Friday, September 25, 2009


September 25
“My parents would never have let me get away with this when I was their age.”

The Army Lieutenant with me today on our canal reconnaissance trip is, of course, referring to the ten or so children, who, with arms outstretched have now pointed, prodded, and pleaded with us to hand over our rifles, pistols, glow sticks, pencils, pens, footballs and chocolate, but have been temporarily appeased with left over individually packaged muffins and lukewarm bottles of water from the back of the trucks. I don’t argue with him but it’s not so easy for me to place myself into the shoes, or more often sandals or, oddly enough, Croc-knock offs, of these 3 to 12 year old Iraqi children who have grown up with armed foreigners constantly walking through their streets, knocking on their doors, and taking pictures of them. They certainly aren’t afraid of us. These kids are brash and very persistent. One youngster immediately covets my chem. lights, devices we use for signaling if the radios go out. We have two with each one representing a different thing when lit and displayed but he doesn’t know that. And seeing that I have two he thinks he’s found his in. Pointing he makes his case: “Just one?”

The kids are highly competent in English. Please, yes, school, baby, name, hello, and of course mistah, mistah, are elements of every kid’s vocabulary we run into, and I know that “no” is not a new word to any of them but this kid does not give up after I tell him he can’t have the chem. lights. He pulls at them, reaching up to my vest where I’ve stashed them. Like a trick from any pick-pocket’s playbook, while he distracts me with my lights other kids are feeling my pockets, and reaching for the myriad other snaps and buttons on my uniform looking for any chink in my armor to capture a prize. I finally cave under the pressure and pull out a pack of gum. This, of course, brings all kids running and soon I’m swarmed over. The tall kids push their way to the front, retreat as they grab one piece, and then return again for another. When I call them out on it they put their hands on the smaller kids, “For baby.” The gum is gone in a matter of seconds and the crowd disperses, all except that one kid. “Mistah, mistah. Just one?”

When it becomes clear that the soldiers have ceased passing out handouts, some of the kids wander off with their goods. Others stick around attempting conversations with us. Through gestures and his limited English I gather that the boy who has chosen to hang by me is named Ahmad and that there is no school today although I have no idea why. When he asks my name I tell him. Apparently he isn’t put off by the American name. He gives it two thumbs up and laughs before running off.

There’s a kid with a whiffle bat walking around slamming other kids in the head. This isn’t all that strange because everywhere we’ve gone where there have been kids there has always been violence of some sort. Then again, these are little boys and beating on each other, wrestling, and playing tag games that involve throwing punches aren’t so rare back home either. Still, to be talking to some of the kids and then have Manny Ramirez run up and slam his little brother or whatever in the side of the face with a bat is a bit of a shock. The little guy doesn’t think much of it. He throws a punch back and otherwise doesn’t skip a beat. Meanwhile the batter looks up at my rank and correctly identifies it. No doubt these kids are sharp. Their familiarity with us, our friendliness, and mission procedures could prove to be both an asset and potentially a risk in the years to come as they grow up and decide whether or not they are going to pick up their friend’s/neighbor’s/father’s/brother’s/cousin’s AK before they come back to see us.

Today I’ve brought one of our team’s Iraqi engineers along with us to help in some canal assessments. On our first stop we are looking at a spot where an offshoot of the primary canal crosses under the road to feed a tertiary canal on the other side. Unfortunately, the pipe under the road somehow got clogged at some point and the water level rose high enough to wash out a portion of the road. While temporary measures have been put in place to halt the complete destruction of the road, a permanent fix needs to be made, and fast before the rains come and further damage becomes inevitable. In cases like this, where the road is not just a road, but also a route, meaning we cross it every day with our 20-ton trucks on our way to and from Joint Base Balad, not to mention the supply, food, and fuel trucks that come through here, and repairs will benefit both local and US interests, fixes often come faster. I take pictures and let my engineer ask most of the questions. From the sound of it, the discussion sounds almost identical to the one we had several days ago in my office so it’s hard for me to understand the importance of this leg of our trip other than to confirm what we already knew. Still, we go over the plan of attack for the repairs and they seem sound. Unfortunately, we have to operate around the canal schedule; every five days the gates from the main canal are opened to flood the side canals and make water available to the local farmers. Here, that day comes in two days, too soon for work to start today, so plans are made for construction to begin shortly thereafter. As we talk some of the kids wash their faces in the pool of water in the excavated hole adjacent to the road reminding me once again how thankful I am to have a cooler full of water bottles waiting for me in the back of my truck when we finally roll out.

