4,116 Days (Or Thereabouts)
Editor’s note: With Iraq in the news once more, bringing back memories for many of those who served there, we asked veterans of OIF to get in touch to share their stories and tell us what they remember most about their time in the country. We’ll post some of these responses periodically. This one comes from Marine Corps veteran Michael M. McCloud.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been over 11 years since I first touched down in Northern Iraq as part of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). I clearly remember sitting in the Ready Room of the USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7) watching on TV as my fellow countrymen (and Allies) crossed the Iraqi border on 20 March 2003 in the initial assault of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). As a young Marine Captain, it was tough watching my fellow comrades going into battle while we were sitting what seemed a million miles away in the middle of the ocean. Knowing that the big fight had started and that we weren’t present was a kick to our pride and left us itching to get into the fight. But that is probably how young naïve lads have felt through the ages, and is nature before you’ve experienced the SNAP of the bullet as it zings past your head or the ear shattering CRUMP of indirect fire landing within meters of your position.
Fortunately for us at that time, we wouldn’t have to wait long to lose our naïveté. We soon received orders that the 26th MEU would proceed to a position directly off the coast of western Turkey, near the city of Iskenderun. From there, we would launch a flight of six CH-46E helicopters and six CH-53E helicopters. Our flight would proceed roughly 465 miles, without aerial refueling, over Turkey and into northern Iraq. Our first stop would be for fuel, and then it was on to Arbil, Iraq. From there, we displaced to Mosul where we conducted operations out of the Mosul airfield on the southern edge of the city. This became our home for the next couple of weeks until the Army’s 1st Infantry Division showed up. We then retrograded back to the ship as the 26th MEU was being re-tasked to proceed to the west coast of Africa to intervene in the civil war that had erupted in Liberia.
A little over a year later, I would be returning to Iraq with the 24th MEU for operations in Al-Anbar province. The former Iraqi Air Force airfield Al-Taqaddum (just outside of Fallujah to the west) would become my home for the next seven months. As part of the CH-53E detachment, my life would become that of a night owl, since most of our missions were flown during the evening hours. Viewed from above, the desert of western Iraq at night was a scene of both immense beauty and horror. On a high moonlit night, the western expanses of the Iraqi desert were pristine and almost untouched by humankind except for the occasional Bedouin camp we would come across. Then there were the lights of the big cities or the shimmering Tigris and Euphrates Rivers with their large palm groves bordering each side. Of course no one ever forgets the tracers signifying rounds being directed at you or the squawk of the missile alert system signifying a potential inbound missile (usually it was someone’s stupid backyard fire that set the system off, nearly causing heart attacks to the crew).
Then there was the horror of flying into the large dark expanse of the Iraqi desert on a no moon night, never knowing if you were going to run into a sandstorm 100 miles out into the middle of nowhere. I was flying in a section of helicopters on the night when one of our sister squadrons lost a CH-53E in an accident that killed all 31 people aboard. I remember sitting in the A/DACG (Arrival/Departure Airfield Control Group) at Al-Asad as that ill-fated flight taxied onto the runway and departed to the west. Hearing the call come over the radios about an hour later that a helicopter had gone down out west sent chills down my spine. I knew some of those people. It could have been us. All kinds of things start swirling through your mind. Eventually, month after month of night time flying even starts to feel like a nightmare. What if we get shot down in the middle of nowhere? What if we fly into a sandstorm? What if we get vertigo? These are just some of the realities that we flyers faced on a daily basis.
Then there’s the indirect fire (IDF). You could never sleep well. Between the heat and the constant IDF attacks one never truly slept well. A rocket once landed where I had been standing just several minutes beforehand. I was lucky. Two of my fellow Marines were not. Both took shrapnel and had to be evacuated to Germany and then home. Twice we took incoming IDF while I was sitting on deck in a turning helicopter, while getting fuel! I sat there in ignorant bliss inside the rumbling and whining beast until someone on the radios coolly told us we were receiving IDF and it was time to “please unhook from the fuel hose and takeoff.” I remember the young Lance Corporal during one of the attacks running up to the helicopter and unhooking the fuel hose so that the helicopter could take off and the “fuelies,” their job done, could get away from that big fat fuel bladder. It must be a strange experience, passing the hours in a war zone by sitting next to what is essentially a massive fire bomb waiting to go off.
One of my last most memorable memories of Iraq was sitting inside the Air Force C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft with two of our helicopters loaded below thinking to myself, “My God, what’s taking these Zoomies so long? Get off the ground already…I don’t want to get blown up by a rocket sitting on the flight line waiting to go home! What will the CACO (Casualty Assistance Calls Officer) say to my family? ‘Sorry, he got creamed while sitting in an airplane less than minutes away from takeoff.’” I guess that was my first real experience of what it feels like to be a passenger rather than aircrew onboard an aircraft in a combat zone, realizing you’re not in control of what the monkeys in the cockpit are doing. (In their defense, they were probably in the exchange getting their OIF “I served” t-shirts and a cold soda. You know us pilots, gotta get the souvenirs and gedunk—snack foods for you non-naval types—whenever we get the opportunity!)
So here I sit, something like 4,116 days, later thinking back to that day in March 2003 and asking myself if I think it was worth it? I watch the current news coverage of the crisis engulfing Iraq, and all of these places, faces and names start swirling though my head like a dust storm kicking up in some large expanse of the Iraqi desert. I know it wasn’t that our fighting men and women got it wrong; after all, many left their blood, heart and souls in that country. It’s the troubling thought that their sacrifices were for nothing. Maybe their sacrifices would have meant something if the politicians and the brass hadn’t squandered it away. Thinking about it now, maybe all the smart guys and gals up top would have been better served by taking the counsel of one captured Taliban fighter, who said, “You have the watches. We have the time.”
Michael M. McCloud is a former Major in the Marine Corps, in which he served from 1996-2010.