Friday, November 6, 2009

The Never Ending Story: Part II

It struck me on the way in, and it strikes me again now as I look out across Ali Al-Salem Air Base; Kuwait is a desolate place. The lack of vegetation, water, and outside of our perimeter fence, signs of life, all leave me oddly longing for Iraq’s familiar palm trees and canals, (or of course home), anything besides this gray, lifeless wasteland. I am standing by some concrete t-walls on a hill about 50 feet from my transitional home here in Kuwait, a tent with room for a dozen or so transient Airmen like myself, the same tent, or at least the tent next to the one I stayed in six months ago on my way to Iraq. This week has been full of déjà vu moments, sights and sounds that bring back the emotions, uncertainties, and fears I experienced when I first arrived here, rolling back to me as frequently yet unpredictably as the tumbleweeds that blow by at regular intervals through the desert.

Six months ago, we had had business to conduct while we were here. Prepping our bodies and minds, as well as our equipment for the endeavors ahead, we spent our days training under the “mild,” spring, desert sun. One morning we drove an hour out into the wilderness to test our guns. I took a video out the window of our tour bus during the trip and got footage of sand dunes passing by for 30 seconds. When we got There, There turned out to be one small overhead shelter and a line of targets in front of a dune. We were each given several clips and after we lined up we proceeded to have our war with the sands of Kuwait. Beyond those several dozen shots into the dunes and several more at a range in eastern Iraq I never fired my weapon again. Like some sort of overdressed tourists, as quickly as we had piled out of the bus, we had completed our gun training and were piled back on the bus.

We spent the rest of that afternoon reliving some of our experiences from Combat Skills Training, our month-long Army immersion in New Jersey on the front end of our tour. We practiced exiting a rolled Humvee out the side doors and top hatch. No matter how many times I experience that training (I hear they rightly now conduct the roll-over training in MRAP trainers instead of Humvees), I expect the disorientation that comes from unbuckling ones seat belt and falling from your seat, now upside down, to the ceiling, now floor, to remain. Loaded down with gear, fumbling for your M-16 in the darkness, trying to figure out which way is up and which way is down, it could almost be fun except that the fun hides the fact that the only reason you are doing this is because someday it might save your life. There is nothing fun about being in a real accident or attack that causes your vehicle to roll over. The injuries and deaths caused by these types of accidents are what prompted the commissioning of this training in the first place. Since the Department of Defense knows they are putting us in harms way I appreciate the fact that they are taking the time and the resources to continually advance our training, and shape its relevance around real life experiences, even if they seem to always be a year or two behind. Still it is sobering to consider that the better armor, vehicles, and training made available to us only came to be because others were injured and killed doing the same things I am just a few years ahead of me.

Now that I am in Kuwait, leaving Iraq forever, or at least for now, I find myself more easily reflecting on the near-death experience that was my past six months. True, I never came under direct fire. I never had a bomb explode beneath my truck, or my feet. But, I can say now what was taboo while we traveled around Iraq on a daily basis: every time I set foot outside of base, I could have died. Even at our home base at Joint Base Balad, any time the alarm went off announcing an incoming mortar (a bimonthly occurrence usually although there were a few times where there were three alarms in one night) it could have been my turn to go. This is different than the reality of life back home, the dangers of everyday life on the road and through the air. Where accidents can happen anywhere, and they do, rarely do people intentionally place themselves in situations where their lives are at risk, not from tackling nature or seeking cheap thrills, but from men and women who hate our presence there and if given the chance would take our lives. As we reflect on our time there, we laugh our way through stories, our good humor a cocktail of relief and the happiness of having survived to tell about it. We talk…

Remembering the time we found a suspicious package on the side of the road, halting our convoy for two hours and causing us to investigate it with our bomb-bots which backed up traffic for a mile until some kids on a donkey rode right over the backpack in question. It turned out to be filled with water bottles…

Remembering the many times during our pre-mission briefs that explosions or engagements on our travel routes were reported within the past 24 hours…

Remembering what it feels like to watch crowds of young men on the sides of the roads watch us drive by knowing that without warning, one of them could throw a bottle-bomb at our truck as it passed…

Knowing that at any moment during any of our thousands of miles of convoying through Iraq’s urban and rural landscape we could have found a bomb on the road, or perhaps a bomb could have found us, hidden for days cleverly in a pile of rocks or a soda pop can awaiting our passing, or hastily placed and remotely detonated by a trigger man somewhere out of sight, the killings completely random, the dead quickly forgotten by the assailants, but not so quickly by the units, friends and family of the deceased back home…

Figures, charts and graphs, numbers and words so familiar now in American culture that they are a part of everyday life, like the rising and falling of the stock market: “Two Americans died in separate attacks by insurgents in Afghanistan today.” Somehow knowing that I could just have easily been one of those unnamed Americans killed in combat (the names have yet to be released) makes this realization come rushing back every time I see it.

Reflections on life and death are normal for those going to and returning home from war. Still, we try to have some fun in Kuwait while we wait to go home, playing shuffleboard, going to the gym, watching GI JOE in the base theater, hitting the pool and having lunch at the middle-eastern restaurant aptly named “Ali’s Arabic Food.” There is something just a bit forced to this fun. Having time off after six months in Iraq is nice, but none of us wants to remain here for longer than we need to. Although we are not scheduled to leave for a week, on day three we go again to bother the people in charge of arranging flights to see if we can’t get out early.

On Wednesday, the 14th, we are told that we have no shot of leaving until the 18th, and even that is not for certain. Then, just two hours later three spots drop and suddenly we’re leaving that night. Travel thus far has been far from easy, and we take the news with many grains of salt, hesitant to get our hopes up, but when the truck arrives at 12:30 a.m. the next morning, and we tag our bags and load them onto a couple of large semi trucks it become clear that we will, indeed, be heading home soon.

I will spare a full description of the next 41 hours. Suffice to say my Senior NCO and I did the math and roughly 14 of the first 18 hours “en-route” were spent waiting for something to happen so we slept on in off in large tents and hardened structures in very uncomfortable chairs. We were a big group, probably about 300 airmen and soldiers and we were herded from one room to another, every time given instructions and then told to wait for further instructions. The waiting before and after we cleared customs was especially painful. We sat in large warehouses with the air conditioning turned up just high enough to make sleeping impossible. Still, it may not have been quite as painful as customs itself. There, each of my now-remaining four bags, meticulously repacked and thoroughly stuffed were opened and emptied onto large wooden counters where men and women from the United States Navy leafed through the contents wearing latex gloves. While I am exceedingly grateful to the Navy for making sure no one had secretly slipped contraband in with my underwear, it is baffling to me that we go to such lengths to interrogate our troops coming home yet allow tourists and businessmen back into the countries with a lot less heartache.

Of the entire group, I was the last one to finish repacking my bags. It probably took me an hour. No worries though, after three more hours in a couple more tents now on the “cleared” side of customs, we still hadn’t left for the airport.

Six months earlier we’d landed in Kuwait International Airport at about 11 pm. Completely exhausted from the travel, but with adrenaline pumping we’d boarded the “tour” buses which were now a familiarity about two hours later and told to remain awake for the duration of our ride to Ali Al-Salem, maintaining vigilance and situational awareness, what I at the time had assumed to be the military’s way of telling me I could get attacked during the trip. I struggled, but I stayed awake. Our curtains were kept drawn on the bus windows, but every time I caught a glimpse of a car passing us or of a large bolder or pile of rubble on the side of the road through one of the cracks in the curtains, I held my breath. Maybe it was the fact that I had ridden through the streets of Bacqubah, one of Iraq’s most dangerous cities, a dozen times, or that I was just so dang tired, now awake for almost a day and a half since we were first told we were leaving; our buses pulled out of the customs parking lot and before we had left the gates of the base I was asleep.

And then we were there, once again standing around next to the port-o-johns outside of our buses at the Kuwaiti airport, drinking our last bottles of purified Persian Gulf water. The nightmare through customs having softened a bit in our minds, I told my friends that the customs officials had nearly confiscated some contraband from my bag. The object in question? Why, the coconut my family had mailed to me from Hawaii 5 months back. When the supervisor had been called over to inspect the “seed,” he had let it pass. It was dried out and lacquered so it was okay. There’s probably a lesson in here somehow about how to pass vegetation illegally through US Customs but I’d rather not travel down that path (hint: dried, painted, and lacquered).

If you ever have to travel across multiple time zones or for any period of time longer than 6 hours, I recommend sleeping pills. One of the last to board our chartered jet home I was forced to sit in one of the rear rows between two Airmen, neither of whom were huge, but both of whom had apparently not heard the instructions to fill the plane from back to front “leaving no empty seats.” Middle seats pocked the back of the plane by the time I boarded, leaving me with few options other than the one I settled on. No problem though. I had my pills and my neck pillow and I slept blissfully nearly the entire first flight. At one point I remember waking as the stewardess offered snacks. I think I took a cookie, but I never ate it. By the time the cobwebs had cleared I was de-boarding in Shannon, Ireland.

