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Monday, April 12, 2004
My cousin, back from Iraq--and how it changed me

I spoke with my cousin a few days ago.  He's just back from Iraq.  He was stationed in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit.

I guess he was lucky in a way.  He got out just before things started really going nutty in Iraq again.

But it's a lot worse there than the media has been letting on.  This is yet another reason my mind has been changing about Iraq, and it's time I wrote about it.

My cousin (I won't give his name here, because he says he may have to go back in six months for another six-month hitch--after being there more than a year) drove trucks.

Big trucks.

Trucks so big they are designed to carry an M1 tank.  Or an 80-ton halftrack.  Or two hummers.  Enclosed.  It has forty tires.  It weighs 80 tons--just the tractor.  Tractor, trailer, and cargo can add up to 200 tons.  If you are sitting in the driver's seat, you look down on the roofs of 18-wheeler trucks.  Trucks which stopped like a train, needing hundreds of yards of safety distance between itself and the next truck in the convoy.

Like I said, big trucks.

Anyway, things aren't so nice and neat as the media lets on.  The camp he was in was mortared regularly.  Sometimes, they'd get intelligence that an attack was coming.  This just meant less sleep than usual.

The heat in the cab of the trucks is intense.  He saw it get to more than 150 degrees Fahrenheit.  When it's that hot, you sip water all the time.  150 degree water, you sip like tea.  One time, he made the mistake of pouring his water over his head--it gave him first-degree burns.  But they don't often open the windows.  Why?

At first, the Iraqis thought the big trucks were bulletproof.  Then they found out they weren't.  That's when they started attacking the trucks big-time.  And that's why he didn't keep the window down.  In fact, if a tire blew, he never stopped to fix it.  He just kept a count in his head, starting with forty and working down.  He could easily go four, five, or more blowouts and not stop.

If a stop had to happen--and the trucks are notoriously hard-to-maintain, especially in Iraq--the whole convoy of trucks would stop, and everyone would get out to do security.  You hoped.

Trouble is, they don't do truck driving like a long-haul trucker in the U.S.  The sleep rules rigorously enforced on private citizens is ignored by an army in combat.  He'd often go eight hours, nap two or four, then do another eight hours.  Over twenty-four hours, he'd often do twenty hours driving.  There are two guys in the cab, but the rider has to keep a lookout on the passenger side--they don't dare fall asleep, in case of attack.  So when a convoy stopped, you hoped everyone was alert enough to stay awake.  It often didn't happen, especially out of the city.  Even my cousin, who was a leader of his group, sometimes couldn't stay awake when stopped.  Once the convoy left without him.  He woke up all alone.

That is bad.  He got the truck moving, and just hooked up with the next convoy he could find.  Better safe than alone, even if you don't end up where you're supposed to be.

The insurgents would try to stop the trucks--the truck's best defense was its immense momentum.  When stopped, they became more vulnerable.  As the year ground on, and things became more tense, they would stop under fewer and fewer situtations.

At first, the idea was to keep your face among the Iraqis.  So folks were allowed to come close when the trucks were stopped.  Then some attacks came.  So kids only were allowed near the trucks.  They'd give them the candy from their MREs.  Then some kids--"really little kids" as he put it--were putting magnetic bombs under their trucks.  So, no one was allowed close.  The soldiers were now separate from the Iraqi citizens.

My cousin was given a slingshot.  The candy once given to the kids became a very effective deterrent.  When someone came too close, but he didn't feel it was time to lock a round in the chamber of his rifle, he'd fire a hard candy from the surgical-rubber sling.

Once someone stepped up and reached through the triangular window by my cousin's feet.  He didn't know what the guy was after, but he was in danger.  He kicked the guy's arm with his steel-toed boots so hard he heard a snap, and the guy yanked his arm out.

Sometimes a car or truck would try to force him off the road.  My cousin would have to make a decision--and he always decided for the safety of himself and his unit.  He sideswiped many cars into ditches after they tried something funny.  Similarly, he didn't stop in a town for something as prosaic as a red light.  He hit the horn a bunch of times, looked around as best he could, but mostly, he just kept right on through the intersection.

It seems a fair metaphor for the entirety of Bush policy in Iraq.  Don't stop, don't follow the usual traffic laws, just keep going, and hope everything will end up okay.

I hope this helps you understand part of why my views on Iraq have been so much in flux lately.  Of course I still love and support the brave soldiers of my beloved country.  Of course I will support my cousin however I can if he indeed has to go back into the chaos of Tikrit, or anywhere else.  But things aren't as cozy as the media has made it seem.  Remember, all this is from before the recent insurrection in the three cities.  This is all just business-as-usual stuff going on on a constant basis.  Constant danger.  Constant strain.  Constant attacks.  From a minority of the populace?  Possibly.  Even probably.  But the soldiers are now separated from the citizens, and I don't see how you can grow friendly with someone with guns with whom you never talk.  And I fail to see how Bush is going to get us out of this mess.

I need to stop writing now.  I can't see the screen.

Posted at 07:09 pm by brandonstarr

April 12, 2004   07:25 PM PDT
congrads on your cosin coming back from iraq
April 20, 2004   10:12 AM PDT
Thanks for writing this entry. I hope your cuz chills while he's home and stays safe if he has to return.
Brandon Starr
April 21, 2004   06:30 AM PDT
He will. He has a wife and kids, too, so there's yet more reasons to hope he doesn't go back, or at least not for long.
Brandon Starr
December 4, 2004   09:34 PM PST
Update for anyone coming across this late (probably from my link on my main blog page)

He's back in Iraq. So far, so good, but woof, talk about danger. I don't know if he's in Tikrit or somewhere else, but wherever it is, I'm sure it's plenty dangerous to be in a U.S. military truck, no matter how large (or, sadly, unarmored).

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