06 December 2010

Shooting the Pass, Part 1 of 3

Fort Irwin, Calif., Sept. 28--The soldiers of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment (A/1/133rd Inf.) are preparing for more than three days of “CALFEX”—“Combined Arms Live Fire Exercise.” In many ways, the training event is the culmination of months of both pre-and post-mobilization training, first at Camp Ripley, Minn.; then at Camp Shelby, Miss.; and now here at the National Training Center in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Alpha Company will assault multiple objectives simultaneously, coordinating mortar fires, movements by ground and helicopter, and even overhead Close Air Support (CAS, which soldiers pronounce “kaz”).

In two days, the bullets and bombs will be real. So, too, will the helicopters and jet planes. In preparations for its deployment to Afghanistan along with the rest of the Iowa Army National Guard’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry “Red Bull” Division (2-34th BCT), Alpha Company’s training time is almost over.

First, however, the company must travel a couple of hours from the battalion’s headquarters at Forward Operating Base (“FOB”) Seattle, to the even more remote location of FOB Reno. Conditions at FOB Reno will be Spartan at best. Company commander Capt. Jason Merchant orders each soldier to bring a folding Army cot. Sleeping on the vehicles is bad business, he says, and other units have returned from CALFEX with stories about rats and snakes. No sleeping on the ground this time around.

Merchant’s driver is Sgt. David “Bone” Tielbur of Guttenberg, Iowa. A 20-year veteran of the Iowa National Guard, Afghanistan will be his fourth deployment with the unit. First, there was Kuwait, then Egypt, then Iraq. Now, it’s Afghanistan. “I prayed on it a lot. My wife told me, ‘If you don’t go, you won’t be worth a crap to me, because you’ll be worried about the guys,’” the baritone-voiced Tielbur says gently, smiling and shaking his head. “That’s Mamma-Bone for you!”

Tielbur takes great pleasure in quietly staying ahead of his commander: Trouble-shooting his radios, getting him water, setting up his cot. Merchant describes Tielbur as his “driver, RTO, and confidante,” and they joke about their working relationship often. “Let’s see if the Vulcan mind-meld is working,” Merchant tells Tielbur at one point, while the armored Humvee is in motion. “Guess where I want to park.”

Today is Bone’s 40th birthday. And he already knows what’s coming.

*****

Alpha Company is fighting the clock. ““Inshallah, that the Granite Mountain Pass will be open,” says Merchant. “If not, we’ll have to take 'Highway 7' all the way around Fort Irwin.”

Almost immediately, however, the convoy encounters obstacles to staying on schedule. A stop for fuel mid-way at FOB King has come up empty. The battalion logistics officer had earlier promised that there was a retail-fuel oasis at FOB King—the logistical hub for the entire brigade—but the fuel trucks are out on other missions. Alpha Company wastes precious time idling, waiting for the word.

Merchant sends one lieutenant to see if he can make a face-to-face deal for fuel, while also text-messaging his battalion's Tactical Operations Center (“TOC”) via Blue Force Tracker (B.F.T.). After an hour, Merchant orders the convoy to leave FOB King and continue movement toward FOB Reno. “Here’s the lesson-learned,” says the 38-year-old commander from Dysart, Iowa. “Operations never fail because of operations—they fail because of logistics.”

The sun is now lower in the desert sky, and the company pushes on toward the Granite Mountain Pass. National Training Center personnel will close the pass because of the next day’s live-fire exercise. (“But we ARE the live-fire exercise,” one soldier mock-complains. “How can they close the door on us?!”) If his trucks don’t move along the direct route, Merchant will have to divert the long way around. He’s still got plenty of fuel for the outbound trip, but doesn’t want to waste any more time. “We’ve got to shoot the pass,” he says.

The motley mix of Humvees, simulated Mine-Resistant Armor-Protected (MRAP, and pronounced “Em-rap”) vehicles, and other trucks creeps northward to the gate to the pass, which is monitored and controlled by Fort Irwin soldiers. Using crossing-arm barriers, the active-duty soldiers shut down the pass just as Alpha Company squeaks past.

FOB Reno turns out to be a wide spot in the desert, a rocky parking lot surrounded by 8-foot walls of mounded sand. Creature comforts? A line of chemical toilets—the Army calls them “latrines”—located a stone’s throw from the convoy’s vehicles, which are now parked side-by-side in a single row, three platoons in sequence. Ankle-twisting rocks are positioned every few steps. Making one’s way to the latrine feels like walking on the moon.

Alpha Company is in high spirits. Awaiting further instructions, a couple of soldiers start passing a football. “Hey,” yells one soldier, and the ball is thrown to him as well. He tosses it back as an underhand pass: “This is how a real man throws a football.” Apparently, he plays rugby. Bone shuffles past, and suddenly, someone calls out that it is his birthday. There’s a scrum. The soldiers tackle him and hold him to the ground. One by one, they lift his shirt to deliver an open-handed smack across his belly. “Red-belly! Red-belly!” The blows are hard enough to leave images of individual fingers.

Even Merchant takes a turn.

The soldiers are told to place their cots on the rocky terrain immediately behind their vehicles. The sky flares orange-and-blue as the sun falls below the mountain ridge, and the dusty ground turns purple-gray in the dusky light. Many troops break out lamps attached to headbands, and the red- and white-lights bob and bounce in the growing darkness. Some read, some eat Army rations, some play cards. Often, five or six soldiers will face each other in little groups, sitting on two cots, playing card games or telling stories infused with exaggeration and profanity. The antics are straight from high-school gym class.

“Hey, smell this,” says one solider to another, holding up a tan combat boot. “Doesn’t this smell like Doritos? Nacho-cheese Doritos?”

“I can beat that,” says the other, taking off his boots ...

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