Forward Operating Base Rustamiyah
By First Sergeant (Retired) Martin Swirko
*Note; In 2005, I responded to a US Army Request for Forces for Senior NCOs that possessed certain qualifications. The mission itself was to serve as an embedded advisor in an Iraqi military or police battalion. After doing so I soon found myself entering that pipeline which started, for me, at the Massachusetts Army National Guard Headquarters, then located in Milford, Massachusetts. After negotiating that pipeline (which was no simple task) referred to at the time as MOBILIZATION, I came out at the other end at a God forsaken place in South Baghdad called Rustamiyah. By 2007, FOB Rustamiyah was turned over to the Iraqi Army. The places I am writing about may not exist today. Also, I’d like to say here that despite the conditions that existed at and around Rustamiyah at the time, the U.S. Army did it’s best to provide some level of comfort for the troops that found themselves in the middle of this urban outpost. Unfortunately none of those efforts supplanted or diminished the carnage we experienced.
The first and most notable characteristic I noticed about Rustamiyah both when I arrived and during my time there was the smell. Actually that was after scanning the landscape as we traveled on the ground between Camp Victory and Forward Operating Base Rustamiyah looking for threats. The smell, I found later, didn’t emanate from the FOB itself. There was a sewerage plant nearby, and like most things Iraqi, the plant wasn’t functioning. The scent itself is hard to describe but to me, it seemed a very unpleasant aroma of foul rotting sewerage. In other words, it smelled exactly as what it was. During my time there, as we returned to the relative safety of Rustamiyah from whatever combat mission we accomplished, the nasty smell signaled we would soon be having a hot meal, then hit the fuel point, and after an After Action Review, possibly a bit of downtime with a nap in an air-conditioned bunk.
The next most notable feature on the FOB was the smokey, sooty haze that shrouded the FOB on most days. Whenever I walked out of the building we lived in and operated from, we walked into that nasty, smoggy atmosphere. I soon learned that there were several “burn pits” located outside of Rustamiyah. I found as time went on that there were basically two ways trash was handled by the civilian population of Iraq-toss it aside and let it accumulate perpetually or burn it in large pits. They tried to burn everything. There was no agency in existence like the EPA to regulate this practice. The smoke filled atmosphere could be seen as well as smelled once you were within it. Over the years I can only imagine what types of poisonous carcinogens I inhaled during my time there. As time went on I was to learn that certain soldiers in rear areas (if there was such a thing in Iraq) referred to Rustamiyah as “the butcher shop” but I had leaned why long before I ever heard that phrase.
The base was surrounded and protected by various aprons of concertina wire, cement barriers and sandbag bunkers within which soldiers stood guard 24/7. It would be tough for the enemy to fight their way into. They had other means of infiltration.
There are, or were, two chapels located on FOB Rustamiyah, pronounced by the G.I.s as ROOSTEE, or Rusty for short. Well, two chapels and a mosque. The Mosque and one chapel was located just outside of the abandoned hospital that now served several purposes. Located In the basement was the Battalion Aid Station. This was a facility whose function I did not completely understand or fully appreciate upon my arrival at Rusty. Apparently, neither did the command staff of the medical unit which rotated into that station on Rusty in December of 2005.
As our tour progressed, we, meaning my brother and I (Then Sergeant First Class Frank Swirko) put together a kind of supper club of sorts. When some or all members of this “club” were on the FOB at the same time, we tried to meet up and dine together at the mess hall. Even this could be a dangerous event. Despite that, this was one of the few recurring events that was mostly social in nature. The club, as my brother and I started to refer to it, consisted of myself, Frank, VQ (SFC Villa- Quinnones) Captain Paul McCullough and Major Alumbaugh, who was a Physicians Assistant assigned to the Battalion Aid Station. Frank and I were at Rusty first, and as the year went by, we were joined by VQ, Major Alumbaugh and Captain McCullough. Occasionally, Major Brown, who was with us from the beginning at Ft, Carson would join us up until the time he was transferred away from Rusty. I never did learn where Major Brown went to from there, but it had to be a better place.
Major A explained to us during one of our dinners together, when she and her unit were staging and training in Kuwait on the way to Iraq, she was told that there was no need to train on handling trauma cases. She was told that they would be only be running sick call for soldiers when they arrived at their destination, which, unfortunately for them turned out to be Rustamiyah. They would not be handling trauma cases or treating combat wounded soldiers.
