Thursday, June 10, 2010

Jolly Good Bomb Training (an excerpt)

Continuing to make good progress on revisions to Fobbit.  Here, for instance, is a scene which I tinkered with this morning:

Everything Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding Jr. knew about Improvised Explosive Devices, he learned in Kuwait six months ago when he and 500 of his closest Army buddies sardined into a wind-whipped tent for a block of instruction on the hazards of modern bomb warfare.  He sincerely prayed to the Fobbit God that this would be the extent of his education, that his experience would never be “hands-on” (or “-off,” as the case may be).

Gooding sat thigh-to-thigh with a private from another company whose breath smelled of pepperoni beef stick.  The private sucked on his teeth, as if to worry loose something caught there.  Gooding had showered that morning, lathering himself scalp to toe with his favorite scent of body wash (lavender and vanilla), but now the happy effects of that were starting to wear off.  He tried to breathe through his mouth, not his nose.

The soldiers, rows and rows of them in still-starched uniforms the color of chocolate-chip cookie dough, sat unnaturally quiet in the tent.  They were squeezed together, stranger against stranger, and only a few had relaxed enough to start half-hearted conversations.

This was Day Two of their indoctrination training while they stopped in Kuwait before heading north to Iraq.  Day One had been filled with Weather Acclimation Standards, Convoy Ambush Safeguard Protocols, and something called “No Ugly Americans Allowed: Host Nation Culture and Sensitivities.”

Now, drinking obediently from their crinkly-plastic water bottles and rubbing the new sore spots on their necks chafed by M-16 slings, they were plagued by dry mouths, pounding hearts, and the overwhelming urge to vomit that morning’s breakfast.

Gooding breathed through his mouth and willed his heart to slow from a gallop to a trot while Private Pepperoni Breath kept murmuring, “Gaw-damn….Gaw-damn….Gaw-damn.”

Gooding wished the kid would breathe through his nose rather than his mouth.

A tall, bald man in a khaki uniform—a startling, non-American-issue uniform—bounded down the center aisle like a gazelle at feeding time then leapt onto the stage with a purposeful flourish.  The tent fell silent, save for the wind chopping against the canvas.  The man kicked two knee-high marching steps and turned to face the crowd.  The officer was from another army, but Gooding couldn’t place the country until the man shouted, “G’day, Yanks!”

A unified “Good morning, sir!” rumbled through the tent.

“Can you blokes in the back hear me okay or do I need to raise my pitch?”

A dozen thumbs-up from the back row and the British officer nodded and bobbed from side to side on the balls of his feet.  “Right then.  We’ll proceed, sans microphone or megaphone.  My name, for those of you who care, is Nigel Cunningsworth—Leftenant Cunningsworth for those of you who are hung up on military decorum.  But you can call me Nige.”

Gooding and Private Pepperoni looked at each other with raised eyebrows.  This guy was different, nothing like the stuffed-shirt stick-up-the-ass officers from the U.S. Army.  “Gaw-damn he’s a cool motherfucker, ain’t he?”

Gooding turned his head back to the front, trying not to gag.

“Right then.  What I’m going to address today is the importance, the vital importance, of always being on the lookout for those little things which you like to call IEDs.  We prefer to call them 'Auntie Mames' or just ‘Maimies’ because that’s what they do—maim.  If they don’t kill you outright, that is.”  He winked at the 500 soldiers.  “Jolly good, eh?  Right then.  Let’s have the first PowerPoint slide, if you will.”

The screen filled with what looked like a red Christmas candle dripping with wax—the kind of candle their mothers would place in the middle of the wreath centerpieces of the holiday table when they all gathered around to watch Father carve into the turkey with his traditional cry of “Toodle-Yule!” as Grandma struck a match to light the candle while the scents of nutmeg, sugar and browned meat filled the air.  Upon closer inspection, however, the photo appeared to be the stump of a man’s leg, sheared off above the knee and oozing blood.

“Quite a sight, eh, Yanks?”  A few of the 500 made muffled gagging noises.  “This bloke was lucky, he walked away from his IED encounter.  Rather, he limped away.  THIS is what happens when you don’t keep your eyes open, your ears cocked, your nostrils flared.  You get careless, you step in the wrong place, and—ka-BLOOEY!”  Leftenant Cunningsworth's boot stomped the wooden platform.  The 500 soldiers jumped as one.  “Three things will help you survive an IED attack: Speed, Staying in the Center of the Road and Maintaining Space between Vehicles.  Keep those three things in mind and you might, MIGHT, just make it back in one piece to the Land of Baseball and Big Macs.”

Nigel paced the platform.  “Next slide, if you please.”

A pile of charred scrap metal that was, at one time, a U.S. humvee.  The soldiers recognized the distinct whip of the antenna and the general shape of the grille and engine block, but other than that, nothing in the picture looked like anything they would drive—did drive, most of them, on a daily basis around Fort Stewart.

“The IED has become the weapon of choice for the enemy and, quite frankly, it is the coward’s way out.  There is no question about it: if the Iraqis want to engage Allied forces toe-to-toe in a small-arms firefight, they will bloody well lose every time.  We will kill them where they stand.  Thus, ladies and gentlemen, they use the—pardon my French—the chickenshit method of planting a roadside bomb and then killing us by remote control.”

