behind the news

On the Ground: Riding to Tarmiya

Life in, and between, the bases
March 12, 2008

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.

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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.

The ride from Taji to Tarmiya should take about thirty minutes, but ended up taking almost two hours due to route-clearance issues. Along one particularly dangerous stretch of road that was known for having IEDs placed along the route, a few soldiers had to dismount from the Strykers and walk the sides of the road, looking for the telltale wires.

When the ramp finally dropped inside the base at Tarmiya, I found myself in a very different place than when I got in the vehicle. Here, as at other combat outposts, high concrete blast walls ring the base, but unlike Courage and IBA, which are out in the countryside, Tarmiya sits smack in the middle of the Sunni town of Tarmiya, which up until a few months ago was being described as “a mini-Mogadishu…Al Qaeda has the run of the place. They just live there, in the houses, armed to the teeth…”

Buildings rise above the blast walls on three sides of the JSS, while palm trees grace the fourth side. Like in all of Iraq, things are much quieter in Tarmiya than they were just a few months ago, but it is almost a different country than it was a year ago. Last February, two American soldiers were killed and seventeen wounded when the base was attacked by a multiple car bomb assault, followed by a ground assault with small arms fire, which the Americans beat back. More grotesquely, in May 2007, al Qaeda actually rigged a newly-built girls school in the town with explosives–building artillery shells into the ceiling and floors–but American forces prevented tragedy when they discovered the plot before the school opened.

But that doesn’t mean that the danger has passed. The day before I arrived, someone threw two grenades over the blast wall, both of which fell well out of range of the vehicles and soldiers. Specialist Jay Mitten, a soldier from New Jersey who joined the Army in hopes of speeding up his career as a police officer back in the states, has a theory that since Iraqis grow up playing soccer, as opposed to football and baseball, “Iraqis have shitty arms, so the guy barely cleared the wall.” A few days before the grenade attack, someone fired at one of the Stryker vehicles, but only hit the bulletproof glass that shielded the Lieutenant riding up front. If not for the glass, the Lieutenant would have taken two perfectly placed rounds to the head.

The soldiers at Tarmiya are housed in a large, one-story building that used to be a youth sports complex, and have converted two of the larger rooms into barracks, which were only just being equipped with bunk beds on the day that I arrived. Hot food was also a relatively new thing for the men at the base–they had subsisted on Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) for all their meals for a good part of their two month-old deployment. And unlike the other combat outposts I had visited, which had trailers equipped with toilets, the men at Tarmiya use open, outdoor wooden outhouses poised over 55 gallon drums around the corner of the building.

It was by far the most austere of the combat outposts I visited, but unlike Courage and IBA, Tarmiya sits right next to an Iraqi Police headquarters, and is staffed by an American Civil Affairs officer who deals with the police and some local governance and reconstruction programs. The police station sits across a small, empty lot that the company commander, forty year-old Captain Christopher Loftis, told me they used to have to sprint though to avoid sniper fire.

While security is much better in Tarmiya, in the coming days I would grow to understand the political and tribal squabbles indigenous to the area, which proved to be the most complex I had yet experienced.

Part One, “The Rejected,” is here.

Part Two, “Men With Guns,” is here.

Part Three: “Night Patrol,” is here.

Part Four: “The Suicide Bomber” is here.

Part Five: “The End of the Weapons Cache” is here.

Paul McLeary is a former CJR staff writer. Since 2008, he has covered the Pentagon for Foreign Policy, Defense News, Breaking Defense, and other outlets. He is currently a defense reporter for Politico.