Saturday, July 14, 2012

Three Moons: How I Got My Gun

That’s right, me, a language scholar from Wisconsin, stand in Baghdad a little concerned that I’m not wearing a gun yet. If that sentence sounds strange, it’s nothing compared to what I was feeling. Fact is, you don’t get sent to Iraq without first being certified on the weapon you’re required to then wear.

The NSA has its own weapons certification center, as you’d expect. But I totally lucked out and managed to get a slot at something infinitely sexier. I got to spend a week being certified on the Glock 9mm Handgun and the M-4 Assault Rifle at a secret CIA training facility somewhere in [Location Deleted]. In fact, when my boss got me that slot, she asked me to not talk about it openly because the other NSA’ers would be jealous of the opportunity I got.
What made it so envious? Well, at the NSA facility, you just got basic certification. You were taught how to fire the gun and after you complete a test of firing a full clip on a target, you get your certification and you’re good to go into the field.
Not so at the CIA. We didn’t just fire the guns to achieve quick certification. It was an entire week, all day long.
The very first day, the trainers announced to the group that one of us was, gasp, an NSA’er. I laughed along with the rest as they declared that we would all know who he was when we first fired the guns and someone hit the ground trying to hide.
Very funny guys. Let’s really see if you can spot me.
And the very able trainers began to explain that they would be meticulously teaching every aspect of these guns and how to fire them. And you would only be certified after you completed not only the firing range course, but other tests as well. This would include simulated combat situations.
And I began to suspect that I had a secret advantage. You see, I had never before fired a handgun. I’d shot birds with a BB gun at my grandparents’ farm in Wisconsin. But I’d never so much as shot a 22 rifle. And I was becoming aware that that meant I had no bad habit to unlearn.
I was Tabula Rasa, which, snickering CIA fools, is Latin for “Blank Slate.” And you can draw anything on a Blank Slate, such as a good shot on that gun.
This all became apparent late that first day when we finally went out on to the range with our handguns. We had learned all morning how to take them apart and reassemble them. Now, this was a fine skill to learn, but the fact is that for three months in Iraq I never once did more to my gun than remove the clip nightly (more on that later).
Later that morning, we were finally out on the range. And our trainers told us to do EXACTLY as we were told.
Got it, trainers. I’ll do exactly as I’m told.
We don’t have any bullets in our guns yet, by the way.
“Take your gun out of your holster and aim it down range.”
I do as I’m told. I take my gun from its holster and I aim it down range.
We all hear several clicks up and down the range.
The lead trainer walks slowly to the front of the group.
I had not pulled my trigger. After all, I had only been told to take the gun from the holster and point it down range. I’m no Cowboy. I’m a Latin student from Wisconsin getting certified on this gun so I can go to Iraq.
He screamed at us for several more minutes and told us that we were all now to put our guns back in the holster and we were going to repeat this exercise. And further he told us that anyone who ever again pulled their trigger without permission would be sent home without the certification.
We again, on orders, pulled our guns from the holster and pointed them down range. Now no one pulled the trigger.
We repeated that exercise several more times. Then came the order to pull the guns from the holster and pull the trigger.
We comply. And we do that several more times. Remember, we don’t have bullets in our guns yet. We’re just practicing the moves. The trainers keep telling us that we are doing these moves and repeating these moves so laboriously because we are building muscle memory. We will never fire that gun without first pulling it from the holster because, in the field, that’s exactly what would happen.
It was late in that first morning. My stomach was growling. We knew a box lunch was waiting for us back at the shed.
“Release your clips!” the lead trainer shouted.
He then walked the length of the line and handed each of us a single bullet.
“Load that into your clip and insert it.”
I did as I was told.
“Pull back on the gun to chamber that shot.”
I did as I was told.
“Put your guns back in  their holsters.”
“When I give the order, you will draw your guns from their holsters and then line up the target with the sight at the end of the barrel. Remember. This is not a race. When you have the sight on the target, take a breath and then release it and pull the trigger.”
We stood looking down range at the paper targets set up roughly twenty yards away.
I pulled my gun from the holster.
I aimed it down range and put that sight on the target. My nervous hand was flying all over the place. I took several deep breaths as I heard others taking their shots. But this was no race.
I placed the sight carefully over the target and then slowly squeezed the trigger.
The blast and recoil of the gun shocked me. But I squinted down range to see what had happened. A tiny black dot had appeared just to the left of the center of the target.
And I knew in that moment how to correct for that left-ward drift.
A few more agents took their shots.
“Time for lunch, people!” the trainer shouted.

