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The Things They Carried....

I doubt that Joe McNally remember the first time I met him. It was in Singapore at a one day conference with Louis Pang. After the day was over and I had asked Drew about his recommendations for a Sashimi place, I gave Joe my copy of The Moment it Clicks, and he flipped to the page where he usually signs them and there was a huge hand written quote in it.

I heard him mutter, “What the hell?” and look up to give me a look as if something was growing out of my forehead.

I laughed it off, and responded that it was something that I did with all books that I read; I just mark the hell out of them with notes, quotes, and thoughts.

He did sign my book, but that was the end of the conversation. As the running joke with my wife went for the rest of the time I played groupie for his Asia tour, “Well Kyle, good, bad, or indifferent you are making an impression.”

The quote that I had written in The Moment it Clicks was from a book called The Things They Carried. I had read both books around the same time frame, and the quote just seemed to fit.

“And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for, joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.” Tim O’Brien

The other day I had to wear my dress uniform for a fairly long and boring event, which gave me a lot of time to think. I stared at my watch several times per hour and at one point it clicked it me. This was my lucky watch that I wore for every patrol that was a part of while I deployed. It made me think about how superstitious I was during that time, and how each person in my platoon had their own little ways to stave off the bad juju.

Soldiers carry a lot of equipment, and the weight adds up very fast. Few things are carried that are not absolutely necessary. We carried our weapons, optics, body armor, helmet, water, a basic load of ammunition, knives, medical kits, flash lights, night vision goggles, maps, extra batteries for everything, radios, eye protection, gloves, watches, GPS, pens, note books, markers, scissors, binoculars, laser designators, IR strobes, chem lights and other small bits and pieces. But everyone I know carried something for good luck.

Everyman carried something for good luck. I had a plethora of things: my watch, my new years bullet, my Grandfather’s Dog Tags, a little piece of an EFP, and a small cross on a chain.

My lucky watch, it is some Swiss Army watch, that could be used a dress watch or a sports watch, it was an in between type of watch. I had bought it while I was at West Point. Ironically, it was really a second thought because I had just gotten a suit and my Iron Man watch just didn’t fit, and I could not go anywhere without a watch. I rarely wore it until I graduated, after which I tended to dress up a little more.
Just a few days before I was to leave, my watch battery died so I had to switch to my dress watch. From then on, I never took it off (including my trip to Africa). After I made first contact I was told never to wear the gloves I had again, because if I ever was around fire they would melt to my hands. I took this knowledge and got myself some fireproof gloves. The gloves were very long so I had to put my watch on the top of my gloves, and then my watch began to attract attention. I went to war in style.

After 11 months I was getting ready for a patrol and I mentioned to my Platoon Sergeant that he was getting ready way to early, he looked and me and politely informed me “Its fuckin’ time to go, sir.”

As it turned out my watch battery had died, much to my chagrin. My Platoon Sergeant then gave me an extra watch that he had (Ironically another Iron Man Triathlon). I put my awesome watch into my admin pouch on my body armor. There was no way in hell I was going outside the wire without it. (As a side note I still have that watch he let me borrow. I have taken it to five continents now…..the battery is about to die.)

The next thing that I carried with me was what I called my New Years Bullet. One New Years Eve, December 31st 2008, I called my wife who was in Israel at the time. During this time there were rocket attacks going on almost daily. I had joked with her that Baghdad was actually safer than Israel at the moment.
After calling here, I went outside to watch the show. There were tracers going around the sky like mad. It was a nice night so I had planned on staying out there for a while until I heard WHACK WHACK WAHCK! It turned out to be the sound of rounds impacting a shipping container that I was standing next to. That ended my night as I decided it would be best to go back inside and celebrate quietly. The next morning I went out and found a 9mm round roughly where I was standing with just a small chip out of the tip. I carried it with me in my left breast pocket until I left Iraq, then I had to get rid of it before we went through customs.

The next item I kept with me is really special. Before I left I had dug up my Grandfather’s Dog tags, the ones he used back in WWII. He had passed in October the year before I deployed and his last words to me, before he took himself off of life support included “Good Luck in the army, Kyle.” He was the first relative I had lost to old age, and he was a very special man to me. I took them on every patrol I went on, I carried them up Kilimanjaro, and I wore them on my wedding day.

I was ambushed for the second time on 24 March 2009. It was another triple EFP, only this time there was no associated machinegun fire, it was the Iraqi style of a hit an run. I will never forget going down route GOLD, the way we always had to go, since there was only two routes in. I was talking with my driver about something stupid when I watched the truck in front of me disappear in a instantaneous cloud of smoke. My driver and I both yelled out “OH SHIT!”

I immediately jumped on the radio and called up a contact report (One of my team leaders told me afterward that I was on the radio calling up reports before he knew that we had been ambushed….) Replaying the scene in slow motion in my head I can see the three EFPs and where they went. I saw one (and by this I mean I saw the dust trail) go right behind the ruck and pop the tires. I saw one go high and just miss the gunner’s turret, and the other I saw hit the truck square in the side. It ended up punching a hole through the truck into the transmission, a hole big enough to stick you arm into, but everyone was alright. As everyone got out of the truck to pull security I was there to pat each one on the head, and then SPC Jones, the gunner that was in the turret who had already survived another EFP attack, came out and exclaimed “I’m fucking invincible, sir!” There are a lot of little stories that go along with this ambush, but I will try not to stray too far from the subject.

