“… And we want to remind you to stay seated with your seatbelts fastened until the seatbelt light has been turned off. Thank you for choosing Delta Airlines as your flight plan needs… Oh and thank you for your service to the world and especially the United States. The current temperature here in Kuwait City is 102° Fahrenheit. The current time is 0100 hours…”
– Kuwait –
I shook Timmie Mangrum awake at this. Timmie fell asleep from all the alcohol that we had consumed in Ireland, and had had his head-phones on. Timmie is my best friend and was my team leader for this excursion into combat; my first, his second. I trust him with my life as well as he trusts me. Timmie and I have a relationship that is not easily made; our friendship is forged in the fires of combat, pressed and molded by Jesus Christ. He takes a minute to wake up, and does not seem to be happy that we have entered into the pits of hell. He and I had planned as much as we could to make sure that we were not on the baggage detail that was to take place once the plane came to our final stop in Kuwait City. I popped my ears with my finger and asked him what was next. He just shrugged his shoulders and muttered something under his breath that was not audible to anyone near him, but I got the hint and waited until he woke up completely to ask him questions.
“Kenny… Where the hell are we?” Timmie grumbled, he knew full well where we were, but I knew that he needed reassurance because this is not a place anyone ever wants to come back to. I never wanted to come in the first place. I cannot imagine going twice. Timmie, fully awake now starts to sing in a way that mimics an Arabic prayer:
“♫Atthayyato Lillahe Wassalawato Wat Tayyebato Assalamu Alaika Ayyohan Nabiyo Wa Rahmatullahi Wa Barakatoh Assalamu Alaina Wa Ala ibadillahis Sualaiheen Ashadu An La ilaah illal Laho Wa Ashadu Anna Mohammadan Abdohoo Wa Rasooluhoo…♫” I am sure Timmie had no idea what he was singing, but he did it to lighten the mood of all the younger soldiers that were on their way to combat for the first time. One song to the next song, each song quickly getting more obscene yet funnier: “♫And we’ll all be dead by the summer of 2008… Hoorah, hoorah – bombs and blood…♫” The song goes on with more specifics; the whole cabin at this point is dying with laughter, and we are all feeling pretty good about our safe arrival into a combat zone.
Soon our mood all changes as we start to file out of the plane in a single file line; carrying our carry-on luggage off of the plane. The very first thing that I noticed when getting off of the plane was the extreme heat. Immediately as the heat hit my face I felt like I had stepped into a pizza oven with fans blowing the heat over our bodies. ‘Why the hell would anyone want to live in this God-forsaken land?!’ was my initial thought out of the plane. It was hot, very hot!
As we got off of the plane it was apparent that Timmie’s and my plan was not going to work; the baggage detail was everyone on the plane. Everyone that was on the plane had between three and four bags which meant everyone was expected to move three or four bags, sort them by platoon, and then move them onto the buses that were provided for each individual platoon. This would have been all fine, well, and dandy had our platoon sergeant decide that that was not work for a non-commissioned officer (NCO) to do. Our platoon was about sixty percent NCO’s – this did not include Timmie or me, we each had held the title of NCO at one time or another in our military life. The platoons get each of their individual bags placed into their perspective places and start to form up in platoon formations. I stood next to Tim in the formation because I was his gunner and he was my truck commander (TC). We looked at one another and started wondering out loud to each other where the NCO’s were. Soon all of the soldiers that were left were wondering where all of the NCO’s were. Timmie and I were the highest ranking individuals in the formation. I whispered into Timmie’s ear: “Hey man you should probably stand up front of the formation – you are highest ranking here…” Tim looked at me and sneered. Timmie hated being in the limelight. He knew that if he was up front in charge that he would be tasked out to do something that he didn’t want to do. He did it anyway.
“MANGRUM!!!! Where the hell is SSG Lee?” Before Timmie could answer to the bellowing of First Sergeant Walter Kuzmin, he was already laying into Timmie to send one of the members from third platoon to go get him, and not only him, but all of the NCO’s.
Timmie looked right at me, shook his head, and gave me the look that said – “I hate you.” But he decided against sending me, “Opie, go get SSG Lee… Tell him that the ‘Kuz’ is looking for him and all of the rest of the sergeants from third platoon.” Before Timmie could finish his sentence Brandon Cunningham (Opie) was off and running. Five minutes later, Opie came running back from the buses and behind him was a line of non-commissioned officers. The next ten minutes we heard the first sergeant chewing out the NCO’s in my platoon for making our entire lower enlisted do all of the work and not helping.
