From the Anthology 

Veterans’ Voices

Camp Anaconda

Mansa L. Bey

Baghdad, Iraq

September 2004




The sun was setting, and the area’s insurgent cell had begun their awakening. Throughout the city, you could hear the ratta tat ratta tat, then the bratttat, bratttatat beneath the emerging Baghdadian crescent moon and stars. The sounds of war were a consent melody that you could never become familiar with. Oftentimes, I would find myself measuring the possibility of death by the distance of sounds. Direct hit explosions. The paced rattle of the machine gun. The bang of small arms fire.

Sometimes, these sounds could be heard from off in the distance; other times, the war sang with the closeness of stereo surround sound. The mortar bombs were the most tricky to determine because the sounds starts with a faint thud with an ensuing whistle that approaches, then a sudden boom! And if you were brave enough to look for its position in the night sky, the tailed bomb’s trajectory resembled a descending star that moved gracefully against the transitioning sky to where you were, only for you to be consumed by its explosion.

Base Camp Anaconda served as a main camp for a transportation unit responsible for moving armored vehicles and ammunition to various base camps throughout Iraq. This base camp was under constant threat because it held vital supplies for American troops. Our 1st platoon was attached to the unit for the purpose of security. The nightly serenade of the screaming warheads’ calculated fire became a normal thing during the days of Ramadan for the soldiers of Base Camp Anaconda, especially under the cloak of night. The 825 transportation unit had eight soldiers. Already the camp was war fatigued, putting everyone on edge while death awaits. The hot mid-September day’s bright blue sky set into a violet hue and towards night fall, we heard the bombs incoming—searing the air to scorch the earth.


We never knew where the mortar round was likely to land until it hit. Small enough to be fired from the back of a 4-cylinder Mazda pick-up truck, mortar bombs were one of the many weapons of choice. Mortars are usually a simple, lightweight, man-portable, muzzled-loaded weapon, consisting of a smooth-bore metal tube fixed to a base plate with a lightweight bipod mount and sight. With the folding of the Saddam regime, Iraqi soldiers either surrendered to US troops or went underground to fight in small bands of rebel cells, hidden in the various neighborhoods throughout Baghdad. Father, sons, uncles, cousins, friends—all of the men felt obligated to fight. The majority of their weapons were made by hand. Improvised Exploding Devices. Rocket Propelled Grenades, even some of the mortar triggers. The small bands of rebels did their most clandestine activities at night and during Ramadan. The use of mortars was effective for guerrilla war because they were easy to use and had a four-mile range. 


You could always hear the incoming before the mortar round hit its mark.




The base camp was made of shipping containers and large and small canvas tents. Large semi-trucks loaded with armored vehicles, tanks, and Humvees were parked in the motor pool section, surrounded by 10-foot concrete walls. Sharp concertina wire was coiled and strung along the top and bottom of the barricading wall. The field grade fortification of the base camp could not withstand the bombardments of the guerrilla factions, where the mortar rounds that were lobbed over the wall had a four-mile range and could land anywhere.


The mess tent was full of soldiers. Soldiers were waiting in the chow line for tonight’s special: “field grade chicken and mashed potatoes with green peas and a side of Tollhouse crackers,” read the mess hall menu board. It was considered field grade because it was a meal of army rations concocted to taste as such. We had just rolled into base camp—after a six-hour, two-way convoy returning with tactical vehicles. We were looking forward to chow. It was a thing to look forward to in the hellhole of war.


“And what do we have here!?” 


Specialist Vargas declared in the midst of the surrounding mess hall chatter, poking his plastic fork at the creamy beige mound of chow in the middle of his tray. He scooped up an amount of the mush into his fork to investigate closely. A traveling custom as a “field grade chow” connoisseur.


“Well, bro, I’m not sure—but whatever that pile of crap came out of had green peas for lunch,” Sergeant Franceway said in his answer for everything way. 


“There you have it—gourmet bowls of crap,” I said, pushing my tray away, settling for the side crackers and the makeshift tart water that’s supposed to taste like lemonade. 


“Aw, man, gross!” 


Spec. Vargas pushed his tray away and settled for the crackers just as I did—disgusted by Sgt. Franceway’s comment and its truth.




The shrieking sound of the mortar round descending resounded closer. Our base camp was its target. 




Our hearts quaked as the ground shook. The lights flickered above our heads, disrupting our sustenance, for this attack was strategic. Its timing was during the evening chow and shift change. 


