Before and after Operation Iraqi Freedom, OIF, Invasion of Iraq 2003

This blog is a reflection on something that was a huge impact on my life.  I could say that it defined me, and shaped me into the person that I am today.  I won’t go into the full details of the actual invasion itself.  That will be told through my 3rd novel, Run The Table:  Operation Intense Freedom.  What I want to talk about is before and after the war and how it led me to write.  You saw what happened in the war while watching it on the news.  What you didn’t see is what it was like before the war, and after it for the ones who participated in it.

Early on the morning of March 21, 2003, I crossed the border from Kuwait into Iraq.  Usually, something like crossing the border isn’t anything to remark on.  But this was huge.  It was an invasion of another country.  It was mind blowing.  Before we get into it, here’s a little back story.

Around August 2002, I stepped off of a plane on Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in North Carolina.  I just returned from a Combined Arms Exercise in the Mojave Desert in California.  More specifically, aboard the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, California.  When I got back to my company aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, I was met with a surprise.

Myself and another Marine were told that we were hand picked to become Secure Mobile Anti-jamming Reliable Tactical Terminal (SMART-T) operators.  What they actually meant was no one in the platoon volunteered, so they volunTOLD that we would be doing it.  We didn’t go to Satellite Communications school in Fort Gordon, Georgia.  I guess our ASVAB scores qualified us though.  We only went to the Marine Corps Communications and Electronics School aboard MCAGCC Twentynine Palms.  Bravo Company.

I was in 2nd Marine Division, Headquarters Battalion, Communications Company, MUX Platoon.  What they do in MUX is operate a radio called a MRC-142.  It’s a vehicle mounted, microwave/multichannel communications radio.  It’s line of sight, and bigger than the radio’s Field Radio Operators carry on their backs.

Anyways, I had just hit my two year mark in the Marines.  I was 19, going on 20 (yes I joined at 17).  I was saddened by this news, because I wouldn’t be deploying with my friends who were MUX guys.  I was now a SMART-T guy, and assigned to a group of strangers.  At least we were all in the same platoon still, but I fell under a new group of NCO’s.

We had a class from Raytheon aboard Camp Lejeune on how to operate the equipment.  And that was it.  I participated in a Rolling Thunder exercise aboard Fort Bragg, NC.  Then it was near late October, and I was hit by bout of bad news.  About 12 people from the MUX section got picked to be part of Task Force Tarawa.  They didn’t know what it was about, or where they would go.  They knew they’d be going on ship though.  And to top it off, they picked 4 SMART-T operators to go with them.  Myself not included.  I couldn’t believe it.

A few days later, I was called into my Gunny’s office.  There were two Sergeants, and two Corporals from SMART-T (guys that came to us from 8th Communications Battalion) waiting for me.  Gunny told us that there was a special mission coming up.  He couldn’t tell us anything about it, other than it was voluntary.  And it would be best if single Marines volunteered for it.  One of my Sergeants volunteered, and he picked an E-3/Lance Corporal that he had operated the equipment with in the field.  I volunteered, and Gunny asked who I’d pick to go with me.  I was a Lance Corporal at the time, and I picked another E-3/Lance Corporal that I had worked on the equipment in the field with to go with me.

He said find, and told us that we couldn’t take leave.  We couldn’t leave the surrounding area of Jacksonville, NC (where Camp Lejeune is located).  We would find out more info at a later date, and to then we were dismissed.

So that was it, we were on standby.  On call.  Waiting to do something, we didn’t know what, at any moment.  We were referred to as the flyaway team.  We didn’t even PT.  We could have been called at any moment.

October passed.  November passed.  Nothing was happening.  Then us four flyaway team guys were sent to supply.  We were on a weekend working party.  Very unusual.  We ended up in a facility sorting desert camouflage utilities.  Kevlar covers, blouses, trousers, pack covers, desert boots, gas mask canisters, and a few other items.  After we separated everything in different piles, we were told to grab some items.  Two complete uniforms each, a pair of desert boots, kevlar cover, two MOPP Suits, and a few other items.

We didn’t know what was going on.  Why desert stuff?  Then it dawned on me.  I had been to 3 double Combined Arms Exercises by this point.  Coyotes/or aggressor forces in the desert warfare training place in Twentynine Palms wore desert uniforms.  Visiting units during the desert warfare training wore green cammies.  We were going to be aggressor forces, or maybe work for the observers as radio operators.  That was exciting.  I liked the idea of going to California.