We had our first alcoholic drink in over 6 months at the airport bar. The line for the bar stretched around the corner but no one else was there to be bothered by that except for all of us. The lingering effects of the gel caps and the alcohol were staved off somewhat by the ham and raspberry chutney sandwich I bought in the gift shop along with a few postcards and a bar of chocolate for my mom. There was something strange about the line of drinkers in the airport that I still can’t quite wrap myself around. I don’t know if it is a happy memory to cherish or one to make me sad. The distant look in some of the drowsy eyes of the young airmen and soldiers who walked by me, a pint in each hand, hinted that some drank just to drink, old habits soon to begin again. It was the same look I’ve seen in passers by in clubs and college parties back home, the look that says if this is it, then I’m not sure its worth it.

I felt it too at times during my deployment, probably more often than I’d like to admit—the overwhelming dread that comes from doubt, angst quickly blossoming into fear and culminating in the oft-generalized, but now seemingly so much more relevant question—why am I here? And along with the cosmic question of here on earth or here, alive in this universe, the at times even more obvious question of here, today, in Iraq. Does anyone at home even care that I’m here? Sometimes it doesn't seem like they do… When two Americans dying in Iraq or Afghanistan is just a footnote buried in the newspaper, then that question becomes even more pointed, digging deep into the psyche and grabbing hold, threatening to break me. To be loved and needed is great, but knowing that I, and what I was doing was appreciated tended to hold so much more weight, at least more than I expected, when I was in the heat of war.

The servicemen of these two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, return shaken, not just by the closeness of combat they’ve experienced in this war—although for all our advanced weaponry we seem to have found a foe who could care less about that and instead forces us to fight on their terms, where, and when they want, often in close quarters that make our precision, laser-guided bomb an irrelevant weapon, bottle-bombs and rifles are much more effective—they are shaken because their welcome back parades, if there are any, seem forced, hiding (not so well) a theme: okay, we’re glad you’re back safe, now can we get on with our lives? or worse yet, comments from some questioning their patriotism because they served. Because of this disconnect, some can no longer find total solace at home with their families and friends, people whom they love but who, even though they may try, can no longer seem to relate them. Expecting to have back the sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, they had before they left, people they may eventually become again, those at home got warriors instead. So, in a way, the warriors become homeless.

Home is where your heart is, and so some never can come all the way home having left a part of themselves in the desert. To find some comfort they may turn to each other, reliving those stories they may be able to tell to others, but can only truly share together, having been there and lived them and through them together—remembering the war together is not some sort of unhealthy activity. They really have to do it, if for no other reason but to keep that time relevant, to make some sense of their losses (their lost time at home with loved ones, missed birthdays, holidays, barbecues, family reunions, Saturday afternoon football games and Sunday morning services, or of ones they learned to love from their units who were lost), and know that together they were a part of something that is bigger than themselves, and now that thing is a part of them, and will always be. This was, and is, and will always be their war... my war.

Now let me tell you a story…

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Never Ending Story: Part I

Two weddings and a baby. That’s the stat line for the three of us (I could also add one hernia and a bad knee to that list). It’s October 12th and we’ve been given the blessing from our boss to head home a few weeks ahead of the rest of our team to take care of our business (see above) at home as he would say. For weeks we have been engaged in a guessing game that can only be truly appreciated by those who have played it, attempting to pinpoint our exact arrival date home. Our Senior NCO sage likened this to trying to park a spaceship on a moving target back on earth, a fitting analogy although now that I’ve been through it I would add that we are not the ones piloting the craft. We are the monkeys riding in cages in the back of the unmanned shuttle and everyone back in Houston appears to have gone on coffee break, or perhaps permanent sabbatical. Maybe someone, somewhere, knows what’s going on, but from a passenger’s perspective, just trying to get some solid answers as to the whens and wheres of our return from the desert, every person you ask seems to only have a sliver of the bigger picture and to be quite okay with only being responsible for the tiniest fraction of the process and to have gotten down to the T the phrase “I’m sorry sir, but that’s out of my control” with the more frustrating variation: “I’m sorry sir but that’s not my responsibility.”

We space-blocked ourselves tickets to Kuwait on Sunday the 11th, but after placing all of our bags onto pallets to load onto the aircraft (we each have five bags each weighing about 50 pounds, plus a weapons case) and filling out a suspiciously brief questionnaire on a half-sheet of paper asking us if we are experiencing any of the following symptoms: cough, sore throat, sneezing, fever, spontaneous bouts of oinking, we were told our C-17 was having mechanical issues and our flight was cancelled. Yes, cancelled. Not delayed. Cancelled. Listen carefully because this is a brief window into what government run airlines could look like. Here is how it works. We were only space-blocked on this flight. This is the military equivalent of flying “stand-by” in the commercial world. Not surprisingly, all airlines overbook their flights due to the inevitability of no-shows. In the military world, a dust storm hundreds of miles away could cause 100 people to miss this flight, meaning a “full” flight could end up quite empty. You just never know. To a lesser degree this happens state-side too, but a lot less frequently. Case in point, on the final leg of my journey four days later and a half a world away from Iraq traveling from Phoenix to Tucson they announced that our flight was overbooked and asked for a volunteer to stay the night in Phoenix in a hotel room paid by the airline for the evening and the first flight out the next morning. Airlines seem to be getting themselves into this sort of situation more and more frequently of late, so says my traveling fiancé, so I’m assuming they’ve cut several flights to save some dough, but we’ll get to that part of my journey a bit later. There were no coupons for free hotels handed out after our flight was cancelled. There were no apologies either. We were simply sent home.

After loading all of our bags and promising to not be carriers of the Swine Flu (sorry… H1N1) we have just been told we will not be leaving as scheduled. However, there will be another flight out that night at 3 am which we can attempt to be on. Show time will be 12 am but this time, rather than retaining our space-block status, we have been reduced to Space A travel. This is actually worse than stand by. It roughly means, if we want to bring you, we will, but we don’t have to. A flight, even a flight with room, can choose to not add you for any number of reasons. Passenger/cargo C-130s and C-17s routinely bypass smaller bases in theater on their way from A to B with little or no explanation (weather, fuel, cargo, etc). Catching a ride is especially difficult if you are the only passenger trying to leave from a base because the amount of effort that goes into landing, reloading, and taking off again apparently makes getting you a not so worthwhile pit stop. I have heard stories and on several occasions been the one to be left behind for an extended and unpredictable amount of time. In those cases, all you can do is keep trying, day after day, haunting the passenger terminal until you’re on a first name basis with the workers there and have watched every DVD in their arsenal including Vin Diesel’s “Fast & Furious” twice. While this is a truly agonizing dilemma considering we’re trying to get home, it is no different than what I experienced on the way into the theater six months prior…

…After being incorrectly ordered to hop a flight to Baghdad by a Major not exactly in our chain of command, my friend and I spent four days trying to get on a flight to Balad so we could join the rest of our team and BEGIN our deployment. This is one of the biggest disadvantages of the Air Force way of deploying in ones and twos from different bases. Split teams don’t have much bargaining power to book entire aircraft for travel. Instead we often had to wait hours or even days for travel into and around the A.O.R. It’s not like we were going on vacation and were super eager to get to Iraq. Kuwait, other than being on average about ten degrees hotter than Iraq, actually had a cozy feel at the base we were staying at. True, we were living in tents, but it wasn’t bad otherwise. The fact that we had to push so hard just to get to war remains one of the biggest beefs I have with the entire experience…

…The comment to us at the counter at 1 am (now Monday morning, the 12th) when we were again told that our flight had been cancelled was that we were going home and therefore were not of as high a priority as those going home for emergency leave or R & R. On the priority list for the people managing the movement of personnel into and out of Iraq, we rank just above used Kleenexes. We had done our time, and they were happy about that, but there would be no thank yous at the passenger terminal, just unapologetic suggestions that we return at 6 am for the next flight’s show time.

Disappointed and groggy we headed to the truck to drive back to the office for a few more hours of sleep before our next show time. Somehow between the bright lights inside the terminal and the darkness outside I missed that the path to the truck veered to the left. Instead, I followed the sidewalk that lead me directly into a low concrete wall which I hit in full stride square on my right knee. It was exactly like you see in cartoons where a character hits a wall and boing-oing-oings back a few feet. I limped back to the truck, my knee throbbing and me cursing under my breath, my two traveling companions attempting to consul me between giggles and yawns.