Perception is reality. I’ve heard that phrase several times this week. The first was in light of an exercise we were having on base that required all Airmen in our wing to put on their full vest and helmet and arm up for a day, to play Army if you will. As regular Army tag-alongs it was easy for us to turn our noses up at the prospect of having to put on our gear and walk around outside all day when we wear the stuff on a regular basis when we roll off base on our many site and FOB visits and especially considering the fact that most of the “Fobbits” who live and work here never set foot off base and mostly operate in their jobs in the same manner as they would back home in the States. So when after much debate our squadron finally labeled us “non-players” in the exercise we figured we were off the hook for wearing the stuff. But then, when our boss, our big boss, the top Civil Engineer in the Air Force, showed up at a planned breakfast event we were attending in his gear, we knew we had messed up. If he was in it and we weren’t, we were wrong. The question was not whether or not we were justified in not wearing our gear around. Clearly, we were. But without signs or labels and only getting stopped by one in every 20 people or so who asked the question “Why aren’t you wearing your gear?” the other 95% were left to come up with their own explanations in their heads as to why we were “above” the exercise. General Patton said that when you are an officer you are always on parade. In this case, the price of the negative perception of us skipping the exercise far outweighed the benefit of being slightly more comfortable than everyone else for a day.

We wore our gear when we went to lunch, and dinner.

My Iraqi Engineer tells me that the kid has revealed to him that all Americans have smarts and are very strong. I would not say that this is the perception held by most people around the world, or even in his or our own country. Strong makes sense because of the Americans he has seen most are soldiers who are already big and strong and look even bigger and stronger in their superhero vests, helmets, and sunglasses that they never see us without. Intelligent doesn’t make as much sense right off the bat. Not because I think people in the military are dumb, but because I’m not really sure what he has to base that observation off of. I will say this though: One of the many pleasures I’ve had this deployment has been getting the opportunity to see our soldiers do their jobs. They may joke around a lot and sound pretty foolish over the communications network as they crack jokes on each other during our long drives, but when it comes to doing what they need to do when boots are on the ground, I’ve never seen any hesitation or wondered if they were going to be able to act the part under pressure. It could be this calm almost casual air about the soldiers that the boy had picked up, a confidence that goes without saying. If so it would be an astute observation. We certainly have a diverse group of folks serving in the armed forces. We should all be glad they’re on our side. Every time I roll out I’m confident they’ve got my back.

In places where the canals are too narrow for the larger vehicles in our convoy to make it (and hoping to avoid a disaster similar to our rollover fiasco just outside Balad a month back) we hop into Humvees to tour the rest. Some of the roads are really narrow. Twice we need ground guides to help us maneuver past a wall or a sign post. We finally reach the end of the road when we get into a standoff with some cows. Not wanting to upset one cow that does not at all appear to be in the mood to play chicken we backtrack our way out and head back to another section of canal on our agenda.

