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.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Tower

July 26
It rises 100 stories into the desert sky. The towering radio antenna dwarfs all other structures I've seen thus far in Iraq, predominantly two and three story brick and mortar, at times primitive buildings. This, a red-and-white painted steel spectacle is out of place amidst the dust and desert shrubs. We are at a radio station, more specifically "the" primary media center for the entire province. Oddly enough, the Army decided this would be a fine place to build an outpost although it would seem the tower could serve as an excellent targeting piece for thugs over a mile away to aim their washing-machine timed soviet era mortars at. Nevertheless we are here, and Army soldiers have called this place home for over five years.

My roommate and I got into a discussion last night as we lay on our cots in our living quarters, a poorly (if at all) air conditioned plywood "swa" hut subdivided into separate rooms by four foot tall piecemeal plywood-and-two-by-four-walls. Why, after so many years, and so many soldiers have come and gone from this place have they continued to live like this? Living in temporary housing (these huts are primarily designed to be used as expedient housing during the first 3 months of a combat operation), eating hot meals just twice a day served out of the back of a tent serviced by a generator, and working out in an open yard behind a building (the weights appear relatively new, but the "weight room" is just a space out behind on of the buildings without a roof... my friend commented how odd it was to see "no smoking" as the third item on the gym rules sign). Going to Balad would be a vacation for these guys. I've already heard a few speak longingly of the food at one of the larger Army posts we stopped at on our way here. I must admit their stir-fry bar (open nightly) is probably some of the best food I've eaten out here and their fresh crepes for dessert one night were a special treat. But still... Iraq is Iraq. There are no women here. The pool at Balad, also spoken of longingly amongst the troops, with "the hot Air Force girls walking around in two-pieces" is another oft-dreamed-of, yet rarely seen paradise.

My friend and I talked about these things at length. I kept coming back to not being able to understand why the Army doesn't spend more money nicing up the place. These guys are here for 12-13 months at a time, a base at the end of the most blown up road in the area lovingly referred to as "8-mile" in reference to Eminem's home town, putting their butts on the line for people, most of whom they'll never meet, and after five years many still sleep on cots. Just as I finish my rant a soldier walks by our little room, looks over the half-wall and laughs. "Sweet, the Air Force is here! We must be moving up in the world. Hope you fellahs can sleep tonight."

"That is why they live like this," my friend says, after the soldier has passed, "So they can say things like that."

My first twenty-four hours here, and getting here were memorable. Convoys are old news now, the interior of an MRAP and I long since well acquainted, yet travel anywhere in this country and you'll see things that you'll never forget.

-Two boys ride on a small white horse down the side of the road behind a mixture of cows and sheep.
-A man washes a cow with a garden hose, holding its reins like a leash.
-Another man annoyed with his cow's obstinacy slaps it hard in the face to make it move.
-Sheep wander among a tattered field of sunflowers.
-Goats and wild dogs meander over smoking heaps of refuse, stopping periodically to nibble.
-Crows, white in the belly, looking something like flying penguins watch us pass from a nearby rooftop.
-Green flags flutter over a nearby field. A soldier asks the interpreter riding in the next row up what they mean. He thinks about it and says they represent prayers for Allah's blessing over the field, for a good harvest. "Just a bunch of bull," he says.
-Over the radio there is an announcement of a guy walking down the alley just passed with an AK. The Iraqi Army captain riding beside me yawns.

We ride on...

There are unexpected pit stops along the way, both are at Iraqi Army posts. One, formerly an American base still has English signs above the doors to several of the buildings. One, "Laundry", the other "Soldier's Restaurant." My friend has taken to snapping photos of the worst of the worst bathrooms throughout the country. At the other Iraqi post we find a real beauty, a squatter outhouse. At his request, I take a picture of him standing out front. I opt to pee behind our truck.

When we finally arrive at our radio-station home-for-the-week it is lunch time and we are starving. For those who get hungry during the time between hot meals, breakfast long since passed, and dinner still hours away, lunch is available for several hours in the cafeteria, a do-it-yourself conglomerate of packaged snacks and sandwich stuff. The bread is already gone so we eat some lukewarm salami and cheese with forks and knives like civilized folk. An orange, a bottle of water, and a box of cereal complete the meal. We are starving and it is cool inside, so the food tastes great. The television in the corner shows replays of yesterday's baseball games and we laugh hard about the little things as you can in only situations like these...

