A Walk In My Boots
Michael L. Craner
The following story is a true account of some of my experiences in the Army. It is quite lengthy, though hopefully it won't bore you. I had intended to include some photo's, however I could not find the photo album. When I do, I will put them up with the story. These few years have made quite an impact on my life, and I daresay that no more than a few days ever pass where I am not recalling some experience from this time. They were fun times, and sad times. Even more, it was a lot of time spent reflecting life in general, and today's society. I want to share them with everyone, for entertainment, and as a tribute to others in uniform. It seems to me, that for those who are untouched by the military, by personal experience, or that of family or loved ones, that there is some kind of mysterious barrier that separates those who have been touched, and those who haven't. There is no need for this. Those in uniform are very much the same people as those who aren't; with the same dreams, aspirations, and most of all, feelings. I sincerely hope you will enjoy this peek into my life, and remember the many sacrifices that have been made to bring us this world we live in today, though it is not perfect, we still have the means to change it. All we have to do is care.
On the plane over, I didn't get much sleep. I liked to travel, and I suppose that was part of the reason. The other was that I was going to be in a foreign country for the next two years, and David and Julie were there too. For many, the idea of having to live in a strange land where you don't understand any one is very frightening, and they approach the situation with a bit of trepidation. However for me, it was to be an adventure I would remember for the rest of my life.
David had been a close friend of mine for several y ears while we were growing up. Julie had been his high school "sweetheart." In our junior year of high school, David had a lot of family problems, and this seemed to draw him even closer to Julie. In fact, her parents let him move in with them when his father threw him out of the house. David eventually dropped out of high school, and joined the Army. After basic training, he came home, married Julie, then left for Germany. Because the Army works so slowly, it was several months before he was able to send for Julie. Even then, he ended up having to pay for the move, initially, because the paperwork moved so slowly.
I graduated High School, and within three weeks was on a plane to Basic Training. Many say it is so much easier these days that it used to be, and though they may be right, it was still a challenge for me, though I would not say that it ever seemed unattainable. After Basic, I spent the next nine months learning my job in the Army, which was to repair satellite and microwave communications systems. Just the training for this job proved to be fun, and I formed a few good friendships, quite quickly with others in my school. Funny how it seems that when you are in the military, you can build strong trusting friendships many times faster than you did outside of the military.
As soon as I got my orders for Germany, I called David and told him. I also found out that he was stationed only about 30 miles from Frankfurt where I would be coming into the country. Thanks to a delay on a connecting flight leaving London/Heathrow, when I landed I had just missed my chance to continue on to my unit that day, and would have to wait for the following day. I couldn't leave the base, so I called David to see if he could come up and visit. He was out in "the field" at the time, but Julie was home and agreed to come meet me. We had dinner, and caught up on old times, and set some tentative plans to meet at the first time I had a chance.
I remember that while waiting for Julie to come down, I talked with a Sergeant who had been stationed in Germany before, and was back for a second tour. I mentioned that from what I had seen so far, it seemed like two years would be too short. He told me that I was the type that would end up marrying a German. I told him I seriously doubted that would happen. He just shrugged his shoulders and replied, "I'm just saying you are the type." I totally forgot what he said, at least for a couple of years.
The next day, I got on a bus and went down to my u nit. It took probably around three hours to get to Karlsruhe, as we made several stops letting off other soldiers at the various other "Kasernes" (German for military posts.) I remember the day well. It was the middle of summer, the sky was blue, and the air was warm-not hot, and not cool. It was just right. Everything was so green. It reminded me a bit of Georgia where I had spent the last nine months training. We stopped in Heidleberg and picked up someone who had been dropped off the day before. Apparently he had been misdirected to get off of the bus. He was to go to Karlsruhe too. We talked for the rest of the trip, and I found out his name was Jason. He was from Michigan, and was a mechanic.
The bus dropped us off at the American guesthouse, and the clerk called our unit to come pick us up. About 20 minutes later we had finally arrived at our new home. It was a small post, and half of it we shared with the German Army. Our first week was pretty busy, getting in-processed, and attending "Head Start" which is a two-week crash course in German, and the culture. Jason and I spent a lot of time together, since we had arrived at the same time, we figured we could trust each other I guess. Both of us had heard the "horror stories" of the new guy getting stranded somewhere without a clue how to get home. I suppose there are nearly as m any different stories like that as there are people that arrived in the country.
