Friday, September 25, 2009
“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.