Monday, July 27, 2009
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.