January 02, 2007
Baghdad Diaries, Part 2 of 3
BY Lee Wang
Officers serve Christmas dinner in the dining hall at Q-West military base.
Stacey Masters looks like she's got the holiday spirit. She's swapped her Army issued fleece hat for a furry Santa cap and she's spent the afternoon grilling hamburgers and hot dogs with her buddies from the 423, a transportation company that specializes in escorting truck convoys on some of the most dangerous roads in Iraq. But the outfit is a game face.
"It doesn't feel like Christmas. It just feels like another day." Masters tells me, her cheeks pink from hours of grilling. "I guess we're just doing the best we can, especially us NCOs [non-commissioned officers] just trying to keep everyone's spirits up."
Masters is a Sergeant in the third platoon of the 423, a company better known as the roadrunners whose motto is "Have guns, will travel." On any given night the roadrunners have someone on the road. Tonight is different though. It's Christmas and the company commander has given everyone the day off. For once, they're all home.
Home, for now, is several rows of windowless steel containers surrounded by a perimeter of 12-foot concrete blast walls. This neighborhood of the base is known as the Hilton because the containers here are a little bigger than most, but the place has as much character as a prison yard. The soldiers have done what they can to personalize it; there are jerry-rigged satellite dishes and porches which are actually just wooden pallets dressed up with carpeting and plastic lawn furniture.
"Can you call the guys from third platoon?" Masters asks one of her friends, as she tends to the burgers. "Tell them the food's getting cold."
"It doesn't feel like Christmas. It just feels like another day."
The food is not actually getting cold. Most of it is still cooking, but Masters knows what it will take to lure the rest of her company out of their containers and into the cold. It may be Christmas, but for a lot of people on this base, it's not a day to celebrate. It's a day to sleep.
The base dining hall is serving an elaborate Christmas dinner tonight: pot roast, turkey, glazed ham, mashed potatoes, turnips, sparkling apple juice, and a VIP visit from a general. But most of the company is hiding out in their containers. Those that venture out are huddling around three small grills set up between the side of a container and a long wall of concrete.
Q-West and Convoys
The 423 lives in the southwestern corner of Q-West, a tiny US military base about 40 miles south of Mosul. Surrounded by miles of empty desert, Q-West feels like an outpost in this war. The landscape reminds me of northern New Mexico; the landscape flat lines to the horizon and the sky feels enormous. Like many of the US bases in Iraq, this one used to be an Iraqi military base under Saddam. The landscape is dotted with reminders of that past -- crumbling single story buildings made of clay and stone, pyramid-shaped bunkers and a small mosque that sits across from the Army's PX, a convenience store that stocks everything from Dove soap to the latest DVDs.
It's quiet here. There hasn't been an attack on the base in months. The public affairs staff tells me that's because the US and Iraqi Army have managed to keep up good relations with the surrounding villages. Those villages are also incredibly small. The nearest one has a population of about 150 and is a good 20-minute drive from the perimeter.
The soldiers have nicknamed this place Sleepy Hollow. After a couple days in Baghdad, I'm grateful for the sleepiness. But the name is misleading because many of the soldiers here don't have very quiet lives. They're spending more time outside the wire, on the road, than they do on base.
A humvee escorts a convoy. The sign reads, "DANGER - STAY BACK."
Q-West's primary business is transportation and the base is in many ways like one big truck stop. Convoys come in from the north from Turkey, or from the south from Baghdad and Tikrit. Chains of trucks 20-80 trailers long snake their way in and out of the Q-West gate at all hours of the night. The schedule means that soldiers are often either hyper wired or dazed when you see them on base, depending on whether they're returning from a mission or waking up from a nap.
"There is no rhythm. Our rhythm is no rhythm," says Master Sergeant Robert Brostoski, head of the 423's third platoon.
The convoys run mostly at night, which means that the soldiers of the 423 have to sleep all day before a mission so that they can stay awake behind the wheel. On their drives, they maintain a steady diet of energy drinks and snacks -- chicken jerky, Doritos, Hot Pockets -- and keep up the chatter. As long as they're all talking, they know that they're all awake. But staying alert mile after mile in the darkness is tough, in large part because there's no telling how long they'll be on the road. A typical trip to Camp Speicher down near Tikrit can take anywhere from three to 12 hours. It all depends on how much goes wrong.
