An unfashionable sense of patriotic duty had landed me in the military
and the Army had sent me to Saudi Arabia. The Gulf War had been over for a
few months and we were well into a miasma of operations that earned me a
bronze service star for being involved in three combat operations
simultaneously. Operation Desert Storm was just ending and Operation Southern
Watch was just picking up. I can't for the life of me remember what the other
one was, maybe Operation Desert Possum, they all start to sound the same
after a while.
The war may have been essentially over but someone forgot to tell Saddam.
He was still shelling his own population with chemical agents, flying the
occasional sortie through the no fly zone and every once in a while he'd lob
a scud missile towards one of his neighbors. Because the "War" was over most
of the troops deployed for combat had returned back to the states
leaving the REMF's all nervous and unprotected. They'd never admit to
wanting us around, but they needed help bad, because not only did Saddam want us
out but some of the Saudi's weren't too happy that we were still hanging
That's where me and my ilk came in. We were infantrymen deployed as
"Combat Security Support." Basically, we were combat soldiers attached to the
3rd Army Corp to be deployed as necessary to provide security for missile
sites and the occasional patrols. Same old work, different description. Because the
war was technically over though, we had severe restrictions on our rules of
engagement. We were knee deep in "non-combat" combat operations and the air
was thick with orders of non-confrontational aggression at any cost, as long
as no one was hurt or intimidated. The Army is full of double negatives and
contradictions but I had enough conflicting orders to make a libertarian
choke on their civil rights.
We were supposed to protect United States personnel, equipment and
interests with deadly force, if there was absolutely no other course of
action. If terrorists stormed the perimeter and we could positively identify a
threat, then we were authorized to request permission to load our weapons. To
prevent any accidental wounding, harming or frightening of alleged hostile
forces we were required to store our ammunition magazines in a buttoned
pocket (Not our ammo pouches!) with a piece of tape securing the top
cartridge. I do not have the words to describe how frustrating this was,
simply thinking about it now, almost ten years later, sets my teeth to
grinding in tempered anger.
I ended up spending most of my time providing ingress egress security and
developing the offensive and defensive capacity of one patriot missile site
on the outskirts of Riyadh. Located very close to what I'm told was the
largest oil refinery in the world, the site was a environmental nightmare.
One tower of the refinery burned a gigantic flame day and night shifting from
orange to bright purple and generating a sickly column of smoke that
occasionally drifted amongst us. By the frightening red light of the flame you
could see large patches of dark sand along the perimeter that turned to
viscous pool of bubbling ook in the heat of the day and would snag the boots
of the unwary soldier.
Our ECP had a simple, but effective procedure. ECP? That's an acronym, it means Entry Control Point, you probably call it a gate. The entire site was
surrounded by a double strand of chain link fence topped with triple rolls of
concertina wire, separated by twenty feet. The only way in or out was
through a gate that was directly in front of a largish bunker that looked
out on the channeled approach road and sat between the loops of fencing. A
vehicle would approach the gate from the outside and stop, disgorging its
cargo of personnel. We wouldn't leave the bunker till the passengers left the
vehicle. If it was after dark, the vehicles lights had to be extinguished as
well. There was a spotlight and PA at our disposal to communicate this to
those unaware of the policy.
After leaving the vehicle, the passengers approached the locked gate and
surrendered Identification to me, and I checked the ID against an access
list. The list held the name of everyone who needed and could gain access to
the very secure facility. I was like the patriot missile bouncer, no name, no
If their names were on the list, the gate was unlocked and they entered
the "dead zone" between the fences. The interior entrance of the dead zone
was a triple strand of concertina wire that could be moved to provide for
personnel or vehicle passage. Once in the dead zone, all personnel were
subject to search at my discretion, before they could pass through to the
interior of the site. I was in constant radio contact with my partner Dan,
fifty yards away in an elevated bunker with an M-249 SAW machine gun in an
overwatch position. His job was to watch me and if I were to become incapacitated somehow, he
would then litter the dead zone with 5.56 caliber NATO FMJ till the sand ran red and
his belt ran dry. The process worked exactly the same but in reverse if you
wanted to exit the site.
