I spent Thursday with the Engineers from the 216th at FOB Speicher. These are men and women who are building force security measures such as berms, repairing bridges, and in general doing a much of the unsung work to keep the bases up and running. Because these men and women are reservists, many of them have very profitable businesses back in Ohio as contractors. Thus their sacrifice is not only being away from their family, but depriving their family of the higher incomes to which they are accustomed. I chatted with a number of the soldiers, and will pass along some of their stories in a future article.
I was told the guys build things in any spare moments they have, and I found this to be true. When I came back to the quarters that I was sharing with a couple of soldiers, I found Sfc. Setty, a reservist who I would guess to be in his mid-fifties, building something. When I inquired what it was, he told me that he thought I might need a place to work that night, so he was building a table for me to use. And sure enough, by the next time I came back to the room, he had finished the table, complete with adjustable legs.
On Friday, the 216th took me on a convoy to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Caldwell—which is 30 kilometers from the Iranian border. The convoy would be a large one, including 11 vehicles, at least two of which were hauling heaving equipment. Before heading out on the six hour convoy, we received a briefing from the unit’s S-2 about security issues. He warned that “[t]here’s an abundance of IEDs” on the roads we would be traveling, and told us about an IED daisy-chain found by the 196th Cavalry which was composed of 13 bombs (including a 500 pound bomb) wired together and buried by the side of the road.
Just before heading out, Chaplain Sizemore, an Ashland University Theological Seminary graduate, offered a prayer. A military prayer. A prayer reminiscent of Patton’s weather prayer. He prayed not just for protection, but asked God to confuse and confound our enemies. He implored God to use his battle ax, and to go before the convoy and bring down his destruction on the enemy. After the talk about the IED daisey-chain, this seemed eminently appropriate.
I traveled in the lead vehicle of the convoy—an unarmored Humvee—with Lt. Courtemanche, who was leading the convoy, Spc. Sams, who was driving the Humvee, Spc. Corielle, who was a medic on the only female in the convoy, and Sgt. Caldwell, who was manning the turret. The trip was relatively (and thankfully) uneventful. The terrain was varied, and included a reasonably large lake, hills, and wadis. A number of miles from Caldwell, we began to encounter reinforced trenches and sunken bunkers. These positions are not from recent conflict, but are remnants of the Iran-Iraq war.
Upon arriving at FOB Caldwell, we met up with other members of the 216th, who had been detailed to build up security at the base. The base was built by Saddam as a threat to the Iranians after the first Gulf War. Of potential interest to Schramm, he contracted with Hungarians to build the facility. The Coalition shares the facility with the Kurds, who occupy about half the base. Because of repairs to facilities and the number of soldiers at the base, the members of the 216th were quartered in large tents, each of which housed something like 10-15 men. A large thunderstorm rolled through that night, forcing several of the men to try in vain to avoid Chinese water torture as the water trickled through the tent just where the cots were placed. The chow hall was also in a tent, and brought back memories of M*A*S*H—particularly the brownish egg concoction which did not resemble eggs as they occur in nature.
The next morning, we were on a convoy back to FOB Speicher, with a brief stopover in Tuz to drop me off with the 196 Echo Unit. On the way, we encountered a large sand storm. The sand was as fine as dust and resembled brown fog—limiting visibility to just a few feet in front of the vehicles. We eventually made it through the storm, and came across what appeared to be a family whose vehicle was broken down. They signaled for assistance, but the car was parked directly between two sets of hills on either side of the road. It would be a perfect place for an ambush, and it would be consistent with some of the tactics that insurgents have been using on the open highway. So we traveled on, only to see Shia flags waiving in the next small village. While in the south, Shia flags are waived by moderates and extremists alike, in this region, I was told flag waiving tended to be more the domain of the extremists. The soldiers, while initially regretting the decision not to stop to help the vehicle, felt more secure in their decision upon seeing the flag.