Let me stop here to point out that the entire time I was in Iraq I was sick a total of three times, twice from food poisoning in the cafeteria, and once just having a common cold. I was injured a total of three times. One was when I strained my neck/shoulder lifting weights and the other two injuries both occurred at passenger terminals, the first in Baghdad on my way in. In the middle of the night I got up from the cot I was sleeping on in the terminal and I sliced my finger on a door. Then there was this knee thing at the JBB passenger terminal on my way out of Iraq. So essentially my deployment was book-ended by two airport injuries.

We made it out on a 9 am flight the next day. The flight was full and they packed us into the airplane like sardines. The bucket chairs (more comfortable, with leg and shoulder room) along the side walls of the C-17 were filled mostly with civilian contractors so we were moved into the center seats, rows of five seats apparently designed to transport armies of small children. For all flights (and of course convoys) around Iraq, you are required to wear your full “battle-rattle,” meaning our helmets, vests with front, back, and side plates and groin flap, ballistics glasses, and beneath that our usual winter-weight, Air Force standard Airmen’s Battle Uniforms. Balancing our bags on our chests we slept with ease for the duration of the hour/hour and a half flight, exhausted from the previous night’s escapades, and with far less oxygen than would normally be required for us to function properly making it to our brains with our lungs crushed under the weight of bags, vests and the chairs in front. Our chairs, apparently installed on wheels that were not fully locked in place, rocked forward than backward several inches at a time like the start of a roller coaster ride, further lulling us into uncomfortable slumber.

There were cheers when we went wheels up out of Joint Base Balad and again when we touched down in Kuwait at Ali Al-Salem Air Base, jumbled shouts of laughter, joy and relief. Still far from home we were finished in Iraq and with it 99% of the danger of our deployment. Helmets and vests were no longer needed. We put those and some of our other issued gear into crates to be shipped back to the states for the next round of soldiers and airmen to use. We locked our guns away in a closet. Those were coming home with us, but we wouldn’t take them out of their cases again.

After 24 hours of trying, we were finally on our way home.

Friday, September 25, 2009


September 25
“My parents would never have let me get away with this when I was their age.”

The Army Lieutenant with me today on our canal reconnaissance trip is, of course, referring to the ten or so children, who, with arms outstretched have now pointed, prodded, and pleaded with us to hand over our rifles, pistols, glow sticks, pencils, pens, footballs and chocolate, but have been temporarily appeased with left over individually packaged muffins and lukewarm bottles of water from the back of the trucks. I don’t argue with him but it’s not so easy for me to place myself into the shoes, or more often sandals or, oddly enough, Croc-knock offs, of these 3 to 12 year old Iraqi children who have grown up with armed foreigners constantly walking through their streets, knocking on their doors, and taking pictures of them. They certainly aren’t afraid of us. These kids are brash and very persistent. One youngster immediately covets my chem. lights, devices we use for signaling if the radios go out. We have two with each one representing a different thing when lit and displayed but he doesn’t know that. And seeing that I have two he thinks he’s found his in. Pointing he makes his case: “Just one?”

The kids are highly competent in English. Please, yes, school, baby, name, hello, and of course mistah, mistah, are elements of every kid’s vocabulary we run into, and I know that “no” is not a new word to any of them but this kid does not give up after I tell him he can’t have the chem. lights. He pulls at them, reaching up to my vest where I’ve stashed them. Like a trick from any pick-pocket’s playbook, while he distracts me with my lights other kids are feeling my pockets, and reaching for the myriad other snaps and buttons on my uniform looking for any chink in my armor to capture a prize. I finally cave under the pressure and pull out a pack of gum. This, of course, brings all kids running and soon I’m swarmed over. The tall kids push their way to the front, retreat as they grab one piece, and then return again for another. When I call them out on it they put their hands on the smaller kids, “For baby.” The gum is gone in a matter of seconds and the crowd disperses, all except that one kid. “Mistah, mistah. Just one?”

When it becomes clear that the soldiers have ceased passing out handouts, some of the kids wander off with their goods. Others stick around attempting conversations with us. Through gestures and his limited English I gather that the boy who has chosen to hang by me is named Ahmad and that there is no school today although I have no idea why. When he asks my name I tell him. Apparently he isn’t put off by the American name. He gives it two thumbs up and laughs before running off.

There’s a kid with a whiffle bat walking around slamming other kids in the head. This isn’t all that strange because everywhere we’ve gone where there have been kids there has always been violence of some sort. Then again, these are little boys and beating on each other, wrestling, and playing tag games that involve throwing punches aren’t so rare back home either. Still, to be talking to some of the kids and then have Manny Ramirez run up and slam his little brother or whatever in the side of the face with a bat is a bit of a shock. The little guy doesn’t think much of it. He throws a punch back and otherwise doesn’t skip a beat. Meanwhile the batter looks up at my rank and correctly identifies it. No doubt these kids are sharp. Their familiarity with us, our friendliness, and mission procedures could prove to be both an asset and potentially a risk in the years to come as they grow up and decide whether or not they are going to pick up their friend’s/neighbor’s/father’s/brother’s/cousin’s AK before they come back to see us.

Today I’ve brought one of our team’s Iraqi engineers along with us to help in some canal assessments. On our first stop we are looking at a spot where an offshoot of the primary canal crosses under the road to feed a tertiary canal on the other side. Unfortunately, the pipe under the road somehow got clogged at some point and the water level rose high enough to wash out a portion of the road. While temporary measures have been put in place to halt the complete destruction of the road, a permanent fix needs to be made, and fast before the rains come and further damage becomes inevitable. In cases like this, where the road is not just a road, but also a route, meaning we cross it every day with our 20-ton trucks on our way to and from Joint Base Balad, not to mention the supply, food, and fuel trucks that come through here, and repairs will benefit both local and US interests, fixes often come faster. I take pictures and let my engineer ask most of the questions. From the sound of it, the discussion sounds almost identical to the one we had several days ago in my office so it’s hard for me to understand the importance of this leg of our trip other than to confirm what we already knew. Still, we go over the plan of attack for the repairs and they seem sound. Unfortunately, we have to operate around the canal schedule; every five days the gates from the main canal are opened to flood the side canals and make water available to the local farmers. Here, that day comes in two days, too soon for work to start today, so plans are made for construction to begin shortly thereafter. As we talk some of the kids wash their faces in the pool of water in the excavated hole adjacent to the road reminding me once again how thankful I am to have a cooler full of water bottles waiting for me in the back of my truck when we finally roll out.

Perception is reality. I’ve heard that phrase several times this week. The first was in light of an exercise we were having on base that required all Airmen in our wing to put on their full vest and helmet and arm up for a day, to play Army if you will. As regular Army tag-alongs it was easy for us to turn our noses up at the prospect of having to put on our gear and walk around outside all day when we wear the stuff on a regular basis when we roll off base on our many site and FOB visits and especially considering the fact that most of the “Fobbits” who live and work here never set foot off base and mostly operate in their jobs in the same manner as they would back home in the States. So when after much debate our squadron finally labeled us “non-players” in the exercise we figured we were off the hook for wearing the stuff. But then, when our boss, our big boss, the top Civil Engineer in the Air Force, showed up at a planned breakfast event we were attending in his gear, we knew we had messed up. If he was in it and we weren’t, we were wrong. The question was not whether or not we were justified in not wearing our gear around. Clearly, we were. But without signs or labels and only getting stopped by one in every 20 people or so who asked the question “Why aren’t you wearing your gear?” the other 95% were left to come up with their own explanations in their heads as to why we were “above” the exercise. General Patton said that when you are an officer you are always on parade. In this case, the price of the negative perception of us skipping the exercise far outweighed the benefit of being slightly more comfortable than everyone else for a day.

We wore our gear when we went to lunch, and dinner.

My Iraqi Engineer tells me that the kid has revealed to him that all Americans have smarts and are very strong. I would not say that this is the perception held by most people around the world, or even in his or our own country. Strong makes sense because of the Americans he has seen most are soldiers who are already big and strong and look even bigger and stronger in their superhero vests, helmets, and sunglasses that they never see us without. Intelligent doesn’t make as much sense right off the bat. Not because I think people in the military are dumb, but because I’m not really sure what he has to base that observation off of. I will say this though: One of the many pleasures I’ve had this deployment has been getting the opportunity to see our soldiers do their jobs. They may joke around a lot and sound pretty foolish over the communications network as they crack jokes on each other during our long drives, but when it comes to doing what they need to do when boots are on the ground, I’ve never seen any hesitation or wondered if they were going to be able to act the part under pressure. It could be this calm almost casual air about the soldiers that the boy had picked up, a confidence that goes without saying. If so it would be an astute observation. We certainly have a diverse group of folks serving in the armed forces. We should all be glad they’re on our side. Every time I roll out I’m confident they’ve got my back.

