It finally sank in that I was heading to Iraq as my wife slowly drove away into the darkness. Not knowing what to expect since this was my first combat deployment, I was nervous. Still the moment had an air of excitement that often begins many adventures.
This day was destined for me ever since Sept. 11, 2001, when I was simply a college kid on the Michigan Tech campus in the great Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The topic quickly shifted subjects during our normally scheduled Army ROTC class on that tragic day.
The future and what was in store for us was the talk of the day. The one thing we concluded was that it was obvious that we would all find ourselves at this moment sooner or later, yet more than six years later I was still having mixed feelings. I guess you are never truly prepared for that kind of experience.
Even with all that, the anticipation soon wore off as our 2 a.m. formation was followed by six hours of in-processing and a 13-hour flight with a two-hour layover in Germany in the middle. Sleepy eyed, our unit departed the airplane in Kuwait City to a desolate desert where we could see nothing but sand. How could anything live here? That was the first thought that entered my mind after taking a look around. After 10 days of training in Kuwait and exploring the countryside every chance I got, I realized that there was indeed life in the desolate desert.
Life in the Desert
Kuwait is a desperately hot, dry climate typical of most deserts. We spent our first days on an isolated base preparing for our move into Iraq. During one of our training events though we trained and slept under the stars in the Kuwaiti countryside. It was here that I first realized there was life in this desert.
The first thing we encountered was a local shepherd with his flock of sheep and goats. The whole scene looked like it was taken directly from The Bible. I observed several species of birds common to the States, but I was also able to identify a new species — the Crested Lark.
Late one night, I noticed some movement under one of the lights. My exploratory nature took over so I went to take a look. As I approached it I felt like I was entering a scene in “Arachnophobia” as I saw that it was huge spider. Huge doesn’t accurately describe it since it was the size of a softball. I had no idea what type it was but one of the veterans told me it was a camel spider.
Legends say the camel spider can run 30 miles-per-hour, jump three feet and got its name because they eat out the inside of camel’s stomach. Fortunately for us though those were all myths, but none of us knew that at the time.
After a sleepless night spent swatting at non-existent camel spiders, we awoke the next morning to what seemed like an entire desert covered in tracks. Desert fox, feral cats and dogs, camel spiders, scorpions and other insects all came alive at night and left the desert in a sea of tracks.
The last animal we saw in Kuwait was fittingly an Arabian classic. Several camels approached our training area with their owner. What I later learned is that of the more than 1.5 million camels in the world, most are domesticated due to their tame nature. So, there was life in Kuwait after all, now what about Iraq?
An Opportunity to Trap
After a turbulent ride in an Air Force C-130 we finally arrived at our final destination and the place we would call home for the next 15 months, Al Taqaddum or TQ, Iraq. The surrounding area was surprisingly nice since there was a natural lake on one side and the Euphrates River on the other side of our base.
The river was lined with trees and dense vegetation and was a very beautiful sight. The lake was also a taunting sight with luscious marshes along the shore. In between the shallow lake and the succulent city on the river lies an airfield surrounded by nothing but sand. As I’m sure you could guess, that is where we preside.
Being an avid trapper and outdoorsmen, I was looking for an opportunity to explore the wild side of Iraq as soon as I heard I was being deployed there. Shortly after arriving at our base and meeting all the different people that support the base, I discovered a professional trapper who was contracted to control the animals within and around the base. As fate would have it, two weeks later I was meeting him at the nearest chow hall to head out on the trapline with him.
I wasn’t sure what to expect as I waited in the dining facility with one of my fellow soldiers who shared an interest in trapping. Exactly on time, the TQ trapping crew walked in the door and we did a quick round of introductions. Two Second Country Workers (SCWs) from India assisted on the trapline. You could tell instantly that they were a close-knit team and they knew their stuff when it came to trapping in Iraq. After grabbing a quick breakfast, we headed out to the truck.
First Day on the Line
As we drove away, it was as if we’d been traveling the trapline with them for months. They made us feel right at home as we told jokes and swapped stories.
