Wednesday, March 31, 2004

It's been a busy and event filled week here in Iraq. The killing and mutilating of the CPA security guys down in Fallujah was sick. The mind of the mob is a scary thing. The problem in Fallujah is that each attack emboldens the enemy. Its time for the iron fist. The Marines have a tough job. First they need to win the battle for the streets, then the battle for the hearts.

On my front, we have seen an increase in rocket attacks on us. One of the docs had an incredibly lucky day a few days ago. A rocket landed 25 feet from him. It didn't explode but spun around in circles until its motor burned out. Needless to say it scared the hell out of him.

Our MP unit came up and I managed to link up with one of the guys who goes to my church back home. His parents go to the same home church as I do.

I was glad I met with the MPs. I saw the deployment from the other side earlier this year. It was good to see them finally getting to go home.

Tuesday we had our first rain since we arrived in the middle east. It was a light rain but enough to turn the dust to mud. Wednesday morning when I went running I was sliding all over the place. I was covered in mud when I got back.


Sunday, March 28, 2004

Sorry for the hiatus, All the computers in my office don't let me get on this site, except one that always seems to be in use. We have some other computers that run off another satellite but we've had lots visitors so its been a pain getting online.

Thanks to all the people who have written to me. Sorry if I'm slow responding, I only have limited time on the computers.

The end of last week was pretty quiet. We did get another rocket attack but it was on the other side of base and 4 out of the 5 rockets didn't explode. We have the EOD guys very busy blowing up things that don't want to do it themselves.

Some interpersonal conflicts are reaching critical mass. I woke up one day this week to two of our female soldiers giving each other a tonguelashing. Being in the company of others for so long, especially if some of those others do something mildly bothersome, can precipitate a surprising amount of conflict. Some people ( the majority) have no problems, but others don't play well with others.

On our base and throughout the country we have mental health sections and units. These include psychiatrists, pychologists, social workers, and mental health specialists. Their job is to try to mitigate some of the conflicts that naturally arise from packing people together. They also deal with soldiers who develop mental health problems and help people cope after they have experienced a psychologically traumatic incident,like having someone injured or killed in your unit.

Today I heard a funny story about one of the Generals in Baghdad. Some of our Vets had to go down to check out some of Uday Hussain's lions. He had a collection of big cats that all got let out when the Americans got to Baghdad. The lions are being cared for now but the problem is they need to be fixed. They have had two litters since last April. The vets were down doing an initial evaluation and the general wanted to come and see the lions. He was standing next to the cage with a large male and two females. The male mounted both the females, then promptly backed up to the general and sprayed him with some nice stinky lion pee. The vet who told me said that he laughed so hard he thought he'd be a 2nd Lt. by the time he stopped. The general took it as well as can be expected. Note to general - Burn uniform.

We've had some feline problems of our own in camp. Too many feral cats! Our doctors have a few tom cats spraying inside their sleeping tent and yowling all night long. This precipitated all sorts of nefarious plots to do in the cats including putting out antifreeze for them to drink and the use of copious amounts of warfarin and catfish from the messhall. I found out today that the KBR contractors will set out traps for us and euthanize the cats in a more humane way than poisoning them.

I had a great birding trip yesterday which I will elaborate on in Birding Babylon. Three life birds. Suffice to say that a birding nemesis of mine, the Whiskered Tern, finally met his match in a small drainage lagoon on the edge of post. I drove to Delaware twice in 1993 to search for the 1st North American record. I was skunked both times! I missed it by only half an hour the second time.

Enough for now. I have to get to work.


Just a quick update. I'm busy passing out chloroquin to the troops today. We give a briefing on vivax malaria, tell them to treat their uniforms and bednets with pythrethrin and use DEET. The mosquito and sandfly season is coming quickly. Last year troops had very little malaria but lots of leishmaniasis. My job is to make sure they answer all the medical screening questions and refer them to our Doc if they have contraindications for chloroquin. As an aside its amazing how many soldiers, even a few females are taking body building supplements like creatine and hydroxycut. Its not a contraindication for chloroquin, but with the coming uber-hot temps, if you don't maintain hydration you can fry your kidneys. They were warned.

