Memoirs from Iraq


Memoirs from Iraq
Car bomb at the Iraqi Government gate. Car bomber's foot was all that was left.

Rob called me into the office area of the suite.

"Alright brother what's the gig? What will I be doing when I get to Iraq"? I ask.

" That's not my job mate, I just get the paperwork ready and find a way to get you up there", Rob said.

Ok, I could buy that, but I just wanted someone to tell me what the hell I would be doing when I got up north. Rob pulled out a contract and started flipping pages. I was no scholar when it came to contracts, so I was going to just have to trust that Rob wasn't blowing smoke up my ass. The contract listed everything from pay, per-diem, travel and the company's responsibility as far as getting me back home at the end of the deal.

" Now your K&R insurance isn't all that much, so try not to put yourself in a bad situation," Rob said.

"K&R insurance, what the hell is that?" I said.

" Kidnap and Ransom policy just in case you get your ass nabbed" Ron said.

I thought to myself, “my God!, I could get kidnapped”. Then Rob asked me a question I wasn't quite ready for.

" How much do you think each part of your body is worth mate?"

"Excuse me?", I said.

Rob said " Listen, if you lose a leg an eye or even your balls, we need to know how much to pay out".

I'm sure I was looking at Rob like he had lost his mind, he began to smile lightly and said

" Look, we are insured by a company called Lloyds of London. They ensure all the Hollywood stars, hand models, musicians and shit like that " They insure by body part depending on how much you think it's worth to include your life".

I am certain Rob thought I was changing my mind because it took me just a minute to digest what he was telling me because this situation never crossed my mind.

" Ok, give me the paperwork", I said.

Rob told me after putting everything neatly into a folder and then into a file cabinet, that I would be leaving for Baghdad the day after tomorrow. I went upstairs and climbed into bed. I laid there for a long period of time not being able to get my mind off of the fact that I had just literally put a price tag on each part of my body. I didn't know what to think. However, I did know this, that I was worth much more dead than I would ever be alive.

I had not been back to Kuwait since 1992. My tours in the middle east had landed me in many of the countries of the region in and around the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz. Now I was back as a civilian and had no clue as to what I was headed for or what I was getting into. But it was traveling, and it wasn’t boring, so I felt right at home as I headed to the destination that would start my new career.

Global Risk Strategies was a company based out of London that was hiring former military men with specific skills for certain duties throughout Iraq. After talking to a recruiter from the company, I was offered an opportunity to join them in Baghdad, Iraq. I eagerly accepted the offer and felt that this would be a move that could be life-changing, and the money was awesome at $550.00 a day and the adventure was exactly what I had been looking for. I wasn’t sure what I was being hired to do because, oddly enough, that was never specifically discussed prior to my travels. I knew I wasn’t what was considered a tier-one guy when it came to special operations. The Marine Corps is an elite group of highly trained men and women in many different areas. And my role in the Marines was that of a GRUNT, the one whose job was to go into combat loaded for bear, find the bear and kill it. I had been with many MEUSOC ( Marine Expeditionary Units / Special Operations Capable ) units and had acquired specialized skills in things like waterborne operations, hostage rescue, close-quarter combat and so forth. But we were not as specialized as smaller operating groups that I thought Global Risk Strategies was looking for. Normally before going into an operation, a special operations unit such as Marine Force Recon, Navy Seals, or some other entity already had eyes on the target, feeding our unit as much information as they could about the enemy and the area. Size, location, weapons, and reinforcements were just some of the important details these units provided, and it was priceless information. For the men watching the target days and even months before we entered the picture, life for them was dangerous, to say the least. They had no close support, worked in very small teams, and if they were compromised, the chances of survival were slim. For my unit this wasn’t the case, we didn’t really care if the enemy heard us coming because we were looking for a fight, to begin with, and had the preparation, means, and capabilities to destroy the enemy. I had read that many of the ( Private Military Companies), or PMC’s, as we referred to them, in-country were looking to hire these special operation guys.So, I wasn’t sure in what capacity I was going to be used by the company, but no matter how small the job, getting my foot in the door was going to be the key to success.

