By Jon Harris:
In my previous article, “My Trip to Iraq”, I talked about working as a military contractor. As with any assignment, there is a point when it is time to come home. This was, in my case, much harder. I had been working as a canine explosive detection handler in Ballad, Iraq. We had no US military on the base; the only personnel were either the Iraqi military, Iraqi civilians, or contractors. We were supporting a State Department mission to place F-16s with the Iraqi Air Force.
In the first Gulf War, the US had bombed the hell out of the base and the runways. We were now in the process of repairing the damage done during that conflict. This was to support the purchase and deployment of fighters. My job was to check the perimeter, trucks, deliveries, and just about anything else for explosives. We routinely found holes tunneled under the wire or the concrete T-walls while on our daily (and nightly) patrols. It was an eerie feeling to know the hole you just found while on patrol was not there the night before. You could often see footprints in the dirt leading across the open ground heading to the main compound. That starts a whole chain of events, but mainly we noted where it was, called it in to some unknown voice on the radio, and filed a report.
Most of the time, our job was to search the entry checkpoints or any vehicle that was entering the base. Some gates we never used, as they were determined too dangerous to operate. The Iraqi Army had refused to staff those gates because of nearby ISIS activity and had them simply walled off. In 2014, when I was there, ISIS was moving into the area.
With the threat of ISIS getting close to our location, we were on high alert. In fact, I had already relocated from Taji, Iraq, my original assignment location, due to threat assessments. Formerly called LSA Anaconda during the American occupation, the air base at Balad was huge. US forces turned the base over to the Iraqi government after withdrawing from Iraq, and it showed. The base was in shambles and had been looted; everything that was not bolted down was carried away and sold. American contractors lived in a small, rebuilt enclave in the middle of the expansive installation. While this area was in good shape, the area just outside looked like a no man’s land of broken windows, shuttered up buildings, heaps of trash, and patches of thick overgrowth. The area was also littered with vehicles of every description. The Iraqis would simply abandon a vehicle or heavy equipment if it broke down and leave it where it stopped.
The Iraqi Army and Air Force were here but stationed on different sides of the installation. The Iraqi Air Force was responsible for the operation inside the air base, and the Iraqi Army was responsible for the perimeter. I can remember one night when the sounds of gunfire erupted. We, the American contractors, all returned to our enclave and waited to see if we were under attack. Our interior security teams, also contractors, had geared up to defend the enclave. We later found out that the Iraqi Army guarding the perimeter was shooting at the Iraqi Air Force inside the base over some dispute. The rounds were going right over our compound, so it was a little unnerving. The sporadic gunfire coming from and going to the perimeter towers lasted for hours. I do not think anyone was actually hit, but still, it was nuts.
Another little note about this base: there was no mail. Nothing came from home, and any contact was via the internet. If you were desperate and did not mind spending a small fortune, you could use a cell phone. Skype, other forms of internet calling, and email were the only way to stay in contact with family back in the States. If you knew of someone going on leave and coming back, you would try to coordinate with them to pick up essentials for you. We had a running list of things people needed that the returning or new contractors would try to bring with them. That was hit or miss at best.
Dogs, just like their human handlers, get PTSD, too. My partner was no exception. These dogs repeatedly deploy to war zones, and after a while, they become worn out. My canine was having problems with the sound of explosions and incoming rockets, which were becoming much more frequent. With the increasing ISIS activity in the area and the clear targeting of essential buildings within the compound, people were nervous. In one week, the radio tower was hit, knocking out all internet communication, as well as a supply building. We were also starting to get occasional rounds very close to the entry control point (ECP) that the dog teams operated. Clearly, someone inside—a local worker or Iraqi security person—was spotting for the mortars. Something I never was comfortable with was the local workers wearing shemaghs. These scarves covered the face. You could not tell who the person wearing the shemagh was, and we all figured these were probably the same people shooting at us at night after we had worked with them all day. Something in my background of being a cop has a hard time with someone in a basic ski mask working next to me and carrying a rifle.
