Recovery Days in Iraq, 2003

When on deployment, the day-to-day routine can be roughly divided into mission days and recovery days.  You either have a formal mission handed down through the chain of command, or you have the day to maximize your mission readiness in anticipation of whatever the next mission is.

I was part of an armored combat engineer unit based in Baghdad in the early stages of the post-9/11 Iraq War.  Our missions were quite varied.  We picked up from the ground and transported scattered enemy munitions (including mortars and RPGs) from blasted supply points around our area.  We resupplied 40+ local elementary schools with desks and other supplies for the kids (though sometimes having rocks thrown at us by the kids during these deliveries).  We organized work crews to clean out and restore the broken down canal system.  I could go on and on.  But when we didn’t have an “outside the wire” mission, that often meant that we had a recovery day instead.

iraq chicken laundry

During a recovery day, soldiers are basically expected to conduct maintenance on themselves and their equipment.  These days can be pretty great, and looking back, it is amazing how excited I would be just to spend all day doing chores.  First of all, this included catching up on personal hygiene and laundry.  Early on, showers and laundry were done with water stored in a big common “water buffalo” maintained by unit headquarters.  Just a large green camo-colored tank filled with water for all to share, unsafe to drink but safe to clean with.  Small brown containers were used for bringing the water from the buffalo back to your living area.  If you planned ahead, you filled up your smaller brown containers in advance of your recovery time, strategically setting them either in the sun or shade to get the temperature right.  That way, you could ideally have good temperature water to wash your clothes with.  And after washing your clothes, you could use the water left in those brown containers to dump over your (minimally soaped-up) body for a shower.  (Showering first was dangerous because the brown containers were very heavy when completely full.  Wouldn’t want to drop one on your head or toe, or both.)  And if you were a vehicle driver like myself, you typically preceded these chores with early morning vehicle maintenance, to ensure constant unit readiness and to take advantage of the morning’s relative coolness.

After hanging your clothes up on a line, the afternoon-to-evening was time for weapons (generally rifle) maintenance, reading and writing letters, working out, playing card games, or what-have-you.  The idea was to stay busy and preoccupied.  For a while I had a chicken that we had picked up from an Iraqi marketplace, sort of a pet.  There were also small lizards crawling around that you could stick on a block of ice, watch them turn into little frozen statues, and then put them back in the sun.  After a few seconds they would slowly defrost and begin crawling away.  (Seems cruel now, but seemed a quasi-scientific, life-of-the-mind sort of thing at the time.)  As the sun went down in the evenings, a low-rolling, streaking cloud of hundreds-if-not-thousands of bats would fly right over our living area.  All chaotically darting this way or that, turning on a dime mid-air, zigging and zagging.  This amorphous collective thing was mesmerizing.  They weren’t a threat — they never landed or came near any of us.  Which isn’t to say some wouldn’t come close, within just several feet.  In fact, their nearness inspired my curiosity so much that I acquired (I don’t remember where) a butterfly net and would waive it through the just-out-reach cloud of bats, hoping to catch one, if only for a moment.  I’m grateful that I failed, but it was a lot of fun.

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