Over There

1st Lt. Jonathan Paton, a state representative, was sent to Iraq on a six-month deployment. Here's his story.

Before I left Fort Bliss, Texas, to start my 36-hour trip to Baghdad last September, I got some encouraging words from a chaplain: "You're going into a storm, lieutenant, where there is little shelter."

He was more of a fire-and-brimstone sort of fellow than Father Mulcahy from M*A*S*H, I guess.

The flight took us to Leipzig, Germany, and then on to Ali Asalem, Kuwait. After we loaded onto a bus, a little Arab man with a tour-guide microphone told us it was Ramadan, so no one was to be seen drinking water, smoking or doing anything more than looking serious; we didn't want to offend our Kuwaiti hosts. To emphasize that point, we were ordered not to open the curtains to see the world outside of the bus. The ugly American in me made me peek anyway. The world outside looked a lot like the uglier parts of Mohave County, without the sidewinders.

A few hours later, I was aboard a C-130, lit by the glow of a red emergency light. I could see the Air Force cargo crew dozing with their iPods on. We took several hops across Iraq until we landed in Baghdad, sometime after midnight.

I heard a voice call out: "Hey, LT, I think you're looking for me." The major on the flight line--a lean guy from Virginia--introduced himself as John Newell. He'd help me get squared away over the next several weeks.

We grabbed the four duffle bags of gear I had been issued--eliciting the universal derision from the guy who outranks you: "Why did they make you take all this crap?"--and drove for 45 minutes past the Ugandan checkpoint guards with their machine guns, the bombed-out roads and the barbed wire, before we reached Camp Slayer.

Maj. Newell took me to my hootch, which was a small section of a trailer. I looked at my bunk, my locker and the concrete slabs guarding it outside and realized, at 2 in the morning, that this would be my home for the next six months.

In the morning, my new boss, Maj. Pat Magras, stopped by to see me. He brought me some Gatorade and granola bars.

"So you're my new LT?" he asked. "How're you doing?"

I saluted him, walked outside and promptly found myself throwing up for the next four days. They say everybody gets sick when they get into theater.

It's the Mesopotamian hello.

In between trips to the latrine over the next four days, I had time to ask myself why I'd left behind the Arizona Legislature and the relatively easy life of Tucson.

One year into my first term, the Army sent me--a reservist--a letter saying that they wanted me to complete infantry and intelligence training. The results of going back into the Army were unexpected. I was the oldest in a platoon of mostly 22-year-olds. It was irritating and awkward at first to be thrust in an uncomfortable physical environment with people so much younger, but over time, it became energizing and inspiring.

Our platoon TAC (tactical) officer was an energetic female captain who consistently put the needs of her soldiers above her own. My platoon was filled with people who were dedicated to the Army and the nation. It was about as far from the self-aggrandizing world I had left as you can get, and, long after I graduated from the intelligence school, I thought of those other lieutenants and wondered if they weren't living the very ideals of leadership on which my fellow lawmakers and I campaigned.

Every one of them was planning on going to Iraq or Afghanistan. Some who did not have combat assignments were putting in for them. I had supported the war, so I put in my papers to go, too.

And now I found myself at Camp Slayer. Unlike Camps Liberty, Prosperity and Victory (apparently named by an editor at Marvel Comics), Camp Slayer had been named by the command sergeant major of the Utah National Guard who, being an '80s head-banger, named it after his favorite band. It had been the site of a number of palaces for Saddam and his peeps before the war. The largest of these was the Perfume Palace, which had been used as a brothel for Saddam's cutthroat sons, Uday and Qusay. Now it was the home of U.S. Army Intelligence.

Saddam had ordered a river to be dammed up and used it to create man-made lakes. Fish would swim in those lakes--large carp and goldfish. They would grow fat and rest in the shade, but the slightest change in light from a shadow would send out a school begging for food. We would feed them cereal.

Turns out they were cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.

On one of my first days outside, I threw out a handful of puffs and heard a sound that I had never experienced before: ZIP! ZIP! ZIP! Rounds strafed the water about two feet from where I was standing.

An NCO (non-commissioned officer) standing next to me shrugged. "Small arms fire, sir."

It was time to go inside.

One morning, my OIC (officer in charge) asked me to drive to Camp Victory and pick something up at the Al Faw Palace.

Camp Slayer, I was learning the hard way, had the worst chow hall in Iraq. Barbecue beef was corned beef from the night before slathered in barbecue sauce. "Mexican food" was a cruel joke for anyone who grew up in Tucson. The idea of going to Camp Victory on an errand and then slipping into the Camp Victory chow hall sounded like a great respite.

