I think many of us have heard stories or seen movies about our fighting men and women spending Christmas so far away from their family and loved ones during wartime. Different conflicts, different circumstances. The one constant was the threat of violent, sudden death weighing on everyone’s mind. When death did visit, it often did so suddenly, often unannounced and with a ferocity which can never be imagined if one had never been exposed it. Death often struck arbitrarily, with a random unpredictability that causes survivors to ponder their continued existence and ask the question “why not me? ” for many, many years. I’ve heard this dynamic referred to as survivors guilt, and I can assure you is does exist.
In December of 2005 I found myself in a combat zone on Christmas Day. My advisory team had been assigned to and working off of a FORWARD OPERATIONS BASE (known as a FOB) called Rustamiyah. Rusty, pronounced Roosty, as we sometime called it, was located in South Bahgdad. It was originally called Camp Cuervo, named after a US soldier killed during the 2003 invasion.
Rustamiyah was a bleak place, very close to another hell hole called Sadr City. We did have a good mess hall, and we were fed well when we were on the FOB and not involved in combat operations. No one came to Rustamiyah unless they were forced to do so. It was an outpost not unlike some of the Army outposts in the 1800’s out west, isolated and surrounded by hostile forces. Like those calvary soldiers of old we often referred to everything outside the wire as Indian County, with apologies for using the term to all my Native Americans friends out there.
My mental state wasn’t very good as Thanksgiving came and went and Christmas approached. In the fall we had lost our Commander, LTC Leon James, along with MSG Tulsa Tuliau and SFC Casey Howe during combat operations. Several soldiers stationed on our FOB had been killed on or nearby and we lost dozens of the Iraqis we served with up until that point. I didn’t think it was possible, but those losses would dramatically increase in January of 2006 after a Shia Mosque was attacked and blown up by Sunni terrorists, and dozens of innocent worshipers were slaughtered.
It seemed as though we were surrounded by carnage, day in and day out, and I came to the conclusion that I was living on borrowed time. I just couldn’t convince myself that I was going to avoid the fate of others while I was participating in combat operations day in and day out, sometimes multiple operations a day. Additionally, the FOB itself was coming under mortar and rocket attack more frequently with increasing accuracy. No one was allowed to walk around the FOB without being armed and weapon fully locked and loaded. A soldier, or for that matter, any bystander could be standing nearby one minute and gone forever the next. And that my friend, is not over dramatization.
The command cell of the FOB did their best to cheer the soldiers up. There was a large inflatable Santa Clause outside the PX, yet at the same time there were small bunkers strewn around the FOB for personnel to duck into for protection when the enemy, somewhere outside started lobbing mortar rounds into the FOB. I always thought the Santa, near one of those sandbag bunkers looked ridiculous and out of place. There were plenty of phones with which to call home, assuming you had a valid AT&T phone card with money on it. There was also an internet cafe operated by some enterprising local Iraqis, some of whom moonlighted as enemy agents. Maybe it was the other way around.
But no matter what the command staff did, the fact that we all had to walk past the Mortuary Affairs building to get to the mess hall certainly reminded us that people were dying here and what fate may await us before we were done. At night, when the light was on inside that building, I knew there was one or more dead American Soldiers being prepared for the beginning of their last, long trip home. Daily, sometimes hourly, the medivac helicopters, always two at a time landed. The crews quickly offloaded their wounded, dying and dead to the Battalion Aid station, which we lived above. Those birds also took out the deceased soldiers that either couldn’t be saved, or had been prepared by the FOB Mortuary Affairs Team. I learned to hate the sound of those Blackhawks coming and going. Even today I shudder when I hear them flying past. I can say the only thing that kept me going day to day was the fact that I found myself in a leadership position, and when one mission ended, I had to help plan and prepare my soldiers for the next one. That didn’t leave very much time for me to mope around.
As Christmas Day approached, my brother and I, who shared a room together on the FOB tried to cheer up our windowless room by putting up some decorations. I think we had three little Christmas trees sent to us by various people, and an endless pile of snacks that were sent to by both family, and many people who we never met. My wife sent us a Christmas CD, and we often played it when we were in our room together. Unfortunately, the more we tried to make it seem like Christmas, the more it made me miss home and my family.
Unlike Thanksgiving, when we got a couple of days to stand down, our operational tempo remained high (it did throughout my tour there) and it became obvious to me that we would get no such break for Christmas. Sure enough, we conducted a combat patrol on Christmas Eve, and another one early the day after Christmas. Fortunately, someone cut us some slack, and my team did not have to go outside the wire Christmas Day.
Christmas Eve arrived, we went out on a mission, I don’t recall what it was, but we made it back to the FOB safely. I let loose a sigh of relief, as I took my sweat soaked gear off, layer by layer. I knew that at least I probably wouldn’t die on Christmas Day. After taking care of necessary business, I went to the internet cafe room to email my wife, let her know I was safe, at least for the moment, and relieved that unless something bad happened, we would spend Christmas Day on the FOB.