Over the next several days we would fill those clips and fire out all the bullets countless times. But I never departed from the basics I was being taught. Put that front sight on the target.
When it was all over, I was ranked for accuracy just below a guy who had been an air marshal before joining the CIA. He still had to recertify here to go to Iraq. I had told the others I was the NSA’er on Day 3. They were very surprised.
On Day 4, we practiced with perfect simulations of our Glocks that fired paint bullets. This was primarily to remove from us any psychological block from pulling our guns and then firing them on an actual human target.
And those human targets were each other. And those paint bullets hurt! But your chance of survival is dramatically increased if we can get off a shot even after taking in a shot. So being able to pull off a shot after getting the wind knocked out of you by a paint bullet was an important exercise.
We practiced scenarios where we were in a car and ambushed. We practiced shooting from behind cover. And I was totally understanding why the other NSA’ers would be jealous that I got in on this training!
[In my novel A Place of Brightness, I use my expertise on the Glock to accurately describe a scene in which a Romanian intelligence officer recertifies on her Glock, little knowing that she was days away from actually needing this training in the field.]
Day 5 saw us practicing firing various guns we may accidentally find in the field. I fired an AK-47. Imagine firing a gun and then as a bonus someone hits you full force in the shoulder with a sledge hammer. That’s an AK. Damned accurate, though. We fired massive shotguns. We fired rifles that could kill an elephant.

And thus I got certified. And so, here I was in Iraq, fully certified to be wearing a gun and I didn’t have one. Shortly after my arrival, we were all summoned to a central hall and told that in the event of a security incident there would be an alarm and we were all to report to this spot to be counted. I had arrived just in time to eat dinner in the main cafeteria. It was good food. Not that I needed it. I was about thirty pounds overweight and was hoping to both lose weight and get in shape during my three months in Iraq. Even so, one’s first night in Iraq was no time to start a draconian program. So I ate everything in sight, which included burgers, french fries, and ice cream for dessert.
I was tired enough at nine o’clock that I went and laid down in my bunk. Sleep followed quickly.
I’m hearing a loud blaring noise! The fog of sleep is still blurring my brain as I see guys getting out of their bunks and starting down the hall toward…the central area. Oh my God! This is a security call.
Even just a week with that Glock had conditioned me in this crisis to put my hand toward a holster that wasn’t there yet. My heart was racing as I thought through the potential that we were in an attack scenario and I was defenseless.
And in that moment, I felt utterly defeated to think that I was less than twenty-four hours into an experience slated to last for three months. As I quickly made my way down the hall, toward the assembled group, I repeated to myself “Three months, Three months.”
We were told that an Army jeep had been found on the premises of BIAP with no soldiers in it but blood all over the seats. We were therefore to stand in an alert mode until the military in charge of BIAP issued an all clear.
The all clear came about an hour later. I never did find out exactly what had happened in this incident.
I was surprised that I fell asleep quickly after this scare.
One can’t really sleep in when you’re in a room with thirty other guys. There came a point where the sound of one, then three, then seven other men getting up made it impossible to keep trying to catch more sleep.
The cafeteria meant the coffee I have lived for since I was fifteen. I had a breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage, and even a bowl of Lucky Charms to boot. One’s second day in Iraq is also no time to start a diet.
It was Eight O’clock! This meant that the armory was open and I could finally get my side arm.
There were already two guys in line when I arrived.  Unfortunately, the one just before me faced a sadly typical problem within the government system. He had managed to get to Iraq. He was certainly supposed to be here. And I didn’t really doubt that he had completed the necessary certifications to be issued the gun we were all required to wear here. But the CIA agent who issued guns at the armory simply had no record of him in his computer. And without a computer record, he had no authority to give him so much as a pea shooter. They attempted multiple searches for a record on various identifications. But no deal. The man finally left, understandably upset, with the plan to call his boss back in the States to see who screwed up and how to fix this crisis.
My turn. And after watching that whole scene, I was now very nervous about whether I was on that computer. A strike against me was that I was with the NSA. A strike for me was that I had done my weapons training with the CIA. I was cringing as I told the man my Social Security Number. I heard him slapping keys on his computer. Just as I was about to despair this could work, he smiles.
“Gotcha,” he said.
Just then there’s a low thud somewhere. I had both heard it and felt it.
“What was that?” I asked.
He looked up. “That was a mortar landing somewhere. Not very close though. Don’t worry.”
He hands me a plastic holster to slip on my belt. Next followed an empty magazine.
“Fill it up from the bowl behind you,” he says.
I turn around and start fishing out cartridges and I’m filling my clip.
“And here’s your Glock,” he says. “Your site will have replacement bullets if you need them.”
“Thank you,” I said. “When do I get my M-4?”
“Only your boss at your site is authorized to issue you one of those. Good luck. How long are you in country?”
“Three months,” I said.
He raises an eyebrow. “I won’t be here when you’re back here to hand this thing in.”
“Thanks for your help.”
He smiles and nods.

You’re probably wondering at this point how all this related to my claim that Three Months is a proven time slot in which to accomplish great things. Bear with me. It pulls together pretty quickly for here.

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