I went to get a key to check out a vehicle, but every hook was empty. I was a little grumpy about it and complained to someone nearby.

Then came a sound I had not heard since I was a kid: It was like the sound of the blasting caps my uncle used logging in Oregon, but much worse. It was so loud and so deep, it made me sick. It happened four more times and then stopped.

Within minutes, the phone was ringing. It was the "mayor cell" (kind of the Mike Hein of Camp Slayer) asking me where all of my soldiers were. Had anyone gone to Camp Victory? There had been a rocket attack.

They had hit the chow hall.

As an operations officer for JIOC-I (Joint Intelligence Operations Capability-Iraq), I was responsible for distributing soldiers, maintenance crews and classified equipment throughout Iraq to target insurgents and protect coalition forces. It was a job that took me all over the country.

The 15 soldiers in our unit had a big responsibility. We had only three guys to field and maintain the intel equipment for every maneuver brigade in Iraq. Things broke down all the time, and I had to fight to get soldiers, contractors and myself on Blackhawks and Chinooks; if I failed, in some cases, intel operations would literally shut down. There weren't enough pilots or choppers to accommodate everyone. You had to have some rank, or your people would go to the end of the line.

Being a lieutenant didn't give me a lot of clout.

But I knew one way to get a flight--a flight that actually arrived on time and landed when it was supposed to. There was only one hitch: You had to fly on fixed-wing C-130 aircraft with al-Qaida prisoners. We called them "Con Air" flights, although the Sunni insurgents didn't have much in common with John Malkovich.

I talked to an insurgent from Jordan who could speak English. The guards told me he had been caught planting IEDs.

I asked him what his goal was. He told me he wanted to kill as many Americans as he could and drive us out of the Middle East.

"So what happens if you accomplish that?" I asked him. "What's next?"

He wanted to know where I was from.


He nodded. "Then we go to your country and kill as many Americans in New York, California and Arizona."

In many ways, most soldiers will tell you, the Army sucks, thanks to coma-inducing boredom, Paleolithic bureaucracy and soul-destroying groupthink. But the one glorious thing the Army does--and does so thrillingly well--is create fantastic, giant killing machines. Tanks, howitzers, Bradleys--they are all wonderful things. But there is nothing quite like flying in a CH-47 Chinook helicopter. No matter how many times I do it, it is a mystical experience.

Flying in a Blackhawk is pretty cool, but the Chinook is even better. It's not faster or as maneuverable, but it is enormous and loud--until the day I die, I will never forget that feeling of being in one.

The whole process of flying on a helicopter is disorienting. You'll be told, "OK, sleep it off in this tent for a while, because we're not sure if we're even going to bother to fly your sorry butt from this pathetic little helo-pad tonight."

And then: "I can't believe you're not on the goddamned flight line already! Get out there!"

It's after midnight, and you run out there with all of your gear, and in seconds, you are whisked inside the bird. The two rotors are spinning, creating this pulsing, pumping, heartbeat of a sound. You dump your 50-pound ruck sack on the floor of the helicopter; you strap yourself in; you're off. But that sound stays, with the addition of the sound of the engines. It's this hysterical screaming that never stops.

There are two gunners. They each occupy one side of the helicopter. The only light is a red light that brought back memories of the Halloween haunted house at Schumaker Elementary School in third grade. As soon as you get up in the air, that light goes out, and the only light left is the green glow of the night optics in the right eyes of each of the gunners.

It is freezing cold inside the Chinook. The gunner doors are open, and the back is open, too. The wind, the lights of Baghdad and the gunners swooping their weapons around every couple of moments--all while this machine is screaming at us--gets burned into your memory.

Thinking about it makes me want to go to air-assault school. It's a 10-day, harrowing Army course. The downside is they scream at and abuse you for the entire time. The upside is you get to rappel out of one of these helicopters and learn how to create a landing zone and sling-load objects for them to carry (like Hummers and howitzers).

I sort of wish I were 19 again. I would have signed up to be a gunner. This lawmaker thing is all well and good, but I could ride in one of those things every night of the week and be happy.

In mid-December, I returned from a trip to Fallujah in time to see Sen. John McCain in Baghdad. I got a chance to ride to the Al Faw Palace with him. He commented on the beauty of the palace and the lake in contrast to all of the wreckage around us.

I told him that Saddam used the lake to drown more than 700 opponents of the regime. It is one of the strange quirks of the country that even the beautiful things have a darkness beneath the surface.

McCain had Sens. Susan Collins, Lindsay Graham, Joe Lieberman and John Thune with him. They met with Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, and I got the chance to sit in on the meetings. They asked him some tough questions, and got some blunt and honest answers back.

