This month marks the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. For many of the journalists who have covered it, it has been the story of their lifetime, but we’ve nevertheless seen coverage of the war slip off the front pages over the last few months. While there are still plenty of reporters risking their lives doing great work in Iraq, much of the political, social, and economic complexity of today’s war seems to be getting lost in the election-year crush, even as the war continues to be a major issue in the campaign. This series is CJR’s attempt to add a little bit of context to the whole, while digging into stories that don’t always make it into our morning newspapers. This is Part Six in an ongoing series.
Even with all of it’s high-tech communications and optics equipment, there are times when riding in a Stryker vehicle is like sitting in a sensory deprivation tank.
Unless you’re the vehicle commander up front or one of the two rear gunners, who stand partially exposed out of the top of the vehicle, your only chance to see what the world outside looks like is if you’re lucky enough to be positioned to see the .50 caliber machine gunner’s video screen, which he rotates back and forth to either side of the road, scanning for IEDs.
Ensconced inside this metal bubble is how I rode from combat outpost Courage to combat outpost IBA, and then from camp Taji north of Baghdad to Joint Security Station Tarmiya, the third company-sized combat outpost I would visit in Iraq.
After spending almost a week at IBA, I accompanied a convoy back to the big base—Camp Liberty—where the 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team is based. Accommodations at Liberty are luxurious compared to life at the combat outposts. Part of the sprawling Victory-Liberty-Baghdad Airport megabase, Liberty features a massive PX where you can buy everything from DVDs to cases of non-alcoholic beer to flat-screen TVs. The dining facility, looks like an airplane hanger full of food stations staffed, as is everything, by foreign contractors and guarded by Ugandan security contractors. The dining facility offers a massive array of options, from burgers to various ethnic foods, and comes with a long salad bar and ice cream station. If that isn’t to your liking, across the road there are several trailers with fast food outlets like Pizza Hut and Burger King for that greasy taste of home.
All this only adds to the resentment that infantry soldiers have for “Fobbits”—slang for the soldiers who never leave the big, Forward Operating Bases (FOB). It’s telling that while sitting in the mess tent one night at outpost IBA, several soldiers were comparing how much weight they’ve lost since getting to Iraq, while at Liberty, I once heard two soldiers talking about how much weight they’ve put on since their deployment.
But it’s not like the soldiers out at the combat outposts never get to enjoy the relative comforts of the big bases. The infantry companies stationed at Courage and IBA send platoons back to Liberty on a regular basis for a day or two of refitting, sleeping, haircuts, and gorging on greasy food.
This rotation back to the big bases was how I got out to JSS Tarmiya, about thirty kilometers north of Baghdad. From Liberty, I caught a short helicopter ride north to Camp Taji, where I spent a night near an artillery battery (the 2nd Battalion, 11th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd SBCT, 25th Infantry Division) firing illumination flares that rattled the walls of my room.
The next morning I was placed in the hands of 1st Lieutenant Matt Ives, who was taking his platoon from Taji back to Tarmiya—home of the 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division. There was a bit of excitement before I left Taji however. While waiting to leave the dining area one afternoon, word started trickling back that someone had—just minutes before—lobbed two rockets at the base, and they landed about fifty meters away from the DFAC near the PX. One round hit the trailer containing the beauty salon, leaving a hole in the side of the structure, while the other landed nearby. One soldier got a few scrapes, but other than that, no one was seriously wounded. It was another example of how, even at the big bases, the war is never far.