[Update (May 14, 2014) - I'm raising money for Operation Supply Drop - a charity that sends video games to deployed troops - by playing video games for 24 hours straight on May 17. All this week, I am reposting some of my favorite milgaming articles as a way to celebrate #8BitSalute. Please help me reach my goal donating (click here) or sharing this post]
Note: I originally posted this last December. I’m reposting it here because this is where it fits in the “Iraq: Ten Years Later” thing.
Also, a shorter, sexier version of this was published at Vice.
Late summer 2003
We’ve been here long enough to understand that we’re not going to find out when we’re going home until it’s actually time to go home. It sucks, but we’ve accepted it. This actually helped develop a positive attitude to the deployment experience. We’ve moved past complacency and we’re now focused on improving our condition.
We were doing the “highway mission” for what seemed like an eternity. Gone were the patrols, snap TCPs, night raids, and even the dreaded all-day cordon and searches. All we knew was the highway. A squad would insert somewhere along one of Baghdad’s busy highways and establish an LP/OP, usually for a 12 hour period before being relieved by another squad. 12 hours on, 24 “off.” That “off” time was filled with weapons maintenance, guard duty, “hey you” details, “hey you” missions, chow, rest, and personal time. It was a pretty unexciting time during the deployment.
Then, one day, our platoon was tasked with sending two rifle squads to Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) for a mystery detail that would last for at least a week. 1st and 2nd squads were chosen (I was a team leader in 1st squad). Without knowing exactly what we were doing, we packed our gear and loaded onto a truck while the rest of the platoon looked on with envy. Their 12 hours on 24 hours off just became 12 on 12 off.
Besides the Green Zone, BIAP offered the most luxury to deployed soldiers in Iraq. It was the enlisted man’s Green Zone. Sprawling and unorganized. Going to BIAP for a grunt, however short, was a welcome respite from life outside the wire. BIAP had a Burger King, a massive PX that was routinely re-stocked, and a first-rate Dining Facility (DFAC). Soldiers would eagerly volunteer to accompany the XO as extra security on his runs to BIAP to secure supplies, just for the chance to use one of BIAP’s facilities. Risking it all for some fast food.
After speeding through Highway 8, we passed the winged statue that welcomes you to BIAP. Passing through numerous checkpoints, our eyes turned towards the center of the airport at the tallest structure on the premises, a multi-story sand colored building. On its side was draped a canvas sign that some unit had placed there that read “Welcome to Hotel California.”
Our truck snaked its way to the center of activity near the Hotel California and the aircraft hangars. Our platoon leader (PL) and platoon sergeant (PSG) left to link up with whomever they were supposed to link up with. This left the rest of us with some free time to explore.
The Burger King was the obvious first choice. Earlier in the summer, our PSG brought back a single Whopper from a trip to BIAP. That Whopper had to be shared with the entire 36 man platoon. Each soldier took a tiny bite and then passed the sandwich to the guy at the next cot, this being repeated until it disappeared. As silly as it seems, that single bite was amazing. The line at the BIAP BK was ridiculously long. Wait times of over three hours were the norm, and by the time you made it to the window, having it your way was unlikely since most of their in-demand supplies had most likely been exhausted. Still, there was something about having fast food that did wonders for morale. Soldiers often joked that when they got back home they would go get fast food at 0200 in the morning on a weekday, just because they could.
Next was the PX, which was housed in an old sheet metal hangar with an extremely high ceiling. This PX sold a little of everything, but the in-demand items were junk food, magazines, and electronics. Items would sell out almost as soon as they were put on the shelves. Soldiers stationed at BIAP obviously had the best chance of snagging prized items, which became a point of animosity for line troops who only got a few minutes to pass through and pick up whatever was left.
The DFAC was amazing. It was called the “Bob Hope” DFAC and a few months later President Bush would fly in and help serve Thanksgiving Dinner there. For a unit that subsisted on an almost exclusive diet of Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) for months, the sudden availability of normal food instantly raised morale, while simultaneously stiffening disdain felt towards the lucky ones who had permanent access to it. Each meal presented the customer with multiple choices. You could eat healthy or go to town on french toast, cakes and ice cream. After eating at the DFAC, trips to Burger King happened for the novelty of it or if you happened to pass by and noticed the line was short.
Eventually, our short tour of the amenities ended and our two squads found ourselves sitting in the briefing room of an aviation unit. We would be relieving a couple of line squads from a sister unit. The expressions on their faces suggested they were not happy to go. An officer in a flight suit came in to brief us. Our two squads would serve as an emergency Quick Reaction Force (QRF) for the Baghdad area. If someone needed a coupe of rifle squads in a pinch, we would load up on Blackhawks and be inserted wherever we were needed.
It was an awesome mission template. No guard duty, no nonsense. Just waiting for a call to come down that would move us rapidly to a friction point via UH-60s and do the work of infantrymen. In the meantime, we had some of the finest facilities that OIF-I had to offer at our fingertips.
Our home would be the seventh floor of the Hotel California. Besides the first floor, the rest of the building seemed abandoned. In a painful file, we slowly climbed the seven flights of stairs with all of our weapons, ammo, rucksacks, body armor and personal gear. Once we finally made it to our floor, the two squads quickly scurried looking for the best spot to drop rucks and claim real estate. This was an extremely important moment. Finding a good nesting spot could lead to a relatively comfortable stay, whereas a poor spot could ruin the entire experience.
