Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Crowley Chronicles, Part 1; Tales from a Marine Historian in Iraq

i'd like to introduce ltcol tim crowley, USMCR. ltcol crowley is one of two Marine field historians in iraq right now, documenting II MEF operations there. i was doing that job this time last year. what we do primarily is interview Marines and sailors (and soldiers too) operating under Marine command to capture their experiences and views. we also collect documents and artifacts that illustrate the experiences of Marine units in combat. ltcol crowley has been sending back perdiodic accounts of his life out there, and has given me the thumbs-up to post them here. it's a long post, so we'll see if it works...

June 4, 2005


Greetings to all of you who are on the far side of the planet – or maybe it is I who am on the wrong side of the earth. Due to popular demand I will try to produce a newsletter every week (give or take). This one will start with the story of my missing seabag in case some of you did not hear the horrid details of that ordeal (the enclosed story may not be suitable for young children – Michael can handle it):
Once upon a time, a long, long time ago I boarded a helicopter from Camp TQ enroute to Camp Fallujah, Iraq. The flight was in the middle of the night and consisted of two sticks (groups of Marines) and two helos. All our bags were piled onto a pallet and driven out to the helos to be loaded. In the dark and under the immense winds from the rotors, bags got tossed into the wrong helos. After an enjoyable flight over a star lit Iraq the journey came to an end. At Camp Fallujah the bags were unloaded in the dark and the helos continued on to their next destination. As Marines began to claim their bags it became clear that I was in trouble. For a few minutes I couldn’t even locate one of my four bags. Finally some Marines located three of my bags – the forth was no where in sight. A call was put out to the helos and the other LZ’s (landing zones) to keep an eye out for my well marked seabag. Since there was little hope of seeing the bag again that night I caught a ride to mainside (my bus had already left) and found an air conditioned tent to sleep in. I froze since my sleeping bag was in the missing bag along with new $110 running shoes, $140 electric razor, $200 IPOD and speakers…….. Most of my worldly possessions were in the bag. Anyway, the next day passed with no word so around 0001 (12:01 AM) I caught a ride to the LZ where I was told my seabag had turned up. It turns out that the crew chief on the helo spotted the bag after they took off and he decided to help me out, he threw my seabag out the back hatch of the helo. Ordinarily this wouldn’t have been a bad thing except he missed the LZ. My bag landed on a hill and rolled down. Members of a Marine security force on patrol found the bag. It came very close to being blown up as a suspicious item. Having been reunited with my seabag I am currently living happily ever after. And that concludes the story of The Flying Seabag.
I’ll hit on some of the highlights from each day:
May 30 – During evening chow they have movies playing in the chow halls. On this night they had American Pie playing. For those of you who have never seen the movie it is extremely funny filled with sick teenager humor. In the chow hall you have quite a mixture of clientele from Privates through Colonels, civilian contractors, and Iraqi and other foreign workers. During this movie everyone came together as one. Many had never watched the movie and I would have to guess that Sadam would have executed any Iraqis who watched the film while he was in power. What made the movie even funnier was all the Iraqi workers laughing and looking around at all the Marines laughing. When you have 300 or so in a room laughing it can make for a very interesting meal. I had good fortune with me today as I turned in my dirty laundry today for the first time. A fire ripped through the part of the laundry facility destroying all the bags that belonged to people with last names beginning with “A” and “B”. The fire was brought under control prior to the “C” pile going up in flames.
May 31 – The same as above but with American Pie II playing during dinner. On this day I decided to get my first hair cut at Camp Fallujah. There are many different choices from Marines with real night time barbershops set up, to Marines cutting hair for free in tents, to barbershops run by the PX, and the closest to where I live is a barber trailer run by Turkish barbers. When I asked Major Mooney, whom I work with, he only had to say that he doesn’t like oversized large hairy men touching him but continued to say the Turkish barbers do a good job (I think I heard him snicker as he walked away but I wasn’t sure). The stage was set and as with many things in this country even the simplest things can be quite different than what you expect! This haircut was to be no exception. After taking the chair it was quite obvious that the barber I had did not understand a single lick of English. However, it is not too hard to understand how a Marine wants his hair cut so the mad barber went to work. I had flashbacks to a play my family saw on Broadway in New York City when I was a youngster – Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (I believe the title is close to that which I remember – the barber in the play killed his clients and sold their flesh as meat pies). At the conclusion of the haircut he proceeded to give me a massage, neck, shoulder, arms, and then he had me put my face on the counter as he pounded my back with his sledgehammer like hands. Now I understood what Major Mooney meant – but this adventure wasn’t over yet. He dipped a swab in alcohol (in Kuwait they had rubbed alcohol all over my head after the haircut, not sure why they don’t put the alcohol on the razor and scissors instead to sterilize them). Now this pad looked awful brown and I was thinking hopefully the alcohol is strong enough to kill the germs on the pad. Next thing I knew was the barber had lit the pad on fire and he was hitting my ears with it in order to burn off any ear hair (not that I had any)! For those of you who have not experienced being hit with a burning torch a dozen times in each ear let me tell you – you are quite lucky. This trip was still far from being over, the next weapon of choice was scissors again and this time he came after my nose! Good thing it is very hard to surprise or startle me or he may have ended up with a few bullet holes in him. As I raced out the door I learned the cost for a visit to the Turkish chamber of horrors, a whopping $4.00. When I tried to give the manager a four dollar tip he didn’t think I understood the price. I was willing to give them all my money to make it out alive. I will get photos when I work up enough courage to return.