Today one of our MP companies is here on their way back home. Hopefully I'll get to see them. One soldier goes to our church back home and I know his parents so I wanted to see him before he left.


Wednesday, March 24, 2004

I was just reading in the paper about a new Iraqi TV show. Its called "heroes in blue". It sounds like the American show "cops". The concept is to show the people what the Iraqi police do every day to help make the country safer. They follow around officers in their day to day duties. The plan is to use more live footage of raids and patrols to give people an idea of what goes on behind the scenes. The show is funded by the US.

I've seen these guys zooming around Baghdad and up and down the highways in their little blue and white cars and trucks. We drive around in armored vehicles. We live behind the wire with fences, concertina wire and heavily armed guards, the police work in largely unprotected, marked buildings. In my book these guys have the most dangerous and one of the most important jobs in Iraq. In the last year they lost over 600 men.

Just two days ago the local police chief and his body guards were assassinated in the middle of the day in front of the town offices.

If the people don't feel safe, things can't improve. Building a trusted police force is key to this end.


Tuesday, March 23, 2004

The bad boys must have a few days off from their regular jobs or something. We were attacked three times today, precipitating three basewide alerts. Just a few rockets over the wire each time. The first time, I was away from our company area on my way back from a walk around the camp. I had to sit in the clinic with the other half of our unit until the all clear was sounded.

During an attack our part is just to check that everyone is accounted for in the unit and sit tight. The shooters take care of the rest.

No more excitement tonight. I have not authorized it.


Monday, March 22, 2004

We had a serious incident this morning while I was running. I heard a loud boom and saw a big black column of smoke rising into the air. I thought it was a rocket hitting the airstrip about a half mile away. It turns out the explosion was a truck bomb at the gate over 2 miles away. It had to be huge. The initial cloud was probably 200 feet tall. Because there was a temperature inversion a thick black ribbon of smoke formed that was several miles long and hung horizonally over the base an hour after the blast. Two hours later smoke was still coming from the area of the gate. Several iraqi nationals were said to be hurt or killed. The base was in lockdown for a very long time. I ended up wearing my Body Armor and my helmet around over my t-shirt and shorts that I went jogging in. It was not a good entry in the combat fashion show. I had to get some people off on a helicopter so I drove over to the airstrip in my getup. When I got to the building all the KBR people were in their blue helmets and flak vests sitting in the hall waiting for the all clear.

Once something happens like this or a rocket attack, the risk of anything additional (at least from the same area) is pretty low. The artillery can pinpoint a point of origin of a rocket or mortar in seconds and fire back. This gives the bad guys less than a minute to do their business or risk becoming crispy critters. In this case the security measures did their job. The bomb was stopped before they got on base.

Now that things are getting back to normal everyone is starving because they missed breakfast. Thoughts return to the mundane and to lunch. My breakfast today was one vanilla pudding and one chocolate pudding.

Out to lunch again

Sunday, March 21, 2004

A relatively slow day today. I went to church in the morning and in the afternoon I was brought to a running club called the "Hash House Harriers". The whole Hash thing was new to me. Basically its a social club that runs a hare and hound type run,drinks beer,has politically incorrect customs and songs, and drinks more beer. I enjoyed the run which involved the group following a trail laid down by the "hare"(in this case spots of footpowder placed on the ground). The spots would sometimes lead to dead ends and we would all have to spread out until someone picked up the trail again yelling "HASH" or "TRUE TRAIL". The run was probably 3 miles or so. We ended on top of a giant cement aircraft hanger drinking non-alcoholic beer awarding various people awards for coming in last and such. Overall I enjoyed the running part but could do without some of the other aspects. By the way for some reason I was awarded the "stank shirt" which I'm supposed to wear running all week and return it next week without being washed.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

Happy birthday baby. Someone special's birthday is today.

It's almost the beginning of Spring. Other than the migrants, its hard to tell here. The area where I'm at is very green with plowed fields and date palm groves filling up the landscape. On post we have lots of large Eucalyptus trees that seem to like it here.

