"What do we got today?" asks Ryan Ludwin. He's poking around inside two Styrofoam to-go plates from the chow hall. They're full of oranges, apples, and grapes. They're full of silver-dollar pancakes and small packages of syrup. They're full of bite-size breakfast sandwiches and bacon and sausage. They sit next to boxes of orange juice, grapefruit juice, and fruit punch which are all, like everything else in Iraq, covered with Arabic script.
It's 5:45 a.m. and the to-go plates sit on the hood of our Humvee. We're half asleep, sipping coffee, and munching on breakfast. Tom Skavenski, our gunner, walks across the motor pool with his M-60. Ken Renninger, my squad leader, comes by, pats me on the back and thanks me for, once again, grabbing breakfast.
"How are we this morning, Smitty?" he asks.
"Pretty good, Sarge," I say. "Ready for another
"Yep," he says as he grabs a sausage, egg, and cheese on an English muffin.
I'm the driver of this Humvee, bumper number H-105, and only I have its keys. Early in the morning shortly after chow opens, I drive down, pick up breakfast for my crew, and bring it back to the barracks. It isn't really one of my duties, but I feel it's important to have a full stomach before we head out. By the middle of the day, no matter how starving we are, it's hard to eat. Usually it hovers around 125 degrees in this part of Iraq; when it's that hot, a stomach prefers only water. Anything else feels foreign and even a little sickening.
The three other Humvees are parked throughout the front of the barracks. Their drivers, gunners, and assistant drivers, A-drivers for short, are loading gear, water, and ammo. I follow Skavenski to the ammo shed where he pulls out four boxes. I carry two back and hand them up to him as he stands on our armored roof.
After a few minutes, Lieutenant Andrew Zeltwanger rallies the briefing. We form up in a circle around LT, and he gives all the usual material. It's still dark out, so he holds a flashlight up to the strip map of the route we'll be working on today. We've been doing this mission for over a month, so we pretty much have it down to a science. Nonetheless, outside the wire is outside the wire, and the enemy no doubt despises our mission.
We're pouring concrete into holes created by IEDs—roadside bombs. The ground in Iraq is extremely hard. A landscaper's nightmare, it's not made for digging and planting. Most of the IEDs are set on the top of the ground. When one goes off, it creates a small crater. The insurgents use the same craters over and over again. The holes become bigger and bigger. Some of the holes are so big we can stand in them like foxholes. The major problem with this is that convoys traveling past them can't see the bombs until they're right on top of them. They can't see the bombs until it's too late.
We have Turks helping us on our mission, and the insurgents hate this even more. American soldiers are one thing, but Muslim "traitors" are another. The Turks are the ones on post who mix and form concrete for barriers, landing pads, sidewalks, and buildings. They come out with us every day with two concrete mixing trucks. They pour the concrete, and we spread and form it.
We go outside the wire wearing full battle rattle weighing in at about fifty pounds. It's hot outside and we shovel debris out of the holes, pound rebar into the ground, rake the concrete even. Some of the sections of road are so bad that we have a sister engineer company using dozers, loaders, and graders to rip up the entire road. Then we follow them: pounding rebar, setting up forms with 2x4s, skreeting a board to level it, and using a cumbersome bole float to smooth it.
We work in shifts. Ryan Ludwin is on the first team. I, the driver, am on the second. Tom Skavenski, M-60 gunner, is on the third. Ken Renninger—my A-driver, radio man, and squad leader—supervises. We take turns scraping heavy, soupy concrete, pulling security, and sitting in the driver's seat cooling off before the heaven-sent air conditioning system we've hooked up. In it, two large tubes run from the trunk to the two front seat shooting cold air down the back of the driver and A-driver's neck.
We have a cooler with ice and water and we drink no less than four two-liter bottles of water a day.
When the two concrete mixers run out, a Humvee escorts each back to the base for a refill, and everyone takes a Ready-to-Eat lunch. Afterwards comes round two. And back into base around three.
The schedule is never the same, though. It can't be. Moving steadily down the road from nine to five on Monday through Friday is too much of a pattern. Instead, it's one day on, two days off; three days on, one day off; two days on, two days off. We jump around the route like crack-addicted rabbits. The hard canvas's only pattern is having none.
What drags is trying not to turn complacent. With missions like this, a month of success alters our perceptions of danger. That's just what the enemy wants. We have to keep him guessing; we have to keep ourselves guessing. Every day we are out there, the danger increases.
Stories come back: A medic, from the sister company who is tearing up whole sections of road, nearly loses his foot on the mission. His Humvee moves off the road to the side of the job site. It finds a great spot to pull security. The enemy is counting on this great spot. By the time they see the IED sitting in the nearby bushes, it's too late. The medic is sent to Germany, the doctors manage to save his foot. The IED is small, and he is lucky.
There are four vehicles, all Humvees. An all-Humvee convoy is a great way to travel because we can fly down the road without worrying about 9-16's or bulky concrete mixers having to keep up. The faster we go, the better the chances of throwing off trigger-man's timing.