After the barbershop I decided to take part in something much safer and I joined 1st Platoon, Fox Company, 2nd Military Police Battalion for a convoy to Camp TQ escorting sixty civilian trucks full of items for the base. The convoys travel at night since it is much safer with few civilians out and about. We departed at 1900 (7 PM) armed with nine heavily equipped vehicles. Lots of .50 caliber and smaller machine guns with each vehicle plus our M-16 rifles and 9 mm pistols. Hummers have come a long way in the past few years. Some are equipped with air conditioning, GPS, and high tech computers that show routes and positions of friendly forces. Not to mention the seat cushions are twice as thick as they used to be. Our NVG’s (night vision goggles) are state of the art and you can see every snake and rock as you drive along. The base is only about 35 miles away however the route we took was over 100 miles to avoid trouble spots. The route consisted of everything from six lane highways to small dirt roads that I couldn’t imagine all the eighteen wheelers being able to traverse. Our lead vehicles travel with their lights off scouting the route and they are also responsible for pushing all other traffic off to the side of the road. When we travel we own the roads. All civilian traffic has to stop and pullover and if they don’t they have a very bad day – worse then a visit to a Turkish barbershop. This trip went smooth and we saw numerous other military convoys. The night is alive with military vehicles driving everywhere. At almost all of the bridges we have “Guardian Angels”, tanks or heavily armed vehicles that protect the area from above. Outposts stretch along the main highway, each within sight of the next to ensure safe passage on the MSR’s (main supply routes). The Army hassled us at the gates of Camp TQ because they need to search all the civilian drivers before they can enter and they wanted two Marines to baby-sit them. We had to refuel and then escort another sixty civilian trucks back to Camp Fallujah and it was already past midnight. Finally two Marines from TQ showed up to help the army.
In my vehicle I was accompanied by Sgt Cuyle (vehicle commander), Cpl Carlson (driver), and Cpl Ramirez (gunner). They had packed a cooler full of my favorite Mountain Dew, water, and Snicker Bars. As we took a bathroom break and refueled the vehicles we celebrated my promotion since it was now June 1st. After about a ten minute break at Camp TQ we were back on the road.
Earlier in the day an Army convoy had been hit by an IED (improvised explosive device) on the route and we ran into a team of Army personnel taking photographs of the site in the middle of our route. As they looked around another IED about thirty feet away was discovered with a timer and trip wire. Our convoy cleared the location as quickly as possible to get under way. We passed numerous other large convoys throughout the drive. The trip concluded without incident at 0500 (5 AM). After a couple of hundred miles on the road I was happy to hit the rack at 0600, a shower had priority. The Marines from Fox Company are Reservist based in Washington state.
June 1st – Woke up at 1330 (1:30 PM) and headed to work. The highlight today was the same as May 30 – 31, this time they showed American Wedding in the chow hall. People tend to sit in the chow hall a lot longer when a good movie is playing. The chow hall can seat approximately 800 and there are at least three main chow halls I know of on base. Some remote units have their own facilities.
June 2nd – Two big events today! Carolyn and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary and I was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel by Major General Johnson, Commanding General of USMC forces in Iraq. He was very nice and friendly. He gave me an incredible “General’s coin”. Each Commanding General has special coins made to present to special people or during special events, this was the first coin I ever received. I’ll have to email photos of the coin, it is a real treasure. My friends who attended the promotion were all jealous. Major Mooney and Colonel McDade from MCCLL (Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned – I work in their tent), LtCol Brett Hamilton a DEA Special Agent I know from the DEA Academy, and LtCol Rich Anderson who was the active duty I&I at MP Company in Minneapolis when I checked in were all in attendance as well as members of the General’s staff.
