The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.

A WOUNDED SOLDIER |

December 28, 2006

A WOUNDED SOLDIER
Name: A Nurse
Posting date: 12/28/06
Stationed in: A Miltary Hospital
Hometown: Illinois
Email: smknva@yahoo.com

I have tried to write this post for days now and haven't been able to even start it. I guess it's partly because of what I need to say. I have decided to take a leave of absence from my job; my last day will be Friday. I will be working for a temp service for nurses, providing additional staffing at area hospitals in various units. It will be a change, and one I hope will help.

As the week has gone on, I find memories of patients and their families coming to mind, and I wanted to share one in particular. We had received a wounded soldier from the OR, and the longer I had him the more I felt that "gut instinct" kicking in. Something just wasn't right. He didn't respond as he should have, didn't talk, just looked at me with this wild, panicked expression on his face. I called one of the anesthesiologists over, and as we talked about what was possibly going on this soldier reached for my hand. I let him hold it -- I'm always letting strange men hold my hand  ;-) -- and it seemed to comfort him. Several minutes went by in which we still couldn't get him to talk to us, so we decided to try and reverse some of the medications he had been given, thinking he might be having an adverse reaction. It is so difficult sometimes caring for the wounded, because you don't know if their reactions are physiological or psychological or a combination of the two. Some days, the best you can do is punt and hope it all works out.

Little by little my patient seemed to come around, but still wasn't quite right. There were things I needed to do with his recovery and wound care, but when I tried to disengage my hand from his, he wouldn't let go. No matter how hard I tried, he refused to let go of my hand. No amount of reasoning, comforting or even pleading would convince him to turn me loose. Finally one of the anesthesiologists pried his fingers from mine. As the reversal medications took affect he was able to start speaking. He learned my name and started asking me to come close to him, to give him my hand. He called to me over and over again, saying my name, stretching out to grab my hand, coat, scrubs -- anything within reach, and I had to watch that I wasn't within touching distance. As time went by he became more and more agitated, kept yelling at me to come near the bed, to hold his hand. We (another RN and I) finally took him to the ICU as there was nothing more to do for him in the recovery room, and his yelling was upsetting the other patients. But he did not want to leave the recovery room.

If you can picture it, it was comical to see two nurses rolling this hospital bed down the hallway with the patient yelling, "No, I don't want to go. I want to stay with you. Where are you taking me? I'm not going, do you hear me? I am not going!" We tried hard not to laugh as people in the hallway came to a dead stop, turned around and stared at us. He kept yelling my name and asking me why I was treating him this way. As we rolled him into the ICU he looked at me and asked, "Why are you doing this to me?  Why are you dissing me?" He finally gave a huge sigh and then refused to look at me. I gave my report to the ICU nurse and wandered back to the recovery room.

When my shift ended several hours later I stopped by the ICU to check on him, and was told there was no change. I met and talked briefly with his wife, sister and mother. His wife asked me if I was the recovery room nurse, and when I told her I was, she replied, "He's been asking about you, and wanted us to go and find you."

The following day I returned to work. Halfway through the day the same ICU nurse came into the recovery room and said, "You've got to come over, he's back to his baseline." I followed him over and as I walked into my patient's room his wife said to him "Look who's here." He saw me and held out his hand, beckoning me to come closer. I walked to the bedside with a bit of trepidation, afraid that if I put my hand in his I would not get it back! Taking a chance I grasped his hand, and as I did he started to talk. He said, "I knew something was wrong but I didn't know what, and I didn't know how to tell anyone, and then I couldn't tell anyone. You were the only one who seemed to pay attention, who seemed to just know, and so long as you were at my side and I had a hold of your hand, I felt safe." The tears started to well in my eyes, and I told him, "You better stop, you're going to make me cry."

His hand tightened on mine and he said, "You are my  angel, you were there for me and I will never forget you." Needless to say at that point I did start to cry, the tears streaming down my face.

Over the weeks and months he kept in touch. Whenever I saw him he had to hold my hand and tell me he was glad I had been there for him. He was discharged from the hospital and headed home, and I did not hear again from him until this past week, almost two years later, when he called me. He told me he had been thinking of me, and his mother had asked him if he had talked with me and if he knew how I was doing. He said he felt he needed to call, so he did. We talked for 30 minutes, and after wishing each other happy holidays and him promising to keep in touch, we said goodbye.

I sat for a long time thinking about him, and about all the others I've cared for. I think I've finally been able to realize that I have helped them, that they do think of me, and while I may not hear from them ever again I did make a difference in their lives. 

Someday maybe I will be able to return to helping America's wounded, and I look forward to that day. In the meantime, thank you all again for your words of support and encouragement as well as your prayers. They are so greatly appreciated. To my fellow "bloggers", you are in my thoughts and prayers. Thanks for letting me share with you. Happy Holidays, and my heartfelt wishes for a healthy, happy and safe New Year.

MARY JANE |

December 27, 2006

MARY JANE
Name: Tadpole
Posting date: 12/27/06   
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog url: armysailor.comFramed_tadpole_pot_and_afn_soldier_dsc01

Afghanistan is well known for its poppy. I once read somewhere that it was responsible for something like 75% of the world's opium supply. I don't know how accurate that figure is, but assuming it is even remotely accurate, it's an impressive figure. What Afghanistan is not so well known for is its marijuana. It's my understanding that Afghanistan was a very popular tourist spot back in the 70s. I've been told it was especially popular with hippies, because it was a place that was inexpensive to visit (aside from the initial expense of getting here), and because drugs were plentiful and cheap.Framed_tadpole_pot_field_dsc01088_1

Because we are talking about hippies, I am forced to assume that this must have included some good ol' weed too. However, after the Soviets, then the Mujahadeen, and then the Taliban, I guess I kind of assumed that any trace of such activity (other than the poppies used to fund the Taliban) had long since disappeared. I mean after all, there is no major sign of alcohol in this country (it's here, it's just hidden), so I assumed that weed would be the same. Boy, was I surprised.

It's not too often that you come over a hill and see fields full of weed. Just growing, like we'd grow corn or wheat back home. There were clearly man-made irrigation ditches, and other signs that this was definitely a farm. The pictures say it all...

ROAD WORK |

December 26, 2006

ROAD WORK
Author: Eric Coulson
Posting date: 12/26/06
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Hometown: St. Louis, MO
Milblog url
: http://badgersforward.blogspot.com
Email: badger.six@gmail.com

Highway 10 heads west out of Baghdad, through the suburb of Abu Ghurayb, turning north briefly where it winds its way between the city of Al Falluja and the military Camp Falluja before it resumes it western traverse to Ar Ramadi. After Ar Ramadi the road swings southwest, rolling though open desert to Al Rutbah and then finally the Jordanian border. Today though, I am heading east, out of Ramadi towards Baghdad.

Highway 10 is a six lane divided highway that would look familiar to any American or Western European. It has seen better days, true, but I have seen highways in the US with almost as many problems. Green signs in Arabic and English point the way to various cities, towns, and routes. It is all so familiar, yet alien.Framedcoulson_windowtruckimg1589_4

One of my platoons is going to Falluja to support another element. I am going with them to check on their progress and see if I can make their life a little more comfortable. We move out of Camp Ramadi mid-morning. The Route Clearance patrol, like all Coalition Force patrols, brings traffic to a halt. After three years of war it is instinctive to the Iraqi driver: Do not approach a Coalition convoy unless you want to meet the business end of a crew-served weapon.

I imagine being an Iraqi driver: As I approach the entrance and exit to a Coalition military camp I hope that I am able to pass by without a convoy coming out; if I see a convoy coming out I let out an epithet. My trip is going to be much slower now. The truck blocking my way indicates I did not make it past the camp in time. It is going to take much longer now to reach my destination. I curse the coalition for my inconvenience and then shrug. Inshallah.

As we pull out onto Highway 10 I see a few cars start to halt. If they are going to Ramadi they will only have to spend a few kilometers behind us, however if they are going much further their choices are either slow down, or become imaginative in their use of the roads.

It is clear and cold. Hardly a cloud in the sky. We are thankful for the warmth of our vehicles. The mood is almost giddy. After several days of maintenance, this platoon is glad to be back on the road. The chatter in the vehicle revolves around what we see, gossip from the battalion, and anticipated leaves. My presence gives the Soldiers plenty of opportunity to let me know what is going on with them.

"You know what I miss about home, sir?"

"No -- what?"

"Being able to go to Blockbuster and pick up a movie."

"Or just being able to get up and go to the refrigerator," adds another.

"Just being able to walk around in my underwear."

"Or naked."

We all chuckle and look back out at the landscape, searching for possible threats.

"Is that  new?"

"What?"

"That gas station."

Sure enough, a new gas station is in operation along Highway 10. It takes up the space a small truck stop would back in the states, and is apparently serving mostly the ubiquitous orange and white taxis one sees everywhere. I recall seeing the early construction stages of this facility, but had thought it a long way from completion, if not an abandoned project. But here it is now, with a small hand-lettered sign in English, servicing at least 30 taxis and the odd private car. Signs of life in the local economy.

My attention is pulled back to the task at hand.

"We have a white rice bag with something in it, right side," crackles through the radio.

"Roger," says the platoon leader in reply. "Push up past the two vehicles in front of us," he says to the driver of our truck. "26 moving."

We find a white rice bag which clearly has something in it. I am reminded of the last time I went with these Soldiers on patrol and found an IED just like this.

The arm operator deftly moves the arm out to interrogate the package. Nothing happens as he pokes and prods. Finally, he decides to pick it up with the arm.

"It's light", he says.

He swings it out to the side so we can all get a better look and evaluate it from the relative safety of our seats in the armored truck. If it was high explosives, it should have fallen out of the rice bag by now. But that's what we thought last time.

"I'm going to shake it."

The bag bounces up and down until it finally falls off and rolls down the embankment and away from the road, harmlessly into the desert. Nothing.

"Clear."

"22 it's clear, nothing. Go ahead and push."Framedcoulson_windowimg1548_2

As we begin to move out, I look behind me and see the traffic beginning to pile up behind us. We are like a moving road crew. Except we have provided no way for the traffic to get around us. I don't feel bad, though. Proceed around us at your own risk.

And some Iraqis choose to go around us. They drive off the road to our left or right and make a wide sweep, using a combination of side roads and cross-country driving to get past. We watch the vehicles closely, but they pose no threat to us. They are simply people trying to go about their lives.

We are moving again. The conversation dies down, and we continue to scan for threats and contemplate the landscape. I see sheep herders with their flocks. I am reminded of the Navajo who tend their flocks on an equally hardscrabble landscape. I think of my mom and the landscape of Northern Arizona. People talk about how different we are from the Iraqi people. But mostly what I see is how similar we are.

We continue to roll, kilometer after kilometer, taking our time to scan our sectors, looking for that thing that is out of place. Conversation is limited, but we take time to grab something to eat from our various bags. Items from home are offered up and shared equally. My in-laws have sent a smoked and dried steak, an early Christmas gift I am sure I was supposed to wait to open. I offer some up to the Soldiers with me; not sharing would be the ultimate insult.The driver opens some nuts and we pass them around. A family of four out for a Friday afternoon drive.

Oncoming traffic offers a change of pace. Bus after bus after bus. They are flying flags, the flags of Iraq and various Islamic banners. Shia green and white for purity. I wonder if I will see the black flag for martyrdom. These busses with their banners proclaiming their love of Allah are heading south to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj. A point of entry on the far Southern Iraq border has been opened specifically for the Hajj, so the Iraqi faithful can fulfill their obligation, to at least once in their lifetime go to Mecca. The busses remind me of Americans on their way to see a football game. And why not? We have raised football to the level of religion in America. More the same than different.Framedcoulson_hwyimg1551_1

We are approaching Falluja now -- the next sign says "Falluja next two exits", or something to that effect. We pass over the clover leaf and see the Entry Control Point into the city. Big green road signs direct you to the Exit, or to Baghdad, Samarra, or Basra.

We continue to scan vehicles as they approach us or go around us. We look at old blast holes and other debris by the side of the road. We check here and look there. We find nothing.

Having passed the now empty prison at Abu Ghurayb we are approaching our unmarked turnaround point. Once we reach that point we block off traffic coming the other direction and move over, the long line of traffic behind us relieved to be able to resume normal speed. I wave to some of the people we have held up as they pass. Some stare coldly, others wave back, I hope recognizing that we have provided them a service, even if we have slowed them down.

The mission is almost finished now, just a few more kilometers. We continue to check junk on the side of the road. We would take an IED attack behind us very personally.

Nothing. Finally we enter Camp Falluja. Highway 10 is clear. At least it was when we got off the road, but the insurgency will be back at it again. For now, though, mission complete, and all Badgers safely in their den.

FRONT LINE FAMILY |

December 25, 2006

FRONT LINE FAMILY
Name: CH (CPT) Brad P. Lewis
Posting date: 12/25/06
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Sacramento, CA
Milblog url: http://chaplain.blogspot.com

I posted this piece on Christmas Day in 2004 from Mosul.  It was four days after the mess tent bombing there that took the lives of two dozen soldiers and civilians, and wounded many more:

Compared to recent days, today was fairly uneventful. A steady, cold drizzle ensured that this was quite possibly the muddiest and least comfortable Christmas I've ever experienced. For all appearances, it was not very noteworthy. But appearances can be deceiving.

From Bastogne to Baghdad, Christmas and war have always seemed to travel hand in hand. Soldiers from most generations have endured Christmas in the face of battle. And in the past 36 hours I have learned two very important lessons about Christmas, the nature of war, and the spirit of the American Warrior.

Lesson Number One ... war is unrelenting. Despite the fact that today is a national holiday and a time normally spent relaxing, opening presents, and watching or playing football, the fighting didn't stop.Throughout the day the drone of war could be heard in just about every direction. Whether it was an aircraft of some sort zipping overhead, the rapid ping of nearby gunfire, or the thump of a distant explosion, it didn't stop. War continues at a breakneck pace. Even in moments of relative silence it hangs in the air. There is no escaping the fact that we are in harm's way. Some more than others.

Lesson Number Two ... Christmas is unrelenting. Last night we held a Christmas Eve service in celebration of the birth of Jesus. In that service, I came to realize that the American soldier is indeed a unique and awesome individual. Despite the roar of mortars in the background, smiling faces sang "Silent Night". Despite the complete lack of greenery for miles, men of all ranks shook hands and sang "Deck the Halls". And despite being away from friends and family, our battle-hardened brothers joyfully sang "We Wish You a Merry Christmas". Men who look like they'd just as soon break you in half as speak to you, smiled at one another and hugged one another as wishes of "Merry Christmas" echoed throughout our little chapel. After the service we gathered in a small trailer converted into something of a theatre, to watch a Christmas movie or two and laugh together. Believe it or not, gifts were exchanged via Secret Santas and we laughed as men hollered, "Thanks, it's just what I always wanted!" upon unwrapping a bar of deodorant, or a ball cap, or whatever else could be found at the Post Exchange. Today has been no different. With each soldier I passed a hand was quickly extended in greeting as "Merry Christmas" hit me like a freight train. I think I've been patted on the back one million times today.

It would be easy for Christmas, and the circumstances we find ourselves in, to be an excuse to foster self-pity or to retreat into a shell of depression. However, our soldiers don't work that way. I am at a loss to express, today, my pride at being an American and my love for my brothers-at-arms. Because while I do not have my wife and children with me, I am nevertheless with family.

Merry Christmas

ON CHRISTMAS EVE |

ON CHRISTMAS EVE
Name: Doug Traversa
Posting date: 12/24/06
Stationed in: Kabul, Afghanistan
Hometown: Tullahoma, TN
Milblog url
: http://traversa.typepad.com
Email: traversa@gimail.af.mailFramedtraversaguys_2

On Christmas Eve, my hutmate Mike asked all of us in our side of the hut to sing some Christmas carols for his wife and daughter. He was going to record them on his camera, and send the file to her by e-mail. Of course we agreed, and tried to figure out a song the four of us all knew. We got it down to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" or "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells". Standing at the end of our hall (right next to Maj Apple's room, so only a single sheet of plywood would protect him from the audio onslaught) the Barbershop Quartet from Hell sang "Rudolph", then watched ourselves on Mike's laptop. I'm glad to say that I'm not the only awful singer in our group. I had pretty stiff competition.