The most important questions came from Lieberman. He asked about al-Qaida. The reality, he was told, is that al-Qaida was less and less of a problem. It was sectarian actors, principally Shia militias, that were causing most of the violence. Iran's actions in arming them and training them through Hezbollah, along with corruption and/or complicity in the Iraqi government, were becoming ever-greater factors in the problems here.

I felt like Dante's tour guide in The Inferno, pointing out the significance of this or that piece of rubble. I got to show Saddam's throne to Collins. She seemed to enjoy seeing it. (It became the favorite tourist picture at Camp Victory.)

I liked talking to her the most. She was quiet but very thoughtful. She didn't say much during the briefing, but after it was over, she leaned in toward me and asked, "What do you need more of here?"

Her whisper kind of hung in the air while I thought about it. "You mean more than booze and good cigars?" I asked.

She smiled and nodded. I thought back to my trip to Fallujah with the Marines and the trips alongside al-Qaida detainees on the Con Air flights. I thought of mortar attacks and small-arms fire. I thought of the underlying difficulty involving every operational element I had been a part of since I got here--whether it had to do with air transport, intelligence analysis or the guys pulling the trigger in the field. I had the feeling that what I said might actually make a difference somewhere, at some point (maybe I was just fooling myself), so I told her the honest truth as I saw it at the time.

"We need more troops, especially here in Baghdad."

A week before Christmas, I found myself in lovely Camp Bucca, which is near the Kuwaiti border. In fact, to get there, I actually had to fly to Kuwait and back again. It's the Theater Internment Facility (TIF), which is a fancy term for "Muddy Jail of Iraq" for all pretrial prisoners.

We flew in on a Blackhawk and saw acres of razor wire. Middle Eastern men in canary-yellow jumpsuits squatted in the dirt and played volleyball.

You can't hear anything in the Blackhawk. The rotors are too loud. The Military Police brigade commander looked over at me during the descent and ripped my unit patch off my Velcro attachment, then asked me what the symbol was. I told him it was a sphinx or some such thing, and he scowled. He wasn't big on the Multi-National Force-Iraq patch, apparently. He put it back on my shoulder, but kept a suspicious eye on me for the rest of the trip.

I was squired around all day by a master sergeant in a "gator." A gator is a product of the John Deere company. If you profess ignorance of its existence, you lose massive soldier manly points (a lesson I learned earlier when I didn't know the difference between "dip" and "chew"). A gator is like a powerful golf cart, with a more manly, soldierly mien. It took me over every bump and mud puddle while I went about my mission.

In Bucca, I got to see all the choads who had been shooting at us for the last few months. Now they were in their yellow jumpsuits, and there were absolutely no sounds of attack--just shouts when they scored a point in volleyball. I wasn't PTSDed out or anything, but the first time somebody slammed a door here, I felt startled and found myself looking for cover.

The chow hall was no worse than Slayer, but it wasn't better, either. The more fancy-pants the name of the item in the chow hall, the less fancy it tastes. (Things like cordon bleu are in this category, although "fancy peas" are strangely OK.) The only things the Army seems to cook well are spaghetti and chili mac. When it deviates from this formula and makes forays into the fancy world, it fails, and I fear we will lose the war.

At night, Bucca was lit up with stadium lights. The TIF itself didn't look like a jail; it sort of looked like a Wal-Mart on Christmas Eve. If you squinted a little bit, you could imagine a modern Ward Cleaver zipping in to get little Sally AA batteries for some talking, pooping doll he and the missus bought her to go under the tree.

Instead, it's just guards and contractors zipping around in gators.

Christmas arrived with a lot of rain. I didn't do a very good job of packing. It was a freakin' desert, for God's sake. Who knew? Thanks to the miserable weather, every flight we tried to book got canceled the whole week.

On Christmas Day, I had the first break of my entire time there. I slept a lot.

When I got out of bed, I went into our headquarters. The soldiers had gotten all of their packages of food and things from home and had turned it into a Camp Slayer candy buffet. It was actually pretty cool.

Late one January night, I watched detainees coming off a C-130 Con Air flight. They came down the ramp blindfolded and single file, stumbling into each other. I got aboard after they unloaded, and we flew to Al Asad, which is in the far west of Iraq. The Marines dropped us off at the Al Asad prison airport. It had huge fortified hangers that looked like ziggurats reaching up to the sky.

A Marine took us in to Al Asad. We all worked 17 hours a day, but as a guard at the prison, he looked worse than we did.

"You start to get a sixth sense after a while," he told me in a thick Boston accent. "At first, I would be guarding them. A guy works with you on a work detail. You think he's a good guy. Works hard, you know. Then they come and take him to Camp Cropper. That's when you find out he's a bad guy."

