The New Lieutenant

The following events are true. Everything is as I remember it; I have changed the name of the main subject to save his own embarrassment

It was the beginning of April, 2005: We were in the process of conducting a battle hand- over in Tal’Afar. I had just returned from our first familiarization patrol with our sister Troop from the 3rd ACR who would inherit the battle space. In fact the entire Troop had been out with our respective sister platoons showing them the ropes. I was just finishing up unloading my gear into my hootch and talking with a few guys from the platoon when our “fires” (artillery/mortar) NCO, SSG Glover happened by. G-Love – as we referred to him – had with him a tall, lanky 2nd Lieutenant.

“Hey Sir, Sir! I want you to meet our new fires LT, Lieutenant Kolb.” I set down my body armor inside the door of my hootch and turned around.

‘Hey G-Love. Hi there’ I said as I outstretched my hand to shake his.  He had the kind of weak, limp handshake that you hear about from botched job interviews. The fuzz on his upper lip looked a little light, like you could dab some milk on there and clean it all off by letting your cat lick it all up. I guess arriving at a Cav unit he was briefed to begin growing his Cav-stash.

“LT just got assigned to Charger this morning.”

‘How do you do? Welcome to Tal’Afar’ I said. His eyes were wide, and there was a wry smile across his face.

“Thanks. Anthony Kolb.  I’m glad to be here. I’ve been up at Squadron for the past few days. Flew in from Mosul less than a week ago.” His uniform was fairly plain; no airborne wings or air assault wings (not that it makes a measure of a man, but he had fresh college graduate and straight form Artillery Officer’s Basic Course about him). His desert uniform was still bright and crisp, not faded by the wash and harsh desert sun. He was probably my age if not a year or two older.

‘Well, you’ve been assigned to the best Reconnaissance Troop in the Brigade if you ask me – ‘course I am a bit bias.’

“Lieutenant Bocian is our 3rd Platoon leader, Blue-One. He’ll be a good person to talk to as you settle in. All of Charger’s PL’s are really good; really experienced.”

‘Experienced is one way to put it.’ Kolb put his hands on his hips. Though I was standing on the flat plywood of the porch I had meticulously built for my hootch, he was still half a foot taller.

“That’s great” Kolb said. “I hope you don’t mind if I swing by to talk with you later. I’m really eager to hear what you have to say about the Squadron and what you’ve learned here so far.”

‘Sure’ I said, ‘no sweat. Happy to help.’

“Lieutenant Bocian’s got a lot of experience. He’ll help you out. He’s got, what is it LT, two Purple Hearts?” I was still emptying our things from my day pack that I had with me on the patrol that day. I intentionally ignored G-Love’s comment.  I really hated the reference to the fact that, thus far I had been lightly dinged. Twice.  Especially when other in the Troop, Squadron, and even some of my own men had paid a significant price for that medal. Limbs; burns; their lives. My best friend gave his and he got a Purple Heart. My gunner had done so, too.

“Really? Wow. That’s incredible” Kolb said. “Actually, I really can’t wait to start. I’ve got to go to this week long familiarization course Squadron is running. It starts tomorrow and until I finish it I can’t roll out of the wire. I really want to just get out there and just get into the shit.” It was like a bad Vietnam movie. G-Love had a patient and sympathetic look on his face that said to me everything that it needed to.  Right then my buddy, and our 2nd platoon leader Derek Szmyt was walking nearby with his platoon sergeant.

‘Careful what you wish for, Kolb.  Tal’Afar is pretty notorious for that. People don’t really stay green here for very long.’ Kolb cocked his head to the side and put his hands in his pockets. This kid had to weigh about a buck-twenty, wet.

“That’s what everyone keeps saying. But I’m still eager. This is everything I signed up for, so I want get right out there deep in it with the rest of you. Ya know? Get my cherry popped and be one of you all. Seasoned.”  I shook my head slightly. The kid was saying everything that kids say; my youngest 19-year-old Private would even balk at that sort of terminology.