At this point we thought it would be pretty cool if we could sing "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch". So we hunted the lyrics down on the internet, and we were all set. Yes, we did sing it, and yes, it was pretty bad. And that's being generous. In fact, Maj Apple yelled through the wall, "For the love of God, please stop!" The files were way too large to send, however, so Mike got online with his wife and daughter with a video feed, and we all crowded into Mike's room and sang both songs again. They seemed to enjoy it, which proves that love is not only blind, but also deaf. Framedtraversaxmasdinner_1

Yesterday we had our Christmas lunch at Central Movement Agency, the Afghan Army base where I work. It all started a couple of weeks ago, when Maj Apple was touring the new HQ building with the CMA Commander, Col Fatiullah and his staff. In the course of their conversation, Col Fatiullah asked when our Christmas Holiday was coming up. He didn't know much about it, but knew it was important to us, and they wanted to help us celebrate. We agreed to have a lunch together, all the ANA troops, officer and enlisted, and all of us, in their chow hall. SMSgt White headed up a team to collect candy and decorations. The morning of the lunch, Col Fatiullah came into our office and asked what we would like to eat. Maj Apple explained that we wanted to eat with the troops, and eat exactly what they ate. Col Fatiullah was nonplussed. HeFramedtraversalaurencard_1 wanted the lunch to be special, since it was an important holiday for us. We told him that in the military we all ate together on Christmas (and most other times too) and it would be special just to be together. So he agreed, and said all his officers would eat with the soldiers too.

The meal was a smashing success.  Everyone seemed to have a good time, the soldiers grabbed up the candy happily, and lots of people wanted their photographs taken. It was one of the best Christmas meals I've ever had. We really did feel like we were with family. There are more photos on my blog, but here is a picture of one of our centerpieces -- a card from five-year old Lauren, which says simply, "Please stay safe. Love Lauren."

We'll try really hard, Lauren. Merry Christmas.

PICTURE US SMILING |

December 23, 2006

PICTURE US SMILING
Name: CAPT Lee Kelley
Posting date: 12/23/06
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Salt Lake City, UT
Milblog url: wordsmithatwar.blog-city.com
Email: wordsmith16@excite.com

I wrote this a year ago:

Life doesn't seem to give you time-outs. Put your hands up in the shape of a "T," and the stress is not softened, the edges not blurred so you can sit down on the bench of life's sideline and just catch your breath. The clock doesn't stop so that you can better deal with whatever hardships or difficulties you are experiencing. Likewise, war doesn't screech to a halt during the Holiday Season. The enemy does not celebrate Christmas, nor do they try to respect it, the way we show deference during Ramadan and other religious observances. They don't circle December 25th on their calendars and scribble "Kill no Americans today" in Arabic. When you're in a combat zone, it's a little harder to get into the spirit.

But you know what? We have Christmas trees in almost every office. Some of us have little trees or stockings in our rooms, surrounded by presents in festive wrapping. Some offices are decorated more than others, and have wreaths with little Army figures rappelling from them. There are cookies and treats in almost every area, morsels of charity and love from the home front. Everybody is receiving care packages. Children from local schools in our hometowns have sent us beautiful cards. They adorn walls which are otherwise covered, for the most part, with matters of warfare, kill tactics and such. We are all eating way too much holiday candy. The stuff is everywhere.

When you enter the chow hall, there is a six-foot Christmas tree surrounded by big boxes that are wrapped as if they were gifts. The festive decor is way overdone, but that's what makes it so nice. Right now there is no such thing as too much America in Ramadi. Bring it on, we say. The metal support beams that line the chow hall are covered from top to bottom in wrapping paper. When you come out of the serving line and enter the area with the salad bars, there is Christmas music playing, and cakes that reconstruct the nativity scene, and cakes in the shape of snowmen. 

We are still fighting a war in a very deadly region. We are still focused. We work our shifts and immerse ourselves in the mission, and make the most of each moment. But we are completely aware of the spirit of the Holidays that is lighting up our home towns. We hum Christmas tunes under our kevlar helmets. We want to be there, but we accept that we cannot. Many of us will use an instant messenger service and web-cam, or a satellite phone, to see and hear our loved ones on Christmas day. Technology does shorten the miles, and for that we are definitely thankful. I know folks who are going caroling around the FOB. And I am willing to bet my next paycheck that someone will dress up as Santa Claus.

So picture us smiling, not bleeding. Imagine us laughing instead of staring at the desert sunsets wistfully. Know that while we are painfully aware of the drama of our present state of affairs, this hard reality, we think of you often. In everything we do there is the simmer of Christmas cheer bubbling below the surface. It is a good thing in a place where good people are living and fighting. We've spent most of our lives in America. And while it is difficult to fully remember the joy of Christmas out here, it is much, much harder to forget.

In the end it has to become just another day. But it is another day down, scratched out on the calendar. An emblem of progress, and a reminder to count your blessings, not your difficulties. We are 24 hours closer to finishing this chapter of life and returning to those things that we know and love.

One Christmas tree is pretty big. It has blinking lights, ornaments, tinsel, and candy canes hanging from it, and, in a nice dark touch that exemplifies the mood of war, a belt of .50 caliber ammunition placed carefully around the bottom. The multi-colored lights reflect off its brass casings. It's actually quite beautiful.

Thank you for all the support this Holiday Season. It means more than you know. Merry Christmas from Al Anbar Province.

MAN FOOD |

MAN FOOD
Name: C. Maloney
Posting date: 12/23/06
Husband stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Seattle, WA
Milblog url: http://www.corpsdjour.blogspot.com

"If you can't eat it, or you can't wear it, we probably don't need it." That's the directive from the CO.  So, what does my husband get this year at Christmas for being a good boy?  Well, let's look at the environmental requirements (not an easy task, may I add, considering I have talked to him once, for 10 minutes, in the last month):

It's the desert and it's cold.  You know, when you think about it, a nice lump of coal might not be such a bad idea! It could help keep him warm at least. I fret, however, that efforts might be misconstrued and seen as not in the spirit of Christmas, so I guess I'll pass.

Hmm -- something he can wear. Well, it must be green. And not Army green, but Marine green, because believe it or not, even their t-shirts have their own distinct shad of drab. I'd send underarmor or some kind of long underwear, but it can't be made from polyester or other synthetic fabrics that melt when exposed to flames. I don't want anything melting on his skin -- he's too young to need any sort of skin peel just yet. Maybe once he's a real "leather neck". What options does that leave me? A nice pair of socks. Good thing I live on base and have access to the right kind, in the right shade. Look out cutie -- you got a sweet pair of socks coming your way!

Now -- something he can eat. Wherever he is, I know he's eating MREs at least once a day. My husband doesn't have a big sweet tooth (disappointing I know!), but he does like Sour Patch Kids -- so those are in. My mom sent him some canned oysters out of the pantry last time he was in Iraq, and he raved about that. I am firmly against sending him booze; I hear weapons and alcohol don't mix, so that's out. My man likes MAN food, but pork is a no-go in the country, which means Slim Jims are out. So what's he getting? Oily stinky canned fish, all beef summer sausages, and a can of Cheese Whiz. Sounds terrible to me, but might just beat having to eat another unsavory MRE.

And that's about it. My baby has socks and man food coming his way. A few pictures of our house with the lights I put up, a note to say "I love you", and a promise to celebrate whenever he gets home.  Don't worry, sweetheart, Santa will find you, and we'll make sure that this Christmas is as merry as it can be. 

Salam. Peace.

MUDDY CHRISTMAS! |

December 22, 2006

MUDDY CHRISTMAS!
Author: SPC Ian Wolfe
Posting date: 12/22/06
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Email: iwolfe11@msn.comFramed_wolfe_tree_4

Since the rainy season started I have discovered that there are several different kinds of mud. At first I thought "How bad could it be?"  Now I know. The worst mud is the thick mud; it can add up to three inches to your height. This is good for most, but I am already too tall for anywhere but America. This mud is especially thick when rocks and gravel mix into it. When I arrived here at the end of the last rainy season, I wondered what all the ravines were for. They can barely carry all the water that comes down. They would make nice swimming holes if the water didn't look like it's chock full of all sorts of nasty bacteria. I am in the medical corp, which may explain my bacteria fear. The one upside of this thick mud is that sometimes a mission gets cancelled because it is too muddy to get to our destination village. Although I do enjoy the missions, it is nice to have a relaxing day.

The second kind of mud has been dubbed by some "chocolate mousse". It is the filmy, and yes, chocolate-looking mud. It sits on top of the dirt, and is not quite as irritating as the thick kind. The main problem is that there are very few places to walk here that aren't either muddy or flooded with water. When you walk, it splashes up on your pants. It also splashes all over as vehicles drive by. I end up stripping in my doorway before I go inside.

The third type is the frozen mud. I enjoy its crispness in the early morning. It is nice to walk on hard ground that doesn't collect on your shoes. The only downside is that it can be surprisingly slick. But I think It is the closest thing to snow we will get this Christmas. 

Despite being away from home and doing a job that we all wish was not a necessary one, Christmas will not be too bad. Most of us realize that we made the decision to do something when no one else would, and have made this sacrifice for the good of others. The people back home have recognized this and been great. I have never seen so much mail in my life. I think almost everyone in my group has a tree in their living place. American companies and families have been sending us tons of stuff to make our holiday season as good as it can be. We almost have too much. It gets passed around and shared with the entire base, and with the Romanian and Australian soldiers who are here with us.

Despite all the mud, danger, and being away from home, it will be a memorable holiday season. I am fortunate to be with the people I am serving with, and also to have so many people supporting us back home. Thanks to all the people who have sent their wishes, prayers, support, and packages. Maybe the mud will turn to snow.

WHY I'M IN |

December 20, 2006

WHY I'M IN
Name: Army Girl
Posting date: 12/20/06
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog url: http://desertphoenix.blogspot.com

"Why do you stay in the military?", my friends and family ask me, and I look at them, dumbfounded. I have to pause and stop myself from saying something really hurtful and sarcastic. There's a war going on. Two, in fact. There are people being buried in mass graves, children starving and women so desperate that they'll come up to you on the street and beg you to take their baby girls home with you to America. They single me out because I'm a woman. And despite my weapons, my uniform and everything we use for protection and intimidation, they know, they think, they want to believe, that their daughters would have a better life with me than they themselves can give them. They must sense that my heart breaks every single time I think about it.Framedarmygirl_drawing_1

I serve so that these women have the hope of bringing their daughters up without subjecting them to the kind of life they have had to live. Americans have it so great, and don't get it. Any one of those women could have been my grandmother, 50 or so years ago, in Korea, trying to give away her daughters -- a burden on the family, another mouth to feed, another dowry to come up with. I know that my amazing, generous, self-sacrificing and beautiful grandmother could never have imagined that she would have a daughter like my mom, whose strength and pride brought her through so many hardships, successes and struggles. Or granddaughters like my sisters -- giving, intelligent, and the world theirs to conquer. Or me, someone who despite everything and no matter how hard I try, will never be even one one-hundredth of the person she was. All I can do is hope to honor her memory by living my life to the fullest, whatever that entails, and holding on to that. Being true to myself, my heart, my dreams and what makes me tick.

It just occurred to me that of the girls that I'm close to here, one was born to Iranian parents (and she's served several more years than I have, and really cares), another was born to Philippino parents (and she's dedicated herself to this mission completely), and another is of Mexican heritage (and she's outside the wire as I write this). All of these girls are trying to bring to Afghanistan something more than what they have. I can't speak for them all, but I know that's why I'm in, and will stay in, this fight in one capacity or another, until my time is up and I've given all that I have to give.

THE BARD OF CAMP BLUE DIAMOND |

THE BARD OF CAMP BLUE DIAMOND
Name: SANDBOX DUTY OFFICER David Stanford
Posting date: 12/20/06

The Sandbox is pleased to salute frequent contributor CAPT Lee Kelley, and pass along the good word that he is featured as a "Person of the Year" in Time magazine's December 16th cover story. Here's the opening paragraph, followed by a link to the entire profile:

Framedtime_leepoy_profile_military
LEE KELLEY
The Bard of Camp Blue Diamond
By Lev Grossman

Captain Lee Kelley is 35 and hails from New Orleans. He spent 12 years in the Army without once being posted overseas, but that streak ended in June 2005 when he volunteered for service in Iraq and became a signal officer at Camp Blue Diamond in Ramadi. He has always been a writer—he has noodled around with a novel, done some freelance journalism. But it turns out he had to go all the way to Iraq to find his voice...(click here to read more)

BOREDOM |

BOREDOM
Name: SGT Brandon White
Posting date: 12/19/06
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Diamond, Ohio
Milblog url: http://www.gwot.us
Email: soldierboy101st@yahoo.com

The boredom is irreversibly maddening in this place, where keeping your mind occupied is the name of the game. And I am losing, miserably. It's like getting to level three in Super Mario and never quite making the leap over that gigantic pit of nothingness. I can see King Koopa off in the distance there, irking me on with his fiery nostrils, but alas I am unable to attack him. That is a mission for the ANA. I can only mentor.

I wish I could say we were in our seventh-inning stretch, but I can't, not yet. It is only month six. I sit out on the patio of our building watching a bird pick at the lone Christmas decoration we have emplaced, a piece of red garland perhaps three feet in length which bedecks our small camp's tree. Not a Christmas tree mind you, just a tree. How the hell does it live with the lack of water in this place? Man, I wish a mortar would land and take it out. Perhaps that would cure the damn boredom.

I wonder how my wife is doing. Are the bills being paid? I hate paying bills. I'm glad I don't have to pay bills right now. I know, writing will keep my mind sharp. But what to write about? I saw a local contractor washing his feet with the run-off from a running washing machine yesterday. He was using the hose that sprouted from the rear of the machine, hosing off his sandals as well. Now there's a story. How do these people wear sandals year-round? Wow it's cold out here.

I once again step to the edge of that pit, I lean out ever so slightly and try to make sense of the black nothingness below. All at once the old familiar images begin flashing in rapid succession in my mind, like a warm hand on my shoulder encouraging me on into insanity. I see a fly-covered corpse lying in a sewage-infested culvert in An Najaf, black from the number of flies. I see an orange and white taxi with holes the size of tennis balls lacing its exterior. Inside, blood and bits of skin are splattered everywhere.

No, I can't. I won't go there again. I look across the pit. The princess is standing there. She waves a white hanky at me. I must get to her. I must leap over this pit, save the princess and collect my coins.   

ODD DREAMS |

December 19, 2006

ODD DREAMS
Name: Tadpole
Posting date: 12/19/06
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog url: armysailor.com

I have been having quite a bit of trouble sleeping lately. This has worked wonders for my ability to get a lot of reading and writing done, but it has not helped my physical condition. I have been exhausted due to a lack of sleep. I am seriously considering going to see a doc, but I don't want to be a whiner. I'll go if it gets too rough.

When I do sleep, I have been having really weird dreams. Usually about being shot at, or things blowing up around me, and recently I had a dream that I was walking up an extremely narrow pass, on an extrmely high rock wall, and I fell off. As in most falling dreams, before I hit the bottom I woke up.

Last night, though, I had an unusual dream that got me to thinking. I dreamt that I stepped on an old Soviet mine, and it blew me to kingdom come. When the mine exploded I woke up with my heart racing, and I was a little disoriented. Here's what got me thinking: I grew up in the 80s, and I always wanted to join the military. As a child I assumed that I would grow up and fight Soviets, and kill Russians. Of course, by the time I joined the military, the Soviet empire had collapsed and the Russians were our friends. C'est la vie. How ironic would it be if a Soviet mine did me in? Wouldn't that somehow seem strangely appropriate?

What is even stranger is that today a stray dog wandered into a mine field, and didn't get too far before he found a mine. For a couple of moments it was raining dog meat. An interesting phenomenon, to say the least. A buddy of mine was so startled by the blast that he spun around and locked and loaded. No doubt that if there had been an enemy there, it would have quickly become a dead enemy.

I'll tell you this, I have never been much of a religious man. And I am not overly superstitious (maybe a little). But there is one thing, and one thing only, that I will accept completely on blind faith. And that is a sign that says 'Mines'. You tell me that an area is a mine field, and I will believe you, no questions. Mines are scary things, and it only makes them scarier that they still work after all these years.

I'm just glad I wasn't the dog.

