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.


  1. Really enjoyed and appreciated this, Tim. You write so fluidly, so naturally, and the word pictures that you create offer us pictures that photos alone cannot provide. Thanks for taking the time to write this (is someone keeping hard copies of all your essays?) . . . we are all so proud of you!

  2. Yeah, you're getting almost embarrassingly good at this. This post is far better than any of the nonfiction submissions I've been rejecting from the journal I read for. Agree with Maggie's comment above, though I'd add that you elicited an authentic LOL from me with "I do love my free tee-shirts" -- no small feat.

  3. Incredible photos, Tim. Thanks for posting them!