Guarding The Pipeline

As I sit in my Army leadership course, wishing that I wasn’t being labotomized to comform to Army regulation and standard,  I am on the brink of five thousand reads on this blog.  Convenient timing considering I just had to write a 1500+ word essay on a personal experience with leadership.  Since I had to spend all day writing this thing, I figured I had might as well share it with all of you as my special treat for 5000 views.  The layout might sound a little strange but that is what is expected from the writing assignment, so nevermind that.  There are more sections that I have omitted based on operational security and the general concept of the section.  Quite frankly, it would just detract from the story as it is a retelling of why this was significant.  Regardless, thank you for all the shares, comments, and likes that you guys have done that got this blog to where it’s at.  Five thousand is still comparatively small, but for less than a year into it I’ll take it!

 

Introduction

When I first arrived at Camp Lejeune, I was welcomed into the platoon in a manner that by today’s standards would be considered hazing. The platoon members of 1st Platoon, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment had gotten back from the initial invasion of Iraq only a few months prior to then and were still coping in various ways with what they had just experienced. My platoon sergeant was in a school at the time and for the most part the platoon ran wild, but functioned amazingly. I went a month or two before having ever met my actual platoon sergeant. All the while, the senior members of the platoon told the rest of the new guys and I stories from the initial push and how his actions lead a lot of them to hate him. As time went on my interactions with him increased and while I didn’t like him as a person, he had given me no reason to not trust him as a leader.

Soon the unit deployed back to Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom 2 and our platoon sergeant remained in charge. During this time frame I was operating as the rifleman in my team. Our company ended up in a small town south of Baghdad called Iskandariyah. This particular mission had us securing an oil pipeline that ran adjacent to the city. There had been intelligence come down that the insurgents intended to disable to the pipeline and cut off resources. Our entire platoon was sent there with M1 Abrams assets. This was the first mission we had where the entire platoon would operate together to include the platoon leadership. It was also the mission that let all of the new guys know what a bad leader was.

 

Description of Events

We arrived in Kuwait in early July for our acclimatization time. I remember getting off of the plane and thinking that the engines, which were still running, were blowing some hot exhaust out at me. I stepped further away from the plane and realized that it wasn’t from the engines. The air in this place was comparable to having someone hold a blow dryer on your face. As we sweated it out during our acclimatization phase we had started receiving information on our level of where we were going, what we would be doing, what kinds of tactics the enemy had begun to use, and an overall frightening idea that we were headed into a place that was the wild west.

During our time working out of Forward Operating Base Iskan, the largest power plant in Iraq, we encountered the first wave of insurgency to hit Iraq after the invasion. We commonly were attacked with mortars, rockets and improvised explosive devices. Our base was littered with bunkers every twenty feet because of the frequency and accuracy of their attacks. They had become pretty proficient in mortar attacks in particularly. It was their favorite thing to attack us with and they had even developed tactics in this area such as launching mortars from the back of a truck while on the move and placing a block of ice below the round in the mortar tube and leaving it in place. It was even theorized that they had an insider giving them corrections based on which smoke stacks of the power plant were producing smoke that day. Their indirect fire proficiency was astounding.

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Our time was on a rotational schedule. We operated for a few days out of the local police station assisting them with missions and bulking up their security. We did FOB security and localized counter mortar patrols on our next rotation. Our last rotation before it all started over again was FOB beautification and downtime. However, from time to time, a mission came down that they would give to whatever platoon happened to be on rest cycle. Our rotation was as a platoon, but mostly to break up the weight of the op-tempo we worked as independent squads with minimal influence from the platoon leadership. The general concept was great, but like all great plans it often falls apart when implemented.

The lack of involvement that we were experiencing from our platoon sergeant was by his design. He knew all of his non commissioned officers disliked him and as such he made them essentially do his job for him. It was just another way to make them have to suffer while he was able to sit back and drink coffee. At the time, of course, none of the lower enlisted guys were aware that this was occurring behind closed doors. That was probably for the best for everyone because then no one would have wanted to do their jobs. The unfortunate part of this plan of the platoon sergeants is that we were actually able to get more accomplished this way, which made him look even better to the company. Ultimately, what we saw and what the unit saw were two different people. What the unit saw was the hard work of others for which he took the credit. That self absorbed leadership style grew worse. Our platoon sergeant’s head got bigger from the praise he received from the unit. His safety bubble got popped when the company sent us on a mission as an entire platoon, however.

