Being at Al-Asad pretty much stayed wondrous for the duration of our time there. Our Charlie Company and Marines from 1/7 were also in Al-Asad preparing to turn over to the relieving units. It made our stay crowded, long lines for chow and computers and phones (I waited two hours to get on a phone to tell my mother 'Happy Birthday') and for the bus down to Mainside. But I got to see a lot of guys I went to School of Infantry with, some of whom I haven't seen since then. It was awesome to see old faces again, but sobering hearing about the ones that didn't make it.
News like that makes one reflective. I spent some time thinking how fortunate our company has been, taking only a few casualties, and no KIAs. It's hard to imagine what it would feel like to lose a comrade here.
Maybe it's a cliche, but the closest analog for our relationship is family; we are brothers. I can't really call most of these guys friends, I doubt I would have hung out with any of them had we met in the civilian world, but we have sweated and bled with each other, trained and fought together, been through so much in such close proximity that it would be impossible not to form a close kinship. This is stuff I've read about and seen on screens of various sizes all my life, but it's a different thing to live it, and I am grateful for the experience.
2nd LAR is falling in on our equipment here, just as we fell in on 1st LAR's when got here, but inexplicably, a single vehicle is being sent back. They pulled three crewmen and two scouts (including me) from the Remain Behind Element to road march the vehicle down to Kuwait, and we left the other night with an Army convoy.
I was apprehensive at first for several reasons:
- The vehicle we are taking back has been hit five times, and is just about falling apart.
- The convoy we've joined is mostly civilian trucks with civilian drivers, and had only two armed humvees as a security element until we joined up, making us the main effort should anything happen.
- It's a huge convoy, which makes it a big target, and our vehicle is the highest value target by far.
- This vehicle has been pretty much stripped of its stock field gear to spread-load among the vehicles that are staying, and we've turned all our night optics and ACOGs over to our relieving unit, which leaves me with iron sights that aren't even zeroed.
But most of that apprehension quickly faded. Since our senior Marine is a Corporal I've known since we were here the first time, the atmosphere is pretty relaxed. Working with an Army unit is worlds apart form working with Marines, and one of the Sergeants in the convoy told us they hardly ever get hit.
So we've treated this last foray out of the wire more as a road trip than as a combat op. We made a last PX run for some munchies, and the crewmen have rigged a CD player up to the intercom so they can listen to music in their com helmets on the way down, and we scouts have decided to close up all the hatches and sleep through the trip, in relative comfort, since we each have a side to ourselves.
I couldn't stop smiling as we left Al-Asad for the last time, waving goodbye to the gate guards, wondering if they even realized we were waving goodbye.
I woke up in Scania, an Army convoy support station I remember stopping at on our way up to our AO, when we first arrived in-country. I remember having a pretty bad heat rash there, on my back, and at once that seems like just yesterday and ancient history.
We ate delicious Army chow for breakfast and lunch there, and Mijo and I took a look around the Hajji Mart that's set up right outside one of the gates, a row of little booths all selling largely the same merchandise: bootleg DVDs, fake Rolexes, old and new Iraqi money, flags, and various other little trinkets.
I bought a few odds and ends, an Iraqi flag, some money, and I haggled with the merchants, not because I couldn't spare the money (I'm sure they were robbing me either way), but because it was fun, and it seemed appropriate.
Bizarrely, one of the merchants liked my watch and offered to buy it from me, so we traded for some stuff, and he immediately strapped the watch on, a $30 Timex, showing it off to some of the merchants and looking rather pleased with himself. I'm still not sure that wasn't a scam of some sort.
Most of the merchants spoke English, a few almost perfectly, and all of them seemed excited to see Marines, though I'm surprised they could tell the difference. I can only suppose this was because Marines are easier to fleece than soldiers.
In Scania we met a National Guardsman on post who used to be a Marine in my unit, and another who used to be a Marine in 2/7, who was in the same platoon as Cpl P_______, one of the IR Marines who came over here with us, and I marvelled at how small the Marine Corps really is.
Mijo and I took pictures with a camel, and we relaxed there in Scania until late afternoon.
We stopped at a couple more places, once to refuel, once to eat dinner, and deja vu hit me more than once, seeing all the places we saw six and a half months ago, and I can't believe we're on our way home already.
It's about 0400 (I'm not sure because I don't have a watch), and we're stopped for a few hours at a convoy support station right on the Kuwaiti border, our last stop before we hit our destination, a Naval base about two hours away. Everyone else is asleep, and it's peaceful, and I can see the freeway from where I sit, a good time and place to reflect.
Before we left, I spoke to some of the civilian drivers, who are very multi-cultural. Some are from Sri Lanka, other Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia. They all spoke Arabic, so I shared with them my meager skills in the language, and we all had a laugh.
I mostly talked with one of the Sri Lankans because he could speak the most English. He's been here for three months and isn't sure how long he'll stay. He needs money, especially now after the tsunami.
We talked about mines and IEDs, and how he thinks it's getting more dangerous here, the explosives getting bigger.
I wished him luck, and he's stopped by at each of our stops to say 'hello'.
In Scania, we talked to one of the expats who is working here as a convoy commander. He's been here over a year already, and plans on staying indefinitely, until he's paid off the new house and truck his wife just bought. Women.
I wonder what it would be like over here as a civilian. It seems like it could be an option for the future, good money, and well-suited for my transient nature, my wanderlust, and a place to apply my skills as an infantryman, because God knows those skills are nigh useless in the civilian world.
But for now, I just want to get to where we're going, and eventually get home. I want to see my family and friends again, breathe American air and feel American soil under my feet. This place is strange, and hasn't gotten any less strange in the time I've been here. I think it's probably a good experience, one not many people get, but right now I long for the familiarities of home.