...Before going to lunch we were led to our sleeping quarters to put down our bags. Lights were off in the hut and coming in from the midday light, still wearing our sunglasses, helmets, and vests, lugging our ruck sacks with weapons strung across us we struggle to find our way down the narrow central corridor. The sergeant leading us points to a cot near the door and tells me to follow him to an empty room. He gestures to a doorway and I waddle my way in. The cot is vertical in front of me blocking whatever I could even begin to see in the darkness and it seems to be caught on something. I push forward through it thinking I am stuck on the door. Suddenly there is a rustling and a groan to my right and I quickly realize what I was forcing the cot up against. Best case scenario it was the soldier's legs. That's what I think it was since he reaches forward to retrieve his sandal now wedged between the foot of the cot and the wall. I mumble an apology and something about not being able to see and retreat to the front of the building, where the cot originally was, and where the sergeant and my buddy are now settling us in...

...Later I overhear some soldiers in the back of a nearby Stryker say something about my pt uniform as I walk by. I look over at them and walk slowly forward and they laugh and look away getting back to whatever they were doing. Later, my friend takes a picture of me. I probably would have laughed to. I'm in a pt uniform, the gray shirt tucked into the short blue shorts with ankle socks and sneakers. My pistol and my M-4 are slung over my shoulders. The bright yellow reflective belt sits awkwardly on my waist and my glasses pear out from below the brim of my boonie cap. I am the 21st century Rambo. Fear me...

...We laugh some more later in the sauna that is our room. At 9 o'clock at night it is cooler outside than it is inside, probably still easily tipping one hundred on the thermometer. Lying their on our cots, sweat pouring off our faces we hear the soldier in the next "room" over singing along to what I could best describe as a gospel musical. He struggles for the high notes, not hitting them for nearly as long as the female vocalist on the show holds them out (some I clocked at ten seconds, and there are multiple peaks in each of the musical numbers). The volume is loud enough for me to hear every word. The lights are still on. They've placed us in the hut that the night-shift guys sleep in. They just woke up a few hours ago and many walk by in various stage of dress, the door creaking open and slamming shut periodically a few feet from our heads. With every comment from the soldiers, constantly slamming on each other for one thing or the other and at every cracking attempt at the sing-along from our neighbor, we laugh some more. What else can we do?

Outside, high above the soaring radio tower the stars are clearer than I've seen in years. Without light pollution or dust, Scorpio, Orion, and the Big Dipper are all clearly visible in the night sky. Tomorrow we will rise early to visit a series of roads and bridges in the local area. Tonight, under these stars and this wooden roof, bathed in light and sweat we sleep.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Signs of Hope

July 17
There are many important men in Iraq. Last week we met with several of them. Sometimes I think it is a country of “very important people” in need of a few garbage collectors, taxi drivers, and janitors.

State Department hired Provincial Reconstruction Teams sole purpose here is to strengthen Iraq's infrastructure and as an engineering support element for the Army, working hand in hand with the PRTs we have gotten to gain a progressively deeper understanding of the rebuilding effort ongoing. While on a FOB visit east of Balad, a central hub for ground operations in the region, we sat down to discuss the myriad of reconstruction projects either in progress or planned for the province. Present were Army officers and NCOs representing each of the battalions who “own” the various sectors of the province, meaning they are responsible for the security there. Also present were members of the PRT, dressed smartly in suits and ties (and sweating profusely) as well as the province’s assistant governor along with his translator. Of course, this being a military briefing, numerous slides were shown—various maps with hatched lines and color-coded dots representing the hundreds of projects going on throughout the region. Projects were categorized as dealing with sewage, water, electricity, academics trash, etc, arranged and selected almost exclusively, it would seem, to create an acronym: SWEAT-MTA.

After formalities, greetings and introductions, we progressed through each of the representatives speaking on behalf of their sector’s projects, some from civil affairs teams, others from other support elements. This is a challenging mission for the Army, a service who excels in the “clearing and holding” aspects of a campaign but have since had to move on into the “build, hold, maintain” competencies. There has been a lot to learn over the course of the past few years. It has taken that long for some, now back on their second or third tour here to understand that while bad guys still exist in Iraq, we must treat them as the exception, not the rule, and begin to treat the people we encounter on a day-to-day basis as the United States government claims them to be, friends, not an easy task for the guys still getting shot at.

