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The Dogs of Iraq

Memory of Operation Iraqi Freedom - March 2003

I remember the barking and howling of the dogs. Not the average, neighborhood dog that barks at the mailman and has somehow gotten off of its chain, but wild, feral dogs. Never seen, only heard. Dark town and villages with no lights on anywhere; clouds in front of the moon making it so I literally cannot see my hand an inch in front of my face. The sand blowing in my nose and mouth, making breathing hard and smells impossible to discern. Eyes unable to see, nose unable to smell, but I could hear. Every night it was the same sound for hours on end until the breaking of day put a stop to it. The barking and howling of dogs.

It was January of 2003 and I had just about to turn 20. I had recently passed recruit training, combat training, and a welding course and had just assumed a position as a basic metalworker at 2nd Assault Amphibious Battalion in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina (I never understood why it wasn’t 2nd Amphibious Assault Battalion and I never got a satisfactory answer, no matter who I asked). Amphibious vehicles, or AAV’s for short, are large aluminum vehicles that are designed to be launched from battleships, then driven to the shore sort of like a boat. Since we were dependent on water, our location was mere miles from the sandy beaches and vacation homes of Topsail Island. Camp Lejeune, however, seemed like another planet. I had heard how lively it was during the summer months but in the middle of winter, there was no one to be seen aside from my fellow Marines. I might have been able to have some fun, but my options were limited. I wasn’t old enough to drink and bars were just about the only option. I spent quite a bit of time reading and watching television in my off time, but that tends to get boring after a while. In short, I tried to entertain myself, but there was not much going on.

Everyone remembers where they were on September 11 th , 2001, much the same way that anybody old enough to remember knows where they were and what they were doing when JFK was assassinated. I was in boot camp, almost at exactly the halfway point. Almost immediately, we were told to start mentally preparing because we were going to be sent to Afghanistan as soon as we were done with our training. The same message was told to us during combat training, welding school, and we were constantly told the same thing at our daily meetings in North Carolina. Finally, in February, we received a message that drove all thoughts of boredom from our thoughts. We were going to be leaving in roughly two weeks; not for Afghanistan as we had been planning for, but Iraq.

For perhaps the first and only time in the history of military operations, we left on time, exactly two weeks after receiving the message that we were going. We took off from Cherry Point, North Carolina (a military airport) and landed at Aviano Air Base in Italy to refuel. After taking off again, it was a relatively short flight to Kuwait International Airport. As we started to descend, we were told to lower our window shades because of the danger presented by the possibility of surface-to-air missiles. Right then, right there, I realized the situation I was in. If I had been asked at the time how I felt, I would have laughed. I would have scoffed at any suggestion that I was scared but, truth be told, I was terrified. The very real possibility that I may die washed over me for the first time that night. I slammed the window shade shut and began praying that we would land safely.

The landing was uneventful and we were rushed off the plane onto buses for a ride to our camp. The window shades were drawn for the same reason that they were drawn on the plane; to avoid the possibility of an attack. After about an hour the buses stopped and we stepped off into what would be our home for the next month. To call it a camp would be too kind: it had no walls, no protection, nothing. There were large tents to sleep in, and nothing else except portable toilets. We didn’t even have our vehicles that we were going to use. They had been loaded onto a ship and weren’t due to arrive for a couple of weeks. We truly had nothing to do except play cards, eat, sleep, and smoke while we waited. I had thought I knew the definition of boredom in North Carolina but this was a whole different level.

Time passed relatively quickly once we received our vehicles. Our days were spent inventorying, running maintenance checks, and getting ready for the invasion, which we were told was scheduled to begin any day. About two weeks after we received the vehicles, we received orders to travel to the Kuwait/Iraq border and stage for the invasion. The initial fear I had felt in the plane had started to slack off, but now it returned in full effect. Was I truly ready for this? Was I willing and capable to take a human life, which I knew was a question that may be asked of me in the very near future? To be honest, I didn’t know. Even now, 11 years later, I still don’t know if I was truly ready.

The invasion began on March 20th when the first elements of American forces crossed the border into Iraq. We followed the next night. The first thing I saw was a burning oil rig far in the distance. Rather than fighting, a large number of Iraqi forces chose to flee, but some had decided to set fire to the oil rigs first in order to slow us down. Rather than waiting for the fire to be contained, everyone decided to just drive under it. The belief and logic was if you drive as fast as possible under the fire, you wouldn’t get hurt. As we approached it, I could feel the heat coming from the fire. As we passed under it, the temperature soared and the inside of the vehicle was bathed in an eerie, orange glow. I looked up and could see the flames only ten or fifteen feet above our heads. Then, suddenly, we were through. The cool nighttime air never felt better. We traveled on for another couple hours, then decided to spend the remainder of the night about a mile from a small village we passed. That was the first time I heard the dogs.

Days quickly began to settle into a pattern. We would travel from dawn to dusk, and then make camp for the night. Being one of the lowest ranking members of the platoon, one of my many duties included firewatch. I would have to wake up in the middle of the night, climb into a turret of one of the vehicles and stand watch. I was supposed to look for anyone trying to sneak into the camp, sneak out of the camp, and basically just ensure that everyone was safe. Of course, every night, I had the company of the dogs. We were told that some of the dogs had been pets; some were feral to begin with. As the American forces pushed north to Baghdad, many homes were abandoned and in turn, the dogs were forced to begin to fend for themselves. They would find a pack, integrate themselves, and very soon they were wild. They would bark, growl, howl and spend the entire night fighting. We never saw them, only heard them. Even when we were given Night Vision Goggles, the dogs still remained invisible. We knew they were there however, we could always hear them.

Village to village, town to town, we eventually made our way to Baghdad, along with the dogs. I doubt they were the same pack that we had first heard, but I guess it was possible. After the fall of Baghdad, we returned to an abandoned army base we had passed and set up a semi-permanent camp to await the word to go home. As luck would have it, our unit was by one of the base walls so again, every night, we heard the dogs. To me, the dogs were more than simple animals. They were trying to survive, just like we were. They were weak on their own, but in a pack they were stronger, just like us. They were always together and their lives were intertwined, the same way that we all felt our lives were.

We left Iraq to come back home in June of 2003, just as the initial invasion was declared over. We were now told the name of the overall operation that we had been in: Operation Iraqi Freedom. We flew back home, again shutting the shades due to the possibility of attacks and landed first in Italy to refuel, then at Cherry Point. A year and a half later I was back on a plane, again heading to Iraq. A few months after returning home from that trip I was sent again. I was in that country for a total of three times and every single time, every single night; I was serenaded to sleep by the dogs of Iraq.

This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.

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