Friday, August 28, 2009

A Big Hole

August 25
Much has been written about the first explorers who crossed the oceans of the world in search of treasures, glory, and cinnamon. At first heroic, brave, and daring, lately they are remembered as being cruel, greedy, and sadistic. Every one of those first voyagers brought with them a crew who probably shared a combination of those traits, but more likely set sail riding waves of cautious optimism, fear, excitement, and obligation. It was their stories of golden cities that led to the massive movements of people that ultimately conquered the New World.

Tuesday we set out on the first leg of our trek to plot "The Canals of Iraq." Although I doubt school children in the years to follow will use "In mid-August of oh-nine, the engineers set out at half past nine" to recall our exploits, the trip was important and I, like most of the soldiers along for the ride, and the crew members of explorations of old, carried a mix of optimism and duty one might expect. The objective of our mission was to observe and record the condition of a length of the Great Eastern Canal of the Tigris River Valley (I have added "Great" for effect), including any patches of heavy vegetation or breaks in the canal, and keep an eye out for the Giant Spotted Dodo, the nearly extinct (and completely fabricated) mammoth flightless bird native to central Iraq. Digital camera and notebook in hand we took our turn onto the canal road and thus began our grand adventure.

In the back of my truck, it felt like we were going on safari. The narrow and oftentimes uneven driving surface adjacent to the canal slowed our progress to a crawl and I was free to climb from side to side in the back of the MRAP, snapping pictures of reeds, mud-brick pumping stations, and long pipes dipping delicately into the water's edge like long elephant trunks sipping at the slow-moving current. Periodically we stopped to take measurements. At one canal-crossing our soldier/engineer escorts produced some measuring tape and a long pole. Leaning over the edge of the bridge with the pole, two other soldiers holding his legs, one sergeant discovered that the depth at center of the canal was 9 feet. One of his M-4 magazines also found this out as it kerr-plopped into the channel past his head as he scrambled back to his feet. "Casualty of war" he grumbled. Still, I admired his efforts to train the younger soldiers. Placing a glow-stick into an empty water bottle he had one soldier measure off 100 feet down the bank and they timed the canal's velocity by timing the bottle as it drifted downstream; 100 feet in 59 seconds. He joked that the bottle would probably beat us to the end. It was no joke.

Of course what I have failed to mention thus far and what adds to the absurdity of the journey was our proximity in regards to the base. Joint Base Balad is situated in the middle of the bread basket of Iraq. In all likelihood, the land it now occupies was, and will one day again be fertile farmland. We know this because canals practically encircle the base. On 3 sides they act as moats with the perimeter fence coming almost to the water's edge. 1,000 years ago boiling water or oil may have been poured from the watch towers spaced at regular intervals along the c-wire topped chain-link defenses as intruders charged across the canal. Now, they are a place for the Ugandan security guards we've hired to sit and watch as we inch our way down the northern perimeter canal roughly 200 feet from the fence. It is comical really, that we in full gear with guns cocked and helmets snug are close enough to carry on conversations with our friends who instead wear t-shirts and shorts on the other side of the chain-link fence. Either they are not as safe as they think, or we are being far too cautious. Either way, it's hard to disagree with whomever I overhear saying "Too bad they couldn't move the fence a couple hundred feet this way. We could have done this mission in pick-ups." Still we lumber on. The illegal taps won't count themselves.

We wear headsets in the vehicles so that directions can be given if need be or we can shout out warnings to each other over the drone of the engine. Mostly the conversations shared through the system fit neither description, talk of food, women, and home tend to dominate. Today, the conversation is slightly more focused. The group we're riding with are still relatively new here (with less than three months in country compared to our four, we've actually been here longer than they have). They call out vehicles on the road parallel to us beyond the fields, reporting farmers, children and stray cows. The road we're traveling on is narrow and weak. Warnings about ditches and potholes have me just a bit nervous. As my NCO later reported from his vantage point in a Buffalo, a vehicle even larger and more imposing than the Cougar I'm riding in, the view alternated at intervals between sky and sea not so unlike being in a boat. All this being said, when I heard our truck commander call out "Watch out. That's a big f-ing hole," it didn't strike me as a surprising comment, us having made it past several such described obstacles already. It was when we stopped that I realized something was wrong.

