So, when I last left you guys, I had finished HROTP.  It was late June 2006.  Honestly, I can’t remember the date, and I’m too lazy to go dig out the certificate.  There, I said it.  Deal with it. 

I’d like to point out that I am intentionally vague about some of this stuff, and I’m sure (or at least hoping) you guys understand why.  I’m not bringing out the whole “If I told you, I’d have to…”, no I’m not saying that at all.  What I AM saying is that there’s a modicum of security and intentional ambiguity that goes along, and that’s just part of the deal.  Not trying to lead anyone on, or make it to be more than it is, but there is a certain decorum I am expected to maintain.  I’ve been in law enforcment 18 years, and quite simply, it is what it is. 

Now, moving on, I’d also like to point out that there’s a way you’re told things are going to work, the way things are supposed to work, and the way things actually end up working……and I was about to learn this lesson.

By design, our field office was divided into Teams (we had three at this time, but were expanding to six).  Red, Blue and Gold Teams.  Each Team had 16 Agents assigned to various disciplines.  I was on Gold Team.  The idea was to have the team deploy to their respective missions as a whole.  Everyone was assigned to different missions (criminal investigations, counterintelligence, liaison and guys attend to special ops squads–like me).  That way, everyone left at the same time, and returned at the same time.  If you know anything about “government planning”, you know this fell apart…quickly.  As a matter of fact, we all left at the same time, but then filtered back one by one and were never on the same schedule again…

So, after HROTP we went through a few weeks of specialized training.  Because I was going to a SOCOM entity, I got some “additional training”,  then returned back to get some additional CRFO/NCIS specific training (anyone seeing a “training” pattern here?  Yeah, it got old for me too).  Before I knew it, it was late July and I was ready to go…and I had no idea what I was getting into.

  You have to remember that in 2006 Iraq seemed to be on the verge of completely coming apart at the seams.  Troops were dying with alarming regularity, and the country was skating right to the brink of civil war.  It was the lions den, and I was walking right into it.  To make matters worse, I was going to be working with a unit working in Al Anbar province (Fallujah, Ramadi, Hit).  Our job was to confront insurgents, seek out terrorists and arrest/”neutralize” them.  It would not be safe.  There were firefights and IED’s every day.  I had come to grips with my mortality years ago, when I first pinned a badge on my chest….my mom, not so much, but this was much different reality for me.

So, in late July 2006, my parents, my wife and I had, what would become, my traditional send off to deployment meal–Fried Porkchops, rice and pan gravy, corn…and man, did I eat a lot of it.  I didn’t ship any of my stuff over, I had everything I was going to take with me…and boy were those bags heavy…didn’t think about it much at the time…I would think A LOT about it later….

My wife and my mom and dad drove me to Jacksonville International Airport for a United flight to Dulles International Airport.  From Dulles, I’d fly to Frankfurt, Germany, then get on a Lufthansa flight to Kuwait City.  For subsequent tours, United would operate a direct flight from Dulles to Kuwait City, but for this one, I was on the “hopper”.   Upon arrival in Kuwait, we were going to be met by an NCIS Logistic team  who’d take us to the Hilton Kuwait Resort where we’d have 72 hours to adjust to the time change, get additional gear, chill out a bit, then head into theater.  This fairy tale would come crashing down almost immediately upon arrival.

Flights were smooth (but long) …met the team and checked in without issue.  it was about 2100 (9 PM) local time, and I hadn’t slept at all in about 24 hours.  There’s a Pizza place in the hotel complex, so we all went and grabbed a pizza before taking a shower and crashing.   While I was in the shower, my phone rang.  One of the logistics guys told me that I had travel set into theater, and would need to be checking out at 0230 in order to get to Ali Al Salem Air Base to fly into Iraq….WHAT??  WHAT ABOUT MY 72 HOURS??? Yeah, about that….seems like the guys in Kuwait (who lived in the Hilton…) just wanted to get all of us out of the hotel so they could go back to goofing off by the pool and partying….I was royally ticked  and screamed at the guy who backed down but told me there was nothing he could do about it….I would have to leave at 0230.  Talked to my partner who was also ticked, but conceded we didn’t have any choice….So now it was about 2330 (1130) and I had to get some sleep (I didn’t).  Called my wife who was sympathetic, and helped me cool off a bit. 