ELECTRICITY IS A CRUTCH |

December 18, 2006

ELECTRICITY IS A CRUTCH
Name: SGT Sack
Posting date: 12/18/06
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Omaha, NE
Milblog url: http://www.sackiniraq.blogspot.com
Email: sack77@cox.net

The weather here in Iraq has been phenomenal of late. Back home I'm sure you are familiar with the term Top 10 day. I would say that we have had roughly 40 Nebraska Top 10 days in a row at lovely LSA Anaconda. The high has been around 65 or 70, with very little breeze, and sunny. It really doesn't get much better in my book. The low has been between 35 and 40, but by the time it cools off I'm tucked away in my cozy twin bed in my 10x12 slice of heaven with the heater set on 70 degrees, dreaming sweet dreams of ribeyes, blue n' chromes, and my wife and son.

That's how it was until Saturday afternoon when, for some unknown reason, we lost power to the whole base. This has happened before, and usually it comes back on within a few hours. The office has its own generator, so work of course doesn't stop, but our hootches were out of power and therefore without heat and lights. By 10 o'clock we were a little worried. The blanket that I use is really thin (to minimize packing space) so I was seriously doubting its ability to keep me warm. I actually dug out my Army-issued sleeping bag, which turned out to be a smart move that some of my lazier co-workers later regretted not making, though I fully anticipated that in the middle of the night the power would kick back on and all would be well. I drifted off to sleep without my usual TV shows to keep me company, cursing the horror of it all. Don't let anyone tell you different, life in this man's Army isn't always easy.

The worst part was waking up in the morning. I was actually pretty warm, snuggled up in my cold-weather sleeping bag, but at 0600 the temp in my trailer was about 40 degrees. I think I could even see my breath. Getting dressed was painful, as my clothes were also about 40 degrees. I hightailed it to the office so I could bring my core temp back to 98.6. I even broke out the black fleece coat, which is affectionately referred to as "the bear suit". Of course my buddies all made fun of me for wearing a coat, but that was to be expected, and I would have done the same thing had someone else showed up dressed like I was.

I headed down to church at 0845. While SSG Johnson was on leave we had to rearrange our schedule to cover the office, and I hadn't been to Sunday service in around a month, so it was good to get back. Of course there was no power at the chapel either, which means no lights and no heat. Framed_sack_atrium_229I should back up a minute and describe the chapel. Many of the buildings that we are "borrowing" from the Iraqis here on Anaconda are hardstand buildings that were already here. The original design usually has three wings, with an outdoor atrium in between each wing. Imagine a capital E on its side. We are always short on space, so many of the buildings have had the atriums converted into rooms to allow for more office space. If there is one word you could use to describe soldiers in Iraq, it would be "industrious". A tic tac, a toothbrush, and some bailing wire and you have yourself an office. Or a bomb, depending on the joe that is in charge.

Our Squadron chapel is in one of these converted atriums, so it is essentially a plywood room. There are other chapels on the base that are actual buildings, but we inherited this one, and we are the Cav, so we don't like to have nice things anyway. The accommodations could best be described as Spartan, really just a few chairs and a pulpit. Normally the lyrics to the worship are shown on a laptop, as the projector that we have is famous for shutting down in the middle of a song and then taking 10 minutes to warm back up.

We normally keep it pretty basic, but adding in the lack of heat, lights, and words, this past Sunday was especially bare bones. The door was left propped upon, so in addition to no heat we had a nice breeze as well. At this point I was glad that I had endured the wrath of the mighty S1 and put on my fleece, as I would have been freezing without it.

The message for the day was from Haggai. From chapter one: Then the word of the LORD came through the prophet Haggai: 4 "Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?" 5 Now this is what the LORD Almighty says: "Give careful thought to your ways. 6 You have planted much, but have harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it."

The Chaplain discussed how the temple had been destroyed, and rather than rebuilding it, the people instead worried about rebuilding their homes first. Wrong answer, said God through Haggai. The people were so busy about taking care of themselves, they had neglected the one who could provide for all their needs. I know this has been true in my life multiple times. Once I graduate from college, then I'll be happy. Or once I buy a new car or house. Or get married. Or have a kid. Or insert whatever here. But those things come and go, and guess what? The car gets a dent and loses that new car smell. The house isn't quite big enough for your family. Marriage and parenthood are rewarding but an awful lot of work. Same with the new job and the new salary.

Apart from God, these things are for the most part meaningless. In and of themselves, there is nothing wrong with having a nice home or a good career, in fact we are told to work hard and be good at what we do. But sitting in Iraq in a plywood chapel with a handful of soldiers, a guitar, a Bible, and no heat or light, I was struck by how fulfilled and how happy I am with my life. I miss my family so much that I can't stand it some days, but my wife and I have the strength of the Lord to get us through it. I know that God has a plan for my life, and for a reason that only He knows it currently involves me being half a world away. And that is okay with me. Romans 8:28 says: And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose. Think about that. Are you working on rebuilding your house while God's house is still broken?

Thankfully, this story has a happy ending. After four days of no power, they've got everything fixed and we once again have lights, heat, cable, and PS2. And I got a great reminder on God's love for us, and his faithfulness to see us through any situation.

TWO VERY DIFFERENT CONFLICTS |

December 15, 2006

TWO VERY DIFFERENT CONFLICTS
Name: Grunt MP
Posting date: 12/15/06
Stationed in: Southern Afghanistan
Hometown: Western Massachusetts
Email: gruntmp31a@hotmail.com

The responses to my post/memorial to my fallen comrade, Scott Lundell, and the responses to others posts on this blog, brought to my attention the fact that many people have a difficult time differentiating between Iraq and Afghanistan, and the very different reasons for entering into these two very different conflicts. I implore you to arm yourself with knowledge. Below you will find a reading list that I put together before I came here (to Afghanistan) so I would better understand the land, conflict, history and people I was about to spend a year of my life involved with. I hope this list will help all those who seek some insight into the complexities of these conflicts.

BOOKS PERTAINING TO AFGHANISTAN

Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the Fall of the Taliban, by Stephen Tanner
        This was the first book I read specifically about Afghanistan, and it is probably one of the best history books I have ever read. It's well written and extremely informative. If you only read one book on this list, read this one. But I strongly suggest you read at least two.

Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, by Steve Coll
        If you only read two books on this list, make this the second. It will give you insight into Afghanistan, our reasons for being here, and the history of our involvement here.

Charlie Wilson's War, by George Crile
        This reads like a fiction thriller but it's all true. I can't tell you how much fun it was to read. You won't want to put it down. It's a good-sized book, but you'll fly through it. It's an excellent source of information on how the US supported the Mujaheddin during the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan.

Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda; A Personal Account by the CIA's Key Field Commander, by Gary Berntsen and Ralph Pezzullo
        This book starts off a little like a chest-pounding, machismo spy thriller, but settles down very quickly and is very informative. For me, what was really amazing was finding out that one of the candidates whom I was a TAC Officer for this past January-February, before mobilizing, was on the first Special Forces ODA team.

Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda, by Sean Naylor
        A very good book about the biggest US engagement in the Afghan war, the strategic mistakes made by higher echelons of the military, and how disconnected they and their civilian counterparts and bosses are from the commanders and troops on the ground. It makes a good argument for the necessity of artillery on today's modern battlefield, and describes the extensive problems with Joint Forces Operations that result in military bureaucracy. This book really pissed me off at times, and some things still haven't changed. It has some amazing stories of heroism and tragedy.

This Man's Army: A Soldier's Story from the Front Lines of the War on Terrorism, by Andrew Exum
        Not as riveting as some of the other books, but Andy Exum was an Infantry Platoon Leader (2LT) when 9/11 happened, and his platoon was involved in the tail end of Operation Anaconda. What I found very interesting and inspiring is what he chose to do when he left the Army, and his feelings towards our generation's commitment to this region in the future.

Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, by Ahmed Rashid
        I started to read this right before leaving for here and have yet to finish it, but I will complete it in the next month or so. I think this is the most informative and honest account of the Taliban and how they came into existence. It has opened my eyes, and has given me a clearer picture of my enemy and how we should be fighting them if we really want to win and rebuild Afghanistan.

The Places In Between, by Rory Stewart
        Rory Stewart walked across Afghanistan in January of 2002.  This is his personal account. It's a wonderful story, an easy and enjoyable read.  I recommend this as a supplement to these other books because of his cultural and historical knowledge of Afghanistan, which he had prior to his journey.

Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia, by Ahmed Rashid
        An amazingly informative writer, his books are probably the most information-dense volumes I have ever read.
Although this one is just over 200 pages long, it took me longer to read than any of the others on the list. Being from Pakistan, with regional contacts, he was able to get in and meet people to a degree I think would be impossible for a Western writer. It deals with the five countries north of Afghanistan: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. It gave me a greater understanding of the reasons for the rise of Militant Islam in this region, and how it has affected and could affect Afghanistan.

BOOKS ON THE EVENTS THAT LEAD TO 9/11

Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror, by Richard Clarke
        This is a very well-written explanation of the events/reactions within the White House over the four presidencies that led to 9/11.

Through Our Enemies' Eyes: Osama Bin Laden, Radical Islam & the Future of America, by Michael Scheuer
        You won't find a better or more informed writer when it comes to Osama Bin Laden. I appreciate his honesty and his comparisons, which bring home to the reader what Osama Bin Laden means to so many Muslims, and the brutal and multi-pronged attack the West needs to make if we are going to win this war. It will open your eyes and make you realize on a truly visceral level that we are at war with Al Qaeda, and more broadly with militant Islam, and that they fired the fist shots long before 9/11. Read this before Imperial Hubris.

Imperial Hubris: Why The West Is Losing The War On Terror, by Michael Scheuer
        Michael Scheuer was the lead guy on the CIA's Bin Laden unit, and this book is the follow-up to Through Our Enemies' Eyes.  It changed the way that I view Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and US Middle Eastern policy.  Read Through Our Enemy's Eyes, 2nd Edition first, then this.

BOOKS PERTAINING TO IRAQ

No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah, by Bing West
        This book will bring you the bloodiest battle of the Iraq War in amazing, heart-wrenching detail. It also does a very good job of tying in the political/higher command missteps that could have headed this off in the spring of 2004. This book made me cry.  Semper Fi.

The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier's Account of the War in Iraq, by John Crawford
         My generation's The Things They Carried.  This book will give you a better understanding of what infantrymen, who are mostly very young men, are like, and what their day-to-day lives in a combat zone are like. I really related to this book on a lot of levels. It also demonstrates how misused and abused the National Guard was in the beginning of the Iraq war, though it has gotten better since. It disgusted me how this kid's unit was treated.

A BOOK FOR GROWTH AND UNDERSTANDING

Fools Rush In: A True Story of Love, War, and Redemption, by Bill Carter
        This book is not about Afghanistan. It's about Bill Carter's journey to Sarajevo in the middle of the Bosnian War. This is some of the most amazing writing I have ever read. This book will kick you in the stomach with its honesty and colorfully descriptive writing. I have never read someone who can describe love and loss as well. If it doesn't bring you to tears, or almost bring you to tears, you're not human. 

IF YOU'RE INTERESTED

Bear Went over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan, by Lester W. Grau

The Other Side of the Mountain: Mujahideen Tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War, by Ali Ahmad Jalali & Lester W. Grau

These last two books are very dry and repetitive, and were both written to give military staff officers a better understanding of the tactics of the Soviets and the Mujahideen. They use short story formats with diagrams. I am a huge military history buff, but I couldn't get through more than two chapters of The Other Side of the Mountain. So if you need something to aide you in falling asleep, then these are wonderful companions/tools. But I felt I should include them, just in case there's someone out there with a real craving for the information.

ALARM CLOCK |

December 14, 2006

ALARM CLOCK
Name: SGT "Roy Batty"
Posting date: 12/14/06
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Yellow Springs, Ohio

The ocean is deep, shadowed dark, full of the keening whispers of whale song and the lunar musing of the tide. I swim mindlessly in the liquid womb of its embrace, the half-felt shadows of distant sharks sliding over the sun-dappled pillars of light above, undulating. Life is safe, unseen but bodyfelt, bloodwarm and thick with the musk of sleep, and I clutch at it, slowly, like a sleeping infant at his mother's breast. The blind comfort of nipple dreams.

NOISE, deep, sharp, more felt than heard. The wooden barracks thrums twice, buckling and then springing back into place. I am thrown from my bed, the stuffed animals that my wife keeps sending me flying wildly, eyes bulging and felt paws flailing, into the tiny space I call home. I don't know if the local detonation of high explosives actually flings you around, or if it is some incredibly fast autonomic response sparked from the recesses of your reptilian brain, but it is impossible to lie still when it happens.

Clearly, this is Rustimayah, and we are under yet another mortar/rocket attack. The good thing about being in the Army in Iraq is that you are always in uniform, even when asleep, which means that one can usually run to the bunker without having to suffer the embarrassment of public nudity, and the subsequent hilarity among your comrades-in-arms. Unless one runs straight into the camouflage poncho strung across your four square feet of living space, falls down, and flails on the ground like a stunned porpoise in a fishing net.

Which is exactly what I did.

Extricating myself from the eager folds of my plastic curtain, I sheepishly realized that this was not Rustimayah, but our four-star accommodations at FOB Shield, and since there were no follow-up explosions, we were not getting mortared. Must be a VBIED--a car bomb.  A big one.

In any case, I was awake, and there was no sense in going outside unprepared. I grabbed a can of Starbucks DoubleShot and a pack of Camels, and wandered out to find out what the hell was going on.

The dusty patio in front of our dilapidated barracks was full of the usual flares of post-blast cigarettes, and the hasty stories of perturbed soldiers. All of the civilians had frozen in place and stared, but, fresh from the joys of Camp Rusty, our MPs had collectively done the 360 spin-in-place and headed for the nearest bunker. A thin mushroom cloud, drab and brown with atomized sand and smoke, rose from the western side of the perimeter.

There was a lot of talk about what it might have been. Some of the officers authoritatively announced that it was an IED, down on Route Wild. Others, NCOs like me, were sure it was a VBIED. It looked to be like it was in the market area two blocks from us, the same place that was hit by three simulataneous VBIEDs just a few days ago. Either way, it was huge -- somehow this single blast was louder than those three. We watched the smoke cloud to be sure. If it was just an IED, it would quickly dissipate. If it was a car bomb, it would smolder and burn for some time.

Over the wall, there was a sprinkled crackle of gunfire, along with the distant wailing of police and ambulance sirens. I wondered for a minute if this was a coordinated attack, until someone noted that the IPs were clearing traffic in their normal way, by shooting at the cars. That's not an exaggeration, that really is how the police clear traffic here -- by shooting at you. It sounded as if every cop in Baghdad was making their way to the scene, which probably wasn't far from the truth.

The mushroom cloud slowly faded in the chilled blue of the early morning sky, a burnt offering sent back to Allah as it was intended. It was gradually replaced with thin streams of jet black smoke, trickling up from the secondary fires in the square. Yep, I was right. A VBIED. Trapped by the early morning convection layer, the smoke hugged the dull brown skyline of the city, spreading slowly southward like ink in a glass of water. I watched the vapor with curious distaste; it seemed more fluid than smoke -- black, thick, viscous. Evil, as if it was imbued with everything that is wrong with this country; hatred, petroleum, and the smell of burning human fat.

After a bit, people wandered off to continue doing whatever they had been up to before the Big Boom. Guys trudged by with towels and ditty bags, headed for the shower. Squads, headed out on mission, went back to their trucks to tinker with their obstinate mounts. IPLO civilians drifted off to the chowhall for breakfast. The rest of us stood and drank our coffee and sucked on our cigarettes, watching the smoke, quietly.

It's interesting to watch people trying to be normal in the aftermath of a fundamentally disturbing event. A few blocks away, corpses were littering the blackened asphalt of a city square, burning. Ambulance crews would be arriving and trying to find the wounded amongst the debris and the dead. But not us. It was someone else's job, and there really wasn't anything to do here but carry on with the mundane details of the still alive. So, we all walked around and fiddled with our gear or stood and tried to make small talk through clenched jaws; but all the voices were a little too loud or a little too quiet, and the people walking by tended to look down at the gravel a little too intently, with the occasional anxious glance towards the shrouded sky, or the perimeter wall that seemed just a little too close.