A Christmas Barbeque
Back at the barbeque at the 423's Hilton, Sergeant Masters is multi-tasking the meats: turning the hot dogs, flipping racks of already charred ribs and opening a new bag of frozen hamburger patties. She's one of the organizers behind the barbeque and she's taken on the role of hostess.
"They call me Mama Regulator. Someone's got to take care of them," Masters says.
At 25, Masters outranks most of the guys here. She's been in the Army for eight years already and spends most of her nights commanding gun trucks, the heavily armored humvees that escort trucks through roads pockmarked by IEDs. Her job is to scan the road for anything out of the ordinary -- a pile of rocks, a dead dog, a trip wire, anything that she hasn't seen on the road before.
For someone who spends her nights looking for IEDs in Iraq, Masters is remarkably sunny. In the civilian world, she'd make a great elementary school teacher -- warm and persistent, the kind of teacher who always manages to make you try harder. It turns out the Sergeant is studying to be a massage therapist back in Wyoming. Before she got called up, she was working at Home Depot and planning on opening her own massage therapy practice. It's a strange match, a massage therapist in the seat of a humvee. But the more I talk to people, the more I realize that I have no idea who would make a good match for this kind of work.
It's a strange match, a massage therapist in the seat of a humvee. But the more I talk to people, the more I realize that I have no idea who would make a good match for this kind of work.
As the sun fades out, the frost sets in. It's high desert and once the sun goes down, the temperature seems to drop 20 degrees. Everyone is gravitating towards the grills and a small bonfire is starting to blaze up in a steel drum set up near the concrete wall. A few spare pallets are broken down to feed the fire.
Private First Class Michael Sjaardema is part of the circle warming up by the bonfire. He's standing alone chain smoking when I ask him how his family is spending Christmas back home in Colorado.
"My family is probably getting ready to go to my aunt's house now," he says. "All 150 of us pack into this one little house. It's great."
"This is my first Christmas away from home," he adds. "It sucks."
Michael tells me that he called home earlier to talk to his family and his mom cried, again.
"Every time I call she cries," he says with a half smile.
One of the many bunkers left from the Saddam era.
There is no shortage of Christmas events on base. A lot of people seem to be working overtime to keep the holiday spirit up. There is a candlelight Christmas ceremony, a Christmas play written and directed by a soldier, carolers singing on the back of a flat bed truck. The KBR [Kellogg, Brown and Root] contractors who staff the Morale, Welfare and Recreation center are giving out stockings stuffed with candy to everyone who walks through the door. But the 423 seems to prefer to keep their holiday within the family, which for now, means their unit.
"It's all the rest of the guys that make it bearable," Specialist Charles Kelly says holding a yellow plastic plate with a half eaten hot dog on it.
Kelly is standing in a corner in his grey and blue Army PT uniform, basically a tracksuit in Army colors. The fourth platoon is his family now, Kelly says. He has a five year-old son back home in Minnesota. He missed his son's last birthday and is going to miss the next one too. But Kelly only has three months left and he's focused on getting home.
A few months ago he was riding behind a couple of friends on a convoy mission when they hit an anti-tank mine.
"Me and my [truck commander] were playfully arguing and I looked forward and saw a bright flash. The semi truck hopped in the air and turned on its side," he says.
"Sometimes you want to freeze up. But your friends keep you talking. Everyone puts on a big show and it's good, because what if the guy next to you broke down and started crying? So everybody else keeps you going. Everyone's smiling."
"Everyone puts on a big show and it's good, because what if the guy next to you broke down and started crying?"
It's pitch black out. The moon is just a sliver in the sky and the only light flickers up from the flames of the bonfire. One of the guys in fourth platoon pulls out his harmonica and starts blowing out strains of "Deck the Halls." As the last of the hot wings are finished off and the last of the cigarettes are smoked, someone calls out, "Fourth Platoon!"
Everyone stops what they're doing and forms a tight circle around the platoon sergeant who has just arrived to deliver orders for the next mission. They're headed out on the road again tomorrow. As the sergeant lays out the details, there are no grumbles, just nodding heads, and finally a resounding "Hooah!" as the platoon breaks out of their huddle. As the guys of the fourth platoon wander away from the glow of the bonfire and back to their containers, someone mumbles, "It's going to be a long night."