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M. Puig, Bravo 04/07

Christmas Vacation 2005

As the first rays of morning cross my face, the same thing happens that happens every day. A crackling loudspeaker on a mosque somewhere announces the day’s first “call to prayer.” I unzip my sleeping bag and sit up. My body groans from little sleep and the fact that only a sliver of sleeping bag and a thin piece of foam separates my body from the rich and fertile lands of Mesopotamia. My eyes search for my weapon in my immediate vicinity, also the home of 25 other Recon Marines. I find my rifle and sweep my hand across my matted hair. I can feel new wrinkles in the creases of my eyes and a frown that gets worse each day I wake up. Welcome to another boring day on the outskirts of Falluja.
I put my boots on and grab my toothbrush and a canteen to try and rid my mouth of this general plague that I have growing on my teeth. I do my morning business in a plastic bag and run the mess out to the fire pit. I run because I worry more about our company commander catching me outside rather than a sniper’s bullet. After two months here and not getting shot at once, the worry has faded away into a sense of false security. Our company occupies a Forward Operating Base (FOB) in a one-story school surrounded by a ten-foot concrete wall. Several rooms emptied of their desks to make space for Marines, open up into a large courtyard area with a few parked Hummvees. Wires trace back and forth across the ground from rooms filled with radios to small satellite antennas on the roof. On each corner of the roof, makeshift guard posts have erected overnight and black machine guns with long shiny brass belts of ammunition dangling from them stare up into the skies of the Garden of Eden. Their operators, tired and bored beyond imagination, wish and daydream for someone to shoot at.
Gathered around a school desk in the courtyard our team looks at a satellite picture of the surrounding area. Our team leader, Sgt. B, the most experienced person in the team on his fourth deployment to Iraq as a Reconnaissance Marine, briefs us on the mission for today. This deployment will be his final; he will die in a motorcycle accident shortly after our return home. Joe, the assistant teamleader on his third and final deployment which he makes out by the skin of his teeth almost dies from friendly fire a few months from now. Pistol Pete, the point-man, Mac the radio operator, and I, the machine gunner, make up the rest of the team, halfway through our first deployment. Sgt. B explains our mission, which involves another weapons cache sweep on an area near the Euphrates River. I put my gear on, quickly cognizant of all the aching raw spots on my body caused by the everyday use of over 100 pounds of equipment. Later, as the sun begins to crest in the sky of a cold December day, we step off on our first patrol. Sgt. B holds open the roll of spiral concertina wire that surrounds the school. Every patrol feels the same. Boredom and fatigue set in with each step along with the unknowing fear of how far I have to travel. One thing that I know for certain: every step taken away from the FOB equals one more tired step I have to take to get back.
The area around the wide Euphrates River has a reputation as some of the most beautiful land in the Middle East. Large, noisy, ancient-looking water pumps housed in mud brick shacks jet out from the banks of the river, bringing water to irrigation ditches that run along side fields. Palm trees and reeds line the waters edge, with fields stretching out a mile or two towards the flat arid desert. As we walk along a high road that parallels the river, the evening call to prayer blares from a nearby mosque. After an eventless five hour foot patrol, we finally make our way towards the FOB. Pistol Pete leads us down the high road into a large open potato field with the far ends lined with palm trees and a small house sitting close to my right. As I begin to trek down from the road, I look up to the sky and gaze upon the most beautiful Christmas sunset I have ever seen. Clouds open up to a light shade of blue that slowly burns into yellow and orange, as the sun sits barely above the tree line. I stop and take my most memorable picture of the deployment. Pistol Pete leads us straight through the middle of the field. Joe, always with food on his mind, walks behind me as the last man in the team. He browses through potatoes like a bargain shopper at a grocery store, tossing out undesirables, placing worthy ones in his pockets while a farmer stares with powerless frustration. Halfway through the field, I hear a faint sound of a gunshot from across the river. I continue walking not noticing that Joe has paused trying to listen closer. His suspicion turns correct as a mortar round explodes into the earth 100 yards in front of Pistol Pete. Someone yells “INCOMING!” and I begin to look for anything close to me that might offer some protection. I hear another mortar eject from the tube as I dash to the only thing available to me in this field. I find myself alone in a small depression in the center of the field. Green potato plants block my vision and time seems to pass slowly as I lay there in wait. The brief silence and the huffing of my breath join with a sound both familiar and unfamiliar. I can hear the sound of the air moving as the round sails somewhere over my head. Of all the emotions I have flowing through my body at this precise moment; I find none more strange than the fact that I hear myself laughing hysterically. The thundering crack of the mortar exploding 50 yards away brings me to my feet, and sprinting madly towards the farmhouse with Joe trailing behind me. The farmer, standing just inside the doorstep, shooing and yelling something that might loosely translate into, “Dear kind gentlemen, you seem to be attracting exploding objects from heaven. Please take yourselves away from me and my family.” Joe and I blow past him to join up with the remainder of the team inside.
We sit in silence amongst sobbing children as counter battery artillery fire rounds from Camp Falluja on the triangulated position of the mortar team. If the mortar team waited one more minute, the rounds would have landed right in the middle of our patrol and done a great deal of damage. If we had not walked straight through the middle of an open field, the enemy would have never gained enough information to plan out the direction we traveled. The simple miscalculations of the enemy to know their equipment saved our lives. What I and my team learned that Christmas afternoon affected us the rest of the deployment. Never again did I consider any day as just another day. Never again did I walk nonchalantly through the suburbs of Falluja with thoughts of yet another tedious patrol. The most consideration for creating a “hard target” consumed every patrol, and to this day I am very thankful of my first lesson, for it saved my life countless times on many other “vacations” of 2006