As I pulled into the grounds of the Hilton Resort in Kuwait City I was overtaken by how lavish of a resort that had been built in a perfect spot right on the Persian Gulf. It was guarded by the Kuwait Army (not that that was a soothing thought), it had huge walls surrounding it with every kind of shop and store you could think of from pizza to Starbucks to fine clothing. It was advertised as a five-star hotel with two large pools and a large beach right on the Gulf. It was the kind of sight that could make anyone feel important. And it certainly made me feel a certain rock-star status like I had never known before. At that moment, my mind went back to years earlier when I was back in Kuwait sitting in the middle of the desert with my 60-mm mortar platoon. No nice hotel resorts or pizza or Starbucks, just dirt, sweat, and a gourmet meal ready to eat, or MRE as the military referred to them. Now, I didn’t have to look out for the sand viper or the black scorpion that would easily kill you if you didn’t get treatment right away for the bite or sting. No, this was nice, I was loving life at the moment.

Rob was a native New Zealander with a thick accent and a very welcoming demeanor. He was the project manager for the Global operations in Kuwait and was the one that made sure all travel into and out of Iraq was done smoothly and without incident. Rob was a super nice guy.

" Come in mate and let me show you around". Rob said.

I was a bit overwhelmed, to say the least. This place was a two-story suite with about five bedrooms inside. It had a full kitchen, bar, and living room area with extremely comfortable furniture and a big screen tv with all the bells and whistles. Just outside the double sliding glass doors sat a full swimming pool area with a cover to keep the sand and wind away. And Just past the pool was a long white sand beach that leads right down to the warm waters of the Persian Gulf. I would be eating in the hotel restaurant that was no doubt a five star, all while laying around catching a few rays out on the beach and out by the pool. But after sitting down with Rob and signing that contract, I knew a good life was starting to narrow down a bit.

The next day I woke and took advantage of one more day of good eats and the sun in my face as I laid out along the Arabian Coast Line. That night after dinner, Rob once again summoned me downstairs to the office.

" I would like you to meet your ride into Iraq". Rob said.

Standing in front of me were three Russians of which only one spoke very broken English.

" Hello" I said.

Two nodded their heads and one spoke in a comrade type voice that sounded like it came out of a Rambo movie as he said, "Nice to see you".

That was it, no more conversation and they turned and left the suite. I asked Rob where they were going and he told me they didn't like to stay with the expats. Expats, short for expatriate, essentially means that you are not a citizen of the country you are in.

"Well", I thought, "how Russian of them".

Rob said, " Get some sleep mate, tomorrow could be a long day for you".

I ask Rob, " What kind of aircraft am I flying to Iraq in?"

" I think it is an Antonov 72". Rob said.

" What the hell is that?” I ask.

" It's a cargo plane They are taking some equipment north for us," Rob said.

It was at this time I realized I wasn't in the Marines any longer, this was some type of mercenary operation and I wasn't sure now what I had really signed up for. I barely slept at all that night. The next morning we were up early, moving gear to the van that would take us to the cargo aircraft side of the Kuwait Airport. My Russian counterparts had nothing to say on the way there. We pulled up to what looked to me to be the biggest aircraft I had ever seen. I had not seen a plane that size since I flew the freedom bird out of Okinawa, Japan. The pilot, co-pilot and what I assumed was the navigator, climbed aboard first. I followed close behind. They climbed into the cockpit and started doing checks. I was looking around the back of the aircraft. The belly was full of all kinds of equipment that I could not make out. What I did notice was that most of it were metal and not one piece, not one, was tied down. Now I began to think that I would be killed from all the cargo flying around in the back of the plane once we hit turbulence of any sort. I was only hoping that if this happened it would cut off one of my $50,000 dollar fingers and not my head. I noticed two seats, one had a seatbelt attached to it, and the other, a two-inch rope attached to each side. These were the only two seats on the plane. I stood for a second thinking maybe I should just get the hell off the plane and go home. Before my thoughts overcame me the navigator spoke, "You sit". I moved toward the seat with the seat belt when he said,

" No sit there, sit here" and he pointed at the seat with the rope.

