Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Memorial Day

May 25
Today is Memorial Day. I almost missed it. Whereas back home I would have eagerly anticipated the holiday and celebrated it in earnest primarily for all the wrong reasons (a day off from work, barbeques, and sunshine), here, in Iraq, surrounded by soldiers who have been here through countless other holidays, birthdays, and Mondays, it came and almost went without me noticing it. In the chow hall, as we grabbed our trays, silverware and plastic plates for our lunch of steak, salad, and American flag sheet cake, we saw a note on the wall from a senior-level Army leader thanking us for our service. It would have taken far too long to stand and read the whole note so I moved on into the line for food after getting about as far into it as I'm sure most other people did: "Dear... Thank you...".

On tv they were showing "The Patriot" a movie about a man who decides to fight for American independence in the revolution because one of his sons has been killed, and another taken to be hanged for treason. While he goes on to kill many a redcoat (and one very cruel Hessian in the end using the back end of an American flag to do it), I wouldn't have picked this movie as a fitting one to remember the day. "We Were Soldiers," another Gibson flick, this one about Vietnam, played at dinner.

The frustrating thing about the concept of a memorial is that to remember something fully, or at least honestly, you must have experienced it. I don't know the whole story of that battle in Vietnam, but in a way, watching "We Were Soldiers" helped me feel like I was experiencing the battle as it took place. I hear the pain in the colonel's voice as he sends soldiers to defend a vital position that is on the verge of being helplessly overrun, knowing that he is sending some of them to their deaths, and I am given a picture of what it was like for the women at home to receive telegrams from random cab drivers informing them of their husbands' deaths. I know that if I can even in the slightest understand their terrible loss, I can appreciate, and perhaps even remember, not fully, but at least in part, the sacrifices they made.

Memorial Day was established as a day of rememberence for the many men and women who have died in a military conflict while in the service of their country. They have done what only the smallest fraction of Americans can appreciate, that is, bled and died with their country's name and flag stiched on their chests. I arrived in theater in mid-April. Since then, there have been 26 Americans killed in Iraq. Today, I remember them.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Food for Thought

May 19
It's on the subject of water that we once again find ourselves out on the road. After looking at a project designed to transport it, and another to allow transport over it, we now stand in front of a canal, or more specifically, a ditch. Clearly, this used to work. There are locks and intakes, overflows and outlets. It has the overall v-shape of a canal. But this can hardly be called a canal. Choked with weeds and overgrown with vegetation, strewn with trash, rocks, and debris, there is water here, but is it even fit for the plants to drink, let along people? This is (was) a crop canal. It draws from a large lake nearby. The water that flows down this 8.5 km canal is the lifeline for agricultural towns and villages along its banks supplying up to 40% of the water needed to grow the palms, dates, pomegranates, and oranges the people here rely on for economic stability and sustenance. We are later told by a local sheik that the produce here is some of the best in the world and even in drought all of the tall palms and brush we pass here are green. Our job is to make sure there is still water for the next generation of farmers after we are long gone from here.

We dismount our MRAPs to get a closer look. I take measurements and draw a few rough sketches. It is a strange feeling, walking along a canal in a foreign, holding a rifle, a notepad, and a digital camera. I look up from my notes and realize that our patrol has moved along down the canal from my position. I hurry to catch up. It's not very reassuring to know that while their sole mission here at this canal is to provide for the safety of myself and my partner, they have decided to tell me I am moving too slowly by leaving me there. Still, little things keep holding me up. I notice that the frogs here sound different. It's difficult to explain, but they're croaking clearly is frog-ish, as in, I can tell they're frogs, but the sound doesn't match that of the toads I grew accustomed to hearing while living in Hawaii or elsewhere in my travels in Arizona, Florida, or Alabama.

I look to the left and there are cows and sheep, no more than 10 feet from me, no fence, just animals milling about. They look up at me from the grass and then return to chewing. Again I have fallen behind and hurry to catch up. In all, we don't walk very far, maybe a quarter of a mile, maybe half a mile, just enough to get a feel for what monumental task lies ahead for us to make this canal functional again and reduce some of the infiltration losses. By the time we climb back into our vehicles I am grateful to finally sit down, even if it is in the back seat of an MRAP...

...I learn something new about the Army every day. Today's lesson is that even if you finish your day's mission ahead of schedule, you can't go home until your scheduled return time. Apparently efficiency is not rewarded in the same way that you would expect in most other places back in the states. No. We are short of our return time by several hours, but rather than returning to base early our sergeant tells us he has to stall, having gotten chewed out recently by his leadership after a similar situation. And he knows just the place.