In the dead zone, my authority was nearly absolute. It is a matter of the
utmost military doctrine that the gate guard has operational authority that
exceeds the rank of anyone entering his area of responsibility. Without this
basic doctrine, anyone who could stuff themselves into a uniform could parade
through, blustering orders and relying on the terror of military discipline
to walk straight by security. I was expected and trained to use this
authority with discretion and only exercise it when absolutely necessary to
protect the site and its personnel. Unfortunately, some people always
believe the rules don't apply to them.
The First Pistol
It was a hot evening, they all were really. Saudi Arabia is the most
loathsome place I've ever been, It was full of garbage, it stunk and it was
always so damn hot. It was probably two or three o'clock in the morning and I
had been amusing myself on guard duty by staring into the dark nothingness
with my PVS-7 night vision goggles when I noticed a vehicle approaching the
gate down the access road. I took a sip of water before storing the goggles
and calling Dan on the radio, "Heads up. Vehicle approaching."
"Roger, I got it...looks like one of ours, a CUCV."
A CUCV was army talk for Commercial Utility Cargo Vehicle, they were
really just GM trucks or blazers, painted in military colors. Chances are it
was one of ours, but it was a strange time for one to roll in and we weren't
expecting anyone. Even if we had, I'm the cautious type. While I watched the
CUCV slowly wind its way through the zigzag pattern of concrete barriers and
concertina wire, I checked my ammo and weapons.
When it reached the gate the vehicle stopped. It sat there at idle for a
few moments before it became clear that they were unaware of the procedure. I
turned on the spot and addressed the vehicle over the PA. "Turn off your
vehicle's ignition and headlights. Exit the vehicle and approach the gate with
From the vehicle I heard an angry reply. "Open this damn gate!"
I repeated my instructions exactly as before, but I was nervous. As long
as I had been there, no one had ever challenged the procedure. Once
instructed, compliance was always forthcoming and the fact that they seemed
in no hurry to do as I said captured my suspicion. I had to tell them three
times before they realized that I wasn't going to open the gate until they
did as I instructed. As soon as they approached the gate, I left the bunker.
Keying my mic I called Dan. "Approaching the gate. Keep your eye on me, I got
a bad feeling."
"I got your back." Dan's short reply eased my tension a little. He was
all business when it came to the soldier stuff and he took his responsibility
seriously. Two men in Desert BDUs waited me at the gate. I didn't salute
because they weren't officers and I wouldn't have if they were. I didn't know
who these guys were yet, but I wasn't doing a favor for any snipers watching
The first one to speak was a tall skinny black man and his companion was
a short stout white guy. They were a sit-com waiting to happen. "Open this
god damn gate Specialist!" I could see now that the tall one was a Sergeant
Major by his collar stripes. Shorty, I saw was a First Sergeant and he piped
in his two cents as well. "Do you know who the hell we are?! Let us in!"
"Sergeant Major, First Sergeant, can I see some ID please?" I held my
hand out in the universal gesture of gimme. Shorty blustered again.
"I don't need any damn ID, this is my fucking site. Now open this god damn
"Respectively First Sergeant, Sergeant Major, this is my gate, I don't
know you and you aren't getting through without showing me some ID."
"If it makes you happy, I'll show you some ID Specialist, but you damn
better let me in then or I'll have your ass in a fucking sling!" Spit out the
Sergeant Major. I collected their ID's and compared them against my access
They were not on the roster. This was going badly.
"My apologies Sergeant Major, First Sergeant, but you're not on the
access roster and I can not authorize your entrance onto the site. Please
return to your vehicle." As I expected, this news did not go over well. The
Sergeant Major's eyes bugged out and his mouth was moving but no real sound
was escaping. The First Sergeant was fuming and getting angry.
As soon as the Sergeant Major found his voice he started using it. "You
fucking snot! I authorize it! I'm the God damn Sergeant Major of this God damn
unit! These fucking missiles wouldn't be here if I hadn't told them where to
be!" Every word he used was hurled at me with venom. Spittle was running
down his chin in little quivering rivulets of rage. I placed my right hand on
the holstered Berretta service pistol at my hip.