‘Hey Derek’ I shouted. He and his platoon sergeant began to alter their course to walk in our direction. ‘Derek, meet the new fires LT – Anthony Kolb.’

“Hi – nice to meet you” Kolb said with an extended hand at the end of his gangly, long and thin arm.

‘Kolb here can’t wait to get out into the shit’ I said incredulously.

“Shit. Careful what you watch for. Tal’Afar doesn’t go easy on anybody. This place is fucking crazy” Derek said. His platoon sergeant, Sergeant First Class “Jimmy” Vance agreed.

“Yeah LT. No one around here will think badly about you for taking your time getting used to this place. It’s something unique, alright. Shittly-unique.”

He spoke the truth.  This place was a special sort of shitty. It was like some sort of aged whiskey that only appreciates more with time; the more time went on the worse it seemed to get here. It would chew up kids like Kolb and spit them out. It had done so with enough fine men not seeking the glory or glamour from the hotbed of insurgent activity it offered.

“Everyone keeps saying that” Kolb said. He seemed a bit frustrated now probably because he had heard it from everyone up at headquarters and was now being bombarded with it by all of the guys from his new unit.

“Don’t worry” Derek said, “you’ll have plenty of time to see what we’re talking about.” It was a half-hearted attempt to put his mind at ease. He and his platoon sergeant turned to continue on their way across the living pad.

“Well, how long was it before you guys saw some action?” Kolb asked half inquisitively, half accusatory.

‘First day out of the wire’ I said, bending over as I brushed dust and sand off of my assault pack onto the edge of my porch. Kolb almost looked skeptical.

“Ditto” Derek said over his shoulder as he walked away.  G-Love kept the same appeasing yet sympathetic grin on his face.

“Don’t worry, LT” G-Love reassured him, patting him on his back. “You’ve got plenty of time. C’mon, let’s go swing by the mortar section and I can intrduce you to the rest of your mortarmen.”

As the sun was starting to fade and the two of them walked away, Kolb looking over his shoulder at me and tossing a tepid wave, I thought to myself boy, is this kid going to be in for a real surprise if he is this eager to experience the war.  I just hope that his eagerness wouldn’t get him killed – or worse, one of his mortarmen.

A fresh Kolb, hanging out in the command post

Fast-forward about a week.  Lieutenant Kolb had undergone Squadron’s acclimatizing course, talking with a number of instructors working with the Iraqi forces in Tal’Afar, as well as spending days on the range practicing and zeroing his weapon. Combat lifesaving techniques and first aid, local cultural customs and courtesies ad-nauseum. I didn’t really see him until the 22nd of April as we were preparing for a larger Troop operation.

Charger Troop had been tasked one phase of a larger effort that would be undertaken in Tal’Afar, along with many other areas the Brigade held in northern Iraq. In the post-interim elections environment of 2005, a number of actions were being taken to help drive a wedge between the local abiding populous and the Al-Qaeda / Sunni extremist-backed insurgency. Radio Free Iraq had been established in Mosul, and as part of getting the messages and music that it would provide to the locals free of charge we were tasked with distributing Grundig hand-cranked “emergency survival” radios to the locals. I think it ran on some C or D batteries, but it also had a hand crank that when operated without batteries, could generate and store enough power to operate the radio. This ensured that the citizenry would be able to listen to the broadcasts from Radio Free Iraq for news, information, instructions – and pro-coalition forces propaganda.  The rumor was that it was tuned to only receive one frequency, that being the freq Radio Free Iraq was on – but I don’t know if that was true or not.

Plus, it had a built-in flashlight because well, come on – what isn’t better when you add a flashlight to it??

The mission was simple: take your share of Grundig radios, head to the assigned area of Tal’Afar and go door to door, providing each family with a complimentary Grundig radio and a leaflet about Radio Free Iraq, and the newly elected provincial government.  We hand out the radio, record some basics about the household (such as the number, age and sex of its occupants – like a census), and annotate the specific building number and street where we handed out the radio. It was painstaking, but all the work our predecessors and our own S2 Intelligence section had done ensured we had maps where each neighborhood was delineated, with each assigned a prefix, and every single building assigned a number. This mission was dual-purposed; get the radios and the word out, and gain an accurate record of the local populous.

