The early spring of 2004 found me in Salah ad Din Province, Iraq; frolicking carelessly through the endless palm groves along the Tigris River by day, and kicking in a multitude of doors by night. I was 29 back then and a Scout Section Leader in a Mechanized Cavalry Squadron. My Squadron’s Area of Operations was centered around the relatively small town of Ad Duluiyah. Predominately Sunni, Ad Duluiyah had a population of roughly 50,000 people; and while I have no census data to back this up, I would estimate that by the time we left, they had a population of about 49,900...give or take. Being Sunni, the former leadership in the town had belonged to Saddam Hussein's now defunct Ba’ath Party. In addition, being one of the myriad of towns and cities that had been completely bypassed and ignored during the invasion a year prior, they did not at all feel defeated even after the regime had fallen and Saddam had been captured. They had spent the previous year gathering weapons, planning operations, and waiting for the right time to start opposing our presence. All they really needed was for the coalition to do something so heinous as to build popular support for the steadily growing insurgency. Thanks to the commander of Multi-National Force-Iraq (MNF-I), the CIA, and a few pathetic losers dressed as Army Reservists, they were given exactly what they needed...The Abu Ghraib Prison Scandal.
Overnight, the insurgency in our area, which had been relatively quiet, increased its attacks at an immense and alarming rate. ‘Kill an American Day’ had been declared throughout the country and that day would last for about three years. IED’s, RPG’s, Small Arms Attacks, and Indirect Fires were now as commonplace as the call to prayer ringing out five times a day from the many minarets that dotted the skyline. In other parts of the country, they targeted embassies and bases of coalition partners in an effort to drive those elements out of the country and leave the United States isolated. It was an absolutely brilliant campaign and even rivaled the 1968 Tet Offensive in terms of both tactical and strategic gains. Needless to say, things got really sporty. In an effort to keep people from burning out, a policy was put in place that would give those fighting there a few days off in-country in addition to the 14 day R&R program. This four day break would take place at a mountainous resort on the banks of Lake Dukan in the northern part of Iraq commonly referred to as ‘Kurdistan.’
Soldiers were plucked from units throughout our Division based on their R&R lottery numbers. The higher the number you picked, the further away your 14 days were...so those troops were selected first. I’d be going as my number was 118 out of a Troop of approximately 130 Soldiers. My friend, Smitty, from 3rd Platoon was going as well so I was happy about that. One clear morning, Smitty and I loaded up into a plastic HMMWV for the relatively brief, but often sketchy, convoy to Balad. We’d be flying in Chinook Helicopters from Logistical Support Area (LSA) Anaconda all the way up to Lake Dukan but there was a lot of bad road between us and our aircraft. Surprisingly, we arrived without incident and were soon taking in the vast expanse of the Iraqi desert from about 200 feet in the air (even at that altitude it still smells like shit). Later on after we arrived, someone said we’d taken ground fire but to this day, I doubt that. However, there were two Chinooks and for all I know Brian Williams may have been on the other one.
Lake Dukan is absolutely beautiful and I spent about the first ten minutes on the Landing Zone trying to comprehend that a place like this even existed in Iraq. The lake was crystal blue, surrounded by mountains, and the air was actually clean and devoid of the odor of raw sewage which plagues the rest of the country. The hotel even had a pool and the grounds were meticulously landscaped. A Staff Sergeant met us all and escorted us into the hotel. The first thing Smitty and I saw was what can only be described as the 'Undeniable Crown Mesopotamian Jewel' (UCMJ)...a fully stocked bar. We were led down to the basement to a room where our gear and weapons were inventoried and then stored. From there we went to another room where we would naturally have to endure the mother of all buzzkills; a standard, lengthy, mind-numbing briefing. He began the briefing by informing us that since we were still in Iraq, General Order #1 was in full effect. This meant that despite the presence of alcohol (which was at that moment being removed from the bar), we were not permitted to drink. I am fairly certain that the combined groan of everyone in the room could be heard in the far reaches of space. The briefing continued as he excitedly explained all the activities in which we could partake. These included mountain biking, boating, fishing, and kayaking. He followed that by informing us that since this was a new program, not all of the equipment that had been ordered had arrived. The equipment that hadn’t arrived included mountain bikes, boats, fishing gear, and kayaks. For anyone that has ever served in the military, this made perfect sense. He also mentioned a bazaar just down the street but within the guarded perimeter that we could peruse. We were then escorted upstairs to the front desk where we would be assigned our rooms. Smitty and I got assigned a room together so we threw our assault packs over our shoulders and pouted our way to the third floor. We then spent the next four hours on our individual beds watching ‘The Godfather’ on his portable DVD player. We both agreed that this sucked and that we wanted to leave.