We were sent to the east of the city where there was an oil pipeline. There had been actionable intelligence that the local insurgency had planned to demolish a section of the pipeline. This mission had a tier one priority. Thanks to our unit having completed our special operations capability training prior to deployment and the unit’s view of our platoon sergeant, we were tasked with this important mission to secure the pipeline and keep the flow of oil going. We convoyed out to the area with two M1 Abrams as escorts. An assembly area was established with the tanks being given opposing sectors covering open fields, which they could scan using their viewing systems for anyone approaching from a distance. Our platoon broke down into sectors in between with my squad facing south eastward. The platoon sergeant positioned his hum-v on the opposite side of the assembly area.

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It was hot. Miserably hot to be exact. The August sun beat down on us as we were out on our defensive positions with no shelter or shade. Meanwhile, our platoon sergeant sat comfortably in his hum-v with the air conditioning running. As we suffered he gave no notice. You can’t leave lower enlisted guys in the heat for long without them figuring out some way to try and keep themselves cool. Soon we were pulling out ponchos, tying them together, and tying them to whatever brush we could. We needed some sort of shelter out there. This was as good as it was going to get. We settled in for this being a long miserable mission.

There was an irrigation channel that flowed water out to the fields nearby. The water was pumped from run-off from the Euphrates River and was fairly brown in color. This certainly wasn’t any sort of water that you would want to drink. We had plenty of drinking water, thankfully, but it was all warm and wouldn’t do any good as far as helping us cool off from the heat. However, one of the guys in the squad came up with an excellent idea that helped the rest of us stay sane. He had experienced working construction in the hot and humid summers in Kentucky and had often had to rely on external cooling sources to keep from overheating on the job. Obviously, we couldn’t strip off our vests and go dive in the irrigation channel, we were expecting an attack.   However, what we could do to help out was dip our hands and forearms into the water. As there is some of the thinnest skin around your wrist, the cool flowing water is able to help cool the blood in your veins as it returns back into your body. It didn’t do a lot to keep us cool, but it did enough to lessen our misery. Meanwhile as we all sat with our arms dunked in this channel to keep from having a heat stroke, our platoon sergeant continued to enjoy his AC.

Night came and went, with the platoon sergeant only leaving his hum-v to urinate. Luckily it had cooled off through the night and we were feeling a little refreshed from the day before, but we still couldn’t believe that our platoon sergeant had left us all out there to fry. Our make shift shelters had all snapped their anchor twigs and the possibility of getting them set back up was fleeting as every new twig we tied them down to snapped as well.

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We stayed on guard through the morning, eating and hygiening in place and finally it had come down around noon that we were going to pack up and leave the area. Of course, everyone likes to rally up when they find out that a movement is about to happen. The squad leaders and tankers met with the platoon sergeant, who had actually exited his vehicle, and the rest of us started getting everything packed up. All of the commotion lead to us dropping our defenses just enough. While everyone was somewhat gathered together, the insurgents took the opportunity to put their mortar skills to work. We began taking incoming and everyone scattered. I dove under the Abrams that was nearby, but I could see through the tracks the platoon sergeant’s hum-v. He ran for cover next to it, but didn’t quite make it. He tripped. He tripped and hit his head on the bumper then crawled around to the side of the hum-v. I took a second to chuckle about his tripping despite mortars dropping all around us.

The mortar barrage didn’t last very long. I crawled out and started scanning for anyone who might have approached the area while we were ducked down. The squad leaders checked on their guys. No one was hit, thankfully. The tanks left to go attempt to blockade the area and keep the guys that just mortared us from escaping. After a bit we were told to resume packing up because we were still leaving. I had very little contact with the platoon sergeant the rest of the time we were out there, but a few of us had seem him trip and laughed about it on the side.

It wasn’t until we had returned to the FOB that we all gathered up for a sensitive item check and I noticed a cut on the forehead of the platoon sergeant. Likely, the cut was caused by his head making contact with the night vision bracket on his helmet. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. It wasn’t until later that I heard that he had put himself in for a purple heart, claiming that he had received shrapnel from the mortars. I mentioned to my squad leader that I had seen him trip and hit his head, and that his story doesn’t make sense anyways. How could he have had shrapnel hit his forehead when he was wearing a helmet? It didn’t make sense to me.

My complaint didn’t go anywhere. A week later we were all in formation as he received his purple heart. A few of us were angry that it was given to him by this point. It was a lack of integrity on his part and there was nothing we could do about it. It was infuriating to think that his little scratch was worthy of a medal. The same medal that is given to men who lose their arms and men who give their lives was now being rewarded to a guy who let his troops suffer in the heat and then tripped and hit his head.

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