I present to you all today a real-life story from my old friend, Wisner. He and I served together about 20 years ago as junior enlisted soldiers, and years later, served in Iraq at the same time – without either of us knowing that the other was there. In his words, this is one of those “footnotes of the war that you are unlikely to read about anywhere else.” Thank you for your service, my friend. Even when conditions were crappy…
by William Wisner
Sometime around March of 2008, I was living at Combat Outpost Cashe, in Area of Operation Blackhawk, Iraq. COP Cashe was located in the Tuwaitha Nuclear Compound, which was Saddam’s old nuke facility. It was here that I discovered the inner part of myself that defined who I was as a man and more importantly, as a Cavalry Scout.
COP Cashe was a weird blend of living conditions. As outposts go, it wasn’t horrible. We were surrounded by a 300 foot sand berm that Saddam had built in a futile attempt to protect his precious facility from air attack, so mortars only rarely landed inside of our living area. Usually, they would slam into the berm wall that surrounded us but occasionally they might hit a vehicle parked on line. There were never any real injuries from mortar rounds that I can recall.
I mention this because prior to moving out to COP Cashe, I lived at Forward Operating Base Hammer and had lived through the July 11th, 2007 rocket attack that killed one 3rd ID soldier and wounded 15 others. The sound of 120mm Iranian rockets slamming into the ground again and again all around you is an unsettling experience and so those big wonderful sand berms at COP Cashe were like a security blanket that I loved and appreciated. The trade-off was that we were living in nuclear waste that the government had ensured us was nothing to worry about (but that’s another story). After dealing with Iranian rockets, I was ok with taking the long term gamble that I might someday grow a third eye or something far worse. A man has got to know his limitations and just what he is willing to humor when push comes to shove.
We had porta-johns at COP Cashe, and while better than burn barrels (we had those too for times the porta-johns were full), they were sometimes lacking in the level of attention you would desire from the Iraqi contractor that the Army paid to clean and service them.
Now, as anyone who did time in Iraq can probably tell you, your guts just don’t work correctly from the time you got to Iraq until a few days after you got home. The human body was incapable of expelling anything that didn’t look like pudding the whole time you were there. I’m not sure why that was, but it’s just one of those footnotes of the war that you are unlikely to read about anywhere else. For this reason, the porta-john was the go-to office of choice over the burn barrels for most of us. Besides, pooping in a barrel and peeing in large PVC tubes just never became comfortable to the point where you would do it if given a choice.
One day I found myself in need of making an emergency visit to the facilities. It wasn’t a particularly hot day, so I didn’t mind the prospect of a mid-after noon visit to the green plastic sweat shack and my rumbling gut wasn’t giving me a lot of time to think about options anyway. And so because of this necessity, I ran into the first available porta-john. Once I opened the john, it was more than filled to the brim. In fact, a pyramid of grey goo stood rising above the seat like the Great Pyramid of Kufu rising over the western Cairo skyline. Even with the Iraqi poop-weasel that was attempting to claw its way through my abdomen, I wasn’t prepared for that. Luckily, there were several to choose from, all set up in a straight line. I tried the porta-john on either side of the first door that I had opened, and they were in the same shape. I was pretty sure I was physically incapable of pulling off a successful hovering maneuver with such stress on my body. It was in the middle of this moment of panic that I remembered that we had another set of porta-johns near the space where we parked our gun-trucks. These were usually in better condition as they were out of the way. I turned and bolted for the truck line as fast as I could run while bending over with stomach muscles clenched, trying to contain the ancient Babylonian demon within me.
I somehow made it just in the nick of time and began to drop trouser while doing a quick survey of the situation of this particular john. I was in luck. This porta-john was in pretty good shape. In fact, I could still see the strange bright blue liquid that the Iraqi contractor used to fill the holding tank and with great relief and while giving thanks to God Almighty I sat down, pretty sure that I was about to give birth.