In places where the canals are too narrow for the larger vehicles in our convoy to make it (and hoping to avoid a disaster similar to our rollover fiasco just outside Balad a month back) we hop into Humvees to tour the rest. Some of the roads are really narrow. Twice we need ground guides to help us maneuver past a wall or a sign post. We finally reach the end of the road when we get into a standoff with some cows. Not wanting to upset one cow that does not at all appear to be in the mood to play chicken we backtrack our way out and head back to another section of canal on our agenda.

We dismount just east of an Iraqi checkpoint. Here the canal was once lined with concrete the whole way but for a stretch of about 500 meters the liner has been destroyed. In a story later confirmed by the guards at the checkpoint we found out that when the canal was last dredged the operator of the digger made no qualms about clearing out the canal, concrete and all. Consequently we are working on a statement of work to reline it at an appropriate level to make sure water still flows farther down the canal to where the liner is undamaged. A little ways down the canal the story once again is the kids. Here a new group of a dozen or so quickly gathers to watch us as we take pictures and discuss methods for repair. This time not standing next to a major route we are all a bit more at ease and we take a lot of pictures of and with the kids. When we need to measure the canal’s profile all we have to do it with is a piece of cardboard (somehow no one in the entire convoy has a tape measure on them). I suggest we give the kids a chance to help out and with the help of our engineer’s pencil (which they keep no doubt) they quickly get to it. It’s 6 box-lengths from the top of one side, down to the bottom, across, and then back up again the other side. Not a big canal, that’s just about 9 feet total. Still, the water is no less needed here for these farms than anywhere else.

One kid smiles as he gestures to my mustache. “It’s ugly, I know,” I tell him. He laughs, not necessarily understanding the words, but clearly getting the point. I catch a picture of a group of about 10 of them as they huddle around our Iraqi engineer. He looks like Santa Clause or a rock star, the crowd of kids pushing around him with their arms raised. I get them to all look at me and smile for a picture. When it’s finally time for us to leave I don’t think a single one goes home empty handed. More muffins and waters are handed out. Pens, pencils, and candy all leave in the hands of new owners. With all this giving away of stuff we’re either creating a crop of really friendly, happy children, or an army of salesmen and con men. Either way, this generation of Iraqis will hopefully not grow up fearing, or more importantly resenting Americans as their older brothers and fathers likely do and have. Of course only time will tell. I will always have the pictures to look back on and remember this experience and the many others like it.

For fear of dealing with a potentially career-damaging situation back home at least one of those pictures will probably not make it back with me. When we got back to the office and my friend was scrolling through my shots from the day on my camera he made a startling observation. Apparently one of the little boys in one of the group pics is wearing nothing but a t-shirt.

Perception is reality.
I guess today it was too hot for pants.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

When Chariots of Fire Get Flat Tires

September 11
On holiday weekends (like Labor Day weekend last weekend) we don’t really get any time off and as far as life around base goes, not much changes with a few small adjustments. For one, the DFACs (chow halls) usually serve up their special, a combination of fried steaks (we are all eagerly anticipating grilling on a real charcoal grill back home!), sometimes crab legs, fried shrimp, corn on the cob, and all the other usual salad options, overall not a bad spread. Often there are enormous cakes decorated by one of the workers with icing American flags, stars, and jet planes although somehow I’m never around to see these cakes cut and passed out so I'm not convinced that they're actually cakes. Balad recently “consolidated” its dining facilities from four facilities (two big and two small) to four dining facilities (three big and one small). They plan to close the last of the “old”, small DFACs right after we leave Iraq, having already closed “The People’s DFAC”—where everyone knows your name—which was right across the street from our office, had a diner-esque coziness about it, and where all the workers remembered exactly how you liked you eggs cooked, ice cream scooped, etc. Many people think the new DFAC is a representation of the kind of wasted money and misguided planning typical of this war and while we still manage to eat well no amount of recycled 4th of July decorations can help the new dining facility—with its white-washed walls, bright lights, tile floors, and high ceilings—not feel like a cafeteria in a mental institution.

For the third or fourth consecutive holiday we started our day by waking up before the sun came up, lacing up our shoes, and running a race. This is, apparently, the typical deployed fun thing to do. I already have seen “Halloween Costume Run” posters hanging up for October’s run. Today’s run was special because it was commemorating both Patriot’s Day (at some point in the last few years we stopped just calling it “September Eleventh” and the eleventh of September became Patriot’s Day, not sure if everyone got the memo on that one) and the Air Force birthday on the 19th. About a month and a half ago we signed up for the race. At the time I was on my way out for a week of site visits and my other team members were going to do it so I signed up with them and forgot about it. Unlike the usual monthly, holiday variety, this race was a half-marathon.

When you’re still two months away from an event, it’s pretty easy to sign up for it. This past week the full dread of the pain I was about to endure started to hit me. One of my teammates pointed out to me that the race shirts (printed on a shade of brown that truly makes the shirts un-wearable) have 10k written on them as well as half, and full marathon (I have to interject another point about the shirts: the text is off-center on the front but not quite enough to look like it was done on purpose and on the back they’ve printed a picture of a Global Hawk UAV although I would hardly call this aircraft the new poster child of the Air Force. The shirts for the volunteers who manned all the hydration stations were printed in white text that was perfectly centered on a dark blue background. I wonder why they opted to give the runners the doo-doo brown variety). From this I assumed that all three races would be featured with runners given the choice to pick their route and run what they chose. A ten kilometer race is about 6.2 miles, a half-marathon is 13.1, and a full marathon is 26.2. It was a no-brainer for me. I don’t like running. I never really have. I grew up playing soccer, certainly a running game, but without the ball, or even the prospect of getting the ball, running loses its appeal. So I told everyone I was going to do the 10k and that I would bring my camera and take pictures of them as they crossed the finish line of the half-marathon. Sounded like a good plan.

There were two things that happened before the race started that stick out in my memory. As a quick background, understand that every race (although given a new name and a new shirt based on the nearest holiday) starts and ends the same way here. We show up at the stadium at 4:30. At 4:55 we line up at the start on the track and a prayer is said by the Chaplain followed by the singing of the National Anthem by someone and then someone else says go. Last month the Chaplain chose to forego his amen and replaced it instead with “and with that dear Lord I say GO!” catching most of us off guard. But we went. This month the Chaplain implored God to help us all have “an enjoyable morning”. Even running just the 10k, there was no part of the 6 mile loop around the base that I was looking forward to enjoying. He, however, was probably headed off to breakfast, or back to bed, both things that truly sounded enjoyable at the time. Normally at that point we would stand at attention for the National Anthem, but for some reason we skipped that part of the ceremony today. I’m thinking it’s because the singer was a no-show, but it was a bit disappointing considering what the run was commemorating. Instead, the announcer joked into the microphone “I hope none of y’all think you’re running a 10k today!” and then proceeded to go into explaining the route and other details of the race. People chuckled and talked amongst themselves. I wasn’t laughing. Wait… Is he serious? Before I could put any real, intelligent, thought into the matter, they fired off some blanks out of a shotgun and started the race. And so, having not run farther than 4 miles in the past several years and not run at all in the past three plus weeks, I took my first steps of the Joint Base Balad half-marathon.

Later I figured out that 10k, half-marathon, and marathon are the races being offered at different bases around Iraq which as a group were commemorating the day. Our base just happened to be hosting the half-marathon. That makes sense now. I’m really not sure why I didn’t think of it earlier in the week. By about mile three (the usual limits of my distance running) I was seriously evaluating my decision to not turn back early and call it a morning. The race course was laid out as a 6.6 mile distance out, and then 6.6 miles back, so I knew if I went much further I would be committed to the total distance. Plus, I was reminded of an episode of “The Simpsons” where Bart runs out into the Springfield marathon with just a half mile or so to go and wins the race, wearing a mustache as a disguise and I knew I would be both embarrassed and ashamed to run across the finish line (mustache and all) having not run the full race. So I kept going. The course took us past the chow hall, our office building, and my CHU, giving me three opportunities on the way out, and three opportunities on the way back to stop and throw in the towel but I pushed through, the image of Bart burned in my mind.

At or around the mile 5 marker a woman ran up next to me and started looking at me. Very seriously, and with great concern she asked me “Is it harder to run with that?” pointing to my mustache. I was ready for her: “No. It’s my humidor. Keeps my face cool.” It’s not a third leg lady. It’s a mustache.

