- Posted February 5, 2013 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
The war through your eyes: Iraq 10 years on
"Hey," he said, "I just got some orders for you."
"Orders to where?" I said.
"Iraq. You're getting cross-leveled," he said.
At first, I thought he was kidding, that it was some sort of birthday joke. "Bullshit," I said.
Troy said he wasn't kidding, and that he'd e-mail them to me at home.
My orders said that I was being transferred to the 101st Military History Detachment, a unit based in Wichita, Kan. MHDs are small units - only three soldiers - that shoot photos, do after-action interviews, collect historic artifacts, and document operations.
I was a career Army journalist who happened to have minored in history; that's how I was picked, to fill the slot for another soldier who wasn't able to deploy.
I contacted the unit, and asked when I was needed. The reply was short: "Right now."
That was impossible under the circumstances; I was a single parent with three boys, a house, a dog, and all the arrangements that went with them.
The unit gave me a week.
The day after Thanksgiving, I loaded my uniforms and equipment into my car, and headed the nearly 500 miles to Wichita. Once I arrived, we spent two weeks getting the unit's equipment ready, and then the three of us - a major, a sergeant first class (me) and a staff sergeant - headed to Fort Riley, Kan., where we spent the next two months, training in the ice and snow to go to the desert.
We headed to Kuwait at the beginning of February 2004, and spent three weeks waiting for a convoy to head north. At the time, less than a year after the invasion, the main way to get to Baghdad was by driving.
Our convoy to Baghdad took three days. Uparmored vehicles were still in the future, and most of the trucks on the convoy, belonging to a maintenance company, had makeshift 'hillbilly' armor, made with cutting torches and welded onto the cabs and bodies.
When we got to Baghdad, no one at the headquarters we reported to knew what to do with us.
“You’re who?” they said. “You do what?”
We were assigned a tent with the other MHD that had been assigned to the area. It took nearly six weeks for us to get workspace. Finally, a trailer was located behind one of the palaces at Camp Victory, near Baghdad International Airport, which would be our office for the next year.
Military history detachments use an acronym, PAID, to describe what they do: photos, artifacts, interviews, and documents. To get these, we would be attached to combat units to cover their operations.
In time, I would be sent out with units from the 82nd Airborne Division, 1st Armored Division, and 1st Cavalry Division, and was put in charge of developing the artifacts program to track captured weapons, historical items (such as art belonging to the Iraqi people), uniforms, equipment, and so forth.
The best part of my job was being able to send looted cultural pieces back to the museums and universities from which they’d been looted. I was part of a program to have academics come to Babylon to best decide to how preserve and restore the area.
The worst part of my job were the mortars, rockets, improvised explosive devices, and small arms fire that tried to kill us about every other day.
The absolute worst day of the deployment was Nov. 21, 2004, my 41st birthday and one year after getting my orders. We were sitting in the tent; my colleagues were giving me a little party.
From overhead came the ‘whoosh’ that accompanied the 122-milimeter rockets the insurgents were fond of firing at us.
A lot of whooshes, followed by explosions. It seemed like they’d never stop. At the sound of the first rocket, we fell out of our chairs, grabbed our helmets, and covered ourselves with our body armor. I was so scared I was throwing up; my ears were ringing, I was shaking, and I was convinced that I’d never see my 42nd birthday.
The next day, a patrol found the improvised rocket launcher used in the attack. We were told we were lucky: more than 60 rockets had been on it, but only around 15 had actually been fired. What’s luckier was than no one was hurt or killed.
In mid-January, 2005, we got ready to head home. Our replacements were there, and after another three weeks in the desert, I returned to the snowy Midwest.
After getting home, I made a pledge to myself that I wouldn’t let the 15 months I’d been gone define the rest of my life.
I went to graduate school, continued my Army career, deployed again in 2011, came home, got married, and continued on.
I’m a captain now, still working in public affairs. I don’t get to write or shoot photos as much as I used to, but once in awhile the opportunity presents itself.