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...


  1. Well told Callahan. Sounds like an adventure to me. Enjoy it while you are there!

  2. Best post so far (except for the appended Killers lyrics). Keep the body-armor on, is my unsolicited advice.