by Babatim / Free Range International
I couldn’t take being out of the game anymore, so off I went to touch the elephant.
I had just cracked open the first beer of the afternoon when I heard the rockets coming in. Wise now to the ways of war I stayed in my lawn chair on the deck of what was once a salt water pool where Saddam Hussein’s sons kept crocodiles that were fed with unfortunates who had crossed them. I was too far away from cover to make a run for it and in less time than it took to write this they hit.
A thunderclap sounded from the American army camp next door and I watched a plume of dust and leaves shoot upward. The soldiers were upwind of us, so the cloud of leaves and dirt started drifting over the wall towards the giant vat of chicken curry the Gurkhas were preparing for my going away party that night.
“FOOKING HELL MATES STAND FAST” bellowed my 2IC, a short unassuming Welshman who was famous for his undercover work in Ireland. “THAT’S 50 QUID WORTH OF CHICKEN DAMN YOUR EYES COVER THE POT; COVER THE POT QUICKLY LADS.” The 2IC was galloping around the pool to head the Gurkhas off at the pass as they scrambled for cover. Being a Welsh lad he was slight of stature and appeared malnourished. I had asked him about that once, sending him into a 30-minute harangue about the British, but I couldn’t understand most of what he said. I gathered he looked malnourished because as a kid he had subsisted on chicken parma and chips, which I have since learned was mystery meat hamburgers and french fries.
Our project manager, a Rhodesian (they don’t like to be called Zimbabweans so we called them Zims) who had been in the Sealous Scouts, started yelling at us just as two more rockets hit home; one inside the other American army camp next to us, and the other somewhere behind in an apartment complex outside the Green Zone. Those impacts were downwind so I paid them no attention, focusing instead on tracking the debris field that was heading in slow motion towards our giant pot of curry.
The 2IC had gotten his hands on three of my Gurkhas, including the Gurkha of Rap (his kill number, which were sewn on his uniform, was 123 and he was prone to rapping “I’m Gurkha 1,2,3 you better listen to me. If I see the flag black you know I’ll attack…;” he couldn’t find a rhythm for kukri so he didn’t get far with his rap but he worked on it constantly) rallying the men back to the bubbling cauldron. They quickly stripped off their uniform jackets and fashioned some sort of web with them that covered most of the pot as the debris field lost momentum in the wind and crashed down onto of the curry cauldron.
“GET A FOOKING SIEVE MATE FROM THE FOOKING DFAC,” the 2IC yelled to no one in particular; the Gurkha of rap sprinted off to the KBR DFAC (the dining facility was abandoned by the Kellogg Brown and Root cooks who deathly afraid of rockets) to find something to get the leaves and dirt out of the cooking pot.
The PM stalked up and started lecturing me in his sharp British schoolboy voice which meant he was pissed.
“Mate your supposed to set the example for the men and yet here you sit in the exact spot the last rocket hit, the one that killed four of your men mind you, as if the threat can be ignored.”
“Boss (that’s me being passive aggressive; Zims don’t like being called boss) I am in the exact spot of the last impact because we both know the Iraqis cannot, in a million years, hit this spot again. It’s math boss and I’m a Uni (college in commonwealth speak) grad who understands math.”
“The chance they can hit the same spot twice with a rocket – it’s a math problem that involves pi or something and when you’re working with pi the numbers you’re working with big numbers right?”
“Mate are you mental?”
“No boss, I just know math. It’s the same thing for lightning striking in the same spot…it just doesn’t happen.”
“Mate do you know how many times lightening strikes the same spot on your Empire State building in New York?”
“Do I want to?”
“0n average 25 times each year; the record for repeated strikes stands at 8 times in twenty minutes.”
The PM scowled at me and headed back to the CP to get a roll call. I smiled and thought about how much I was going to miss this.
I had been in Baghdad for just five months, entering the fray in the usual way for contractors back then. I had sent out my CV to every security company I could find on the net after watching my best friend in the Marine Corps interviewed on Fox News. I couldn’t take being out of the game anymore so off I went to touch the elephant.
Two days after sending my CV out I got a call from London; “Mate do you want to go to Iraq or Afghanistan”?
After learning that the Afghan gig was voter registration and the one in Iraq was guarding the American embassy, I chose Iraq. That job included arming authority and paid more.
“Can you come to London the day after tomorrow mate to sign your contract”?