Somewhere around mile 6 of the pavement/gravel/dirt road course, jumping up and down curbs and around potholes, my knees started to go. First it was just my left knee, a sharp pain every time my left foot hit the ground. But then to compensate for the pain, I instinctively shifted some of my weight to the right side which caused my right ankle, and eventually my right knee, to start to hurt as well. By the turn around point, an unceremonious cone on the ground with a paper arrow, my knees were screaming at me to stop. While I never stopped moving forward, there was no way I could continue running at that point, so I swallowed my pride and slowed to a walk. Six and a half miles from where I needed to end up, I now had no choice but to start walking back. The pain was constant, but I found that every few minutes I could extend into a jog for a short distance before my knees would start to seize up again forcing me to slow to a walk for a few more minutes. My next hour and twenty minutes followed this pattern. It really wouldn’t be honest to say at the end of the day that I “ran” a half-marathon. More like, I ran a quarter marathon, and “wogged” another quarter marathon. The walk/jog combination ended up keeping my time shorter than if I just walked, and I managed to finish in just under two and a half hours. Hey, it’s not going to put me on a Wheaties box, but I’m hoping to pick up my “Gutsiest Performance” award right after I win the “Stupidest Guy” trophy for running in the first place without having done any training at all for it.

Since we started running at 5 am, when the base was still relatively quiet (and cool), the first leg of the run was actually not bad, might I even say, borderline enjoyable. I wasn’t trying to push because I knew I needed to save my energy so I was able to get a good look around some parts of the base I had never been, including along a part of the flight line where some Cessnas and F-16s were parked, and through the Army housing area where there were… a lot of Army people. The back roads were great. Not a lot of traffic, real quiet, but the noise, traffic, car exhaust and dust seemed to increase exponentially with the rising of the sun. By 6:30 or so we were jumping out of the path of cars, trucks, MRAPs and Humvees and the air had lost its crisp, morning freshness, having been replaced with the mixture of dust, exhaust, and burnpit smoke that dominates during the days. Thankfully, the run was taking place in September and not July where by 6:30 it would already have been 100 for an hour. We were fortunate to not have anything over 90 during the race and the water/Gatorade stations at every mile marker were kept well stocked so dehydration was never really a fear. For that matter, fatigue never really was a fear either. Wogging isn’t really tiring and it was extremely frustrating to feel the gaze of every person who drove by on the road labeling me weak or lazy as I slogged on down the path unable to run for long periods of time due to the pain in my knees.

With a few miles to go the giant voice, our loudspeaker system that announces when the base is coming under mortar attack, came to life. It turned out to be an announcement for a controlled detonation, probably of seized munitions. My buddy and I, recalling it later in the day, were glad it hadn't been an actual "dive-in-a-bunker" attack because neither of us think we would have been able to get our bodies going again after that.

By the time I neared the final stretch of the race I was reduced to alternating my running and walking with minute splits, my running now more of a shuffle and the distance it took me to start up and slow down increased to five or ten steps because abrupt starts and stops put too much pressure on my knees. The last quarter mile leg of the race was a final “victory” lap around the track back at the start (now finish) line. I decided to run the whole distance for pride and honor and all that, and because I knew all my friends were watching and I was not going to be able to hear the end of it if I walked across the finish line and at 2:28:36 I finished the race. For finishing we all got really nice medals (surprisingly they are really nice considering the t-shirts we got) as well as a complimentary continental breakfast of fresh fruit and muffins.

We were all hurting the rest of the day after the race, the phrase “I didn’t even know I had a muscle there!” being used on many occasions. For me the pain migrated from my knees to my hips overnight, and then back again to my knees after sitting in a chair for a few hours the next day. I have one rather large blister on the bottom of my right foot, but I will lose no toenails. Really other than going up and (worse) down stairs we have mostly recovered our normal gaits already. One of my friends (who finished the race about 50 minutes before I did) was having some serious issues with his knees throughout the day, especially his right knee. Anyone who has seen “Forrest Gump” and can picture the way young Forrest walked in his leg braces, can get a good picture of what my buddy looked like on the way to dinner last night, swinging his right leg way out to avoid bending it. Not good. But I’m sure he’ll heal, as we all will. We have to. There's probably going to be a Canadian Thanksgiving run scheduled in a few short weeks.

Friday, August 28, 2009

A Big Hole

August 25
Much has been written about the first explorers who crossed the oceans of the world in search of treasures, glory, and cinnamon. At first heroic, brave, and daring, lately they are remembered as being cruel, greedy, and sadistic. Every one of those first voyagers brought with them a crew who probably shared a combination of those traits, but more likely set sail riding waves of cautious optimism, fear, excitement, and obligation. It was their stories of golden cities that led to the massive movements of people that ultimately conquered the New World.

Tuesday we set out on the first leg of our trek to plot "The Canals of Iraq." Although I doubt school children in the years to follow will use "In mid-August of oh-nine, the engineers set out at half past nine" to recall our exploits, the trip was important and I, like most of the soldiers along for the ride, and the crew members of explorations of old, carried a mix of optimism and duty one might expect. The objective of our mission was to observe and record the condition of a length of the Great Eastern Canal of the Tigris River Valley (I have added "Great" for effect), including any patches of heavy vegetation or breaks in the canal, and keep an eye out for the Giant Spotted Dodo, the nearly extinct (and completely fabricated) mammoth flightless bird native to central Iraq. Digital camera and notebook in hand we took our turn onto the canal road and thus began our grand adventure.

In the back of my truck, it felt like we were going on safari. The narrow and oftentimes uneven driving surface adjacent to the canal slowed our progress to a crawl and I was free to climb from side to side in the back of the MRAP, snapping pictures of reeds, mud-brick pumping stations, and long pipes dipping delicately into the water's edge like long elephant trunks sipping at the slow-moving current. Periodically we stopped to take measurements. At one canal-crossing our soldier/engineer escorts produced some measuring tape and a long pole. Leaning over the edge of the bridge with the pole, two other soldiers holding his legs, one sergeant discovered that the depth at center of the canal was 9 feet. One of his M-4 magazines also found this out as it kerr-plopped into the channel past his head as he scrambled back to his feet. "Casualty of war" he grumbled. Still, I admired his efforts to train the younger soldiers. Placing a glow-stick into an empty water bottle he had one soldier measure off 100 feet down the bank and they timed the canal's velocity by timing the bottle as it drifted downstream; 100 feet in 59 seconds. He joked that the bottle would probably beat us to the end. It was no joke.

Of course what I have failed to mention thus far and what adds to the absurdity of the journey was our proximity in regards to the base. Joint Base Balad is situated in the middle of the bread basket of Iraq. In all likelihood, the land it now occupies was, and will one day again be fertile farmland. We know this because canals practically encircle the base. On 3 sides they act as moats with the perimeter fence coming almost to the water's edge. 1,000 years ago boiling water or oil may have been poured from the watch towers spaced at regular intervals along the c-wire topped chain-link defenses as intruders charged across the canal. Now, they are a place for the Ugandan security guards we've hired to sit and watch as we inch our way down the northern perimeter canal roughly 200 feet from the fence. It is comical really, that we in full gear with guns cocked and helmets snug are close enough to carry on conversations with our friends who instead wear t-shirts and shorts on the other side of the chain-link fence. Either they are not as safe as they think, or we are being far too cautious. Either way, it's hard to disagree with whomever I overhear saying "Too bad they couldn't move the fence a couple hundred feet this way. We could have done this mission in pick-ups." Still we lumber on. The illegal taps won't count themselves.

We wear headsets in the vehicles so that directions can be given if need be or we can shout out warnings to each other over the drone of the engine. Mostly the conversations shared through the system fit neither description, talk of food, women, and home tend to dominate. Today, the conversation is slightly more focused. The group we're riding with are still relatively new here (with less than three months in country compared to our four, we've actually been here longer than they have). They call out vehicles on the road parallel to us beyond the fields, reporting farmers, children and stray cows. The road we're traveling on is narrow and weak. Warnings about ditches and potholes have me just a bit nervous. As my NCO later reported from his vantage point in a Buffalo, a vehicle even larger and more imposing than the Cougar I'm riding in, the view alternated at intervals between sky and sea not so unlike being in a boat. All this being said, when I heard our truck commander call out "Watch out. That's a big f-ing hole," it didn't strike me as a surprising comment, us having made it past several such described obstacles already. It was when we stopped that I realized something was wrong.

Past the gunner's dangling feet through the front windshield I could see that the MRAP in front of us was off-kilter, leaning awkwardly to one-side, still upright, but in trouble. Noting that we conveniently also were stopped beside another of the now three illegal taps we'd seen already in the 2.5 km we had travelled down the canal, I opted to step out of the vehicle to snap some photos of them and the trapped vehicle in front of us. My architecture history classes reminded me that the pump house was no exception to the buildings that have been built here for generations, with just a few minor differences. While the walls are still mud-and-straw bricks; hard, yet made brittle in the sun, crumbling to the touch and I'm not convinced I couldn't have punched through them, with log roof rafters covered with mud and straw, there entrances are now sturdy steel doors with frames, carefully locked with padlocks. This does not seem so unlike locking the doors to your convertible, especially considering that the pumps and most of the machinery are situated outside, adjacent to the fragile station.