We dismount just east of an Iraqi checkpoint. Here the canal was once lined with concrete the whole way but for a stretch of about 500 meters the liner has been destroyed. In a story later confirmed by the guards at the checkpoint we found out that when the canal was last dredged the operator of the digger made no qualms about clearing out the canal, concrete and all. Consequently we are working on a statement of work to reline it at an appropriate level to make sure water still flows farther down the canal to where the liner is undamaged. A little ways down the canal the story once again is the kids. Here a new group of a dozen or so quickly gathers to watch us as we take pictures and discuss methods for repair. This time not standing next to a major route we are all a bit more at ease and we take a lot of pictures of and with the kids. When we need to measure the canal’s profile all we have to do it with is a piece of cardboard (somehow no one in the entire convoy has a tape measure on them). I suggest we give the kids a chance to help out and with the help of our engineer’s pencil (which they keep no doubt) they quickly get to it. It’s 6 box-lengths from the top of one side, down to the bottom, across, and then back up again the other side. Not a big canal, that’s just about 9 feet total. Still, the water is no less needed here for these farms than anywhere else.

One kid smiles as he gestures to my mustache. “It’s ugly, I know,” I tell him. He laughs, not necessarily understanding the words, but clearly getting the point. I catch a picture of a group of about 10 of them as they huddle around our Iraqi engineer. He looks like Santa Clause or a rock star, the crowd of kids pushing around him with their arms raised. I get them to all look at me and smile for a picture. When it’s finally time for us to leave I don’t think a single one goes home empty handed. More muffins and waters are handed out. Pens, pencils, and candy all leave in the hands of new owners. With all this giving away of stuff we’re either creating a crop of really friendly, happy children, or an army of salesmen and con men. Either way, this generation of Iraqis will hopefully not grow up fearing, or more importantly resenting Americans as their older brothers and fathers likely do and have. Of course only time will tell. I will always have the pictures to look back on and remember this experience and the many others like it.

For fear of dealing with a potentially career-damaging situation back home at least one of those pictures will probably not make it back with me. When we got back to the office and my friend was scrolling through my shots from the day on my camera he made a startling observation. Apparently one of the little boys in one of the group pics is wearing nothing but a t-shirt.

Perception is reality.
I guess today it was too hot for pants.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

When Chariots of Fire Get Flat Tires

September 11
On holiday weekends (like Labor Day weekend last weekend) we don’t really get any time off and as far as life around base goes, not much changes with a few small adjustments. For one, the DFACs (chow halls) usually serve up their special, a combination of fried steaks (we are all eagerly anticipating grilling on a real charcoal grill back home!), sometimes crab legs, fried shrimp, corn on the cob, and all the other usual salad options, overall not a bad spread. Often there are enormous cakes decorated by one of the workers with icing American flags, stars, and jet planes although somehow I’m never around to see these cakes cut and passed out so I'm not convinced that they're actually cakes. Balad recently “consolidated” its dining facilities from four facilities (two big and two small) to four dining facilities (three big and one small). They plan to close the last of the “old”, small DFACs right after we leave Iraq, having already closed “The People’s DFAC”—where everyone knows your name—which was right across the street from our office, had a diner-esque coziness about it, and where all the workers remembered exactly how you liked you eggs cooked, ice cream scooped, etc. Many people think the new DFAC is a representation of the kind of wasted money and misguided planning typical of this war and while we still manage to eat well no amount of recycled 4th of July decorations can help the new dining facility—with its white-washed walls, bright lights, tile floors, and high ceilings—not feel like a cafeteria in a mental institution.

For the third or fourth consecutive holiday we started our day by waking up before the sun came up, lacing up our shoes, and running a race. This is, apparently, the typical deployed fun thing to do. I already have seen “Halloween Costume Run” posters hanging up for October’s run. Today’s run was special because it was commemorating both Patriot’s Day (at some point in the last few years we stopped just calling it “September Eleventh” and the eleventh of September became Patriot’s Day, not sure if everyone got the memo on that one) and the Air Force birthday on the 19th. About a month and a half ago we signed up for the race. At the time I was on my way out for a week of site visits and my other team members were going to do it so I signed up with them and forgot about it. Unlike the usual monthly, holiday variety, this race was a half-marathon.

