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Creative Nonfiction Drama

The roar of the C-130 military aircraft’s engines made it virtually impossible for conversation to occur. Some soldiers unlike PFC Corey Hunter slept. Others read paperbacks while other told war stories of previous deployments. Eighteen year old Corey was the youngest and newest member in his squad and he had to endure the endless and heartless banter of being the newbie as his initiation like those before him. Corey was excited. It was his first deployment to Iraq and his first time every being on a C-130. He thought of the plastic model of a C-130 that he had put together back home in his bedroom. “Kid stuff” Corey thought.

Corey was in awe at the voluminous cavity inside the plane. He looked at the equipment and trappings. The C-130 maximum payload was 44,000 pounds and could fly at 400 mph at an average altitude of 18,000 feet.  He was actually sitting in a nylon jump seat that was about half the size of a normal sized man. He was in full battle rattle or battle gear weighing approximately 80 pounds. The rows were tightly positioned together so that the person in front of you had to share their knee space with your knee space. Like the teeth in a zipper. Their knee or your knee was in between theirs. Corey had never been this close to another man before and he felt awkward at first.  

Corey, a farm boy from southern Indiana was lost in thought. He had read up on all things military for years and memorized as much as he could. Since he was a young boy he planned on joining the army. Southern Indiana was graced with rolling green hills, numerous species of shade trees, rivers, creeks and miles of corn fields. That was home. This was now. He was about to see the world or part of the world.

The loadmaster was checking the straps on the pallets stowed near the front of the plane. Corey was watching him with interest when suddenly something hit him in the face and fell into his hands. The squad was laughing loudly. It was a barf bag. Then the rest of the squad threw theirs at him and bragged they weren’t going to need theirs. A soldier one rank above him sneered at him and said “You’re going to puke your guts out when we come in for a combat landing Newbie.” He accented the word Newbie in a devilish manner. Corey had watched this guy eating snacks all afternoon in the sweltering heat of the plane.

A combat landing or assault landing was when the plane did not slow down for the descent into the airstrip. The nose of the plane was dipped steeply downward and the pilot made a spiral downward. It was basically a nose dive. The goal of this maneuver was to minimize attacks from surface to air missiles. The sergeant ordered everyone to put their helmets on. Corey complied quickly as he did not want to be singled out.

The impact of the drop of the plane was sudden and dramatic. Corey felt his head pinned back and he felt like his brain was going to explode. The surly guy across from him that had said Corey was going to puke his guts out face was bright red with perspiration dripping. He was grimacing. Then he coughed and vomit came out of his mouth and instead of flowing outward or downward it flew upward from the gravitational force of the plane. Corey handed him a barf bag.

The plane was finally parallel with ground and skidding to a stop. Rear ramps down the troops began to unload. Sergeants yelled to motivate the soldiers to proceed quickly.  Corey stomped down the ramp and kept up a lively pace behind the soldier in front of him. The equipment was darn heavy but he walked like it was a day in the park. All he saw was the cracked asphalt of the tarmac. A scorching heat rose off of it. It was least 120 degrees but the tarmac was hotter. His feet actually burned in his lightweight combat desert boots. They did not appear to be where commercial airplanes were located or the main terminals.

They were ordered to take a break in place in the shade of a corrugated metal warehouse and drink water. Corey stared across the tarmac and saw way off in the distance what appeared to be a city. It was very hazy.  “Hey Dustin” Corey asked his assigned battle buddy “Where are we?” “What….where the f---k you been Newbie? “No, I mean what’s this place?” Corey said. Dustin laughed loud enough to embarrass Corey and said “You’re in f---king Iraq, Baghdad!” An entire group of soldiers who overheard the interaction were laughing. Corey felt small but being the lowest man in the squad he often didn’t get all the information. What he meant was why they were behind this warehouse and what were they doing. Corey was only a private and someone would be telling them what was going to happen next. His job wasn’t to question.

Three Iraqi men pushed a wheeled pallet full of refrigerated half liter bottles of water around the warehouse to the soldiers. Corey tried not to stare but he had never seen men wear what appeared to be a gown. He heard other soldiers call them man dresses but in the pre-deployment classes this was to be stopped as it was disrespectful. The proper term for Iraqi men’s traditional clothing was Caftan or Dishdashah. The Iraqi men smiled flashing their white teeth handing out bottled water and saying yes and nodding.