The ride to Camp Buehring, just north outside of Kuwait City and south of Baghdad, Iraq, took about three hours. The whole trip there was in dead silence and not one person spoke because of everyone being extremely tired by working on the bags, and the NCO’s being physically retrained by the first sergeant. We call this being “smoked;” which brings on a whole new meaning in 100 degrees plus weather.
The weather in Kuwait was hot and dry. It was almost so hot that you did not want to move around too much for fear of sweating out all the water that was being put into our bodies by the force hydration at our own hands. We got used to a routine while we there in Camp Buehring; since it was a staging area, there was really nothing that we could do as far as missions were concerned. Our mission was to keep from getting bored. One day Timmie, my driver Jason Sobol, and I decided that we would all go to the PX (Post Exchange). As we were there I hear my first name being called out, “Kenny… Kenny… Kenny Lee!” I remember thinking who was calling me by my family name? I turned around and there was my cousin Trevor, whom was stationed in Germany last I knew. Trevor and I are about five years apart in age, but because we are family we were still close. The Holmes’ are a very close family; we get together at the very least twice a year – usually five times a year. So seeing Trevor in Kuwait was excellent for us because we had already missed the Independence Day celebration that our family has. Trevor, a military pal of his (that later was killed in action), Timmie, Jason, and I made plans to get together later that night for supper. We ate Taco Bell, just like old times! Trevor and I said our goodbyes after supper and then moved on to our perspective spots on the base. I did not see Trevor again until after both of our tours were done and we were both out of the service.
Kuwait, as I said earlier, was very hot. In the morning we did physical training (PT) because ninety degrees is a heck of a lot better than 110° in the afternoon. We did PT as a way of keeping our bodies ready for what was to come in Baghdad; however, our platoon sergeant had other ideas. He wanted us to do PT three or four times a day. The idea for him was for us to stand out from the rest of the company as “the best.” Really, honestly, there was no reason for this because none of us cared; however, it is not us that matter, just the one in charge. One day as we were running our daily two miles in the heat, a buddy of mine, Scott, fell out of the run. Scott Williamson was not known to fall out of runs; he was what we referred to as a PT stud; however, that day he was having a reaction to the heat. Scott had a previous hot weather injury; which makes people more susceptible to more heat injuries. Instead of the platoon sergeant making him go rehydrate and rest, he let Scott do what Scott wanted to do: resume working out. Scott now has heat induced epilepsy, and cerebral palsy on a regular occurrence. Later that same day some of the lower enlisted were talking back to some senior NCO’s and the platoon sergeant, SSG Lee, had had enough of the disrespect. He called all of us into the command point (CP). There he started chewing everyone out…
“What the $&#* is wrong with all of you dumb @$$#$?” SSG Lee yelled at us. The obscenities were nothing to us; we had heard worse, and sure that we would hear worse later. “I am sorry to all of you that have to listen to this that have nothing to do with it, but you all need to hear this, just in case that you are thinking about back talking a NCO, or Officer. You all need to learn that we earned our respect…” ‘No you did not,’ I was thinking sarcastically. “…The more all of you act like kids I am going to treat you like kids! Everybody on their feet!” We all stood up and started looking around to each other; we were thinking that we were going to be physically retrained. SSG Lee had other plans, “SIT DOWN!” We all sat down; “ON YOUR FEET!” We all stood back up; “SIT DOWN!” Again we all sat down, and once again: “UP!” We stood up again. “DOWN…” At this point another NCO, Sergeant Collins, stands up and yells at the most senior NCO in our platoon, “I am a combat VETERAN. I am decorated. I have awards – What the hell are you trying to prove to us? That you have authority and that you can be an ass?!” He was fired up, but there was not an individual in that CP that was not already on the same page and thinking the same thing. This platoon sergeant was on a power trip! This stopped SSG Lee from continuing on chewing out the rest of us and he focused on Sergeant Collins. The rest of the day everybody was talking about how SSG Lee tripped on power and started yelling at us; valid he may have been, but no one wanted to be treated like a child. Two days later we were on a military flight to Baghdad.