When you’re still two months away from an event, it’s pretty easy to sign up for it. This past week the full dread of the pain I was about to endure started to hit me. One of my teammates pointed out to me that the race shirts (printed on a shade of brown that truly makes the shirts un-wearable) have 10k written on them as well as half, and full marathon (I have to interject another point about the shirts: the text is off-center on the front but not quite enough to look like it was done on purpose and on the back they’ve printed a picture of a Global Hawk UAV although I would hardly call this aircraft the new poster child of the Air Force. The shirts for the volunteers who manned all the hydration stations were printed in white text that was perfectly centered on a dark blue background. I wonder why they opted to give the runners the doo-doo brown variety). From this I assumed that all three races would be featured with runners given the choice to pick their route and run what they chose. A ten kilometer race is about 6.2 miles, a half-marathon is 13.1, and a full marathon is 26.2. It was a no-brainer for me. I don’t like running. I never really have. I grew up playing soccer, certainly a running game, but without the ball, or even the prospect of getting the ball, running loses its appeal. So I told everyone I was going to do the 10k and that I would bring my camera and take pictures of them as they crossed the finish line of the half-marathon. Sounded like a good plan.

There were two things that happened before the race started that stick out in my memory. As a quick background, understand that every race (although given a new name and a new shirt based on the nearest holiday) starts and ends the same way here. We show up at the stadium at 4:30. At 4:55 we line up at the start on the track and a prayer is said by the Chaplain followed by the singing of the National Anthem by someone and then someone else says go. Last month the Chaplain chose to forego his amen and replaced it instead with “and with that dear Lord I say GO!” catching most of us off guard. But we went. This month the Chaplain implored God to help us all have “an enjoyable morning”. Even running just the 10k, there was no part of the 6 mile loop around the base that I was looking forward to enjoying. He, however, was probably headed off to breakfast, or back to bed, both things that truly sounded enjoyable at the time. Normally at that point we would stand at attention for the National Anthem, but for some reason we skipped that part of the ceremony today. I’m thinking it’s because the singer was a no-show, but it was a bit disappointing considering what the run was commemorating. Instead, the announcer joked into the microphone “I hope none of y’all think you’re running a 10k today!” and then proceeded to go into explaining the route and other details of the race. People chuckled and talked amongst themselves. I wasn’t laughing. Wait… Is he serious? Before I could put any real, intelligent, thought into the matter, they fired off some blanks out of a shotgun and started the race. And so, having not run farther than 4 miles in the past several years and not run at all in the past three plus weeks, I took my first steps of the Joint Base Balad half-marathon.

Later I figured out that 10k, half-marathon, and marathon are the races being offered at different bases around Iraq which as a group were commemorating the day. Our base just happened to be hosting the half-marathon. That makes sense now. I’m really not sure why I didn’t think of it earlier in the week. By about mile three (the usual limits of my distance running) I was seriously evaluating my decision to not turn back early and call it a morning. The race course was laid out as a 6.6 mile distance out, and then 6.6 miles back, so I knew if I went much further I would be committed to the total distance. Plus, I was reminded of an episode of “The Simpsons” where Bart runs out into the Springfield marathon with just a half mile or so to go and wins the race, wearing a mustache as a disguise and I knew I would be both embarrassed and ashamed to run across the finish line (mustache and all) having not run the full race. So I kept going. The course took us past the chow hall, our office building, and my CHU, giving me three opportunities on the way out, and three opportunities on the way back to stop and throw in the towel but I pushed through, the image of Bart burned in my mind.

At or around the mile 5 marker a woman ran up next to me and started looking at me. Very seriously, and with great concern she asked me “Is it harder to run with that?” pointing to my mustache. I was ready for her: “No. It’s my humidor. Keeps my face cool.” It’s not a third leg lady. It’s a mustache.