After a bit, Fish and some of the other guys went inside to see if they could find out what happened, via the Internet. Astonishingly, only 20 minutes or so after it happened, the attack was already on Yahoo. The blast was in Tayaran Square, not in the market area as I had guessed, but about a block west of it. The square is right in front of one of the bridges to the Green Zone, and I had driven through it and across that bridge only yesterday. Now Yahoo was saying that 23 people had been killed, and a hundred or so wounded. The number would be sure to rise.

Eventually, I have to go off in search of gainful employment. We have a critical "distro" run to make, shuttling administrative papers from one FOB to another. As we are gearing up and preparing to leave there are a couple more explosions, which eventually turn out to be pyromaniac EOD teams blowing up suspicious banana boxes out on the highway. Getting dressed and squaring away the truck to roll out of the gate is a curious exercise, in light of this morning's reveille. It's all down to a set routine now, and I hold to the sequence faithfully, as if that act of contrition will somehow save me from swerving too close to the wrong white and orange taxi cab. I strap on my $70 WileyX assault gloves and slip on my Peltor headphones in the solemn hope that they will fend off the combined demons of Wahabism and plastique.

Through group consensus, we decide to go against the usual tactic of driving at a stately 15 mph along our route, and instead careen at high speed through our chores, scattering civilian vehicles as we go. I feel protected and comfortable in my high-speed gear amid the bolted-on armor of the HMMWV, although I know it is an illusion. We do whatever we can to help protect ourselves, but in the end, if it is your time to go, then you're going. I notice myself absentmindedly swearing, out loud, at the local drivers as we pass them.

At the Rustimayah PX I score another case of DoubleShot, and reluctantly buy a pirated Xbox from the kaffiyah'd bandit at the base hospital store.  My old game finally collapsed in a dusty corner of the barracks a week ago, its mouth cracked open permanently, another victim of the choking Iraqi sand. The new one is all sleek and plastic wrapped, boasting a bootleg chip which plays every kind of VCD known to mankind, including, inexplicably, ancient Sega Genesis games. Maybe there is a remote clan of Genesis-enthralled Bedouin tribesmen out there in the wasteland somewhere, snapping these things up as fast as they are churned out. All I know is that this new beast bellows wailing Arabic music at me every time I turn the damn thing on. Oh well. As long as I can play Need For Speed, I'll be okay.

There's nothing like pulling out into Baghdad traffic with your trunk full of expensive and newly purchased toys to make you pray extra hard not to get hit by an IED. Never mind losing your legs; it would really suck if that carton of real Camels, case of over-priced espresso, and new Xbox got shredded by an Iranian land mine.

Eventually we complete our tour of eastside Baghdad FOBs, and return to our pleasure palace at Shield. Yahoo, still light years ahead of the military intelligence reservists across the street, coughs up the latest details on this morning's bombing. Seems that some Sunni dude rolled up to the square in his pickup truck, and got together a crowd of guys with promises of a full day's pay for some odd jobs. Apparantly this particular place is a known gathering spot for day laborers, mostly Shia men, looking for work. Once the scumbag had a good number of folks around him, boom, he blew himself and everyone around him up. Killed sixty-three people, and wounded over two hundred.

Take a minute to think about that one. Y'know, sitting here in front of your computer, catching up on your favorite blog, it's fairly easy to go "Okay, makes a sort of sense." But can you actually imagine it? I mean really visualize it, doing it? Not as the plot of some dumbass Tom Clancy book, or Hollywood's next blockbuster movie. For real.

Driving to work with a pickup full of artillery shells and propane tanks rolling around in the truck bed behind you. A detonator in your pocket.  Waking up, getting out of bed, knowing that you are going to kill yourself this morning, along with a whole shitload of other human beings. Oh, and not a military convoy, not a checkpoint or some general or a vital headquarters, at anything important like that. Just a bunch of ordinary Joes, looking for a couple of bucks sweeping out somebody's garage. And then actually doing it.

Baghdad averages three car bombs a day.

One other interesting thing about yesterday. It's eight p.m. or so, I am sitting outside, smoking a cigarette with my friend, Phil. Phil is sipping on his ritual Coors beer. He has one every night, after chow. It doesn't actually have any alcohol in it, since such immoral things are disallowed in George W.'s Puritan militia, along with pornography, sex and tight-fitting civilian clothes. Or any civilian clothes, for that matter. Phil just drinks it because it helps him to remember home. That, and the hope that someone at KBR will screw up and let a real one through the supply channels.

So we're sitting there, enjoying the crisp dusk, when every single person in the Greater Baghdad Metropolitan Area with a machine gun starts shooting. Seriously.... Every single one. The sky is full of tracers. It looks like CNN footage from the opening of the first Gulf war, only not in shiny nightvision green. Black sky, red tracers. Badadadadada. We sit there, a Camel hanging off my lip, a beer can half way to Phil's mouth, agape at the sheer volume of metal suddenly appearing in the night sky in front of us.

Presently the FOB loudspeaker system cranks up and the Marine 1SG that runs the camp comes on, telling "All Hands" that the shooting is not a mass uprising against the infidels, as we all suspected, but celebratory gunfire due to a soccer game. Everyone not on mission has to get indoors, and everyone who has to be outside has to be in full battle rattle. Phil and I reluctantly move to the wooden double doors of the barracks, where we stand and watch the spectacle.

It seems that the Iraqi national soccer team is doing pretty well for itself at the Asia Games in Doha, and the locals are simply showing their appreciation for its latest success. Baghdad style, fo' shizzle.

Phil and I are standing there, talking about how stupid it is to get everyone indoors. It's not like our flimsy plywood barracks is going to protect us or anything. Still, we want to watch the fireworks, and don't want to go to the trouble of putting our gear on, so we just stand in the doorway and sip our beer and puff on our smokes, and feel cool.Batty_ak_47_round_iraq_041

Suddenly there is a sharp CLANG! between our feet, and a puff of dust in front of us. We both jump and spin back inside the barracks, shocked for a second, and then laughing. Not one, but two rounds have hit right by us. Our feet were only 8 or 9 inches apart, and one round impacted between them. Once the shooting dies down, we go out to investigate, and pry an AK-47 slug out of the metal grate in front of the door. One of our soldiers finds a PKC round in the sand a couple of feet further out. I'm not going to bitch about the FOB safety rules anymore.

You gotta love a city that wakes you up with a car bomb, and puts you to bed with machine gun fire -- for fun. Easing into the blue womb of my bed, I glance at my German cellphone, the one I use as an alarm clock, sitting on the plywood table. Do I really need to set it for tomorrow's wake-up?

EVENING REPAST |

December 13, 2006

EVENING REPAST
Name: Eric Coulson
Posting date: 12/13/2006
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Hometown
: St. Louis, Missouri
Milblog url: http://badgersforward.blogspot.com
Email: badger.six@gmail.com

It's that time again; time for the evening repast. I dread the 700-meter walk to the dining facility; the sun is down, a moonless, cloudless night, the chill wind blowing from the east, from Baghdad and Falluja. It will be so cold and dark; there is no external lighting on Camp Ramadi. Illumination is provided by the headlights of trucks and tanks, sparkling the mid-air dust that passes for sand, and by my small blue-lensed flashlight. In The Dogs of War, Frederick Forsyth wrote "The European soldier fights well in the dark as long as he has been well briefed on the terrain on which he will fight." Having made this trek over 100 times, I am well briefed.

I step outside, my black fleece pulled tight against me, thankful for the one sensible piece of uniform the Army has given me. As I expected, it is cold and dark; it matches my mood. I contemplate the events of the last week: the release of the ISG report; the death of the Major; the fallout from my blogpost; another ass chewing because one of my Lieutenants has come up with a different way to the fight the war, and some field grade officer does not approve.

Hunched over, I navigate down the wooden boardwalk my first platoon installed in order to avoid walking through the mud that forms instantaneously when the first bit of moisture appears. I drop off and take a short cut through the Texas barriers that surround our encampment. I snake through B Company's makeshift motorpool, and emerge near the Navy EOD tech vehicles. I briefly wonder about the Navy EOD officer who was evaced weeks ago, but I press on.

I reach the most dangerous part of my journey (aside from the eating of KBR food), a small depression marked off with Jersey barriers. Only experience and my close-in night vision save me from a twisted ankle. Having navigated that successfully I have only 100 meters to go to a road; it's a straight shot, but in the dark I still almost collide with Soldiers and Marines paying more attention to entertaining their buddies than to where they are going.

Now I am at the road; just as I get there I see a Soldier running by in PT uniform -- numerous reflective belts around the waist and over the shoulder. I shake my head, not knowing whether to admire the willingness to stay in shape, or the shear folly of running down the road in the dark, potential victim of an errant tank or up-armored vehicle.

A left and then a quick right, and now I am on the last stretch. Many vehicles and Soldiers, dust everywhere, Third Country Nationals. It is a testament to something, I don't know what, that people are not killed here everyday, in the chaos that it is.

Finally I arrive at the dining facility, the DFAC, the chow hall, the mess hall -- and a pile of dirt is there outside, indicating that Operation Jamestown is back in full swing. Work for your meal. Fill a sandbag before you can eat. The Marines in charge of this detail ensure that all comply, addressing the miscreants who fail to do their duty variously, according to rank: to the private,"Maggot get back there and fill a sandbag"; to the major, "Sir, excuse me.The Brigade Commander requires all personnel entering this facility to fill a sandbag prior to entry."

I charge to the top of Mt. Ramadi to grab a shovel. Filling a sandbag singlehandedly is difficult and I prefer to work with others, but my First Sergeant is on leave and my Lieutenants are all out on operations, so once again I am eating alone and have no one to assist me.

At the top of the hill I encounter Marines and a Navy Corpsman who invite me to join their team for this task. I thank them and point out that they should return with an American flag to recreate one of the most iconic of images. They consider this a capital idea, and decide to return later with the requisite flag.

Having fulfilled my sandbag obligation, I navigate down the long concrete corridors intended to protect hungry troops from incoming rounds. The darkness is made all the more extreme by the contrast when one emerges into the actual building, illuminated with the cold, bright glare of fluorescent lighting. I pull out my ID card and unzip my jacket, for the first time revealing my rank to various interlocutors who all of a sudden decide they need to stand at attention when addressing me. I thank them for their courtesy, and move to wash my hands while I peruse the menu.

Short Order? Main Line? I try to reserve Short Order for truly dire situations. Main Line has spaghetti with meat sauce or short ribs. Both are plausible dinners. I choose the spaghetti because they are offering garlic bread instead of the usual dinner roll.

Into the next room for drinks, salad, and dessert. Do they have any Beck's Non-alcoholic malt beverage? No. Diet 7-Up? No. Choices are limited. I settle for the regular 7-Up.

Salad? A good idea, but too much work.

Dessert? If I get ice cream, it may melt before I eat it. Who am I kidding? Sans conversation, I will shovel it all in too fast for the first drip to occur. My mother and wife would be so pleased. Vanilla, strawberries and nuts on top.

I move into the next room, a long hall where you cannot see the end for the mass of humanity. Where should I eat? The first two halls to the right have the news, but no one can never get close enough to really hear what the talking heads are saying. Besides, that is where I first met the Major. I will see her when I leave, no need to rush that. The first two halls to the left? AFN Sports, and try as I might I just no longer give a damn about professional sports. I decide to proceed to the end hall, where it should be quiet and I can have a moment of solitude.

I proceed down the hall. Navy SEALS to my left. I wonder if any of them were in the Discovery show I have watched numerous times. Blackwater and Aegis contractors to my right, all carrying guns I wish I had, and wearing goatees. But their contracts are tough. Nonetheless, the Soldier of Fortune is alive and well and I find some envy of them. SeaBees, Marines, Soldiers, and the ubiquitous TCNs fill the remainder of the hall.

Finally the last long hall on the left -- room for over 100, with fewer than 10 already there. Peace and quiet, just as I had hoped for.

With no one to talk to, my bland food disappears.The vanilla ice cream, made in Kuwait under license from Baskin Robbins, is the only thing of real quality. I contemplate how disapproving Badger Mom and Mrs. Badger 6 would be of my eating habits, but find myself unable to change them even for a moment. Eating is merely a necessity now, there is no enjoyment of an excellent meal well prepared and ready to be savored.

I am through so quickly that it is embarrassing. I should sit in repose for a few minutes; that is the decent thing to do, is it not? I wonder if I will be eating here for another 290 or so days. Will people start trying to wrap this deployment up in time for the 2008 election? Will we get extended to cover a final withdrawal? Will the Coalition pull out of Anbar?

Having given a decent interval, I get up and move quickly -- down the hall and to my right. I make the first left, and look at the news TV screen. They are discussing whether or not the driver of Princess Diana's car was intoxicated when he wrecked that car and killed her at the end of August, 1997. Over 9 years ago and we are still talking about this? With a war in Iraq and Afghanistan?

I quickly move on through, no time to dawdle. I am where I first met the Major back in October. I acknowledge her presence and move on. I push through the door into the cold air and empty my tray into a garbage bin. I have not eaten off of real china or silver since September. I pull my fleece back on and adjust my Patrol Cap for the walk back to Badger Main.

GRAFFITI |

GRAFFITI
Name: Adam Tiffen
Posting date: 12/13/06
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url: http://www.thereplacements.blogspot.com
Email: airbornejd115@yahoo.com

The dirt road cuts between two farms, dividing the fields of pale green scrub brush and tall willowy palms. On either side of the road, deep canals run north to south, the murky water slowly filtering through the muddy silt and reeds. A yellow brick wall borders the north side of the road, defining the property line of one of the small farms and curving outward to match the run of the road.

On the yellow brick wall, the black spray-painted scrawl in Arabic seems to shimmer in the afternoon heat. I turn to my interpreter, who is standing next to me with his hands on his hips.

“Spider, what does this graffiti say?”

Spider looks around briefly and then pulls his mask off.  His face turns thoughtful as he considers the writing. Finally he grimaces.

“It says, ‘May Allah bless the brave warriors and martyrs that fight the Americans in Fallujah.  May Allah bring death to all Americans and their lackeys.’”

Oh really.

I turn and walk a few meters to my HMMWV, which is staged on the south side of the road. My gunner is pulling security, but he turns briefly to throw me a questioning glance as I lift open the heavy hatch on the rear of the HMMWV. Rooting around in the trunk of the vehicle, I toss aside bottles of water, Meals-Ready-to-Eat, and rucksacks filled with gear until I find what I am looking for.

I walk over to Spider, and hand him a black can of spray-paint.

“Give me a hand painting over this shit.”

Quickly we spray-paint black lines vertically and horizontally over the Arabic. The propaganda disappears under a thin sheen of high-gloss black spray enamel. Stepping back and looking at my work with a critical eye, I realize that something is missing. 

Turning to Spider, I give him instructions. Slowly, a smile forms on his face and he nods his head as he gets to work, his can of paint flashing in the setting sun as it carves out bold, black Arabic letters on the yellow wall.

Satisfied with his efforts, he gives me a nod, and I turn and wave my right hand in a circle above my head, giving the hand-and-arm signal for the patrol to mount up. As the soldiers pull back from the road and pile into their HMMWVs, I can tell they are wondering what exactly it is that Spider has just spray-painted in Arabic on the wall. Getting back into my vehicle, my gunner leans down thru the hatch and grins.

“Sir, what does it say?”

I can’t help but grin back. Keying the handset for my platoon frequency, I answer the question on everybody’s mind.

“Alright guys, listen up.  It’s an old Iraqi saying.  It says, ‘We are watching you, and you can never hide.  Like the eyes of God, we never sleep.’ Signed, 'the U.S. Army.'”

THE QUESTION |

December 12, 2006

THE QUESTION
Name: SGT "Roy Batty"
Posting date: 12/12/06   
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Yellow Springs, Ohio

It is dusk, one of the few times of the day that Iraq seems like something other than the fifth level of Hell. The sky above is a pale cocktail blue, brightening to a washed-out yellow before sinking into a dust-brown shading of smog and sand just above the horizon. The air is cool, refreshing, now that the demon sun has dropped below the horizon, and the temperature is a balmy 100 degrees. A light breeze teases a half-hearted whirlpool of sand to life in front of me, and it dances across the road for a second before wandering off in search of another partner.