We had a small little dust storm yesterday. Lots of blowing dust and sand. At this time of year dust storms can last days and coat everything in a fine brown talc-like dust, even far away from the desert. We had one mild one in Kuwait which made you feel like you were being sandblasted. You couldn't operate without goggles. When I got back to my tent everything I owned had a few millimeters of sand on it. After that I covered everything with a poncho whenever I had to leave.

The beginning of Spring makes me think about Spring at home, my favorite season. I like watching everything come back to life. Usually this time of year I try to get out with the kids and catch some salamander and frogs on a warm rainy night. Already at home the skunk cabbage is up and the red maples are flowering. The ducks have started migrating through and the red-winged blackbirds are back on their territories.

Last night the artillery guys were firing illumination rounds near the base. They might have been looking for someone. The rounds burn brightly as they float slowly back to the ground and light up a huge area like it was daylight. Looking out past the perimeter they looked like a couple of giant stars hanging in the sky.

I also have a few new posts on my nature blog.


Friday, March 19, 2004

Its a busy day today. I'll be going in early. Theoretically I have the morning off to do things, and I work from 1300 to 2200 every day. On some days I've gone in at 0700 and left around 2400. Thankfully Its pretty rare. The morning is consumed by going to eat (minimum 1 hour to stand in line and eat for breakfast and again for lunch), exercising, checking email and trecking to the shower, which is in a trailer. The shower facilities are actually very nice and being cleaned constantly by KBR workers(contractors for Kellogg, Brown and Root). The water has to be conserved and you need to take a "combat shower" meaning using minimal water, as opposed to a "hollywood shower" - a long, hot water wasting one. Every so often I still like a hollywood shower. I'm not exactly sure what the deal is with the lack of water. We are near a friggin river and we have ROWPUs with huge filtration capacity. Maybe its just the MAN trying to keep me down.

I got a care package yesterday and it brightened my day. Inside was the much requested pudding, pictures from my kids, a bouquet of silk tulips from my daughter, a Sponge Bob poster, the Movie Gigantic about the group They might be Giants, assorted food and some sandals and showershoes. A very good haul. I shared the candy and poptarts and stashed some food for a later date. Thanks Baby!

When I went into the office I found a weird present from one of the officer who had just been to Baghdad. A big bag of Kippered Elk Jerky - AWESOME.

Out to lunch

Thursday, March 18, 2004

I spent my time yesterday bringing trash to the burn pit at the dump and doing mindless officework. I need a little more variety or my brain will atrophy.

We spent time watching CNN about the bombing of the Mount Lebanon Hotel. Wolf Blitzer 's babbling was so annoying that I had to switch to SkyNews. He kept saying journalists were getting confidential briefings everyday and the security had deteriorated significantly in the last few months. He said that anti-coalition forces had free reign to do what they wanted. First, I know that this is not what the intel people are saying, there have been a few large attacks but in my book the security situation has improved. Why would the military tell these guys anything like this? Probably what happened is they got a general briefing about their personal security, or a particular neighborood, or reports of threats around certain dates and extrapolated and exaggerated it.

Do you get the sense that some would like us to fail?

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

By the Rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept for we remembered Zion. - Psalm 137

I was reading one of my favorite sites this morning - instapundit introduced to me by my friend and coworker when were at a scientific meeting in San Diego last October (it seems like 10 years ago). In it I read that a military blogger was killed in Iraq last week.

I linked over to the site of Bob Zangas, a marine reservist civil affairs officer working for the CPA. I was very moved by the Condolences that I read and especially reading through his final entry.

Why do these idiots have to be so self-destructive? Bob was helping Iraqis in a much more profound way than most of us will over here. I will not forget his sacrifice made for the people of Iraq and his contribution to the future. He is a hero, not only because he died in the defense of freedom but because he lived like a hero.