As soon as I sat down, the dreaded communications blackout went into effect. Anytime an American Soldier from the FOB was killed in action, a commo blackout would occur, and all forms of communications with the outside world was cut. The blackout remained in effect until after, on the other side of the world, the wife, husband or parents of the newly deceased soldier was notified in person by officials of the death. Often that took between 12-24 hours, and during that time no one could contact anyone lest word of the death get to the family before the official notification.
Needless to say, these all too regular commo blackouts were very nerve wracking to me and depressing. I remember going to eat on those evenings, the lights were always on inside of that ghastly building. After leaving the internet cafe rather frustrated with not being able to email or call home, I walked up the stairs with the knowledge that somewhere at home, a family doesn’t yet know it, but their loved one is dead, and the mechanism the Army used to notify the family was already triggered, and the dreadful news was on the way.
As I climbed the stairs I was approached by a Chaplin who I’d never seen before. I don’t know why he chose me, maybe because I was a senior NCO, perhaps I just looked harmless.
“Master Sergeant” he called out to me. “What’s going on? Whats happening?” he implored, hoping I could enlighten him. It was obvious to me that he was referring to the announcement of the commo blackout that had just gone into effect, and he was also reacting to the behavior of some of the troops who knew what that meant.
I sized him up momentarily, and I saw the 4th Infantry Division Patch on his shoulder. A unit from the 4th Infantry Division had just arrived on the FOB, relieving a unit from the 3rd Infantry Division which had rotated home earlier that week. ‘He just got here’ I thought to myself, which explained his ignorance on the matter. I stopped, respectfully explained the situation, and although he was Black, I swear his face turned a pale shade of white. He answered me by exclaiming “Dear God help us!” I explained further that it was the third blackout of the week. I tried to be a bit reassuring to him while at the same time not feed him any BS. He was in the middle of it, and I wasn’t going to downplay life at Rustamiyah. The sooner he learned that, the easier it would be for him to adjust and do his job. I knew he was going to be a busy, overworked Chaplin during his time here, but he didn’t know that yet. We parted company, and he walked away from me obviously shaken by what I had told him.
Later on Christmas Eve, my brother and I decided to get some rice and soup at a little Iraqi shop on the FOB. While we were sitting, a female Major walked in, with another female. I had never seen either before, but they wore 101 Airborne Division patches, so I figured they had also just arrived. While Frank and I silently nibbled on our rice and goat meat, the Major, I discovered later, was a Physician’s Assistant new in-country and assigned to the Battalion Aid station on the FOB. I overheard the Major tell her companion about all her plans for her time here, the clinics she was going to set up in and around Rustamiyah and Sadr City, how she was planning to tour the area, and spend much her free time amongst the Iraqi people.
By this time, my brother and I were pretty salty veterans. We had seen, survived and learned a lot. The more I overheard of the Major’s conversation, the more silly she sounded, and the more irritated I became. She was apparently very naive. That was understandable. We all were at one point. But I thought that her ignorance may cost some soldiers their lives if she actually tried to do some of the things she ticked off her list. My brother and I exchanged knowing glances and as we left the shop, I stopped and candidly told the Major to forget all that. I told her that here in Rustamiyah, the number one rule was that you never went outside the wire unless you had to. Not unless you were ordered to do so. She was apparently annoyed by my intrusion, showed it, and acted as though I didn’t know what I was talking about. I could tell she was thinking I had a hell of a nerve to address her in such a fashion. After all, I was an NCO (albeit a senior NCO) and she was a field grade officer. My approaching her in this fashion clearly violated the etiquette that exists within the U.S. Army. However, by that time I didn’t worry about those niceties that work OK back in garrison during peace time.
I shrugged my shoulders and we walked away. We both commented that she had a lot to learn. I figured she’d learn soon enough. Eventually, back in our windowless room Frank put on our sole Christmas CD. I changed into my P/T gear (the only clothes you could wear outside your room if not in complete uniform). I was certain we would get mortared that night. Hell if I was the enemy, that’s the least I would do to the American Infidels on this night. I put my shoulder holster on, made sure my pistol was loaded in case I had to defend myself during the night. I also had my M-4 locked and loaded nearby my bunk. My brother had a hand grenade next to his bed.
I sat down on my folding chair while Frank tried to make a video to send home. At one point, tears welled up in my eyes, and I had a hard time talking on camera. I missed my family, friends and home, but I was also convinced I would never see them again.
Eventually, I hit my rack and slept fitfully. I listened to the tanks and Bradley’s line up in the darkness outside of my window. The engines were growling like inanimate beasts. The crews and ground troops shouted and cursed as they got ready to go outside the wire. They would conduct various missions and patrols on this early Christmas morning before daylight came. I was thankful that for the moment, I wasn’t going with them. I was also happy that I could sleep in when morning came. I pulled my poncho liner up over my shoulder and I drifted off to sleep.
It seemed as though I had just closed my eyes, when I was jolted out of my sleep by someone pounding on our door. For a minute I didn’t know where I was. It was my Team Chief. He told me to get the troops up and dressed because the Commanding General was coming to see us. He wanted to spend Christmas morning with our advisory team. The General, having met him before, was, I thought a good man. I immediately liked him, which was more than I could say about many of the other general officers I had interacted with during my tour. However, now I was highly pissed about his intrusion into my one day off. I was up late, thought I was going to catch up on my sleep and may never have left my room that day if left alone. It was 7 AM or so.