No sooner had I made contact with the seat, there was the sound of a violent explosion. The porta-john rocked hard to the left and I threw my hands quickly to the opposite interior wall to keep the john from tipping over. The weight shifted and the porta-john rocked back to the right. Now, if what I am describing is hard to visualize as you read this, I encourage you to go fill a large cooking pot with water and then shake it violently from the left and to the right and see what happens to the water inside of the pot. Well, that’s what happened to this porta-john. Ridiculously vibrant blue water (and other liquids) sloshed out from inside of the tank on which I was sitting, and rolled all over my thighs and sprayed over my arms, stomach and back.
I sat for a moment in what anyone that has been on the receiving end of indirect fire can tell you is a supernatural period of time-halted silence as you process what is happening and you hold your breath as you await the second round.
Nothing happened. I was overcome with the urge to rush to the closest bunker and seek shelter. I stood and began to literally haul ass when I realized I was covered in blue dripping… stuff. I had a choice to make. Should I make a run for it, covered in blue filth, with my pants around my ankles, or do I take my chances and try to clean myself off enough to pull up my pants before seeking shelter?
I couldn’t hear anything from outside. No cries of “Medic!” or the sounds of people rushing to the gun trucks, ready to roll to a point of origin for the round that landed. Surely everyone was already taking cover, waiting for the next round to land. Every fiber in my body was screaming at me to get the hell out of there and get to cover. Every ounce of pride and dignity that I had developed over my short 33 years on earth was telling me that if I did make it to cover, my Joes and fellow NCOs would never let me live down being half naked and covered in blue porta-john shit water.
All combat arms units are a harsh environment filled with even harsher men, but the Cavalry was especially ruthless. At that moment, death had looked me in the eye and smiled and I knew what had to be done. I smiled back. I knew that if the second round that was surely incoming any second now was to land directly on top of me, I would be remembered a hero, welcomed with open arms into Fiddler’s Green. While my death inside of a small plastic shit house would be tragic, it wouldn’t be something talked about by my comrades as they told their children of who I was and how I died. I was reasonably sure the notification officer that would break the news to my family would leave out the part of where I met my maker. I would take my chances. I began the hurried task of cleaning myself up with the baby wipes that I carried in my cargo pocket. You would be surprised at just how fast you can move when properly motivated, even if the task at hand is a horrible one. If you look up motivation in the dictionary, there is a picture of me in that small plastic stall.
I finished the job and came bolting out of the porta-john. I ran around the corner of the large abandoned and largely ruined office building that we living in only to see life on the COP going on pretty much as normal. Soldiers sitting on the sand bags that surrounded the front entrance of the building, smoking cigarettes and swapping stories. Another soldier walked into one of the porta-johns that I had originally attempted to use only minutes earlier. I expected him to turn and walk out himself, instead the little green “OPEN” dial spun to the red “IN USE” label. Nasty bastard.
I stood for a moment taking it all in before walking casually inside of the building trying to process what was happening. I made my way to the room where my entire platoon was quartered together. My soldiers sat at the makeshift table in the middle of the room playing cards. I ignored them as I walked past, not even attempting to offer an explanation of my current state and they didn’t ask. I fetched my toiletry bag, towel, and shower shoes and then made my way to the pathetic low water pressure shower trailer that would be my salvation.
As it turned out, there had never been a rocket. There was no Vehicle Borne Explosive Device that had tried to crash our gate. There wasn’t even a lucky mortar round that rocked my world on that day. Instead, some Explosive Ordinance Disposal guys had brought in a cache to do a controlled detonation in the burn pit just outside of the gate to our COP. Either no one announced the controlled detonation or I just somehow didn’t hear it in the midst of my bathroom emergency situation. When the first blast sent the shockwave that shook the porta-john I was in, I apparently over-reacted with my cat-like reflexes in my desire to not re-create the famous porta-john stunt from MTV’s Jackass.
Not many men can say that they have truly faced their mortality and had to make the hard decisions. While I had many other anxious moments while in Iraq that give me pause even today, it was that day in the porta-john that defined the limits of what I was or was not willing to do in the name of honor. Every morning that I wake up since that sunny afternoon, I walk with my chin high and know that when push came to shove, there was no way in hell that I was going to give my rowdy, loud, rude, and juvenile humor-loving platoon of Cavalry Scouts that kind of ammunition on me. And that, dear reader, is among my greatest moments as a scout.