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Army Barbie Chapter One

Written by Heather Penn

This is it.  This is where I die.  How did this happen?  How did I get here?  I am a soldier in the US Army currently stationed in Iraq.  I was tasked to pick up a busted tank with my truck.  My truck has myself, my sergeant and the two stranded tankers.  It was supposed to be an easy mission in and out they said.  We were only 40 minutes from the airbase we now reside at.  Everything was going well before we left.  The sergeant in charge of my platoon came in and asked for a volunteer.  I had just returned from a supply mission to the Syrian border or SNAP as we called it and really didn’t want to go but I also didn’t like sitting around in the barracks thinking about not being in Iraq either.   Besides volunteering is one way to help me move up the ranks.  Being a female in the Army is not easy.  I have to really prove myself and even then when I meet soldiers outside of my platoon they automatically think I sucked or fucked someone to make rank.  I worked my ass off to get where I am and no amount of shit talking is going to make me move.

So here I sit with a tank loaded on the back of my rig, my sergeant frantically trying to raise up some Intel on the always sketchy never really works MPS computer system installed in my truck and two stinky tankers sitting in my back seat.  None of us are talking we are all too busy watching the fire fight unfolding out my front window.  When we arrived at the pickup site we were guided by a humvee carrying a captain from another unit who wanted his tank back.  The tank had stopped here to check for possible insurgents when it was discovered that they had inadvertently missed the stop site and instead found themselves about two clicks down on a mine field.  I was not sure how far a click was but I hoped it was pretty far.  When the commander of the convoy realized his mistake the convoy was carefully turned around.  Unfortunately the tank stalled and then refused to turn over.  This is where I came in.  The call was made to our base that a HET truck would be needed to bring a tank back.  Like I said it was supposed to be quick and I wasn’t too concerned.  I had driven that route almost daily and as long as we stayed away from the town of “Batt” a few miles down all should have been well.  Batt is a hub for insurgents and is rumored to be a standoff point between the two Iraqi factions called the Shakes and the Sarris.  Although the part of Batt we drive through is small, it is always a flurry of activity.  There is a statue in the middle of the main road with four different routes off of it.  Kind of like a round-about minus any and all landscaping or signs telling which direction to go.  It is a scary place and I pray every time we head through it.  I was glad we weren’t headed there.  The Sergeant in the truck with me is Thomas Arost, a 25 year old dairy farmer from Wisconsin.  No one calls him Thomas in the military your last name is all anyone calls you.  He is Sgt. Arost to me and I am Murphy or Murf to him.  We have done many missions together and I like that he is fair and takes my opinion into consideration.  Most of the guys think I am an idiot, incompetent or just a piece of ass.

Because the tank wouldn’t start we had to winch it on to my trailer.  The tank wasn’t disabled in anyway other than refusing to fire, so the process should have been relatively straight forward, although it can take some time to pull out the winches and guide the tank on.  Once the winches are shackled to the tank I watched Arost’s hand signals and worked the winch controls.  He faces the tank and uses either a right or left wave signal for which winch to use and a solid fist for stop.  Unfortunately one of the winches stopped working midway through getting the tank on.  We had no choice but to let it back down and crossover the winch pulling on the opposite shackle.  This worked and eventually the tank was on.  We then use shackles and binders to secure it to the trailer.  By the time we were done it was getting dark.  We, Arost, myself and the tankers, climbed back up into the cab and waited.  One of my favorite Army sayings is hurry up and wait and that is exactly what we were doing.  The captain who escorted us here was pretty much invisible until 5 minutes before we completed our task.  He told us he had been trying to reach his company to get his next set of orders.  Radioing ahead is just a way of gathering Intel so we know who or what we might be running into and to alert our own people of our intentions or ETA.  It was hot inside the cab, so hot, the stale unmoving air hung in heavy layers all through the cab.  Just as I was starting to wonder when we were leaving I thought I saw a small flash in front of me. I leaned forward into the steering wheel straining to see in the rapidly disappearing light. I looked around to see if the others had seen it.  Arost had been messing with the stupid MPS and the tankers were asleep.  Just when I thought I was imagining it I saw it again but this time it was more than one and it was very evidently a tracer round.  A tracer round is a bullet shot out of a gun that leaves a colorful trail so you can see where it went.  It was standard in our platoon to have every third round a tracer.  At night they are super fun to shoot though this was not fun at all. I saw another flash absolutely confirming my fears.  I didn’t need to hit Arost as he was already staring out the window asking me if I had seen that.  His statement to me was enough to wake up the guys in the back and we all stared out the window.  What started out as a few rounds quickly turned into a few hundred.  Tracer rounds were flying everywhere.  The sky was glowing a faint red hue.  The sun had officially set leaving the sky behind the firefight a beautiful orange.  Had this been different circumstances the two contrasting colors would have made a great picture but instead I saw only death.  It looked as if the fight was a ways off, we weren’t able to see more than a haze and the whizzing red streams of the tracer rounds.  Even though we could see the fights general direction, we couldn’t really hear or smell it.  This could be a good thing meaning the fight is far enough away to not be much of a threat.