The moon is out already and almost full — a pale skull above the camp, the man in the moon’s phantom mouth silently agape in a voiceless scream. The locals have lit yet another trash fire just outside the perimeter wall. The thick black smoke, laced with the smell of burning rubber and human feces, curls and writhes in a thick, slow-motion band directly overhead, sliding greasily across the moon like a dusty veil over the face of a corpse.

In the distance, I can hear the faint crack-crack of gunfire, competing with a cheap loudspeaker wailing an Imam’s call to prayer. The sounds are utterly alien, inherently unfriendly, and yet instantly sum up being in Iraq — along with the choking punch of the acrid smoke in the back of my throat, the irritating rasp of sand in my boots, and the swarmy embrace of sweat-greased body armor.

I turn to my friend and say, only half jokingly, “Tell me again why we are in this country?” Phil just looks at me and grins thinly in his quiet way, and says nothing.

COMBAT ENGINEERS |

December 11, 2006

COMBAT ENGINEERS
Name: Teflon Don
Posting date: 12/11/06
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Milblog url: acutepolitics.blogspot.com

I am a Combat Engineer, one of a few thousand American soldiers lucky enough to be tasked with making a new mission work for the Army. That mission is route clearance. Remember those roadside bombs you hear about? Our job is to go looking for them, and destroy or neutralize them before they can hurt other troops or innocent Iraqis. It's a brand new role for the engineer corps, and one that can easily be likened to searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack. Given the odds we face, it's amazing how often we find the needle. I won't go into specifics here, but I will say if this were baseball, we'd have a damn good batting average.Framed_teflon_don Even better, we have the best equipment in the world for our job. Tanks have more armor and better protection against direct fire, but we can take a bomb blast in a way that no other US or foreign vehicle could ever hope to.

Whenever I'm talking to someone outside of my unit, the conversation always follows roughly the same pattern: They ask what I do, I tell them route clearance, they give me a quick glance to see if I seem okay in the head (like I asked for this job!), and then they tell me what a great job we're doing and how much they appreciate our efforts. Translation: "I'm sure glad it's you and not me, bro." It's one thing to go outside the wire hoping you won't be blown up. It's a completely different matter when you leave expecting to be blown up.

This mission is a good one for the engineers. It falls under the traditional engineer duty: clear the way for others to follow. We've always moved in front of the maneuver force, clearing wire, obstacles, mines, and now, IEDs. Route clearance is the job that no sane person really wants to do. I can see why; it's reportably the second most dangerous job in Iraq right now (after Special Operations), and yet remains one of the most important roles to fill. No matter. Engineers are right at home in the thick of the fight, far from home, doing the necessary but unwanted jobs. It's not fun, it's not glamorous, and it's nothing to write home about, but we can see the difference we make.

Essayons!

GOVERNMENT CENTER |

December 08, 2006

THE GOVERNMENT CENTER
Name: CAPT Lee Kelley
Posting date: 12/8/06
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Salt Lake City, UT
Milblog url: wordsmithatwar.blog-city.com
Email: wordsmith16@excite.com

A couple of days ago I went to the Government Center in downtown Ramadi. This is where the governor has his office, and the local tribal leaders and sheiks meet and do business. I drove down with my Battalion Commander, LTC M (the boss), and his PSD (personal security detail) which consists of SGT C and Specialist T. I didn’t have a mission down there, but the boss had been telling me I should come down with him sometime, for the experience of seeing the local government at work. I called and asked if he had an extra seat this day. He did. 

We did a convoy brief, then geared up and loaded around 1000. Once we were all in the vehicle, the boss looked over at the driver, SPC T, and the gunner, SGT C, and asked “Whose turn is it to pray?” He did not ask “Does someone want to say a prayer?” This was simply a given. They never left on a mission without a prayer. SPC T immediately said a prayer that was quick, tailored to our mission, and humble. I liked that. It’s a good way to begin a mission. It made me proud of them.

We linked up with another security element at the detention facility, where we picked up a detainee who had been "cleared" by the governor of Ramadi. Apparently they went to college together, the governor knew his family, and vouched for him. Our mission was to bring him down to the governor for a release, and also for another meeting with local leaders. We stopped for a minute at the gate to load our weapons, because once you are off the FOB, you enter a different world. No longer are you surrounded by layers of security. You are now in the red zone, not the green zone, and any atrocity or act of violence has to be expected. Ramadi is a city of half a million people who have been through a hell of a lot. First it was Saddam, and now years of being caught up in the crossfire, as it were, of that proverbial old battle between the good and bad guys. Change does not always come easily, and the citizens of Ramadi have been through many growing pains. And none of this even begins to touch upon the historical and religious implications of what they’ve experienced down through the generations. Ramadi has certainly been a nucleus of insurgent activity, but it’s getting better. We are dissecting.Framed_kelly_gov_ctr_vehicle_img_0039_1

I’m sitting in the back seat of a fully armored HMMWV, peering out at the world through thick bullet proof glass, scanning down countless alleys and on rooftops for anyone with a weapon, or anything that looks like a threat. By weapons I mean RPGs, grenades, AK-47s, land mines, suicide vehicle IEDs; you name it and it’s possible in Ramadi. I see children playing, adults standing around, and women walking down streets in groups of two or three. Most people watch us as we pass, a convoy of armored vehicles flying down the streets aggressively. SGT C is on full alert. Having the best vantage point as gunner, he's constantly re-adjusting his position as SPC T steers around obstacles. Out on the interstates, civilian vehicles see a military convoy coming through and they know to pull off on the shoulder, giving you a wide berth. But downtown, the streets are narrower and there are more obstacles. When you approach intersections, the lead vehicle sounds a siren and the gunners motion with their weapons for vehicles to make way. But sometimes you drive within feet of the locals. And you hope that the driver in one of them is not suicidal.

You have to go around big potholes and chunks of concrete blocking part of the lane. It’s not a good feeling, because all your training tells you that these are ideal sites for improvised explosive devices. In fact, as we drive past some of them, the boss and SPC T point out things like, “Oh yeah, this is where so and so hit the IED last week." The threat is very real, and you can sense it in the air. You can't think "It won't happen to us," you have to assume it will. Yet we discuss it in the same tone we might talk about last night's football game.Framed_kelley_gov_ctr_bldg_img_0045

Most of the buildings look like run-down apartment complexes, with rugs and clothing hanging from the balconies. Every empty window looks dangerous; every blind alley seems a threat. There are over half a million people in Ramadi, and the closer you get to the heart of the city, the more cramped they appear to live. When you get near the Government Center, you feel like you’re in bombed-out Beirut. For blocks around, the buildings are riddled with bullet holes from countless firefights between Coalition forces and insurgents. The entire side of a yellow three-story building, for example, has two-inch to 12-inch spots of bare concrete from bullets, like some artist's ghastly rendition. Huge chunks of buildings are gone, and others have collapsed in on themselves. There are Soldiers and Marines manning towers and positions that are some of the deadliest in the world, much less in Iraq.

Once we arrive, I’m told by the boss and the guys that we need to run from the vehicle to the door with weapons at the ready, because there are a lot of snipers and mortar attacks here. And so I run. Inside there are around 100 Iraqi men who are all somehow affiliated with the local government or trying to participate in the process. Some wear jeans and t-shirts and smile at you. Others wear elaborate headscarves, man-dresses, and sandals, and stare at you mysteriously as they walk past. We bring the detainee inside to wait for the governor’s arrival. We exchange nods and smiles. We greet everyone in Arabic.

I’m led into a large conference room with a 20-foot table spanning the middle. There are Army and Marine officers standing around in conversation with Iraqi men, as if they were getting ready for a corporate meeting in a skyscraper in downtown New York City. They seem casual -- cool, calm, and collected. Their body armor and weapons are stacked on a chair. They’re doing the grin and grab, the old handshake polka. But if you inspect further, you notice that for every senior officer in the meeting room, there are three or four heavily-armed Soldiers or Marines, completely alert and always aware of their surroundings. They’re lurking around the room, standing in hallways, scanning the parking lot. Weapons are loaded and it takes only your thumb flipping a little switch to change your worldview from safe to semi-automatic.

The governor’s office, while perhaps a little tacky by American standards, is pretty imposing. It’s a 50-foot room with a massive wooden desk. Along both sides of the room are ornate gold-colored sofas with gold cushions. There are nice little glass tables in front of them with ash trays sitting on beaded cup holders. The curtains are also gold. There are some fake flower arrangements and a small TV. The huge rug dominating the floor has many colors, but is laced with gold. Behind the governor’s desk there is an Iraqi flag, a small grandfather clock, and some books. We hear a small commotion, and realize the big man himself has entered the building. The governor arrives, and there are some formalities as LTC M works with some Iraqi men to have the release paperwork filled out properly and signed. Once it’s over, hands are shaken all around and the newly-freed detainee seems all too happy.

After the governor’s meeting is over, we run across the parking lot and into another door farther down the building, to visit a man I’ll call Mr. H. Mr. H is the guy who sets up meetings among the government, the Americans, and the tribal leaders and sheiks. He also has a big room, though not as ornate as the governor’s. He sits on one side, on a large couch, motioning for us to make ourselves comfortable. The boss, CPT G, our interpreter and I sit across from Mr. H. Again we take off our body armor and place our weapons on the couch next to us. There’s no need to wear them. Yes, we’re literally in the heart of the lion's den, but for the next hour or so, our purpose is more political, less combative. We're sitting with a colleague having a cordial meeting. Besides, SPC T and SGT C are out in the hallway, keeping an eye on things. And they're good at what they do.

LTC M begins by asking how Mr. H’s children and family are doing. Friendly small talk ensues. Mr. H thanks us for all the school supplies we've provided the local children. He says his own son came home with some, and was quite excited about it. Mr. H looks about 50, has very kind eyes, and wears a light green suit with a tan shirt. His shoes are black leather. As he talks, he holds his silver glasses in his hand, or unconsciously folds a single piece of white paper into squares. He and LTC M discuss the future of Ramadi, the recent mosque bombings in Baghdad, the weather, and some other subjects which I cannot address here. During the talks, one of Mr. H’s assistants brings in a few glasses and some bottled water. He places them on the little glass tables. We thank him. Mr. H seems very appreciative to have the opportunity to sit and talk like this. Mr. H tells us, through the interpreter, that he had a dream about LTC M and LTC Mac. They were all at Baghdad international airport together, and they were trying to get Mr. H to fly to America with them. We all had a good laugh about that.

The boss and CPT G have the air of men who are visiting a friend they see all the time, and I guess they do. They’ve built a relationship with Mr. H, and with others in this city, and it’s exactly these kinds of relationships that are going to tip the scales for Iraq. When Americans with good hearts and a just cause work hand in hand with the same type of Iraqis, the possibilities are limitless. At one point Mr. H's eyes seemed  a little wet, when he told us that he hates all the violence and he prays for LTC M and his soldiers, that we can all get home safely.

We eventually said our goodbyes. As I approached the door, Mr. H was standing near it. I stopped and motioned for him to go first, out of respect. He put his hand over his heart, smiled, and waved me through.

A few minutes later, we were saddled up again for the ride back to the FOB, the third vehicle in the convoy. We had to go out of a gate and make a sharp left before we could pick up speed. As we exited the gate, an RPG was fired at the vehicle right in front of us. I had my earplugs in and didn’t even realize it was an RPG, it all happened so fast. All I heard was a muted thump, and then I felt the tension as SPC T sped up, and SGT C swung his machine gun around. The gunner in the nearest vehicle started yelling, “I’ve got P.I.D.! I’ve got P.I.D.!” This means positive ID -- he had spotted the shooter. As SPC T accelerated, we heard the unmistakable sound of a machine gun firing at the enemy. This time we didn’t get him. He got away in the never-ending alleyways of Ramadi.

Less than a half hour later, we were sitting around a table in the chow hall talking and laughing about the whole thing. Not laughing in a childish, giddy way, but as men do when they live in a combat zone for prolonged periods. I don’t want to be over-dramatic. People see a lot worse than this every single day. But in a philosophical sense, I couldn’t stop dwelling on the fact that a man put a rocket-propelled grenade launcher on his shoulder, aimed, fired, and the thing exploded within 50 feet of our vehicle. We were the objects he saw through the sight on his weapon, as he squinted with one eye and placed his shaky finger on the trigger. I’m just thankful nobody was hurt.

I am humbled by so many Soldiers and Marines I work with out here. These men and women are truly incredible. But sometimes it’s the young kids that really impress me. For some reason, young twenty-somethings like SPC T and SGT C just amaze me with their professionalism, their upstanding attitudes, and their ability to live in this environment every day and deal with it so well. Age does not better prepare you for war, necessarily, but it perhaps gives you more life experience from which to draw strength when the going gets tough. These guys sit around the chow hall after an RPG comes so close and smile, let the adrenaline subside. It’s a good feeling, to be surrounded by folks with the wisdom to pray before a mission like this, but the mental agility to laugh amiably afterwards.

"What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us."  - William Morrow

PLAYING SANTA |

December 07, 2006

PLAYING SANTA
Name: A Nurse
Posting date: 12/7/06
Stationed in: a military hospital
Hometown: Illinois
Email: smknva@yahoo.com

As the month of December marches on, I sit here and remember past holiday seasons and the fun I had when, joined by other nurses, doctors and technicians, we all played Santa for our Soldiers and Marines. It brought me such joy to see the look on one Soldier's face when I walked in his room with brightly wrapped Christmas presents. He had lost both his legs when an IED exploded under the vehicle he was riding in, and at Christmas time he was bedbound and unable to leave the hospital. He and his wife had two little boys, one nine months old and one three years old. He and I talked about what he wanted to give each of his boys, and what he thought his wife would like, and then I went shopping. On Dec 23rd when I entered his room with the gifts, the look on his face and the gratitude he displayed is something I will not soon forget.

Over and over my coworkers and I were Santa's elves, finding a way for a wounded female Soldier to get a facial and a manicure, getting gift certificates for family members because their wounded Marines and Soldiers wanted them to have a nice dinner out. That was December a year ago. This year is different for me, and I'm letting my coworkers be Santa's elves. I'm tired, and my decision on whether to stay or leave wieghs heavily on me. I miss my Soldiers and Marines who have left the hospital. You come into my life and I let you into my heart. I am happy for you when you recover and move forward with your life, but it also makes me sad never to hear from you again.

I greatly appreciate all the wonderful people who have responded to my posts with incredibly encouraging comments. You will never know how much that means! If I can stay I will, and if I leave it simply means my heart is too broken and I need a little time to fix it.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY |

December 06, 2006

HAPPY BIRTHDAY
Name: CAPT Matt Smenos
Posting date: 12/6/06
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Santa Maria, CA
Email: msmenos@hotmail.com

The day before the day you turn 30?  I doubt I would even think about it if I were somewhere other than here, a tiny battle-FOB in the ice-locked December of another Afghan war. I walked to the gym to knock out some sit-ups and some cardio. I thought about how long I'd been concerned about things like push-ups, sit-ups, running, and fitness in general.  As a teen I'd been a swimmer, and kept swimming into my twenties. Those twenties that were about to end. Those twenties in the latter part of which I'd done very little swimming at all.

Fitness, as a concept, seemed to rise in importance in my mind only after the swimming had ended. Poppy taught me how to swim -- my granddad, the only other ancestor I'd known to go to war. He fought the Japanese in the Army Air Corps half a century ago. His big arms held me as I thrashed and paddled and learned what it meant to relax, let go, trust myself and float.  He's been dead for a long time, but his Army photo sits next to mine in my parents' house. People say we look alike. Broad backs (from swimming), broken noses and blue eyes. I remember how it felt when he finally let me go. I remember feeling my own weight in the water, and the thrilling confidence in my ability to stay afloat. Swimming became second nature after that. Second nature with a fitness side-effect.

When I joined the military, and stopped swimming, other measurements were applied to decide my fitness, my readiness, my worthiness. I grew stronger in these new areas, but it was never the same. "Swimming" was a game from my youth. I remember begging Poppy to take us, and the outrage of the "30 minutes after you eat" rule. Swimming was a reward. "Fitness" was a chore.

As proud as it makes you feel to max a PT test or break that bench-press plateau, there is no reward but the knowledge that you've passed for another year. How many years until it's over? What are we training for? As I cranked up the interval on my treadmill, as my legs burned and my capillaries screamed, I reminded myself that after this tour in the war zone I'm truly going to be fit. I'll do very well on my next PT test. Then it hit me. What's the point? If the PT test is to prepare you for war, and when at war you prepare for the PT test, they cancel each other out.