"Sergeant Major, First Sergeant, if you would like to return in the
morning or return with authorization from the site commander, I would be more
than happy to let you pass, but you're not on my list. If you're not on the
list you can't come in. Plain and simple, I've got my orders and I ain't
violating them, because I don't know you." As soon as my hand touched my
pistol Dan radioed me, "Spoon what's the word? Who are these guys?" I tucked
the clipboard under my left arm and fumbled with the mic, never taking my
hand off the pistol.
"DeGarr, ECP, I have a situation here. I got a Sergeant Major and a First
Sergeant, not on the list, say they want to come in. Over." Sergeant DeGarr
was our squad leader and in the time honored military tradition I was attempting
to shovel the responsibility of this fiasco on to him. Tallman and Shorty could hear my
radio conversation and they glared at me while I waited for a response.
"ECP, DeGarr. No list, no access. Tell them to talk to the CO. Over."
"I already told them that, they aren…shit!" They had heard DeGarr’s
response and apparently didn't like it. The Sergeant Major had mounted the
fence and was clearly attempting to climb over it. The gate was the one
section that didn't have concertina at the top as it would have
interfered with operation of the gate. I guess the Sergeant Major believed
he could scale the fence and tell me in person how much he didn't like our
In one swift, long practiced motion I dropped my clipboard, and pulled
the loaded magazine from my left cargo pocket while pulling the pistol from
its holster. I stripped the asinine tape from the magazine and slammed it up
the well, chambering the first round before Tallman had reached the top of the
fence. Shorty hit the dirt and my radio burst into sound. "ECP! DeGarr!
"DeGarr, Overwatch. One of 'ems trying to climb the fence. You better get
your ass down here Sergeant, I think Spoon's gonna shoot one of them!"
I thought my voice was surprisingly calm given the situation. "Get your
ass off my fucking fence shitbird! This is a secure facility and I've been
authorized to use deadly force. Sergeant Major, don't make me fucking shoot
He reached the top of the fence and glanced down the muzzle of my weapon.
he took a second and seemed to reconsider his position, but his voice was
still full of venom. "This is my god damn site! I am the authority here! You
point that god damn pistol somewhere else!"
I fired a warning shot in the air. The sharp crack of the pistol made
Shorty jerk from his position, kneeling in the sand. I thought that might not
be enough to diffuse the situation so I chose a few words as well. "Get off
my fucking fence, or I will burn you down. I'm not fucking around with you
anymore and I will cripple your ass if you make one more move towards this
In the brief silence that followed my radio erupted in activity.
"Overwatch! Chambering ammo!"
"Perimeter penetration! ECP! No drill!"
By the time I had delivered my speech Sergeant DeGarr and the rest of my
squad had run up with M-16's at the shoulder. Sergeant DeGarr spoke up "Stand
down from the fence or we'll fucking perforate you. You have five seconds to
Tallman had apparently seen the wisdom of a safe retreat and clambered
back down on his side of the fence before DeGarr had to start counting. The situation diffused from there, although
the night seemed to last forever. Within an hour the place was crawling with
brass. Sergeant Major Fredericks and First Sergeant Williams were granted
access to the site eventually, although their surprise inspection had been
blown by their antics. The Sergeant Major attempted to get me court-martialed on the spot for
insubordination and attacking a superior, but once the Colonel came around
and heard all the stories he denied the Sergeant Major his vengeance with a
"You're lucky this kid has a long fuse and a level head. I'd a shot your
ass dead Fredricks. Can I go back to bed now?"
The Second Pistol
Time passed, as it is wont to do, but few things ever change. It was still
miserably hot but this time it was morning. Of course it was always
miserable, especially so when the wind kicked up the sand. It would blow just
enough to lift dust in the air but not enough to aid in evaporative cooling.
The morning shift of missile crewmembers had arrived in their shuttle bus
and I was going through the despised process of admitting them to the site.
Check the ID. Check the list. Open the gate. Close the gate. Repeat as
necessary. I'd have to do the whole damn thing again in twenty minutes when
the crew they were relieving left the site. It was boring, long and
everybody resented it. They resented me for making them wait in the heat. I
resented them for existing and not understanding that I was doing it for
their own damn protection. We all hated it, but we all did it. I got a lot
less crap from them after taking a shot at Sergeant Major Fredricks.