I saw the captain exit his Humvee in front of us and run towards my truck. I felt the truck dip slightly with his weight as he climbed up the ladder to Arost’s window.  He wanted to know if the MPS was working and to see if we could rally anyone in our chain of command to respond.  Unfortunately the stupid MPS wasn’t working that great.  If you restarted it you had about 5 minutes to find your target and transmit a message.  Then it would freeze up and stop working.  The captain told us to sit tight because we didn’t want to call any attention to ourselves and we would just wait it out.  Then my truck dipped again as he jumped off and headed back to his humvee.  His unit was different from ours so I didn’t even know who he was.  We sat and waited, watching as the sky grew ever more smoky and colorful.   The MPS wouldn’t even restart so we were out of luck there.  At some point not to long after the captain’s first visit, it sounded as if the shots were getting closer.  At first I couldn’t be sure but then one of the tankers in the back confirmed my fears.  We watched as the fight headed our way.  I could feel the tankers in the back tense and felt my body do the same.  The captain again came running back to us and told us what he had gathered from his command. It appeared to be an insurgent ambush on an American convoy heading to Batt but there were few details on what was happening.  A few vehicles were disabled so the commander in charge of the convoy, hoping the insurgents where just a few, decided to fight back.  This led them in our direction.  The captain told us that Intel knew the American convoy under attack had 2 Humvees both with a gun turret and 2 cargo trucks with a 50cal each.   This meant there were four 50cal’s. in all, not to mention the personal weapons of the soldiers.  Each of us was required to carry a weapon on us at all times.  The tankers and I had M-16’s, Arost had a saw.  The convoy commanders usually carried a 9mm side arm as well.  The convoy being attacked had plenty of weapons and ammo, and where radioing in air support as we spoke.  They seemed to be holding their own and possibly advancing.  They knew of our position behind them so it seemed they might attempt to push the firefight the other way.  The problem not too far away from us was the town of Batt, where surely Iraqi reinforcements could be recruited.  I felt my truck pop back up to even as the captain jumped down and head back to his humvee.  Once again we wait.

Some time went by when I saw the captain run back to us and inform Arost that he had no new Intel. He hesitated then made as if to leave but instead he told me to put the truck in black out mode.  This meant no lights were on at all inside the cab and no lights were on anywhere on the outside except for a tiny little square about as big as a postage stamp right above where the front headlights and rear taillights are situated. With the help of Night Vision Goggles, the stamp size light can easily be seen and followed.  Although the firefight illuminated the sky to some extent the illumination was not enough to drive without the NVG’s.  The captain who was still standing on the ladder outside the passenger door asked Arost what he thought.  Arost and I look at each other and quickly ran over the possibilities of attempted movement.  If we move soon we might be able to get out before they got over this way.  We could follow the tracks we made coming in, out, and hope we don’t get stuck.  There was an abandoned building about 500 feet to the right of us but that would mean abandoning the vehicle and that was not an option especially in a mine field.  We agreed we would try and leave if the decision were ours.

Although the HET is the biggest truck in the Army it is also the slowest especially when loaded.  The captain nodded his head and said he was unable to raise anyone on the radio to give him a definitive answer so he was taking it upon himself and us to decide what to do.  I didn’t envy his position.  If it ends badly it could be considered his fault for not sitting tight and waiting for orders.  The captain and Arost quickly ran through some logistics.  The main road was straight ahead no more than a mile.  It would be slow going with the tank on the back.  The road we traveled in here on was not really a road at all but more of a sand covered cutout in the landscape with high sand berms marking the shoulders and deep ruts throughout.  The captain thought if we stayed in black-out mode and slowly and carefully made our way to the main road the insurgents might not notice.  It was a long shot but it was all we had.  We knew the other convoy under attack was alerted to our whereabouts so we shouldn’t have to worry about friendly fire.  The captain took a minute to process all this and told us, ok let’s roll, stay close and follow me.  I told him I might need some space to floor it in case one of the sand berms on the side decides to pull me in.  He told me not to worry they would adjust accordingly just don’t get stuck and for god’s sake drive good.  With that he was gone.  I couldn’t see him climb back into the Humvee by now it was pitch black.  I wonder if his driver was as nervous as I was.  Arost looked over at me and smiled and asked me if I was ready.  I briefly thought do I have a choice then I smiled and with feigned bravery tried to recall a catch phrase that would fit…bring it on was all I could muster.  I took one last look at the haze ahead of me marveling at the beauty and death that were married together then pulled down my NVG’s