As the government of Iraq, especially at the local level, has showed signs of life over the past few years, we have begun to be able to rely more on them for input regarding our rebuilding effort, which has provided a tremendous boost to our ability to do sustainable good here. The horror stories of costly new schools and government buildings built with American tax-payer dollars, American contractor oversight, and American security that opened but have never been used or, worse, have become homes or havens for the people trying to do us harm, should (and I cautiously emphasize “should”) now be a thing of the past, a lesson learned for campaign leaders of the future.

While it may not have been clear to a casual observer, it was clear to me who was running the meeting. The two hours of project updates, questions, and discussion were all centered on the assistant governor seated near the front of the room. He was the one who at the end of everything, stood up and said through his interpreter “Yes, this is all good work being done, but we need to focus on one or two key projects and get them done so that the people can see progress and continue to grow their trust for their government.” This was a brash comment for someone who’s province will be the benefactor of well over 100 million dollars worth of infrastructure improvements before we have all gone home, yet I appreciated it immensely. Gone are the days of Iraqi government officials cowing to American military leaders. With the turn of last month we have officially become guests here, operating on Iraqi sovereign soil, only with Iraqi permission. It was refreshing to hear a leader challenge these Army officers and in turn I commend those officers for not reacting defensively to the governor’s charge.

Still, there are many areas where it seems like it would be much simpler for us to once again take the lead, do things our way, as I believe most of our leaders were attempting to do in the first few years that followed our “victory” here, just perhaps too ambitiously. Most of the issues that are difficult for us to grasp are rooted in Iraqi culture. Perhaps one hundred years ago it would have been easier for Americans to understand the deep-seated hatred and complete distrust felt between many Sunnis and Shi’ah in Iraq, and in turn for almost all Sunnis and Shi’ah towards Kurdish Iraqis. While cultural resentment and distrust have certainly not been completely eradicated in the states, we wrestle with trying to understand how one Iraqi could hate another so much just for being a member of a different religious sect (although the Catholic and Protestant Christians still killing each other elsewhere in the world may not have such a hard time understanding). Yet, there is no denying that these distrusts are still alive and well, and there is very little reason to believe they’re going anywhere anytime soon. As an aside, I did read an article recently on a news website about a program the government of Iraq has introduced to pay couples who marry across the Sunni/Shiite divide. Had an American government representative developed this plan it would have quickly been dismissed as shallow but since it was (at least publicly) an Iraqi-led initiative it was hailed in the article I read as a creative way to begin to bridge the divide.

Here in our province, however, there are disturbing signs that the hate still runs very deep. For example, a PRT member’s suggestion for an expansion of the electrical grid across the eastern part of the province was met with much enthusiasm until it was discovered by local leaders that primary purpose of the project was to carry power not to, but through these towns to a neglected, primarily Kurdish cluster of towns on the Iranian border. The local Sunni leaders quickly put an end to that project. Even more disturbing was the assistant governor’s reluctance to quote an estimated number of hours local residents could count on electricity and running water in certain parts of the province. As it was later explained to me, utilities, being under the control of one cultural sect or another, have become important bargaining chips, or very big sticks to whack neighbors who for one reason or another may have upset you today. While the priority facilities, hospitals, schools, and government buildings are given the most consistent allowances, other towns must suffer through periods of inconsistent or even nonexistent utilities sometimes just as punishment for their culture or creed.

As it turns out, there may actually be some benefits to running a country more like the mafia than anything else. For one, having friends in high places (or even distant cousins) all but guarantees you a comfortable, nebulous white-collar with limited responsibility and almost no accountability. When the DG of Health was given his budget for the year, the entire year, he promptly went out and hired 30 friends, er, managers, leaving him next to nothing with which to actually operate his health-care system for the province. When the United States government is still stepping in to fill these types of shortfalls, officials can get away with this sort of irresponsibility fairly easy. What will happen when Iraq is forced to operate on a far more restrained budget, one that is still almost exclusively tied to the oil industry? This may not seem like a problem, oil still being a plentiful natural resource sure to last for at least another century (and only to increase in cost as it becomes increasingly rare). But there is one very clear problem with basing a government budget on a commodity; commodities change with the market. Just as no one has, and no one will ever accurately predict the stock market’s yearly gains (or losses), a speculated budget based on speculator evaluations of a commodity will almost always end up with wild swings in one direction or another. In a good year, that means at the end of the fiscal term you have under budgeted and you have some extra spending money to give out to all of your mafia friends. Sadly, 2009 has not been good to Iraq’s expected oil profits thus far. They have rewritten their central budget twice already in 7 months, literally wreaking havoc on any plans provinces might have had for large projects, and putting some in tight binds as they have already begun to move forward on plans based on old numbers, the money for which will not arrive now for another 5 months.