Past the gunner's dangling feet through the front windshield I could see that the MRAP in front of us was off-kilter, leaning awkwardly to one-side, still upright, but in trouble. Noting that we conveniently also were stopped beside another of the now three illegal taps we'd seen already in the 2.5 km we had travelled down the canal, I opted to step out of the vehicle to snap some photos of them and the trapped vehicle in front of us. My architecture history classes reminded me that the pump house was no exception to the buildings that have been built here for generations, with just a few minor differences. While the walls are still mud-and-straw bricks; hard, yet made brittle in the sun, crumbling to the touch and I'm not convinced I couldn't have punched through them, with log roof rafters covered with mud and straw, there entrances are now sturdy steel doors with frames, carefully locked with padlocks. This does not seem so unlike locking the doors to your convertible, especially considering that the pumps and most of the machinery are situated outside, adjacent to the fragile station.

Maybe getting a vehicle stuck is not a rare occurrence. At first, this doesn't appear to be anything out of the ordinary to our escorts. The driver has his passengers exit the truck as a safety precaution, they talk things over amongst themselves, and then attach a tow strap from the back of the Buffalo to the front of the disabled truck. Encouraged by the ease with which all of this is set up, I'm not expecting much when I raise my camera to capture the scene as the towing begins.

There is a moment as the lead vehicle lurches forward that everything appears to be ok. Then, in what someone later perfectly described as something resembling an elephant toppling to its side, the mechanical beast gave up and died.

In my video you can see the truck start to go. As it breaches the point of no return my camera drops some, not so unlike my spirits at the prospects of us continuing our mission from that point on. Then, you can see my shadow as I run to the side of the wounded truck. In a cloud of dust the soldiers survey the scene. Once it was clear that the vehicle was stable on its side, and the driver was okay (he climbed out through the gunner's turret) everyone stood back and surveyed the scene as if saying "Ok. Now what?" This part of the process was not normal. Gasoline and transmission fluid oozing out from open wounds of the truck's exposed belly into the farmers' fields; I cringe to think of the environmental implications. More urgently, this truck is rapidly becoming a danger to all of us as it bakes in the oven of the midday sun, basted by its own flammable fluids. We rush to secure sensitive items from inside the truck passing them on to be stored in the other vehicles and when this is done we retreat to the quiet safety of our own trucks stuck to sit and guard the crippled MRAP while we wait for help.

There are a multitude of lessons learned that I assume will make their way into the soldier's playbooks for future missions. Most of the afterthoughts from our experience will explain what not to do if your MRAP gets trapped on a small dirt road adjacent to a canal. The number one lesson, of course, will be that our next canal-observing safari will likely be made in smaller vehicles. It really should come as no surprise that the dirt donkey paths, when trampled by our multiple ton mammoths, eventually gave way. Next, as we found out, help, although the base was in sight had a very difficult time reaching us on the narrow banks of the canal. The only way to lift an enormous vehicle like ours is with an even more enormous vehicle. And there was no way to get one to where we were. Still, I don't want to blame the leadership of our failed expedition. No one could have predicted everything that went wrong to lead to this debacle. The challenge now was to figure a way out. As a passenger, all I could do was retire to my truck to wait it out.

For the next eight hours the three of us in the back of my truck took turns sitting on the two open seats and an ammo can. My wide open carriage I'd moved so freely around in earlier was now packed with half of the contents of the rolled MRAP and two of its passengers. The question rapidly became not if I could keep a part of my body from falling asleep, but rather which I could live without temporarily. We wrapped ourselves around boxes and bags and slept for 15-20 minute stretches at a time, mustering all of our strength upon waking to shift our now dead-to-me legs to other positions, leaning to the opposite side to restore the blood flow thereby sacrificing the other side to its neighbor's former fate.