There was a knock at the door about an hour into ‘The Godfather Part II’ and I will be forever grateful for it not only for the information we were about to receive, but also for the fact that I didn’t have to suffer through another terribly boring movie. Two guys from Headquarters Troop came storming in as soon as I opened the door proclaiming that there was beer at the bazaar and we needed to go right then. Not requiring any additional information, Smitty and I rapidly dumped the contents of our assault packs and the four of us headed out the door. As soon as we walked through the bazaar entrance, there it was...a massive cooler full of Heineken tall boys. Even though I don’t like Heineken, it was a beautiful sight and I swear it had a glowing aura around it just like Rick James does. The shopkeeper took a little convincing but soon all four of us were leaving with packs on our backs that contained 24 individual tall boys each. The cost of this haul per person…$60. It was a steep price for sure but when you combine supply and demand with the probability that we may all be dead soon, $60 was more than fair. Over the course of the next four days we went to the bazaar every morning after breakfast and spent the rest of the day and night completely ‘wallpapered’ off of that delicious ‘Nokum Stiff.’ We rented a boat from a Kurdish man and went out on the lake for an afternoon. We somehow all got invited to a Kurdish family’s house for a huge party they were having one night. I elected not to go as it was outside the secured area and I like my head where it is, but the other three guys had a great time and made it back safely. Word spread like wildfire and soon every hotel guest was drinking everywhere. Personally, I’ve always believed that discretion is the better part of valor but it was clear that I was in the minority.
The late afternoon of day four found us hungover as usual and sitting on the Landing Zone waiting for the Chinooks to come pick us up and fly us all back to reality. The birds showed up on schedule but after landing, one of them shut down. One of the pilots and a crew chief approached us and asked us how it had been. Being discreet, we explained that most of the equipment hadn’t arrived and there wasn’t much to do. Someone then said “Yeah, except drink.” This caught their attention and after determining that they were cool, we explained to them the bazaar and its glorious supply of beer. They laughed and after a few minutes returned to their aircraft. Not long after, the other Chinook completely shut down and the two returned only this time with the other aircraft’s two pilots. They explained that aircraft #1 was having an issue with a hydraulic pump and that they were going to have to replace it. By Standard Operating Procedure each aircraft flies with a spare so the delay would be relatively short and we’d be wheels up as soon as they replaced it. However, the issue, as the one pilot explained to the other three, was that if they installed the spare pump, they would no longer have a spare pump with which they were required to fly. This would mean that they would have to submit an Air Mission Request to have a spare pump flown up to them. However, being so late in the day, their AMR would not get approved for a few hours and their needed equipment would not get flown up to them until the next morning. Pilots are geniuses.
Needless to say, we all got our rooms back and then headed to the bazaar with four pilots and six crew chiefs in tow. The next morning we found a few of them passed out in the empty hotel bar (two slept on pool tables) and the rest were in lounge chairs next to the pool. A few hours later, two Blackhawks arrived with a spare hydraulic pump and we took off for 'home' shortly thereafter.
As you may imagine, several changes were made to the Lake Dukan experience after we were there. I could (and maybe even should) apologize to any of you reading this that visited that place after April 2004. You most likely found the entire area devoid of any 'spirits' and most definitely found yourselves under the constant watchful eye of a Sergeant Major. However, no apology shall be forthcoming as I'll bet you had kayaks.