For some projects maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. A little extra time to rethink certain projects would be well worth everyone’s while. Recently, we received a particularly curious request. Environmental air and water experts want to build a series of water and air testing labs, with collection points scattered intelligently around the province. My response to the PRT lead was to ask how Baghdad has addressed the facility design and model ours off of theirs. Apparently, nothing like these labs exists in Iraq… anywhere. Still not a huge deal, although it would require an incredible amount of research and reach back assistance from engineers and medical, biological, chemical, environmental experts back in the states to develop the design package it could be done. Realistically though, this region is so far removed from anything like this that the request becomes almost comical. If you really want to know the quality of the air and the water in Iraq, all you need to do is poke your head out the front door. You see that sewage running down the street? That’s headed toward the canal and seeping into the water table from which people draw their water. And that foul aroma in the air? That’s from the open, non-regulated garbage burn pit just outside town. I couldn’t tell you exactly how much particles of poop are floating in the air or in your cup of chai, but I would guess it’s at least one more than should be there.

There are some special privileges that come with government posts in Iraq that you won’t find at home. Unhappy with the performance of the Director of Trash and the garbage piling up on the streets, the governor threw him in jail for two nights. We will probably see less trash in the gutters during our next trip out...

...A few days later back at Balad I attended a luncheon for the Society of American Military Engineers where we were fortunate enough to be visited by another important Iraq government official. The mayor of Balad and several other towns surrounding our base has been serving in his official post for the past six years. He has seen some very big changes in his area of responsibility and in Iraq in general. Speaking in broken English, he tells us that he too is an engineer, of the electrical variety, having earned his degree in Indiana. While a bit disjointed, it is an enlightening talk. His dream is to see Balad become a major tourist destination in Iraq. Stop thinking like a typical American tourist for a moment and consider that archeologists have identified up to 150 unique historical sites in this area alone, most of which are religious in nature and you’ll begin to understand that this area does indeed have promise. Later when I brought this up with our team Iraqi engineers they told me that one of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandchildren who was killed in a famous battle is buried not far from here. Every year, thousands upon thousands of people pilgrimage to his gravesite and even more pay to be buried nearby. This is the tourism that Balad’s mayor is referring to, not necessarily people coming from outside the country, although they would certainly come as well, but Iraqi residents from Baghdad and elsewhere coming once a year to pay their respects while sleeping in local hotels, eating local foods, and buying local goods. What is needed still in the primarily agriculture-based economy of Balad is investment from foreign companies and entrepreneurs. Now that he says security has improved drastically, especially in the past two years, capital is slowly starting to trickle in. An Indian car company will be opening a dealership here soon. Elsewhere an investor from Dubai has expressed interest in opening a hotel, and an American company plans to open a parts assembly factory, ventures that will expand the types of job opportunities available to locals, and pump important capital back into the local community, all reasons for the Mayor to be extremely excited about the outlook for his towns.

The Mayor shares the stage with the PRT lead for Balad. A former city planner of Miami with 30 years of experience in the business of cities jokes that he has dealt with far worse security concerns from the drug lords of Miami than he does on a daily basis here in Iraq. Now into his third year in this position, he too is excited for the progress he sees on the horizon, especially now that people have stopped fearing for their lives on a daily basis. Without security it was impossible for him to plan for projects beyond essential services, but now he sees limitless opportunities for this community. I like his attitude. He lacks the cynicism that dominates the majority of PRT personalities I’ve met. He is realistic, I think. He isn’t promising change overnight and he understands why we scratch our heads as he and the Mayor talk about tourism, but there are signs of hope, and he holds on to them. There apparently is a new restaurant that has just opened up in town. Gorgeously decorated, he compares it to the Hard Rock Café. Really? There’s a Hard Rock Café-equivalent down the street in Balad? As hard as it is to believe, as out of touch some of the government officials still are(ours and theirs), and although there is still violence on a weekly basis around this damaged country, these are exciting times to be here.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Fourth of July