What little I know about Iraqi Police stations comes from the news, and it's not good news. They have often been targets of violence by insurgents, especially during the past several years. When we arrive at this particular station, I am surprised to see what looks more like a large house, than an official building. I suspect that is exactly what it was at some point and people still probably live here. A young man ushers us in to the building, motioning with his A-K. His uniform consists of a blue button-up (un-tucked)shirt, dark slacks, and a pair of sandals. We are led to a room where an officer stands to greet us from behind his desk. We sit in chairs around the perimeter of the room and the sergeant exchanges pleasantries with the man through our interpreter. He has an interesting habit of running play-by-play for us during his conversations with local nationals. He follows up a short string of questions for the police officer about the canal and the people in the area by looking at us and telling us that this guy is crook and that he doesn't trust him. The man is clearly nervous or anxious about something. His face and voice are calm, but he can't keep his hands from fidgeting and looking closer I see that he's shaking. I wonder if he has some sort of medical condition that gives him the shakes. After several more minutes of non-threatening conversation he finally stops shaking. I guess he is convinced we aren't there to arrest him. Actually, we are there to speak with his boss, the captain of the station. He makes a phone call and informs us we will have a fifteen minute wait.

The wait ends up being closer to a half an hour, during which I am served my first glass of Iraqi Chai tea. Having only tasted store-brand Chai back in the states, I don't know what to expect. I am surprised when the tea is brought out in what appear to be small glass beer steins, handle and all (just big enough for my pinkie), with matching mini-spoons and saucers. The tea itself is very dark, almost black and there is a heavy layer of sugar at the bottom, hence the spoons. I don't know where the water came from to make the tea. "They added some goat piss to mine," one of the soldiers cracks. It could be the canal, or the lake. Either way, my tea is very hot and I'm told they boil everything and add iodine tablets like you would on a hiking trip which is good enough for me. It tastes good, the bitterness is counteracted well by the generous serving of sugar but I can't help but consider the irony of a group of men sitting around in a non-air conditioned room, wearing full battle rattle, drinking a scalding liquid and smoking cigarettes when its 115 degrees outside...

...The Police Captain enters the room wearing a beret and an enormous grin. He carries what could most easily be described as a collapsible beating stick and something about his eyes remind me of the cartoon character Droopy. Unlike his counterpart who, upon his arrival quickly rises from the desk and practically runs from the room, he knows a small amount of English and he isn't afraid to show it. He notices my friend and I aren't Army soldiers and he addresses us by rank. We ask him some more questions about the canal, and yesterday's bridge. He and our sergeant have clearly established a rapport and they spend several minutes joking about whiskey and women. The tone becomes more serious when the sergeant asks for the names of some individuals who have been causing trouble in the area and may be causing the delay of several important infrastructure projects. The captain gives us names, but he insists they not be tied back to him. In a land where vendettas are commonplace and grudges are never forgotten, I can understand his concern.

The tension is broken by two police officers entering the room. They each carry a tray of food. I am about to have my first Iraqi meal. We skip some of the formalities of a true Iraqi meal and we are told by the captain to go ahead and dig in to the bread, meat, and vegetables set before us on the small, plastic tables. Kneeling, I follow the example of the other soldiers who have obviously done this before. Breaking the bread (sanoom) in half, we stuff it with cucumber and salted tomatoes, and added pieces of a flat, meat pie, creating what amounts to Iraqi gyros. I am grateful they spared us the sauce. It is rude to refuse to eat when served in Iraq, but I haven't eaten anything since breakfast, so I have no problems digging in. The meat in slightly sweet and resembles ground beef. I try not to look at it or at my hands which I didn't have the time or ability to wash before the meal. Lunch is ended with a second round of Chai, and a final round of questions and jokes from the captain. I visit their restroom before we mount back up. When I enter flies leap from the hole in the ground. Water drains out of a pipe in the wall, trickling into the sunken dish near my feet. I am grateful to be standing...

...The sun is setting as we leave the chow hall later that night. Somewhere nearby the call to prayer begins again, a man's voice quickly rising and falling on what google tells me is the hejaz scale. I see my first camel spider that night. At first, we think it's a scorpion. It's fast, quickly darting out of the bright light of my flashlight, several times heading straight for my sandled feet. My friend takes a few pictures and we finally chase it under some boxes. It isn't much bigger than a pack of cards, smaller than all of the horror shots of camel spiders you'll find online. Then again, when was the last time you saw a spider that you laughed at for being "only" as big as a pack of cards. My friend, who saw it first, tells me it was in a standoff with a cat when he stumbled upon it. One on one I got my money on the cat, but if the spider brings his friends, all bets are off.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Bridge to Nowhere

May 17
When given the choice, I prefer to fly. Our Blackhawk ride on Sunday was short, only about 1/8th the time of our wait in the terminal back in Balad to be exact. Still, given the choice between waiting an extra couple of hours and then jumping on a helicopter or piling in the back of an MRAP and taking the bumpy bus ride up, I'm almost always going to choose to travel by air. There are no in-flight snacks, but the scenery is always breathtaking.