Actual map showing neighborhood for the mission, and wadi (not a road); click to enlarge

This mission was also part of our continued left-seat right-seat ride with 3rd ACR, so we had members of our sister platoon with us on our Strykers and a few of 3rd ACR’s tanks with us on the outer cordon. On this specific day I had each of the platoon leaders from the entire Troop with me on my Stryker, and the other Stryker in my section had each of their corresponding platoon sergeants with them. Today called for us to distribute radios in the Al Quedisea neighborhood on the north-eastern most portion of the city.  We assembled in the Troop Headquarters early that morning to go over final rehearsals of the plan we’d crafted the previous day.

It was simple – elements from Charger Troop would push out ahead of us and establish blocking positions on the major roads. We would follow in behind them as we made our way to our first neighborhood. In this case it was an almost dead-end street with a row of houses lining the left side, and a wadi on the right, separating it from the Mohalemeen  neighborhood. There was a narrow alley at the end of this street, but the Stryker couldn’t turn and drive down it, so it was essentially a dead end. My section would proceed into the neighborhood while my Bravo section (Platoon Sergeant’s) would set an inner-blocking position on the main road, covering our advance.  When we had handed out our radios, Bravo section would leapfrog ahead of us to the next street as we re-mounted our Strykers, setting the inner-cordon one street further so that we could regroup and get a fresh batch of radios for distribution. Simple.

“Hey Blue One” our C.O. called out inside of the Troop Headquarters hangar. I looked up from my map as the 3rd ACR LT’s and I were just wrapping up one last walkthrough of the scheme of maneuver.

‘Yes’sir?’ I said.  Kolb was behind the C.O. (Charger Six) as he made his way among the crowded floor.

“Kolb has been cleared by Squadron to roll out of the wire. I know you’ve got a lot of Lieutenants with you today, so I’ll have Kolb with me, start to get him acclimated to Tal’Afar and Troop operations. Will you check his gear, make sure he’s straight?”

‘No problem, Sir. Too easy’ I said as I quickly sized Kolb up, now wearing all of his fresh equipment that had yet to be dirtied or tainted by the trade.

I did quick introductions with my sister-Troop LT’s and then introduced him to my crew. ‘This is SGT Ullibari, Blue One-Golf, my gunner; and this is SGT Bradley, my senior dismount and right-hand man. Men, this is our new fister, Lieutenant Kolb.’  Pleasantries were exchanged all around as everyone quickly eyed Kolb up.  Everyone had a tip for him. He was wearing his equipment entirely like a new guy; he had a standard issue sling (that you actually slung over your shoulder instead of a tactical sling), direct-issue magazine holders, as opposed to the Tactical Tailor magazine pouches many of us had acquired (a Fort Lewis, WA local business), and on his helmet were a large pair of sand-wind-dust goggles. With no experience out of the wire, he had no real feel yet for how to arrange his kit, what would work best for him in combat, or was yet to learn what wasn’t necessary to carry on you because you could leave it in your Stryker.

Everyone else also noticed how his right-arm sleeve was ‘slick’; that is, he lacked a combat patch. He was new, yes – but even the 3rd ACR guys relieving us had already been in country for several months and had seen action in Baghdad. This wasn’t their first rodeo – they were just learning the ropes of Tal’Afar from us because it was very different that the situation in Baghdad.  Kolb smiled politely at the group as we all gave him a collective, quizzical ‘alrighty, well… this will be interesting’ look. We brought Kolb up to speed quickly on what the plan was for the platoon.  We were getting close to departure time. I think I quickly gave him a pre-combat check, telling him what was strapped to his vest he could relieve himself of.