Shortly afterwards, we received orders good for one year.  We were temporarily assigned duty to 1st Marine Division.  They were out of Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California.  Great news!

So we went back to waiting until it was time to go to California.  Christmas came and passed.  Then New Years.  Then it was January 10th or so.  We were told to grab our two humvees, andto drive to Cherry Point.  We got there, but they said to go home.  They weren’t ready for us.  So we left.  Apparently, we’d be putting our equipment on a C-5 military transport plane.

On January 12, around 11 p.m., the duty NCO knocks on my barracks room door.  The flyaway team needs to be at Battalion Headquarters at 6 a.m., and our Sergeant who lived off base wasn’t answering his phone.  So myself and my picked teammate went off base, and knocked on his door.  We told him the news.

On the morning of January 13, 2003, we arrived at battalion.  There, they said it’s time to go.  Go grab our desert gear, and packs.  We had a packing list for our military gear, and packed our things on the list a few days ago.  We said ok, and got our gear.  Then we drove our two humvees to Cherry Point.

Would we be going with our gear, or would we just send it?  No one said anything about us leaving that day, so we didn’t grab any extras.  We didn’t even know where we were going still.  Our barracks rooms weren’t even packed up.  We didn’t even buy pogey bait/snacks, or cigarettes.  We didn’t pack a few extra comfort items into our gear yet.  You need to know where you are going, and how long you are going before you pack.  If it’s a two week op in the woods, bring bug spray. Don’t worry about laundry, because you can wash clothes in the barracks after the op is done.  If you’re heading to the desert in Cali, bring sun block.  Bring detergent because you’ll have to wash clothes at a laundromat.  Remember, they weren’t telling us anything before hand.  Also, before we left Battalion, they told us to stop by the Armory on the way to Cherry Point.  We’d need to get our weapons.

This threw us into confusion.  That pretty much answered if we’d be going with our gear or not.  We weren’t just shipping our packs with the humvee.  I had been to 3 double CAX’s in Cali in the past.  We put our humvees on trains aboard Camp Lejeune, and picked them up in Barstow, California.  We weren’t sure if we’d ship our humvees in a plane and meet them somewhere else.  It was all guess work on our end.

Anyways, we left Battalion, and we went to the armory to get our weapons.  They handed us Ka-Bars too.  Which we weren’t expecting, because we never got Ka-Bar knives.  Then they handed us a “combat load” worth of rounds for our weapons.  What the h*ll?!  If you got blanks during an op, you’d get it while out in the field.  You got live ammo for the rifle range right before you shot on the rifle range.  Here we were, going on a trip to support 1st Marine Division with live ammunition?  This was a first for me.

We all looked at each other.  Remember, this was January 2003.  There was nothing on the news other than the usual, let our inspectors in talk.  There was no troop build up.  Or any guess that we’d be going to war.  So what the h*ell were we doing with real live bullets?  And why were we carrying them with us?

We got into our humvees, and drove to Cherry Point.  There, we loaded onto a C-5 military transport plane.  We climbed the stairwell to get to the top seating compartment.  There was air crew up there, but they didn’t sit near us or talk to us.  We just sat down and got ready to enjoy the ride.

As the plane took off, I told my buddy it’s ok.  We’re going to California to be coyotes.  It’s going to be fun.  He complained about not having some snacks, and I said that we’d get some after we landed.  Now C-5’s don’t have windows.  We just sat there, and buckled in.  A small group of other Marines from 2nd Tank Battalion got on the plane with us.  We didn’t speak to each other.  There was enough room for everyone to spread out.  Shortly after take off, I went to sleep.  Marines get as much sleep as possible.

I don’t know how much time had passed, but I woke up as we were about to land.  We taxi’d, and sat still waiting for word as the plane came to a halt.  Soon, the plane door opened, and in walked a man in civilian clothes.  He identified himself as a member of Spain’s military!  He welcomed us, but told us to leave our weapons.  We looked at each other and cursed.  What the h*ll?!?!  We were on Moron Air Force Base, in Southern Spain.

