Warm-Basing in Iraq

Article and photos by Specialist Danica Cho

January 2009

Recently, I was invited to hop onto a five-day mission with a squad in 2nd platoon, to “warm-base” by spending several nights at a Combat Out Post (COP).

“Welcome to our squad,” said SGT Jerod Elder, the squad leader and convoy commander for the mission, as he kindly extended his hand to shake mine. I was designated to ride with Sergeant (SGT) David Lamb and Specialist (SPC) Morgan Llewellyn.

SGT Lamb.

SGT Lamb, at the helm of his ASV.

The December air was unmercifully cold. As I settled into the passenger seat of the Armored Security Vehicle (ASV), I heard Private First Class Nicholas Ronberg burst into laughter outside. I glanced at SGT Lamb sitting next to me, who had suddenly donned a bright red Santa hat — with a white fuzz-ball tip — snugly on top of his Kevlar helmet. I knew then that this mission was definitely going to be interesting…..

This would be my first time riding in an ASV, an all-terrain vehicle that looks like a 4-wheeled cardboard box on steroids. Surprisingly, it is a very smooth ride. Driving through Iraq, sometimes one can easily forget that this is a war-torn country. The sandy desert and mountains are a beautiful backdrop to small towns decorated with intriguing Middle Eastern architecture, lively marketplaces and children who run up to the roadside to wave at our passing convoy.

Stuck in the mud, in the middle of nowhere, Iraq. SGT Lamb attaches our ASV's winch and cable to the larger MRAP vehicle, in hopes of getting towed out.

Stuck in the mud, in the middle of nowhere, Iraq. SGT Lamb attaches our ASV’s winch and cable to the larger MRAP vehicle, in hopes of getting towed out.


When we finally reached the COP, the small post looked like a prison courtyard, with armed Soldiers posted inside watch towers and high cement walls lined with concertina wire. Small shacks, industrial trailers and tents dotted the post. It seemed as if the entire world was painted in various shades of gray, olive-green, khaki and brown.

“Bacon!” squealed SGT Lamb with joy. He pointed to one of six brown-and-white spotted puppies roaming in a decrepit yard behind a Turkish souvenir shop. “Oh my god he’s my favorite! Look at how fat he is! He doesn’t even have a regular tail like the others. Look — he’s got a little nub!” Bacon waddled over and gleaned as much hand-snuggling as he could from SGT Lamb. I am now convinced that there is some kind of unwritten cosmic mathematical equation which dictates that unique souls tend to gravitate towards each other.

Beloved Bacon, and his nub.

Beloved Bacon, and his nub.

My growling stomach reminded me it was time to feed. The chow hall reminded me of an Amish shelter, with its wooden cross beam ceilings, long tables and communal benches. Apparently, hot meals were now a hard-to-find commodity, since a prior Army unit recently departed, along with their Mobile Kitchen Trailer (MKT) and beloved cooks. There were boxes of snacks in the chow hall, and traditional Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MRE) were always available, but I guess I had become too much of a spoiled princess to resort to MREs. In times like these, I ask myself, “What would Martha Stewart do?” My mind drew a complete blank. I stuffed a mixture of teriyaki beef jerky and Doritos in my cheeks like a chipmunk preparing to hibernate for the winter.

Oh well, I thought. At least I was fortunate to get a heated room to sleep in. The guys in our squad generously gave the single heated room to the females — myself, “Mama-H” and “Bam-Bam” – while they slept outside in a tent. It was nice to know that even during these not-so-ideal Army times, chivalry still existed. I began re- arranging the belongings in my duffel bag.

Welcome to "Le Shack Hotel," luxurious, heated lodging for the ladies.

Welcome to “Le Shack Hotel,” luxurious, heated lodging for the ladies.


Herrera’s “t-shirt dress.”

“Look,” said Mama-H, “My shirt is so long, it looks like a dress.” I turned to see her standing in nothing but a sage-green t-shirt (normally worn beneath the ACU) that reached ridiculously down to her knees – I laughed so hard I collapsed onto my mattress in a fit of giddy convulsions. Bam-Bam awoke to the sound of my laughter and smiled in amusement when she, too, saw Mama-H’s fashionable t-shirt dress. When she returned to her bed, Mama-H and I started girl-talking about our man- troubles.

“Do you like the movie, Chicago?” I asked. It was one of my favorite musicals, about women who were in prison for taking criminal vengeance on male lovers who had jilted them.

“I love that movie!” Mama-H nodded.

“I have the soundtrack if you want to hear it!”

We played the CD on her laptop and sang together to our favorite lyrics: “He had it comin’! He had it comin’! He only had himself to blame!” We kicked our hands and feet in the air to the beat of the music and giggled like schoolgirls in a slumber party. “If you’da been there…If you’da seen it…..yanno know that you would have done the same!” I had forgotten how therapeutic dancing could be.

