Move In Day
Half way through my second tour, our entire Squadron moved into the city we were patrolling to establish a greater presence and apply pressure on the growing insurgency. There were many parts of town that entering with US forces guaranteed an attack. As we were attempting to build Iraqi defense forces it became necessary to work more closely with native Army and Police and be more responsive to the violence. Sunni and Shia Muslims split the town in half, and sectarian violence, along with hatred for the occupying American forces, kept us very busy.
We kicked off the tighter integration with Iraqi forces by occupying key terrain and giving each Cavalry troop an AO (or Area of Operation). Our Troop, thanks to some great work by my CO, built a good relation with the most influential Sheik in town. As a result, we occupied a key infrastructure resource near the Sheik’s residence: a series of Grain Silos, codename: the Granary.
This massive structure could be seen from anywhere in town and was on a large piece of land surrounded by a high wall. It was easy to defend, tied into the electrical grid, and essential as a staging point for the Squadron to move into the rest of the city. A giant operation was brewing and the solid concrete buildings and a place to land helicopters for Medevac made it the first stop in occupying the rest of the town.
Vectors for Disease
However, there was some slight trouble when we moved in. The normal staff at the Granary was about 15 to 30 Iraqi’s. We moved in four hundred American Soldiers and two hundred Iraqi Commandos en route to blocking off the worst part of town. Picture six hundred dudes, no showers, and no place to take a shit. We were scrambling to get toilets and piss tubes set up so we could maintain sanitary conditions.
Disease was no joke when you are not near an established base. Infections spread quickly and can make a unit ineffective. In northern Iraq a Cavalry Troop of 120 men was exposed to biting sand flies and came down with leishmaniasis. The entire unit had to be evacuated. It was a serious drain on combat effectiveness and as a result Medics were charged with task of coming up with a plan for eliminating “Vectors for Disease”. On move in day, and for a few subsequent weeks, we were living in filth. The medics had their work cut out for them and here is a quick summary why…
The grain in the silos was going bad, but there was still more than enough to feed the rats. The wild dogs that lived in the area would infiltrate our camp and eat the rats, the dogs would also relieve themselves on our newly attained compound.
Besides any trash that escaped our burn pits, the wild dogs would also eat human feces. The human feces was graciously provided by the Iraqi Commando unit members who would walk into an open field with a bottle of water, drop trou and take a dump. (Gives a whole new meaning to the term “mine field”…) The other animal that loved the feces and the rats and the dogs and the grain were flies. The flies were so bad you could not move food an inch from your face into your pie hole without a fly landing on it. Disgusting.
On top of fighting the bad guys, we had to make sure that we could sustain our operations in our new area. The work that went into our area beautification was constant and would be scheduled to a platoon on rotation in between missions. We built burn pits. We set rat traps. We cleaned up the human crap. We set out insect traps. (A quick aside, the Western Style toilets were not favored by the Iraqi’s and they did not assign anyone from their unit to clean it up. When they left, we simply doused them wood out houses with fuel and burned them to the ground.)
So what about the dogs? Well, for a while we let them be… But their was a group that was becoming increasingly hostile towards our Soldiers. One mangy Cujo in particular started to chase one of our guys. As he snapped and barked our Joe pulled his 9mm and killed the dog on the spot. I can remember the sun was low in the sky and getting ready to set.
The decision was made. The dogs had to go. When you are in combat and you are told you are a killer everyday in your training, proving that you are tough takes on a wider birth than just the enemy.
I remember the decision being very clinical. We cannot have people wandering around camp randomly shooting things. The task must be controlled, and policed.
I formed up a group of Soldiers in our TOC and we let the radio watchman know that we were about to sweep the area and rid ourselves of these “Vectors of Disease”. In our own minds we could now justify a test fire of our weapons. I took a hand radio and told the RTO (Radio Telephone Operator) that the code word that would precede our shots was “Old Yeller”. (In other units it was called Operation Snoopy… )
It did not feel like we were going to exterminate dogs. The name “Vector of Disease” gave us enough distance from the animals. Back in the states most dogs are treated like humans. Like the assumptions made by previous generations in WWII, Korea and Vietnam, dehumanizing your enemy is supposed to make killing them easier. I guess we “dehumanized” the dogs.
To this day I regret that it came to those actions. Looking back on the decision, the dogs were the least of our problems at the time. The effort used to try and move them in a humane way was a luxury we could no longer justify. We were trying to stay alive and protect ourselves. These unfortunate animals picked the wrong place to try and live. Our mindset was indicative of the hard fights we had been in up to that point. We had already taken losses and a Survivor mentality surrounded by a cold callous gave us little pause in deciding the fate of those dogs.
We formed a line shoulder to shoulder and swept across the compound. When we were done, our Soldiers stacked the dogs in a pile and burned the remains. I did not stick around after the dogs were killed. War sucks.
A death in the Family
Thursday afternoon my dog died. As I sat next to him and cried I could not help but think about some cosmic balance that was restored somewhere. I try not to believe in a vengeful God, but the thought has lingered with me that my actions in my time spent in Hell on Earth are going to play themselves out over the course of my life. Sometimes I will be saved, sometimes I will be punished. I believe more heavily in the previous than the later, but I cannot help but feel that my dog dying is the later. This one is affecting me pretty hard.
I got Dozer when I exited the Army. He had a mess of physical problems and did not have a long life expectancy as a result. It was shocking the day that he passed because he had acted the same way many times before. He was an English Bulldog and the heat along with his respiratory problems got the better of him.
To me, this past Thursday marks the end of a chapter in my struggle with PTSD. We lost a family member who had been with me since I became a civilian again and embarked on getting right. His endless affection was always something I could rely upon.
The period of reflection I have taken over the past few days has led me down many paths in my mind, and I can confidently say there is still so much work to be done to keep getting better. I will put to test the skills I have learned through my therapy these next few weeks, albeit with a slightly smaller scale. Please wish me luck.