Today is the Fourth of July. Its five a.m. and I am standing in a military formation in a dust storm. In an hour and a half the flag of authority for this base will be passed from one general’s hands to another's while we stand and watch. My mind is wandering as I wait for something to happen. I’m brought back by the sergeant with a megaphone who is lining us up. Seven groups of 34 airmen, each four wide and eight deep with the first shirt or chief serving as guidon bearer and a colonel up front stand at attention as he hurries from one end of the group to the other, swapping out personnel to ensure correct height arrangements, and moving others forward and back to perfect the columns and rows. “Remember”, he says, “Blinking, breathing statues. You are all blinking, breathing statues.”

I have been to a change of command ceremony before. Last summer I even organized and ran one back home when my squadron’s leadership changed hands, but today will be the first time I participate in one as a member of a formation.

This is also my first time on this part of the base. The majority of living, working, and eating facilities are on the outer ring of the base. Centrally located are the bases’ two primary runways. We are somewhere near one of them. When we are dismissed for fifteen minutes for last-minute bathroom runs I take a better look around. Behind us are two aircraft shelters. I am reminded at once of the many buildings on Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii which still have bullet holes pocking their façades, reminders of strafing runs from Japanese zeroes on that fateful day in December over 65 years ago. Similar holes remain in the exterior of these two hangar bays, once Iraqi aircraft shelters shot full of holes in either the first Iraq war or the second. Still visible in the center of the wall is a small painting depicting an Iraqi fighter jet silhouetted by a rising (or falling) sun. The caption below the picture is in Arabic script. Below that is what appears to be a long list of items, also in Arabic. My friend and I joke that the first one says “Insert key and turn on ignition.” Considering the fact that Iraq had a fairly modern Air Force in the late 80s it strikes me as strange that the messages on the wall are all hand painted. Slightly crooked and not evenly spaced I wonder if the maintainers who operate out of the shelter now left these instructions there out of some form of historical respect or because they found them as strangely out of place as I do.

Behind the formation director still calling out commands in his megaphone is the stage and spread evenly in a semi-circle around that are various vehicles representing different units and functions around base. There are an ambulance, an MRAP, and a fire engine, representing the land-based services. A leer jet and Predator flank an F-16 centered on the stage. Our outgoing commander is an F-16 pilot and I assume the incoming general is one as well. Hanging on everything, the bleachers, chairs, stage, vehicles, and us, is the dust. A slight breeze blows the talcum-power-sized particles towards us, into our nose and eyes giving everyone the uniform appearance of frosted (or graying) hair, eyebrows, and for some, mustaches. The wind's direction is made all the more clear by the fluttering of the four flags on stage, US, Iraqi, Air Force, and General’s flags all kept upright by heaps of sandbags and four not so fortunate airmen picked at random from the crowd to serve as flag guards.

Practice is all about the seven to ten people who play active rolls in the ceremony: the narrator, singers, and commanders. Our main concern as we conduct yet another dry run is staying upright for the duration. In some ways it is a lot more difficult to keep standing upright for two hours than it is to walk around for twice that amount of time. I have seen people fall out of these formations indoors before. Their knees lock up slowing circulation to their extremities and head and before long they’re wobbling and then getting carted off to some back room for fluids. The only good thing about the dust is that it is keeping the temperature down considerably so I should be safe from fainting, provided enough air makes its ways to my lungs along with the dust.

The ceremony itself, when it finally starts, is relatively free of surprises. We come to attention when the official party marches on stage. Since this is an outdoors ceremony we salute when the National Anthem is sung, or in this case, national anthems are sung. Before a quartet sings the Star Spangled Banner they play the Iraqi National Anthem over the loudspeaker as the color guard presents the Iraqi flag. Taking a moment to think beyond the trained mechanisms that induce me to salute on command, I realize that I am saluting the flag and anthem of Iraq. This simple gesture, mirrored throughout the audience reflects the much larger implication that for the first time in over six years, we no longer run the show here. Regardless of the fact that there are no Iraqi dignitaries in the audience to scold us for forgetting ourselves, its as if as the song plays out (and it is a long song, my arm is shaking by the end of it) we demonstrate that in a short year and a half most of us will be gone.