The pallets with the soldier’s duffel bags had been unloaded from the plane and sat on the tarmac where two HEMTT or Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Trucks had just arrived. The Platoon Sergeants signaled the squad leaders over to them and after dismissing them the squad leaders had everybody scurrying to unload the bags from the pallets into the trucks. Each soldier had four bags a piece for the year they would be deployed. Corey reflected that tossing the bags up to the soldier standing in the truck was a lot like he did on the farm tossing hay bales into a truck. “That was heavy hot work for sure.” Corey thought.

Four charter busses pulled up. This surprised Corey. “What the hell…” he thought. “Dustin, whose busses are those for?” Dustin sarcastically responded “Your sorry ass!” Corey had imagined the brigade was going to convoy to their operating base. Dustin added “We’re going to Camp Victory for a few days to pick up our equipment before we head to the BCT AO.” “Camp Victory is only five kilometers from here.” Corey acted like he understood what Dustin just told him.  

The brigade was in formation and taking a head count in preparation to load onto the busses. They loaded the busses. The bus driver on Corey’s bus wore a pair of loose fitting wide legged pants called Shappiktha and a shorter Dishdashah with a vest. He was a portly man who spoke English fairly well. They were told to keep the curtains on the windows closed for security reasons. It was much like the inside of a greyhound bus only bright garish purple and red colors and the seats were narrow containing three seats per row. It felt odd to Corey sitting on the soft cushy fabric in all of his gear. Corey’s curtain would not cover the entire window and a small strip was left where he could see out.

The busses were obviously skirting the commercial part of Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) by driving around the tarmac and warehouses. They drove slowly past this one warehouse where the road was narrow. Corey could see from his window into one of the buildings where two boxes were placed upon stands with American flags draped over them. Two soldiers were guarding the boxes. Corey felt tightness in his stomach and he thought about his parents and how the parents of these two soldiers must be feeling. It had to be a parent’s greatest nightmare when they had a son or daughter in the military; killed in action, KIA. Corey said a prayer for the two soldiers and their families.

Just as they were leaving BIAP through a gate at the end of the tarmac two civilian security vehicles mounted with machine guns and manned with men with assault rifles came out of nowhere stirring up a huge cloud of dust.  One assumed a position in front of the busses and one in the rear of the busses. Dustin explained to Corey that these people were contracted civilian security forces. “Yeah, when I finish my tour of duty in the army I’m going to be contract security…they make a lot of money!” Dustin spouted. Corey only half believed him.

They were out of the highway which looked like a free for all. Cars were drifting in other people’s lanes and no signals were being used. Everybody was speeding. Corey could see a little bit of the city. There weren’t any very tall building like skyscrapers and all the buildings seemed to be all this tan color. The architecture of the city ranged from traditional two-or three-story brick houses to modern steel, glass, and concrete structures. The streets were very narrow in some areas.

Most of the buildings looked like they were made from adobe. Baghdad is Iraq’s largest city and one of the most populous urban areas of the Middle East.  Baghdad is on the Tigris River about 330 miles (530 km) from the headwaters of the Persian Gulf, in the heart of ancient Mesopotamia. He could see some buildings with turrets on top of them with elaborate tile work. He reasoned those must be mosques. There was a haze over the city.

A car drove particularly close to the bus. Corey could look down into it. The car was a Lexus. A man drove the car and a woman covered in a black Abaya (long gown) and Hijab or veil was sitting in the back seat along with four goats. Corey didn’t know of any woman that would sit in the back seat let alone with the goats. Corey learned that gender separation was an important part of Islamic culture from his pre-deployment classes. A couple of goats had their noses stuck outside the window and were licking at the air. Corey made sure not to make eye contact with the woman.

They were outside of city limits. There was desert on the right and desert on the left as far as the eye could see. Corey began to worry about improvised explosive devices, IEDs. They could be buried in the road and the pressure of a vehicle could set them off or someone could be hiding ready to detonate one via remote control as they drove past. As if reading his mind Dustin said “The Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team is up front clearing the route with the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) armored vehicle.” “Damn, that’s so cool!”  Dustin added “They clear this route several times a day because the generals are coming down to Camp Victory headquarters for meetings.”