So, just like many of the units which rotated into Rusty during December of 2005, they were not briefed accurately, nor did they have an appreciation as to what kind of environment they would function in. As a result, they were not prepared for what they would actually see and do. Conversations with other units that arrived in December verified this fact. As it happened, Major A’s first day on duty at Rusty was Christmas Day, 2005. She found out almost as soon she came on duty for her first shift in Iraq how wrong everyone in Kuwait was.
Also located in the basement at Rusty were the quarters in which the medical personnel assigned to the aid station lived, as well as rooms where some of the Titan Corporation civilian interpreters resided. There was also a large room which was used to bed down American troops who weren’t assigned to Rusty, but where there overnight for one reason or another. This room, which was jam packed with cheap Iraqi style bunk beds had been the morgue when the building was a real functioning hospital. I doubt if any of the transient troops who slept there knew this, and it was probably best that they didn’t.
Also in the basement was a barber shop with Iraqi barbers, an internet cafe and a little coffee shop, all run by Iraqi nationals. I would soon discover the basement was a good place to be whenever mortars and missiles came crashing in.
On the first floor, one would find several what were known as “HAJJI” shops. The term Hajji shop, at least as used by the troops, referred to any shop owned and run by Iraqi Nationals. The term wasn’t meant or in itself derogatory. However, when I was completing mobilization training at Ft, Carson, the bad guys, that is the enemy, was regularly referred to as Hajji. In this context the term was derogatory, and I believe meant to be so. I thought perhaps it may have even been racist. I pondered the names given to our enemies during previous wars, with apologies to all who read this here: Huns, Krauts, Gerries, Nips, Reds, Chinks, Gooks and Slopeheads, to name a few. I suppose the combat soldier doesn’t have the desire or luxury to be politically correct about who he / she might offend when they are referring to the enemy and those that would destroy them. So, for better or worse, our enemies in Iraq were also referred to as Hajji. Of course nothing in that war was simple, and determining just who or what comprised our enemies was certainly not simple. But for better of worse the bad guys were simply Hajji, no matter where they came from.
However, Hajji shop owners would normally never be confused with Hajji the enemy. Of course, it goes without saying that it was possible that any or all Hajji shop owners could have been enemy agents. Or, they could be risking their lives to make a living for themselves and their families while providing a service to American soldiers. Despite that possibility, American soldiers at Rusty would gather, sometime socialize and befriend these shop owners during their time there.
There were two restaurants, a store of sorts, a sewing shop and a shop that sold DVDs. They were cheap DVDs, and often bootlegged. Despite the fact that these shop owners may have been feeding information on us to our enemies, these shops made life at Rusty and the ever present threat of unannounced savage death a bit more bearable. They made what came to be a perverse existence just a little less perverse. Also, it was also better to be inside those shops on the first floor when the enemy lobbed mortars at us, than out in the open, but not as safe as the basement.
On the second and third floor of the “hospital” US troops, their interpreters and other local nationals lived. This arrangement was not without it’s security problems. We lived there when we were on the FOB and not “down range” pulling combat operations or patrols.
The hospital, or the “house” as we called it had no plumbing, and so, no running water or latrines (toilet facilities). The latrines and shower facilities were located in trailers parked across the street, outside of the hospital, but within the barricades and walls. For those who had the misfortune of getting sick, whether due to food poisoning or whatever micro organisms penetrated our intestines, the location of those latrines was a special form of torment during the night. The urgent trip every 40 minutes or so from the third floor down to and across the street turned the night into several hours of sleepless misery. It didn’t help knowing that in a few hours you would have to prepare for another of what came to seem like a never ending number of combat operations outside the wire.
If you didn’t understand it at first, (and I didn’t) after seeing and experiencing the death and destruction which seemed to surround us and our movements on a daily basis, it wasn’t long before I did come to understand that any one of these patrols or forays outside the wire could be the last. In fact, for me personally, I came to accept this. For several months I operated under my own personal theory that I was a dead man who was still walking.