‘You won’t need this. Or this. Or this. Here, put these all in your backpack.’ I quickly walked him back to the C.O.’s truck.  ‘Tuck that into the stowage area under the gunner’s station for the duration of the mission. If you need it, it’s right there. See where the Six wants you to sit’ (‘Six’ the C.O.’s call sign). The Six’s crew took control of him, now. “If you need water or something it is in the cooler here. You can use this CVC helmet to listen in on the radio as well as to the crew conversation. Try not to talk much; just follow our instructions and you’ll be good to go.” I put my hand on his shoulder as he sat on the bench inside the belly of the Stryker, his knees well up into his chest. For a tall guy he sure is going to be cramped in there. I bet he can’t wait to get into the hatch of the FSV (the fire support vehicle; the Stryker SSG Glover rode the gun on). ‘Otherwise, all things being considered – should be an easy day.’

“Should?”  he beckoned.

‘Tal’Afar will be the final decision authority on how today goes. Like I said, this place is different. There is no “typical” day in Tal’Afar, so be prepared for anything.’ His previous look of excitement balanced with nerves now seemed to be less excitement, and all nerves.

‘Don’t worry – they’ll take care of you. On the ground I’ll be busy with all of Heavy Troop’s LTs, so I don’t know if I’ll see you on the objective. Just relax, remember your training, stay calm. You’ll be fine’ I reassured him. I wish I could say he looked slightly less anxious but I imagine he looked similar to how I did as I prepared to roll out of the wire for my first time: Tepid; concerned; measured; and the kind of background-scared you look when you’re scared some, but you know you’ve got a job to do. And with curt nod I was off.  Back to the final prep, and back to the task at hand.  We got our share of fliers and Grundig radios, mounted the Strykers, conducted radio checks and took our staging positions as we awaited the command to roll-out.

The smell of exhaust burped in my face as we picked up speed leaving the FOB; it was the same old smell I’d come to have associated with rolling out of the gate, being out on patrol, or just being in the Stryker when the engine was revved and the wind carried it over the top of the roof to my nostrils as I stood in the hatch.  We were heading to Route Sante Fe, moving to establish our initial blocking position with half of my platoon while the other half (my half) got on the ground to distribute radios at our first location.  Other elements from the Troop were in nearby positions, but the area I was at was the north-western most corner of the Quedisea neighborhood. Where we were to begin our mission was down a dead-end road, flanked by a wadi system to our right side with the adjacent neighborhood close by, and a row of houses along our left.  We left the main road as the last two Stryker’s in my platoon set a blocking position on Route Sante Fe, while my two Stykers made their way off the main road, overland a bit, and then down dead-end lane.

No one wants to be stuck on a dead-end road.  But, this was a cakewalk operation, right? Hand out some radios, some leaflets and get the heck out of here.  We dismounted, established security and I had a quick huddle on the ground. No need to run over the plan – it was simple; door to door while the Strykers cover our advance both on the road, and from the over-watch position on Route Sante Fe. We banged on the metal door of the courtyard for the first home.  We waited, the hum of the engine from the Stryker next to us the only other constant noise joining the silence. No one home. Alright, move on to the next house.

Knock-knock; Hi – here’s a radio. You going to vote? You like a free Iraq? Etc. etc. and so on, and so forth. We were ten minuets into this operation and I knew that it was going to be a long day. As we left the second house I pulled the map from the cargo pocket on my right leg checking again just how many houses we had on this street. We’d need to back the two Strykers out of this part of the neighbourhood. Maybe when we finished with this row of houses, we’d proceed on foot down an alleyway while the two Strykers backed out, looping around from the north to join us. I dunno. We entered the third courtyard and approached the front porch. An Iraqi gentleman and his wife greeted us at the door, and it was the same pleasantries and courtesies. My interpreter, Faris, was always on my right-hand side, one pace rear.

We had a quick conversation with the couple, gave them a radio and I was admiring their garden. Inside their courtyard were some of the most lovely rose bushes I had seen. There was lush green grass, and the wife began to tell Faris about her horticulture. It was a pleasantry among the gray sky and muted, dull colors of Tal’Afar. Faris asked that I take a picture of him next to the flowers and I obliged.  I was tucking my camera back into its pouch when the familiar sound of a mortar burst broke the still of the morning air. We all froze for a second as the radio began to crackle to life.