We were sitting on a picnic bench on our first weekend there, when one of the guys in our company asked us why we were just sitting there. We told him we didn't know what else to do. We didn't even know how to get to the PX on our own. The German public transportation system is a wonderful thing. You can go anywhere it seemed, and never needed a car. Our problem was figuring out where to go, what would get us there, but more importantly, what we had to take to get home again. Anyway, this guy told us that we could sign out a bus pass, and take it into town. So we did, and our first adventure began.
We decided to start simple. We had seen maps of the area, and had a good idea of the layout. Really simple, actually. The city was laid out like a big fan, and our post would have been at the end of handle. We took the bus in, following the directions we had been given, taking careful note of the bus number. When we got off, we were downtown in a bustling city, with tall buildings, mostly pretty modern, with streetcars, busses, taxi's, and thousands of people walking around, shopping, going home, or whatever it is that people do. We walked around in a circle of several blocks, then someone recognized us, just as we were planning to head back. They took us where they were going, which was a small disco club. After that day, everything seemed to be fine. We gradually got accustomed to the culture, the people, and the layout of the city. In fact, to this day, I could probably walk the city blindfolded.
After that first trip into town, time began to lose all meaning for me. It was summer, in a beautiful country rich with history and adventure. Everything a 19-year-old could want. After about two weeks in the country, I made plans to go see David and Julie. In Head Start we were just beginning to cover transportation, and a train seemed the most logical method to get back up to Frankfurt. During my l unch break on Friday, I went down by the PX, which was actually located a few miles down the road, by another Kaserne. I found the travel office, and made my train reservations. They let us out of Head Start early that afternoon, and the teacher asked if anyone were leaving the area for the weekend. I told her I was, and that I was going by train, but I didn't know where the train station was. She drew a map, which I would later find out was terribly out of scale, then let us go.
My first stop was to get back to the travel office and pick up my ticket. I had been desperately trying to reach David or Julie all day, but they weren't home. I was afraid I would have to cancel my trip. After I paid for my ticket, I was finally able to catch them at home. David was excited and said he would be at the train station to pick me up. When I got back to my room to pack, my roommate, Tom, was there. He told me that they had inspected the room that morning and that it had not been up to standards. Our supervisor would be there in a half-hour to watch us give the room a thorough "GI Party." GI Parties begin, and end, at specified times. You never complete one ahead of time, if anything, it will go into overtime. This one was scheduled to last until well after my train was due to leave.
I mentioned this to Tom, and he asked, "Do you have a ticket?" When I replied yes, Tom responded, "Then I haven't seen you." I took the hint, stuffed a gym bag, and got out of Dodge fast! It was however, much too early, so I started walking. I decided to take the route that bordered the forest, so if my supervisor drove in, he wouldn't see me. I caught a bus and made it into town, still quite early. Remembering the strip map of where the Train Station was, I decided to walk the rest of the way. After about an hour, I thought I must have forgotten some detail of the ma p, or had walked right past the station. Surely I must have reached it by then. I began trying to recall the German words to ask for directions, once I felt I could do it, the male ego took over, and I made an excuse to not ask just yet. I then tried to recall all the possible answers that I could be given, so I wouldn't look totally stupid when I didn't understand the directions. Just when I started to look for someone I dared to approach, I saw a sign for the train station, and an arrow, pointing straight ahead. My masculinity was saved! So I continued on again for a while, until I began to have doubts again, and found another sign, just in time. When I finally found the train station, I still had a 45-minute wait.
The train ride was exciting. It was my first time on a train, and this was something of a semi-express. The scenery was fantastic, and the stops were very short. It seemed people were still stepping onto the train as it started moving again, after each stop. I arrived in Frankfurt and met David and Julie there. The rest of the weekend, he took me around the area, we went to a castle or two, visited the Kaserne he was stationed at, which had also been the home of the late King of Rock and Roll. They even had a pair of scissors framed on a wall that had been used to cut "Sgt. Presley's Hair."
I made several trips up to meet David and Julie, and he always drove me back home. Sometimes we went to the Black Forest, which was just south of Karlsruhe; sometimes we stayed up by his place. We went to other castles, stayed at campsites, went to an amusement park, and anything else that was interesting.