This outlook was certainly not something I learned form all my years of life, nor was it a state of mind that was advocated for during any military training I had been exposed to. In fact, the Army always taught that it was most important to always maintain a Positive Mental Attitude. However, for whatever it’s worth, (and it may not be worth anything) the fact was that after we were hit and lost LTC James, MSG Tuliau and SFC Howe, I came to feel that I was living on borrowed time. I soon came to the realization that at any moment I, or one of my soldiers could be vaporized or have our shit scattered in the wind without warning. My life and outlook changed on that awful day in late September 2005. I became convinced that it was highly unlikely that I would live to see 2006.
Another thing happened to me during this personal transformation. As a result of the death of Sergeant Tuliau, I became the Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge (NCOIC) of my team. It was similar to the battlefield commission one may have seen in movies or read about. Certainly, not so dramatic, but very real because I became the senior NCO standing in terms of rank and time in grade of all four teams. I took those responsibilities seriously. I became the enlisted leader of a team of professional, or at least Regular Army solders who weren’t very happy that I was there in the first place. Suddenly the fortunes of war had placed a reservist, a national guardsman at that, in a leadership position within a Regular Army unit. This was the Total Army Concept in action.
I would say that no one was very happy about this, except that wouldn’t be exactly accurate. There were a couple of officers who believed I was the right NCO for the job.However, by and large the sergeants that now found themselves with me as their NCIOC were not happy about it. I guess I can’t fault them for that.
These and other things were often on my mind whenever I lay in my bunk at Rustamiyah in the dark, often staring at the ceiling. So, on those occasions when I or others living in the “hospital” got sick we had to run back and forth, downstairs and across the street to the latrines throughout the night until it was time to get ready. Each time we did so we risked being dissipated by an incoming mortar round, picked off by a sniper or taking a bullet in the back of the head from an enemy agent posing as an employee on the FOB. This set up made an already bad situation downright wretched.
It didn’t take many nights before empty 32 once bottles of Gatorade adorned the floor of my room, next to or underneath the bed. Frank and I crudely referred to these bottles as our waste management system. The large gatorade bottle was perfect. Of course, we couldn’t defecate in them, but the neck was wide, so you didn’t have to worry about missing or squirting urine down the outside of the bottle as you held it in your hand. The cap could then be screwed tight, therefore it was somewhat sanitary.
Empty gatorade bottles were also part of our “battle rattle”when I gunned in the turret of my truck. After all, I couldn’t climb down out of the turret during a patrol or when pulling security to urinate on the landscape. And, due to the extreme high temperatures, we had to drink a lot of fluids to keep going. Therefore Gatorade bottles were plentiful and a must, both on patrol and at “the house”. I’ll leave it to your imagination as to how one might do his business while standing in the turret of a gun truck while manning a machine gun, often in public while at his post. Of course female soldiers didn’t even have that luxury. But for me, I say “Thank you, Gatorade!”
On the other hand, the fact that the building we lived in when not in the field, did have electricity meant that we all had good A/C. The Army made sure that we all had working air conditioners in the shithole where we lived. To me, that was most important. Being able to move back onto Rusty after surviving another mission dodging suicide bombers, snipers, IEDs and RPGs to sleep in an air conditioned room was one of the things that kept me going. It made an otherwise miserable existence somewhat more tolerable. But it never completely erased the specter that sudden, violent death always stalking us and could strike us down at any time.
My brother and I shared a room on Rusty. In the hospital. In the room we each had a locker and a bed. We also had a small bar sized refrigerator which we were able to keep stocked with cold soda, gatorade and water, as well as an occasional can of near beer. We also had a TV with a built in DVD player. Our room soon became our escape from the war zone and safe place, at least until mortar rounds peppered the FOB.
Located immediately outside of the hospital was what the Army referred to benignly as the Mortuary Affairs Building. It had a large sign on it proclaiming it’s function. Parked outside of this building were two trucks. One was an ambulance, however this ambulance was without the normal red cross affixed to it identifying itself as an ambulance. The second truck appeared to be some kind of cargo or utility truck, which also had no markings. This truck was somewhat peculiar in that it had, attached to its bed metal sides which concealed whatever cargo it was carrying. I learned soon enough that those trucks were used to transport deceased soldiers from the Mortuary Affairs Building to the Landing Pad where helicopters would then take the deceased soldiers away for the start of their long, final journey home.