A little excitement today. We had a couple of mortar rounds land inside the wire. Time to suit up and get to shelter. In the last couple weeks we've had both rocket and mortars, though no one has been hurt. After a few attacks EOD has found dud rockets that failed to explode. I hope that trend continues. Hopefully they have their hands on some crappy ammo.

I started a new blog today about one of my passions, natural history. I can get excited about pretty much anything about nature. I have a BS in biology and have been an avid birder for over twenty years. My new blog is called Birding Babylon. I was going to add my observations in this blog, but I didn't want the nature freaks to have to read all about my army crap. When I make an entry I'll mention it here for those with eclectic tastes.

We have started getting packages of goodies from home. Some items that seem to be popular are microwave popcorn, ramen noodles, m&ms, powdered drinks like gatorade, chips, and candy. I have a list that I'm working on it includes pudding, beef jerky, yerba mate, nuts, tea, big noodle bowls from our local Asian market that you just add water to, and bread mix. The unit that just left gave us a bread machine, which I've used twice. I have grand schemes to build a solar oven and put it on our roof to cook cakes or brownies in.

I called my wife N. today. Its snowing back at home and the kids got out of school early. I wish I was back with my family so I could play outside, sliding down our hill. My oldest son is pretty good on his little snowboard.

Back at home I have my beautiful wife and four kids. My youngest daughter was born just a few days before Christmas. I had already been activated and was with my unit at a base in the Northeast training to go to Iraq. I was allowed to go back home for a week and be there for my daughter's birth. I flew back on a Lear Jet sent by our Adjutant General. I also have a son who just turned 8 a daughter who is 6 and a son who is almost 5. Its a very busy house that I've left my poor wife with. Luckily many people have been helping out with everything from house cleaning to shoveling the driveway. Its really amazing.

Out for now

Monday, March 15, 2004

My lack of sleep caught up with me today. I was rousted out of my slumber at 0530 in the morning. We all dragged our sorry asses across the street to a parking lot to do PT. Just some stretching, pushups and situps. We then were on our own to run for 30 minutes. I was catatonic until the run oxygenated my brain.

After breakfast I decided to take a long walk around post. At the wire I heard some local guys (a teenager and a younger boy) yelling to the soldiers in the guard tower. To me it was obvious the local guys were screwing around and entertaining themselves. They were yelling to the soldiers "hey walad (boy)" over and over. The guards were getting pissed, partly because they didn't understand what the boys were saying. The soldiers were getting hot under the collar. I thought I better try to calm things down a bit. I asked what the problem was and told the guards that they were playing. I yelled back to one boy "anta majnoon" which my college roommate (who's Arab) and I used to say to eachother. It means something like you're crazy or you're a freak. The boys thought this was hillarious and the guards seemed more comfortable with the situation. It is sad to say I took 2 semesters of Arabic almost 15 years ago in college. All that work and so little to show for it. I'm hoping I can get an Arabic tutor so I can exercise my brain a little. I'm finding I do remember how to sound out arabic writing still, so its a start.

I hope to see some interesting medical cases while I'm here. My job at home involves a lot of infectious disease epidemiology, something far removed from what I'm doing here. My work in the Army is labor intensive and tedious. Because of its nature I really can't say much of anything about it. One of the doctors was talking about a few cases of opthalmomyiasis (otherwise known as fly maggots infecting your eye). They mentioned that the fly involved was the exquisitely named Sheep Nasal Bot Fly. Because of my affinity for the odd I recounted all I knew about the life cycle. In college I took a great course called Medical Entomology. The lecture on the bot flies was the most memorable to me. Our instructor spent several minutes describing in great detail how the eggs hatch inside the female fly who deposits the larvae (maggots) directly in or around the nose of the sheep. The larvae feed on the mucosal of the nasal passages and sinuses of the sheep. When they are ready to pupate they move down to the entrance and fall or are sneezed out. After this description our instructor stood and after a dramatic pause said "there's just something about them that appeals to me". Occasionally people become the accidental hosts. I definitely want to see a case.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

I've got back into reading a blog from an Iraqi guy who blogged from Baghdad during the war. I admire his writing style and his insights. He's a sort of cultural bridge between American/British ways of thinking and Iraq. When I was writing my thesis I remember some of articles I read talking about cultural brokers; People who can comfortably operate in two cultures (or more) and can serve as a conduit for information and understanding to flow between groups.

