QAYYARAH AIR BASE, Iraq — Out in the dust south of Mosul — the Americans call it “moon dust” because it’s fine like fresh snow — two veteran US soldiers said they felt a world away from the hysteria of the US election season back home.
They had watched the last debate, they said, and researched the meaning of a few of the campaign’s memes. But they weren’t hanging on the campaign’s many twists and turns. “We’re just here and we’re going to do our jobs well no matter who’s in charge,” said one, a 33-year-old staff sergeant from Pennsylvania.
“Same uniforms, same job,” said the other, a sergeant first class from Texas.
“I have deployed under every president since I’ve been in the Army,” said Maj. Christopher Parker, 42, a spokesman who was the only soldier at the base permitted to speak on the record. “This time I don’t have to worry, because I’m already out here.”
US soldiers are encouraged to vote but not to be outwardly political while they serve — and that might have been part of the reason the two men were so reserved on the subject of the impending election.
Yet their somber outlook also seemed rooted in years of hard experience serving overseas — which had taught them they were bound to remain deployed no matter how America’s political winds might change. “You learn to miss anniversaries, birthdays, Christmases, all the holidays,” said the Texan, who had a wife and two sons at home.
Each of the sergeants was on his fourth tour in Iraq. They saw the current deployments as a continuation of their long careers in war, though their roles this time around in the country have changed. “My reaction was like — we were there already. I thought we pulled out,” the Pennsylvanian said, recounting the call to return to Iraq this summer as part of the US mission to advise and assist Iraqi and Kurdish forces in the Mosul offensive.
“However, it’s for a good cause,” he said. “I’m glad we can help them save their country, hopefully for the last time.”
The two US soldiers sounded much like their Iraqi counterparts, who have been grinding through the country’s endless conflicts since the US invasion in 2003. That war saw the initial fight against Saddam Hussein’s regime spiral into an insurgency pitting the US and its allies against myriad Shiite militia as well as ISIS’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq. On the front lines of the Mosul offensive over the last two weeks, these soldiers have often painted the current battle as just the latest in a long line of them, with the promise of more to come.
The Pennsylvanian enlisted right after high school, with the 9/11 terror attacks still fresh in his mind. “I know it sounds corny, but I just wanted to join and do something for my country,” he said. After his basic training, he was posted to Ft. Campbell in Kentucky, “and two weeks later I was on a plane.”
His first assignment saw him based not far from Qayyarah, securing supply convoys into Mosul. He had the feeling, he said Tuesday, that people at home were paying little attention to the grim struggle in Iraq. “Nobody wants to hear anything about the war,” he said.
While America careened from one news cycle to the next this summer, consumed by the chaos of the election, the Pennsylvanian and his company of about 120 soldiers were sweating in the Iraqi heat to help raise the Qayyarah base from rubble.
The base — known among US soldiers as Q-West — was a key American hub during the Iraq War. But it was destroyed after ISIS overran the area following its seizure of Mosul in June 2014. The company was charged with providing security as a team of US engineers began putting up guard towers, barracks, and cement walls.
“It was nothing. It was dirt — that was it. Rocks. A bunch of [cement] walls laying on the ground,” remembered the Texan, who is the platoon’s commander.
The first security perimeter his men set up, he said, was a circle of their Humvees. A shortage of soldiers meant they had to be on guard in their body armor all night and day. They were looking out for incoming mortar fire — as well as hidden improvised explosive devices. “They were dead on their feet,” he said of the exhaustion, remembering some men collapsing from the heat. “They had to man their positions constantly. There was no one to replace us.”
Now the base is well-secured, and every day that Iraqi troops advance toward Mosul sees them drive ISIS further away from the base. Much of the runway has been repaired — the first Iraqi plane in more than two years, an Iraqi C-130, landed there earlier this week.
The veteran soldiers at the base were quick to note how their mission on this tour differs from those they’ve served on in the past. Where US troops took the lead in combat operations during the Iraq War, now they work to help local forces do the fighting. “Now it’s not our battle. We’re here to support the Iraqis,” the Texan said.
For the US soldiers at the base, that has meant helping with logistics, with planning battles, and with advising everyone from Iraqi medical staff to media teams. Separately, US troops from elite special forces units work closer to the battle, sometimes accompanying Iraqi and Kurdish troops to the front lines — and occasionally losing their lives. Four US service members have been killed in the fight against ISIS in Iraq so far, including a Navy explosives technician who was killed by an IED at the start of the Mosul offensive earlier this month.
The US mission at the base in Qayyarah, which they share with Iraqi forces, also includes artillery support. In one corner, a team of US soldiers manning a truck mounted with an advanced Himars rocket launcher were waiting for their next call. The GPS-aided rockets, which can fire six at a time, have a range of roughly 44 miles and can hit within 5 meters of an intended target, said a staff sergeant from Maryland who operates it.
“We’ve been ranging targets inside Mosul since we’ve been here,” he said. “We’ve shot everything from VBIEDs [car bombs] to VBIED factories. Headquarter buildings. Pretty much anything we can range.”
As of Monday afternoon, the sergeant’s platoon had fired 216 rockets over the course of 84 missions, he said, and are on call “around the clock.”
As the sun began to set, a handful of US soldiers jogged along the blast walls — it was the first time security had been relaxed to the point where they could leave their barracks without their body armor. Another soldier ran sprints with a massive truck tire chained to his waist. Others went through the tasks of another day of dusty monotony. “The days just kind of blur together,” the Texan said wearily, struggling to recount how many he’d spent there.
Though both in their thirties, he and the Pennsylvanian described themselves as some of the “crusty old guys” at Qayyarah, where many of the soldiers looked fresh-faced by comparison in their early twenties or late teens.
“The Army is a profession where 28 is considered old, because a lot of people by that point have been in for 10 years,” said a lieutenant who was approaching that age. “When you’re 28, people look at you like you’ve been around a long time, whereas in normal life you’re in your prime.”