On the evening of March 3, I surveyed my Marines for the last time before crossing into Iraq. I had been leading the company’s convoy north through Kuwait for the past two days, and Golf was now staged just south of the Iraqi border inside yet another U.S. camp. Hundreds of other vehicles waited alongside our convoy, lined up in dozens of long canvas-and-steel rows in a huge gravel parking lot. Slowly, I walked down our row, checking to see what my Marines were doing before I tried for a few hours of sleep.
Noriel, Leza, and Bowen were doing much the same thing: giving their men one last look-over, walking around the vehicles, checking on the gear. They appeared busy and focused. Teague, Carson, and the other team leaders were hanging out with their men. Most were laughing with one another, or reading. Some wrote letters in the day’s last light while others did what Marines do best—they slept, bedded down in sleeping bags next to the trucks. None looked too nervous. Walking back to my truck, it suddenly hit me: These kids laughing and writing and sleeping and talking, they were mine. They made up Joker One, and I was their leader, about to take them into a country designated a combat zone. I felt nervous and proud and slightly unready all at the same time. But, ready or not, the next morning was coming and Iraq was coming with it. I pulled out my sleeping mat and bedded down in the gravel, trying to grab a couple of hours of shut-eye before a very early morning.
At 2 AM on March 4, Joker One woke up, packed up, and boarded our two trucks. I climbed up into the cab of mine and began checking the radio, talking to the other platoon commanders as my Marines settled into the bed behind me. The canvas sides that covered the top half of the truck beds had been rolled up, so I could see the silhouettes of my men clambering about underneath the stars. After determining that my radio worked, I put down my handset and used a small flashlight to review my crude map. I wasn’t tired in the least. My body had pumped what felt like a quart of adrenaline into my bloodstream, and, for the moment, my heart was pounding rapidly. I felt hyperalert. The tiredness, I knew from experience, would set in later, so I had collected five or so packets of instant coffee to help keep me sharp when the adrenaline wore off.
For two hours, Golf Company waited, vehicles running, for units ahead of us to clear the border checkpoint. Hundreds of convoys were traveling into and out of Iraq during the rotation from Operation Iraqi Freedom I to II, and traffic marshals had been set up along the border to help control their movements. We couldn’t proceed north until the marshals told us to. During the delay, each platoon commander periodically talked with his counterparts to make certain that everyone’s communication gear was still working. Inch by inch, our lightless convoy slowly crept forward until we nearly bumped up against the base gates, lit up like day under the sterile white glare of two giant arc lights.
Finally, at 4 AM, we received permission from the checkpoint controller to leave Kuwait. The giant traffic light set up on the left-hand side of the gates turned from red to green, and Captain Bronzi ordered the convoy forward. As the huge steel gate rolled slowly to one side, I gave my first combat order over the PRR, the small intraplatoon radio whose headset was fastened firmly to my right ear and throat.
“Squad leaders, have your men make Condition One.”
Behind me, thirty-seven snick-snacks rang out almost in unison as my men pulled their M-16 bolts to the rear and then let them slam forward, chambering a round. There’s nothing else on earth that makes that sound.
Joker One was locked and loaded. I racked my own bolt back and felt somewhat satisfied as it slammed home. Then I ordered my vehicle forward, and the Jokers rolled out, weapons ready, adrenaline blasting, minds amped for any and every possible scenario. We were finally doing it for real.
My seven-ton made it all of two hundred meters into Iraq before grinding to a halt. The road ahead of our convoy was packed with military vehicles stacked end to end, all waiting to go around a single-lane cloverleaf that would dump us onto a highway heading north. As there are only a few of these northbound highways in Iraq, huge numbers of coalition vehicles intermixed with the normal local traffic clogged each one. Our thirty-vehicle convoy was just a small part of an unbroken line stretching for as far as my eyes could see. At nearly the exact same time that our convoy halted, my radio went dead, and I lost all communication with the rest of the convoy. Still, the Jokers weren’t going anywhere anytime soon, so I took my attention off the road and pulled out the radio to sort out what had happened.
Thirty seconds later, a rapid, frantic banging on my truck door jolted me out of my technical inspection. I pulled up on the latch and leaned out to find an agitated, wide-eyed Captain Bronzi hopping from foot to foot and shouting rapid-fire sentences at me.