Maybe getting a vehicle stuck is not a rare occurrence. At first, this doesn't appear to be anything out of the ordinary to our escorts. The driver has his passengers exit the truck as a safety precaution, they talk things over amongst themselves, and then attach a tow strap from the back of the Buffalo to the front of the disabled truck. Encouraged by the ease with which all of this is set up, I'm not expecting much when I raise my camera to capture the scene as the towing begins.

There is a moment as the lead vehicle lurches forward that everything appears to be ok. Then, in what someone later perfectly described as something resembling an elephant toppling to its side, the mechanical beast gave up and died.

In my video you can see the truck start to go. As it breaches the point of no return my camera drops some, not so unlike my spirits at the prospects of us continuing our mission from that point on. Then, you can see my shadow as I run to the side of the wounded truck. In a cloud of dust the soldiers survey the scene. Once it was clear that the vehicle was stable on its side, and the driver was okay (he climbed out through the gunner's turret) everyone stood back and surveyed the scene as if saying "Ok. Now what?" This part of the process was not normal. Gasoline and transmission fluid oozing out from open wounds of the truck's exposed belly into the farmers' fields; I cringe to think of the environmental implications. More urgently, this truck is rapidly becoming a danger to all of us as it bakes in the oven of the midday sun, basted by its own flammable fluids. We rush to secure sensitive items from inside the truck passing them on to be stored in the other vehicles and when this is done we retreat to the quiet safety of our own trucks stuck to sit and guard the crippled MRAP while we wait for help.

There are a multitude of lessons learned that I assume will make their way into the soldier's playbooks for future missions. Most of the afterthoughts from our experience will explain what not to do if your MRAP gets trapped on a small dirt road adjacent to a canal. The number one lesson, of course, will be that our next canal-observing safari will likely be made in smaller vehicles. It really should come as no surprise that the dirt donkey paths, when trampled by our multiple ton mammoths, eventually gave way. Next, as we found out, help, although the base was in sight had a very difficult time reaching us on the narrow banks of the canal. The only way to lift an enormous vehicle like ours is with an even more enormous vehicle. And there was no way to get one to where we were. Still, I don't want to blame the leadership of our failed expedition. No one could have predicted everything that went wrong to lead to this debacle. The challenge now was to figure a way out. As a passenger, all I could do was retire to my truck to wait it out.

For the next eight hours the three of us in the back of my truck took turns sitting on the two open seats and an ammo can. My wide open carriage I'd moved so freely around in earlier was now packed with half of the contents of the rolled MRAP and two of its passengers. The question rapidly became not if I could keep a part of my body from falling asleep, but rather which I could live without temporarily. We wrapped ourselves around boxes and bags and slept for 15-20 minute stretches at a time, mustering all of our strength upon waking to shift our now dead-to-me legs to other positions, leaning to the opposite side to restore the blood flow thereby sacrificing the other side to its neighbor's former fate.

I made my stomach and my bladder hold out as long as possible, but eventually both required my attention. There is no easy way to pee in a bottle. Kneeling in the back of an MRAP in full body armor in a space roughly equivalent to the passenger seat of a Mazda Miata, I did my best, sure that at any moment someone would open the back door of our truck and see me, all of me, staring back at them. The cold, fajitas with spread cheese and "formed" chicken strips was not exactly what my stomach had in mind when it requested a meal, but it was all we had and it sufficed. Thankfully, each truck carries several days worth of provisions and there is always a cooler with ice on board so cold water and a Pepsi kept me hydrated and had me repeating the pee-in-a-bottle experiment again not too much later.

When the sun started to set some locals came out to investigate the scene. First I see a boy leading cows past the truck. He hits the brown one with a stick when it starts to wander too close to the edge of the canal. Soon a small crowd of old and young men and boys has gathered. Several soldiers dismount to keep a closer eye on the fallen truck. They hand out water bottles and chips retrieved from the belly of the beast as a friendly gesture to the throng. The soldier next to me in our MRAP wonders aloud why they're eating the chips outside in the daytime, it being Ramadan and all. The real purpose of their gathering becomes clear when several of the young man ditch their outer garments and take off out of my line of sight towards the canal, coming back laughing and dripping wet. One less modest boy, skinny as a rail, takes off naked towards the water running back to guard a small pile of water bottles he has claimed as his own, wailing on another child with his fists for wandering too close to his stash. They make quite a scene, but by nightfall they wander off leaving us alone again in our trucks.

A Wrecker with two Humvee escorts show up shortly thereafter. An hour and multiple tries later they've managed to pull the truck out of the hole. It's still on its side though so our conversations about missing lunch, that have since evolved into conversations about missing dinner, now focus on whether or not we'll make it back before daybreak the next morning. I am not optimistic because it's looking increasingly more likely that they'll have to call in a chopper to upright the truck and the logistics of that kind of rescue are even more daunting. But instead of spending the night in the truck, my Master Sergeant and I are rescued by the departing Humvee escorts who the Army LT has requested take us home. The relief beats out the guilt at leaving the soldiers there at the scene and after nearly getting stuck ourselves and a 10-point turn that would have made Austin Powers proud, our Humvee begins the slow crawl back to the front gate.

The previous Sunday I had joked about all the training we'd done in Humvees at CST in New Jersey before coming to Iraq and how I would never even ride in one in theater. Lesson learned: Never joke about anything "not happening" or else it will.

Our evening should have ended there but my driver opted to take the long way back, needlessly driving around the entire interior perimeter of the base adding thirty more minutes inside a cramped vehicle to my day. The MSgt and I ended up getting split up with him going to our truck, left parked at our embarkation point, and me going back to our office. I picked him and myself up some sandwiches at the 24-hour food point and jumped in another one of our trucks to go find him. We ended up passing each other on the road. When we got back to the office and I climbed out of the truck I noticed something wet in my right pocket. I reached in to find my kiwi from the chow hall turned to liquid goo. Of course.

Twelve hours after we set out on our failed expedition, soggy pocket and all, we sat down in my office, laughing as we recalled the day's absurdity. Unbeknownst to me, his vehicle, farther up in the convoy, had "taken off into some field" at some point in the afternoon and gotten stuck as well. This time, the tow strap correctly placed, they were able to pull it out to safety although what possessed their truck commander to embark on this unnecessary side adventure he did not know. His biggest shock of the day was the lack of quick response we saw from the soldiers after the truck fell over. "They all kind of just stood around" he reported. He jumped up on the truck to try to assess the condition of the driver (I have photographic proof!) and when they started unloading key materials from the back he and I stepped up to help cart it off. Some of the soldiers were posting security, but others just didn't seem to believe they had seen what they just saw.

When we returned to our CHUs at midnight, my roommate was still awake. We went to let the boss know we were safe and of course he wanted to see pictures. In my rush to show him the video of the vehicle falling I instead erased it. Maybe it wasn't meant to be. For me, in a long day full of painfully cramped quarters, waiting, cold MREs and peeing in bottles, it was the icing on the cake. My crowning achievement: capturing the vehicle's tumble on film, gone.

I will not cry over lost video, but without the cinematic proof backing our day's one true excitement it made the whole experience seem even more of a waste. I have the still-shots though; tools by which I'm sure the story may one day grow to epic proportions beyond what I've written here, stories with explosions and Giant Spotted Dodos and where the naked natives charged us with sharp sticks and angry cows.

When my office mates drove out to see the scene of the accident in the early morning of the next day they found nothing. The vehicles either driven, towed, or flown out. I'd like to think their metal hulks were carved up and dragged off into the fields by the locals, a headlight becoming the shining jewel of a farmer chieftain's necklace and the four tires anchoring the walls of a new mud house.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Waterworks

August 22
A little over a month into my deployment, I sent a request home for a reference book to help me with a design I was working on. We had conducted our first in a now long list of site visits to water treatment plants throughout Diyala. In most cases these facilities were operational, but the success of their treatment abilities was questionable at best. In the United States water comes clean out of the pipes. The people in Los Angeles may disagree with me, but when you turn on the tap there, you can be assured that what fills your cup, as cloudy, or odorous as it may seem to the naked eye (or nose), will not make you sick when you drink it. I cringe at the thought of Americans purchasing two-dollar bottles of water at Hollywood boutiques, thinking themselves better for it, when the Food and Drug Administration found that the water sold in bottles on our shelves is often less tested, and thus potentially less safe to drink than the tap water available for pennies in our kitchens at home.

The full extent of the situation is laughable. In the United States, a country with some of the cleanest drinking water available on the planet, those who can afford to, turn their noses up at the water available in their homes, choosing instead to drink potentially less-pure water that per gallon can cost more than a gallon of gasoline. Here in the desert, the military treats just enough water to hydrate their civilian personnel and soldiers and cook with. The rest, that which we shower with, wash our hands and clothes with and use to flush our toilets is deemed “un-potable” and therefore safe enough to use for these tasks, but not safe enough to drink. What this means is that here, whether I like it or not, if I want a drink of water, I am reaching for a 1 liter plastic bottle.