The tank Marines put a weapons watch on the plane, and they said we could leave our weapons with them.  So we did.  We got off of the plane, and headed to the military troop passenger terminal.  It was unreal.  We didn’t know what to think.  The chow hall was closed, so we got to go off base to eat.  Special circumstances.  We spent around 8 hours there in a confused daze, and not knowing what we’d be doing next.  We kept on waiting to be told to go get our humvees off of the plane.

Then we reboarded, and buckled back in.  We didn’t know that we’d be taking off again, so  I was kind of excited to see where we’d end up.  I went back to sleep after take off, and woke up after we landed.  We were told to go downstairs, and to get into our vehicles.

The crew started undoing the chains that held our vehicles in place, and the nose of the plane started to lift.  We watched and watched, waiting to see what was out there.  We saw the tarmac, and the nose slowly rose, we followed with our eyes.  We saw dirt off of the tarmac.  And more sand.  Then more sand.  It smelled weird to me.  As the nose rose up, we saw we were in the desert.

I asked my buddy if we flew back to the US?  Were we back in 29 Palms, the desert warfare place?  We were directed to drive off of the plane, and drove up to a group of soldiers.  They welcomed us to Kuwait.

KUWAIT!?!  Wait!  What were we doing here…  My Sergeant made a call, and we were told that we’d be heading to Camp Commando to join our sister unit.  1st Marine Division, Headquarters Battalion, Communications Company, MUX Platoon, SMART-T section.  Un-freakin-real.

Once we arrived at Commando (a Kuwaiti military commando base), we were dumbfounded.  The guys we joined had been there since November 10, 2002 with no end in site.  They had no clue why they were there.  And no clue why we were there or how long we’d be there.  And there were no stores or facilities.  We didn’t have food, snacks, cigarettes, or money.  And we would be there for a few months.  It was crazy.

Looking around Commando, we were in for a shock.  There was a chow tent, Porta-John, but no laundry facilities.  So we’d have to hand wash our clothes.  There were two shower trailers.  One for Small-Pox scab innoculated Marines.  And one for non Small Pox innoculated Marines or Marines whose Small Pox innoculation scabs fell off.

And that was that.  We had adventures in the desert.  Shot the place up.  Traveled in cars to Camp Doha, the Army base.  The American Hospital.  And some other places.  All with magazines inserted, rounds in chamber of our weapons.  So much for a training op.

And then more military troops started to arrive.  I want to say around mid to late February, we were told we were building up just in case Saddam didn’t give in to the inspectors.  Which he always did.  We believed it was just a show of force all the way up to March 20, 2003.  The day they shot cruise missiles at Baghdad, and Saddam set the oil fields on fire.  Then it went from, don’t worry boys, we’ll be going home soon, to put on your MOPP suits, its a gas attack!  They’re shooting scuds at us.  And shortly after driving to the border to invade.

I was part of a unit called 1st Marine Division Forward.  We were a small group of communication Marines.  We’d cross the border with the lead elements, while the Division main set up comms on the Kuwait border.  We would travel far with the Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion.  Ahead of the lines.  We’d set up comms, then the Division front line units would press forward towards us.  Sometimes they’d pass us, sometimes they’d stop near us.  The main would travel behind the front lines, and set up when the front lines stopped.  When the main set up comms, we would hand over control.  Then we’d tear down, and jump way forward of the front lines.

It was as nerve wracking as you can imagine.  Being a handful of comm guys out with the LAR guys, or lead elements of companies from the Regimental Combat Teams.  We were often left to secure our own area, and keep enemy forces at bay.

I won’t go too much into the Invasion itself and the part I played in it.  It’s all public knowledge.  We crossed in the southern Oilfields.  Made it to Nasiriyah.  Up to Diwaniyah.  Then towards Al Kut.  From there to Baghdad.  From Baghdad we formed Task Force Tripoli.  Then we made our way to Tikrit.  After taking Saddam’s home town, we went back down to Diwaniyah.  After the Marine Corps mission was complete, we retrograded back to Kuwait.  From there, we flew back to North Carolina.  I’m actually going to write the invasion story in a book.  More of that to follow later on in this blog.