So we fly down the road, jumping on and off the large patches
of concrete we'd poured. We spray paint the pads, the canvas
while they are still we so that after we leave and the concrete
is still drying, no one comes and slips in an IED. We cruise over
random spray patterns.
Someone played tic-tac-toe on one part: the X's won. Someone else had signed his name. Someone wrote "The 'Shroom Platoon," our self-proclaimed nickname. We are the 'Shroom Platoon because we are shit on all day and constantly left in the dark. A joke, but not really. Someone wrote it because it's something we've been holding in, something we've been keeping to ourselves. Now it's painted on our canvas for all the world to see.
We travel 60, 70 MPH down the unimproved road. Roaring of the diesel engine is the only thing that can be heard. I watch the second vehicle ahead of me, continually vary my distance to throw off any timing a potential trigger-man may have.
See the second Humvee, call sign Hunter Two, swerve drastically to the left side of the road.
On the right edge of the road, clear as day, a short, black cylinder.
From the cylinder, across the hard, tan earth, run two wires.
One is black and the other is red.
Too close to stop, I instinctively slam the pedal to the floor.
The wires run for about a meter until they hit tall weeds that grow along an irrigation ditch. No one is around, but there's no way of knowing how far those wires run.
The hand held radio crackles to life.
"Did you see that, One?" the vehicle ahead of me asks LT.
Now we are almost on top of the small, black cylinder. It's a land mine, and there's no time to stop.
"Get the fuck down, Ski!" Renninger yells to Skavenski.
If I stop now, we'll land somewhere directly before or directly after the IED, so I keep my foot to the floor and silently pray. I pull the Humvee as far to the left as I can, and we roar past the land mine.
A split second is an eternity.
I anticipate the popping thunder. I anticipate red pieces of
Renninger flying into me. Three pictures hang from my windshield.
Two are school pictures of Renninger's kids. The other is
of the blessed Mary. She holds her son and a wide, sunburst halo
shines from behind her head. The pictures swerve to the right as
I swerve the Humvee, bumper number H-105. Skavenski is ducked down
inside the turret and the left side of his lip bulges with Copenhagen.
Both my hands grip the wheel and I teeter on the left edge of the
road. The speedometer on the Humvee only goes to sixty. The needle
One more vehicle, one more target, left in this convoy.
Arthur Dodds, a trucker back home with two kids, is the A-driver. I struggle to see Hunter Four in my side mirror. Can't. The small armored window doesn't allow enough room. Renninger has his Kevlar pressed against his small, armored window. I wait for the popping thunder.
"You past it yet, Four?" asks LT over the radio.
A couple seconds, another eon, passes before Dodds responds.
"Yeah," the radio crackles.
"All Hunter elements, this is Hunter One," LT
says. "Halt. Herringbone, over."
We line the Humvees in the staggered formation and immediately check the surroundings for more IEDs. They know how it works: a four-Humvee convoy will usually blow past an IED and park a certain distance away. Sometimes they set up a conspicuous IED like say, a land mine trailing with wires, and plant more inconspicuous explosives a certain distance away.
All is clear in our twenty-five meter sweep, and we wait for LT who's sure that if we take a farming trail located off to our right and follow the irrigation ditch like a city block, it will come out to a location well before the conspicuous black land mine laying on the ground.
LT's Humvee throws up a cloud of restless dirt. The brown dirt has a brick red tint to it like rust. Tall weeds outlining the irrigation ditch whiz by, their healthy green color shadowed with red. We follow the tall weeds, a lengthy row of grapes in a vineyard. Dried clay thrown up by LT's Humvee blocks my view. Skavenski chokes on the dust and I have to back off.
"Still back there, Three?" LT asks over the radio.
"Yeah, we're here," says Renninger into the hand held. "We'll follow your trail, over."
We pull around the first turn. A family of sustenance farmers stands off to the side. They're not used to seeing military convoys back here and they give us a confused look. The children run to the edge and give us a thumbs up. One of them motions for a bottle of water. We fly past them; there's no time for sentiment.
Once there, we box the road and wait about thirty minutes—exceptionally short for such a situation—until EOD shows up. They park in between our formation and break out the bomb-inspecting robot. The IED turns out to be a dud. It's a fake, conspicuous land mine, set up to watch our reaction.
The whole time, a man stands three hundred meters away. He has a pair of binoculars and is watching our every move. We can't shoot him because of the Geneva Conventions: he holds no weapons and poses no immediate threat to our convoy. This is how the enemy knows our tactics.
This is how we avoid remaining complacent.
For another month we paint our canvas with hajji concrete and green spray paint. No news reporters follow us around because we are not killing. The days are long and hard, but the mission is important. We are sweaty and tired and the ripped up road ahead of us seemed much longer than the patched road behind us. But we save people's lives. We do our duty. Or, at the very least, we delay the insurgents from killing the infidels. We paint the hard canvas: a bunch of holes crudely patched with cheap concrete.