There was also a sign on the front door proclaiming that that unauthorized persons were not to enter. It also announced that all personnel who did enter must remove their head gear. I never knew who exactly was allowed to enter that place, but two months after my arrival at Rusty I learned just who was allowed to enter, and one awful day, I found that I was allowed entry. At least for that day. I hoped never to enter again. When one left the entrance to the hospital the Mortuary Affairs Building loomed and at least to me, seemed to actually leer at you. It seemed to be saying ‘Don’t get comfortable. You may well end up here’.
It spooked me the first time I saw it. I had to go by it when I went to the mess hall. Therefore I solved that problem by giving the building a wide birth as I moved around the FOB whenever possible. I walked as far around it as I could. Late at night, when the lights were on inside, I knew what that meant. It meant something terrible. It meant that a dead American soldier or what was left was inside and being prepared for his or her long, trip home. It also meant that the deceased soldier’s family at that moment was about to learn the terrible, tragic, life altering news, if they hadn’t done so already. It meant that another American soldier had made the ultimate sacrifice. Most probably, a soldier here at Rusty. Possibly someone I saw daily who I may or may to have known personally. The lights during night always meant something bad. The lights were on far too often during my time at Rusty. To avoid the place, I walked around the chapel and the mosque.
I was never inside the mosque. I was a non-believer, so that would have been an immeasurable affront to Islam and the Muslim workers here on the FOB. As for the chapel near the house, I was inside of it just twice. The first time was the afternoon when Tuliau and Howe were killed. The second and final time was for a chaplain’s briefing as we prepared to go home. All I remember from that briefing was the warning not to beat our wives when we got home. In fairness, there was much more to the briefing, but the chaplain lost me after that warning that whatever happens, please don’t beat your wife. “Is this what my time here has come down to?” I thought to myself as the chaplain droned on. Don’t beat your wife and children. Sage advice and sadly for some, necessary.
The second chapel was usually referred to as the MP Chapel. This chapel was located on the opposite side of Rusty from where we lived and operated. There were numerous Army Military Police units located near this chapel, and since many of the MPs stationed there frequented it, we referred to it as the MP Chapel.
The MP units located there were a mix of Regular Army, National Guard and Reserve units. In that sense, the make up of those units pretty much mirrored the composition of the American Army units operating and fighting in Iraq. Unlike recent wars and conflicts, the Guard and Reserves were all in. These MP units were also Corps assets. What that meant was although we operated in some of the same areas these units did, we never worked or operated together. These units were hit hard during my time at Rusty, and they suffered many losses.
On the night of December 18, 2005, sometime around 8PM, I made what felt to me like an escape from that chapel. My heart was pounding, I was sweating and breathing hard at the time, and looking back on it, I believe I may have been suffering from my first ever panic attack. The walls seemed to be closing in on me and I broke free just in time. Tears flowed endlessly down my face. I wept openly yet at the same time tried not to let anyone see me. I was crying and I remember hyperventilating. I was done. At least with this chapel. No more memorial services for me.
I stood outside and struggled to catch my breath as the firing party let loose their volleys and Taps was played. Other tunes wafted upon the breeze. Amazing Grace, American Soldier, and Proud to be an American, I don’t remember what else.
If you entered the MP Chapel at that exact time, you would have found yourself among a standing room only crowd of desert clad uniformed soldiers. You would have seen small groups of young soldiers weeping openly and inconsolably, without shame or embarrassment. They were trying their best to console each other knowing the same fate may await anyone of them at any time. At the front of the chapel was a pair of combat boots, an inverted M-4 rifle with a helmet affixed over the butt of the weapon, along with a set of ID tags and a photo of the soldier to which those items once belonged.
The soldier being honored and mourned was Sergeant Julia Atkins. Atkins was an MP who was killed outside of Rusty during a combat patrol. I speak of her here because we must never forget Sergeant Atkins, her family or the other families of those who gave their lives here.
I knew who Sergeant Atkins was. I may never have talked to her, but I do remember her. I remember seeing her around the FOB. Probably in the mess hall. Maybe at the laundry point or PX. I remember the name, if not her face.
I heard the MP Battalion Sergeant Major do the ceremonial roll call, and when he called Sergeant Atkin’s name, and she didn’t answer, he called her twice more, and when she still did not answer, her Sergeant Major loudly ordered that Sergeant Atkin’s name be struck from the battalion roster. Then Taps sounded.