The shock and confusion never ended after the war ended.  It was like they took us out of reality, put us in a war movie, and then put us back into reality in Camp Lejeune.  Lejeune, Kuwait, Shooting War/insanity/death/destruction, Kuwait, Lejeune.  Back to business as usual but wait, how about that f’ing shooting war part?  It was the most indescribable thing ever.  We went from normalcy, to combat, then hey you’re back to normal life again.  Does that even work?  How do you go back to normal after being in combat?

Our Division and especially our company, didn’t deploy.  So when we came back to Lejeune, we were shell shocked combat vets, surrounded by a bunch of people who didn’t know how to talk to us, or didn’t know what to say to us.  We were kind of given the white gloves treatment.  And to top it off, I got injured during the War.  Not wounded, no blood or broken skin.  But injured during an op.  Usual type of injuries that Marines could expect to get during training missions.  Lots of heavy gear, running, and lots of opportunities to hurt ones legs.  So I had to deal with that, back when there was no PTSD, wounded warrior, or proper care.  At a time when going to sick call for even a grievous injury was frowned upon.  Going to sick call  for any reason got you the label of sick call commando.

I tried not to be a sick call commando, but I caved and had to go.  Back then, if you were on light duty for over 30 days, at least I was told, you had to get out.  No medical retirement.  I was near reenlistment, so I had to deal with medical anyways.  My Naval rehab doctor told me to just get out, or be put out if I reenlisted.  I wasn’t physically fit to be in anymore.  Sounds strange that someone would be told that?

Well remember how I said I didn’t want to be a sick call commando, and was nearing reenlistment time?  I went to do my final physical before I went in to complain about an injury.  During my final physical, I didn’t know how hurt I was, so I didn’t mention any of my injuries with 1st Marine Division.  So they cleared me fit to reenlist.  They did a quick questionnaire and gave me a glance over.  After that, I felt hurt and I caved and went back for my injuries.  And after a MRI, they found that I had old injuries that never healed properly.  So they tried rehabbing me.  30 days isn’t enough time though.  So they said I had to go, and I went to the VA.  I got out with a VA disability rating but also RE-1A, fit to reenlist.

So yeah, that was before and after the war.  I know I didn’t go over the actual war itself.  The before and after part had just as much of an impact on me as the actual combat part.  I don’t think I could tell my story, but I can tell it through fiction.  It’s strange, I don’t talk about the war, or what I did.  I never told anyone the full story of what happened while I was over there.  I just did what every Marine did while they were over there.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Its public knowledge, so if you wanted to know, I said you already know.  You saw the videos on the news.

I wrote a book called All In:  The Globe Trot Shuffle.  I published it this month, March 2016.  The same month that I went to war 13 years ago, and the book had part of my war story in it.  The book isn’t a total war story.  It’s a group of Marines going through part of the Invasion of Iraq.  My invasion story.  Then they get out and are civilians trying to live a normal life.  Then they go through these adventures across the globe as civilians outside of the military.  Book two is what happens to them after the events when Book 1 ended.  And I plan on a book 3 with the same characters from All In:  The Globe Trot Shuffle.

It’s going to be a full on Invasion of Iraq story with the characters you will know and love from book 1 and 2.  I realized while writing All In:  The Globe Trot Shuffle, that the invasion part was just being glossed over.  I didn’t want to write an epic for the book.  So I had to touch on some spots, but leave most of it out.  And I think that readers would love to read that book.  The story of the preparation to the invasion, the invasion, and post invasion with my characters.  The characters they already know and identify with.

So that’s my plan.  I may never tell my actual word for word story.  It’s insane I know.  I can’t express why.  But I can fictionalize it, and tell it through these characters.  I think it makes it less of touchy issue for me.  I can look at my characters going through my, and my friends experiences.  And it doesn’t feel that emotional for me.

So be on the lookout.  I already wrote All In:  The Globe Trot Shuffle.  I’m working on book 2.  Book two is almost half way done.  It’s the same characters, but takes place where book 1 ends.  I project that to be published by May 2016.  And shortly after, I’ll be publishing book 3, the full on Invasion Story of these characters by the end of September 2016.  These dates aren’t set in stone.  Follow my page, or my other links to All In:  The Globe Trot Shuffle blog post to the side.  And you’ll be kept up to date.

To all Veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan, OIF/OEF/OND, all of the operations few and far in between, etc.  Thank you.

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