Five days before I was supposed to get on a plane and return home from the Sunni Triangle, an order came down from General Sanchez himself that the 341st MP Co. from San Jose Ca. was going to be extended yet again after their 365 days had been fulfilled. Most of our equipment had been handed over to our replacements leaving us with our individual weapons and our belief that our year long tour had finally come to an end.
Fortunately the unit had only had to send home a few soldiers to minor combat related injuries and with the constant fear of the next roadside bomb or ambush tarnishing that accomplishment, almost being done and getting off the dangerous roads made us all take a deep breath of relief. With the footlockers closed and put away and the final preparations being done, our unit was ready to send our advanced party back to the US to get things ready for our homecoming.
Just hours before that happened the phone rang in our day room as I watched the morning news about the war that was taking place outside our gates. The commander took the phone and his tone immediately changed from pleasantries to swearing at an imaginary person standing over him. He hung up the phone and told everyone in the dayroom to get the troops together because we had to have a company formation.
People were woken up and some were interrupted as they sat outside their dusty tents talking about what big trips they were planning in the coming weeks. We are now being sent to a prison facility and our unit is being re-classed to prison guards at the countries central holding facility for prisoners of war. The extension will be anywhere from three to four months on top of the 13 months we have already been on active orders. People took the news like they were hit by a truck. But most of us were not surprised, we haven’t caught a break in this country since we drove our humvees across the border. From weeks at isolated relay stations in 130 plus degree heat filled with sand storms to finding out the news of our second extension orders throwing us in the middle of the Sunni Triangle driving daily convoys and patrols down the most dangerous routes in and around Baghdad and now to this.
The emotional rollercoaster these soldiers have gone on is a ride nobody should have to take. The families of the soldiers have almost been brought to the breaking point as we were given tentative dates to redeploy in September 2003 then to January of 2004 and again when the final extensions were handed down to keep us in Iraq a total of 365 days. Marriages have ended and babies have been born that wont see their fathers until they are over a year old. Its difficult for a soldier to understand how so much bad fortune can fall on one group so consistently and its intensified when a person needs to tell their families and children that they need to cancel the welcome home festivities because they were handed a piece of paper saying their services are needed for another few months over and over again.
Our company First Sergeant had a white board hanging from his door that had a count down to the day we would be done. The day we hit double digits was a night of celebration and watching the numbers get below thirty made the light at the end of the tunnel seem surreal. Soldiers that had accepted the high tempo of working fifteen to twenty days in a row before a day off had finally allowed themselves to relax. The infantry unit that took over our mission showed up early and eagerly took over the job and the redeployment numbers dropped from 25 days to 15 overnight. We couldn’t believe that we had made it. We had achieved the status of being the most senior Military Police company in theatre as well as becoming the second most senior unit to still be on ground. Now as I’m told it seems that in a week we will become first in both categories. Soldiers need to call home yet again and tell their loved ones that even with five days to go that the Army has changed its mind. I don’t know how I’m going to do it and by the look on people’s faces after the news, I would guess no one else does either.
The 341st Military Police Co. has some of the most resilient troops I know. I alone have been hit by numerous explosives along the convoy routes and had to react to ambushes by men armed with AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades shooting from rooftops and crowded markets. I’ve had to tend to the serious injuries of civilian contractors that had their vehicles ripped apart by roadside bombs and other attacks and collect the personal effects of the men that were not so fortunate to live through them. My heart goes out to the families of these brave souls that wanted to help the war effort in whatever way they could, relying on us to protect them. Watching the morning news as a couple of contract truck drivers from our base talk about the brutal attack on their convoy that we had been escorting that day made me realize how fortunate they truly were.
Every soldier in the 341st has collected stories like this in the time we have been in country. Most of us have become numb to the carnage we experience on an almost daily basis and until the news this morning I had been sitting around some of my closest friends trying to discuss how we would ever be able to put this place and its events behind us. It will be more difficult for some than others. No other modern war has kept troops in a combat zone longer than a year because of the instability it can cause.
The memories of the chaos and bloodshed will stick with us forever no matter what we do about it. We are now going beyond our duty to fill gaps in the military that should not have been made. Its like a draft has been enacted on the Reserve and National Guard troops and there is no escape. People’s entire military contracts have been served and yet the Army can still hold them and then we watch as active duty soldiers get on planes because the same obligation applies differently to them. There is no feeling of “The Army of One” in Iraq.
I feel sorry for the Army and the military as a whole if this trend continues as it seems likely for the next few years. Retention in the armed services will plummet and our national security will suffer. There will be no reason for budget cuts to close down bases and downsize the military when the citizen soldiers just stop going to drill after being disgusted with the accepted disregard of their status in the Army.
Reserve and National Guard troops make up over half of the military and we get treated like unwanted stepchildren while we perform the same dangerous missions as our active counterparts. I and the troops of the 341st will persevere. We are now going to serve in a prison, guarding inmates that are being held for placing the same bombs along the roads, ambushing convoys and firing rockets or mortars into the bases that have taken the lives of our over 600 brothers and sisters. This is going to be one of the most difficult transitions we will have to make but we will make it. I don’t expect this letter to change anything for my unit. We are upset from our situation but we are prepared to answer the call.