One afternoon after shift and while in my room (the dogs lived in the rooms with us), a rocket came in and detonated a couple hundred feet from my location. The explosion shook the room. This set the 100-pound snarling monster off, and he attacked the only person he could find—me. After several minutes (it sure seemed longer) of trying to control the dog latched onto my upper arm and yelling for help, I was able to get him confined to his cage. The fight with the dog resulted in a completely torn right shoulder rotator cuff, torn right bicep, three torn tendons, multiple bites and punctures, and a very bloody room. The vet, the only medical authority we had, said surgery was necessary, and since there were no medical facilities at our location, the contracting company arranged to get me back to the States for treatment.
This meant ground travel to Baghdad Airport, where the trip home would actually become a reality. Because of the ISIS activity in the area, and the fact that Americans were prime targets, ground travel was routinely delayed, postponed, or cancelled at the last minute. The feeling was that if you could get to the airport, you were good to go.
When I got the word I was leaving, three weeks later, I collected my things and turned my dog over to the kennel master. For three weeks, I had simply tried to keep the dog from killing me or anyone else we came in contact with. Handling that dog during those three weeks was a real trial. Any time he was out of the cage, another handler would accompany me. We would have two leashes on him so we could keep this out-of-control, snarling, tooth-laden animal between us. It was evident that my canine partner had lost it. He was completely unworkable.
Just a side note, after I got back to the States I found out I was the dog’s fourth handler in three years. This same dog had attacked all the other handlers. During nearly a year of working with the dog, I was never informed of that fact. The company’s thinking was that since I was a seasoned handler I would be ok. Thanks a lot, guys.
I reported to the Personal Security Detail (PSD) compound for the travel briefing. This was not the same team that brought me to Balad. That team operated out of Baghdad. This team was assigned to our installation. They were responsible for all escorts outside the “wire.” I was scheduled to leave earlier in the week, but there had been “an incident” on one of the trips to the airport causing travel to be postponed.
The very same team I was going with had taken another canine handler to Baghdad a few days earlier and got jammed up at a fake Iraqi checkpoint. There, the vehicle team leader got out of the lead vehicle to try to negotiate with the guard at the checkpoint. A series of rounds were fired at the PSD team from what they thought was a guard tower. The team leader took three rounds, all stopped by the plate armor that he (and all of us) wore. Shots were exchanged, the team leader got back into the vehicle, and the convoy pushed through. The team, in their big F-350s, shoved several vehicles out of the way, and the PSD team and its unharmed traveler continued to the airport. After that incident, the route was declared “black,” meaning nothing was going for a few days. Once the roads were declared passable, we were cleared to leave. This was the very same team, less the team leader, that was providing my escort. He, by the way, was still recovering from his cracked ribs.
I met the new team leader of the PSD escort. We went through the same procedures that I followed when I first arrived. They verified the paperwork, passport, exit visa, asked blood type, and briefed me on the route and emergency procedures should it go bad. My instructions were stay in the car, they would take care of it, and not to worry. As we loaded up my gear and got my seat assignment, I noticed cases of water bottles—as well as Red Bull and another energy drink that was available to us called Rip-it—being loaded in the rear vehicle. The team leader got in and we were about ready to go when his boss came to the vehicle and handed him an envelope. He checked it—$1000 in hundred-dollar bills. I asked about the envelope and he said it was the cost of the trip. In my time in Iraq, one thing was constant. You could buy anything from the Iraqis, or you could buy any of them for the right price. That may be a sweeping generalization, but it was what I witnessed in dealing with the Iraqi personnel. This, I figured, was just the cost of doing business, and the PSD team knew the rules as well.
We loaded up and headed out the gate in four up-armored Ford F-350 pickup trucks. After a few turns leading away from the gate, we were on the main road. Along this route, there were seven or eight checkpoints. None of the checkpoints was standardized. Each one had different rules and requirements. Many times the soldiers (or whatever they were) had different uniforms and markings on their vehicles. It was very hard to determine just who was operating these checkpoints or if they were even associated with the Iraqi government. When we arrived at one of these stops, everyone stayed in the vehicles, for the most part. I was not to exit the truck, nor did I want to. Our papers and passes were checked and there was normally some conversation while the guards walked around and checked things out. At each one of these checkpoints, one of the team members in the rear vehicle would drop off a couple cases of water. That seemed to get things moving again. At one of the checkpoints, the delay was a little longer, and the negotiations were somewhat stalled. The team leader called the rear truck on the radio and advised to bring up the Red Bull. The team handed this to the Iraqi guard supervisor, who proceeded to wave us through.