After about three weeks in country, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The next morning at 0500 (5:00 AM) a pounding at our door awakened us. We were under alert. I thought for sure we were off to war right then and there. I found out about three hours later, it was only a drill. It was the first of many for the next few months. Suddenly time came crashing back into my life. The days were longer, as the threat of war was on everyone's mind. I never expected there would be another war. I thought society had finally learned that on one wins in a war. I was sadly mistaken. Many of my friends were in our "sister company" located next door to us. Their entire company came down under orders, and deployed for Operation Desert Shield. It all happened very quickly. Within 72 hours they were gone. The Kaserne felt suddenly empty, as most of my friends were out in the desert, preparing to fight a war for people they had never met.
I remember the whole city got a little crazy. They canceled Fasching that year. Fasching is similar to Mardi Gras, but lasts longer. There were demonstrations all over town. We were warned of the locations of any that were deemed to be "dangerous," and instructed to take no part whatsoever in any demonstration. We weren't even allowed to observe. Most Germans today are very peaceable. They have not forgotten what happened just over 50 years ago. They abhor war now, and protested it strongly. Yet no one ever mistreated me, simply for being a soldier. In fact, they seemed interested even more in talking to me. Yet never tried to get me to take a side.
It was during this time, that I began to write my poems. It was an outlet for me, a way to deal with what was going on in my life, and a way to illustrate my feelings and ideas. Looking back, as I read through a half-inch stack of tattered, unbound, and smudged papers, I regard them now as a kind of diary. A diary that only I can read and truly understand what I was saying then. To others, they look like a bunch of poems, some pretty good, others, as bad as they are, still hold a message to me, or a memory, and I can't throw them away. A Soldiers Death was my first poem. I wrote it shortly after our "sister" company deployed for Saudi Arabia. It was an expression of my thoughts, and fears, regarding going off to war. Not just for myself, but my friends who were already there.
For a long while, no one was given the opportunity to read them, then slowly, I would show some of them to friends and family. Each time their encouragement and support would encourage me to show more, and to more people. When I first met Mary online, I was at a point where I could release some of them to print. Since she seemed to genuinely like them, I gave her permission to go to my old website, and take a look around to see what she wanted. I was very surprised when I received my copies of the issue in the m ail, and found that she had printed every single poem I had online, and in a centerfold layout to boot! Our friendship since then has bloomed to a very strong and supportive one, and evolved into this partnership that has brought you Pencil Stubs Online.
I would meet with the girlfriends of my friends who had deployed. Bringing them news whenever I had any, and mailing their letters for them. They would get to them much faster through the military m ail, rather than through the German Post. The question of whether I too would be deployed was always there, and always on my mind. That first autumn/winter in Germany was especially dark and cold it seemed.
Within the hour of the first air strikes, we were alerted again, divided up, and sent all over the region. We guarded military housing sites, PX's, Commissary's, Kasernes, against terrorists. In fact, it seemed like the only work anyone did throughout the entire war was guard duty. At one point I was tasked with guarding an ammo dump. We had two vehicles, with two occupants. One would drive around the inside perimeter and the other would drive up and down the rows of bunkers. We had walkie-talkie communication with each other, though we couldn't always get through. To make matters worse, we had our M-16's, and empty magazines. Our unit was terrified to issue us any bullets, so the best we could do if we saw an intruder would be to try and run them over, or throw our rifles at them. Thankfully, we never had to do either. Though after about ten hours of driving around, and around, all night long, I began to see images of people that weren't there, yet left wondering if perhaps they HAD been there, and had hidden while I blinked.
Finally there was a cease-fire. By all CNN accounts, we had cleaned out Iraq, and practically sent them back to the Stone Age. I found out soon enough that was not the case. About two to three weeks after the cease-fire, I found myself on a C-130 cargo plane, the kind that paratroopers jump out of. My unit had deployed to Southern Turkey/Northern Iraq for Operation Provide Comfort. Our mission was to provide communications for the humanitarian relief effort to the Kurds, a religious "nation" of Saddam's people, whom he had gassed in the past, and who were now suffering dearly from the war. I remember stepping off the plane, and being handed orders with that morning's date on them. I was instructed to show it to the Turkish customs agent. We had landed in a foreign country without even official authorization. Our orders had been cut that morning and faxed so that we could gain entrance to the country.