My interpreter Faris in the courtyard 

“All Charger elements, Blue Two-Golf, we had a mortar impact in the wadi system thirty meters from our position…” I grasped my rifle tighter as we quickly exited the courtyard. As I was reaching for the mic of my radio the familiar sound of AK-47 fire slapping concrete erupted from somewhere one neighborhood over. It was close, because the report of the rifle crack was nearly instantaneous with the splash of the rounds as they hit their mark (the street and concrete courtyard walls of the neighborhood).  As we emerged from the doorway there was a Stryker sitting just outside, to our left.  The gunner – my Two-truck’s gunner (Blue Two-Golf) was traversing his turret and opened fire.  Ahead of us, across the wadi system lay a maze of buildings, courtyards, streets and alleyways. The radio was cracking to life as people called out what they saw or didn’t. The remainder of the dismounts in my section began to form up on the Two truck.

At that point AK-47 fire began to erupt from the second floor of the house that was closest to us, just on the other side of the wadi. As I looked out into that neighbourhood, the house was at my two o’clock position, just ahead of me and to the right.  We all took cover behind the Stryker as the One truck – my Stryker – began to slowly make its way down the dead-end road from its position at the entrance, where it deposited us originally. We raised our rifles and began to return fire on the building as the sound of another mortar exploded somewhere in the distance, farther this time.  All of a sudden, my weapon jammed. I went through ‘SPORTS’, a process of clearing the rife in an attempt to get it operational again. I looked into the chamber (the observe portion, which is the ‘O’ in the acronym) when I realized that I had a double-feed.

Fuck. Of all things to have – two rounds jammed into the chamber at the same time, well and truly wedged in tight and not something I could quickly clear. I ducked left, using the corner of the Two truck Stryker to cover myself as I took a knee and pulled out my multitool. One of the 3rd ACR Lieutenants on the ground with me that day, 2nd LT Rob Hoffman saw me pull back from the fight and rushed from his position towards me.  I heard the footsteps dash up among the intermittent gunfire as I was shoving the pliers-end of my multitool into the chamber of my M4, clawing at the jammed rounds.

‘Fucking Double-feed’ I said as he assumed a position behind the Stryker, on my right-hand side.

“I’ve got you covered” he said, returning fire as the metallic sound of rounds pinging off the Stryker reminded me that the enemy was close. In what felt like an eternity I managed to free one of the rounds, tipping the rifle over to let it fall out, and pulling back the charging handle to try and chamber the remaining round so I could re-join the fight. The bolt shot forward, stripping two rounds from the magazine, now jamming up three rounds in the chamber.

‘You have got to be shitting me’ I cursed as I grabbed the multitool and began to claw at the rounds again. Fucking magazine is shot – the feeder, or the spring – it was putting more rounds into the chamber than it was designed to accept.  I pulled the magazine and slid it under the wheel of the Stryker that was a foot in front of me.  That’d crush it – render it all useless so the Hajji’s couldn’t pick it up and use it.  I shook the remaining rounds free.

Google Maps© image of the area, wadi, fields and positions; click to enlarge

‘I’m good’ I said as I turned to face the battle, seeing Rob aiming at the house closest to us, across the wadi.  My gunner was hitting a window with grenade after grenade from his Mk-19.  I pulled another magazine from my vest and loaded it, slapping the bolt release and chambering one solid round, tight.  The Mk-19 hammered the building, silencing the enemy fire.  I gave the rally hand and arm signal, as the remainder of my platoon ran up to join us. One of my NCO’s, SSG ‘Ski’ was in the lead.

“We’ve got to press the advance, LT” he said in his thick Polish accent. SSG ‘Ski’ was a hulk of a man, former infantryman turned scout, he had spent his formative years growing up in Soviet-occupied Poland. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West and the U.S. Army were his calling.

‘Bound by fire teams. You, you, you, and you’ I said as I pointed to the nearest men around me, Rob included. ‘On me – the others, cover our advance. Good?’ There were a lot of head nods.

‘Covering fire!’ I screamed as we all broke from the street and ran headlong down into the wadi system, the sound of rifle fire to our right flank as we hit bottom and crawled up the far side. I laid my rifle over the opposing crest.