So at 0230 I was downstairs ready to go…no nice Hilton breakfast (LOL) or time on the beach or at the pool. (rough right..LOL)  An hour later we pulled up at Tent 2 (passenger terminal) to check in for my flight into Iraq.  Took our orders to the KBR contractor who stamped them and handed them back to me and told me to “come back at 400 pm” for my flight.   1600??  Are you kidding me?  It’s 0330!!!   Now I was really ticked.  We tracked down the logistic guy and pretty much wanted to choke him….he initially told us we had to just wait here, but after getting chewed out, he agreed to take us back to the Hilton for breakfast and a nap and then bring us back….

So I got breakfast after all….and a nap…and it was good…and I ‘m lucky…I could’ve been stuck in a tent at Ali.  I mean, come on, a tent?  Really?  Hold that thought.

We returned to Ali Al Salem at 1600 and checked in (again)…now, remember the part about my heavy bags??  No, not a problem yet, as we took our bags to a pallet for them to be loaded onto an Air Force C130.  A last minute check of gear, bags and equipment, and they loaded us onto a bus for transport to the flight line.  The bus ride took about 20 minutes…if you think Disney Buses can be bad…let me tell you, it could be a whoooole lot worse. 

It was late July in Kuwait…when we had landed at Kuwait International, we got the standard, “Welcome to Kuwait City.  The local time is XXXX.  There’s blowing sand and the temperature is (and at this point the pilot actually LAUGHS)  137 degrees F”.  This bus was now full of guys in full combat gear (including helmet), packed in with minimal air conditioning….I can’t even describe the heat (or the smell), it’s just that hot.  We pulled up at the plane to learn that the crew was on a break and wouldn’t load us for another half hour or so–multiple groans.  The bus driver takes pity on us and restarts the bus so that the interior of the bus cooled off to about 105 degrees.  Then he puts in the movie “Striking Distance” for us to watch—I’ll remember that for as long as I live I think.  Well, after a long 30 minutes we finally boarded for an hour and a half flight from Ali Al Salem air base to Al Taqqadm Air Base on the oustkirts of Fallujah, and on the banks of Lake Thar Thar and the Euphrates River.

Here I am on my flight in…

On approach to Al Taqqadum…the word was passed to “gear up”..put on Vests and Helmets.  Then the word was passed that the airfield was taking fire, and to be prepared for a “tactical landing”.  Now, what’s a tactical landing?  Well, they take the plane back to altitude, then spiral down at very high speed, only to flatten out and slam down at the very last possible moment.  I have no idea how many G’s you pull…and you have to be ready to MOVE when you touch down!  Quickly.

So what’s it like?  Well….take the “intense” side of Mission Space.  Multiply it by, oh, say 50 or so.  Then make it last about 35 minutes.  Then add in the sheer anxiety of landing on a hot strip.  No ride operator to help you strap in, get out or tell you where to go.  Then add in the anxiety that this is not a ride.   This is real.  You could get hit, burn up and crash…and there’s not a darn thing you can do about it.

After slamming down onto the tarmac and “sprinting” (think high speed taxi) to the center of base, we got the all clear.  So getting off the plane was easier.  We filed out in two lines behind an airfield Marine.  I turned around to the most brilliant sunset I had ever seen…the combination of flat desert and dust made for a spectacular combination. 

We were led to an old hangar that served as a passenger terminal for transient personnel.  We grabbed our bags (remember that I had everything I was bringing in those bags, it comes into play here) and basically laid around waiting for our helo flight into Camp Fallujah, just ouside the city.  After a fine outstanding meal of an MRE (I highly recommend the grilled beef patty), they rounded us up and led us to the helo pad……a half mile away….carrying our gear and bags.  I instantly regretted not sending anything ahead of me, and began to wonder exactly when the hell I had packed two anvils in those two sea bags…

Now…I had not ever been in a helicopter…ever.  And now I was standing in the pitch black (helos only flew at night) listening to all kind of helo traffic waiting on a Blackhawk to land and fly me to Fallujah.  About five minutes later, a blackhawk approached the pad emitting a high rpm whirring that that sounds kind of like a desk fan on steroids, turning at 25,000 rpm, and making a sound not unlike a cow being sucked into a jet engine.  The sand on the ground sucked up and enveloped us and pelted us like little needles.  Looking at the rotors, I could see a constant circle of sparks from the sand striking the leading edge of the rotors…

They quickly loaded us onto the birds and rolled out about 100 yards and lifted off to about 50 feet off the ground…..and hovered…with the rear closer to the ground than the nose…so I felt like I was in a passenger jet at take off…but not moving.   Then they landed…seems we needed fuel….The air crew hustled us off to a “safe area” while they refuled the bird.  The crew chief was a good guy who, no doubt, saw I was a little apprehensive.  He patted me on the shoulder and said…don’t worry man, 7 minutes to Camp Fallujah and it’s over—-No way it was that simple, but it was….we flew map of the earth all the way to Camp Falllujah, where I had to, again carry my bag no less thatn 9,876 yards to where our people were there to meet us.  Yeah, I was learning my lesson about how much stuff to “carry”.  In future deployments I would carry my backpack and a seabag with about 3 days worth of clothes and ship everything else…but at the time I had no idea what would be available to me at the camp…as it ended up, I brought a whole lot more than I needed!