The firefight took on a whole different feel under the green lenses.  It was intensely bright if I looked directly at it.  The fight was definitely moving this way and in a few seconds I would be moving towards it.  I felt the weight of my M-16 in my lap with the muzzle resting on the open window frame. I took comfort in the tightness of my bullet proof vest for without it my heart would surely leap from my chest.  I heard Arost say lock and load and quickly did as I was told.  I found comfort when I heard the same metallic clicking and sliding bolt action emit from the backseat.  As if on cue the humvee’s black-out lights briefly signified brake pressure as the driver shifted it into gear.  The tiny lights dimmed a little and he started to pull away.  I heard a sigh from the back and one of the tankers said, here we go.  With that I dropped the truck into the lowest gear and attempted to roll out.  With a tank on the back, the truck takes some gas to get it going.  I steadily applied pressure to the accelerator and was dismayed to see we weren’t going anywhere.  I tried to give it more gas, feeling the cab serge up and forward as if it wanted to go but the truck held tight.  I felt panic coming on and tried once more to get it to go, again nothing.  I let off the gas, shifted the truck back out of gear and felt it relax, that’s when I realized I left the parking brake on.  Angry at my forgetfulness I nailed the yellow button with my palm, heard a satisfying hiss and immediately threw the truck in gear.  The truck responded with a hard jerk forward.  I knew I couldn’t possibly be instilling any belief in me with the guys in the back but I also knew that Arost had been with me on many missions and he knew I could drive.  As the truck slowly started forward I felt myself begin to relax a little.  I focused on the stamp sized lights in front of me and tried to feel the truck move down the road.  If the trailer pulled me left I eased it back to what I felt was center.  A few times I could feel a large pile of sand try and pull us in.  As we edged ever closer to the road the pop pop sounds of bullets grew louder in the air.  The acrid smell of spent shells and smoke crept into my nose and lungs.  There was so many pops, followed by louder automatic fire that surely had to be the 50cal.

My heartbeat quickened and I briefly thought of being stuck and what that could mean.  Would I be the one held responsible if we get ambushed because I was driving?  Holy shit it kind of would!! I knew Arost had a family back home who loved him and what of the guys in the back I know nothing of them.  Christ I was getting myself into a panic.  I brought myself back and looked up at the fire fight ahead of us.  I could actually see the silhouettes of trucks and what looked like smoke bombs.  The pops and bangs and smokey haze could easily have been fireworks back home, except this wasn’t home and I certainly wasn’t excited about what the producers of this light show were actually doing.  Though mostly green and yellow the lights brightened and dimmed as more bullets and smoke erupted from new sources.  I could feel the two tankers behind me tense bringing their bodies forward in unison right between Arost and me.  One started shaking his leg up and down, vibrating my seat back.  I knew he couldn’t see me so there was no point in motioning, besides feeling his leg bouncing gave me a sort of comfort it meant I was annoyed so I had to still be alive.  Slowly I drove ahead alternating between the haze and Humvee lights.  The lights from the firefight were now too bright for my night vision goggles.  All I could see was a blinding white.  As I fumbled to get them off I momentarily let the truck drift too far left.  There was a pull from the trailer.  I could feel it behind me turning the nose of my truck right as the trailer got sucked in left.  No I thought, not today not when we are this close to getting out.  I kept the nose facing right and quickly downshifted into the lowest gear.  Slowly I felt the sand release my trailer and again I focused on the Humvee.   Illuminated by the show in front of us we watched the Humvee make a sharp right turn placing them on the main road or hard ball as it was called.  I choose not to slow and instead took the turn rather fast.  This made my truck feel as if it was dipping really low on the right side.  Luckily a HET trailer has something called independent boogies so a hairpin turn can easily be executed as the trailer will just follow the truck. With that last maneuver we were on the hard ball road.

