“If You Didn’t Put It Down, Don’t Pick It Up”

When we accepted our deployment assignment, we knew we would probably be in more danger than living at home in Utah or Iowa. When I first heard I was assigned to COB Speicher near Tikrit, I asked an Air Force Reservist who had deployment experience what it would be like. He replied, “Don’t worry, they’ll probably have someone assigned to take the bullet for you” . . . What bullet?

Red Cross staff are assigned to offices on military bases, and in deployed locations, we are forbidden, absolutely forbidden, to leave under any circumstances. Before we arrived, the only danger I had heard of would come from airborne mortars (referred to as “incoming”) As far as I could tell, these attacks have been few and ineffective in the last couple of years at COB Speicher.

What I didn’t know until we arrived is that an undetermined number of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) and UXOs (Unexploded Ordinances) were buried here by the former owner, Saddam Hussein. At Ft. Benning, we received a briefing on these explosives, and even though I knew I would not be going out past the wire — the military expression for leaving the base — I paid close attention and even took notes. Pop cans, watches, and cell phones are often used to lure someone into picking it up. We were instructed to never, ever pick an object up off of the ground – never. The rule from that point on has been, “If You Didn’t Put it Down, Don’t Pick It Up.”

I learned about the existence of these hidden explosives within hours of arriving at COB Speicher. Everyone was talking about the soldier killed by an IED on base the day before. Although the grounds were scoured by bomb detection teams when the base was first occupied by U.S. troops, some devices have emerged over time as the ground is disturbed by weather or construction. Rumors circulated for a few days about what the soldier might have touched and whether he had followed protocol. Had he done it on his own? Was he assigned to clean up an area? I never heard for sure, but again we were warned not to touch anything on the ground that doesn’t belong to us.

For the last two weeks, crews have been digging trenches near our CHUs to lay improved plumbing lines. I am all for enhanced plumbing, but I was nervous about the backhoes working so close to our living quarters. I was reassured that the area had been screened extensively when our troops took over and not to worry.

Last week, as I was walking to the office from our CHU, several Humvees raced past me with their sirens blaring. I didn’t know that Humvees have sirens. Apparently some do. They stopped at our block of CHUs. By this time I was over half a mile away and couldn’t see clearly what was happening, so I continued on to work without giving it much more thought.

My colleague Julie was in her CHU asleep. She is our late night case worker and comes in near the end of my shift. According to her, a soldier pounded on her door and shouted at her to run 150 yards beyond the garbage dumpster. A rather startling awakening, but she did as she was told. No questions asked. She stood there shivering until the all clear was called and she went back to bed.

Julie assumed an explosive of some sort had been found in the garbage dumpster. At work that night, she said she would be apprehensive about throwing anything away after this.

We later heard that two live grenades were uncovered by the back hoe. The EOD (Explosives Ordinance Disposal) team removed the live items without incident. For the most part, no one talks anymore about the incident that killed the soldier before our arrival, and the news of the grenades was only news for a day or two. We move on.

We still laugh a little though, thinking about Julie’s new fear of garbage dumpsters. Until she learned that the explosives were in the trench and not in the dumpster, she was in the process of developing a new approach to taking out her garbage. Step 1 Approach dumpster and lift lid very carefully. Step 2 Toss garbage in. Step 3 Run like crazy. This would look strange enough around here, but imagine people at home observing this behavior when she returns.

All of that was days ago. It rained yesterday for the first time since we arrived. The air smells chalky, and our attention has turned to the advent of the rainy season.

P.S. To my family; Julie’s family; and Carolyn, our supervisor in DC; please do not be worried by this account. We promise: we won’t pick anything up!