I miss swimming.  Swimming made me fit, but swimming also made me happy. As I mulled this over, trotting and sweating and going nowhere on the treadmill, I wondered if such thinking was a benchmark of maturity. Or was it a sign that I still have a lot of growing up to do? I think fitness in the military is meant to make more than hard muscles. It's a pair of strong arms to hold a young man up until he learns to do it on his own. Strong arms with a fitness side-effect. I looked around the gym as the treadmill wound down. I was alone. No one was there to see me train or measure my effort. It was just me, and what I wanted to do for myself.

I set the treadmill to a walking pace and relaxed a minute. I let go. I thought about turning thirty, and the next ten years. I wondered how many miles I'd run, or stairs I'd climb, or pounds I'd lift before my next decade gives me the slip. I thought about the other jobs I might get, if I swim off under my own power. I could do so many other things and still make a difference. I could do so many other things and feel successful. If it was all prelude and no performance, then why do I train?  If this war isn’t the experience that asks the final question of me -- Can I or can't I? -- then what am I waiting for? If it's all a race with myself, if I'm the only real judge...then I'd rather swim. On my 31st birthday, I'm going for a swim. This year is for me.  Happy Birthday to me.

MONGOLIAN JAM SESSION |

December 05, 2006

MONGOLIAN JAM SESSION
Name: CAPT Doug Traversa
Posting date: 12/5/06
Stationed in: Kabul, Afghanistan
Hometown: Tullahoma, TN
Milblog url: http://traversa.typepad.com
Email
: traversa@gmail.af.mail

 

The Mongolians moved in on our "street" so we have new neighbors. Today a couple of our guitar players were out with them playing music. So a bunch of usFramed_mongolian_3_1 gathered, and they took turns playing songs. The Mongolians sang one as a group that was pretty darn impressive. It was another one of those great Hollywood moments, if anyone makes a movie of life here. I enjoyed it immensely.  It's hard to believe I get paid to do this.


Hang with me through these next paragraphs. I am going to try to tie together a wide range of emotions and I don’t know how much sense it will make. First of all, I was deeply moved listening to my friend Doug’s description of how he was received when he arrived home. Many people thanked him for his service. Even those who were opposed to the war still knew the price he was paying. I am feeling more a part of that group of men and women who have been placed in harm’s way. Today the internet went out for several hours, and we thought, “D*mn, someone died.” Sorry for the almost-profanity, but that’s how we think, not “Darn, someone died,” or “Rats, someone died.”  Doug, Mike, and I all thought we had lost someone, and we started worrying about Drew, who might have been traveling back from his four-day pass. Thankfully, the internet came back on after a few hours (for those who don’t remember, whenever someone from Phoenix dies, the internet is shut down until the families are notified).


I've tried to imagine going home and going back to work at Arnold AFB after being here for a year. I could imagine sitting at my old desk, but feeling out of place. Afghanistan has really turned my expectations upside down. The measure of "a great day" is arriving home safely. Framed_cell_desk_1 "Spacious" is having room to open the shutter on my window, or being able to put a TV, computer, and coffee pot on my desk. My tiny room has been modified so much it has become almost an extension of my personality. My hut mates just laugh when I dig out the tools for another project. Time for another episode of "This Old B-Hut." Going back to the large rooms in my house will feel very strange indeed. I pretty much live in a tiny cave here, and it is oddly comforting at times.


I try to imagine doing peacetime work again. I was looking at the photo of me in full body armor, and I would never have imagined myself in such a situation, but now I suit up for combat when I go to work. Is that me in that photo? What will it be like to go to work without weapons, without armor? Will anything faze me after spending a year in a third-world nation, just hoping to make it home safely? I have known what is to go to bed certain you would die the next day, though mercifully I only experienced that once. It was not a good time, I assure you. Yes, it is I in the photo. I am part of the sword that is the US military. At 44 years of age, I can finally say I’ve been to war. My risk is certainly less than my comrades in Iraq, or southern Afghanistan. I have no delusions about that. But I am now part of that band of brothers who have been to a war zone.


Framed_new_body_armor_2 General Stringer, my commander back home, called this "Getting your letter for your jacket." The price is high: a year away from your family, a spartan lifestyle, and homicidal and suicidal fanatics trying to kill you so they can get their 70 virgins in Heaven. And being here pounds on your psyche day after day, until you change. I see it in my comrades. Some are going crazy with boredom, some find hobbies or take classes. Some play guitar, and I’ve passed them many times playing the blues (another great shot for the movie). Priorities change, desires alter, anger either grows to the exploding point or disappears in apathy or humor. But whatever happens, you are forced into adapting. Afghanistan will not leave you alone, nor leave you unaltered. It has happened with me. Life here is normal now; life in the US is a mythical paradise. Each day melts into the next, and soon the distinctions fade. I have a hard time remembering what day it is. I have calendars up everywhere. So I am "getting my letter", but it will be most interesting to see what that letter does to me. What matters to me, and what doesn’t, will almost certainly change. I imagine that petty things that used to bother me won’t even register. We shall see.

SUNSET |

December 04, 2006

SUNSET
Name: CAPT Lee Kelley
Posting date: 12/4/06
Returned from
: Iraq
Hometown: Salt Lake City, UT
Milblog url: http://wordsmithatwar.blog-city.com
Email
: wordsmith16@excite.com

Some soldiers take pictures of everything. Some just take pictures of what they consider unique -- things they don't think they'll ever see back home, like palaces, or Iraqi children, or themselves behind a .50 caliber machine gun looking like a battle-hardened steely-eyed killer. But it's interesting when there's a beautiful sunset. Framed_kelley_sunset_flag_7 I see a lot of my fellow soldiers pulling out their digital cameras to capture it, though pictures rarely do a sunset justice. Don't get me wrong. A sunset is a wonderful thing to behold, and even more so when it happens to take on colors and formations that really rest upon the retina with a splendor it's impossible to deny. But we've all seen thousands. And we'll presumably see thousands more.

It reminds me of the movie Smoke,  in which a guy takes a picture of a busy street corner in front of his smoke shop every single day at the exact same time for decades. When he shows a friend, the friend says "They're all the same." But upon further consideration, he realizes how poignant the photo album really is, and how each day is in fact unique, and he even sees some people he recognizes who have died in the years since the photos were taken.

Sunset out here can be like that. Most days, you don't even notice the conversion from light to dark. The light is irrelevant, its strength superfluous to what you're working on. But sometimes it catches your eye, especially one like tonight when the orange looks like melted copper spreading across the horizon in a river of floating lava, playing hide and seek with the moon across the smooth curvature of the earth.

Years from now, you'll look at the picture, and it will just seem like one of a million beautiful sunsets. But it won't be. 3_framed_kelley_sunset_tank It's a sunset from when you were deployed in Iraq, and it takes on a special meaning, carries more weight somehow. For the rest of your life, you'll probably never be in this place again, looking at the sunset from this perspective, either geographically or mentally. Others might look at it and say "Oh, that's pretty." But you'll know it was more than that. You will remember taking the picture on a particular day, and you may very well use the quality of life you had back then as a barometer by which to judge just how bad something really is.

The pictures will help you remember your combat experience, which I think is important, because once you've gone to war, what else in life can really match the endless tests of patience, courage, physical fatigue, sleep deprivation, stress, and camaraderie? I think we'll be able to handle more than we ever thought possible, conquer obstacles once insurmountable. Yes, the work is satisfying. But the experience of being here will be all the sweeter once it is an artifact of the past -- a conversation at a party, a dream sequence in the documentary of your life.

I took a lot of pictures today, in part just because I happened to have my digital camera with me. But part of it is the ever-growing anticipation that I will be departing this 3_framed_kelley_sunset_base eyesore of a base sometime in the next few months. I want pictures to help me remember, so that I can counterpose living on this FOB with life hereafter, making it seem eternally richer. Oh, it's not so bad. You make the best of it. You have food, shelter, clothing, "recreational facilities," the internet, movies, video games, books.

But let's be honest, shall we? The "suck factor" outweighs satisfaction. The cons kill the pros. Of course you'd rather complete the mission and be in your own home with nothing but a box of crackers and a bean bag pillow than live here with every amenity under the sun. Having a bad day, soldier? Think the world is being too hard on you? Just pull out your photo album from the year you spent living on a Forward Operating Base in the Sunni Triangle.

WHAT IT'S ALL ABOUT |

WHAT IT'S ALL ABOUT
Name: Tadpole
Posting date: 12/4/06
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog url: armysailor.com

At the end of the movie The Green Berets, John Wayne tells a little Vietnamese boy "You're what this is all about..." He was absolutely right. I cannot speak to the motivation for much of what we do at the political level, but I can sayFramed_tadpole_kids_girl_pink_final_5 that for those of us out here, boots-on-ground, every day, the women and children of this country are what it's all about. Each day that I see families living in the conditions that they are forced to endure over here, I am thankful that my own family is safe and secure back at home. Afghanistan has given me one great gift, which seems most appropriate for this time of year: It has made me very thankful for all that I have. When I rotate back to the world, life will have a far richer flavor.

Although I do sometimes feel resentful at my being over here, because of my separation from those I love, I have to admit that the resentment fades away when I look at these children. I feel for them. By what luck was I fortunate enough to be born in the U.S, or any first-world country for that matter? That alone is reason to give thanks.

THANKSGIVING |

December 01, 2006

THANKSGIVING
Name: SGT "Roy Batty"
Posting date: 12/1/06
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Yellow Springs, Ohio

Cinnamon rolls, golden brown, freckled with spice, hot and steamy, eager for the soothing caress of white frosting. On the morning of every Thanksgiving Day, my dad would get up early and make cinnamon rolls for the family. I would wake up to the house thick and sleepy and warm with the delicious smell, full of the promise of turkey and dressing and pies to come. Growing up in the Air Force, things were often turbulent, fractured. Thanksgiving Day was one of the few days of the year that could be counted on to be peaceful, a day to immerse yourself in the quiet joys of our family rituals. A day to put aside sibling rivalry and all the covert battles that are fought within a large family, a glorious day to do nothing but help with the cooking, watch the parades on TV, stuff yourself with rare and special delicacies, and loll on the floor with your brothers and sister and moan about how you ate too much.

It was perfect.

For this year's Thanksgiving, my platoon woke up at 0600, put on our PTs, and went out for a couple of hours of moving sandbags. Due to the casualties we took the other day, the Wise Old Men of the company have decided to relocate our bunkers to a closer and more protected spot. It's a great idea, one that I'm surprised no one came up with during the four years of occupation before we arrived. Huge cranes will be coming in to move the concrete "doghouses" that make up the heart of the bunkers, but the sandbags have to cleared off and moved by hand. Each sandbag weighs 30-40 pounds. There are hundreds, if not thousands of them, covering the three bunkers outside our barracks.

Curiously, there is something positive about the work; healthy, needed. It's dirty, dusty, and your shoes rapidly fill up with sand. Your shoulders ache after a bit, and your hands chafe within the thick leather work gloves. Yet after the last few days, it is good to do something simple, physical, and with a tangible, visible result at the end.

After a couple of hours of sandbag games, it's time to load up the trucks for the day's mission. Yep, no federal holiday here, it's business as usual, which means there are checkpoints out there just desperate to be evaluated.

Load-out goes smoothly, as usual these days. While grabbing my rifle and mission pack, I spot my digital camera, sitting on the little plastic shelf next to my bed. Should I take it along? Naaah, just some more boring checkpoint -- why bother? I do take the time to try to fine tune some things within the truck, though. Hook up a cloth bandolier under my radio speakers, so that I can store para-flares close at hand. Tie a line of 550 cord in C's turret where he can hang smoke grenades, so he can quickly toss them out to obscure a sniper's line of sight. Try to figure out how I can mount both a spare tire and a full-sized tow bar off the tailgate.

In the middle of my brainstorming, there is a high, familiar FIZZZZ overhead, followed by a large explosion behind our barracks. Rockets. Gotta be rockets.

Everyone runs for the bunkers, which are naked and bare; only halfway through their repositioning move. Nix and I just jump into our HMMWV. The damn thing has enough armor hanging off of it, surely it will stop most of the little pieces of metal that might be zinging around the parking lot.

More explosions crump their way randomly around the base, some fairly nearby, others farther away. I tell Nix to start up the truck, and if they start getting really close, we'll just haul ass for the other side of post. We joke back and forth about the vision that springs to mind, born out of adrenalin and some ancient Burt Reynolds movie; the HMMWV careening at an impossible speed, weaving madly back and forth down the dirt roads of the FOB, explosions bracketing it on each side, guard towers slowly toppling over as we dart underneath. We cackle madly at the thought, and light up our cigarettes. Ain't like there's anyone around to yell at us for smoking in a HMMWV right now.

With that, there's tap on the passenger door. We jump, and look at the window guiltily, feebly trying to hide the smokes. It's Doc H, looking haggard, flinching down a bit at a distant blast. We unlock the door, and let him in, and W climbs in behind him, and we all scrunch together so we can shut the thick armored door. I think about how ironic it is that we are in the middle of an attack and we are more worried about getting caught smoking in a HMMWV than being blown to smithereens by a Katyusha rocket. Until I look up, and see that the gunner's hatch is open. Nix tries to close it, but there is an AT-4 anti-tank rocket hooked to the back of the hatch, placed there earlier, and we can't close it unless we stand up to loosen it.

Fuck it. What are the chances that a rocket will land directly on top of the only occupied HMMWV in the entire parking lot? We go back to smoking our cigarettes, each pretending not to notice when the other sneaks a worried glance at the gaping hole above our heads. We used to not believe in unlikely close calls.

A medic runs by the truck carrying a bulging trauma kit. He's headed towards the center of the MP complex, at high speed. We don't think much of it at first, but then another medic runs past. And another. Doc sighs out loud. "Guess I better go, too." He grabs his backpack and takes off at a slow jog, his medic pack flopping from side to side as he crunches through the gravel, headed into the smoke and dust.

Medics. Gotta love 'em.

Nix and I sit in the truck, listen to the radios in an attempt to find out what all is going on, and smoke a couple more cigarettes. Eventually the "all clear" signal is given, and we get out, shrug, and go back to wrestling with the tow bar.

SSG T appears, in full gear, and gives the brief for today's mission, which is the same as yesterday's mission, and the one before that. He starts his brief as he always does, by reading the SIGACTS page, about significant acts that have happened in the last 24 hours. There've been something like 29 attacks in the Baghdad area: 15 IEDs, five VBIEDs, three snipers, six ambushes, as well as a handful of murders and kidnappings of local nationals. Even for Baghdad, this is a little high, but not that much. Most of us just tune out during this part of the brief; it is too hard to fully visualize, and too depressing if you choose to actually make the effort.

We finish the brief and make our final preparations to roll out. Doc appears back at the trucks. Someone from another one of the MP companies got hit, just on the other side of our barracks. Blasted with shrapnel from one of the rockets, doesn't look good for him. I say our usual pre-mission prayer for the team, asking God's help for each of us, just so we can make it safely through another mission. After leading the prayer, I grab my rosary and Nix's St Michael's medallion, hanging in their special place in the windshield. Dear Lord, please be with me.

He's always answered it.

Outside the gate, traffic seems a little crazier than usual. People don't seem to pay quite as much attention to us as normal, and C has to madly blow on his police whistle, pointing his 9 mil pistol at the closest and most oblivious drivers to get them to react. The strange thing about Iraq is that some people react more to a pistol than to a heavy machine gun. We're told it's because Saddam liked to show up randomly at various places around town, and if his pistol came out, someone was definitely getting executed.

Nix swerves the heavy truck at cars that don't want to pull over. We don't like vehicles moving around us. Best they just pull over, put on their emergency flashers, and sit there quietly until we have moved on. Part of it is our concern about VBIEDs, or drive-by shootings. Part of it, I think, is just aggression and anxiety, that and the desire to have some control over the insanity around us, any control -- even if it is just to get that guy with the red kaffiyah to pull over.

"What--the--fuck?" asks Doc, from the back seat, in his long, drawn out Virginia accent. "These people are on freakin' drugs today."