His blog is at

A response he wrote to an American soldier who emailed him asking him what he thought about the war, America's involvement and the justification.

His response mirrors some of my own sentiments about our involvement here. I am frustrated about our isolation from most Iraqis. I too would like to interact more freely. I plan to come back and travel around the country when its safe. The country is fantastic from my perspective with limitless potential. Right now with the exception of a few guys who come on base to work my interaction has been limited to waving to everyone I saw driving through the decimated marshes in the south. As we approached Baghdad we had to switch modes. I counted 9 spots where either IEDs or car bombs had blown up recently. The MPs I talked to had all been hit by IEDs and two guys in their company had been killed.

Here's his post ---

Anyway, all that doesn’t matter now. Saddam is gone,
thanks to you. Was it worth it? Be assured it was.
We all know that it got to a point where we would
have never been rid of Saddam without foreign
intervention; I just wish it would have been a bit better
planned. Does this mean that I will be wearing a
(I [heart] Bush) t-shirt? NO, because I don’t believe
there is any altruism in politics and the way he sees
the world scares me.

What I do really and sincerely hope for is that the day
you and other soldiers and US civilians here don’t have
to stay behind those high concrete walls isn’t too far
away; and that you feel safe walking in the streets
without those hard and heavy flak jackets, so that we
can sit and talk about these things in a Karrada Street tea shop.
There are many challenges Iraqis have to face now, so
please stick around a bit longer and try helping us get
thru them. One of the more serious challenges is the fact
that Iraq has become a sort of an open playground for
many political and religious factions who are using Iraq
as a fighting ground.
So there you have it [Mr. Somewhere-in-the-north-of-Iraq],
and by the way you never told me whether you had a blog or not.

Saturday, March 13, 2004

I have to mention the bombings in Madrid. I've been reading some of the Spanish papers online today and looking at the amazing photos of all the people crowding downtown Madrid. The outpouring of grief and outrage is amazing and moving in a way reminiscent of 9/11 for me. Estimates of 11 million people turning out for vigils was mindboggling in a country of less than 50 million. I'm not sure what can be done to stop this sort of thing. Hunting the perpetrators all down relentlessly seems like a good place to start.

Spain has several thousand soldiers here in Iraq. I saw them at the staging areas in Kuwait and patrolling in the southern part of Iraq. They've been an important part of the coalition and they've paid in blood for what's being done here. I personally feel that the sacrifices of all the coalition countries and their soldiers have been noble and necessary. They were the ones who put it on the line, while others focused on inaction and minutae.

I finally settled into a actual room to sleep in today. The down side is that I may be kicked out in a month because the unit that is in charge of the base thinks our building is too nice for us, but perfect for them. I've been living out of my duffle bags since the beginning of December when we went to our Mobilization station. I am lucky (for now) since lots of troops are living in tents for the whole year. The Army is setting up trailers in the camps so things will be a bit more comfortable, especially in the summer when its 120+.

Friday, March 12, 2004

It's late and I've been told I better get some sleep. Tomorrow we see off the unit that we have just replaced. They will be going home soon and I wish them well. 15 months is a long time to be away from your family. Back to the heartland, homecomings, fourth of July picnics and normal life. Not having to bring a weapon with you everywhere you go, including the bathroom.

The guys and ladies that we are taking over for saw a lot of turmoil through combat operations and into the summer months until now, a year later. Last summer they were mortared every night for a couple weeks. Our artillery finally found where they were holed up and blasted the hell out them. We don't get attacked as much, the gunfire and explosions we hear are more likely to be the guard towers doing a test fire or the Air Force dropping a 2000 pounder.

Our turn to go home will come in a little less than a year. We pray for a quiet one, but we are prepared for anything.

For the duration of the year I plan to remain anonymous, when I get back home I can uncloak. The primary reason is operational security.