Twice the day we arrived at our new location we were "Welcomed to hell," once when we first landed by the two sergeants who worked in the PAX terminal, and later when we met some members of the office we were there to assist. To me, it didn't look much worse than some of the places we'd already seen. One difference was that here the majority of the places people worked, ate, and lived out of were old Iraqi buildings, converted by their new owners to serve, for the most part, new purposes. There was a mosque, now being used as a chapel, bx, and computer terminal.

An old post office served as the gym. A bunker housed the civil affairs team who worked and lived underground. And, the best I could figure it, they shacked us up in an old mechanics garage. We had sheet-less bunk beds set up in one of the offices in the back, only this time I remembered to bring my sleeping bag. On either side of us, similar rooms had been converted into homes for some of the Iraqi translators who accompany all teams out on their missions. We fell asleep our first night there to the sound of happy chatter in Arabic coming from our next door neighbors.

I understood the reference to hell much better the next day...

May 18
I'm standing outside in full gear (body armor, weapons, ammo, helmet, etc). It's 1130 in the morning, 113 degrees, and already I am one, big, walking ball of sweat. We are out for the second time today. This morning we took a ride out in some Strykers to a water treatment/pumping plant. Although construction started four years ago, the plant, like so, so many other projects here in Iraq sits unfinished. The result of good intentions by coalition forces, a good plan and initial push, but failure to provide consistent oversight and to see this project through, the plant sits unusable, as two small pumps work round the clock nearby pushing water up the hill in several 4 inch pipes to provide irrigation water for the areas many orchards and fields.

After taking pictures and assessing the aging pipes it is clear that with some work this plant could still be operational, but it will not be an easy fix. Gaskets are missing bolts or where bolts exist they are of different sizes and not properly cinched, problems proper quality control monitors could have eliminated. The holding tanks all look to be in great shape, however, and surprisingly little as far as parts, pieces, and machinery, appears to have "disappeared" from the site since work stopped several years back.

The water is meant to enter the plant through a pipe reaching out into the river that rolls by, not far enough out for my taste. I'm worried that when operational, the pipe will too easily take in silt with the water. I make a note in my field book and we move on.

We talk to two local men wearing dish-dash shirts/smocks who stand not too far away watching us and talking. They are the "guards" of the water pumps and have much to say about the abundance of water here at the river, but the difficulty of pumping it up and over the overlooking hills to deliver it to the surrounding town. They frequently go off topic telling the captain with us, through our interpreter, about local squabbles and political issues. We listen as best we can, ask a few questions about the plant, and then thank them for their time. Making sure to remove our gloves first, we shake their hands (always using the right hand as is proper) as we leave, each time touching our hands to our hearts in a gesture of gratitude. There is little incentive for us to learn to speak Arabic when we are constantly accompanied by translators everywhere we go, but I do my best to say what few lines I do know, mostly just the hellos and goodbyes. As we walk away three filling trucks pull up to the water pumps. Once turned on, the pipes, pulling directly from the river, dump into the beds of the trucks as the guards and drivers extent kisses and pleasantries. They ignore us as we mount up, turn around, and leave.

Due to their 8-wheels and lower/wider base, our Skrykers provide a surprisingly smooth ride over Iraq's bumpy roads, a cross between tanks and trucks. I am surprised when I am told that I will be posting as rear air guard for the trip. I ride the first leg of our trip standing on the seat with my upper body outside the top of the vehicle. The soldier next to me and I together are the vehicle's rear 180 degrees eyes and ears. As Strykers have no windows, this is my chance to survey the countryside and the several small villages we pass through. The terrain here is much more hilly, the villages smaller, and considerably poorer. The people, however, look at us as we pass with the same mixture of uneasiness and familiarity. The children run after us yelling "Mister, mister" with arms up hoping for treats, or water bottles to be thrown to them. As I have so often during this first month here I catch myself wondering, "What am I doing here?" Suddenly we stop. The back-hatch opens and we do our initial sweeps of the area, setting up security as the personnel unload. Things are relatively calm in this part of the country, something that could not have been said two years ago. Once, later, during a discussion with some of the village leaders during our afternoon excursion we are told the village is safe and we don't need to carry our weapons or body armor around. The soldiers with me laugh out loud. We drink cans of Iraqi "sodas" served to us by our hosts in the small meeting house we've gathered in. They taste like sweetened orange juice, with the pulp left in the can. I don't think the soldiers will be taking his advice.