"Yeah, man, didn't you get the memo?" I reply, craning my head back from the TC seat. "It's DWI day!"

"DWI day?" Doc looks around C's legs at me, quizzically.

"Yeah, Driving While Iraqi!" I smile back at him.

"Sheeesh, more like Kill An American Day." mutters Nix, hunched down behind the driver's wheel.

"Every day is Kill An American Day......." My voice trails off, and I turn back to the windshield. C whistles shrilly above us, in the gunner's hatch, and swears under his breath at some errant motorist. I rest my case.

Today, we are headed for the northern stretch of Route Pluto, northeastern Baghdad, right on the tip of Sadr City. We wind back and forth on various streets, taking a circuitous route, trying to avoid the "Black" and "Red" designated roadways. There have been so many IEDs lately that it seems half of the roads are off limits. Still, we make it with no real problems up to Checkpoint 3V. We are there for exactly two minutes before the day starts to unravel.

One of my SINCGARS radios is tuned to our 1st Platoon's frequency. First Platoon's second squad are our "wingman" element today, working a couple of the other checkpoints. The speaker for that radio is turned down a little so that I can focus on our "internal" frequency, but, through the static, I start hearing little snatches of urgent conversation.

"Taking fire...."

"IA armor approaching from the 6 o'clock...."

"......looks like they're in the mahallah, down by the mos......"

I grab the handset, stick it under the cup of my Peltor headphones, listen in. Grab the internal handset, and call up to Renegade 43, SSG T's truck. Fish answers, and I tell him that it sounds like "the Uglies" are getting shot at, down at whatever checkpoint they are evaluating. Believe it or not, that's their platoon name -- the Uglies. Don't ask me, I guess they are not a very imaginative bunch of guys. Either that, or they just have poor self esteem. Through my windshield, down the row of HMWWVs, I can see Fish as he leans out and yells at SSG T.

SSG T speeds up his questions, working his way quickly through his forms. The INPs listen intently to their radios, no doubt getting the same intel from their chain of command. They are visibly concerned, and start turning around approaching traffic. They obviously don't want any cars coming near them. Sounds like a good policy to me.

Thirty seconds later, and we are bouncing and shaking our rickety way southbound on Pluto. We are going in to back up 1st Platoon. This seems to be our primary mission these days, backing up folks in trouble.

We were at Checkpoint 3V, and the Uglies are at Checkpoint 4V, only a mile or two apart, so we are there in just a few minutes. Since I'm monitoring their freq, I call them and let them know we are coming in from the north. I get back a quick acknowledgement, and a warning: the Iraqi Army has arrived at the checkpoint, with armor. Greeaaaat.

The IA has a reputation for wild, frantic gunfire at the slightest provocation. The fact that they have shown up with armor, meaning some sort of armored vehicles, i.e. tanks or armored personnel carriers, is kinda scary.

We race up the on-ramp, and wheel into position on the bridge at CP 4V, the place that we called in the Apaches one night after getting sniped at; the place where, on a different day, we had a suspected car bomb and an IP kid stopping traffic with a belt-fed machine gun. The place where, on yet another night, the INPs were blasting away at insurgents as they tried to flank us, and SSG C had me fire the one and only shot that I've fired in almost six months of Iraqi "combat".

I love Checkpoint 4V, it's always good for a laugh.

As we move into position, we can see BMPs down the wide road in the business district. BMPs are wide, low, Soviet Armored Personnel Carriers. I've seen them here before, since there is an Iraqi Army installation somewhere just to the east.

Some IA guys are out of their BMPs, clustering against the sides of the some of the buildings. As we park and start doing our standard checks for roadside bombs, there is a rattling "thumpthumpthump" of heavy caliber machine gun fire to our left. The deep sound makes us duck, even though we are within the embrace of the HMMWV and its armor.

Seems there are some more BMPs on the access road just to the side and below the bridge, and they are furiously shooting at something unseen. What that something might be, I haven't a clue. I break out my Steiner binoculars, and start scanning the buildings.

"More IA armor, coming up behind us." C calls down from the turret. I call it up on the internal radio as a couple more BMPs rumble past us, belching grey smoke from their sides. They pull up against the building at the end of the bridge, and start disgorging troops. Almost instantly, I can hear the "poppoppop" of AK fire.

The weird thing is, I can't see any bad guys out there through the binos. Are we just sitting at the wrong angle? Do the IA soldiers see something I can't? Another volley of heavy machine gun fire cuts my musings short. It is frustrating to have to sit here and just watch the action. I understand why we are just sitting here -- in fact there are a number of reasons. The main one is that this is their country, and we want the Iraqi Army and police to take the forefront in the fight. The other is more pragmatic, since it's probably a good idea to stay out of the IA's way; we don't want to get shot by our "allies". Still, I can't help but feel that if I was still working with the infantry, we would be down there in the mahallah, manuevering on the bad guys. Not all squad leaders are as aggressive as SSG C. So, we sit and watch, the gunners and team leaders glassing the buildings, looking for insurgents. We have our Rules of Engagement to think about, and must have Positive Identification in order to shoot. We can't just blast everything in sight, like the IA do.

A "sniper" team of Iraqi National Police runs past us at a full sprint, carrying long Dragunov rifles, moving to reinforce the police bunker at the eastern end of the bridge.

"I can see a tank moving up from Route Pluto." remarks Nix, to my side.

"Is it a tank, or a BMP?" I ask him.

"What's the difference?" he asks. "It's got treads, so it must be a tank."

"Nope." I say. "BMPs have treads, too. BMPs are armored personal carriers, like our Bradleys. Does it have a little bitty turret in the front, or a big, dome like turret?"

"I dunno." Nix says, with a bit of sullen tone, which is normal for him.

"Can't see it now. It's coming up the exit ramp."

I'm really not being a dick to him. I'm trying to teach my soldiers vehicle recognition. Back when I first joined the Marines in the mid-80s, when the notion of being a soldier in the Army would have made me spit venomously, vehicle recognition was a skill that was carefully taught. We would sit around and study little flash cards of tanks and aircraft and helicopters, quizzing each other. Only thing is, then it was enemy vehicle recognition -- and the pieces of armor we are looking at now were going to be the bad guys, stomping their way through the Fulda Gap in their thousands.

"Whoa, here it comes now!" exclaims Nix, pointing through the winshield.
A great clattering, rickety, rust-colored behemoth lurches into view in front and just to the left of us, farting out greasy exhaust fumes from its side. Two Iraqi soldiers with Russian tanker helmets are standing in the gunner and track commander hatches, manning their massive Dashika machine guns. A long main gun turns ponderously to the side, pointing down the city street.

I whistle, low and respectful. "Gents, that is a T-72."

"Which is a tank! Right? Right?" Nix jumps up and down in his driver's seat, looking at me. "I knew I was right! Fuckers...." He mutters under his breath, chortling to himself, stabbing victoriously with his finger at the windshield and the tank behind it.

There is a gawdawful rattling and clanging of metal, and the burbling of a huge and ancient diesel engine behind us, and another T-72 lurches to a halt right next to us.

I look at it with something like disbelief. The T-72, former Main Battle Tank of the Soviet Bear. We are so used to seeing our M1A1 tanks, all sleek angles and relatively quiet turbine engine, whistling like an idling jet. This great beast next to us is something else entirely, a relic, an antique, a dinosaur, freed from some oily Jurassic Park motorpool. It is a little strange, for a former Cold Warrior, to have backup arrive in the form of an old and half-forgotten enemy. I'm not sure whether to be impressed, relieved, or seriously concerned.

More gunfire down the road, heavy, a little more persistent this time, snaps me back to the present. The pair of T-72s belch more gray exhaust, and clatter down into the local neighborhood. Looking at them move makes me feel as if I am watching a newsreel, some footage from another era -- almost makes me feel as if we are present in a real, honest-to-goodness, shooting war. Their guns swivel and turn, and the tanks disappear down a side street. I'm really glad that we are not down there, with them anywhere near us.

Sure enough, a few minutes after the tanks rumble out of view, we hear three, slow, oddly flat explosions, quite unlike any we have heard before. I guess at the truth. The tanks are firing their main guns, probably point blank, into some of the houses within the mahallah. Black smoke starts to curl above the rooftops, slowly at first, then increasing in volume, darkening. The Iraqi soldiers move in, following the lead of the tanks. The sound of AK fire goes with them, rising in tempo.

One thing I should note is that, while all of this is going on, from the moment we arrived on the bridge, Iraqi civilians keep walking back and forth across the bridge. Occasionally a car darts out from a side street, crossing the main road, and disappears out of view. Old men carrying newspapers do their best to jog across the road. Arab women, wearing the traditional black robes, haul groceries in thin plastic bags, headed for home. A few people have the sense to turn around and leave, or wave at us and the INPs first, making sure they have our attention, then lift their shirts to show that they are unarmed, and approach carefully. But most just go about their business, perhaps with a slight sense of increased urgency, but not that much differently from every day life. I honestly cannot think of many things that just couldn't wait a couple of hours so that I wouldn't have to walk into this instant combat zone.

I'm sitting there, thinking about this, when we all hear a very deep, distant explosion. The kind that is a long ways off, so it isn't loud, and nothing around you shakes, but it has such a deep bass tone to it, such a hint of magnitude and power, that you know it's a really big one. Like if someone flying above the far side of your home town dropped the Titanic from 10,000 feet, and it landed on the Dairy Queen. A sound to mak you go, "Oh shiiiiiiiit" in a long drawn-out sigh of awe and fear.

My "internal" radio, the SINCGARS that is tuned to our platoon frequency, crackles to life. It's SGT V, in one of the trucks ahead of me. He is monitoring the "land owner" frequency; the combat manuever element that is overall in charge of this patch of real estate. Not one, but two VBIEDs, car bombs, have detonated, at almost exactly the same time. One is in downtown Sadr City, and the other one is at Checkpoint 7V. We're not terribly heartbroken about the one in Sadr City, but 7V is just down the road from us, manned by INPs, and quite possibly by one of our brother MP squads. I hope none of our guys were there when the damn thing went off.

Radio traffic increases. There is a lot of talk going back and forth between our different elements and our Tactical Operations Center. I tell my guys to get ready to move out. In the middle of this, a BMP emerges from the neighborhood in front of us, belches smoke, and rattles up to us. A gaggle of Iraqi soldiers emerge out of the back. They are carrying something between them. Someone.

It is an Iraqi soldier. He has been shot in the side of his face, and blood covers his "chocolate chip" cammies in great splotches. His buddies lay him down in the road, just in front of my truck. SSG T and Fish get out of their truck as soon as they see him, and lend a hand.

"Doc, they need you up front!" I call back, but he is already pushing open his armored door, moving.

SGT V and B get out of their truck to pull security. SSG T motions for me to move my truck up and to the side, to provide cover from the watchful eyes of the local rooftops. Once parked, I go to exit the vehicle to help out, but he waves me off, tells me to stay put. He explains to me later that he wanted me to monitor and track everything that was going down on the radios, but in the moment I am a little pissed. I want to get in on the action.

The scene that plays out through my windshield looks like one from a pretty decent war movie, and I kick myself for not bringing that camera. Iraqi soldiers mill around with their AKs and machine guns, draped in bandoleers of ammunition. Doc, SSG T and one of the Iraqi sergeants work on the wounded man. Fish and B pull security and watch, until there is another burst of 12.7mm Dashika fire, and then they crouch over the back hatch of the HMMWV, pointing their rifles, scanning the closest buildings for snipers. I sit in my truck, both handsets jammed up under my Peltor headphones, a peevish look on my face, listening to distant chaos and trying to make Maverick Base understand what is happening on our little bridge within it.

"Damn!" says C presently, from above me. "The IA are fighting with each other."

"What the hell are you talking about?" I ask, looking up at him. Nix opens his door, leans out and looks behind our truck.

"Holy shit, that guy just slapped the shit out of another one of the IA!" exclaims Nix, excitedly.

Apparently there is a regular bout of fisticuffs going on behind us, as if the gunbattle to the front is not enough already. We can't figure out what it is all about, at first, but looking at the guy bleeding on the asphalt in front of me I start to put two and two together. I think one of the Iraqi soldiers shot his own guy by accident.

Doc has got an IV line going, and has patched up the soldier's face as well as possible. The soldier is conscious, stable, and so the Iraqis load him back up into their BMP, and rumble off to a local hospital. Doc gets back in our truck, breathless, excited.

"I got to work my first gunshot wound!" he keeps saying. We rib him about it, and joke about getting him his Combat Medic's Badge. Supposedly the wound was not that bad, but just bled like crazy, as head wounds often do. Doc says he hopes the guy makes it okay, and looks back through his window, trying to see the BMP disappearing behind us.

Maverick Base wants us to hang out for a bit, continue to offer medical assistance, and see if the situation calms down. We end up sitting there for another half hour or so, watching the smoke billow out of the mahallah, and eyeing the local minarets suspiciously. I hand around a box of Chicken in a Bisket crackers, which is completely demolished in less than ten minutes. We are all a little hungry, having missed lunch. There are MREs in the back, but no one really wants to get out and expose themselves to the locals by clambering up around the spare tire to get them.

That's okay, just means more room for turkey and stuffing when we get back.

We hear on the radio that there is more gunfire down south, on Pluto. Then there is a report of yet another car bomb, at another checkpoint. We're needed elsewhere. Things have died down here; we haven't heard any more shooting for the past twenty minutes or so. We never do see the T-72s again; maybe they just kept driving through the neighbourhood, squashing cars and the occasional juvenile delinquent, as they made their way downtown. Maverick Base orders us to clear the scene, and to "Charlie Mike" -- Continue Mission.

We manuever the HMMWVs into formation and turn southbound onto Pluto. The Uglies are coming with us, falling in a hundred meters or so behind us. My friend P is riding with them today, filling in for a sick team, and as he pulls out he reports "shots fired". Turns out a couple hit the back of his truck, so hopefully that means there really were some insurgents in the area. I'd like to think that not all of the gunfire on that bridge came from the Iraqi Army.

We crawl slowly down Route Pluto, scanning for hidden bombs and gunmen, a little more carefully than usual. A couple of hundred meters south we run into the outer fringes of a huge traffic jam. The entire highway, and the dusty canal that separates its two lanes, is jammed with cars, trucks and buses. Vehicles careen every which way, desperately. The local people are fleeing the bridges and their checkpoints, since this is what the car bombs seem to be targeting the most. Since they can't get off of the highway, they seem to be driving aimlessly, just for the sake of continued movement. I am reminded of scared livestock; stampeding cattle.

The radio crackles with yet another report of a car bomb.

"Y'know, we've never actually seen one of those." muses Nix. "Probably be pretty neat, actually."

"Yeah, right, real freakin' neat, particularly if it was right outside your window." I say in reply, looking worriedly at all of the civilian vehicles crowded around us. I know he is just joking, trying to take the edge off the situation. The feeling we all have is that the city is starting to tear itself apart.

We edge our way through the mob, trying to keep the vehicles away from us, but with little luck. There're just too many of them, and nowhere for them all to go. We are starting to make our way out of the mess when I see a billowing cloud of black smoke rise from behind some trees, right by the side of the road we are on, about four or five hundred meters in front of us. Just as the dark balloon of gas breaks over the top of the trees, it is swallowed by a monstrous spasm of red-orange flame. The truck shakes a half-second later, and through the armor, through my headphones, I can hear and feel the shockwave of the explosion.

"VBIED! Right in front of us!" I yell.

Everyone else swears to themselves in exactly the same tone of reverence. It seems to be a natural reaction to the detonation of a large amount of explosive close to your person. Your muscles tense uncontrollably, your eyes widen, and you quietly and intently moan, "Duuuuuuuude," in awe, more to yourself than anyone else. Usually a different four letter word, though. We all watch, wide-eyed, as the orange mushroom cloud, fringed with black, rolls up into the blue Iraqi sky.

"Okay -- nobody wishes for nothing else! I'm serious!" I hiss to the soldiers in the truck. Between Nix's desire to see a VBIED, and my own wishes, a few weeks ago, for more action; it is apparent that someone up there is listening in and fulfilling them, all too well. I'm never bitching about things being too quiet, ever again.

The convoy continues its slow roll southward, never faltering. I call up to C, reiterate my directive that no one, and I do mean no one, gets within 100 meters of us.