Somewhere around mile 6 of the pavement/gravel/dirt road course, jumping up and down curbs and around potholes, my knees started to go. First it was just my left knee, a sharp pain every time my left foot hit the ground. But then to compensate for the pain, I instinctively shifted some of my weight to the right side which caused my right ankle, and eventually my right knee, to start to hurt as well. By the turn around point, an unceremonious cone on the ground with a paper arrow, my knees were screaming at me to stop. While I never stopped moving forward, there was no way I could continue running at that point, so I swallowed my pride and slowed to a walk. Six and a half miles from where I needed to end up, I now had no choice but to start walking back. The pain was constant, but I found that every few minutes I could extend into a jog for a short distance before my knees would start to seize up again forcing me to slow to a walk for a few more minutes. My next hour and twenty minutes followed this pattern. It really wouldn’t be honest to say at the end of the day that I “ran” a half-marathon. More like, I ran a quarter marathon, and “wogged” another quarter marathon. The walk/jog combination ended up keeping my time shorter than if I just walked, and I managed to finish in just under two and a half hours. Hey, it’s not going to put me on a Wheaties box, but I’m hoping to pick up my “Gutsiest Performance” award right after I win the “Stupidest Guy” trophy for running in the first place without having done any training at all for it.

Since we started running at 5 am, when the base was still relatively quiet (and cool), the first leg of the run was actually not bad, might I even say, borderline enjoyable. I wasn’t trying to push because I knew I needed to save my energy so I was able to get a good look around some parts of the base I had never been, including along a part of the flight line where some Cessnas and F-16s were parked, and through the Army housing area where there were… a lot of Army people. The back roads were great. Not a lot of traffic, real quiet, but the noise, traffic, car exhaust and dust seemed to increase exponentially with the rising of the sun. By 6:30 or so we were jumping out of the path of cars, trucks, MRAPs and Humvees and the air had lost its crisp, morning freshness, having been replaced with the mixture of dust, exhaust, and burnpit smoke that dominates during the days. Thankfully, the run was taking place in September and not July where by 6:30 it would already have been 100 for an hour. We were fortunate to not have anything over 90 during the race and the water/Gatorade stations at every mile marker were kept well stocked so dehydration was never really a fear. For that matter, fatigue never really was a fear either. Wogging isn’t really tiring and it was extremely frustrating to feel the gaze of every person who drove by on the road labeling me weak or lazy as I slogged on down the path unable to run for long periods of time due to the pain in my knees.

With a few miles to go the giant voice, our loudspeaker system that announces when the base is coming under mortar attack, came to life. It turned out to be an announcement for a controlled detonation, probably of seized munitions. My buddy and I, recalling it later in the day, were glad it hadn't been an actual "dive-in-a-bunker" attack because neither of us think we would have been able to get our bodies going again after that.

By the time I neared the final stretch of the race I was reduced to alternating my running and walking with minute splits, my running now more of a shuffle and the distance it took me to start up and slow down increased to five or ten steps because abrupt starts and stops put too much pressure on my knees. The last quarter mile leg of the race was a final “victory” lap around the track back at the start (now finish) line. I decided to run the whole distance for pride and honor and all that, and because I knew all my friends were watching and I was not going to be able to hear the end of it if I walked across the finish line and at 2:28:36 I finished the race. For finishing we all got really nice medals (surprisingly they are really nice considering the t-shirts we got) as well as a complimentary continental breakfast of fresh fruit and muffins.

We were all hurting the rest of the day after the race, the phrase “I didn’t even know I had a muscle there!” being used on many occasions. For me the pain migrated from my knees to my hips overnight, and then back again to my knees after sitting in a chair for a few hours the next day. I have one rather large blister on the bottom of my right foot, but I will lose no toenails. Really other than going up and (worse) down stairs we have mostly recovered our normal gaits already. One of my friends (who finished the race about 50 minutes before I did) was having some serious issues with his knees throughout the day, especially his right knee. Anyone who has seen “Forrest Gump” and can picture the way young Forrest walked in his leg braces, can get a good picture of what my buddy looked like on the way to dinner last night, swinging his right leg way out to avoid bending it. Not good. But I’m sure he’ll heal, as we all will. We have to. There's probably going to be a Canadian Thanksgiving run scheduled in a few short weeks.