Nige rattled off a roll call of statistics.  Time of day most frequently used by the insurgents: between the hours of 6 and 10 a.m.  Seventy percent of IEDs are detonated by remote control, which can be fashioned from doorbells, washing-machine timers or car alarms.  Since 2003, in the Iraqi theater of operations there have been 15,000 IEDs: 41 per cent were found and destroyed, 43 per cent were detonated with no injury, 13 per cent wounded soldiers and 2 per cent killed Soldiers.  That 2 per cent figure was intended to give them a small measure of comfort.  Of the 500 gape-mouth, sweating bodies sardined into the tent, only ten of them would be blown to bits so small even a dentist would have a hard time identifying them.  Not that he wished him any personal animosity, but Gooding hoped Pepperoni Breath was the one from their row to get the red-mist treatment and not him.

Nige was carrying on at the front of the room.  “I don’t wish to scare you unnecessarily, ladies and gents.  Fact of the matter, rare is the IED which does more than pepper our Allied forces with shrapnel.  There are a few tragic cases, yes.  Yesterday, par example, the entire crew of a Bradley struck an IED and was engulfed in flame—they all lived, but barely.  Two days ago, a female MP was riding in a humvee when an IED burst on the side of the road.  At first, they thought she and her driver just had minor cuts from the shrapnel, but when she passed out, they realized an unnoticed jag of metal had severed her femoral artery.  She died before they could reach the hospital.”

He coughed politely and said, “Next slide, if you please.”

A close-up of what looked like an egg timer connected by a tangle of rainbow-colored wires to a grey box with a series of knobs.  There was a ruler at the bottom of the frame for perspective.

“This was recovered from a weapons cache discovered by Australian soldiers in Basra.  The blokes hit the jackpot with this one….Next slide, if you please.”

Three photos on this PowerPoint slide: a mangled guardrail, a bomb-disposal soldier approaching a burlap sack in the middle of a deserted downtown street, the bloated carcass of a dog.

“Be suspicious of everything,” Nigel said.  “Never take anything at face value.”

Pepperoni Breath muttered, “Gaw-damn, I had me a dog that looked just like that.  A little thinner, though.”

Nigel explained that vulnerable points of attack included intersections and roundabouts, breaks in the median, high-bermed areas, bridges and overpasses.  “Now the insurgents, the bloody bastards, are getting more creative by putting IEDs in guardrails so the blast will be higher in order to take out the gunners perched on the roofs of your humvees.  But you Yanks are clever and industrious, I’ll give you that.  You have defeated them at their own game by methodically going along the busiest highways and removing as many guardrails as you can.  Much to the chagrin of our hosts, the Iraqi government, I might add.”  He grinned and winked.  “But no never mind about that, eh?  Hey-ho, it’s all a good lark in the name of democracy and freedom.  Pay no attention to that Iraqi minister over there in the corner piddling his pants.  He’ll get over it soon enough.”  Nigel caught the eye of a glowering sergeant major in the front row, then coughed and cleared his throat.  “Right then.  Back to the task at hand….It’s not all bad.  There are ways of spotting IEDs ahead of time.  As you motor around the Iraqi countryside, keep your eyes perked for piles of trash, tires, sandbags and animal carcasses.  Oh yes—” the shadow of his finger pointed to the dog in the slide “—as I’m sure you are well aware, one of the natural decay processes of a dead dog does not include sprouting wires from his nose and mouth.  Wink wink nudge nudge.”  The front-row sergeant major didn’t crack a smile, so Nigel plunged onward.  “Right then.  The sad thing, ladies and gentlemen, is that for all our intelligence about IED indicators, there are new ones popping up every day.  It is statistically impossible to track every method and means of delivery.  As of late, insurgents have been encasing IEDs in cement curbs.  That is just one new tactic they’ve employed.  For instance, if you motor through a neighborhood on a regular basis and you know there happens to be a certain section of curb which has always had a chunk broken out of it and then one day—voila!—it’s been repaired, chances are good that the Iraqi Department of Highway Beautification has not been there.  In all likelihood, it is now a concealed IED….Next slide, if you will.”

A crater in the middle of the road.  The sides of the dirt walls flashed with scorch marks.  Three U.S. soldiers and two Iraqi Policemen at the lip of the hole—the Iraqis staring into its endless depths, the three Americans looking straight into the camera, grinning with their fingers in the triggers of their rifles.  Ten feet behind them, what looks like an arm cocked like a boomerang on the pavement.

“Lately, our analysts have been noticing a trend toward larger, more powerful explosions.  The terrorists are fashioning devices which go in two stages: one IED goes off and propels another IED into the vehicle, whereupon the second IED explodes.  In other words, lads and lasses, they’re using an IED as a propellant for another IED, knowing the combined blast will be enough to penetrate the armored skin of your American humvees.  Occasionally, they get lucky and have a successful hit on one of your Bradley Fighting Vehicles or Abrams tanks.  Most impressive, if I do say so myself.”  He coughed softly, then starting bouncing across the stage again.  “So, now our deaths come in clusters of twos and threes and fours, wiping out entire crews of humvees with a single double-shot of fire and hot shrapnel.  Jolly good, eh?  In the most recent incident, one soldier was burned so badly, they could not initially identify him.  All that remained in the passenger seat of the humvee were his boots with two charred stumps sticking out.  Bloody little for forensics to go on.”  Nigel stared out at the audience, winked, then said, “Next slide….This is a photograph of that passenger seat.”

The private next to Gooding choked, gagged, and said, “Gaw-damn”—except the “damn” wasn’t a word, it was a hot rush of pepperoni-laced eggs and coffee which erupted from his mouth and splashed across Gooding’s still-unscuffed boots.

No amount of scrubbing with lavender and vanilla that night could remove the smell of vomit from Gooding’s memory.  And no amount of digging his fingernails against his eyelids could erase the sight of those two charred stumps sprouting from that other pair of boots.

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