Its now 1200. I've felt heat like this before back home, but nothing prepares you (or your back) for the combination of the gear and the heat. We are now standing on the edge of another river trying to make sense of the half-completed bridge that is meant to cross it. I say bridge, but all I see are two concrete foundations on either side, what I imagine will one day be the two end points of the bridge.

At the moment these concrete blocks serve a different purpose. A rope is tied to both sides and is being used to ferry pedestrians across the river in a small boat, by the rider who pulls two teenagers on bicycles across. There is only one boat and a man on the other side yells to get the boat back across. We take pictures and climb the hill back up to a shady spot. Here, my primary concern is not for the unfinished bridge. We are told the parts to complete it are waiting somewhere nearby for a contractor to be hired to build it. I'm worried that the hills are too steep and the soil too loose to support small vehicle traffic. The locals are once again more concerned with local politics. One of the civil affairs soldiers convinces them to take pictures of the bridge sections and bring them to the next council meeting to confirm all they need is a contractor. One man makes a call on his cell phone and then runs off. I know how badly this village needs this bridge to carry goods and services to the neighboring town, just as the town earlier today desperately needs a source of safe, reliable, drinking water. I am an engineer. I can help them create designs for bridges, and water treatment plants that will work, but the problems here, the endless sea of political madness, is something I can't build across.

...It's hot, insanely hot, like getting punched in the face with a giant open-palmed slap of hot air, or maybe opening the oven in front of your face. The dust sticks to your sweat like powdered sugar on syrupy French toast, making you constantly crave another shower, even while you dry off. The people here constantly fight, and argue, amongst themselves and with us. I'm not convinced that anyone here wants to be here and there is a frustration, a hopelessness, that permeates everything, threatening to take hold. It's not hell, I don't think. But then again this isn't my third twelve-month tour in five years. For me, the journey has just begun...

Saturday, May 16, 2009


May 16
We are now officially at the mid-point of Mustache May. Watching facial hair grow is just another of the many ways we pass the time here, although I have already been told by those closest to me that I should leave it here in the desert.

Like I said, we have a lot of time on our hands when we're back in Balad. Other than following up on the jobs we've visited which includes completing project statements of work, estimates, and drawings, and then looking ahead to the next round of trips (we often split up and go to two or three different sites) we are free to go about our days almost as if we were back home. For me, this means going to the gym once or twice a day hitting the weights and the treadmill, eating three meals at the chow hall, putting in 8 or so hours in the office and then either reading, watching movies, or sending out emails and phone calls in the evenings. Like I said, if it wasn't for the monotony of it, and the fact that I can't leave, it really wouldn't be so bad.

There are actually some great perks. Last night we watched "Star Trek" on this huge Iraqi-turned coalition theater. The thing that strikes me most about this theater isn't the fact that we're using it... Having been here for a month now, I'm used to the fact that we've converted all kinds of different facilities into our offices, and recreation centers. It's not even the fact that they sell Subway and popcorn right there in the theater. The funniest thing about this theater is that it slopes up. Maybe this is less strange than I think, but I can't think of any theater back home where you walk up from the back to the front with the screen higher than the rear seats. In some ways it makes sense. You really do have to kick back and watch, because if you didn't you wouldn't be able to see! Not strange? I will need proof of one such theater in the states before I accept that.

Anyways, they show one or two flicks a day there and most of the time new movies are only about a week old by the time they reach us. Best off, they're free! Earlier in the week I watched "X-Men" and the week before that I saw "Watchmen." Sitting there in the theater, you could almost forget where you are, (Iraq, remember). They help you with that by playing the National Anthem before each movie starts with a video montage of "Shock and Awe," a bit overplayed and outdated at this point if you ask me, and then they show a screen that says "Thanks for choosing our movie theater!" You're welcome... I thought about going elsewhere, but that slope up really makes the experience worth every penny.

On a typical night I sleep anywhere from 7 to 8 hours. I made the observation to my friend that this makes the length of a deployment seem a lot less formidable. Think about it. If you're sleeping a third of every day, it means you spend 1 of your 3 months, 2 of your 6 months, or 4 of your 12 month deployment in bed! I'm not saying everyone gets to sleep that long every night, (or for that matter in a bed every night). That certainly is a luxury I appreciate, but thinking this way about the trip does take a bit of the never-ending-feeling out of it.