After undergoing an intensive (and extremely energy expensive) treatment process, through elaborate purification machines that I have personally seen turn brown pond water into crisp, clean, drinking water, the bottles are bundled, placed on pallets, wrapped in plastic sheeting and left in the sun for days on end. I have been told that this is an important part of the purification process. The additional time in the sun gives the chlorine, added to the water to kill any remaining bacteria, the chance to break down to levels safe enough for the eventual drinkers. Of course, any chemist could tell you that the chlorine in the bottle doesn’t just go away when it’s heated by the scorching midday sun, so I’m not apt to believe this oversimplification and I'll admit that I don't fully understand how it all works. All I know is this water, drawn from underground wells and aquifers, in a country with far fewer environmental protective laws in place than ours, then purified and bottled for my enjoyment, has managed to nourish my body on a daily basis without making me sick thus far, and for that I am grateful. The roughly 400 bottles I will drink and dispose of while I am here are a consequence of, and a reminder that I will not be here permanently. Like it or not, crack another bottle and drink up. It's all you got.

As a boy, I developed a fairly sophisticated understanding of the effort and resources that go into the treatment of water from the moment it falls to the ground as rain, to the moment it touches my lips. I, like so many of the Sesame Street/Mr. Rogers generation, learned this and many other “basics” of how society is put together by simply turning on the television even before I was old enough to go to school. After I had learned to read, The Magic School Bus series, by Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen, the fantastical adventures of a class of elementary students and their eccentric curly haired, red-headed teacher, aptly named Ms. Frizzle, became another favorite of mine. The series explores the fundamentals of geology, the solar system, and in one of my favorites, the digestive system, in such a simple and fun way that it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that some of my basic understandings of science I maintain to this day can be traced back to those illustrated classics. It was for The Magic School Bus at the Waterworks that I sent an email request home that day early into my deployment. I was searching for a simplified diagrammatic depiction of the water treatment process and naturally the one in the book came to my recollection when I was trying to picture it. I’d recreated a pictorial of the works based on what is in the book just for fun as a kid. After the water is collected, it is sent through filtration tanks, filled with layers of gravel and fine sand meant to strain out dirt and other impurities including some of the bacteria. Then, it is treated with chemicals, chiefly chlorine to kill the rest of the germs present although fluoride is also added in some places in the US. From there it heads through mazes of pipes, pushed onward by pumps and pressure to our taps. If you are familiar with the series, you too can probably close your eyes and picture Ms. Frizzle and the loveable loser Arnold in scuba gear making their way through the tanks and pipes that symbolize the process. In this portion of Iraq there are very few centralized, large, treatment plants like the one depicted in the book. Instead, the process takes place on the local level, consolidated to several small tanks, a few pumps, and several lengths of pipe.

I didn’t take any water treatment courses in college, one rather abstract fluid dynamics course to be exact. Still, it doesn’t take a water expert to look at some of these treatment facilities and “get” that there is something wrong with them. In one case, pictured in a previous post, water was drawn straight from the river into delivery trucks we watched arrive on scene, the long plastic pipes pouring water into their open beds for transport to the nearest town for public consumption while nearby a brand new, United States Army Corps of Engineers water treatment facility sits unused, gathering dust. More commonly, citizens lucky enough to live closer to the treatment plants take matters into their own hands. Inevitably, the number of pipes going into the plant is dwarfed by the number of small hoses and plastic pipes exiting the holding tanks which can be traced to dwellings nearby. Unwilling to wait for the completion of the treatment process, or hoping to circumvent the rationing measures necessary for a country in four years of drought, these people would agree with the boy no older than 15 or 16 who told us he was the manager of the plant we visited most recently: “Any water [even untreated water] is better than no water.”

Back at base, our water experts put their heads together to develop more logical systems for water treatment, storage and distribution. A key addition to their plans are centralized holding tanks, one for each village within a certain distance of the treatment facility to which the treated water can be sent for distribution to homes hopefully discouraging the illegal taps that significantly reduce the facility’s effectiveness and production capacity. While neither expensive nor especially complicated from an engineering perspective, some of the government water officials seem reluctant to take on these measures, seeing the construction of secondary distribution points as a relinquishing of control over the system, power which they wield to both bless and condemn the towns in their areas of responsibility. We spend so much money on the design and construction of these and so many more types of projects. In all seriousness, I wonder how much it would cost us to have At the Waterworks translated into Arabic and handed out to each of these citizens. If nothing else, perhaps then we’d see the illegal taps made after the water’s been treated, at the end of this process, not somewhere in between…

…So much of our base is covered in dust and dry earth that it is difficult to believe that just outside our perimeter, in fact in most places, right up to our fence, local farmers are busy planting next year’s crops. From the air the difference becomes even more apparent.

Our base is a brown and gray square crisscrossed with roads and runways and dotted with buildings. The limits of our greenery are scattered trees and shrubs and one small patch of grass out front of a unit headquarters building fit with “keep off the grass” sign that is kept green year round by sprinklers. Beyond our walls a patchwork of fields stretches out in all directions. A lifeline of canals, an intricate network of irrigation ditches that traces back to the Tigris River, keeps the fields of grapes, corn, dates and cotton fertile year-round. Last week I took a trip up the road along with my boss and two of our Iraqi engineers to meet with some of Balad’s government representatives, tasked with the ever-challenging task of keeping the water flowing.

To call the meeting productive would be a bit of an optimistic assessment. For one, the translators often could not keep up with the back-and-forth banter between our team’s civil engineer and the five canal representatives. It was like watching a tennis match. The words were the ball and the twenty or so military attendees watched the conversation carry back and forth between them eagerly awaiting a clue from the interpreters during the brief lulls as to what was being said and who was winning. It took several hours, but we eventually developed an understanding of the current state of affairs when it comes to water distribution in the province of Salah al Din. At their estimate, 80-90% of the problem has nothing to do with canal deficiencies with engineerable solutions. You can imagine the “so what are we doing heres?” that ran through our minds as we took this all in. In a repeat of conversations, scenarios, and circumstances that undoubtedly have been seen across the country, when faced with a seemingly cut-and-dry issue, a problem for us to fix—in this case not enough water is making it to the people at the end of the chain—the real problem is far more complex than we originally anticipated. It’s political. It can’t just be fixed with a little cash and hard work. Just like we see at all of the water treatment plants we visit, farmers, struggling to make ends meet during the prolonged drought, have turned to illegal taps and unscheduled flooding of their fields to keep their crops from dying, severely hurting their neighbors downstream. The canal monitors do not have enough political backing to put a stop to these behaviors. One of them mentioned a failed attempt to “negotiate” the removal of illegal water taps from one major service canal. When he and two Iraqi policemen visited a village to discuss the matter, they were nearly run down by a mob of 40 angry farmers.

After a less than culturally sensitive American lunch of cold cut sandwiches, fruit, and sodas we broke into groups to take a closer look at the canal maps to see if they could identify any specific problem areas for us to investigate. It was strange to stand there in front of irrigation maps from the 1970s tacked to the wall and go at them with colored markers to identify discrepancies when we are accustomed to having state of the art (digital) maps to work with. It was like going back in time to the days of the pre-calculator, slide-rule engineers. While I think at least one of the maps we were looking at was current as of 10 years ago, the other was probably produced when our team Iraqi engineer was first assisting in the original canal project, almost 30 years ago. Incredibly, he can still remember some of his team's decisions during the early design stages, a reason why he will be so vital to the success of the reconstruction efforts today.

Two hours later we reassembled to out-brief our findings and discuss our “way forward” (as the Army likes to say) for this project. My primary task out of it all will be to lead the team responsible for creating a new living map for the canals in the region. Future visits to the canal sections identified as most in need of repairs will help identify where new construction projects are needed, where trash and vegetation removal efforts will be affective, and where new canals exist that shouldn’t. We’re hoping to hand over an interactive map in a few months that tracks all of the canals and their statuses so the Iraqi managers can have something to add to in the future and reference from in the present. For now this means I am mostly a liaison, carrying information between all parties, a fitting task for a young officer, I suppose. I expect that I will get to see more of the Balad canal network in the near future when I accompany our surveyors out to take measurements. Perhaps I will get to see some of the places where our own jets hit the canals early in the war effort, damages we are still working hard to fix. Or, maybe we’ll get to drive by some of the empty canals, drained or dried up, where insurgents have since stored spare weapons and from which they occasionally lob mortars in our general direction...