So, we landed at Camp Fallujah sometime after midnight, were picked up by the guys we were replacing and driven to our operating compound on Camp Fallujah.  Due to the nature of our operations ,we were segregated from the rest of the camp on a small compound…of course, we could go on and off as we pleased, like to the chow hall or the big NCIS office, but people not actually assigned to our Task Unit were not allowed in.  We had our own gym and everything…

We unloaded and moved into our wonderful accomadations….a tent…which was at least minimally airconditioned.  That is….it kept the temperature down…somewhat…during the day.  We worked at night, which was good, but sleeping during the day had it’s moments.  Power went out on regular occasion and it did not take long to get to about 130 degrees in the tent while we were trying to sleep—this happened least 3 times a week during the summer….when it eventually got cold in November (how cold?  Well, it snowed..), there was no heat in the tent.  But, we got through it.

A little comment about the sand.  You hear a lot about the “sand” in the middle east.  And everyone has the idea that the sand is like beach sand….WRONG.  The sand ain’t like that at all…it’s more like Talcum powder.  Very very very very very very very fine.  Takes to the air at the slightest hint of a wind, and gets EVERYWHERE and into EVERYTHING.  When it rains, it gets thick and eventually hardens like concrete.  I can see how houses were made of mud brick back in ancient times.    The best way I can describe living in this type of environment I have stolen from a buddy of mine who’s an F15 pilot:

Take the bag out of your vacuum cleaner.  Shake it out over everything in your room…roll around in it.  Vacuum some more.  Shake it out…roll around some more.  Shake the rest of the bag out in your bed.  Repeat. 

So we move into our tent.  There are six of us living in this thing.  Luckily the rooms are partitioned off by plywood walls, so you have some privacy, but it’s tight quarters.  The A/C sounds like a jet enging and blows into a plastic tube that comes in and runs the length of the tent.  Little holes are cut into the plastic for the “cold” (?!) air to blow out… Well, you never  got a “breeze”, so we fashioned our own vents and blow tubes with plastic water bottles….that way you could direct the air directly to your body while you were sleeping…believe it or not, it worked like a charm!!   This was how I lived for 5 months, though I did spend varying days out at other firebases in the middle of Fallujah, Ramadi and Hit.  Never made it to Baghdad, which, by far, was living I found out last year.

During this deployment, I travelled all over Al Anbar province.  2.5 months in, we had a team turnover, so I assisted the NCIS Investigations squad on some ongoing investigations.  Some of you may have heard of the Haditha and Hamandiya investigations which were ongoing at this time–both of which occurred shortly before I arrived.  Regardless of how I feel about investigating war crimes, the bottom line is that the generals needed it done, so we did it.  I will hold my personal opinions to myself…though I will say that in the case of Hamandiya, those that got prosecuted deserved it…

My main job was to work with the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force on Detainee Operations.  And that’s pretty much as far as I’m going to go into that.

Pictorial review follows…along with various commentary:

Front door to our tent.  At least it was off the ground.  That door would pop open in high winds or if you didn’t close it “Right” (which seemed to change by the week).  You could tell when it popped open as the ambient temperature in the tent would jump 30 or 40 degrees.  My room was the last one on the right…which was good.  The Camp was mortared, rocketed and attacked by personnel on regular basis, so being in the back, right next to the HESCO (which are big fiber and metal “tubs” of sand–kind of like a sandbag on steroids–stacked on top of each other to make compound walls–and were the main form of construction for camp walls in Al Anbar) barriers meant that any incoming that hit me directly would have to be a million dollar shot.  Not that I was “Safe”, but hedging your bets isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I would take any bit of luck, chance, or protection I could get.  Lucky beats good 10 times out of 10.

Home sweet home.

Standing on our compound wall looking out over Camp Fallujah (which doesn’t exist anymore).  My tent is directly at the bottom of the pic.  By the way, not the safest thing to do…as my partner started yelling at me…”I AM NOT GOING TO TELL YOUR WIFE YOU GOT SHOT TAKING A PICTURE”…LOL

Kinda’ like the Disney sign, yes?  No.