Speaking of sleeping arrangements... Our rooms are not huge, but aren't much smaller than the typical dorm room either. The two of us have our own beds (mine was bunked but I kept hitting my head on the underside of the upper bunk so I took it down). We also have our own dressers and night stands. Luckily for us, whoever had our room before us left us some nice parting gifts. I'm guessing he was in a hurry to leave because when we arrived there was a mini-fridge and a small tv already in there. As far as tv goes, there are 11 different channels to choose from. They have a few sports channels, news channels, game shows, sitcoms, a movie channel, a military channel, you know, really basic stuff. There aren't commercials, per se, because the military has worked out some sort of rerun arrangement I guess and all the programs are delayed. Even still about half as often as you'd get normal breaks back in the states they'll pull away for a military news break or message to wash your hands, keep operational info safe, not drink and drive, and the like.

Did I mention we have a huge pool? However, with it already beginning to hit over 100 consistently, and it only being mid-May, I'm not sure I'll be able to be out in the sun very long without burning instantly, so maybe the pool is a bad idea. Oh well. It's chow time now anyway. Tonight's my favorite... It's steak and shrimp night. The fact that I can eat steak and shrimp (they have lobster and crab too) in Iraq is both amazing logistically, and slightly disturbing when you stop to consider the cost. They do take care of us the best they can out here though, and I hope that shows.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Cornhole on the FOB

I am standing outside in my pt uniform. It’s probably 75 degrees out with a light breeze. We’re finishing off a back-and-forth cornhole match. I polish off the near beer (the non-alcoholic variety) in my left hand (my second of the night) and let fly a high-arching bean bag toss. It thunks down on the target 30 feet away scoring our team a point. What am I doing here? I'm on a forward operating base somewhere not too far from Iran, drinking near beer, and playing cornhole. I have to give it to the Army. They know how to make the most of their living arrangements. The office we are working out of while we are here is made up of an eclectic mix of cavalry soldiers, civil affairs soldiers, a provincial reconstruction team State Department civilian, and now us. When they got here, they took over a corner of this building and built their own desks, partitioned off their own sleeping quarters and bunk beds, and built a cornhole set all in just a few months time.

We're here to help write up project packages for various cities in the local province. Most deal with repairs, infrastructure improvements, and new construction. Others, however, are titled “flexible maintenance worker” programs. These are the projects designed to keep people from blowing us up. Hopefully by paying people to clean up the streets and canals they will not seek employment elsewhere. It’s a strategy that has seen remarkable success here but one which is also entirely temporary and not sustainable. Already, similar programs in and around Baghdad are being dropped due to cost by the Iraqi government. I'm thinking that those young men cannot continue to support their families without jobs forever. So if we can't help find them jobs, who’s going to pay to keep food on the table?

We arrived here at a busy time in the midst of some intense discussion about the way forward in this province. Leadership is pushing hard to have over fifty new projects drawn up and bid out as soon as possible. This came down after high-ups started questioning why no new projects were being done in their battle space. The unfortunate reaction to this pressure may have been an overreaction. Liaisons were pressured to seek out projects from the local mayors and government officials. Promises of new roads, schools, wells, etc. were quickly passed out. Now, a month and a half later, people are wondering why there are delays. It's hard to find just one answer. One officer here, recently back from his two weeks of mid-term leave is livid. He thinks the Iraqi government should drive the effort for infrastructure improvements from here on out now that we've set timetables for withdrawal. If they want new wells, they need to tell us where they should be situated, give us information about the depth of the water table, geological soil strata information, population data, and an assurance that any water pumped out of the ground will have the means to make it to homes, schools, and hospitals where it can be used appropriately. This office has only been able to gather scraps of this information from the local authorities.

The response they most often hear from government officials is "Enshallah…" This word, meaning roughly “if God wills it”, or “as God wills it” when used in a sentence like, “We will have that data to you by the end of the week enshallah,” is starting to sound increasingly like, “There is a distinct possibility that you will never get the data that you need,” to the people who work here. Of course, this frantic pace is simply not how things have always been done here. The slower, more easy going pace of life in the Middle East, clashes hard against the go-go-go American work ethic. As a result, we have built wells without waiting for the groundwater surveys first to confirm the presence of clean water beneath the surface. We have also built schools and clinics without first ensuring teachers or medical technicians are hired and proper supplies are provided. One such school has since become home to transient goat herders who are thankful, I’m sure, to now have a nice, dry, multi-million dollar place to rest their heads, and their goats.

You can bet that in the states if you threw all your money and best engineers at an infrastructure problem it would get done faster. Here? Things just don’t work like that. My friend and I are here because someone thought that the civil affairs office needed some engineers to help speed up the process of getting these projects executed. Turns out this office has done everything in their power and the ball’s not in their court for the majority of the projects. It hasn’t been for some time.