Things did not get tense until we came up to one of the checkpoints just outside Baghdad. This was the same area where the team took fire during a previous trip, and it was clear they were apprehensive of another ambush. As we got close, we saw the guards waving vehicles through without checking them. This did not seem right. Couple that with the fact that there were no marked Iraqi vehicles there; the team leader decided this was not a stop we were going to make. At all the other checkpoints, there was some type of armored vehicle. Here, there was not. The team leader directed the convoy to jump the median and simply speed around the checkpoint by traveling the wrong way down the highway. We had also done this when I made the trip in. We bounced across to the other side and sped down the road away from the area. After about a mile, we crossed back over the median and continued to the airport.
The last checkpoint was at the airport. Here, Iraqi police and local security personnel operated the checkpoint about 200 yards outside the main entrance. They wanted some paperwork we did not have, which we all figured they had just made up. There was some heated discussion about confiscating all the weapons and vehicles. This was getting bad, and I felt that this stop was headed south in a hurry. I tried to ask the team leader what was going on, but he was clearly busy and not in the mood to explain the situation to me. He was talking on the radio to the team and trying to get the Iraqi guard commander to let us pass. There was already one PSD team deported over a confrontation with the Iraqi security, and the team carrying me did not want to be the next. The team leader started cursing and got out of the truck. He went directly to the Iraqi commander in charge of the checkpoint. He and the Iraqi commander walked a few feet away from everyone else and continued the conversation. After a few moments, the team leader returned, less the envelope he had been carrying, and we were once again on our way. He said we were clear, so we proceeded to the entrance of the airport. Now that things had calmed down, I asked what had just happened. All he said was, “Currency of the road. It is expected. That’s why we carry it.”
At the entrance to the airport, the team stopped and unloaded all my stuff. There was a standing agreement with Iraqi security personnel inside the airport that the PSD team could not enter the airport property. They had to stay outside the gate. All transport inside the airport was by civilian vehicle, and there was a civilian taxi waiting for me just inside the gate. Clearly, the taxi driver knew the team was coming. I got in the taxi (or actually, the team put me in the taxi), and we headed to the terminal.
I made it to the terminal and checked my bags. As I went through customs and immigration to exit the country, there seemed to be some sort of problem with one of the stamps in my passport. Of course, the passport had been checked a dozen times and there was nothing out of order, but this one particular customs officer had an issue. I ended up losing all my tactical gear to the Iraqi customs officer (this included my ballistic fast helmet, a set of ballistic sun glasses, my plate carrier, and anything else he thought he could get away with). He said it was contraband and I was not allowed to take it out of the country. I had been told this happened sometimes, and as luck would have it, the trip back cost me a couple grand in personally owned gear. As far as I was concerned, as long as I could get on the plane, I really did not care.
As soon as everyone was boarded, the flight took off without delay. When we cleared Iraqi airspace, the flight attendant came down the aisle with complimentary beer. Yep, I was on my way. One stop in Jordan, two beers, a few Ambien pills, and 17 hours later I woke up at JFK. I called my wife to let her know I was back in country and would be home in a couple days. The rest of the trip was uneventful, but it had certainly been one hell of a year, and one I will not soon forget.
On a closing note, two weeks after I returned home, I received texts and email messages from my coworkers at Balad. The Iraqi security had abandoned the base, and ISIS was moving in. The State Department reported that all contractors had been pulled out. This was not exactly true. The plane that came in was not prepared to evacuate the dogs and refused to take them. All my coworkers were dog handlers and refused to leave their canine partners behind. They, and about 75 other contractors, were on their own in Balad until the company, not the government, got them out three days later with their own C-130, which picked up everyone regardless of if they had two legs or four.
Jon Harris is an OpsLens contributor and former Army NCO, civilian law enforcement officer, and defense contractor with over 30 years in the law enforcement community. He holds a B.S. in Government and Politics and an M.S. in Criminal Justice.