No sooner had Dustin finished saying that the convoy of busses stopped. “What happened?” Corey wondered “Had the EOD team detected an IED?” Corey’s senses heightened and his skin felt prickly all over. The soldiers on the bus were murmuring and craning their necks trying to see out the front windows. Corey had his small aperture in the short curtain on his window. He peered out the window and saw some mangy looking camels standing in the side of the road. The bus driver had hopped up and ran to the bus in front of him and came right back. He reported that there was a herd of camels and the camel herder on the road. The camels weren’t moving quickly. The herder told the convoy commander with the aid of an interpreter that the camels go when they want to.

Corey caught a glimpse of the herder and was amazed that they had just drove out of this metropolitan area just a few miles and appeared to have time travelled back to ancient times. The camel herder would not have been out of place in ancient Mesopotamia. Corey couldn’t imagine where the herder was coming from and where he was going in this vast desert practically barren except for some thistle like plants and short dry shrubs.

After the convoy commander gave the herder a cold bottle of water and some snack crackers and the talked a little while the herder raised his staff and yelled at the camels and they moved to the other side of the road complacently. Corey had never seen camels in their natural habitat before. He wondered what they were used for; their milk, meat. Surely they were not used as a means of travel. They were only a short way to Camp Victory  where they would stay a couple days, prepare their equipment and vehicles and move south to their forward operating base (FOB).

Camp Victory is the most important component of the Victory Complex in Iraq. The complex is a military base run by the United States forces after the invasion of Iraq. This area represented one of the essential spots on the Iraqi map. The complex consists of 10 different bases and can hold up to 42,000 military and 20,000 civilian workers in an area of 60 acres that are cordoned off from the city. Security forces are maintained around its perimeter. The base is attacked regularly by mortar or rocket attacks from points of origin from the city.

They pulled into the checkpoint at Camp Victory and Corey could see the sun setting low in an almost indigo sky. The sun was huge and the color of ripe watermelon like they used to split open right in the field back home. He couldn’t figure out how the sky could be that dark at the horizon and yet fade to lighter tones as the colors rose. A few stars were beginning to sparkle in the far distant sky. He’d never seen the sun just a solid color without fading or streaks radiating from it. No illuminated clouds around it. The haze he had been noticing all day was low to the ground. Corey thought the sunset was beautiful. How ironic to find this beauty in this war torn country. Corey noticed Dustin looking at the sunset too but Dustin turned away quickly as not to show any sensitivity and appreciation to the beauty for fear of being thought of as weak.

That night they stayed in tent city. This was an area with group sized tents were set up with cots already in them for units just needing a short stay over. They had raw wood plank flooring and air conditioning to Corey’s surprise. The soldiers made it just in time to have a hot dinner at the chow hall or dining facility near the Al-Faw palace. The Al-Faw Palace, served as the headquarters for the Multi-National Corps and later United States Forces

Saddam Hussein commissioned its construction in 1990s to commemorate the Iraqi forces' retaking of the Al-Faw Peninsula during the Iran-Iraq conflict. 

The Al-Faw Palace was also known as the Water Palace as it was built next to a man-made lake Saddam had stocked with fish. The palace contains over 62 rooms and 29 bathrooms now converted into offices. The inside of the palace was highly ornate. No expense was spared. Long sweeping staircases, immense hanging crystal chandeliers, gold plated fixtures, marble floors and walls. Corey hoped before he left Camp Victory he’d have a chance to take some photos of the palace.

Corey gladly shed his heavy Kevlar vest and other gear and stripped down to his t-shirt. He had been soaking wet all day and salt stain made rings on his uniform. He should take a shower in one of the shower trailers but he was just too tired, He put on a dry t-shirt and grabbed his blanket from his rucksack and laid down on the cot and damn if it didn’t feel good.

Corey thought of how 24 hours ago he was in America. Corey thought about the trip today and how odd it was that he didn’t see any billboards or strip malls going through the city. He figured he was approximately 6,500 miles away from Indiana. This place was so different from Indiana. It could as well be the moon with its desert on the left and desert on the right. “That sunset sure was something.” Corey thought as he fell asleep.

September 15, 2020 21:36

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