I made my stomach and my bladder hold out as long as possible, but eventually both required my attention. There is no easy way to pee in a bottle. Kneeling in the back of an MRAP in full body armor in a space roughly equivalent to the passenger seat of a Mazda Miata, I did my best, sure that at any moment someone would open the back door of our truck and see me, all of me, staring back at them. The cold, fajitas with spread cheese and "formed" chicken strips was not exactly what my stomach had in mind when it requested a meal, but it was all we had and it sufficed. Thankfully, each truck carries several days worth of provisions and there is always a cooler with ice on board so cold water and a Pepsi kept me hydrated and had me repeating the pee-in-a-bottle experiment again not too much later.

When the sun started to set some locals came out to investigate the scene. First I see a boy leading cows past the truck. He hits the brown one with a stick when it starts to wander too close to the edge of the canal. Soon a small crowd of old and young men and boys has gathered. Several soldiers dismount to keep a closer eye on the fallen truck. They hand out water bottles and chips retrieved from the belly of the beast as a friendly gesture to the throng. The soldier next to me in our MRAP wonders aloud why they're eating the chips outside in the daytime, it being Ramadan and all. The real purpose of their gathering becomes clear when several of the young man ditch their outer garments and take off out of my line of sight towards the canal, coming back laughing and dripping wet. One less modest boy, skinny as a rail, takes off naked towards the water running back to guard a small pile of water bottles he has claimed as his own, wailing on another child with his fists for wandering too close to his stash. They make quite a scene, but by nightfall they wander off leaving us alone again in our trucks.

A Wrecker with two Humvee escorts show up shortly thereafter. An hour and multiple tries later they've managed to pull the truck out of the hole. It's still on its side though so our conversations about missing lunch, that have since evolved into conversations about missing dinner, now focus on whether or not we'll make it back before daybreak the next morning. I am not optimistic because it's looking increasingly more likely that they'll have to call in a chopper to upright the truck and the logistics of that kind of rescue are even more daunting. But instead of spending the night in the truck, my Master Sergeant and I are rescued by the departing Humvee escorts who the Army LT has requested take us home. The relief beats out the guilt at leaving the soldiers there at the scene and after nearly getting stuck ourselves and a 10-point turn that would have made Austin Powers proud, our Humvee begins the slow crawl back to the front gate.

The previous Sunday I had joked about all the training we'd done in Humvees at CST in New Jersey before coming to Iraq and how I would never even ride in one in theater. Lesson learned: Never joke about anything "not happening" or else it will.

Our evening should have ended there but my driver opted to take the long way back, needlessly driving around the entire interior perimeter of the base adding thirty more minutes inside a cramped vehicle to my day. The MSgt and I ended up getting split up with him going to our truck, left parked at our embarkation point, and me going back to our office. I picked him and myself up some sandwiches at the 24-hour food point and jumped in another one of our trucks to go find him. We ended up passing each other on the road. When we got back to the office and I climbed out of the truck I noticed something wet in my right pocket. I reached in to find my kiwi from the chow hall turned to liquid goo. Of course.

Twelve hours after we set out on our failed expedition, soggy pocket and all, we sat down in my office, laughing as we recalled the day's absurdity. Unbeknownst to me, his vehicle, farther up in the convoy, had "taken off into some field" at some point in the afternoon and gotten stuck as well. This time, the tow strap correctly placed, they were able to pull it out to safety although what possessed their truck commander to embark on this unnecessary side adventure he did not know. His biggest shock of the day was the lack of quick response we saw from the soldiers after the truck fell over. "They all kind of just stood around" he reported. He jumped up on the truck to try to assess the condition of the driver (I have photographic proof!) and when they started unloading key materials from the back he and I stepped up to help cart it off. Some of the soldiers were posting security, but others just didn't seem to believe they had seen what they just saw.