After looking around the site and making sure everything was secure I went to the truck to look at it. I pulled out a piece of copper about the size of the end of pencil. I put it in my pocket and carried it around until about month 10 when I lost it in the laundry. I was pretty pissed at myself for losing that.
The final item that I carried for good luck was a small cross on a chain that I had bought literally four hours before I flew to Kuwait. I had just gotten ice cream with my parents at the main post store and then wandered away. I saw the cross and couldn’t help but get it. I never took it off…until the day it broke when I was in Africa. I then put it in my camera bag, an its still there today.

Guys in my platoon had things that they carried as well. Some were more odd than others.

Xander Patterson, my radio operator carried a bottle of holy water that had been sent in a care package, it also came with its own ACU colored pouch. (In the same care package he got a pair of skies with no bindings, and it was summer. I could write a whole book of crazy stupid shit we got in care packages)

Troy Jones, the lead truck’s gunner had a Teddy Graham beanie baby that he zip tied to the mirror on the outside of his turret.

Sean Clark, one of my team leaders carried a baby dolls arm. The day he found it he thought it was real and freaked out a little bit. Once he found out that it was nothing bad he decided to keep it. As time dragged on and the days became filled with boring days of base security the baby arm developed a series of tattoos, eventually it turned into an entire sleeve. Just part of the absurdity of war.

Blake Buckley, my driver, carried a pose able plastic monkey from Family Guy.

Not everything extra that we carried was for luck though. Everyone, and I mean everyone (minus me) carried cigarettes, dip, Iraqi Dinar, and Rippets (a cheap version of Redbull) I am not, nor have I ever been a real smoker, but war does funny things to you. After my first contact where Justin was killed I chain smoked an entire pack. I smoked after the 24 March ambush, and I smoked whenever we were walking in boot high shit streams. We kept a top ten list of the worst things we smelled while we were over there, if it did not make us dry heave…….it didn’t make the list.

Energy drinks were not an occasional thing, they were an everyday essential. Rippets were crucial to survival, and I am pretty sure in 20 years there will be a study that proves they cause cancer. My platoon sergeant would take six of them in his truck for every night mission. Every time the fridge in our mess hall was re-stocked my platoon would take turns going to get as many as we could carry and hide them in our refrigerator. I think toward the end the other platoons were starting to catch on. One night though in the big FOB someone who worked in the mess hall had forgotten to close the shipping container that they stored the rippets in and my platoon too a few cases. It was a huge find. Iraq also produced it’s own type of energy drink, called Wild Tiger. This was a rare event for me, I mean the drink contains nicotine, but damn it kept you awake.

Most everyone carried Iraqi Dinar in their pockets, if for nothing else than to get something tasty while on patrol. Every morning when we would miss breakfast we would go to a local bakery and get bread, a whole bag of bread for $1. Then we would go to another shop and get some jam. It was heavenly. At night though, bread did not hold the same mystique it held in the morning so we would stop off at the ice cream shop. They served cones and they were an awesome treat.

There were a few things that I carried that were more personal. The headlamp that I wore on my helmet belonged to Justin. They had taken it off his helmet when he had been killed and left it in the common area of the company. I did not know it until months later, when I put two and two together. I now keep it along side a .50 shell casing that was fired from my truck that night. It still works and I never changed the batteries.

I also carried a SOG Seal Pup knife for the last two months that I was there. It may seem odd to carry such a big knife, but it made sense to me. It had a cloth pouch so I could put it on my kit anyway I wanted. I chose to have it pointed down so that I could draw it out with my right hand. The reason I carried it was because I had several nights in a row where I dreamt that I ran out of ammunition in a fire fight, not that this ever happened or ever even came close to happening, but the dreams that I had were enough to scare the shit out of me.

On the way home I didn’t carry much with me, a backpack full of things to entertain me, a huge chunk of an EFP, and the bronze star that I had been awarded. The EFP chunk, about the size of a baseball, I had picked up after an ambush right outside of my small base, and it was just a memory of a night where I knew that I would getting out of the army, I guess since this letter is getting long that it is a story for another time. I carried my bronze star because I had ben awarded it just two weeks prior to leaving country in a small ceremony at my base and I didn’t have time to pack it. I hated that thing, and to be honest I really never wanted to see it again. I gave it to my Papa for Christmas that year. He was really taken aback by the gesture, and I know it’s in good hands.

The biggest things I carry with me now are the memories of that deployment. Funny stories, the people, the bad days, the good days, the mistakes I made, and the good decisions…. they are all there. Some day I’ll have to write them all out. I have a notebook that is filled with one liners that remind of whole days so it really is just about finding time to write them out. I do have enough photos of Iraq to fill several photo albums. I have a photo of me right next to Sadar city, and when my Nana saw it the first thing she did was tell my mom that my ears were dirty and that I needed to wash them. The funniest pictures being the ones from a night where we conducted “Operation No Daddy, not again.” A night where we went and hit some glow in the dark golf balls in the Diala River, again a story for another time.

All the best,
Kyle

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