Swimming in Saddam Hussein's Pool
Ahhh... Where Freedom Rests...
This meme has been floating around interwebz lately. It was a place I had nearly forgotten about. But, I was there once.
It was 2004 and the insurgency in Iraq was in full swing. The Military Police unit that I was in was spread thin and spread out all over the Baghdad area, which means our trucks were on the road constantly. Since ambushing convoys with IED's, grenades, and occasionally small-arms fire was the insurgencies favorite tactic - it means my shop stayed extra busy and worked around the clock to keep our guys and gals on the road.
|571st MP CO Motor Pool, Camp Cuervo Iraq (2004)|
It wasn't unusual to see the same truck in the shop multiple times in the same week for repairs - tires, glass, mirrors, or modifications were the normal menu choices. Of course, there were also many transmissions and engines being replaced as well - something we weren't supposed to do at our level but had to out of necessity.
When we weren't in the shop or sleeping, we were riding with patrols and going on missions to provide maintenance support and an extra set of hands when the mission dictated. Add in the force protection mission on our camp and it was a daily struggle to keep my soldiers in the shop focusing on our mission.
And thanks to the daily - sometimes multiple times a day - incoming mortar fire, many times the trucks didn't even have to leave the motor pool to need repairs. Many of the operators learned to how to do mechanic work that deployment and it was because of their determination the helped in our overall success.
I was the Motor Sergeant for the unit, so I managed the overall maintenance program. I helped with repairs on the shop floor when I could and went out on missions and added myself to the duty roster. I could have gotten myself out of the extra missions but to me, it was necessary to lower the burden on my section (and operators), as well as show my soldiers that I was willing to do all of the same things we expected of them.
|Me and some of the crew.|
From left to right: SGT(P) Joe Stone, PVT Adam Chumley, SGT Michel Olson, CPL Jimmy Allen
When the R&R leave program was started near the beginning of the deployment, the order of merit was determined by way of lottery. As luck would have it (if you want to call it that), I was the last soldier expected to get a mid-tour R&R leave to go home - somewhere around the 10-month mark of an expected 12-month deployment.
By month 6 or 7, I was burning out. Between the high operational tempo of 18+ hour days (7-days a week) that we maintained, personal issues at home, and the daily threat of injury or death - I needed a break. Really, we all needed a break. I sure as hell wasn't about to ask for it though and embraced the suck. Our mission was too important and every set of hands was needed to keep us going.
The senior leadership could see that I was burning out and with my R&R leave still month's off, they told me I was going to go on a 3-day pass. I, of course, protested this - albeit unsuccessfully. Something I was thankful for later on.
My pass wasn't going to get me out of the country, though. During the initial invasion in 2004, the US Army had taken one of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard Officers Club located in Baghdad's Green Zone (later called the International Zone) and turned it into their own 5-star retreat for soldiers to take a much-needed break. They called it, "Freedom Rest".
|The lobby of Freedom Rest. Photo by Owen Smith|
The facility was magnificent. Marble floors, drapery, chandeliers, gold inlays, pool, sauna, theater, games, and food. Outside of the opulence of this palace-like compound, there were a couple of small tastes of home and civilization that I was quickly reminded of too.
I couldn't even remember the last time I had eaten anything that wasn't served on a cardboard tray or out of an MRE bag and eaten with plastic utensils. There was actual silverware. Hell, there were actual ceramic plates and bowls, tablecloths and cloth napkins, and teacups and saucers too. That first meal - I don't even remember what I ate - but it was heavenly. It felt like, just for a brief moment, that I was no longer a soldier in a war zone. I was transported to another place in my mind that was peaceful and civilized.
It had been well over six months since I had used an indoor bathroom with actual plumbing. It was an amazing feeling to go 'number two' without sweating profusely in a pungent and ill-maintained port-a-john, and be able to flush it all away after everything was all said and done.
And showers. Those were ahhh-mazing. Even while at Freedom Rest, we had to bunk up and share rooms - BUT they had regular private showers. As in, not a communal shower trailers (if we were lucky) that had little to no privacy.
It was a long three days.
I wasn't used to having that kind of free time. I didn't know anyone else there and I'm not one who makes friends quickly, so I kept to myself mostly. ]
We had some unusual off-season weather move in that gave us three days of overcast skies, cool temperatures, and some rain. So while I wish I could say that I took a full advantage of the pool, I didn't - that I recall. That didn't stop a few of the soldiers there from enjoying it when the sun decided to break through, however. I may have dipped a toe in or sat on the edge at some point. I really don't recall.
Because of the dreary weather, we spent much of our time inside. For me, that meant hanging out in the music room playing guitar or watching movies in the theater. Occasional I'd do some reading or call home to talk to family and friends. I spent a lot of time on the phone. Oh, and there was checking email or just surfing the web reading a lot of news about the war.
I couldn't relax.
Even in the high-walled, palace-like compound, the reminders of war were never far off. Nearby, and in the distance, we could still hear the sounds of war. The sounds of incoming mortar fire, explosions, and automatic gunfire could always be heard faintly echoing off the walls around us. Occasionally, the incoming fire wasn't far off and were quick reminders that we were never far from danger. Those reminders made us feel extremely vulnerable and anxious.
We had no weapons and no body armor. We turned those in or left them with our units when we got there. We were inside of a "secure" compound, in the "secure" Green Zone, but that didn't matter much. Nothing was all that secure at the time. We were still in the middle of a war zone. Now instead of being able to defend ourselves if need be, we had to trust and rely on whatever security (usually the less than reliable Iraqi Army or Iraqi Police force) there was. It was an uneasy feeling.
I even felt guilty while I was there. I recall thinking about my section and wondering what they were up to and especially if everyone was safe. I was confident in their ability and that of my team leaders ability to accomplish the mission. However, as cliché as it sounds, their welfare was always at the forefront of my mind.
It couldn't last forever.
When it was time to leave, I was glad; it was like I had been living in a black hole for the last few days. There was no news or updates from the outside about our units, so there was no telling what was going on back at our camps over the last few days and what I may be going back to. They kept us well secluded and for good reason, I suppose.
Though I didn't appreciate that break as much at the time, it was needed. These long deployments that we were being forced to endure were hell on our morale - and our personal relationships. We were so involved in the moment and the small sphere of what was going on around us, that we'd begin to lose sight of the bigger picture.
These kinds of programs, while expensive, are much needed in an era where deployments can last a year or more, and do wonders to keep up the morale of our troops. Of course, not deploying in the first place would be a better option.