Special Reports

A Humvee is a hard place to catnap in Kirkuk

We accompanied Bravo Company on a patrol Sunday evening. It was shortly after dark when I climbed into the Humvee. We were going to patrol the Azadi neighborhood of Kirkuk during the Kurdish New Year's celebration.

The soldiers were both psyched up and a little apprehensive. Any holiday or special event in Iraq, such as the recent elections and election results, meant lots of shooting (mostly celebratory) and IEDs (the dangerous roadside bombs known to the military as improvised explosive devices), mortars and rocket attacks (definitely not celebratory).

Staff Sgt. Brad Attebery loaded his M-4 as soon as we left the compound. "Just in case," he said.

-- Roger Phillips

I've often joked that I could do a story in my sleep. Usually I'm referring to one I've done several times before or a story about a subject I know well.

But one night here in Iraq, my joke collided with reality. My sleep cycle has been messed up since I arrived here last week. I know the root of the problem is crossing 10 time zones in 24 hours, but after a week, my wake/sleep cycle is still topsy turvy.

For example, it's 6 a.m. as I write this, and I am normally a swornenemy of the single-digit a.m. hours.

On Saturday, I lay awake almost the entire night. As hard as I tried, I could not will myself to sleep. I often have insomnia, so I know I can survive about 24 hours without sleep, but then I crash hard.

I felt surprisingly alert on Sunday, a little fuzzy headed, but not bad considering I rolled around all night like a rotisserie chicken and barely got any sleep.

Then we went out on the Sunday patrol. It was a warm, humid night, and I sat in the back of the Humvee feeling toasty. The rumbling Humvee and the bouncy road made me instantly groggy. I was the baby in the backseat: I quickly nodded off.

I snapped awake and gave myself an ass chewing. "You have to stay awake! This is serious stuff. Something could happen out here. You have to be alert."

I tried pushing my feet against the Humvee until my legs ached, I tried quietly slapping my face a few times, a little exercise and discomfort to keep myself from nodding off.

We stopped at a police station, and I tried to sneak away and do pushups to get my blood pumping. But sneaking off at night in Iraq is a bad idea, and I didn't want to explain why I was doing pushups in the middle of the police station parking lot.

We left the police station and resumed our patrol. I dozed again.I decided maybe if I let myself take a short catnap, I would wake up afterward. But I couldn't recline or even rest my head against anything, so whenever I fell asleep, my head would just kind of hang there. A hard corner or quick braking would jostle my head and wake me back up, then shortly after, I would nod off again.

The refreshing alertness after a nap never came. I alternated between awake, asleep, and that hazy realm between the two.Anytime we came to a ditch or pothole, the driver, Sgt. James Carter of Nampa, would yell "bump" to alert the gunner in the revolving turret, who might be facing backwards and not know it was coming.

This routine usually snapped me awake.

Once he yelled "bump", but my groggy brain heard "bomb" as the Humvee slammed into another pothole. A jet-powered surge of adrenaline and fear shot through my body.

Seeing no flash and smelling no smoke, I quickly realized I misinterpreted what he said.

"Boy, now I'm awake," I thought.

I got out my notebook, and jotted down a few garbled notes as we bounced along in the Humvee. I noted the look of the city, the sights, the sensations.

Then I nodded off again.

We would hit another bump and I'd wake up, look around, take a few notes, and nod off again -- sometimes in the middle of taking notes.Midway through the night a string of tracer rounds shot across the sky above our Humvees. I happened to be awake at the time. They looked like a single-file line of fireflies streaking across the sky. We went in pursuit of the shooter, snaking down a thin alley and speeding around the neighborhood where it came from.

No luck. As soon as the excitement of the chase wore off, I dozed again.

When we got back to the patrol base, I was rummy with fatigue. I went upstairs and crawled into my sleeping bag on the top bunk.

I slept like a rock.

-- Roger Phillips