We come upon a dark debris field made of little tiny pieces of metal, all scorched and blackened. It is the remains of the car bomb. I look to the right, out of my ballistic window, and on small parallel road, just off the highway, is the remains of an engine, and a couple of feet to its side, part of the car frame. Both are still burning. There is nothing else but scattered wreckage; nothing bigger than the size of a fist.

"There's a guy lying on the side of the road." reports C, from the turret.
I look over and see the charred body of a man, smoke rising from his shoulders. He's not lying there for his health, becasue he's dead. I look away quickly. I really don't need any more persistent images to trouble my sleep. He's not a threat, so focus on the mission at hand.

The weirdest thing is the location of the car bomb. An INP checkpoint is a hundred meters or so away, not close enough to be damaged. There is nothing else here -- no cars, no crowd of people, no strategic buildings. I scratch my head, under my Kevlar, and wonder what happened. Did the bomber get made by the INPs, and blow himself up anyway? Was it an accident; a crossed wire or a carelessly fumbled detonator? Was it deliberately placed there in an attempt to just freak out the people fleeing the checkpoints? Just another day in Iraq, with more questions than answers.

We keep rolling south. The Uglies switch sides, start driving south in the northbound lane. Maybe they don't like the route we're taking, our idea of a scenic tour. They come across one of our M1 tanks, which has just hit an IED. Fortunately no one is injured, although the tank has thrown a tread and cannot be moved. They make sure the tank crew is safe, and then roll on.

A report comes over the radio that a convoy of vehicles is headed out of Sadr City. It is believed that there are 12-15 vehicles, with an unknown number of car bombs, headed for various checkpoints. Lord only knows where they got this intel, but it is not what we were hoping to hear. We redouble our efforts at scanning for bad guys, and pick up the speed just a tad.

I wonder to myself if this is not some sort of Shi'ite version of the Tet Offensive. What if this is the beginning of some major, all-out civil war? What if this level of insanity doesn't go on for just a few hours, but never stops, just keep rolling, increasing, expanding out of Baghdad like a virus? It feels a little like 9/11 again, with just unimaginable shit going on everywhere you look, with that similiar feeling of disbelief and horror.

"This sure is some wild-ass Disneyland ride," I remark to Nix.

Nix looks at me, cheek bulging improbably with chewing tobacco, as always. "That's crazy, Sar'nt," he says, smiling. "I was just thinking exactly the same thing, only as a Universal Studios tour!"

We laugh about it, which helps take the edge off. There is something to our analogy, as if the things we are seeing through the windshield and hearing over the radio are some carefully engineered amusement park ride. It doesn't feel altogether real.

We make it down to Checkpoint 12V with no further problems, and take all of about 60 seconds to ask our questions and get the hell out of there. Being ten klicks or so south of Sadr City, the craziness hasn't made it down here, although the INPs look appropriately frazzled. I can only imagine what they thought of the stupid infidels who showed up in the middle of this mess to ask their inane questions. "Do your toilets work properly?" "Do you have sufficient hygiene products?" "How do you and your men feel about the Coalition Forces?" Fuhgedaboutit.....

Our mission is complete, and we are called back in to the FOB. I am happy and relieved to see the concrete gate of Rusty in front of us, and the Uglies glide in safely behind us. There is much animated talking and gesturing at the staging area in front of the barracks, as we do the obligatory cigarette smoking and re-telling of the scenes to each other. And then SFC Ware tells us the kicker to it all.

The chow hall has run out of food.

There will be no Thanksgiving dinner for us. Halliburton may have won its 40 billion dollar no-bid contract, but it doesn't have any turkey and stuffing for the soldiers of the 630th today. It's especially heartbreaking to see the younger soldiers, shoulders sagging, looks of disbelief on their faces. "You're kidding, right, Sar'nt?"

With the time difference, my family should be making the cinnamon rolls right about now. The kitchen in my brother's Victorian house in Northern California will be brightening with the smell of the spice, as I strip off my body armor and lay my helmet down. My mum is there, visiting, probably pottering around with a cup of tea, making the stuffing by hand, as usual. My dad, in Ohio, is doubtless wide awake and hard at work, preparing the turkey, rubbing it with butter, sprinkling it with salt and pepper.

They are half a world away, on a different planet, in a separate reality from mine, thank God. Thanksgiving dinner, for me, is a little Dinty Moore microwave meal, eaten with a plastic spoon from an MRE. Chicken and mashed potatoes. But I am alive, and my soldiers are in one piece.
Even without cinnamon rolls and the promise of turkey, I am thankful.

SAVE THE RAINFORESTS |

SAVE THE RAINFORESTS
Name: Adam Tiffen
Posting date: 12/1/06
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog url: http://www.thereplacements.blogspot.com
Email: airbornejd115@yahoo.com

The morning sun has brought with it an unusually cloying heat, and I find myself dosing off in the relative quiet of the Alamo CP. Outside, soldiers pull security on the rooftop and on the front gate, and fight to stay awake after a long night of running missions.

Inside the Alamo, soldiers that have just come off of a guard shift lay fully clothed on green, sweat-stained cots. Two small rooms have been outfitted with air conditioning, and a dozen cots have been crammed into each. Other soldiers lay sprawled on the uneven tile floor, their noses buried in month-old copies of well-worn magazines and tattered paperback books.

Coming off of my rounds, I can’t seem to find the energy to get up and find a spare cot, so I sit in a chair in the CP to doze. Yawning, I cover my mouth and glance at my watch. 1300. The hottest part of the day. Leaning back in the chair, I stretch out my tired muscles, close my eyes and think of home.

Outside the window to the CP, there is a deafening explosion. I am suddenly wide awake. The soldiers sleeping on the cots jerk awake, looking sleepily at one another in confusion and alarm. There is a second explosion.

“Shit!”

“What the fuck?!”

The soldiers curse as they throw themselves out of their cots and in an organized scramble, snatch up their body armor and run to their battle stations. Someone outside is shouting. “Incoming! Incoming!” We are being mortared.

I'm on my feet, reaching for the radio.The I-Com clicks and I hear the excited voice of one of the soldiers on the roof. He is a private, and he shouts excitedly into the radio.

“CP this is Gun 2!”

“Gun 2 this is CP, send it!”

“A house across the street just exploded!”

My whole train of thought stops. A house just exploded. What the hell? Outside I can hear the thundering crash of other explosions. They seem to be moving further and further away. After the fourth explosion there is silence outside. The silence is deafening.

Glancing out of the door to the CP, I can see that all of the cots are empty. The soldiers are in their battle positions, and the Alamo is now at full security.The mortar attack may be the prelude to a VBIED attack or a ground assault. I key the handset again. “Gun 2, tell me exactly what you saw.”

This time the calmer voice of the Sergeant of the Guard replies. He had gone to the roof to check for damages and assess the situation. “Roger Sir, it looks like something hit the building just south of the Alamo. Probably a mortar round. Whatever it was caused an explosion on the roof. We counted four other explosions. All south of the Alamo running in a line moving east to west.”

“Roger, so the house didn’t explode.”

“That’s a negative sir.”

In the background, I hear the private swear in a sheepish voice. Things are making a hell of a lot more sense. I can’t help but smile.

“Alright, get a team together and meet me at the front gate. Let’s check out the damage and see if anyone has been hurt.”

“Roger.”

After notifying Battalion about the attack, I shrug on the rest of my gear and head out into the harsh sunlight. I instantly break out in an uncomfortable sweat beneath the body armor.

A squad of soldiers is assembled and ready to move out. They are still tense. They grip their rifles and scan for trouble as we move out of the chicane.

In the town, people are beginning to emerge from their houses. They walk from house to house and check on one another after the attack. To the southeast, a skinny, barefoot boy is standing at the corner of an intersection. He has dark, curly hair and is wearing striped blue shorts and a green shirt. I do a doubletake.

“Save the Rainforests” is printed in bold yellow lettering on his tattered green t-shirt. The irony is painful.

I turn to the squad leader standing next to me. “Alright, let’s go check out the house that was hit and see what kind of damage was done.” He motions to his squad, and they begin to fall into teams, spreading out to provide security on both sides of the street. Turning west, we pass near a small huddle of women, dressed head to toe in an all encompassing black. They fall silent as we pass by, then continue their hushed discussion.

There is stillness, as if the town is holding its breath.

A middle-aged man walks up to the squad as we move thru a trash-strewn alley, stepping gingerly over fetid pools of liquid green waste. He is wearing a long, white cotton robe, with yellow sweat stains under the armpits. His teeth are crooked and shine a dull yellow in his dark, sagging face.

Walking up, he turns and speaks to Max, the interpreter. Max looks like something of a pirate, with a bandanna pulled up over his face and his dark, expressionless eyes peering out underneath heavy brows. He has a threatening, brooding presence about him, and the man had been hesitant to approach him. Now Max turns to me. “Sir, this is the man whose house was hit.”

“Okay, tell him to show us his house and show us the damage.”

The man listens to Max, and abruptly turns around, heading down the muck-strewn street. He keeps a fast pace, his sandaled feet stepping neatly over the heaps of refuse stacked up against the walls of the crumbling yellow brick buildings.

Up ahead, I can see the house described by the Sergeant of the Guard. The two-story building rises haphazardly into the sky, as if the second level was added as an afterthought. Still, it shows signs of wealth, with a pigeon coop on the roof, and clear glass windows.

As we approach I quickly reassess the situation.There is not a single pane of glass left unbroken. In fact, there is no glass left unbroken in the windows of the houses on the other side of the street either. The blast from the mortar round has shattered the flimsy, single-paned windows, blowing jagged fragments out into the dirt and dust. We are lucky that there weren’t any serious casualties.

Looking up, I can see clear blue sky thru a gaping hole in the reinforced cement balcony overhanging the front door. The cement is smashed and scarred, with bent and twisted strips of rebar sticking through. The house took a direct hit.

The sandaled man walks directly up to the house and steps over the cracked rubble that has been blasted from his roof. He enters the building, closely followed by the squad leader and two of the soldiers from his alpha team. Each of the soldiers looks up at the hole, and their upturned faces are briefly illuminated by the powerful sun shining through.

Outside the building I stop and watch the activity across the muddy street. A construction crew is squatting on their haunches, watching with wary eyes as the remainder of the soldiers in the patrol secure the perimeter of the home. The men are mixing cement by hand in round shallow dishes. As each batch is ready, the cement is layered onto a row of rough, cracked brick, each trowel-full slopping over the sides. The crumbling bricks manage to hold themselves together. I just can’t figure out how.

Directly in front of the wary bricklayers, one man in a blue shirt and loose black pants stained with cement powder walks barefoot on the dirt, sweeping up fragments of glass with a tattered broom. Although I am sure he can feel my gaze upon him, he never looks in my direction.

Above me I hear a shout, and the backlit head of my squad leader pokes thru the mortar hole in the roof. In his right hand, I can see the fin and tail section of a 60mm round. He is smiling from ear to ear.

“Hey Sir, I got it. Looks like the back azimuth is 146 degrees.”

“Roger, sounds good. Check for any other damage and then come on back down.”

In my head I do a quick calculation. An azimuth of 146 degrees would put the origin of the mortar across a small canal and in the empty fields of an area that is infrequently patrolled by U.S. forces. My platoon will have to pay the farmers in that district an unscheduled visit. Soon.

The team leader descends the staircase and exits the building, followed close on his heels by his two soldiers and the owner of the house. The owner hesitates for an instant as he looks at Max, and then approaches me with a deprecating smile on his face. As he lights a cigarette, he speaks to Max in an insistent voice. Max flushes with indignation.

“Max, what is it.”

Max turns to me, his face an angry red. “He says he wants payment.”

I stop in my tracks and turn around. The man stops walking and lowers the cigarette. In a quiet voice, I ask Max to translate. “Max, ask him what exactly he wants payment for?”

Max translates, and the man answers forcefully. “He says he wants $1,000.00 for the damage to his house. He wants the Americans to pay for it.”

Beside me, one of the soldiers stiffens. Despite his expressionless face and black-mirrored sunglasses, I can tell he wants to say something to the Iraqi. I raise my hand slightly to forestall any outburst. I am pissed off enough for the both of us.

“Why does he feel that we owe him money?”

“He says that you owe him money because the insurgents damaged his home with their mortar attack.”

“Then you tell him that he can ask the fucking insurgents for his money. They are the ones that shot at his home.”

“He says that because the insurgents were shooting at you, you are to blame. His house would not have been damaged if you were not here.”

Max finishes translating. Furious with indignation, he starts to swear at the man in a mixture of English and Arabic, but all I can make out is the word “motherfucker.”

For a second I am speechless. I can’t believe that this man considers the attack our fault. At that instant, every attack I have ever experienced flashes before my eyes. Roadside bombs exploding as our patrols pass by. Soldiers running for cover from incoming mortar rounds. Charred and flaming armored vehicles, exploding from the inside out. Automatic weapons fire raking across an open field. Dead bodies lying in ditches. And this man is blaming us for the mortar attack. He is blaming me.

A burst of frustrated emotions erupts inside of me. Looking directly at the man, I point my finger at him and spit out each word in contempt: "You listen to me closely. What you say is an insult. We did not attack your home today. We came here to help. We are not to blame. If you want to blame someone, blame the terrorists. Ask the terrorists for the money. Ask them to repair your home, and they will kill you without thinking twice."

Max’s voice reflects my restrained anger. For the first time that I can remember, he translates almost as quickly as I speak, our words blending together.

The man is standing still, his face ashen. He takes an unsteady drag on the cigarette, and begins to smile, as if hoping to smooth things over.

“Mister. Mister.”

In a smooth tone, he begins to tell Max that he had not just in fact asked me for money. That he didn’t know what he was saying. That it was all just a big misunderstanding.

My hand drops wearily to my side. The humidity, stress, and lack of sleep is starting to take a toll. After a moment of silence, I turn around and walk away, inhaling deeply and forcing myself to relax. This is not worth getting upset about.

As we move east down the road looking for the next impact site, the soldiers of the patrol fall into a lose formation. Checking the formation, the squad leader makes a quick adjustment before turning around and walking on with his lead fire team. In his gloved right hand he has the body of the 60mm mortar round. I shake my head and breathe deeply, the anger flowing away. Maybe it was all just a misunderstanding. Glancing over my shoulder I see that the man has quickly disappeared from site. Then I mutter under my breath. "Bullshit."

That man knew exactly what he was saying. And he knew exactly how much of an insult it would be.

|

DOING THE BIDDING OF THE UNWILLING
Name: Tadpole
Posting date: 11/30/06
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog url: armysailor.com

I have to admit that I have been feeling pretty crappy lately. I have been having a lot of trouble sleeping, and I am having trouble staying focused. My tour is rapidly coming to an end, and I can feel it. I am ready to go home.

For a long while I was able to look at all the good we are doing in this country, whether it is building schools or killing Taliban, and use that as a means of staying motivated. But lately that hasn't been working. With each mission I can't help but worry in the back of my mind that this might be my last, and how much would it suck to die so close to the end...

But what's far worse, in my opinion, is the feeling I have been getting by reading some things from back at home. I read opinions of people who say that we (the service men and women) should be ashamed of ourselves, as if we had a choice in the matter. I will never be ashamed of my service. I may be ashamed of something I am asked to do by my country, but then I think civilians should feel ashamed of themselves for letting me (a serviceman) be put in such a situation. How easy it has become to send men into harm's way. But it takes nerve to blame us for it.

What is worse is that I recently read an article about students against the draft. That's fine, I personally am against any draft that is instituted for the purposes of serving a specific military mission. However, I am all for mandatory government service for everyone after high school. I think two years of service, whether in the Peace Corps, the Military, or as a government intern, would not only benefit America but would also benefit the people doing the service. What bothered me about this article in particular was the cowardice that so many American high school kids openly expressed, and the pride with which they seemed to express it. Some of these kids wouldn't be willing to die for anything. That is amazing to me. The way I was raised, cowardice is simply unacceptable. It is the worst of all sins, and it is shameful. It seems that all some kids want is to be able to play with their new Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, or Playstation 3, and they don't even want to have to work for that. I sometimes fear that our opulence will lead to our ultimate demise, as it does in all great empires.

None of this has helped me get to sleep at night. None of it is helping my waning motivation. But it has helped concrete my personal belief that "You've got to stand for something, or you'll fall for anything".


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