Allah will Bless You” he said. Wow, that’s kind of cool, but at the same time kind of ironic. I’m here sitting in this shithole and some plate that I take from some Republican Guard asshole says, Just be patient and you’ll be okay. Okay, it’s a little odd and I think goes along with the whole superstition thing. But, for the rest of the deployment the words rung true. I still keep it as a reminder. Don’t get too worked up about things, keep calm, be patient and God will bless you.

Horseshoe

Shortly before our unit deployed to Iraq in 2005, I kept in touch with a fellow I used to work with from Russia. He used to design security and camera systems during the Soviet Era (I would only guess for the government). The man became good friends with my Dad. They used to hang out in the basement of my parent’s house, sip on Russian Vodka and talk about engineering and technical things above my knowledge level. My Dad ended up recruiting him to assist him at the University where my Dad was a professor. Yurik worked with me at a computer store, where I worked part-time while in high school and my freshman year of college. When Yurik heard of my deployment to Iraq he wanted to come over and have dinner with the family. After a filling meal my Dad, Yurik and I adjourned to the basement where my Dad showed off our proud military family. Portraits of my Uncles and other relatives lined the room. Yurik was truly impressed. He gave my Dad a bottle of Russian Vodka, the kind with the Russian writing on the label, you know, the good stuff.

Yurik reached into his coat pocket and pulled out this horseshoe. He said in a thick Russian accent, “this will bring you luck. Good luck Matthew.” I kept the horseshoe with me, along with other small items as it seemed that the farther into the deployment I got, the more superstitious I became. Don’t take showers after chow, keep your left leg tucked underneath you when you combat drive, keep a rosary with you on the dash, sleep with a bible were among the many odd things that we did that some how attributed to me surviving. Whether it was the horseshoe, the rosary, the St. Michael medallion, pure luck, or coincidence I managed to make it home alive.


-Wojo

FIRAS ABDULLAH

09 June – 11 June 2005 K3 District

I keep thinking what a fucked up couple of days that was. Cpl. Squires, Keeling and Seymour; three great Marines I know did not make it when a fatal IED attack devastated their Humvee. I remember being so incredibly pissed off, having been in that Humvee just minutes before it exploded. I was guarding three detainees we had arrested outside an abandoned concrete factory. I can remember them and they just stared at me, almost as if to say, “hahah they got what they deserved, hahah your next”. It took a lot of self-control and discipline to get through that night. Almost seven years later it’s still pretty fresh in my mind, it scares the shit out of me sometimes, that life is there one minute and the next it’s gone. Today, I think about how unreal it all is.

The Mansion

Shortly after the explosion we escorted the detainees to a nearby mansion at the edge of the city. Things were funny here because there was always one or two gorgeous mansions outside of absolutely terrible living conditions. The story that we got was that the owner was a wealthy republican guardsman that owned the factory here and they used to have parties here for Saddam and other RG. One picture I saw inside the house was a photo of the man sitting by a Hookah with Saddam Hussein. Every few seconds you could get a whiff of the lavender fields in the distance just adjacent to a vineyard. The guy was obviously at one point very loaded, although I also heard that he was killed fighting and his sister inherited this, but had a much more extravagant residence in the green zone in Bagdad. Walking around the house it looked like it had been pretty well looted. All the valuables, jewelry, designer cloths and amenities had been most likely all stolen. I laughed to myself when I went into the bathroom area. Marble floors, very nice silver and brass sinks, a hot tub and then a single “hole” in the ground where the toilet should have been. It just seemed funny to me. The other thing I remember was that one of the infantry companies had been there (Lima Co. I think?) and a bunch of them had been huddled around a large safe. A basket of keys were scattered about on the floor and as everyone lounged around, someone would go up to it and try one of the hundreds of keys that sat there hoping to unlock what we could only guess would be inside. I remember living the good life for a while, a temporary escape from the horrors outside. As we left to go back to our over watch positions I took a number of items, including a strange looking notebook. It was a light reddish color and it was mixed in with other novels, books and torn pages, all in Arabic.

The Notebook

The notebook sits on my bookshelf years later. Yesterday I decided to pull it out and take a look at it. Honestly, it scares the living shit out of me. Take a look at some of the entries. At first, when I found it, it looked more like some Iraqi‘s school notebook with math problems scattered about, some occasional doodles here and there and a couple of pages of practicing how to write your name. But I look at it more in detail —and maybe it’s just my own paranoia— but some of the drawings look like diagrams for how to design bombs and IEDs or at least some educated pieces on how circuits work. If we follow this logic, what other reason would this guy need to draw these types of pictures? Some of them, when I look at them, I think of several of the explosions where mines were strategically placed with metal bars and saw blades to double the explosion power. What if this was the scribbling of a crazy muj asshole? I don’t know, I’m just saying it looks that way to me now that I have pulled this thing out years later. But, having this notebook and not knowing what it means drives me nuts. Maybe eventually I’ll take it to someone who knows how to read this chicken-scratch.

-Wojo

 

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