Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Power of Dust

December 20, 2007

If you were going to put one battalion in your Rolodex, you might want to make it the Special Troops Battalion (STB). Also known as the Spartans, STB is a versatile and handy battalion. I accompanied their team of engineers on a trip to Samarra, where their assignment was to check the train tracks for barriers, and the berm for breaches.
Both missions required the use of some heavy equipment, so I piled into the Buffalo with Jerimy Burr, Ryan Garrity, David Ryan and Eugene Stonehouse, and we were joined by two tractor trailers, one hauling a bucket loader, the other a bulldozer. Together with our 2nd Battalion escorts, a convoy sent up from Brassfield-Mora, the base in Samarra, we made an impressive display of brute strength as we rumbled down the road. Until one of the trucks started to lose power and we had to slow it down to twenty, then fifteen, then ten miles per hour. And then we became slightly less impressive still when the truck had to be pulled by the very bucket loader it was meant to be hauling. But still, we made a lot of noise. The Buffalo, which sported enormous tires and was much more spacious than a humvee, did not win any awards in the smooth ride department.
By the time we arrived in Samarra, and traded our Charlie Company escorts for a convoy from Delta Company, the sun was going down, and it felt as though we had been bouncing around inside the Buffalo for days. The train tracks had not been used since the war began, and the idea was to clear the tracks so trains could begin running again. We went to the location where a barrier had allegedly been spotted, but the Delta Company soldiers could find nothing as they drove up and down the tracks. It didn’t make sense to continue searching in the dark, so we headed back to Brassfield-Mora for the night, where it was rumored I would be housed in the VIP trailer.
The VIP trailer! I pictured a spotless room with a bed that wasn’t half of a bunk bed, a basket of delicious snacks, a bottle of something bubbly, a bag of the latest beauty products, which I would not know what to do with, and a private bathroom. No staggering around in the dark looking for a female latrine. No walking into a male latrine by accident. My very own bathroom. Finally, I was being rewarded for my efforts. Getting the treatment I deserved.
Almost completely hidden with sandbags, the trailer was nicely set apart from the rows that housed the regular people. The door stuck, but I brushed that detail aside. Two soldiers, my hosts, and I entered the room. While it was not going to pass a white glove inspection, there was a cooler on the floor which was no doubt filled with lovely beverages. But I was in search of the private bath. There it was--set between the first VIP bedroom and a second, empty now as I was the only VIP present-- a shower stall, and a….well, there was a pipe sticking out of the floor where the toilet was meant to be, and in a wall another pipe with no sink attached to it. There was a lot missing from the scene. Still, I was excited to be in a somewhat cozy trailer, excited to relax at the end of a very long day inside the Buffalo.
Once alone, I went right to the shower, reaching out to turn on the water, anxious to soothe my aching muscles. Reaching out. But where were the taps? Where was the shower head? “Hey guys,” I shouted, “There are no fixtures. Where’s the water?” No reply. They had fled the scene. Leaving me with a bad case of helmet hair and no idea where the female facilities were. If there were any.
I set out with my toiletries and a tiny flashlight. The base was dark, very dark. And quiet. I saw no buildings that looked like latrines, male or female. Just the portable stalls that spring up all over every base. Fine in a pinch, but I was a VIP. I walked down a long path between rows of housing. None of the regular people were awake, apparently, so there was no one to guide me. Unlike Speicher, where there is no possibility of wandering off the base, I thought I probably could accidentally wander off this one. That didn’t seem like a good idea, so I turned around. I made a quick stop at the portable toilet, and then patiently rocked the door of the VIP trailer back and forth until it finally popped open and let me in.
The next morning, I ran into Jerimy Burr and Ryan Garrity at the DFAC (dining facility). They looked tired. Ryan said their trailer had not had any heat. They had definitely not received the VIP treatment, which I was beginning to think was overrated anyway. It would be another long day.
We met up with the Delta Company guys and headed back out to the train tracks. This time there was actually a barrier where there was supposed to be one, so the heavy equipment was put to use. Now the tracks were clear and it was time to see to the berm.
The berm was a dirt wall that the engineers had built around the city of Samarra to force all traffic coming and going to pass through checkpoints where each vehicle would be searched by Iraqi guards, thus curbing insurgent activity.
There were breaches in the berm. One had clearly been created to allow vehicles to pass through, but the others looked like areas that had been worn away by foot traffic. Nevertheless, the bucket loader and bulldozer were fired up, and seconds later clouds of dust engulfed the area.
The berm appeared to be made more of dust than dirt. Half of what the loader lifted seemed to blow away. It was strange to think that something as difficult to contain as dust could be used to contain a city. But, except for a few breaches, the berm seemed to be working. The markets in the city were busier. The residents felt safer.
How much dust would it take to make the whole country safer? I think there might be enough here. And the engineers from the Special Troops Battalion would be the men to move it. But if I am going to be invited to watch, I am going to need a shower.

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