We were told very little about our mission. In fact t he only thing we were told is that we would be on a mountaintop somewhere in Iraq. That was it. The rumors back home in Germany were worse. The battalion commander had hosted a Town Hall, and told all the wives that their husbands had been re-assigned to Turkey for two years, that they would not be able to join them, and were not permitted to return to the States either. All of which was a lie. I was just glad that I wasn't married. Many such lies and rumors circulated, first back home, then they would filter back to us. Moral was very low. To make matters worse, most of our equipment was locked up halfway across the country, awaiting customs inspection. No one had a mission for the first week. Then we had two or three teams that went down to Iraq and set up. The rest of us set up tents, built floors for them, contracted dysentery and wondered what the hell we were doing there.
I volunteered to accompany a few others into Iraq to bring them their supplies, which had just cleared customs. It at least gave me something to do and see. We were camped about three miles from the Iraqi border. We were not on the convoy manifest, so we had to cross the border alone, and wait for a convoy that followed a few minutes later. It seems the Iraqi customs would allow individual vehicles in without a manifest, but convoys had to have each vehicle declared. So we went through, and waited on the other side. The convoy had an MP escort, in light armored Humvee's, and armed to the tooth. They pulled up about 100 yards behind us, and waited for the rest of the convoy. I sat in the truck, and looked at the building of what looked like a bus terminal, or perhaps it had been Iraqi customs, and what we had gone through was Turkish customs. I noticed the bullet holes in the concrete walls. It looked like a war zone. Well, I guess it was. I would every once in a while see someone walking around the ruins, going from one building to another, and a couple of people on top of one.
We walked back to the MP's and talked with them while we were waiting, and they told us those people I had seen were Republican Guard, and that the week before, they had been armed with RPG's and all sorts of weapons. We decided then it was best if we positioned our truck behind the MP's. Just in case. Our own unit was still not issuing bullets. We convoyed for the rest of the day, through northern Iraq. It was sad to see the bombed out buildings and the distinctive bullet holes in concrete. What was worse were the children that ran around our vehicles in each small town, begging for an MRE, (Meal Ready to Eat, or as we called them, "Meals Rejected by Ethiopians.") As there was an obvious language barrier, they had adopted a form of sign language. An MRE was represented by the right hand, chopping on the left forearm with the left palm up, which was supposed to indicate the size of the MRE package. Others picked up greetings from Americans, which weren't exactly greeting hand-signs. After driving through a few of these devastated towns, we found ourselves giving out what little we had, giving away our own food, or at least parts of it. I saw a little girl, maybe six years old, beat up a boy, possibly the same age, maybe a little older, for a stick of Wrigley's. I'm certain they didn't even know what it was they fought over, but since it cme from Americans, it must be food.
Some of the children were more enterprising, trying to sell us anything they could, from Iraqi bayonets, gas masks which wouldn't stop a fart, to an RPG round. A few MP's took down that boy, with the RPG round, and took it away from him. At least they didn't shoot him. In the weeks that followed, I would notice several aggressive acts of MP's against children. I know what they were doing was their job, and I never saw anyone hurt, other than skinned knees, elbows, and pride. But pride was a scarcity for these people, though you could find it. It made me proud to see these people making the best they could of the situation, and trying to take care of themselves. I saw a large family that had constructed a shelter from an old cargo parachute, living off the land, doing the best they could without help. Many others, would not, and/or could not do the same. They were loaded up into huge trucks, standing shoulder to shoulder, with no possessions, and moved to refugee camps, then later back out, to re-integrate them somewhere else.
Throughout the convoy, every once in a while, I would see a freedom fighter, dressed in rags, bearing a rifle of sorts, standing on a hilltop. When we would drive by, they would raise their hands and rifle over their heads, and cheer us on. That felt pretty good, and gave us a sense of pride, knowing we were doing well.
When we finally reached our destination, a partially completed airstrip, which we had bombed during the war, to prevent Saddam from using, then re-built for ourselves, we unloaded, and visited for a few minutes. We also were given a few magazines each of rounds, when the infantry found out we had none. They were aghast that they had sent us down without anything to defend ourselves with. We decided we had enough time to hustle back across the border before dark, and did so.
We had a bit of trouble with one of our two trucks coming back, so we pulled over. I was posted at the rear of the two vehicles, with two M-16's, locked and loaded, while another private was in the front, armed the same. The sergeants then worked on the truck and fixed whatever was wrong with it.
