By Jack Mandaville I want to make a few of my...
The Best Mistake of My Life
I wrote this while smoking a CAO Brazilia.
I lay in the prone. The Earth leaches heat from my body. My frigid fingers grip my M-16. Private Kim lies next to me on the ground. We hide in the woods, one meter away from a dirt road. It is 1994. Our squad waits in ambush for the enemy.
It starts to drizzle.
I sink into misery. Nobody ever told me anything. How long would we wait? What should we bring? What was out there? I always seemed to be the last to know. I hated my life.
I tap Kim’s foot with my boot.
“Kim,” I whisper, “Dude?”
Kim responds in a mild Korean accent,”Yeah.”
“Are you awake, man?” I ask. “You’re squinting.”
“No, my eyes are naturally like that.”
“I’m so cold, man.” I whisper. “I fuckin…I don’t think… I don’t think I can do this, man. I think I made a big mistake.”
“Tobacco, shut the fuck up. Don’t you fuck up this ambush.”
I flex my fingers. I shiver in my BDUs. Tears well up in my eyes.
I hate this job and I’ve made the biggest mistake of my life.
It’s February, 2007. I’m back in New Jersey. Private Tobacco is now Staff Sergeant Tobacco. I stand in front of 14 wide-eyed trainees as I read them an operations order. Soldiers didn’t join the Guard to watch Power Point presentations, they joined to get dirty, and my training platoon of split-op high school kids got dirty every drill weekend.
I summarize the mission, “We had a local national come in and offer some intel on an arms transaction. IPs are going to sell captured weapons back to Mahdi Army and the deal is going down in about an hour. First squad moves to the intersection of Routes Michigan and Blue Hen to overwatch the road for the arms transaction. Sniper team moves to the corner of Routes Michigan and Yankees to overwatch the road and report on vehicle traffic. Sniper team, you need to SP in about ten mikes to make your time hack. Snipers, your call sign is Shepard. I am Doghouse. First squad is Beagle.”*
The soldiers scribble down information on their notepads. They plot points on their maps. I finish with the operations order and watch proudly as Private Tarquinto, the sniper team leader, and Private Volk, the first squad leader, start their pre-combat inspections.
The sniper team leaves the briefing room with a minute left to go before their start point time. First squad is still performing their inspections.
My radio chirps as the sniper team radios in their start point report, “DOGHOUSE, DOGHOUSE, THIS IS SHEPARD. SP TIME 2000. FOUR PAX. PATROL LEADER PRIVATE TANGO, OVER.”
“Roger, over.” I speak into the radio.
Private Volk finishes up his inspections. “Ready, sergeant.”
“Don’t look at me, it’s your squad.”
He nods and leads his squad out of the briefing room, through our drill hall and into the cold February night. I follow the squad, acting as their mentor and referee.
The squad moves through our armory’s parking lot. I hear the men slap magazines into their rifles and SAWs as they cross into the high grass of our gigantic training area. Although I am only a few feet away from Private Volk, he calls me on the radio to report his status.
“DOGHOUSE, THIS IS BEAGLE.”
“SP TIME 2010. TEN PAX. PATROL LEADER PRIVATE VICTOR, OVER.”
It’s just cold enough to suck outside. It’s the type of cold that tricks you in to not bringing gloves and then reminds you of your boneheaded decision an hour later when you can’t feel your fingers. I’m not wearing gloves and I turtle my hands inside my GorTex jacket when I’m not using my radio.
The squad moves out toward their objective, compressing into a file when they reach the tall grass. Our uniforms become moist from the frost on the grass as we move. The cold isn’t so bad now, but it will bite us when we stop. I look around, ensuring that the team leaders position their men correctly. We halt. Private Volk checks his map and quietly calls up his team leaders. The soldiers discuss their position in hushed voices, come to a consensus and move out again. I don’t see the team leaders pass any information down to their teams and this annoys me.
“DOGHOUSE, DOGHOUSE, THIS IS SHEPARD, OVER.” The sniper team calls over the radio.
“Go for Doghouse,” I say.
“IN POSITION. OVERWATCHING THE ROAD, OVER.”
“Roger, break.” I say. I key my mic, “Beagle, you got that?”
