From Seabees to Convoy Security to Some Time With the Angels
A couple of the men were from an Alaska reserve unit. One of them works as a firefighter/EMT in a gold mine in the Fairbanks area. Once a month he makes the 350-mile roundtrip to his unit in Anchorage – on his own dime.
Next we visited Task Force 1-33, an Army unit that provides security for military convoys as they traverse the vast, and often dangerous, expanses of Anbar Province. A touching aside: I got talking about home with one man, and he was immediately able to tell me, to the day, the last time he saw his wife back home in Iowa.
Then it was on to Marine Combat Logistical Battalion [CLB}, with wide-ranging responsibility for every aspect of logistics at the camp. My trip-mate Dave Kelso has had the chance to interview many troops from his Oklahoma, but in one fell swoop I made up for lost time, having a conference room filled largely with enlisted men from New York to interview. One had attended John Bowne HS in Queens, where for years my mother worked as a guidance counselor. Another had attended SUNY Cortland, just up the road from my home of Ithaca. Cortland and Ithaca College are huge football rivals, and while the game won’t attract the same attention as Michigan-Ohio State, the annual fight for the Cortaca Jug is just as hotly contested. Others came from Manhattan and Long Island, and for good measure a Marine from Davis, California - wine country as is our Finger Lakes region of New York. After we spent some time together, they opened up about everything from their reasons for volunteering to the way becoming a Marine had changed them for the better.
The day ended with a visit to the CLB Surgical Hospital. This is where seriously wounded people are treated, typically arriving via med-evac helicopter. We weren’t there more than a few minutes when word came that a helo was due in bearing an injured Iraqi. We stood near the landing area, chatting with two Navy corpsman waiting for the arrival. A team of about eight men are in the reception team, and with their efficient work, no more than a minute or so elapsed from the helo’s touchdown to the time the injured man was receiving care inside the hospital. And barely a minute after that, the helo was back in the air, on its way perhaps on another mission of mercy. It bears repeating that our military hospitals provide the same degree of outstanding care to every patient injured on the battlefield, be they US troops, civilian contractors - or enemy combatants.
Toward the end of our tour we were accorded the privilege of visiting the Angel Room, where patients who pass away, referred to as Angels, are brought. Marine Sergeant Tortora from Bergen County, NJ has responsibility for this work, which is carried out in accordance with the highest standards of respect and ceremony. In his office, a stack of boxed American flags could be seen, awaiting their solemn role. For us, it was an unforgettable visit, but one that lasted no more than an hour or so. For the men and women of the hospital, it is 16-17 hour days for weeks and months on end. Words are inadequate to convey the quiet dedication of our people, working in difficult circumstances in remote, hostile regions of the world to accomplish their endlessly varied missions.
Looks like we’ll be staying one more night in Al Asad, then back to the Green Zone, from where the journey home will begin.
Update: I took advantage of the unplanned extra day at Al Asad to get in a workout at the base gym. It was just like being at Courtside Fitness in Ithaca, the only difference being that relatively few people back home carry M-16s while going through their fitness routines. We're on our way out to the air terminal now, and with luck will be back in the Green Zone tonight.
Contact Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org