Soldiers life: A walk through the valley of the shadow of death

Preparing for war

The information that I received was that the 341st Military Police Company was being mobilized for a potential conflict in the Middle East. Which from what I was seeing put all over CNN was the looming war in Iraq due to the country having Chemical and Biological weapons that posed a serious threat to the national security of the United States. That was all fine and dandy but I was just looking forward to having some real combat experience.

Initially, no one could tell us what our mission would be when we got deployed overseas but since the unit had already spent six months in the Balkans doing convoy security missions just two years earlier we had a good idea what missions would be handed down to us.

On March 1st the 341st Military Police Company started creating orders to have soldiers brought in before we actually mobilized to start getting the equipment ready and get a lot of the field training out of the way like qualifications with our M16 rifles, 9mm handguns and M249 squad automatic weapons which we completed at Ft. Hunter Ligget California.

I was given training on how to use the Army version of a GPS (global positioning system). Soldiers were given Annual Training orders in the month prior to mobilization to prepare for what we were heading towards.

On March 15th 2003 the unit was officially activated and made to prepare for a mobilization out of Ft. Lewis Washington. By March 18th the unit was on ground at Ft. Lewis.

We slept in old WWII barracks along with what appeared to be another dozen units heading off to Iraq. Ft. Lewis was supposed to get us ready for what we were to expect in the threatening environment we were headed for but they fell short. I watched on CNN as the preemptive strike was taken on Iraq hoping to destroy Saddam Hussein.

We qualified on the M19 automatic grenade launcher and did lanes training that was more like camping than war preparation. We sat in Ft. Lewis for about 2 months and then we got word that our plane was ready to take us to Kuwait.

Boots on the ground

We landed in Kuwait on May 18th and were shuffled from tent to tent getting our final paperwork competed. We lived at Camp Arifjan’s wonderful accommodations waiting to find out what the unit was going to do in support of the war taking place a few hundred miles north.

Rumors were abundant while our units sat in limbo about what missions were being given out and where they would take us. I spent a week at an unknown camp helping a dozen others from the unit take our vehicles off of a massive cargo ship in the port of Kuwait.

Eventually, the unit was handed a mission to move to Tallil Air Force Base Iraq located near the city of An Nasiriya. On June 6th at o’dark thirty we got the company together and drove our convoy of vehicles and equipment across the border.

The road from the border to our new home was covered by sand and the heat of the air and constant sandstorms made our journey take several hours.

No matter how much water I drank it just never seemed like enough. Our medics were giving IV’s to dehydrated soldiers on a daily basis

Tallil Air Force Base was a large dust bowl. We lived in tents separated by squads sleeping on cots we had ‘acquired’.

The heat was raising daily breaking the hundred degree marker and there seemed to be no escape from the temperature.

The tents had no air conditioning and I would awake dripping with sweat at all hours of the day and night. Being in Tallil the 341st Military Police Company was attached to the 220th Military Police Battalion. Which oversaw all missions from the border of Kuwait up north past Baghdad.

There was no immediate need for our unit so we waited for a mission. Every few days a few of the guys from my Platoon would take a trip into An Nasiriya for ice. We would drive through the populated city and make our way through traffic circles and crowds to a small warehouse that produced 10 pound blocks of ice.

The city wasn’t completely secured so while getting ice we would have security elements positioned in case we had to make a quick get away. The ice we bought from the Iraqi was the only available ice that we knew of in the area.

The soldiers would each pitch in 5 dollars to buy a block and we would load the back of a humvee with up to 15 blocks. We knew it was a rip off at that price but it was a small price for a cool bottle of water in 115 degree heat.

It was unknown where the water was coming from and there were visible pieces of “stuff” in the blocks, so we never used the ice in our drinks just to cool them down and then we would wash off the bottles of water before drinking from them.

Once the 220th Battalion figured out what the unit could do, we were sent out on relay sites north of the base. My platoon took over a relay site literally in the middle of no-where.

The MSR (Main Supply Route) ran next to the post but with the sandstorms it was barely visible during parts of the day. Our mission was to transfer radio traffic from relay stations north and south of us to their respective recipients.

Mostly we did radio checks every hour and talked to the daily convoys moving north as they passed. We met some of the local inhabitants and bartered for ice to be brought out to us on a daily basis. The weather was getting more extreme by the day reaching to 120 degrees with blinding sandstorms.