We got to go on a site visit with the CA team to a meeting they were having with the mayor of a nearby city where they were discussing project requirements. For my friend and I, this mostly entailed sitting in a truck for several hours. I am proud to announce that I have now had my first (and second) successful "pee in a bottle in an MRAP" experiences.

We were scheduled to go on another site visit to see a culvert project the next day but our ride back to Balad ended up being early in the day and we had to skip out. I'm not sure we would have added much to that effort seeing as how the project is already half completed. However, it would have been another good eyes-on learning experience which is how we walked away measuring the value of this trip as a whole. I learned a lot about some of the road blocks we continue to face here in the rebuilding efforts. I learned about how progress is often slowed by internal bickering between competing units and perhaps overzealous leaders, but that just as often progress is happening, only it’s at a slower, Iraqi pace.

Still, it's hard for me not to worry that all of these ongoing, rebuilding efforts are coming too late. I can make no recommendations or grand assumptions about the current strategies in place based on this one trip alone, but I leave this FOB with the words of the State Department representative still ringing in my ears: “You didn’t hear it from me… But this place would be better off tomorrow if we left today. I guarantee it.” Are we trying too hard?

My buddy and I win the last cornhole match of the night. Tuesday we fly home in a Blackhawk helicopter.

The countryside is surprisingly green where canals crisscross patchwork villages and fields. Palm trees with brick and stucco one and two-story homes line the streets.

I watch one of our gunners track a pickup as it rumbles down a dirt road toward a farm. This place has seen its share of turmoil, war, and strife. The people who remain have survived Saddam’s ruthlessness and a lifetime of war. I am certain for better, or for worse, they will survive us.


May 7
I am traveling in a convoy east from my home to a forward operating base. It is my first time in a convoy and I am tense. I hadn’t realized the impact visual media has had on my perception of this part of the world until we passed by a woman covered in black from head to toe not far out of the gate. It is a fear based on the unfamiliar, a prejudice, I’m afraid, and it turns I’m not much bigger than anyone else who fears what they don’t know. Fear is better than complacency, I suppose, unless you follow through on Yoda’s train of thought… “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Said only as Yoda can, emphasizing each of the three syllables in suff-er-ing as if they were three separate words. As for now, I don’t hate anyone here, any more than I would hate anyone back in the states. However, I know the fragility of the human psyche and I haven’t had a friend, comrade, brother, gunned down in this foreign land. That understandably can wear on a man. It could never justify discrimination or violence but would be heavy nonetheless. As we pass the woman working in the field she lifts her head slowly. I can’t tell if she’s tired of seeing these heavy vehicles roll by or if she’s grown used to it, merely lifting her eyes as an acknowledgement of our presence. In the distance, goats graze on a sparse field. Children play soccer in a dirt clearing. They don’t even look up at us—too immersed in their game. And more… this… us… perhaps it’s all they’ve ever known, now seven years into our stay in their land.

We roll through Iraqi police-manned checkpoints. We pass through with no questions asked. Later we enter a village. Old men chat outside a small store. Goats, sheep, cows, chickens, and many dogs (mostly down to three good legs) wander aimlessly about, rummaging through garbage and stagnant water pools on the side of the road. Kids run out from weary buildings approaching our convoy like it’s the Fourth of July and we’re throwing candy. One stands up on a chair from his porch making a thumbs up with his right hand, a peace sign with his left. American gestures, our gift to this generation. We throw nothing. I overhear the truck commander complaining to the driver about the kids. I don’t think he hates any of the people here, but I wonder how many friends he may have lost during his three deployments to this country.

At one point we are forced to come to a stop. One of the vehicle's trailers has come loose and they can’t make it to the next checkpoint without fixing it. So we stop right there in the middle of the town. Two men in traditional garb and headdresses on foot don’t stop as they lead two cows by us on the right hand side of the road. Farther back, what looks like a family watches us from their porch. I’m nervous. My training is kicking in as I scan the small crowd of observers for possible threats. How hard would it be for someone to run up and throw one of the hand-made grenades you're hearing about back home on the news. At several checkpoints we’ve passed billboards with pictures of a baby and one of these grenades overlain with Arabic saying something. I’m not sure if it’s a warning against the dangers of the things, or a promotional advertisement.

