This is in continuation to the assumption of risk piece I wrote about here.
It was May 2005, and we were about to rotate off of the Syrian border in Rabiah for the last time (so we thought). We had been out at the border crossing in the outpost dubbed “Hotel Charger” for about a week. The next day our Troop Commander was due to come in with elements from First Platoon, who would relieve us. Ultimately we expected to be completely relieved of our duties in Tal’Afar because 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR) had been slowly replacing us in this area of responsibility. We had been out conducting a number of snap-patrols during the nights to try and run border interdiction and counter-smuggling operations. On this last night we chose to remain in the combat outpost, preparing our gear and having a rest before the long drive home the next day.
My Platoon Sergeant at the time had approached me a little earlier that evening; it was just shy of dark, and we still had a few hours before the border crossing would close for the day. We had occasionally had dinner ordered-in from some of the local restaurants (local being in Syria – we tended not to trust the few local joints in Rabiah after we swore the kebabs we had ordered once were actually dog). We had a local confidant named Thamer who worked as an interpreter for coalition forces in the Iraqi Customs house. He was a good guy, and even if he had his angle he still was a trusted agent and he came and went from the outpost freely. It was Thamer’s cousin who often ran into Syria with our money for food orders. Tonight however, my Platoon Sergeant had a different idea.
“Sir, I was thinking. A lot of the guys have been working hard, and we’ve had it rough these last few months. And before we go back to Mosul, I was thinking the boys could use a treat. Thamer’s cousin can grab us a case of beer from across the border. I, I wasn’t real sure I wanted to recommend this, but I wanted to see if this was something you’d consider. If not, then no worries – I mean, it was just a suggestion and we don’t even have to bother with it. But it would be a morale booster.”
I could sense some of his hesitation but he knew me well enough to know that I would probably have killed for a cold beer right then. I agreed, but we would need to really plan this out. Over the next twenty minutes or so, we came up with a plan, brought in the two section sergeants and briefed them on it, and finalized the logistics. In terms of Army risk-mitigation, we were adept at putting together plans and mitigating the risks. This operation would be no different.
We would retrieve the beer and place it in the fridge in the refrigerator in the defunct kitchen of the outpost. It had a padlock and we would be using it tonight. We decided that we would wait until roughly 2100 when we changed shifts on our own guard rotation. It would also be after we made our nightly situation report back to Tal’Afar. We would leave two men manning the turrets of two Stryker’s that secured the outpost walls. We would leave two men on the outpost roof to man the M-240 we had in a fighting position there, along with some thermal optics. We would call the rest of the soldiers into the room that functioned as the outpost command center and my office (or the Troop Commander’s office when he was at the crossing). With a few more stipulations in place, we had formulated the plan and only my senior NCO’s knew about it.
Thamer’s cousin was dispatched, and I went back to my tedious tasks of compiling information reports from our time up at the crossing this past week, what we had done, the number of things we had confiscated, etc. But all the while knowing that later on we would have such a sweet surprise. Nighttime fell, eventually I had got all of my reports sent to Squadron for the day, and the word was passed that there would be a Platoon meeting for everyone at 2100 – minus the four that had just assumed guard. When the men weren’t on guard duty at night they relaxed in the lounge where we all generally watched the single television there; it had a stolen cable connection from the Iraqi Customs building through a sneakily-placed wire splice. It shows a lot of crap that we had no idea what it is, but some of it was entertaining like Eurovision. It also occasionally got this Turkish where girls talked to live callers, who paid probably exorbitant amounts of money to have them talk dirty, and eventually remove articles of clothing.
We liked that show the best. The girls tended to be fairly pretty, but had some serious dental issues (or scars) and they seemed to always just-about get to be close to naked – but then the caller’s time would run out and it was back into their clothing they went (in time to get the next caller on the line and repeat the process).
We gathered everyone in my office. The men probably had some inkling that something was up, and most probably felt it was going to be bad news, like we were being extended, or that there had been some casualties back in Tal’Afar. Tonight though it was all smiles. I explained that we had a special treat – compliments of the Platoon Sergeant and myself – for all of the hard work they had been doing, and to celebrate our last night in Rabiah. In came one of my section sergeant’s with a case of twenty-four cans of Tuborg beer. Sixteen ounce’ers, none the less! They were four sets of six-packs in a simple cardboard tray, bound together by those plastic rings we all were told as kids that dolphins got their noses stuck in. I made a small speech, which I will summarize, because I have no idea what I said verbatim, but it most likely went something like this:
‘You’ve all had it pretty rough these last few months. We’ve been through a lot together, and I really appreciate the hard work each of you do for the platoon, and for yourselves. Platoon Sergeant and I wanted to take this time to thank you, and celebrate our last night in Hotel Charger, since we’ll probably be back in Mosul in a few days. And, dammit, like our forefathers liberating Europe from the Nazi’s, we should be able to kick back and have a cold one. And these ones are cold, I assure you! So here it is – but there are a few rules.’
‘One: NO ONE mentions this to ANYONE, EVERY! Got it? What happens up here stays up here. We’re taking a risk by doing this, and holy-hell will rain down on me and Platoon Sergeant, but rest assured that it will rain down pretty fucking hard on you, too. Got it? Two: These beers are drank here, in this room, in front of everybody – that way every single one of you is an accomplice to everyone else – and if one of us goes down, we all go down. Three: I will hand you all your beer individually, and by taking it, you accept that you consent to this freely, and that you’ll keep your trap shut. And lastly, Four: After you drink your beer, you bring it up here, and put it in the trash bag Platoon Sergeant has – all cans will be accounted for, and disposed of accordingly afterwards where no one will ever find them. There will be NO evidence.’
We took a vote, and I looked at each person square in the eye and asked if they had an objection to what we were about to do. No one did – so I stood up and we issued the beer.
‘Ok – one beer per Trooper, saving four for the guys on guard, who will get theirs when they come off shift, and will drink them in here just like you did. Twenty-four beers and twenty-one Troopers: one beer per Trooper and divide up the remaining three cans among the lowest ranking, so you privates win the Tuborg lotto tonight.’
So with every man satisfied, beer in hand, we sat there in the office and relaxed. We brought in a few extra chairs, and I leaned back in the chair and put my feet up on the desk. And we sipped at our beer and talked about life, the kind of talk you’d have if you were out camping in the woods, having a beer with your buddies by the fire. We talked about how we liked to relax, what we thought about going back to Mosul, and generally shot the shit for half an hour. During that half hour there were no real ranks, no real structure. It was a group of men sitting around, doing what men do when relaxing after a long, hot day, and having a nice, cold beer.
And when it was all done, the cans were collected one by one and the men returned to whatever it was they did at nights at the outpost. After two more hours guard shit rotated and we had the other four guys in to drink their beers. I think they each offered to pour out a little into two cups, so Platoon Sergeant and I could have a beer with them too, since we had drank ours. A kind gesture for a kind gesture.
The cans were crushed, the plastic bag tied up, and they went somewhere. I still have no idea where, out in a dumpster by the one of the customs buildings probably. And as far as I know, no one really talked about it after that. No one spilled the beans, and no one got drunk or rowdy. We were all adults and even my nineteen and twenty year old’s could be sent off to war without being of legal drinking age – but that night in Hotel Charger they were served none the less. I think we picked the right night to do that, too – as the following day after the Troop Commander and First Platoon showed up, a suicide car bomb struck our compound.
Man, that would’ve been even harder to take with a hangover…
Outside ‘Hotel Charger’, Rabiah, Iraq