When we returned to our CHUs at midnight, my roommate was still awake. We went to let the boss know we were safe and of course he wanted to see pictures. In my rush to show him the video of the vehicle falling I instead erased it. Maybe it wasn't meant to be. For me, in a long day full of painfully cramped quarters, waiting, cold MREs and peeing in bottles, it was the icing on the cake. My crowning achievement: capturing the vehicle's tumble on film, gone.

I will not cry over lost video, but without the cinematic proof backing our day's one true excitement it made the whole experience seem even more of a waste. I have the still-shots though; tools by which I'm sure the story may one day grow to epic proportions beyond what I've written here, stories with explosions and Giant Spotted Dodos and where the naked natives charged us with sharp sticks and angry cows.

When my office mates drove out to see the scene of the accident in the early morning of the next day they found nothing. The vehicles either driven, towed, or flown out. I'd like to think their metal hulks were carved up and dragged off into the fields by the locals, a headlight becoming the shining jewel of a farmer chieftain's necklace and the four tires anchoring the walls of a new mud house.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Waterworks

August 22
A little over a month into my deployment, I sent a request home for a reference book to help me with a design I was working on. We had conducted our first in a now long list of site visits to water treatment plants throughout Diyala. In most cases these facilities were operational, but the success of their treatment abilities was questionable at best. In the United States water comes clean out of the pipes. The people in Los Angeles may disagree with me, but when you turn on the tap there, you can be assured that what fills your cup, as cloudy, or odorous as it may seem to the naked eye (or nose), will not make you sick when you drink it. I cringe at the thought of Americans purchasing two-dollar bottles of water at Hollywood boutiques, thinking themselves better for it, when the Food and Drug Administration found that the water sold in bottles on our shelves is often less tested, and thus potentially less safe to drink than the tap water available for pennies in our kitchens at home.

The full extent of the situation is laughable. In the United States, a country with some of the cleanest drinking water available on the planet, those who can afford to, turn their noses up at the water available in their homes, choosing instead to drink potentially less-pure water that per gallon can cost more than a gallon of gasoline. Here in the desert, the military treats just enough water to hydrate their civilian personnel and soldiers and cook with. The rest, that which we shower with, wash our hands and clothes with and use to flush our toilets is deemed “un-potable” and therefore safe enough to use for these tasks, but not safe enough to drink. What this means is that here, whether I like it or not, if I want a drink of water, I am reaching for a 1 liter plastic bottle.

After undergoing an intensive (and extremely energy expensive) treatment process, through elaborate purification machines that I have personally seen turn brown pond water into crisp, clean, drinking water, the bottles are bundled, placed on pallets, wrapped in plastic sheeting and left in the sun for days on end. I have been told that this is an important part of the purification process. The additional time in the sun gives the chlorine, added to the water to kill any remaining bacteria, the chance to break down to levels safe enough for the eventual drinkers. Of course, any chemist could tell you that the chlorine in the bottle doesn’t just go away when it’s heated by the scorching midday sun, so I’m not apt to believe this oversimplification and I'll admit that I don't fully understand how it all works. All I know is this water, drawn from underground wells and aquifers, in a country with far fewer environmental protective laws in place than ours, then purified and bottled for my enjoyment, has managed to nourish my body on a daily basis without making me sick thus far, and for that I am grateful. The roughly 400 bottles I will drink and dispose of while I am here are a consequence of, and a reminder that I will not be here permanently. Like it or not, crack another bottle and drink up. It's all you got.