‘Set!’ I called into the mic of my radio, as we leveled our rifles and laid down a few well-placed shots at the building. There were two distinct holes around the window where some of the Mk-19 grenades had done solid damage.  The rest of my platoon surged into the wadi, up the other side and made a sprint for the courtyard wall of the building.  We lifted our fire, and as they approached the wall we got up, sprinting towards their position, rifles-raised covering as much of the neighborhood as we could.

‘We’re going to stack up and clear the building’. I looked over at SSG ‘Ski’. The men began to stack along the wall while SSG ‘Ski’ stepped back from the doorway. He had a Mk-67 frag grenade in his right hand. He cocked back, pulled the pin and tossed that grenade onto the roof of the house; the second that grenade was out of his right hand, he carried it forward to find its place on the handle of his M4. With a quick pop-pop, he shot the lock of the heavy steel courtyard door twice before he raised a large right boot and kicked the som’bitch in.  The sound of the grenade made a startling ka-wooopf as the door swung open, exposing the courtyard and front porch of the dwelling.

We entered the courtyard rifles raised, steamrolling right through it, onto the porch and through the open front door. Instinct took over, we flowed like water from room to room as the sounds of heavy weapons fire from Stryker’s outside erupted somewhere else nearby. Engine’s whined as vehicles were moving in a hurry.  I could hear Charger Six on the radio announcing he was on scene, and soon after a flood of his dismounts came in.  With the bottom floor secure, the second team rolled in behind us and began to make their way upstairs. Amid the chaos and flurry was solitary Kolb. I looked at the C.O. and then grabbed SGT Bradley, my senior dismount.

‘Take Kolb’ I said, trying to sort him out so we could press on with the attack while we had the momentum. Kolb was standing stiff, locked-jointed and trembling like a leaf; his eyes were wide in their sockets beneath his goggles, and he had his rifle pointed upwards at a forty-five degree angle, frozen in a position for no real reason other than he was frozen in that position.

“I’ll put him in my hip pocket” SGT Bradley said, putting a hand on Kolb’s shoulder. I proceeded up the stairs to join the second team who was already kicking in doors and shouting clear! as rooms were checked. Charger Six was on his radio talking to Squadron. We began to take the final stairway out onto the roof where a two foot high concrete wall ringed the roof.  SSG ‘Ski’ was already assuming a firing position behind the wall, firing his M4 carbine down into the street three houses over.

“They are hopping courtyards to egress” he said as he continued to fire.  I took up a position next to him while some of the other men spread out. With my left shoulder against the wall, I took a deep breath and got up on one knee, looking over the wall through the optic of my M4.  I could see a mass of clothing slip off the side of a wall five houses up into what looked like an alley way.  SSG ‘Ski’ was now raising his rifle high so he could shoot a grenade from his mounted M203 40mm grenade launcher.

“Box them in, LT” he said, and I think I understood where he was going with this methodology.  His 40mm grenade would have quite the range, and he probably was firing to put rounds ahead of them to stall their retreat. I heard Charger Six on the radio, and he was maneuvering his element to get into that neighbourhood.  I lowered my rifle and let it go as it swung on the chord that connected it to my right shoulder.  I dug into the little pouch on my vest around my heart, retrieving the grenade that I kept there for just these occasions.  In the best half-assed form, I put the spoon into the well between my right thumb and fingers, grasped it tight, pulled the pin with my left hand and cocked back on a knee; I think I pointed with my flattened left arm as I lobbed the grenade like a baseball, but I don’t know. I am sure it was nowhere near standard, since the last real grenade I had thrown was at basic on the grenade range.

The grenade arced up and left – not true to my aim at all – and then came down in the street that sat at the front of all of the houses whose courtyards our attackers had absconded through. It hit the street and bounced once, about four feet high. When it made its second bounce (roughly around where the street met the alleyway we felt they has escaped to) the green ball I had been watching disappeared in a puff of dark black and grey smoke, the report of the explosion echoing from all of the emptiness of the surrounding streets, walls, and buildings.