“Joker One, my radio’s gone completely out, I can’t talk to anyone, the convoy’s stopped moving. We are sitting ducks out here, man. And I can’t talk to anyone. We are sitting ducks out here! We’ve got to do something. We’ve got to get these vehicles moving. We are sitting ducks out here!”
I restrained the impulse to point out that we were a mere two hundred meters north of the Kuwaiti border and that about two-thirds of the convoy was still safely inside the base. I also decided not to mention that the likelihood of an attack this close to the heavily armed border watchtowers seemed fairly remote. I did, however, point out that if we were indeed sitting ducks, then at least we were in good company—those several hundred other military vehicles stacked along the highway to our north. Looking for the first time at the massive logjam in front of us, the CO regained his composure and headed off to try to fix the communication problem.
Two minutes later, the radios began working again, and the traffic ahead of us began to move and we entered the highway. But as our vehicles stretched, I started losing Flowers, the platoon commander responsible for keeping track of the convoy’s rear third. Our capricious long-range radios would work only sporadically for the remainder of the trip, so I relied heavily on my little intrasquad PRR to communicate with Quist, the platoon commander closest to me. I would pass him a message, he would pass it back to the next vehicle equipped with a PRR, they would pass that backward, and so on in a long game of high-speed telephone. Messages traveling from the convoy’s back to its front reached me the same way. Compounding our difficulties, vehicles at random points along the convoy broke down every so often. We could ill afford to be separated from them. With thousands of same-color, same-model military vehicles on the same road at the same time, it would have been easy for a few of our separated members to latch on to the wrong convoy and end up hundreds of miles from our final destination.
Fortunately, our rehearsals in Kuwait paid off. The Ox and a repair truck constantly moved up and down the convoy’s line, fixing broken Humvees if possible and hooking them up via tow straps to other Humvees if not. At the front of the convoy, I tried desperately to keep track of all the goings-on miles behind me in spite of the patchy radio so that I could slow us down when work was being done and speed us up when it wasn’t. I started swallowing my coffee grounds about an hour after our entrance into Iraq.
I also drank water furiously. It was ninety degrees outside in the Iraqi desert and I was wearing sixty pounds of gear on a Kevlar vest that didn’t breathe. Soon, the high caffeine/high water combination proved more than my renal system could handle, and I found myself performing in real time the one thing that I had forgotten to practice earlier: urinating into an empty water bottle while moving at forty-two miles per hour and checking our direction with my wrist compass. Thankfully, these unpleasant exercises were the most eventful things to happen to me during the entire convoy. At 4 P.M. on the same day, the Jokers pulled into the city that would be our home for the next seven months.
Ramadi. The capital city of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province, it contained roughly 350,000 people, a sweltering mass of humanity packed into less than nine square miles—one of the highest population densities on earth. As we pulled into the city from the north, its alien nature struck me almost like a physical blow. No amount of training at abandoned U.S. bases could have prepared us for the rows and rows of close-packed, high-walled compounds that made up the city blocks, or the mounds of trash that lined every street, or the throngs of people who stared at us as our convoy crawled through their midst on the way to our first stop.
We pulled into Ramadi from the city’s west side and made our way into a base located at the tip of a peninsula formed by the Y intersection of the Euphrates River and one of its tributaries. Called Hurricane Point, the place was one of three main U.S. bases located on the western border of the city. We were relatively pleased with what we saw. The main base headquarters was inside an elaborately constructed former palace of Saddam Hussein’s. Air-conditioning units protruded from nearly all the boarded-up windows, and the outside walls were covered in sandbags stacked five feet high. Palm trees lined a nicely paved road that ran throughout the base. Hurricane Point also featured running water in its shower areas, nearly twenty-four-hour electricity, multiple phone banks, an Internet café, and a mess hall. Though we knew we wouldn’t be staying here—we had simply pulled in to drop off a few vehicles and personnel who belonged to another of 2/4’s companies—we hoped it would be representative of what we’d find at our own, as yet unnamed base.