As a boy, I developed a fairly sophisticated understanding of the effort and resources that go into the treatment of water from the moment it falls to the ground as rain, to the moment it touches my lips. I, like so many of the Sesame Street/Mr. Rogers generation, learned this and many other “basics” of how society is put together by simply turning on the television even before I was old enough to go to school. After I had learned to read, The Magic School Bus series, by Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen, the fantastical adventures of a class of elementary students and their eccentric curly haired, red-headed teacher, aptly named Ms. Frizzle, became another favorite of mine. The series explores the fundamentals of geology, the solar system, and in one of my favorites, the digestive system, in such a simple and fun way that it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that some of my basic understandings of science I maintain to this day can be traced back to those illustrated classics. It was for The Magic School Bus at the Waterworks that I sent an email request home that day early into my deployment. I was searching for a simplified diagrammatic depiction of the water treatment process and naturally the one in the book came to my recollection when I was trying to picture it. I’d recreated a pictorial of the works based on what is in the book just for fun as a kid. After the water is collected, it is sent through filtration tanks, filled with layers of gravel and fine sand meant to strain out dirt and other impurities including some of the bacteria. Then, it is treated with chemicals, chiefly chlorine to kill the rest of the germs present although fluoride is also added in some places in the US. From there it heads through mazes of pipes, pushed onward by pumps and pressure to our taps. If you are familiar with the series, you too can probably close your eyes and picture Ms. Frizzle and the loveable loser Arnold in scuba gear making their way through the tanks and pipes that symbolize the process. In this portion of Iraq there are very few centralized, large, treatment plants like the one depicted in the book. Instead, the process takes place on the local level, consolidated to several small tanks, a few pumps, and several lengths of pipe.

I didn’t take any water treatment courses in college, one rather abstract fluid dynamics course to be exact. Still, it doesn’t take a water expert to look at some of these treatment facilities and “get” that there is something wrong with them. In one case, pictured in a previous post, water was drawn straight from the river into delivery trucks we watched arrive on scene, the long plastic pipes pouring water into their open beds for transport to the nearest town for public consumption while nearby a brand new, United States Army Corps of Engineers water treatment facility sits unused, gathering dust. More commonly, citizens lucky enough to live closer to the treatment plants take matters into their own hands. Inevitably, the number of pipes going into the plant is dwarfed by the number of small hoses and plastic pipes exiting the holding tanks which can be traced to dwellings nearby. Unwilling to wait for the completion of the treatment process, or hoping to circumvent the rationing measures necessary for a country in four years of drought, these people would agree with the boy no older than 15 or 16 who told us he was the manager of the plant we visited most recently: “Any water [even untreated water] is better than no water.”

Back at base, our water experts put their heads together to develop more logical systems for water treatment, storage and distribution. A key addition to their plans are centralized holding tanks, one for each village within a certain distance of the treatment facility to which the treated water can be sent for distribution to homes hopefully discouraging the illegal taps that significantly reduce the facility’s effectiveness and production capacity. While neither expensive nor especially complicated from an engineering perspective, some of the government water officials seem reluctant to take on these measures, seeing the construction of secondary distribution points as a relinquishing of control over the system, power which they wield to both bless and condemn the towns in their areas of responsibility. We spend so much money on the design and construction of these and so many more types of projects. In all seriousness, I wonder how much it would cost us to have At the Waterworks translated into Arabic and handed out to each of these citizens. If nothing else, perhaps then we’d see the illegal taps made after the water’s been treated, at the end of this process, not somewhere in between…

…So much of our base is covered in dust and dry earth that it is difficult to believe that just outside our perimeter, in fact in most places, right up to our fence, local farmers are busy planting next year’s crops. From the air the difference becomes even more apparent.

Our base is a brown and gray square crisscrossed with roads and runways and dotted with buildings. The limits of our greenery are scattered trees and shrubs and one small patch of grass out front of a unit headquarters building fit with “keep off the grass” sign that is kept green year round by sprinklers. Beyond our walls a patchwork of fields stretches out in all directions. A lifeline of canals, an intricate network of irrigation ditches that traces back to the Tigris River, keeps the fields of grapes, corn, dates and cotton fertile year-round. Last week I took a trip up the road along with my boss and two of our Iraqi engineers to meet with some of Balad’s government representatives, tasked with the ever-challenging task of keeping the water flowing.