I’m glad when we finally roll again. If you’ve been to Mexico, places like Tijuana or Ensenada, you won’t find the scenery here much different. Take out the dress and the Arabic signs and it’s the same small convenience stores with similar crowds of men, young and old, loitering around in the evening light, not wanting to go home, or more likely, they already are home. Kids are everywhere. Most are barefoot in shorts and t-shirts. Many play soccer in the streets. Makeshift goals are fences or two poles. Most of the kids are boys but there are little girls out there too, running around in the mix. I wonder at what age gender rules no longer allow this sort of mingling.

We cross a river on a one-lane bridge. My partner for the drive up there calls out to the TC, “Hey. Is this the Tigris?” “Yeah, sure. Hell if I know,” he mumbles back. He’s been driving this and similar routes for months. You’d think he’d know (or care) what river we’re driving over. “Yeah,” I reassure my buddy. “It’s the Tigris.” I don’t really know, but the other guy’s answer didn’t really cut it for me. We just passed over one of the two “cradle-of civilization” rivers and he says he doesn’t even care. He and the driver go back to their discussion about some resort in Illinois, and then off on a tangent about Chuckie Cheese… His daughter can’t get enough apparently. It’s mindless talk, talk to pass the time, talk to get them through the trip, and it’s all coming in over the radio system into my headphones.

The sun’s gone down and it’s hard to stay awake. My butt and my right foot are already asleep. The padding on the chair’s not bad, but the gear and armor I’m wearing wears on me. The V-shape of the vehicle underbelly forces me to prop my left foot up thus leading to the added weight on my right foot. I wriggle around to push the blood back around and stay awake. The gunner’s feet, knees and butt swivel in the sling seat in front of me. His head is out of sight in the gunner’s turret. He is our vehicle’s primary defenses and I wonder how he stays alert up there hour after hour. The driver turns the spotlights on to either side of the road to spy for any hidden dangers. I stare out the window, but in the darkness beyond the small bubble of light it’s impossible to see. I can see a bit out the front windshield. Approaching local cars and trucks pull off to the side of the road as we roll by. While Iraqis are allowed to drive alongside our trucks no one seems to want to risk taking a few rounds in the hood of their car for getting too close. I don’t blame them. But I do think about traffic back home where the worst thing we usually have to worry about is a pile up or rush hour commuting. It’s hard to imagine seeing armed buses roll through your hood on a daily basis.

When we finally arrive at our destination it’s late. Our TC gets out and ground-guides the vehicle into its parking space as we gather up our gear and guns to disembark. I’m eager to find out where we’re sleeping and to send out some emails to let folks know I’ve arrived safe. Midnight chow starts in a few hours and I’m starving. Somehow, in the tangle of bags and darkness my friend has lost a shoe that was hanging from the side of his bag. One small casualty from an otherwise uneventful journey. As my mom would say, uneventful is good. It means we got here safe. Thank God for that.

First Days

Apr 16
Kuwait city popped out of nowhere as we flew in from Germany.  It reminded me of flying into Tucson.  Nothing but desert and then suddenly there's a big city just sitting there.  The difference is that it sits on the water front.  We had great views as we flew in low over the water.  I saw many mosques out the window and at least one mcdonalds as we came in to land.

I arrived in Kuwait International Airport at around 11.  We didn't leave the airport until several hours later because of baggage issues.  From there we took a bus to the base we're at now (still in Kuwait).  They told us all to stay awake and keep the curtains drawn on the windows. It is probably pretty obvious to everyone who lives here who’s riding in the buses, but I guess it’s best to keep up appearances of secrecy.

We had inbriefs until about 4 am once we arrived at our base in Kuwait (nicknamed: the rock, in case you didn't gather that from the picture). After meeting our new boss it looks like our mission here has changed slightly.  Here's the short of it:

We are going to a different base in Iraq: It's called Balad and in central Iraq, some ways north of Baghdad. The mission should be similar for our team though, support for provincial reconstruction teams, and general engineering support to anyone who needs/wants it.

The time difference is 7 hours from the east coast so I'm assuming its 10 hours from the west coast.

We will only be staying here a few more days which is good because we're in temporary facilities for now.

Speaking of which, there are four of us Lts in a tent, not as bad as you'd think though because the tent is huge and it has air conditioning and I have my own private corner with a bed and a dresser like in New Jersey at Ft Dix.

We have a "shower and shave" trailer about 3 minutes walk away from the tent.

The cafeteria is probably better than at Dix, as is the gym. We just visited both over the past few hours.

This base feels an awful lot like a small Davis-Monthan even down to the building style. The biggest difference is that there is a constant cloud of dust hanging over the entire camp.  Not thinking it ever goes away. Hope my eyes and lungs can handle that.