The sniper team is now in position on a hill overwatching Routes Michigan and Yankees for any traffic headed our way. If they looked hard enough to the south, they could probably see first squad bumbling through the grass.
We stop again and Private Volk checks his map and compass. Something is wrong. I approach Private Volk.
“Is everything ok?” I ask.
“Roger sergeant,” Volk says. “I think we fucked up our pace count. I don’t know how far away we are from Michigan.”
“Alright,” I say. “This isn’t the fucking Gay Pride Parade. Let your team leaders know that something is wrong. The only person you have to impress is me, and you don’t impress me right now. So if you are afraid of looking stupid it’s too late. Now that being said, move on. Talk with your team leaders. Make sure your team leaders are pushing down information. If you’re confused, imagine how one of your riflemen feels right now. What assets do you have? Think. What can you use? You want a hint? You’re not the only people out here. Think about it.”
I back away from Private Volk and watch him think for a moment. He calls his team leaders over and consults with them. One of the team leaders removes his night vision goggles.
Private Volk keys the mic on his radio, “Shepard, this is Beagle, over.”
“BEAGLE, THIS IS SHEPARD, OVER.”
“I need you to tell me how far I am from the objective. Do you see my inferred beam?”
A team leader holds his night vision goggles above the tall grass, pointing the goggles north and turning them back and forth.
“GOT IT. WAIT.” A moment passed. “I SEE THE BEAM. YOU’RE ABOUT ONE HUNDRED METERS SOUTHEAST FROM THE INTERSECTION OF YANKEES AND MICHIGAN.”
Good job, kid. Now you have to fight the battle.
Private Volk leaves with a team leader to conduct a reconnaissance of the objective. The remaining soldiers lie in the grass, the dampness soaking into their uniforms. Now the soldiers are wet and cold, but I don’t hear a single complaint. Much has been said about the Myspace generation of soldiers, but the soldiers who surround me seem much tougher than I was thirteen years ago. I hunted in the night for college money. They hunt in the night with a purpose.
My radio crackles once in a while. Shepard reports vehicles driving up Route Blue Hen, but none of the cars turn onto Michigan.
Private Volk returns. He consults with his remaining team leader. The squad picks up and moves into an overwatch position near the objective. The men set up to ambush the arms deal and the waiting begins.
I hang back and use my cell phone to call the bad guys. I tell them to start the show. A minute later, I hear Shepard over the radio.
“DOGHOUSE, THIS IS SHEPARD, OVER.”
“Send it, Shepard.”
“WE HAVE A HUMMER TURNING OFF BLUE HEN ONTO MICHIGAN. BREAK. LOOKS LIKE IRAQI POLICE, OVER.”
“Roger, break. Beagle, did you copy that?”
I lie down with the trainees. The soggy grass soaks into my uniform and chills my skin. The trainees focus on the road. They grip their weapons with determination. They are ready.
A Hummer drives up the road and parks at the intersection about twenty meters in front of us. Two Iraqi flags, hastily printed out just hours before, lie taped to the side doors. Two men in the blue shirts and brassards of the Iraqi Police climb out of the Hummer. Cadre from my unit play the Iraqi Police, but they look real enough to my trainees through their night-vision goggles.
“DOGHOUSE, DOGHOUSE, THIS IS BEAGLE, SALUTE REPORT. OVER.” Private Volk whispers over the radio.
“Go Beagle,” I whisper.
“TARGET VEHICLE IS ON THE OBJECTIVE. ONE IP HUMMER. DRIVER AND PASSENGER WEARING IP UNIFORMS. BOTH CARRYING AK-47S. THEY LOOK LIKE THEY ARE WAITING AROUND. HOW COPY?”
“Roger, wait for the transfer before you engage.”
We wait longer. I start to shiver. I think about getting up, and as their instructor, it is my privilege to do so, but I don’t want to screw up Private Volk’s ambush.
“BEAGLE THIS IS SHEPARD,” the radio cracks.
“ONE BLUE PICKUP TRUCK JUST TURNED OFF BLUE HEN ONTO MICHIGAN, OVER.”