I dared a glance left looking directly into the fray.  I could see some of our trucks laying down suppressive fire with the 50.cal but nothing else.  The noise was deafening.  I could hear yelling and see people scrambling around though I couldn’t tell good from bad.  I saw puffs of sand as bullets hit the ground on the side of the road. I kept thinking any second now they are going to notice us and open fire. Any second now bullets are going to penetrate my truck hitting one or all of us. I drove rigid prepared for the bullet, surely a tumbler-round. It would enter my body then tumble through my insides causing as much damage to my internal organs as possible only to be expelled from an unknown exit point. I felt the thick smoke adhering to my face, blackening my pores, entering my lungs and searing my eyes. I drove on waiting for the pain, hoping the shot would hit me somewhere that enabled me to keep driving, praying it wouldn’t hurt too much.  I looked ahead and saw the Humvee rapidly pulling away. I left the truck in black out mode and accelerated.  Luckily there was a slight downhill which thank god for gravity enabled that gigantic weight on the trailer to give me a great push.  We were up to speed in minutes. The airbase, home, was only a half hour away.  I didn’t dare think like that because surely any moment the bad guys were going to see us and then the pursuit will be on. I kept thinking any second now any second. But it never came. I drove with my eyes glued to the Humvee in front of me, occasionally glancing in the side mirror, the firefight shrank the further away we got.   My eyes cleared and I dared let out a breath.

After a few miles of lights out I saw the Humvee put on his headlights.  Arost told me to follow suit which I did immediately.  My eyes needed a second to adjust to having lights on again.  No one spoke not even when the Humvee pulled over a few miles away from the Airbase and the captain and his driver got out.  He looked up at us and motioned for us to join him.  We all dismounted and met the captain at the front of my truck.  We looked in the direction of the fire fight which could have been nothing more than a small fire from this distance.  The captain spoke first and said I can’t believe we made it.  He wondered out loud how that worked and how they didn’t see us. Of course no one could answer that but none of us wanted to think about the other outcomes.  The captain commended me on my driving and the rest of them on their composure.  It was only then, a feeling, like being punched in the gut overcame me.  I thought of the soldiers left behind and questioned aloud if we should have tried to help.  The captain shook his head and said, “Without knowing who was where we couldn’t risk friendly fire and with the loaded HET we would have been sitting ducks, we did the right thing.”  If that was so why did I suddenly feel so fucking guilty? That guilt radiated from my gut like burning lava, traveling up through my chest into my throat threatening to come spewing out of my mouth. I choked it back, the fear and guilt and swallowed hard.  I looked back in the direction of the firefight and willed those there to be okay. “Please be okay,” I said silently, “I’m sorry.”

We all mounted up and returned to Asiad airbase that we call home. I didn’t glance again in the mirror I was no longer thinking or feeling. We didn’t speak. Like robots devoid of human emotions, we dropped the tankers and their tank back off with the infantry guys. They didn’t say goodbye and neither did we. We unloaded their tank and paused briefly to watch some of their guy’s playing cards at a table made of MRE boxes and illuminated by 20 or so glow sticks. Those laughing faces, unaware that at this moment some of their own were possibly fighting for their lives.  I climbed back up in my truck and looked at Arost.  Arost and I didn’t speak about what had happened we just did what we always do.  We returned my truck to the motor pool and parked it in the staging area for tomorrow’s mission.   We executed our after checks called PMCS and topped it off with fuel.  Silently we walked back to the barracks.  I bid him good night at the female side and watched him walk off around to the men’s side.  I walked through the front door and into the room I shared with 8 other females.  My roommates were all doing what they normally do like nothing had happened.   Some didn’t know I had even left.  It seemed my eternity had only been 4 hours.  Smith and Henders were cutting out shoes in a magazine and taping them on the wall.   Benson and Bosworth were reading on their cots.  It sounded like a few were outside on the stoop talking and laughing.  I looked at no one and instead focused on my corner.  I knew if anyone spoke to me I may break down and cry.  It is rare I let anyone see me cry, I have learned it is regarded as a sign of weakness and if I am to make it to sergeant I need to show I can be a strong.  I sit on the edge of my cot and untie my boots.  I unhook the elastic boot straps and slide the worm-like helpers into my pocket.  My M-16 slides off my back and I recheck to make sure it is cleared of ammo and tuck it safely under my cot.  I slip my magazine under my pillow glad it is still full of unspent rounds.  With my uniform off I am left in my underwear and brown tee shirt god knows it’s too hot to sleep in more and practically illegal to sleep in less.  My 8×8 space is as private as it gets.  Finally I lie down, pull the mosquito net over the top of me and face the pillow.  I bury my face and cry myself to sleep.  In the morning it will all be but a distant dream the only proof it ever was, is the damp pillow.

About the author

Heather Penn

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