...On our way home later that day our convoy was stopped by a few Sons of Iraq manning a checkpoint a few miles from our base. Locals were reporting a suspicious package on the side of the road a little ways up the road. In a place where the ground is everyone's trashcan it is often extremely difficult to tell the difference between a pile of trash and a pile of explosives. Still, taking every precaution seriously, the Army quickly went into action, deploying cameras and robots to investigate. As we sat in our vehicles waiting for the boom, Iraqi men, women, and children all around us went on with their lives. I was not in the lead vehicle, so I didn't get the full picture of what went on until later: kids throwing rocks at the package, stray livestock stepping right next to or over it. People would stop and look at what was going on, but eventually they walked away likely having seen this sort of thing before. No one seemed afraid. It has become a part of life here. Two hours later our trucks lurched back into motion picking up speed past the suspected IED; a backpack full of water bottles.

Where there’s water there’s life. If we can return water to the dry canals maybe we can wash away some of the would be attackers and bring some much needed jobs back to the area. Maybe we can convince people that we, and more importantly that the government of Iraq really are trying to help them. The history of agriculture and civilization itself can be traced back to the same two rivers situated several miles from my front door. And here we are, still trying to make them work for us.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Tourists with Guns

July 27
We bounce around in the back of an MRAP as we head down a rough stretch of road in Southern Diyala. Half of today's survey of what the battery commander hopes will one day be a major economic thoroughfare for agricultural traffic between Baqubah and Baghdad will consist of this: counting (whether by sight or feel) potholes, bumps, divots, and ruts along a 20 km stretch of some of the worst driving surface you'll ever see. We quickly give up trying to catalogue every single defect and instead focus on the broader task at hand. For the majority of the distance, the road sits atop a soil berm. Parts are gravel, other sections have been paved with varying degrees of success. The difficulties of this project will be numerous, likely leading to a hefty price tag when we complete our project scope of work package and estimate back at home station. While the hope is to rely on materials and labor from a local asphalt plant and the large pool of available (jobless) able-bodied local workers, the reality is they may not be able to put forth a bid that competes with the big boys from Baghdad. The result would be another missed opportunity to pour some much needed Iraqi and American capital into this still very troubled region. Where the payments for terrorist activities are still large, it is crucial that the government steps in with other alternatives for work. This being estimated as a multi-million dollar job we know that it is a long shot to even get approved. As you could imagine the amount of red tape in the way of construction projects increases exponentially with price. For now, as we continue to bang around in the back of the MRAP, we focus on the pictures and video that will enable us to turn in the best project package we can. After that, it will be out of our hands.

Since July 1st all movements into or through Iraqi towns have required both Iraqi Army (IA) approval and escorts. Often coordination with Iraqi Police (IP) is also a prerequisite to investigate a potential job site as is visiting with and obtaining the blessing of other local leadership (mayor, sheik, etc). Missions are delayed or turned back on a daily basis, a source of great frustration to the soldiers here. Today we are lucky. Our IA escorts are ready to go when we arrive at their post and the police chief and mayor are waiting for us when we got to their village to check out another project on our list.

It's 8 am and the police chief is all smiles. He's a really friendly guy, acknowledging everyone in the room and motioning for us to take our seats, a conglomerate of couches and plastic lawn chairs with cushions spaced around the perimeter of the room with low tables for drinks and ashtrays for smokers. It's an arrangement of furniture similar to all of the other meeting rooms we've visited. The Army captain traveling with us explains to the police chief through the interpreter who we are and what we are there to accomplish and he thanks us in advance for our engineering efforts. Without a word, a man I presume to be the neighborhood sheik walks in and sits next to me as they continue to talk.

Although this is my first visit to this particular town, our Army escorts are clearly not strangers here. The captain and police chief discuss old business, security issues and insurgent activity in the area, things they have likely discussed many times before. As a young man passes out chai and orange soda to us, a young girl walks in and stands next to the police chief. She's probably about 8 years old and it quickly becomes clear that she is his daughter. In bits and pieces I overhear her story.

Six years ago, she was a passenger in the backseat of her father's car when an assassination attempt was made on his life. The car was shot up and it caught on fire and although they both escaped with their lives, she sustained severe burns to her body in multiple locations. The Army captain has promised to take photos of the girl back to a doctor on post to see if skin grafts would be possible for the girl's face, scarring which I only noticed when I knew to look for it. Her father, no doubt, assumes the scarring will scare away her suitors later in life, leaving her without a husband. Through hand motions and the interpreter, they motion for her to show them the wounds. Shy, but unafraid, the girl takes her hair out from the high pony tail she's put it up in revealing a large bare patch of skin on the top of her head. They take pictures of this and her face, as well as the backs of her arms, her back, and legs. The physical pain having waned, and showing none of the emotional scars one might expect from a child who suffered such a traumatic episode, the girl is unfazed by the experience, unashamedly displaying her wounds.

Like any other young girl she seems to enjoy being the center of attention. When a soldier reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small tin filled with candy for her she playfully hurries over to him and accepts it, smiling coyly and saying thanks over her shoulder as she shows it to her father. While the discussion returns to other issues, security of the town, infrastructure needs, etc, she remains the center of attention for the rest of our stay there. Another soldier gives her a granola bar and she proudly displays them both to other children who have wandered into the room. I'm not sure she knows what is in the tin. I see her shrug when the other children point to it. But its hers, and she spins it like a top on the table as our conversation comes to a close.

Its 8:30 now, and our captain politely offers to get out of the police chief's hair so he can get to work. Whether culture or kindness compels him, I do not know, but it doesn't shock me when the chief reacts to our departure with a question: "What? You're not staying for lunch?" It's 8:30 am. Time for us to get to work...

...I only much later learned the true story behind the name of the bridge we descend upon down the hill several miles from the police chief's village. Apparently the previous battery commander (also an Army captain) started calling it by his last name and it stuck. We, of course, assumed it was named for the town it was in. I still have no idea what it is actually called. What it is, though, is a collection of about fifteen cast iron pipes, about 4 feet in diameter, held together by a layer of top-soil and gravel that together span this narrow point on the Diyala River. Discarded pipes strewn about the site, crushed or broken are testament to the fragility of the span. Still, cheap and reliable, especially lately during these recent years of drought where the water level has remained consistently low year-round, this solution to the age-old transportation question, how to get to the other side, is every bit as ingenious as the similar log and pole bridges we've seen across canals throughout the region. As a permanent solution to the movement of goods across the river, however, this solution is lacking. The Army smartly took one look at the bridge and opted to keep their heavy machines off of it saving them from a very wet accident I'm sure.

Outside home station, I have had very little opportunities to be around water in nature. We have flown over canals and once it may have rained a few drops, but the general lack of seeing rushing water of any kind makes today something of a treat. The water level is clearly low here. Lines on the bank display that if the water were to rise again to past heights, the bridge and all of us would be under water. For now, the river crawls beneath us. Trickling through the pipes, a collection of rocks, vegetation, trash, and debris on the other side creates something of a waterfall as the river tumbles several feet down the other side. There, the water ponds and then continues heading south towards Baghdad. Two men look up at our gathering on the bridge from where they're resting beside their sheep who are drinking and feeding at the water's edge. Around me is a rather absurd collection of personalities. I would probably stare too.

Along with the dozen or so soldiers who have made their way down with us to the bridge and taken up sentry posts at various positions all around, and us (two Air Force engineers who barely stand out from the group), we have along with us Iraqi Army soldiers in blue, black and white fatigues, some with red berets, others with green helmets, others hatless. Additionally, police men (boys?) who man the shack at one end of the bridge have joined the gaggle. They stand out in their long-sleeve bright blue shirts and dark slacks and carry their AKs low and at their sides like Super Soakers. The town sheik, police chief, and his daughter have also joined the fray. At one point while poking around along the side of the bridge I look back and see the whole lot of them holding hands for a picture. The Army captain is second from the left. To his left is the sheik, holding his hand and beaming. The captain looks a little less comfortable but he grits his teeth and smiles right on with him...

...Two hours later, having made it back down the broken road, we're back on our cots changing into pts and talking about the sights and sounds of the day. For the soldiers traveling with us, today was recess, a welcomed break from a normal day of work that doing training exercises with the IA or maintenance work on the vehicles. Today they were just along for the ride, serving as our escorts so we could take our photos and do our measurements like overly curious tourists with bodyguards. Riding back, I overheard their stories about home ad nauseam as they look forward to the end of their tour in a month and a half. Right now I'm just glad to be back in the relative safety of this wooden hut. I may have been doing this for a while now, strapping up, guns loaded, eyes up, adrenaline pumping, but there's no way that I'll ever get used to it and there's no way that every time I get home, take off my helmet and vest, put my gun back on the rack, and sit down, I don't take a deep breath and say a quick prayer of thanks for making it through another day.