 “Yo—did you feel that shit, bro?” Vargas said, looking around, noticing the flickering lights.


Before Sergeant Franceway could say it, a panicked solider pushed through the tent flap from outside in a rush, and yelled, “INNNNCOMMING!”


The proper response to the bombs awakened us to the beginning of that evening’s rain of deadly artillery. 


“Did he say ‘incoming’?” 


A startled question I posed to the team in reaction to the announced battle. All three of us watched the sudden rise of chaos and confusion that left a trail of distressed soldiers along the five rows of dining tables.


“Great! This shit had to kick off on our watch!” exclaimed Sgt. Franceway.

Then we grabbed our weapons as the base camp jumped into full alert.








The alarms sounded the call that triggered all exposed soldiers to take cover. The third mortar round blasted loudly right outside the tent, creating the panicthat pushed us all from our meals out into the terror of enemy assault. 












Our voices echoed beneath the basecamp’s sirens and rolling red lights. We moved out quickly, passing along the call in the way that we were trained. With our weapons slung across our backs, we rushed out of the tent, pushing past those who were afraid. We began to zigzag across the base camp towards our awaiting Humvee in the motor pool, one hundred yards away from the mess tent. We already knew the mission, which was to seek and destroy our enemy, a motto that became our way of life. Our Humvees were already gassed up, loaded, and ready to go after the small band of Iraqi rebel forces.





Night began to fall in the midst of the kicked-up dust. Chaos consumed the base camps as the mortar bombs crashed into random targets. The woman’s latrine and showers. The mess tent we all just evacuated. The generator behind the mess tent. Debris was thrown about. Tents were collapsed. Carnage appeared in the dissipating smoke as it revealed the injured and maimed. Random secondary explosions ushered the day’s dusk into twilight, as small fires kindled in the bottoms of newly formed creators as the entire base camp ran and shuffled for cover.




Another mortar fell from the sky.


“GO! GO! GO!” Sgt. Franceway yelled as we zigzagged across the open field.


Spec. Vargas led the charge. “HOLY SHIT!” he yelled as the close explosions caused him to jump, run, and duck at the same time.


I kept my eyes forward and knees churning high towards the motor pool – the bombs were getting louder and louder, closer and closer, reverberating the ground with strong aftershocks, creating the sensation that hurled me faster.


The soldiers in the motor pool were in disarray. “WE ARE UNDER ATTACK!” they shouted as they scrambled to and from. It was apparent the coordinates of the motor pool were the rebel forces’ aim. The launching guerilla’s improved accuracy was determined to meet the mark. Some soldiers moved to aid and assist. Some soldiers moved into tents for concealment, while others moved into their fighting positions to defend with their weapons drawn, donning their flak vest and Kevlar.



The pacing of the mortar bombardment got quicker, sounding like rolling thunder.




In a patchwork pattern, sand and earth blasted while the ground shook—collapsing a fleeing soldier in his stride right in front of me, surrendering him to a gaping crater that appeared beneath his feet, like a shallow grave.



The transportation unit specialized inmoving needed supplies tactically throughout the war zones of Iraq; they weren’t known for their ability to engage, react and respond to attacking enemy combatants. It was up to us—as the MPs designated to seek out the insurgency—while my platoon moved to react as the quick response team. As Combat MPs, we were attached to the base camp to deter attacks on the base as well as the supply convoys to and from the base camp. First Platoon held down these duties in two 12-hour shift rotations. Convoys only operated during the day. Local combat patrols operated at night. Second Squad, which was my squad, handled the patrols that made us the QRT—the quick response team.

“GO! GO! GO!” Sgt. Franceway shouted the obvious to us as we finally closed in on the motor pool.


Our team was the lead, so our Humvees were first in line. Getting to the vehicle, I hopped onto the hood and jumped down into my seat in the torrent. I loaded my weapons as Spec. Vargus started and gunned the engine. Sgt. Franceway ran down the line of vehicles to check if the two other teams were already in. They all replied with thumbs up, motivated. 


Coming back from his quick inspection, Sgt. Franceway hopped in the passenger seat and grabbed the hand mic.


“Team 1 … This is Team 1 over …” 


“Copy that, Team 2 …” 


“Copy that, Team 3 …” 


The radio responded indicating that we were ready to roll. 


“Alright, ladies and gentlemen. Let’s move out … over!” Sgt. Franceway said into the mic, eager to engage. 


Weapon locked and loaded, I braced myself for the coming combat, praying that I made it out alive.