A short time later, there was a young boy, maybe nine years old, standing on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere. He rendered the official "I want an MRE salute," and we stopped, to give him one, since we were alone. As I handed him one o ut the window, I happened to look up, and saw what looked like an army of kids, and a few very old adults, scrambling down the hillside towards us. It was an MRE ambush! I tossed the MRE to the boy, and yelled to the driver, "DRIVE!" We got out of there before they reached us. There was no way we had enough for all of t hem. The rest of the trip home was pretty much un-eventful. A week later we found out that much of the roadside where we had broken down was mined. I was thankful I had had the sense to stay on the pavement.
It was then, also, that we learned of a young man, a Private First Class from Colorado, had just been killed by a mine, just outside of the camp where we had taken supplies a week earlier. The war was over, but the danger was all around. We were all very mindful of everything we did from there on out.
Finally I was assigned to a team with a mission. We went a few miles across the border and set up camp providing communications to the EOD units that were there clearing mines and all sorts of other weapons. It was primarily a Navy camp, with the Seabee's there, doing whatever it was that they do. It looked more like a construction crew. There was also a team of SEALS at the camp. I remember this camp well. Our tent was located less than 100 yards from a helio pad, and twice a day or so, it would lift off, taking our tent with it if we didn't hold it down. I also remember it well for the first night there. I woke in the morning with well over 30 mosquito bites on my face alone. Of course the Medic's had just given out the last bottle of calamine lotion and all I got was a package of Benadryl. We later learned of a bigger threat from something called a "Camel Spider." These were the color of sand, about the size of a small tarantula, and carnivorous. They would inject venom on their first bite, which would paralyze small creatures, and then they would eat them. For a human, the first bite would numb the area, like Novocain. There was a French soldier who woke up one morning with part of his face missing. I saw his bandaged face when I was at another site, trying to get Calamine lotion again. (Also left with Benadryl again.)
Back in Iraq, once we were set up, there was little to do, but pull shift watching the equipment and keeping the links up. We entertained ourselves by killing flies. There certainly was no shortage of them, and we had come up with a pretty extensive scoring system. We also got pretty good at scrambling for our assigned tent poles to hold down every time the "Jolly Green Giant" fired up his engines.
I wrote another poem, Amy, to illustrate the sad plight of these people. It was very hard to see so many people in dire need, and not have much to offer help. The name was just one that popped into my head, and the poem is not about any particular child. There were so many that could have been her.
Since it was a multi-national relief effort, we had an excellent opportunity to interact with soldiers from all over the world. Although the French were rude, and egotistical, (more so than even the Americans) their MRE's were a heck of a lot better, and we found ourselves bartering for them. The British were a fun-loving, and crazy lot. One group of them lit off some fireworks one night, which sent a whole team of MP's scrambling to investigate. Another group had a SATCOM site set up next to one of ours, on the Turkey side of the border. They were hooked up. They had a fully stocked refrigerator, a TV, and a footlocker full of videos. They were self-sufficient, and never seemed to leave their little area.
This site was set up in the corner of the main camp, right next to another airfield, which was loaded up with quite a few Apache Attack Helicopters. I came out of our SATCOM van one night, and was looking at the stars. There were so many there, and it was really a beautiful area. The terrain reminded me so much of where I grew up, just outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. Then I heard a sound that sounded like a door to another van slamming shut. I figured it was the switchboard van, which was set up next to us. Then I heard it again, and again. I walked around our camouflaged generators to take a look. What I sqaw looked like something out of Star Wars. There were red and green tracer bullets flying from the mountain tops behind and to the north of our camp, down into the small Turkish town directly north of our camp, perhaps about two miles. There were exchanges back and forth from the town to the mountain, and back to the town. Every once in a while a rocket would be seen. About six of our Apache's scrambled at this point, totally dark. I could only make them out by their outlines against the stars. A few moments later, I saw a ground fired rocket trail, an explosion, then the lights of Silopi went out, for about three days. That battle was over. It lasted only about five minutes. To this day I don't know exactly what it was about, or who was involved, only that it had nothing to do with us.
Across our camp, in the populated area, things were different. A few people panicked. One guy from my company, failing to realize that the shots were neither coming from us, or to us, jumped into a foxhole for cover. He had also failed to realize that it was not a fox hole, but part of the latrine trench. He spent that night under the stars. We didn't allow him into the tent until he had showered, and the showers had closed for the night.
To be continued. . .