Captain Phil Esposito and Iraq- Part 3

National Guard vs Active Duty

Camp Buehring, Kuwait, January 28, 2005 – We linked up with 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry, 3rd Infantry Division out of Fort Stewart, GA. The unit was headed to Forward Operating Base Rustamiyah in southeast Baghdad.

They joined us, taking our convoy from 64 trucks to over 90, stretching a mile long. 3/7 CAV had a storied history. Two years earlier, in the initial invasion, it was the lead element of the 3rd Infantry Division’s charge across Iraq, ending in the capture of Baghdad.

Now, the Squadron was “light cavalry,” replacing their tanks with trucks. The combat veterans of the Battle of Baghdad were not happy “escorting” a National Guard unit.

Just out of earshot, they called the citizen-soldiers “the Nasty Guard.”

The active army thought the part-time soldiers of the National Guard were only half as good as “real active-duty soldiers.” Controversies over the Guard state of readiness and active-duty double standards for mobilized Guardsmen fed this impression.

The National Guard had an inferiority complex. They felt they got little recognition for their sacrifices when, on short notice, they were uprooted from the civilian lives to serve as soldiers. Both stereotypes had grains of truth.

Very Different Units

The two units were very different.

The new trucks of the 3/7 CAV had only a dozen miles and seemed to sparkle with freshness in the desert sun. They had modified Humvees with improved armor, high-grade steel plating, ballistic glass and .50 caliber machine guns.

The Guard had hand-me-down trucks with tens of thousands of hard miles. Armed with wielded scrap metal doors, Kevlar vests, sandbags and plywood we looked like Mad Max cars headed to a demolition derby. We had 6 gun trucks for over 60 vehicles.

Everything had was begged, borrowed and “found” at Camp Buehring. Despite running the same dangerous missions, incurring the same casualties the National Guard got antiquated equipment that was inferior to our active-duty counterparts.

Just across the border of Iraq, 3/7 CAV’s vehicles started to break down. One of the Humvees was left at Camp Cedar, our first stop. The batteries weren’t keeping a charge, the truck was losing communications.

Another 3/7 CAV Humvee had problems with its transmission. As we started to move again, another truck overheated.

Phil led a group of “Nasty Guard” mechanics over to the vehicle. The vehicle couldn’t drive. A Guard Humvee hooked a chain to the broken 3/7 CAV truck to tow it and we were off again.

Maintenance issues, morale problems and boredom were taking their toll on the “Liberators of Baghdad.” All our secondhand trucks kept on driving.

I heard the radio chatter of different voices. The dialogue was straight out of a war movie. “Bravo 1, sees a man on the side of the road.” Phil answers back, “Roger, Bravo 1.”

The constant babble of the early morning was now clipped and crisp. We were learning and getting better.

Camp Scania

Shortly after 4pm, we pulled into Camp Scania. We had been on the road for nearly 12 hours on what should have been a 6 to 7 hour drive. We were exhausted.

Scania had the ambiance of a landfill. It was a walled community, like a prison, but here the guards faced out instead of facing in. The camp was only the size of three football fields. One side of the base was the fuel point and the other side was the logistics center.

It existed only as a truck stop along MSR Tampa on Iraq’s main highway. American convoys stopped here to refuel, use the small PX, take a short shower, sleep and get on the road again.

No luxuries like candy bars or cappuccinos.

We pulled the vehicles into a vacant large and parked side-by-side. Some soldiers slept on vehicles, others on cots. We looked like a Gypsy camp spread over a field.

Our temporary parking lot took up a third of the camp. We refueled, set up cots next to our trucks to sleep out in the open, under the stars. We grabbed a quick dinner and settled in for another grueling day tomorrow.

I looked around and saw soldiers shaving, talking and heating coffee on small fires made from old MRE containers. We were here for a few hours so everyone was prepared to move on a moment’s notice. I sat on my cot with the sound of the engine ticking and cooling beside me.

The War Movie Experience

Phil came by. Without his helmet and body armor he looked small, almost frail, the exhaustion and the grime on his face made him look old. He had a big smile.

He said, “How do you think today went?” I smiled back and said, “It couldn’t have been better.” I was impressed, by Phil, by our soldiers and how well things were going.

I marveled at what we had done. We were here, in Iraq, we had seen it and done it. It was hard to believe. We felt like a group of salty, grizzled, combat veterans who had survived our first battle.

The truth was we had only driven 200 miles into Iraq, something that hundreds of thousands soldiers did every day. But at the moment we felt elated.

It was strange that a group of Guard soldiers would travel 4,000 miles to experience this. It seemed like a war movie, surreal and exciting but disappointing with boredom and heat.

We jumped from civilian life into the army. A quick shift from a daily life of families and a job, to uniforms, guns and Iraq. Now the comforts of home were long gone. Your ear had to reacquaint with the foreign language of acronyms the army loves. Sleeping out in the open with a gun made it real.

As our small parking lot got dark you heard the sound of deep, loud snoring of exhaustion.

We were 60 miles south of Baghdad. From Baghdad, we would head north for the last 85 miles to Tikrit.