To call the meeting productive would be a bit of an optimistic assessment. For one, the translators often could not keep up with the back-and-forth banter between our team’s civil engineer and the five canal representatives. It was like watching a tennis match. The words were the ball and the twenty or so military attendees watched the conversation carry back and forth between them eagerly awaiting a clue from the interpreters during the brief lulls as to what was being said and who was winning. It took several hours, but we eventually developed an understanding of the current state of affairs when it comes to water distribution in the province of Salah al Din. At their estimate, 80-90% of the problem has nothing to do with canal deficiencies with engineerable solutions. You can imagine the “so what are we doing heres?” that ran through our minds as we took this all in. In a repeat of conversations, scenarios, and circumstances that undoubtedly have been seen across the country, when faced with a seemingly cut-and-dry issue, a problem for us to fix—in this case not enough water is making it to the people at the end of the chain—the real problem is far more complex than we originally anticipated. It’s political. It can’t just be fixed with a little cash and hard work. Just like we see at all of the water treatment plants we visit, farmers, struggling to make ends meet during the prolonged drought, have turned to illegal taps and unscheduled flooding of their fields to keep their crops from dying, severely hurting their neighbors downstream. The canal monitors do not have enough political backing to put a stop to these behaviors. One of them mentioned a failed attempt to “negotiate” the removal of illegal water taps from one major service canal. When he and two Iraqi policemen visited a village to discuss the matter, they were nearly run down by a mob of 40 angry farmers.

After a less than culturally sensitive American lunch of cold cut sandwiches, fruit, and sodas we broke into groups to take a closer look at the canal maps to see if they could identify any specific problem areas for us to investigate. It was strange to stand there in front of irrigation maps from the 1970s tacked to the wall and go at them with colored markers to identify discrepancies when we are accustomed to having state of the art (digital) maps to work with. It was like going back in time to the days of the pre-calculator, slide-rule engineers. While I think at least one of the maps we were looking at was current as of 10 years ago, the other was probably produced when our team Iraqi engineer was first assisting in the original canal project, almost 30 years ago. Incredibly, he can still remember some of his team's decisions during the early design stages, a reason why he will be so vital to the success of the reconstruction efforts today.

Two hours later we reassembled to out-brief our findings and discuss our “way forward” (as the Army likes to say) for this project. My primary task out of it all will be to lead the team responsible for creating a new living map for the canals in the region. Future visits to the canal sections identified as most in need of repairs will help identify where new construction projects are needed, where trash and vegetation removal efforts will be affective, and where new canals exist that shouldn’t. We’re hoping to hand over an interactive map in a few months that tracks all of the canals and their statuses so the Iraqi managers can have something to add to in the future and reference from in the present. For now this means I am mostly a liaison, carrying information between all parties, a fitting task for a young officer, I suppose. I expect that I will get to see more of the Balad canal network in the near future when I accompany our surveyors out to take measurements. Perhaps I will get to see some of the places where our own jets hit the canals early in the war effort, damages we are still working hard to fix. Or, maybe we’ll get to drive by some of the empty canals, drained or dried up, where insurgents have since stored spare weapons and from which they occasionally lob mortars in our general direction...

...On our way home later that day our convoy was stopped by a few Sons of Iraq manning a checkpoint a few miles from our base. Locals were reporting a suspicious package on the side of the road a little ways up the road. In a place where the ground is everyone's trashcan it is often extremely difficult to tell the difference between a pile of trash and a pile of explosives. Still, taking every precaution seriously, the Army quickly went into action, deploying cameras and robots to investigate. As we sat in our vehicles waiting for the boom, Iraqi men, women, and children all around us went on with their lives. I was not in the lead vehicle, so I didn't get the full picture of what went on until later: kids throwing rocks at the package, stray livestock stepping right next to or over it. People would stop and look at what was going on, but eventually they walked away likely having seen this sort of thing before. No one seemed afraid. It has become a part of life here. Two hours later our trucks lurched back into motion picking up speed past the suspected IED; a backpack full of water bottles.

Where there’s water there’s life. If we can return water to the dry canals maybe we can wash away some of the would be attackers and bring some much needed jobs back to the area. Maybe we can convince people that we, and more importantly that the government of Iraq really are trying to help them. The history of agriculture and civilization itself can be traced back to the same two rivers situated several miles from my front door. And here we are, still trying to make them work for us.