While Noriel, Leza, Bowen, and I were busy taking in the sights and sounds of the city, the Gunny was busy housing the Joker platoons. I hadn’t involved myself in the process, which was fortunate because at the time I had no idea of how important geography was to unit cohesion. Fortunately, the Gunny understood this concept all too well, and he gave my platoon its own building. The “house,” as we called it, was shaped like an L, with all of the new Marines billeted in the long arm and all of my NCOs housed in the short one. Docs Smith and Camacho got their own bunks in the NCO rooms—unlike the other platoons’ corpsmen, most of whom opted to live in the main hangar bay building with the Navy doctors and their fellow corpsmen, ours docs chose to live with us. Unsurprisingly, Doc Smith fit right in with second squad. Very surprisingly, Doc Camacho fit right in with first. Maybe the hot climate agreed with him, or maybe there was more to the young man than simply the neonatal ward tender. Time would certainly tell.
Two eight-foot-high walls connected the arms of the L, forming a small courtyard where my Marines relaxed when they weren’t running missions. I can’t say for certain, but I believe that the combination of our own living space with our own relaxing space contributed as much as anything else to the tight cohesion that developed among the Marines of Joker One. Most other platoons had to share houses with one another, and none had their own courtyard in which to hang out. We were the only ones with this amenity. Once again, the Gunny was taking care of me in spite of myself.
While the Gunny was helping sort out the Marines, the Ox was busy screwing up the base improvement project. Shortly after arrival, the CO had placed his right-hand man in charge of all of the company’s contracting, both within our walls and without. With little knowledge of the process and few other readily available options, the Ox had chosen to stick with a contractor whom he had inherited from the Army. This man—whom we’ll call Achmed since it eventually became apparent that he had never given anyone his real name—told the Ox that because the Ox was such a clever, strong officer, he, Achmed, would perform a whole host of free work for us. Delighted with his shrewd negotiating prowess, the Ox immediately told all the lieutenants to ensure that neither we nor our Marines hassled Achmed, since he, the Ox, had cleverly convinced the Iraqi to “hook us up with a ton of free shit.” Alarm bells immediately went off in Flowers’s engineer head after hearing of this “clever deal,” but his offer to help the Ox with the contracting process was rebuffed in short order.
The “ton of free shit” that Achmed had so graciously “hooked us up with” turned out to be, among other things, a faulty electrical wiring system installed by drunken vagrants and a shower complex that drained itself into the middle of our base, eventually creating a disgusting malarial swamp that sometimes prevented showering even when we had water, which was rare. Worse, the creative wiring schematic caused our breaker box, located in the medical room, to catch on fire about two months after its completion. Wounded Marines had to be quickly transported out of the burning room while doctors and corpsmen battled the fire with whatever they could find. Eventually all the wiring had to be redone by a former electrician who spent days on the task. During these failures, “Achmed” was nowhere to be found. Sources later hinted that he had taken our money and simply relocated his operation to Baghdad after finishing his work on our base.
Fortunately, not all the responsibility for internal improvements had been assigned to the Ox. The CO had put Flowers and the Gunny in charge of shoring up the base’s defenses, and they got to work with a vengeance.
While Hes, Quist, and I rode around the city with the Army, the Gunny and Flowers remained largely inside our complex, trying to harden its outer walls and interior buildings against mortars, rockets, and suicide VBIEDs (vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, otherwise known as car bombs). They created two new machine-gun positions along our perimeter to cover the crumbled portion of our north wall. Once that was done, the Gunny set the Marines to work putting sandbags over everything that mattered, from the electrical transmission lines that ran out of our generator to the portable chemical toilets that the Army had left us. Flowers, meanwhile, got division engineers to bring in tons and tons of dirt with which to fill huge ten-foot-tall canvas boxes that were placed around each platoon’s living areas. Called HESCO barriers, these massive mounds of dirt would do for large objects what the sandbags did for small ones—prevent mortars and rockets from shredding them.
There was no time to waste. From our first day in our new home, the Army had told us about the local mortar happy hour, which apparently lasted from 6 PM to about 9 PM every day. During this time, the chances of the enemy firing mortars at our base were significantly elevated, and just a few days after our arrival, a couple of medium-sized 82mm mortar rounds landed outside the base walls with huge ground-and-wall-shaking thuds. Everyone walking outside the base’s buildings fell flat on their faces while everyone inside instinctively flinched and looked for something to throw themselves behind. From then on, the CO mandated that all Marines wear flak jackets and helmets during those hours. In practice, this order meant wearing Kevlar vests and helmets when heading over to the bathroom area to shave or take bottled-water showers.
The sight of young, skinny infantrymen tromping around awkwardly in short shorts, flip-flops, towels, and body armor was a source of never-ending laughter for us in those early days. No mortars had landed inside our walls, no rockets had struck the base, no one had fired at us on patrols, and none of our Marines had been killed or wounded. It was still a merry adventure for the Jokers, and we were all just happy to finally be doing our jobs in real life.
By the way, our army predecessors had named our little base “Combat Outpost,” and we stuck with it. It proved to be a prescient decision.