I could and did. Six days after sending my CV out to the security world I was in a C-130 that had launched out of Kuwait and was corkscrewing down to slam onto a runway at BIAP (Baghdad International Airport).
There were no customs to clear back then so contractors were met by drivers from their respective companies on the tarmac. My driver was a huge Fijian guy who, like most Fijians, had a perpetual pleasant smile. He grabbed one of my bags and walked me to his SUV where his brother was waiting. The brother (who also had a huge smile) reached into the back seat and came out with an AK 47 and three magazines.
“Here you go mate” he said as he handed them over. I took them and looked at the brothers who were watching me like a pair of smiling hawks.
I locked the bolt to the rear, looked down the barrel, felt into the chamber for any excessive grit and ran the action a couple of times. I looked over each magazine for dings or deformaties, stripped a couple of rounds from them to check the tension on the follower springs, loaded them back up, seated one in the rifle, loaded it and put it on safe while placing the other two in my high speed 5.11 vest pockets. The vest was made for this don’t ya know.
The older bother remarked “I think you’re one of the good ones maybe.” I had no idea what he was talking about. He then handed me two M-67 fragmentation grenades telling me they may come in handy. I looked at them saying “you’ve got to be shitting me,” which made them smile even more. I took the grenades, checked to make sure the thumb safeties were attached and the pins secure; both the spoons were taped down so I took that off before putting them in my cargo pockets.
The brothers looked at each other and nodded. I was sure the reason for handing me the grenades had little to do with an actual threat but I wanted to be ready just in case.
We mounted up and started on my first of many trips down route Irish; at the time the most dangerous road in the world. We did not have armored vehicles on this contract, so the driver had his window down and a Browning pistol in his left hand. His brother had his window down with an AK pointing outboard. I put both the back-seat windows down so I could cover both sides of the vehicle. I asked why we didn’t have brand new armored SUV’s like the other companies had; the younger brother turned to face me, “they’re target’s mate, death traps and you should never roll in one if you can avoid it.
Once past the security check point the driver put the throttle down and did not let it up until we entered the Green Zone. I had passed my first test by not being a whanker and knowing how to load an AK 47. Standards were not high in the industry back then.
The contract called for third country national guards (in our case Gurkhas from Nepal; most of whom were not really Gurkhas) and supervisors who could be American or Commonwealth citizens. We had Canadians, Brits, Welshmen (who claim not to be Brits) a couple of Irish guys but mostly the expats were South Africans and Rhodesians. I was one of two Americans.
In like flint
The South Africans ran the show, and they are an impressive lot. On my first morning a couple of them took me to the public affairs area to introduce me to two guys he said were retired Marines. This was my second test; they had several previous new joins who claimed to be prior American military but were so clueless about things military they were run off as frauds.
When we arrived at the PA shop it turned out one of the two retired Marines was my first rifle company commander. I had been a good infantry lieutenant; my old CO was excited to see me, I was in like flint. He had already told the SA guys about requesting a DD-214 from former American military but the Brits running the show would have none of it. Getting bodies on the contract was how they got paid, and they didn’t want to slow their process down for a second.
Doing a good job on the Baghdad American Embassy contract was not difficult. The supervisors supervised or trained; the posts were manned by our Nepalese who had an internal chain of command that did all the detailed work of watch rosters and shift rotations. We had cell phones issued to us with US numbers (NYC area code) that allowed friends and family to call without incurring overseas charges. We had a large armory with weapons that had been gathered up by the military the year prior where I found a H&K G3 (7.62 x 51mm) with a folding stock. The markings indicated it had once belonged to the Pakistani army; how it got to Iraq was a mystery.
Having an American cell phone number was great fun because we’d often get unexpected calls from the states. I was on the range one Friday morning when my friend ‘The Big Guy’ called. We had been instructors at Front Sight, a firearms training center outside of Las Vegas. It was Thursday evening in the US so I knew he had probably been drinking before deciding to give me a call. I signaled the guys on the range pointing to the cell and telling them it was my buddy from the States and he’s on the piss. They moved in close and started cranking off rounds and yelling as I connected the call on speaker mode.
Me sounding tense: “Lynch”
B.G. said: “ Hey man….what the hell is going on”… instant concern in his voice.
“… a little busy here brother hold on.” I put the phone on a bench and cranked off three or four rounds yelling, “somebody shoot that prick…I’m on the phone damnit.”
I picked the cell up and said in a calm voice: “Hey brother, little bit of an issue here but how’s it going back home”?