One of the IPs lights a cigarette. The other IP fiddles unsafely with his rubber AK-47, playing the unprofessional policemen like a professional thespian. The blue pickup truck pulls up. A man in a makeshift bed sheet dishdasha and headdress exits the pickup truck and greets the IPs with phony ”derka, derka, derka” Arabic. I think its funny, but to the privates looking through their night vision, the effect is definitely surreal.
Private Volk’s voice whispers over my radio, “DOGHOUSE THIS IS BEAGLE. THAT BLUE PICKUP JUST PULLED UP. ONE UNARMED MALE LOCAL NATIONAL IN A MAN DRESS. HE IS TALKING WITH THE IPs, OVER.”
I key my mike and whisper back, “Roger, out.”
The men negotiate for a while. One of the IPs takes out a thermos. I hear one of the team leaders whisper to his men, “It’s tea…get ready, they sealed the deal.”
The IPs walk to the back of the hummer and lower the tailgate. They reveal a wooden crate. One of the IPs removes an artillery round from the crate.
Private Volk blows a whistle. The squad opens fire. Ten men lean into their weapons and shoot up the target. The IPs and the buyer don’t stand a chance. The actors look genuinely shocked for a moment before falling down in a pantomime of death.
The cold air turns hot with excitement as the men sprint across the objective, call out their limit of advance, and set up their security elements. Special teams peel off to search the trucks and the bodies. A timekeeper shouts at thirty second intervals, “Thirty seconds! One Minute! One Thirty!” as the men search. The squad should spend no longer than two minutes searching the objective. The men do well, gathering valuable intelligence and shouting back and forth as they search. Team leaders consolidate ammunition and water amongst their men. The soldiers work like they are firing on all cylinders and I couldn’t be more proud.
At the two minute mark, the men set phony demolition charges and fall back into the high grass. Everybody is out of breath and sweating as they scamper away from the objective.
I get a call on my radio, “DOGHOUSE THIS IS BEAGLE, OVER.” Private Volk sounds out of breath.
“Send it,” I say.
“LACE REPORT GREEN, AMBER, GREEN, GREEN. TWO IPS KILLED. ONE LN KILLED. TWO AK-47S AND ONE IED KIT DESTROYED. RETURING, OVER.”
“Roger, break. Shepard, return to the armory, good job, over.”
First squad forms up into a column for the walk back to the armory. The men are tired, but there is a sense of accomplishment that carries through the squad like an electric current. The men know that they did well.
We approach the armory parking lot and Private Volk watches each soldier clear his weapons.
The morbidly obese form of Staff Sergeant BitchTits, my company’s readiness NCO, stands in the parking lot of the armory by the smoker’s station. He is smoking a cigarette, drinking a McDonalds coffee and watching my men return from the patrol with mild curiosity.
“Hey Bitchtits!” I yell as I walk over to him. “I though you and McDonalds were supposed to see less of each other?”
He takes a sip of his coffee. “She keeps calling me, man. How come everyone’s wet?”
“We were patrolling,” I say. “You know, outside. Like infantrymen.”
“Hey, that’s a pretty good idea. Could I come next time, like as a medic?” BitchTits asks.
Before I can answer, my men walk past us and enter the armory for their after action review. Many of the men flash a look of contempt at SSG BitchTits. I should have corrected them, but I didn’t. They were wet and tired and he wasn’t. I let them relish in their superiority for the moment.
I pat SSG BitchTits on the back. “Aah, it’s your world, man. I’m just livin’ in it. I gotta’ give these kids an AAR. See you, dude.”
As I walk into the warm armory, I realize that one of these kids may have learned something tonight that will keep them alive in a couple of years. I didn’t need to be out in the cold. Those night patrols were my idea. Hell, I didn’t even have to be in the Guard. I had a nice house, a cushy software job and more money than I knew what to do with. Yet I kept chasing that moment years ago when I punked out on an ambush and cried from the cold. These night patrols in the evening chill around the Jersey shore were like a Catholic penance for me. My absolution found in the eyes of my men as they recounted their mission and discussed how they could do it better.
I made the best mistake of my life joining the Army.
And I love my job.
*I know that I compressed a 5 paragraph OPORD into a couple of sentences, but I’m using artistic license for speed here.