The battalion was notified of a water shortage and each soldier was allotted 4 bottles of water per day.

Our uniforms became stained with white streaks because of the huge amounts of sweat that was pouring out of our bodies. No matter how much water I drank it just never seemed like enough. Our medics were giving IV’s to dehydrated soldiers on a daily basis.

Our platoon spent a month at this site before rotating out with another platoon.

Other than relay sites I would also do convoy security missions from Tallil to Kuwait. These convoys were normally a four-hour drive one way unless a truck in the convoy broke down. (which was more normal than not.)

The drive in both directions was hampered by the elements and traffic accidents because some Iraqi wasn’t paying attention or driving too fast.

There wasn’t much of a threat on our route. The occasional truck would get hijacked; a couple of shootings; a lot of accidents.

There came a time when we would just drive one way each day. Dropping a convoy off in Kuwait and then spend the night in some transient tent and take a new convoy to Tallil in the morning. After a few weeks of convoys, I would rotate back into relay stations.

Occasional special missions would pop up that would take me to other places further north into Baghdad and other places but those were few and far between.

There were rumors of when the unit was going to be heading home some said September of 2003 others said January of 2004. People had there reasons for both.

I was happy doing the convoys to Kuwait and sitting at a relay site. But people wanted to know when we were going to go home. The message was passed down eventually that we would be spending a year boots on ground like we had all had in the back of our minds.

In late November we got a warning order saying that the 341st Military Police Company was going to move north of Baghdad to Camp Anaconda. By December 6th I was there.

Locked and loaded

Camp Anaconda was run by the 4th Infantry Division. Nightly incoming mortars into the base were responded to by a barrage of outgoing artillery. Our missions in Anaconda were the same as what they were down south. Convoy escorts, patrols of the supply routes and relay sites.

The threat in this area was greatly increased because of the number of insurgents working in the area. IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) were being placed all along the supply routes.

Insurgents used these devices to disrupt the convoys and kill the military and civilian contractors that drove through the region. We took over the mission from the 363rd Military Police Company out of Pennsylvania.

The 341st only had a couple of days to do ride-a-longs’ with the veteran crew so all team leaders and higher had priority on sitting in with them.

The first day on the road I experienced my first IED being detonated. Fortunately a patrol had located the explosive before it could be detonated on a convoy and they called out EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) to disarm the device. By disarm, I mean blowing the explosive in place.

The plume of smoke and debris was enormous, the shock wave went through my body like an invisible wall.

By the time we started taking over the missions everyone was getting the lay of the land. Some areas in our sector were friendly and some were not. I started off driving a normal fiberglass reinforced HUMVEE and within weeks of determined begging the company was given the Army’s new up-armored HUMVEEs.

These new trucks could take small arms fire and protect us from most roadside bombs. The older ones were getting peeled apart like oranges when they were hit by an attack.

The convoys I took would leave from Anaconda and go through the westside of Baghdad and south to Camp Scania near the town of Hilla. Over all it was a 6 hour round trip on the quiet days.

The roads and freeways were pocked by the roadside bombs that had been used for the last several months. The learning curve in this part of Iraq is very sharp.

Mistakes cost lives and that was something I was not willing to accept. Being Military Police we had the advantage of always having two SINGARS radios in the HUMVEEs.

One was a secured channel that would get changed weekly and was set to our Battalions frequency and the second radio was set on a non secure emergency frequency that anyone could access. (Like a 911 channel) The radio traffic that I heard here was drastically different from my experience in the south. Calls for MEDIVAC helicopters (Medical Evacuation) were a daily occurrence on the emergency frequency.

I was one of three teams that would secure one convoy of 20-30 supply trucks. There were about four convoys a day from our company that would move up and down the MSR (Main Supply Routes) if one of our convoys didn’t find the roadside bomb then other units would and call it over the emergency frequency to alert the relay stations and notify other convoys.

When an IED would be found the MSR would be shut down until EOD could arrive on scene. It was common to wait 2-3 hours for EOD to arrive and disarm the bomb. There were times that EOD would be so busy working on other explosives that we had to wait for 6-7 hours.

We had alternate routes available to us that we would sometimes take depending on the convoy.

We Quell the Storm, and Ride the Thunder

On February 20th I took my convoy and followed another one of our squads’ convoys down an alternate supply route. I heard a loud explosion and started looking around for the source and I couldn’t see it.