B.G., clearly upset: “what’s happening Tim…holy shit are you Ok”?
Me: “Of course brother….hold on a sec..” I dropped the cell and all of us started shooting and yelling as if we were repelling a human wave attack in Korea circa 1951. After shooting our magazines dry I picked up the cell. “We’re Ok Big Guy how are things in Vegas”?
But he wasn’t on the line, his wife was and she was pissed. “What are doing Lynch, where the hell are you”?
“We’re at the range and um…..just having a laugh because ummm….”
“You’ve got the big guy crying for Christ sakes Lynch, why would you do that to him? He’s been scared to death for you and you think it’s funny to do this to him?”
“Bonnie, love, we’re guys…this is what we do to each other when we care.”
“Bullshit Tim (at least she called me Tim) that’s it, you’re on a 2-week time out and the next time the Big Guy calls you’d better not even think about pulling another stunt like this.”
We were rolling; laughing so hard it hurt but I felt bad…for about 3 seconds. The Big Guy didn’t call again until Thanksgiving Day; I was walking out of the DFAC and as I connected the call a 122mm rocket slammed into our camp knocking me on my ass. We took casualties, lots of them, so I went into rescue mode and left the cell in the dirt where I dropped it. The State Department soon turned them all off anyway after the costs they had racked up made national headlines.
I sent the Big Guy an email telling him I was OK and attaching one the the news reports about the rocket attack. Mrs Big Guy still put me on a year long time out.
A valuable lesson
Around this time (the end of 2004) being outside the Green Zone became problematic for expats so our project manager put together a team to start bringing folks inside the wire. The various entities; engineering firms, other security companies, our companies country team, NGO’s etc…. couldn’t pay us for the service but the PM knew how to barter. Our armory grew, our ammo stockpiles grew, we accumulated ample stores of free booze and beer and the Nepalese were never without a goat to butcher up for curry. Some things are better than money in a combat zone.
While doing this work with the South Africans and Zims I learned a valuable lesson on how to work in a hostile environment while avoiding the stupidity of an avoidable gun fight. At some point in every move we would run into a massive traffic jam. As soon as we stopped moving shooters would dismount to create a buffer zone, free of unknown pedestrians, fore and aft of our vehicles. The first time I did that I was paired with a South African named Jerri who was one of the more experienced (I learned later famous) former 32 Commando veterans.
We exited our vehicle moving onto a packed sidewalk, Jerry looked at me and said “lose the body armor mate you look like a Robo Cop, take a spare mag and put it in your back pocket”. I did as requested and walked back to the side walk. Jerry said “now smile man; In South Africa we always say be friendly to everyone you meet but always have a plan to kill them.”
I shot back “you don’t say that, General Mattis says that… why are stealing lines from my favorite Marine Corps General”? He replied they had always said that in South Africa and the line was stolen from them which I wouldn’t accept so we started arguing.
But we were laughing too which was the point and Jerri said in a low voice “see all the people smiling at us mate? They’re relaxing because we have big guns but don’t seem inclined to use them. Smile, keep talking to me and relax, confidence is a language all humans understand got it?”
It was true, the people walking down the street towards us smiled when they saw us teasing each other an laughing. “What are you looking for” I asked Jerri who never really looked at me when he turned his head to talk; he was obviously concentrating on what was showing up in his peripheral vision.
“We’re looking for any chap who glares at us mate.”
“What do we do then?” I was laughing still while asking this.
“I walk up and glare back, you cover our back; the lads will see us and reinforce if we need them and our glaring asshole Iraqi friend can lose face by backing down or go to guns. Makes no difference to me mate.”
“Remember this Timothy (they called me that to annoy me or when they were dead serious…just like my Mom) they have to make the first move. It’s bad for morale if you shoot a civilian who didn’t have it coming. Your General Mattis teach you that mate?”
The sidewalk was crowded, the people seemed amused at the two infidels who were teasing each other and laughing. Nobody gave us the stink eye that day or any day we were in the red zone walking our vehicles through a traffic jam.
Just after Christmas the PM told me that I’d be heading to Kabul to stand up the US Embassy security guard contract there. I would spend eight years in Afghanistan traveling to every province in the country. When Route Irish lost it’s designation as the most dangerous road in the world it was replaced by the Kabul to Jalalabad road; I drove on it several times a month for years, often alone. The lessons learned in Baghdad would serve me well in the years to come.
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in Free Range International