“Well, how many animals do you think we’ll catch today?” the boss asked as he explained that they always make a little bet to see how many animals they’ll catch. “I’m feeling lucky today, I’ll say we’re going to catch six.”
“Nope, zero,” yells one of the SCWs from the back.
“How about three?” the other assistant says.
“Well, what do you guys think?” he turned and asked us.
Happy to be part of the tradition, my buddy stated “five” and I quickly followed with a “four.” The game was on.
We checked eight traps or so with no luck. I was starting to get worried that we wouldn’t get anything and that “zero” guess was going to be right on. As if reading my mind at that moment, the boss assured me that we’d get something on the firing range ahead. I sure hoped so. We stopped at the guard shack to ensure that the test firers would cease fire for a few moments while we checked our traps. It would be a bad day of trapping if we had .50 caliber machine guns firing our way. We waited a few short minutes and were waved onto the firing range.
Nothing in the first set. Uh-oh… “We got one!” Sure enough, sitting there in the snare caught around the ankle was a desert fox or Ruppell’s Fox as I found out later after doing some research. We held it and snapped pictures before releasing it back into the wild. I’ll bet you’ve never saw a creature cruise like one of those foxes across the open desert. It literally kicked up dust as it scampered back to find shelter from the vulnerable openness of the desert.
All native animals like that Ruppell’s Fox, jackals and hyenas that they trap are released back into the wild. Their real targets are wild dogs, feral cats and the occasional wild animals that have become a nuisance. Wild dogs form nasty packs here in Iraq and can really cause a ruckus and potentially be dangerous to Soldiers as the conduct operations.
I saw this firsthand later as I conducted convoy operations throughout Iraq. They were everywhere along the roads, dead and alive, and seemed like packs of rabid wolves living among the people.
Making a Difference
As we drove around, we’d tell stories like trappers always do. The boss said that sometimes the local kids sneak inside the fence, set off their traps and then quickly dart back to the perimeter just to have a little fun with them.
We encountered several Iraqis since the trapline took us directly along the boundary of the base. They all smiled and waved, obviously familiar with the trapping crew’s daily route.
This area used to be a hot bed of violence forming the dangerous Sunni Triangle along with the nearby Fallujah and Ramadi. However, we were able to interact amid the locals with little fear of violence since there were so few attacks. From my eyes, it was truly a great difference that we’ve made here in Iraq.
Several hundred yards down the fence line, still on the firing range, we had another desert fox. It was tucked in the corner of the cage trap as we approached the live trap. After snapping a few more pictures and releasing it back into the wild, we baited the trap and drove on. For bait, they simply use leftover scraps from the chow hall, mostly chicken. With so little food available in the desert, any scrap of food works as excellent bait and they actually catch animals over and over again that are looking for a free meal.
End of the Line
We left the firing range and continued down the line. As we drove, they explained that they’ve caught several hyenas on our base also. This was very surprising to me since hyenas usually travel in packs and make quite a ruckus.
I thought I would have seen one already if that was the case. I found out later that the striped hyena common in Iraq, as opposed to the more well-known spotted hyena, are traditionally solitary scavengers and do not usually form packs. I hoped to see one, but the chances were fading as the morning went along.
After checking a few more traps without catching anymore critters, we were nearly back to the place we started. Our day of trapping was nearly over. We approached the last set and found our third fox of the day. We snapped a few more pictures holding the desert fox.
A mosque stood in the distance near where we trapped. Our guide told us that Biblical experts believe Abraham walked through this area on his travels to Canaan. Whether you are religious or not, it is still an awesome feeling to be standing where so much history has occurred.
The Right Guess
As we drove back we reflected on the day of trapping and vowed to do it again if the time allowed. It turns out that three was the magic number that day and the assistant made sure that everyone knew he guessed correctly. Of course it was all in good fun, as with everything on the trapline. Well, I had lost the guessing game, but I had the experience of a lifetime catching desert fox while doing a little combat zone trapping.
Jim Servi is an experienced trapper from Big Rock, Tenn. and is currently serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq. He will provide updates on his Iraq trapping adventures in the T&PC Blog, The Trap Line.