The radio started barking for people to check in with SITREPS (Situation Reports) on damage or a source of the explosion. It came over the radio that a vehicle in the first convoy was hit and it was hit bad. All free trucks started racing to the front to secure the scene.

As my truck turned the corner I could see the damaged vehicle was a white Chevy Suburban being driven by a group of American contractors and now it was smoking on the side of the road.

Most of the windows were blown out from the blast and soldiers were taking people out of the Chevy. Every MP team has a combat lifesaver that was trained in more advanced first-aid than what is taught in basic training.

My gunner was one of the combat life-savers that jumped out of the HUMVEE with his medical bag and went to the aid of the destroyed Suburban. All of the combat lifesavers started emptying their bags grabbing the bandages and gauze they would need.

The passenger side of the of the truck looked like swiss-cheese with one large hole the size of a soft ball near the back door. The passenger in the backseat was deceased with a large hole through his side from the shrapnel.

koka sexton iraq

The front passenger was missing a few teeth and had some head wounds but was able to walk. The driver had wounds on his hands from the broken glass but was fine other than that.

A large crowd started forming around the scene and some of the MP’s were pulling security while others worked on the wounded. Calls over the radio did no help, we were in a location that got no reception so we knew we were on our own for the most part.

A few of the MP trucks gathered the remaining vehicles in both convoys and began moving them to a more secure area. A patrol happened to come down the road while we were finishing up and we were able to hand over control of the scene to them.

The wounded were loaded into the patrol’s vehicles and I moved further down the road to begin linking up with the rest of the convoy.

A large crowd started forming around the scene and some of the MP’s were pulling security while others worked on the wounded.

Once the convoys were together and we took a moment to collect our thoughts, we combined the convoys and moved them south to Scania to drop them off and make the drive back to base.

Many of our convoys were attacked by roadside bombs or small arms fire during our deployment. We got better at responding to them as time went by.

Another mission we had was MSR (Main Supply Route) patrols. I would lead my team with a few other teams along our MSR clearing the road of obstacles and sweeping for IEDs.

Though our convoys were my main concern, we would be doing this task for any other convoys that moved through our area. When an obstacle was found we would call it over the emergency frequency and notify other convoys and the nearest relay station.

Many times we would have to close down the MSR for a half-mile in each direction because of a mortar round that was modified into a roadside bomb. I would have to play traffic police and make sure that military convoys were notified and made secure while turning around or hold all civilian traffic.

On MSR patrol we would also be tasked to respond to accidents found on the roads by convoys.

When the MSR was secured, I would bring the patrol off of the MSR and look for any people out of the ordinary and search for stockpiles of weapons.

We would find piles of mortar rounds hidden in farms or buried in shallow holes. A valuable asset we had were a few locals that we had gotten to know that would notify us of anything they had found or provide any information they had come across.

Working with the locals sometimes would reap the largest discoveries. The third part of patrols were to actually drive through known hot spots and gather intelligence or kick down a few doors looking for weapon stockpiles. Looking back, this may have been the most dangerous part of the job, but it seemed like the most rewarding at the time.

The final mission we would be tasked with was relay stations. My team would be placed at a small site either on camp Anaconda or on Camp Taji for a few days monitoring radio traffic from the emergency frequency and the local battalion frequency.

This task was not always an easy one. Guiding new units in the area on how to report a MEDIVAC request making sure all of the needed information was received was an educational process. Passing information of possible roadside bombs and reports of ambushed convoys filled the days.

The nighttime was quieter since very few missions existed at night. The communication from a few units running raids or responding to ambushes could keep us up all night like we were listening to stories around a campfire.

Incoming mortar fire would be called over the radio to alert the patrols and perimeter guards.

We’re not done yet

April 10th 2004 the 341st MP Co. was mission complete. We handed over the mission after training the incoming 172nd Infantry Company.

The beginning of April was the worst month we had seen. Insurgents made the largest assaults we had experienced. The MSR was completely closed down for weeks and the roads were littered with burning and destroyed vehicles.

That week an Apache helicopter was shot down in front of another platoon near Baghdad Airport trying to make their way back to Anaconda. All of the gear was signed over to the new company and we were waiting for a plane to take us back to the United States and on April 15th we got word that the unit was being extended for another 90 days.

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