This is what a dust storm looks like.

Ok..Moving on…

Headed outside the wire on a rare Daytime Op.

At one of Saddam’s former recreation areas in Fallujah.  There USED to be a castle on an island over my left shoulder.  Nothing but rubble now.

Outside the NCIS office on Camp Fallujah.  I didn’t work in this office day to day, but we hung out there with the crim guys on down time.  They had a nice TV and DVD player too, so all the better.

On of our outlying bases I worked out of.  This is right next to the Fallujah train station.  Google it.  Nice place…

This is what I looked like working on that base.  I had to look like I fit in as part of the military.  The way I usually dressed I looked like an “intel officer”…and attracted some dedicated fire.  That got real old real quick like.

Part of my job was to train Iraqi Army and Police special forces units about evidence and evidence collection/maintenance etc. etc.  Well, here I am.

Some of my crew.  I’m standing in the middle.

Smoke from a VBIED (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device) that targeted a USMC convoy not far from us.  We “intercepted” part of the insurgent surveillance team who tried to get away after targting the convoy.  It did not end well for them.

As I noted, I worked with our crim squad on a few cases.  These are some pictures taken while working a case where a local interpreter drowned while swimming at one of Saddam’s old recreation areas.  Yes there are fish in there.  No I did not catch any….too busy.

Ok, moving on again….

Airbase Al Taqqadum during one of my many transits…

As I still tell my buddy who’s crashed on the bunk next to me…ONE of us was working pretty hard during a Major Operation in Hit, Iraq…at the time, one of–if not the most–dangerous cities in Iraq.  Ramadi was bigger, Hit was more violent.  Combat Outpost Hit had no running water…just a shower tent open twice a day.  Bathrooms were Portojohns directly in the middle of camp to protect them from incoming mortar fire, which was constant…no fewer thean 25 a day.  It was fun to be in those things when mortars would start coming in…you couldn’t help but think–please DO NOT let me get hit in here, how would they explain to my wife that I got killed on the john????  Anyway, it’s also cold…25-35 F.  We were house in SWA (Southwest Asia) huts that are essentiall plywood shelters.  In this case, the plywood didn’t come all the way to the floor, and everytime a helo flew over they blew the dust in…that’s why it’s so dusty on the floor.  Not going into detail, but this is where I came the closest to being killed….in any of my deployments…..  And boy, was I close….

Now, there were some times you could goof off, as shown below:

Clowning around after working an Op wit the Iraqi Army.  This is how we rolled when working with those guys…LOL

On of our many campfires after cutting some olive bushes…I”m in the shorts closest to the flames.  We also scored a metal grate we used to grill hamburgers….life’s simple pleasures…LOL

Marine Corps Birthday in November.  They gave us beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeer!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

So, after all this fun, mid December rolled around and it was time to go home.  Not that simple though…we had to helo to Al Taqqadum to catch a c 130 flight to Kuwait.  And I as I had found out, they cancelled helo flights if there was like one speck of dust in the air or threat of high wind or weather.  So we spent a week doing anti rain dances and praying for good weather!  It worked, we flew out with no issue, a few hours at TQ and then an hour and a half to Kuwait.

Unlike on the way in, I spent a week at the Hilton Kuwait Resort outprocessing.  I really enjoyed the pool and the spa and the beach, but I was ready to go home.  Had the exact same flights, in reverse…..annnnnd  Flew into a Winter Storm at Chicago O’hare airport.  I learned a valuable piece of info…if you’re on the little train at O’hare and it’s snowing, and you look out and see news trucks and reporters–you’re getitng ready to have a bad day….In other words, yeah, I got cancelled.

Had flown all night and was exhausted…it was Saturday morning, and they’re telling me I can’t get out until the following Thursday–well, that ain’t happening.  I call my wife (who unbeknownst to me had planned a big homecoming party), and she and my dad started looking for flights.  I decided I was just going to rent a car and drive home, so I head to the care rental place, get a car and start driving.

Before I got out of Chicago, my wife called me (I had my cell phone) and told me they had a flight out of Indy for tomorrow morning (by now it was late afternoon) home.  So, I drove to Indianapolis, stayed at a hotel there (Can’t remember which one now, but think it was the Radisson) and flew  home the next morning. 

Just about my whole family (aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents… and a new nephew) was waiting for me when I finally landed, exhausted, in Jacksonville.  After a Cracker Barrel breakfast (I was starving) I slept for a few hours and had a cookout that night.

I was home….from this one…and very happy at that.

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