Let's see, after briefings and in processing, etc we went to breakfast at 6 and then to sleep from 7 to 1130 am. Then, like I said we hit the gym and chow hall and now I'm in the rec trailer.  The good news here is they have wireless in this trailer which means I should be able to skype no problem.

So far, everything has been very painless (other than the lack of sleep)!  Food’s good.  Bed’s good.  Gym’s good. Internet, works.   If they have it here, I'm hoping they'll have it at Balad too.

Apr 19
I wish I could give you all the details of the past 24 hours, but for now, I can't.  Suffice to say:

A) I'm not yet where I'm supposed to be (aka final destination) because someone screwed up our travel itinerary.
B) I spent the night on a cot at Baghdad International Airport listening to security guards from some unknown African country talk for several hours straight.
C) We dragged our bags in the vicinity of a mile (6 bags each) back and forth all over this place including to and from the C-17 we flew on (many spirals down made it feel like we were landing for about 20 minutes but the touchdown was surprisingly soft).
D) I may now be famous for being the "Guy who refused to get on a flight" (word has gotten around about us because another member of our team ended up here too telling us he had heard about us at the terminal before he boarded) but eventually they forced me on to the wrong place (BIAP instead of Balad) anyway because a major said we had to come here, we got on the bus and then the plane, and came here.

All that being said, I'm on a public computer at the airport and we may or may not end up being here for a while.  Anyhow, we are shooting to continue on our journey later today.  We'll see where we end up next!

On the plus side, I can now say that I've been around the Victory Complex and done a tour of our predecessor team’s office.  For five months they worked out of one of Saddam’s old pool houses. Part of the office was at the bottom of the pool. You have to see it to believe it.

Apr 19 – part 2
No change in status.  We didn't make it on the first flight.  I’m thinking that a threesome of senior officers who showed up while we were in line snagged the remaining spots from us.  We palletted our bags for another flight only to have the flight cancelled while we sat in the terminal ready to go.  So we had to de-palletize them and drag them all back out again. We have now been here for 27 hours.  That's four meals at the dfac and coming on 1.5 miles of bag dragging (roughly 220 lbs of gear each).  Sleeping on cots in the welcome room (Persco folks have been real nice letting us watch movies with them in their office, one of the few plusses) only to have to wake up in a few to do it all over again.  As much as I’m enjoying this, I’d really like to get to Balad and go to work. I know I'm seeing such a small piece of the big picture here, but I still can't shake the thought that after 6 years of doing this in Iraq they'd have it down to a science by now.  I’d really like to speak to the major who sent us here even as we said it was the wrong final destination.  He deserves many noogies.

Movie list so far:
Walking Tall
Frenzy (old hitchcock flick about the necktie strangler)
Part of Monsters vs Aliens (Dreamworks)
Part of Blade 2
Drillbit Taylor
Fast and Furious movie

No flights out til later tomorrow although they said its full. I think I'm developing abandonment issues.

Apr 20
Quick update.  We have new leads for possible transport out tonight. Why these are new after being here for now over 48 hours and no one told us earlier I have no idea.  All I know is that this could be the night we get where we're supposed to go.  I got the chance to talk to one of the members of the outgoing team we're replacing today.  I told him if anything, there is no better way to prepare someone for 6 months of hard work than to let him do absolutely nothing for 2 straight days.  At this point we've begun petitioning locals for camels we're so bored and want to get there.  On the plus side, we got to do even more touring of our current locale taking some more pictures of palaces and fishing ponds.

Add "My Best Friend's Girl" to the movie list.
We have yet to resort to watching Chuck Norris films.

Apr 21
Just wanted to let you know I've made it to my final destination finally after 4 days at my previous locale.  It was nice to put my bags down in what will be my room for the next several months.  I also got eyes on my office and the nearest chow hall as well as the gym, library, green bean coffee, laundry facility, barber shop, chapel, shoppette.  What else could I want?  This place is clearly not as big as the Victory complex, but it's also not lacking in the essentials.  Anyhow, wanted to let you know I've safely completed this leg of my journey, one that involved 6 different bases in 3 countries, 6 different chow halls, 5 different sleeping arrangements, 1 finger jammed in a door (it got better!) and of course, many porta potties.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Adventures in Sandyland

So... I'm a month into my tour in Iraq. Having already been through some wild experiences, I figured for the rest of my time here, I should post the stories, events, and thoughts that mean the most to me. This will include a bit of back fill these first few weeks on to some of the memorable happenings during my trip here. If you read something you don't understand, feel free to follow up with me. Or, if something you read strikes a chord, or sets off a nerve, let me know that too. I figured this would be the easiest way for me to get my adventures out there for all to enjoy. Thanks for joining me on my journey.