In five years, less, two years, these hangars behind me will once again have Iraqi jets and trucks parked inside them and to the people standing where I stand now, the Fourth of July will come a few days after their own Independence Day of sorts. Already we have begun to leave. June 30th marked the last day combat troops could patrol (uninvited) through Iraqi's city centers. From now on, anytime we want to travel we will need the government of Iraq's permission. Iraqi Police have already begun to flex their fledgling muscle to enforce this. All of this puts an incredibly large question mark over the rest of my team's time here. It will affect the frequency and ease with which we can do project site visits, which, paradoxically, are still being requested of us from local government officials. Over the next month they will need to help us strike a deal with Iraqi security forces to allow us to inspect wells and power plants and schools if they want to continue to have our services. For now, we will wait...

...I am upset. Where is our musical, comedic, political, athlete/singer/actor/anything guest? Back home I often heard stories of droves of famous people coming to support and entertain the troops for important holidays. I suspected that if anything, for the Fourth, they would come through for us. In the absence of signs and fliers advertising a celebrity visit, I had been encouraged by someone I know who works in the command post who told me that if someone was indeed coming, it would not be publicized until shortly ahead of time, for fear of an attack or kidnapping plot unfolding. My friends from the office laughed at me for believing this and now, in the dust storm on the Fourth of July, I wish I'd had lesser expectations.

Not all was lost this weekend though. Transformers 2 came to theaters this weekend and we enjoyed the sappy robot-alien-human love story/shoot-em-up as much as a lot of people back home apparently are according to box office reports. There was also a 5-k fun run for the Fourth (held the morning of the third) and I got a t-shirt for finishing top 500. I do love my free t-shirts. Additionally, the food for lunch today is the best of the lot: steak and lobster tails, mac and cheese, watermelon, barbeque spare ribs. Still, when, due to the weather, we are forced to eat indoors in our building the experience loses a bit of its traditional picnic-feel. We watch “Bangkok Dangerous,” a Nicholas Cage assassin flick in our conference room while we eat. Back home people are starting to wake up for family reunions, beach/park trips, and pool parties. The orange glow coming into the room through the clear story windows, mid-afternoon sun refracted through thick clouds of dust, makes it difficult to see who Nicholas Cage is talking to on the screen. I think he just shot someone.

The most exciting event on today's agenda is our raft race. In spite of the dust people show up at Saddam's pool with rafts of various shapes and sizes. Water bottles, duct tape, 550 cord, and a broomstick were the only materials allowed for building them, but the groups were far more creative than I expected. Some of the boats are enormous. Some look more like boogie boards.

I am not a fan of the rules. Each boat gets one rider who can paddle, but can't kick. Another team member can either push or pull the raft the full length of the pool and back. Essentially this makes it into a swimming competition, not a raft race. It is entertaining, though. The dust has formed a brown skim on one end of the pool and you can hardly see the other end of the pool through the dust.

As teams swim off into the haze boats break apart and roll over. Others go almost nowhere as swimmer and rider paddle frantically. Our team races its bull-shaped raft (the Air Force Civil Engineer's "mascot") valiantly and finishes a respectable second in our heat. Of the thirty-five rafts, the eventual winner is the one team that beat us. They're the fire fighter team so it's hard to be upset. Plus, I feel doubly safer knowing our emergency services personnel are in good shape and additionally they had enough time on their hands to build what looks like Santa's sleigh out of bottles and duct tape. Business must be bad, but when that business is fighting fires, that's not such a bad thing.

So, were there fireworks? No, and in a war zone, that too is a good thing. We have a new boss. We found a use for some of the thousands of water bottles used on a daily basis (apparently there will be another raft race in early September). Bangkok turned out to be especially dangerous for Nicholas Cage. The day ends pretty much the way it started. Dust in my eyes and nose I walk home, the sound of F-16s taking off in my ears. Geckos cut paths across the fine layer of new-fallen dust at my feet. I will sleep well tonight.

Happy Fourth of July.