I said " This seat has a seatbelt",

he said, " Yes, seatbelt, but seat no good". He touched the seat and it almost fell over. " Sit here, seat good, tie rope, everything ok".

Now there have been times in my life that my Christian Southern Baptist roots have kicked in and caused me to pray harder than normal... this was one of those times. The plane began to taxi down the runway and there was no turning back now. As we landed at the Baghdad Airport, I thought to myself, " Damn, I have been on a thousand aircraft in my life and that was literally one of the smoothest flights I have ever been on". The flight taxied to a stop. As we exited the plane there was no thank you for the flight, see you later fellows, nothing, they just walked off and left me standing right there in the middle of the tarmac. They did not signal for me to go with them, as a matter of fact, they looked more like, “you better not follow us”. I had no idea what to do, so I just stood there. In the distance, I heard what I thought was gunfire but I wasn't sure. I began to feel uneasy but I couldn’t determine why. I knew I was unarmed and I did not like the fact that I was now in a combat zone with no protection. I looked around the tarmac thinking of all the times while in the Corps I had stood on one of these. Then my mind went back to my first experience with tarmac and I didn't even know what the word meant.

It was March 1983, and I had just joined the Marines. I had a long day. First, we got up early and headed to the MEPS, the military processing station, where we endured a day of being poked, prodded, and screamed at for doing nothing wrong and herded like cattle until we finally swore into the Marines and moved on. Move on we did. I left Rock Hill, South Carolina and went to the Charlotte Airport in North Carolina to be flown to the Charleston Airport back in, SC so that I could catch a bus to Parris Island two hours away. I lived in Kershaw, SC at the time, a small town that was only two and a half hours from Parris Island. I could have walked there in less time than it took them to get me there. Once I landed in Charleston with two buddies, we began to hook up with more men who had made the same decision we had. We were told by airport staff that we were to report to a certain area of the airport and someone would be there to take care of us. After a while it was starting to get dark when I turned and noticed this slim, young, black Marine dressed in his blue pants, khaki shirt and white Marine cover, walking toward our crew.

I told the men "Hey here comes a Marine now".

I said, " Hey man how are you?"

" Sit your fucking ass down!", the Marine barked.

This was not the response I was waiting for. Up to this point, every Marine I had ever met was nice to me! Not this one. What was worse is that this wasn't boot camp, this was the airport.

"I am Cpl Wallace, you will sit there with your right hand on your right knee and your left hand on your left knee. You will start everything you say with Sir and you will end everything you say with Sir. I don't expect any questions".

He went and sat behind his liaison station and there we sat, just as he said, not saying a word. But not my dumbass. After about an hour, I couldn't take it and I cracked a stupid little joke, to this day, I can't remember what it was that I said, but it must have been funny because my so-called friends started laughing.

" Who said that"? Who the fuck said that!?"

It didn't take two seconds for everyone to look right at me.

"Come here smart ass!". Wallace screamed.

The Cpl very kindly took me to the window overlooking the runway.

" Put your nose on the window, keeps your hands by your side, stand with your heels together and don't you move shithead. Enjoy your look over the tarmac".

So there I stood for the next two hours watching planes land and take off as sweat from my breath dripped down the window. And the whole time I was trying to figure out what a tarmac was.

Now as stood on one in Baghdad, I knew what one was. I still had an uneasy feeling that I just couldn't nail down. Then it happened, I heard a massive explosion in the distance. I didn't know what it was but I knew it wasn't supposed to sound like that. All of a sudden it hit me... that for the first time in my military-style life, there were no Marines around me. Now the unease turned into more of a butterfly in the stomach feeling than anything else. What the hell am I doing here? I thought this over and over as I looked around, no one, nothing just an empty tarmac. What now?

