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Posted on Nov 1, 2003 in Stuff We Like

There and Back Again: Warfare HQ Reports from Operation Iraqi Freedom

By Don Maddox

Sanitation is a constant problem in the desert. Burning it is the most effective way to combat disease and keep the critters away. Still, it’s a big chore and it never goes away. This was one of our more innovative concepts…

One can’t be too picky in the desert. Although this might look a little bizarre, believe me when I say it’s like the Hilton compared to digging a cat hole every day! As long as you have some toilet paper you can deal with almost any crisis, and many a crises there was. A high percentage of deployed soldiers eventually end up with a form of mild intestinal problems. It’s not as bad as dysentery, but anything that speeds dehydration can become serious in the desert heat. At any rate it’s not a pleasant experience and can be difficult to get rid of. I had a bout of this that lasted for nearly a month.

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In addition, soldiers have to take daily medication for malaria. Central Iraq has a lot of swamps and marshes, thus the insect population is huge. This is something that was new to me as I didn’t have to put up with this where I was in Desert Storm. You can’t go outside at night without bug spray or you will just be feeding the mosquitoes. There are also a lot of scorpions, snakes, and spiders to contend with. Our tent was once invaded by a colony of the most voracious ants I’ve ever encountered. These things were the size of a bumble bee and live in great hives that they burrow deep into the sand. We tried several innovative techniques to get rid of their hive, but apparently they dig in far too deep to be easily driven off. We eventually discovered what had drawn them into our tent in the first place: a lone Scittle…

The spiders were perhaps the most talked about critters. Several nearby mechanics kept a camel spider they had trapped in a large plastic tub. It was named Mouth for obvious reasons. This spider would eat other camel spiders in a matter of minutes, legs and all. It also ate scorpions for breakfast and didn’t seem to be afraid of people. By the time I left, Mouth had grown to be about the size of a small hamburger.

Of course, what report from the desert would be complete without a camel picture. I’ll take a horse any day. Camels are mean, stupid, and they stink too.

Here you can see how the dust effects the equipment. This Apache attack helicopter is starting to show signs of the wear. The dust destroys the engines along with the rotor blades in a very short period of time with proper maintenance. It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep sophisticated equipment like this in good order and there are no quick solutions to the problem.

Many helicopters assigned to our task force were shot up during the assault on the Karbala Gap. Two pilots were captured and at the time I was not optimistic that we would ever see them alive again. It was a great relief to everyone that they were returned in one piece. It’s a testament to the quality of all the soldiers assigned to Task Force 11 the the helicopters were so rapidly repaired. At this point I should also mention one other group. There are many civilians who work under contract to the military performing a variety of critical tasks. Without these personnel life would be a lot harder and they don’t often get the thanks they deserve.

Ground vehicles are certainly not immune to mechanical problems either. Here you can see an M1 Abrams main battle tank being towed by an M88 recovery vehicle.

The desert can take on a surrealistic appearance when the sand storms are in full effect. Wind is a problem here too as anything not tied down will quickly be swept away never to be seen again. It is quite common for soldiers to actually get lost going from tent to tent when the storms are at their worst. You have to be careful not to wonder off outside the perimeter and get shot by accident.

Not everything is ugly in the desert. Here is a nice photo, but it’s rare to see this type of thing.

A UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter. This is the workhorse of the US Army and the replacement for the UH-1 Huey. The Blackhawk became the primary utility aircraft of the Army in the early ’80s and many are nearly twenty years old now. It’s still the best aircraft of its kind in service.

The desert is a dangerous place for many reasons, the enemy is only one of them. This picture is what’s left of a helicopter. I’ve actually seen much worse than this.

Many of the Iraq military building that are now occupied by coalition forces have murals like this. Some of them are truly bizarre political statements. I saw one in Baghdad that had a burning US flag being trampled by a triumphant Saddam. Others depicted the "righteous" invasion of Kuwait and the war on Iran.

Here is an M1 tank advancing near an Iraqi village. Landmines are the biggest threat to heavy armor like this, and the Iraqi Army left plenty of those behind. Thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed or maimed by landmines since the war ended. It will likely take years to clean up the mess.

Lieutenant General William Wallace speaks to the soldiers of Task Force 11. No, he’s not singing…

Here is a really nice shot of ground vehicles and a CH-47 cargo helicopter in Iraq. These aircraft played a huge part in getting the supplies up front where they were needed. No other current Army aircraft can haul as much or as heavy a payload as the CH can. I got to see a fair piece of Iraq from the back of one of these.

Yours truly with a destroyed Iraqi tank just north of Baghdad. In case you’re wondering, I didn’t destroy it…

You can see a large clamshell maintenance tent in the background.

This article represents only a very narrow perspective on a very large conflict. There were many different types of units that participated in the operation and these units tended to be scattered across the desert in various living conditions. All things being equal I can’t complain much. Many other soldiers faced far more danger and harsh conditions than I did. As for me, my part in this operation was a small one and far less glamorous than my earlier days in Operation Desert Storm. Nevertheless, an army is a team effort and I was glad to be able to contribute my share.

by Don Maddox
Many photos contributed by Captain Randall Hoberecht
21 October 2003

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