The backside of the house we had stormed now had Strykers arriving as members of the rest of the Troop began to arrive. Charger Six was entering the courtyard and calling out to the men for a situation update.  I left the roof to meet him in the house.

Rooftop view near the area

The enemy had retreated, fell back into the neighborhood and disappeared among the populous (which were nowhere to be seen – the whole neighborhood was a ghost town, typical for Tal’Afar ahead of enemy action). A platoon began to drive around in the neighborhood trying to draw the fighters back out, reignite the battle but to no avail.  We remained on the roof for another twenty minutes or so trying to get a visual on where they may have went while our sister platoon combed the distant streets out of sight. We decided to call this one, and return to our sector of the operation to finish handing out radios. As I was leaving the house I reached into my cargo pocket to grab my map, and I realized that I had lost it. Holy Shit I thought – I can’t leave a map out there for the enemy to find! I grabbed one of my men and we took off across the wadi back where we had come from.  Thankfully the map had fallen out in the courtyard with the roses, as we were all dashing to meet the battle.  The couple there was flagging us down as we came up the wadi, and the wife disappeared inside, returning with the map. I was never more thankful for a random act of kindness in my entire life.

Trolling the area trying to re-engage the insurgents

The rest of the mission went off. We returned to the FOB and later that night I caught up with Kolb at the Troop command post.

‘Well dude, congrats – you wanted to get into the shit and now you’re a Tal’Afar vet. What’d you think of it?’ I considered him lucky, getting all of that shit over with pretty early on, first day out of the wire and all. I only experienced an IED on my first day out of the wire. This kid got the full fireworks show!

“Is it like that all the time?” he asked, looking lost. He was pale-yellowish in color, and I didn’t think that it was coming from the fluorescent lights overheard in the command post.

‘Every day.’

“Wow. How… That shit was… Wow. This place is crazy.”

‘Yup’ I said, looking through the stack of mail and packages for anything addressed to me.

I didn’t think much more about Kolb, and he was now busy spending time with his mortar section and with G-Love, his NCO.  I didn’t give the kid a second thought, except that at our daily briefings I began to notice that he was going to sick call a lot. Another mission rolled around and he went to sick call. Was having some sort of bowel issue I guess (which isn’t uncommon for being new to Iraq and our lovely heavy-greasy chow hall meals). But it was getting to be more than that.  Kolb was always getting sick or finding excuses to not go out on patrol.

Hanging out in my hooch with my best friend from 1-24 Infantry, Mosul

Eventually we handed Tal’Afar over to 3rd ACR. We moved back to Mosul, and as we began to get reacquainted with the base and the city, Kolb was transferred up to Squadron.  One night I was in my new hooch (my room) on FOB Marez with the front door wide open when I heard a knock. I was trying to pry flat the mounting plate of a step-down transformer I had mail ordered that seemed to have been damaged in transport. I needed it for my coffee maker. I turned around to see Kolb in my doorway.

‘Hey’ I said, turning back to the task at hand.  By this point it was common knowledge that Kolb had been removed from his position in the Troop; the word was that he was trying to get medically disqualified for duty; he was now a special case, and it once again left our Troop without a Fires Lieutenant.

“Hey. I was in the area. Thought I’d swing by the old Troop but, no one is really around.” He came into my hooch, his fingers nervously holding onto his weapon sling as his rifle lay flush across his back. He was wearing a boonie cap. What a tool, I thought – no one wore the boonie cap.

‘Yeah. Folks are scattered here and there. White is on patrol. Some of the others are up at Squadron. Not sure where the Six is.’

The awkward silence was, well – awkward.

“I guess you’ve heard what people are saying.”  I had.

‘Hey man – I try not to listen to the rumors.’

“They’re calling me a coward. I mean, I’ve got medical issues. I’ve got irritable bowel syndrome! The Army shouldn’t have even taken me in the first place, to be honest.” The kid was grasping for straws, and he was looking for a sympathetic ear.  I stopped fiddling with the converter and turned to face him, leaning back in my seat.