In all seriousness, after our initial night of “girl-bonding,” we started each morning with convoy visits to Iraqi police stations. Team leaders dismounted their vehicles, armed with full body armor, weapons and radios as they conducted their meet-and-greet sessions with the police chiefs. Gunners mounted high in their turrets kept vigilant eyes on their surroundings. As I sat inside the ASV, I couldn’t help but feel an extremely heightened sense of awareness of the people and things around me, tinged with a slight dose of paranoia. Why is that man opening the trunk of his car and what is he reaching for? How many men are standing on nearby rooftops? Do they have weapons?

While waiting for our team leaders, I grew to really enjoy chatting with my gunner, SPC Llewellyn, through the vehicle’s internal communication system. I had casually known SPC Llewellyn for nine months, but it wasn’t until our indepth time together that I learned about him having grown up with 3 sisters, Sunday school, our mutual interest in chess and criminal justice, and his plans to pursue a college degree and become a civilian law enforcement officer.

SPC Llewellyn greets Bacon, and his siblings.

SPC Llewellyn greets Bacon, and his siblings.

It never ceases to amaze me how easy it is to bond with fellow soldiers, through sharing personal stories, goals and dreams. All that you need is a good sense of humor. It is no wonder why teams and squads prefer to do just about everything together, even when they’re not on missions; eat together, work out at the gym together, even take salsa lessons together (there is a wild rumor that female soldiers in Baghdad salsa-dance in their Army t-shirt and shorts uniform, while wearing high heels – now this I have to see!).

After the team leaders finished conducting their businesses in the police stations, we returned back to the post, where everyone was then free to enjoy the rest of the day. Everyone, that is, except for SGT Elder, who had to maintain contact with the Operations cell back home on our Forward Operating Base (FOB) and was constantly bombarded with changing directives. Such is the life of a squad leader — always having to take care of your soldiers, with little or no personal time for yourself!

Once our squad was given the green light to enjoy some “down time,” the guys clutched their laptops and scurried like mice into the post’s small computer lab, to lose themselves in email and MySpace. There was also a communal T.V., DVD player, couches and shelves full of books. Colorful drawings and letters written in cute chicken-scratch from Stateside children decorated the walls. They shared tidbits of their lives – their friends, their hobbies, their thoughts on war and patriotism, and their family members who were also here in Iraq. They showered us with gratitude and wished us a safe return from deployment. There were photos of young Boy Scouts proudly carrying flags and taking oaths, determined to become soldiers and Marines someday.


A Marine Corps unit shared the post with us and extended their hospitality one night by cooking huge steaks on their barbecue grill for our entire squad. One Marine Corporal, who spoke with a mellow Cajun accent, even gave me a steaming bowl of his homemade gumbo. He insisted it wasn’t “real” gumbo because it didn’t have any sausage and kept apologizing, but I thanked him profusely because I was grateful for his homemade food.

The Marines kindly shared their food with us. Here, a steel drum barrel is converted into a makeshift grill, for mass-barbecuing.

The Marines kindly shared their food with us. Here, a steel drum is converted into a makeshift grill for mass-barbecuing.

Another Marine graciously served us a hot “T-ration” breakfast in the Amish chow hall every morning, which we devoured before rolling out on our missions.

U.S. Marine serving chow.

U.S. Marine serving a hot breakfast.


One morning, our squad was looking forward to visiting a local sheik, who had invited us to lunch at his home. As we were milling around the vehicles on post, conducting a “commo check” to ensure that our radios were synchronized to communicate with each other and the Operations cell, we suddenly received word that the mission was on hold. Bam-Bam was vomiting in the bathroom and had been immediately rushed to the medics on post. The Navy Corpsmen working in the medical tent concluded that she had been suffering from dehydration and treated her with an IV of saline. Bam-Bam rested on a cot beneath a warm blanket while Mama-H stood overhead, running her fingers through Bam-Bam’s hair like a comforting mother (hence the nickname, “Mama-H”). As Bam-Bam rehydrated for several hours, Mama-H and I made ourselves comfortable in the small tent, which was decorated with a red Persian floor rug that lent a sense of coziness.

We chatted with the Corpsmen, Hospital Man Herring and Hospital Man Andrew Lindholm — who were sincerely caring and professional – about common places that we knew (like Ca-li-for-ni-a!), our careers, special people in our lives….Hospital Man Herring proudly showed us a framed picture of his baby girl, who had the most adorable chubby cheeks and shared his exact eyes, nose and lips.


Hospital Man Herring in his Medic’s tent.

Another Corpsman entered the tent, unpeeled his gear and remarked about how there had been an explosion in a nearby town and he had just finished treating an Iraqi Police officer, who had received shrapnel to the head. The Iraqi was going to be okay, but it was a grim reminder that although missions sometimes feel like parties – slumber parties, barbecue parties, Amish breakfast parties – the reality of it is, this is Iraq and there is still a very real war going on.

By the next day, Bam-Bam had recovered and it was time to return home to our Forward Operating Base. I left the post feeling reluctant to leave but grateful for the new, wonderful experiences. I am also very grateful to my team and squad of 2nd Platoon for having the patience to show me the ropes and have me along for their ride. It is definitely a ride that I will never forget.