A Farewell to Arms (Temporarily)

18 December 2003

“We stood over him and watched him take his last two breaths.” She paused and blotted her watering eyes.

“God, this tent is so dusty.” She sniffed, regained her military bearing, and continued her story. “We did CPR on him for 20 minutes, but it was no use. When the medevac chopper arrived, they pronounced him DOA.” The woman talking was a quartermaster platoon leader in her early 20s, describing an IED [Improvised Explosive Device] attack she’d been in earlier that week.

We were sitting in a big army tent in the middle of the Kuwaiti desert at a place called Camp Wolf. In a few hours, we’d be boarding a plane for the United States and a very welcome two weeks leave. The entire army in Iraq was represented in that tent.

There were soldiers wearing shoulder patches from the 1st Infantry Division [ID], 3rd ID, 4th ID, 1st Armored Division, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment [ACR], 3rd ACR, 82nd Airborne, and 101st Airborne. There were special operations folks, along with people from a variety of National Guard and Reserve units. There were whites, blacks, Asians, Hispanics, men, women, young, middle-aged, recent immigrants; all of us wearing the uniform of the American soldier.

One young cavalry lieutenant sporting a big black Stetson with shiny, brass crossed sabers on the front was retelling a story to his fellow troopers about how his humvee got shot up a few weeks back.

Fortunately for him, the round with his name on it simply passed through the bulky left sleeve of his desert fatigues. “It pays to be a scrawny sonofabitch every once in a while!” he exclaimed with a laugh, before spitting Skoal into a plastic Gatorade bottle.

Another kid, maybe 19 or 20, over in another group was quietly talking about how his MP section was hit by an IED, which flipped over his vehicle. The vertical steel plate that protects the .50 caliber gunner up top kept the vehicle propped up when it got turned upside down, thus preventing the soldier in the turret from getting crushed.

A bit later, I left the tent and headed over to an Internet café on the camp run by Indian contractors. There was a message from the mother of a friend of mine with the subject heading “She’s Okay.”

My friend is an army scout helicopter pilot northwest of Baghdad. Earlier that day she’d been shot down by an RPG. She and her co-pilot were able to land the bird safely and get away from it before a mob of Iraqis surrounded the downed prize. While the two Americans hid in a ditch, a kid on a bicycle rode up and spotted them. He just stared at them in wonder, while they put their fingers to their lips indicating that he should be quiet. Thankfully he was and sometime later, the two downed aviators were rescued by Blackhawks.

I walked back into the tent and told the story of the helicopter crash to the female quartermaster officer. “That’s amazing,” she said in an awed voice that seemed to have forgotten about her own harrowing experience. “No amount of money they’re paying us is worth some of the things we’ve had to go through over here,” she concluded. “Well, it’s nice that we’re getting some leave,” I pointed out. “Yeah,” the lieutenant replied, “I just hope we don’t miss anything big while we’re gone.”

A couple of days later, on a couch in a friend’s apartment on 38th and Park Avenue in Manhattan, I awoke to the news that Saddam Hussein had been captured. Later that day, I received an e-mail from my lucky aviator friend, back on duty and flying again in Iraq. “I bet you’re sad you’re not here,” she wrote.

I replied, “I really am.”