‘Ok’ I said. I proceeded to listen to this kid talk through everything, trying to convince me – or, more likely trying to convince himself I’m sure.  He went through the entire gamut.

“My wife makes six-figures. She drives a BMW! I don’t need an Army salary; I can repay my ROTC scholarship….”

“Why should I go out there? Fuck these people! Risk my life for these ungrateful bastards? These people don’t even want us here to begin with…”

“We never should even have been in Iraq. I never even wanted to be in the Army, I didn’t need the scholarship money I just thought it would be something interesting to do…”

“My IBS, and I think I have asthma too – I never should have got past medical…”

I was tired of listening to the kid find excuses for himself. I tended to have a sympathetic ear, with the soldiers, with the locals, and now with Kolb. But I wasn’t having it. Everything was now the Army’s fault. This kid was going to know exactly what I thought of him.

‘Listen – Kolb, this isn’t about the Iraqi people, and it’s not about the waste that it is to risk your life for ungrateful peoples. I’m not a doctor, so I can’t speak for your shitting yourself situation, OK? But the rumors? To me it’s sounding like they’re true. Because as you stand here and try to convince me, or yourself, that not rolling out is the right thing to do, there are platoons out in sector on patrol. And its bad enough that you don’t want to do it – but you’re an officer. The men look to us to lead them, to care for them – and to make them feel comfortable when they are scared. This isn’t about being scared.’

“Do you get scared?”

‘Shit yes I get scared. This place is like a cancer – it’s actively trying to kill us every single day. But it’s not about being scared – I can’t let those men see me scared. Because they rely on me to make the right decisions and to do what I am supposed to do to try and keep us all alive. And the second I let my own fear get in the way, I let them down.  So you – by refusing to lead men, by refusing to roll out of the wire because you’re afraid – you do a disservice beyond yourself. You do a great disservice to every soldier that rolls out that wire every day, day in and day out, because this is our job, and it is what we all volunteered to do.’

He was looking rough. He had the look about him of a person who was empty inside, and that you could tell had been crushed – not by me, but by this entire situation. He clearly was in the wrong line of work.

‘And if you can’t set that aside and do your job, and lead your men, then you don’t belong here. You don’t deserve to be in this unit, or wear those bars, or that uniform. So, I wish you the best, but maybe it is best you seek a discharge. Because as much as you don’t want to leave the wire, I don’t want you out there in charge of soldiers. So – yeah. Hope it works out for you, I really do. But you’re not going to find a friend here, Kolb. So, go try and talk with someone else. But I have shit to do, and you’re not welcome in my hooch.’

I can’t remember what he said, if anything.  Later that night I told Szmyt about the encounter with Kolb, and his looking for an ally in his woes. After being returned to Squadron, Kolb got chewed out pretty good by MAJ Denny, who I think could have cleared up the kids IBS for the sheer depth of ass-chewing he gave him.  Within a few weeks, Kolb was gone.  Back to Fort Lewis.  I have no idea what happened to him if he ever got discharged or where he ended up.  But he wasn’t a Rattlesnake anymore, and I for one was glad.  Kolb couldn’t cut it. It’s not that he couldn’t cut it, I think. What angers me is that he showed up talking big, and when he got humbled by combat, he chose to retreat inside himself and try to find the easy way out of the situation, rather than stand up like a man and be part of the Charger family; he knowingly chose himself and his fears over those of his fellow Troopers. And that I find the most egregious.

About anotherwarriorpoet

Mathew Bocian served as a Captain in the United States Army with the Stryker Brigade and was deployed to Mosul and Tal'Afar in 2004 - 2005, and to Baghdad for The Surge in 2007 - 2008. He left the Army in 2012 and now uses his poetry as a way to heal from the traumas of war, while attempting to express to readers the realities of war. He is the recipient of the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, and holds a master's from the Graduate School for Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.
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One Response to The New Lieutenant

  1. GP Cox says:

    Guys like that can get you killed real quick and they’ll only sigh in relief that it wasn’t them. I wanted to knock the silly myself.

    Like

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