This was the fifth memorial service I had attended for soldiers killed in this “Low Intensity Combat Operation” referred to as an insurgency. I was done with it. I could not attend another one. Not if I was going to continue to function as the NCOIC of my team. Not if I was going to keep it together. I couldn’t bear to attend another one. And there was another one, and several more. The next night in fact. The very next night another service was planned for another soldier. This was for a different Rutamiyah soldier from 3/7 CAV who was killed the same week.
What I remember about that time, what I remember about that night, was that I truly believed that I was a dead man. I had been operating as a dead man since the end of September. I was convinced that I wasn’t going to make it, and soon enough the same service would be held for me there, except it would be my rifle, dog tags and boots on display. If any of those were recovered.
It may be that this was a sign of my own personal weakness. Perhaps seasoned combat veterans, soldiers who are expected to lead and care for their troops, don’t have or allow themselves the time or luxury to wallow in self pity. Soon, I found myself writing my name in big black block letters on each boot, leg, undershirt and other parts of my uniform so that when that day came those who found those parts would know who they belonged and they would make the final trip home with the rest of me. I didn’t want to leave anything behind there.
Don’t misunderstand stand me. I didn’t feel sorry for myself. I never at any time thought I made a mistake coming to Iraq. I thought I was going to die and I decided that I didn’t want to die. I wanted to go home to my family, to those that I love. The idea that I never go back to see or be with those that I care about, those that care for and love me, that possibility was difficult to swallow. In fact, the fear of not going home to those who cared for me was greater than the idea of death itself. The reality was I had come to accept my mortality, and I didn’t like it. Silently and often (and, as it turned out prematurely and unnecessarily) I found myself mourning not for myself, but for those that loved and cared about me.
What kept me going those days were my responsibilities to my team, not to mention my brother. I guess I wasn’t a very good NCOIC, certainly not at first. I do think I grew into the position, but looking back, maybe I didn’t grow into it fast enough.
That night, as I stood outside the MP Chapel, for what I had hoped was the last time, I was suddenly set upon by the FOB Command Sergeant Major who snapped me out of my miniature breakdown. The CSM, droned on and on about the fact that not all my soldiers had shoulder patches on their uniforms, the fact that we had our names embroidered on our uniforms in Arabic, and so on and so on. He questioned my leadership of my team and the fact that I wasn’t enforcing Army uniform regulations. He decided to verbally counsel me before the ceremony was even complete. Which leadership course had he learned that form of performance counseling from, I couldn’t imagine.
I looked at the CSM, and If it weren’t for my own self control and military discipline, I actually would have spat in his face. That’s the level contempt I had at that moment for that man. Looking back, I guess the good thing was that he snapped me out of my funk. His BS brought me slowly out of what had become one of my lowest moments in Iraq, a moment when I came close to losing control. At that minute, I directed all my hatred and frustration directly towards him, and only him. I barely heard what he was saying to me. When he was done, I said “Yes Sergeant Major” turned and stepped off, carrying myself with indignity but also with in new found confident military manner. I dug each heel noisily into the gravel placing one foot inn front of the other, as I otherwise silently made my way to our head shed. I suddenly remembered I had received a Warning Order from Major Cureton before I went to the memorial. Dead soldiers our not, I had to continue planning for the next day’s mission.
Several months later, as a heavily armed Blackhawk helicopter lifted my brother and I off the hot sand at Rustamiyah for the final time, I found myself feeling numb and emotionally drained. I did survive after all. As the helicopter banked turning away from Rusty, and the gunners scanned the rooftops of nearby Sadr City, I suddenly leaned out of the open door which tilted partially down toward the ground I gave the finger to FOB Rustamiyah. I remember holding my finger out there in the hot breeze for a bit while thrusting it forward as to place an exclamation mark on my farewell. I felt a mixture of hatred and relief. Mostly, I felt tired and old. I had nothing else to say. That’s all I had left as we departed, leaving it’s smoky haze, burn pits, still broken sewer plant and the Mortuary Affairs building behind. I learned soon enough that Rustamiyah had left me with invisible but, very real scars. I think my gesture was a fitting tribute to a place that may no longer even exist, but 16 years later I still dream about along with and those we lost there.