I stood wondering if I was going to have to start walking. Maybe my orders were wrong and I was supposed to walk into an office somewhere inside the airport. As I gathered my gear and tried to get my ground direction loaded into my brain, I saw a car off in the distance headed in my direction. I thought this may or may not have something to do with me. At this point, nothing was going to be a big surprise. As the car approached I started to feel a little more at ease, finally, someone was coming to direct me. A nice BMW that looked like something off of a showroom floor pulled up right in front of me and stopped. As the driver door opened I wasn't sure if I should walk forward or stand my ground. I noticed the top of his head as he stepped out of the vehicle. He started to rise and it seemed as though he was never going to stop moving toward the sky. This guy was like, 6'4 and could have played linebacker for any NFL team that I knew of. He walked slowly in my direction, stopped, looked down at me, as I only stand about 5'4, 5'5 with combat boots on, and said

" Are you Catoe?"

"Yes", I said.

"I am Mike", he replied as he put his enormous hand out for me to shake, engulfing my entire forearm. I noticed his accent wasn't American. He was a black gentleman and well-spoken when it came to the English language.

" Mike where are you from?", I ask.

"Fiji", Mike said. " Come on Catoe, we have to go and get the Col. Before we head out". I didn't question the man but rather put my gear in the car and climbed into the back seat where Mike had directed I sit. I wondered who the Col. would turn out to be. I wasn't sure if he was an actual Col. or if he was retired. Then I wondered what his nationality was, whether he was from Fiji, and ultimately what kind of military did Fiji even have?. As we drove back towards the airport, I could see other people moving around and the feeling of loneliness began to lighten. We stopped at the logistics hub where I got to take a peek at how large an operation Global was running in the country. It was huge, they seemed to be responsible for the vast majority of the country’s money and banking distribution, not to mention security posts in and outside of the major cities of Iraq. I was impressed at the organization but was still wondering what part of this operation I was going to be part of. A distinguished-looking gentleman came around the corner and I knew right away that he was no doubt the Col. He spoke in a deep British accent and carried himself like an aristocrat. He was quite a cheeky fellow and I felt right away as though I was lower than scum to this guy. Without even acknowledging me, he looked at Mike and said: " Ok, drive us to the gate". I was starting to see the size of the Baghdad International Airport, or BIAP as it was referred to there. Saddam Hussein had palaces built all around the country and it was no different at the airport, with buildings that looked like the living conditions would be awesome. I was starting to wonder if this country was as bad as I had been led to believe. It didn't take long for the reality of this place to begin to take hold. We pulled up to the gate leading out of the BIAP. We were in a line of vehicles, both military and civilian, and it looked as though the guards at the gate were spacing out the vehicles as they left so that they didn't get bunched up. The Col. Finally spoke, " We are headed to the Green Zone mate". I wasn't sure what a Green Zone was, but it sounded safe, considering the word ‘Green’. The Col. took out an AK-47 and inserted a magazine and made the weapon hot, that is he put a round into the chamber of the weapon. Mike pulled out a .45 caliber pistol and did the same. " Mike, keep your damn foot on the gas, if I start shooting, you just keep driving and don't fucking stop until we are at the Green Zone gate" the Col.said.

I am now in the back seat of an unarmored vehicle with two people I have never met in my life, I’m going to be riding down the longest most dangerous road in the world, ( I didn't know that yet ) and I am unarmed. My mind was telling me to get out of the vehicle and back on a damn plane. As I seriously considered it, it was too late, Mike shot out of the gate like a bolt of lightning. My heart began to race as I started noticing burnt out military and civilian vehicles, some still smoking from either blowing up themselves or being blown up by some other force. My extremities began to go numb as my fear level was so high that the blood in my body was moving to my vital organs to keep them alive and I alert. I kept looking at the speedometer over Mike's shoulder. 90 mph, 110 mph, at 130 mph I leaned back in my seat and wondered why, for some reason, I wasn't wearing my seatbelt. I closed my eyes and said the first of many prayers to come.

Read next: My Review of "Da 5 Bloods"
Dana Catoe

Retired United States Marine with four combat tours. Retired Law Enforcement. Currently Head of Security for a school district.

See all posts by Dana Catoe