Once everyone had claimed their spots, we began to explore the floor. It looked like this floor housed office space for Iraqi travel agencies. Most of the furniture was gone, but there were still some desks and cabinets with travel brochures and travel information suggesting a time before the war when Iraqis traveled for leisure. The tall windows were blown out, which let in a welcomed cool breeze that kept the air temperature much lower than outdoors. From our floor, we could see out over the sprawling airport all the way to where it met the beginning of Baghdad proper. A darker haze sat low in the sky there.
The spartan conditions of OIF-I brought out the latent talents of many soldiers. Amateur electricians became local superstars, and we were fortunate to have a couple with us for this mission. After only a few minutes of messing around, they managed to get some lights on and jerry-rigged some electrical outlets. With that, the opportunities for what was possible expanded exponentially.
With electricity, freedom from details, and an unknown amount of free time, it took little deliberation to decide that we needed to buy a television and an Xbox. Before our first night was over, we had both, with four controllers and a copy of Halo: Combat Evolved. Under warm amber lights, both squads gathered around the television while the amateur electricians put the finishing touches on their setup, connecting wires and double checking their work. With everything ready, the television was turned on followed by the Xbox. Before anything appeared on the screen we heard a loud pop. Smoke started to rise from the Xbox. Our eagerness to start our game time blinded us to the reality of circuitry outside the US. The Xbox would only operate on a 110 circuit, and we plugged it into a 220 circuit. We were completely bummed, especially the guy who shelled out the big money for the Xbox.
It was late and the PX was closed, so we decided that we would go back to the PX first thing in the morning with the Xbox and try to exchange it, under the premise that we plugged it in and didn’t work (which was true).
With our second Xbox in hand, we again gathered around the setup, eager to get our game on. This time we plugged the Xbox into a small orange transformer that was supposed to downgrade from 220 to 110.
The Xbox started up and the Halo title screen flickered on the television as we simultaneously heard a pop. Smoke rose from both the Xbox and the orange transformer, which was now hot to the touch. Apparently the small orange transformer was only capable of handling small electronics, not the heavy-duty power needs of a modern gaming machine.
Two Xbox’s down, but determined to make this work, we devised a new plan. One of us would go and try to exchange the second (!) fried Xbox while I scoured BIAP for a transformer powerful enough to work the system. Strangely, the PX had no problem accepting a second fried Xbox from the same guy in two days and exchanging it for a third, brand new one. Meanwhile, I spent the better part of the morning creeping around BIAP, looking for heavy-duty transformers. After asking around, I learned that there was a hole-in-the-wall store on BIAP run by Iraqis. The store was actually right next to Hotel California, but you wouldn’t know it unless someone had clued you in. Behind a blank door was the store, and the shelves were stocked with local food, jewelry, painting, and other souvenirs. Stowed away in the corner were a bunch of metal boxes of various sizes. These were the transformers. Although I could have settled for a smaller model, I didn’t want to disappoint the squad. I bought the biggest transformer they had which weighed at least thirty pounds and could have powered a home.
Transformer in tow, I made the slow ascent to the seventh floor. When I walked in with the transformer I received a hero’s welcome for delivering the goods. With more transforming power than we could ever need we once again setup our system and carefully turned the power on, expecting another sizzle and pop. This time, we reached the main screen and were greeted the heroic title music of the Halo series.
The next two weeks became an in-country orgy of gaming madness. We were never called for a QRF mission. We spent our days bringing to-go plates up to the seventh floor and playing 4-way Halo tournaments all day long. We gave each other terrible nicknames like “Fat Elvis” and “Mercutio.” If someone got on a hot streak, we changed the game to something we called “The One” (a nod to the Matrix, which we were all a little too obsessed with at the time) and played 3 vs. 1 until all was restored.
We’d play straight through mortar attacks, glancing briefly outside the window to make sure the rounds weren’t walking in too close to our seventh floor retreat.
Those two weeks seemed to last forever as we settled into our new norm of hot showers, good food, video games all day, and the only threat of work being a high-speed mission that would whisk us directly to the ultra-elusive enemy, where we would close with and destroy him. When our PL and PSG showed up to pick us up, we reluctantly packed up our gear and wore the same sad faces of the guys we relieved two weeks earlier. Our leadership could sense that we had been getting over, especially as we loaded a couple of big screen televisions into our dusty truck to be brought back to our humble firebase where they’d be useless.
The platoon bay.
Arriving back at our company firebase, the rest of the platoon glared angrily as we settled back into our old spots in the platoon bay. Our gifts of Red Hot Cheetos were welcomed, but it didn’t change one of our most basic rules: if you got out of the firebase, you were getting over. This was especially true because the platoon had to accomplish the same amount of work with half of the guys. And word had spread quickly that we were living the high life at BIAP, despite our assurances that it wasn’t that great.
We would only spend a few more weeks at our company firebase before moving to a larger consolidated Forward Operating Base (FOB), complete with a DFAC of its own and four man rooms. There, all of us would get to enjoy the high life a little bit.
But nothing will beat those two weeks at Hotel California.