June 3rd – I was up at 0430 after going to sleep around 0100 (hopefully everyone is catching onto how military time works). I haven’t been sleeping much but I’m not tired. My body has adjusted to the heat and long hours. At 0500 3rd Platoon, Fox Company, 2nd Military Police Battalion picked me up for a convoy to Abu Ghraib Prison. Our mission was to escort four bus loads of detainees to a releasing facility near Ramadi. When we arrived the detainees were not ready yet which afforded us the luxury of eating breakfast at the prison. The dining facilities were very nice and I was happy to dig into a plate of pancakes and waffles. I was sure I wouldn’t eat until lunch or maybe even dinner. This was a welcomed surprise. Once we were well fed and we had the buses loaded, off we went. The prison complex is massive covering a stretch of over a mile. Today was really my first good view of the country in day light. The culture is a mixture of Suburban driving well to do people who contrast the peasants whose only transportation is a wagon pulled by a mule. The roads are lined with vehicles constantly breaking down. Cars break down quicker then the military can clear them from the MSR’s. I had commented that if you had a tow truck you could become a millionaire, a Marine corrected me by saying no one would have money to pay. That was evident when I saw my one and only tow truck. It looked like it was in need of a tow truck just to get around. I saw many sheep and goat herds along the highway. There were some of the smallest shacks (homes) and shack stores I have ever seen intermixed with grand mansions. The larger houses are full of large columns and decorative tiles. Many of the children and some adults would wave as we raced by. Speed is our best friend on convoys. It is amazing that a convoy that consists of numerous Iraqi buses or trucks can keep up with our Hummers and 7-ton trucks racing along at 65 mph. As an American it is a comforting feeling to see all our tanks at the bridges and the military outposts stretching along the route. Once you get off the MSR’s it is a different situation. The presence of numerous children and people in some areas helps give a feeling of comfort to many Marines. A mile down the street the senses become even more alert when you notice the area is void of all civilians. On this day we traveled through a well known sniper area and a location where an Iraqi convoy had been attacked the previous day. If you look at all the stats for the convoys that have been hit you will see a very tiny percentage were Marine Corps. The insurgents try to hit soft targets and our convoys are hard targets. One platoon of Marines armed the way we travel is more then 100 insurgents would like to tangle with. The Army convoys are often hit even though they have many of the same weapons. Their gunners are usually sitting down in the vehicles and not up top manning the heavy guns. Our gunners man the heavy machine guns and swivel around to face danger areas. Our discipline and tactics prevent attacks.
Once we arrived at the release facility we learned that the Iraqi Army who runs the location did not show up to work. We left the four bus loads of detainees to be released with a translator, a couple of Marines, and two plain clothes Iraqi policemen. The convoy completed the mission without incident and we arrived at Camp Fallujah at high noon just in time for chow. Chow is always a main event. My crew this time consisted of SSgt Equilin (vehicle commander), LCpl Caldwell (driver – he stands about 6’7”), and Cpl Martinez (.50 cal gunner). During the convoy one of our vehicles did fire a flare pop up at a truck on the road. The Marine felt the driver had not pulled off the road fast enough, the convoy commander – Captain Hughes, did not feel the same way and he stressed the importance of making sure the civilian drivers see the convoy coming before taking such actions. Once again it was a long convoy but very much worth the leg cramps.
June 4th – Today or should I say yesterday since it is now 0010. I was supposed to meet Major Mooney at the weight room this morning at 0600 but I had warned him I wasn’t looking forward to it due to the time. The convoys wear you out. When my alarm went off at 0530 I hit my internal alarm like Kramer uses. Well the alarm didn’t go off in my head until after 1000. At least I got Mooney to go to the gym. Today’s big events consisted of me getting my computer back from the communication Marines who make sure it is clean. This allowed me to hook up to the network and to get a new email so I will not have to go through the internet. My new email address is: I attended the CG’s weekly staff meeting where all the key issues are discussed and briefed to the General. There are actually two Generals there since the 2 star has a 1 star assistant. I sit right behind the General who is seated at the head of a huge conference table that seats approximately 20 plus senior staff members. Today the General had a large coffee mug to rinse down the red Twizzlers he was eating. I wanted to take a picture of this but felt it might be frowned upon during the meeting. Maybe next time.
One of the biggest problems here is water loading. I drink so much water, juice, Gatorade, and a few Mountain Dews everyday I spend half of the day going to the bathroom. A minute ago I went out and as I made the walk wondering if I would step on a cobra, scorpion, or camel spider an even greater fear came to mind. I do not fear any creature that slithers, crawls, or walks on this planet but then I heard a noise that strikes fear into mankind (no Carolyn, not the Holy Name Bluejays) but a helo flying overhead and realized at any moment a flying seabag could be coming to get me.
Hopefully this gives you all a little flavor of what life is like here at Camp Fallujah. Our facilities are top rate for being in the middle of Iraq and I am thoroughly enjoying the adventure. It’s not quite as fun as fishing with Carolyn, Tim, and Michael at lake Wallenpaupack but it’s close – minus the family I love and miss, and the boat, water, fish, sub 100 degree temperatures, and all the wonderful things the good old USA has to offer.
Many people do not realize the real reason we are fighting over here in the Middle East – if the President did not take the war here we would be fighting it in the United States. Episodes like September 11th would become common place; you would not be able to go out to dinner or to a movie without wondering if a bomb blast would tear the place apart. The insurgents and terrorists would have seen us as weak and vulnerable. They would have been more then happy to strike us again and again on our own soil. We are not only fighting for a free Iraq but to protect our own way of life as well.
On that note let me wrap this up because as slow as I type it is now almost breakfast time. Good night to all. It was 114 degrees in the shade today.

Semper Fi,

LtCol Tim CrowleyField Historian, USMC


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