Cropper is the detention facility where they kept Saddam. It houses all of the high-value detainees.

"If they end up at Cropper, then they're involved in something pretty bad," he explained. "After a while, though, it becomes a little game to figure out which one of your guys will end up at Cropper. They don't tell us what they've done or anything. You just find out when they pick 'em up. I've gotten pretty good at it, just by looking at a guy."

Justice in war zones is a little more about gut checks than the legal legerdemain on Law and Order. The Marine told us he probably averaged about three or four hours of sleep a day since he got there. Why? Not enough guards.

"We need more Marines," he told me. "Christmas Day, we got 45 detainees. We finished processing them 36 hours later."

Away from the prison, the camp at Al Asad was empty of vegetation and worn down like someone took a machinist's file to it. It had that industrial look about it, with high berms of packed earth along the edges and bulldozers scraping the dirt down. It reminded me a little of a rock quarry in the last scene in an action movie where the villain has lured the hero to his apparent doom.

But the chow hall was still better than Camp Slayer's.

Toward the end of my hitch, I became convinced that the Shiites (with the backing of Iran) were the biggest problem. The politicians (the Shiite ones who control things, anyway) are preventing rebuilding and improvement projects from happening in Sunni neighborhoods, which is helping drive frustration and prolong violence.

It wasn't that money was being siphoned off--most of it hadn't been spent anywhere at all. It was all just sitting there. The two big problems financially were the corruption in Basra (think of a mafia New York fish-market approach to skimming oil for resale) and the same thing going on up in Mosul. The money in Mosul was going directly to the insurgency.

Iran was emerging as a huge problem. They were getting Hezbollah to help Sadrist elements make IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and VBIEDs (vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices). We found munitions that had a distinct Iranian quality to them. (The Israelis say they are indistinguishable from the Hezbollah bombs.)

If I were George W. Bush, I would make it damn clear to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that he had better cut his ties to Sadr, allow for provincial elections (to give Sunnis a voice in their own towns and neighborhoods), engage the Sunni sheiks in Anbar, clean out corruption in Basra and Mosul, and start letting aid go into Sunni neighborhoods.

The thing that shocked me--and other soldiers I met--was just how reliant we were on contractors. Some contractors were good, some not so good. But no matter how good they were, they were making more than $100,000 a year for jobs that soldiers do for a fraction of the pay.

In our unit, contractors outnumbered soldiers.

I never realized how precarious things could be until there was plane crash near Baghdad. The plane had been shot down near Warhorse, a place I had been dumped for a few hours the week before. A contractor, a soldier and I were supposed to fly the day it was shot down, but our mission got canceled. Rumors came back that it had been shot down by an SA-7 (shoulder-fired missile); others said small-arms fire.

The grisliest thing we heard, though, was that there had been some survivors, but the insurgents executed them at the crash site before the rescue teams showed up. Whatever the truth was, the effect it had on our unit was bad. First, one contractor refused to fly anymore; others soon joined him.

I have rarely been more angry. If a soldier refused to fly, we would be court-martialed, but a contractor? They weren't paid six figures because they were brilliant. They were paid that much because they were willing to risk their lives. So what happens when they refuse to risk their lives?

In this case, nothing.

Their strike lasted no more than a day, and then they were convinced to fly--but the damage to my confidence and trust had been done.

I don't want to give the impression that they were not good. Many were former soldiers who were extremely talented and valuable at what they did, but the growing realization of how dependent we were on them when we were desperately low on soldiers still bothers me to this day.

My last day in Baghdad, there was an incredible amount of mortar fire. It kept hammering at us until a B-2 made passes overhead at nightfall. They're stealthy planes, of course, but not when the Army doesn't want them to be. The pilot turned on his afterburners, and the sound functioned like an off switch hooked up to the indirect fire from the enemy. They had experienced what aircraft like that could do, and they did not want any part of it.

I grew up near Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, and I always gave the sound of jets flying over little thought. Whenever you heard them in theater, it meant something bad was going to happen to someone trying to kill you. I don't think I will ever hear that sound the same way again.

I don't think I will ever experience a lot of things the same way again. I do not know what the future holds in that place. Whatever war we entered into when we got there is not the same war now. The war changed. Iraq changed. If we leave, it will change again--to what, I have no idea.

Iraq changed me, too. The biggest change is that fewer things bother me anymore. Consequences for mistakes will never be quite what they were in Iraq. In many ways, I miss it--or more accurately, I miss the people I met. My OIC was given an impossible job, and somehow, he made it work. The NCOs I served with from Fort Huachuca amaze me to this day.

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