Mortar Hour

08/11/2011 05:47 pm ET | Updated Oct 11, 2011

I used to go to happy hour, and my pocketbook was sad to see it end. Now I sat through mortar hour, where tensions ran high until that far-off explosion followed by silence signified that another day had passed. The mortar hours, as they were affectionately known, lasted between 6 and 7 a.m. and 6 and 7 p.m. Dusk and dawn. Too dark to do surveillance with the naked eye, but still too bright for our night-vision technology. These times were just right for a young, bold JAM (Jaysh al-Mahdi) soldier to scurry out, fire one off and retreat back into the cover of the bustling city. These shots in the dark came like clockwork, and for many of us, they grew to mean the beginning and end of the work day -- a far cry from the foreman's steam whistle of the industrial age.

Time, low odds and regular repetition quickly turned these once nerve-wracking events into just another blip in the daily blur. My schedule of 1 a.m. to 1 p.m. landed morning mortar hour right in the middle of my work day, about when our shift was ready for breakfast. My chow partner and battle buddy since basic training was Dave. Dave refused to leave the safety of our hard building until the official end of mortar hour. It was for the best, anyway; during these hours the Command Center was all a buzz with promotion-hungry officers and gung-ho Sergeant Majors, all of whom were hellbent on somehow preventing the unpreventable.

During these times the Brigade leadership would frequently send a gopher back into our secure area to see if we had heard any chatter about an attack on the base. For the entirety of my 14 months, they never gave up the hope that we would somehow intercept information in real time about someone intending on hitting our FOB. It never did work out that way, though.

It was 06:55 in the morning, and I was keeping an eager eye on the clock. I pressured Dave to leave early, citing my growling stomach as support for my proposed breach in breakfast protocol. He stoically declined.

At 07:01 we were already outside the building making our way though the T-wall maze that surrounded most buildings on FOB Loyalty, particularly the ones that housed the "important" leadership personnel. We joked about the interpreters and their latest antics as we trudged away from our building. Both Dave and I had drawn short straws from the bounty of lousy luck that Ft. Polk (our stateside duty station) had to offer when we first arrived at our unit two years prior. The short straws came with the long and heavy consequence of being gunners. Our FNG ("fucking new guys") status and green ambition resulted in both of us humping a heavy machine gun for the duration of our deployment. This seemed fine at first, but after two years of ranges and thousands of rounds fired, I was carrying my regret slung across my back in the form of a small cannon. We both were.

As we stumbled along, our body armor and weapons clanking, I imagined us as knights of old, our swords banging against hammered-steel shields, bumbling carelessly toward the morning rations. But this musing would have to wait, as I was pulled back into the present by a familiar sound: the unmistakable hiss of a rocket motor firing, followed by the whizzing sound of its flight. I'd heard this sound many times but always from the comfort and safety of a hard-walled building or training scenario. The training we had been through was supposed to prepare us for this exact situation. In theory, muscle memory would take over and our extensive and repetitious training would kick in. You hit the ground or run for cover. Not as cut and dried as we soon discovered.

The rocket burned by directly above where we stood frozen in place. We heard the ear-ringing explosion before we moved an inch toward any sort of cover. We both made a run for it, even though the impact had already happened a considerable distance from us. Unfortunately, we had a difference in opinion on which hard shelter was closest. We began a hard sprint in opposing directions, toward each other. You'd be surprised by the amount of momentum that two below-average-sized soldiers can generate in just a few small steps. We slammed into one another full force and took each other to the ground like only two equally matched linebackers can.

We hit the ground with a thud. A single unit of stunned, windless sinew and unyielding kevlar plate. On the ground we met near eye to eye, well within each other's personal space, and simultaneously began scrambling to stand, a menial task if not for the clusterfuck of loops and straps that our gear was covered in. During this unprovoked tackle the carrying straps of our machine guns had crossed and become entangled and stuck around the long barrels of the weapons. There we lay squirming on the ground for what seemed an embarrassingly long time until we eventually regained enough focus to separate and get back to our feet. A quick look around to check if anyone had seen the debacle revealed that only the two of us still remained outside of cover and so, this failure would be ours alone to tell.

In an instant we went from fear to confusion to embarrassment and finally settled on hysterics. The adrenaline rush followed by extreme relief left us bursting with laughter so hard that neither of us could breathe enough to get a word out or walk upright due to the splitting sides. We walked casually and quickly to check in with command, eyes filled with tears, bent over and roaring so violently that I thought I might hit the ground again.

Back upstairs we took turns recounting the step-by-step breakdown of our "close call," all the while gasping for air between uncontrollable giggling. A few laughed with us, but many of the newer faces wore an expression of uncomfortable amusement. I didn't blame them. I myself don't completely understand the reaction we had to our first brush with real danger. I know now that it wouldn't be the last, and most wouldn't have such a happy ending. This one did, though. We made it to breakfast that morning, grins plastered on our faces, and ate like it was our last meal.