Now I had to shower, shave, get fully dressed and also find my troops and get them ready. I was really unhappy, to say the least. As it turned out, I was up and about just in time to learn of a KIA being brought into the Battalion Aid Station. He was the driver of an M-1 tank that had left the FOB earlier and it was struck by an EFP (Electronically Fired Projectile), which was the same deadly device that killed our team members back in September. The driver was dead on arrival, I won’t describe his condition, but I’ll never forget it. To this date, this device was the only device or weapon to ever penetrate the crew compartment of an M-1 Abrams Tank. One of the projectiles penetrated between the tank’s front and second road wheel, going through the drivers compartment, killing the driver instantly. Was it possible that his was one of the tanks I listened to while I tried to sleep just a couple of hours earlier? In any case, this is what I awoke to on Christmas morning.
Eventually, all four teams met in our Tactical Operations Center (TOC) and awaited the arrival of the General. Suddenly, there was a loud boom. The building shook. We knew what it was, and we instinctively knew it was bad. We went to check, and we found that a HUMVEE that was leaving the FOB was hit by an EFP as it left the wire. There was one dead, two seriously wounded, one of which would die shortly thereafter. We watched as the wounded and dead soldiers, after having been pulled out of the mangled, smoking wreck that until a minute ago was their HUMMVEE and rushed to the Battalion Aid station. They hadn’t been here a week. So now the tally for the day (the devil’s arithmetic, if I may borrow the term) is three dead and one seriously wounded on our FOB, and here it was not yet 10 O’Clock on Christmas Day. We had lost several troops earlier in the week, and of course one more on Christmas Eve.
As it turned out, the General never did make it to Rustamiyah. It seems that our FOB was declared unsecure, and the General was advised not to risk going there. Of course this place wasn’t secure, I thought disgustedly. They didn’t know that up there? Was the steady flow of dead and wounded from this place not enough to tip them off yet? While we existed day to day, fought and many died here, some staff NCO or Officer, safe in one of Saddam’s many former palaces finally got the idea Rustamiyah really was a dangerous place and decreed that Rusty was too dangerous to travel to. My contempt for certain elements within our higher command was never higher than it was that day, but the day continued.
While speaking with my brother in the TOC, waiting for the General, he told the following story.
After being rudely awakened, he got his shower and shaving stuff and headed across the little street to the shower trailers (hoping as always he didn’t get picked off by a sniper or vaporized by a random mortar round). There was no plumbing or water in the building we lived in when on the FOB. He walked by the Battalion Aid Station, and he came upon the Major that he and I had briefly spoke with on Christmas Eve, She was dressed in hospital scrubs, and they and she were covered with blood. She seemed very distraught, and my brother being the professional NCO that he was walked up to her and asked if she was OK.
The gulf between Officer and NCO suddenly disappeared. She told him she was not OK. At 6AM she reported to the Aid Station for her first tour on duty there. There was no doctor assigned there, certainly no surgeon, so the Major was the highest level of medical professional on duty. It was her job to triage and patch up wounded soldiers who, if still alive would be flown to the near Combat Army Surgical Hospital for life saving care.
She went on to explain that the first casualty of the day was the tank driver who I saw being brought in a short time earlier. She said she could do nothing for that young soldier, and she further declared that after seeing his condition, if she had her pistol with her, she would have gone outside and killed the first Iraqi she came across. My brother said she was serious.
Well, she talked to my brother for a bit, and being a cop, Frank kinda knew how to talk to her and she eventually went back to work, not knowing the worst was yet to come that day.
As time went on there was a small group of NCOs that would get together and eat evening chow at the dining facility together whenever we could. The Major often joined Frank and I in that group (there were also one or two other officers) and we all became fairly good friends and she became a member of our little Supper Club, which is what we called ourselves. In the months that followed, she often talked at length about her first duty day on Christmas at Rustamiyah. It didn’t take her too long to get the picture and become a combat veteran herself.
Going back to Christmas Day, after we got word the General was not coming (he came a week later on New Years Day) since we were all up and dressed, Frank and I went to the mess hall and ate a good meal. I was so distraught at what I had seen that day, I don’t remember what I ate.
I don’t know if I ever did call home that day due to the commo blackouts which were most likely still in effect. I went back to the room, very depressed and I sulked for a bit. I had lost count of how many troops we lost the week of Christmas. We lost too many, that’s for sure. How could I possibly believe I would be lucky enough to make it out of there in one piece? I was in a tough spot there, assigned to a dangerous mission. We all were.
Fortunately, I wasn’t able to feel sorry for myself for very long. Before the evening was over, I was called to meet with my Team Chief. He had received a new warning order regarding our combat mission the next morning. He briefed me, we made a tentative plan and I went back to work. Christmas, if it ever did come to Rustamiyah, was for all practical purposes over. That was Christmas Day at FOB Rustamiyah, 2005.