In the middle of this long, draining process a CUCV rolled up to the dead
zone wire from the interior of the site. I turned and saw it was the com
sergeant, he wanted to egress. I made a hand gesture that spoke volumes,
"Cool your jets, gimme a second." Sergeant Tanin didn't have a second
apparently so he leaned on the horn to let me know how important his business
I sighed, locked the gate and approached the driver side door. "Open the
gate I'm going out." He said it like I was supposed to simply do as he said,
completely ignoring everyone else and the security of our shared post.
"I'm in the middle of letting the crew in Sergeant Tannin, as soon as
they've cleared the zone, then we can let you out, but I can't have two
groups coming and going at the same time. Give me a couple minutes
and you'll be on your way." Half of the crew was still waiting outside the
perimeter, sweating, and looking unhappy at this new delay. I didn't blame
them, they just wanted to get out of the sun and this asshole was ruining it
I returned to the gate to finish letting the crew in. I hadn't processed
one person when I my radio sparked to life. "Spoon, check your six!" I turned
and Tannin had detailed the private from the passenger seat to get out and
move the wire barrier so he could drive through. Cursing, I locked the gate
again and approached the CUCV. I was shouting now. "Get the fuck away from
that, private! Sergeant Tannin, turn off the vehicles ignition and exit the
vehicle. You will wait here until the crew shift has completed and then you
may exit the site."
"I'm an E-5! You can't order me around! Open the damn gate or I'll run
you over!" To emphasize his point he pulled forward through the gap in the
wire his private had cleared. I stood in the path of the vehicle and slapped
my hand on the burning hot hood of the truck. My other hand was on my holstered
pistol. He inched forward again, nudging me backwards towards the gate.
"Stop this vehicle and exit or I'll treat you as hostile!"
He either hadn't heard the story about Sergeant Major Fredricks, or
didn't care. Either way, he was pushing the same buttons. "I'm a fucking
Sergeant, now open that fucking gate Specialist!"
The clipboard was down and the first round was chambered before Sergeant
Tannin could blink. I lined up the posts with his eyebrow and told him how it
was as I walked toward the drivers door. "Turn off the fucking engine and get
your ass out of the vehicle!" His eyes were wide and his lips were twitching
like he wanted to talk but couldn't (why do they always do that?), but he turned off the engine and opened his door as I
heard my radio squawk.
"DeGarr, Overwatch. I think Spoon's gonna shoot somebody again."
"I'm on my way Dan, keep him covered."
Before Sergeant Tannin could exit the CUCV, I grabbed him in a wrist lock
with my free hand and spun him to the soft sand. By the time Sergeant DeGarr
arrived Tannin and his private were both on their knees, zip cuffed with
their noses buried in the sand bags of my bunker.
"Status report Spoon."
I gave DeGarr the skinny, told him that I had warned Tannin and he had
tried to force his way through the barricade. "Well, you didn't fire a round
this time, so I don't care what you do. Just don't shoot anyone and I'll rely
on your judgment." Degarr returned to the HQ trailer to call the CO and
advise him of the situation and to tell him not to expect his relief crew to
take their posts for awhile.
Just as I said, I treated Tannin and his private as Hostile and searched
their vehicle for contraband, for forty minutes. The two of them stayed
kneeling in the dirt, pouring their sweat into the sand as the 120 degree heat beat them down. They really didn't have much of a choice. The relief
crew stood outside and cursed me and Tannin, although towards the end they
were cursing Tannin more than me. When I was done with the search, I let the
crew on site and then, true to my word, I cut Tannin and his private free and
let them exit.
Tannin tried to have me court-martialed too of course. His didn't even
make it past his First Sergeant. First Sergeant Williams remembered his turn at the gate
and graced me with these parting words.
"Thanks for not shooting Tannin. He's an ass, but he's a good com
Sergeant. I don't think he'll give you any more hassle." Truth is, none of
them did. A few even smiled the next day.