We drove on toward the far eastern side of Ramadi, an area isolated from Hurricane Point and the two other large U.S. bases next to it. As we drove from west to east down the city’s main highway, Route Michigan, I realized that between our base and the closest reinforcements would be nearly the entire population of Ramadi. We hit the very eastern edge of the city, and the buildings began to taper off. I had started wondering where our base was when a gigantic wall of concrete barriers appeared to my left, on the north side of the highway. I guided the convoy into the base’s entrance, denoted as such by a giant red-and-white-striped pole that blocked the opening between barriers. Slowly, we approached, and slowly the Army guards next to the pole raised it vertically. Looking around there was little evidence of the relative luxury of Hurricane Point. There were no trees, no paved roads, and no contract mess halls. In fact the giant square building that would become our mess hall had only three walls and half of a roof. Most of the open areas of the base were covered in the same desert sand that surrounded it. There were no shower facilities, or Internet cafés, or phone banks. Indeed, there wasn’t any running water or electricity. And we weren’t housed in one of Saddam’s expansive former palace complexes. Instead, we occupied a former chemical manufacturing facility, about three hundred meters wide and five hundred long.
The compound itself was shaped vaguely like a rectangle that had had its top left corner violently removed at a forty-five-degree angle, leaving a square base at the bottom and a rough triangle at the top. Near the tip of that triangle the compound wall had crumbled, so the base’s Army occupants had strung rolls and rolls of concertina wire across the gap. Inside the compound sat eleven main buildings of varying sizes and varying degrees of repair. One building had a crumbling wall and yellow-and-black warning tape wrapped all the way around it. When we later asked the Army why the tape, we were told simply that we probably shouldn’t go in there—the unit we were replacing wasn’t sure what the building had previously been used for, but they did know that their hazardous-chemical detection equipment went off wildly every time someone went inside. We took them at their word. For all the disrepair, it could have been far worse, I thought as the trucks ground to a halt. After all, during my previous deployment I had lived in a tent. Once the convoy was safely inside the base, vehicles lined up on a stretch of gravel that pretended to be a road, I hopped out of the cab and unloaded my weapon. Behind me, Joker One began slowly climbing out of the truck beds, and the squad leaders started assembling their men for inspection. Behind us, the other platoons were doing the same thing. As the squad leaders took charge, I joined the CO, Hes, and Quist, and we made our way into a gigantic hangar bay at the very center of the compound, where the Army captain commanding the base waved to us.
As we met up with the captain and his officers, the Gunny took charge of Golf Company. Shouting and storming about, he herded the slightly bewildered platoons into the open area inside the hangar bay. As soon as they were all assembled, the Gunny set the Marines to work building bunk beds, and the concrete walls of the bay echoed with the relentless clanking of metal on metal. Meanwhile, the Joker officers met with our counterparts in the company command room in an effort to understand better the task assigned us.
We soon discovered that our area of operations (AO), the part of the city for which we would be responsible, comprised almost the entirety of Ramadi. Looking at the photographic map beforehand, this had seemed reasonable enough, but after the drive across the city to our base, we weren’t so sure. We had known before arriving that Ramadi was, to say the least, densely populated, and that we, at 150 men, were not. The Army company currently occupying the base would leave for the States in a mere two weeks, at which point in time Golf Company would be the only ones operating throughout the heart of Ramadi. Having now seen the dense blocks filled with massive crowds, we began understanding what it would really mean to try to control a city of 350,000 with only 150 Marines. We had earlier calculated ratios of one of us for every two thousand of them. Those numbers had now taken on a whole new meaning.
My eyes had certainly been opened enough to make me want to pay close attention to the Army company that we were relieving. However, after about an hour of conversation, the captain hosting us at our new base revealed that the soldiers we were supposed to be relieving had actually already left. Those remaining were just caretakers of the base, and they rarely left the gates and so didn’t know much about the world we’d be entering. Over the past two weeks, an interim Army force, the 1st of the 506th, had patrolled the city; they would arrive the next day to pick us up and begin driving us around Ramadi, showing us their missions and introducing us to the key leaders with whom they had developed relationships. Our hosts did give us one bit of good news: In the six months that they had been in Ramadi, their unit had not suffered a single fatality.
Happy to hear this statistic, the three other platoon commanders and I left the command room and stepped back into the hangar bay to check on our men. The bunk beds had all been set up, and the Marines were in various stages of undress, preparing to sleep after three days’ hard journey. Seeing that they were set, we tromped up to the second floor of the hangar bay and set up cots along it. I took off my boots, sat on my bunk, and stared at the cityscape silhouetted to our west. The distinctive slim minarets spiked upward at strange intervals. The city was mostly dark, but the stars in the desert sky were brighter than I’d ever seen them in America.