Thursday, April 29, 2004

Got off duty at 0800. I slept for a few hours and went to my Arabic class.

Today we talked about temporary marriages or Mut'ah in Arab culture. A man can take a wife for as little as a month and then divorce her provided that she is given a respectable dowry or really whatever price is agreed upon beforehand. The purpose seems to be to preserve the honor of the women since extramarital affairs are seen as a grave sin. Any children produced take the name of the father and are supported by him. These temporary arrangements seem to be specific Shi'ia. The Sunni say that temporary marriage was allowed at the beginning of Islam, but was subsequently not allowed. They consider Mut'ah to be simply glorified prostitution.

We also talked about hospitality.

If a stranger comes to your house. You are required to put them up for 3 days, no questions asked. After 3 days you can ask who they are, what they require etc.

There is a great saying "a guest is like a fish, after three days they are spoiled"

This evening I went out looking for some animals that some of the other soldiers have been seeing running near the perimeter. I found a little fox-like animal that turned out to be an Asiatic Jackal.


Tonight I'm doing another all nighter. I have staff duty. At least I'll get to sleep tomorrow.

I went for a run this morning with body armor and helmet on. We are not allowed to go anywhere outside without "full battle rattle" since things heated up. As a result we've stopped exercising outside. I decided to try running with gear. It was slow and I almost cooked my brain wearing a helmet but I'll probably do it again.

We continue to get sporadic rocket attacks. We had another one today. None have been very close to us. The most recent have been on the other side of post.

People are starting to get lots of sandfly bites. They really should be sleeping under treated bednets. So far none of the sandflies have tested positive for Leishmania. Our preventive med guys run traps then collect the sandflies and freeze them. We have a box with little vials of sandflies in one of our freezers. The sandflies are sent back to a military lab in the US for testing.

If someone comes down with Leishmaniasis they are sent back to the US for treatment.


Monday, April 26, 2004

Ok this may be an indication of the magitude of the boredom that we sometimes fall into here. Today, there wasn't much for me to do at work because one of the computer networks was having some problems. I got on the net and for some reason started reading Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. The play is a crazy bloodbath story of revenge, like a Charles Bronson movie meets silence of the lambs.


Sunday, April 25, 2004

Went to church this morning. I went to the gospel service that turned out to be a lot more lively than the other service. The place was packed.

There was a service for ANZAC day with the Aussie troops here on base. ANZAC Day is a rememberance of the first testing of Australian and New Zealand troops at the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey during WWI.

Not much new to report. I went birding yesterday and finally got through to my wife after a week of trying (email at home has been down and the phones wouldn't cooperate).

My good friend took 3 of my kids to the Aquarium. My son announced that he wanted to be the first person to film a living giant squid.

I received some more care packages in the last couple of days and I'm waiting on some letters from my son's class.

Splash Out

Thursday, April 22, 2004

This evening we had a thunderstorm, complete with 20 minutes of torrential rain, thunder and lightning. A large green toad decided it would be a nice time for a stroll around our building. I'm not sure how the tents held up, but some have pretty large holes, having been up for almost a year.

Happily, the food trucks are getting through again. I had fresh salad, oranges and plums in the mess hall this evening. When I get home I am going to gather a huge pile of fruit and pretend I'm a mountain gorilla. We were expecting to be eating MRE's by now because of convoy disruptions. Last week was pretty slim pickings in the mess hall, I had frozen fish patties quite a few times. For breakfast all they had was dry cereal some mornings. Even so, it would be a feast for the Marines on the Fallujah cordon, some eating 3 MREs a day. Just in case this is my future fate I have a few Jambalaya MREs stashed away.

The exodus of KBR workers seems to have stopped and the lure of the money and/or duty means more will replace those who left.


Wednesday, April 21, 2004

This morning was spent monitoring the situation in Basra. Over 60 dead with 200 wounded. Again unintended consequences: children killed on the way to school. If anything good can come out of the carnage it should be to snap people back into the reality that the people perpetrating these bombings are not on the side of the Iraqi people. They suffer the same problem Arafat demonstrated, it's easier and perhaps in the short run more gratifying to fight against a tangible enemy (Coalition, Israel) and blame all your problems on that enemy rather than face difficult challenges in a rational and civilized way.

We received a pile of letters from a third grade class in our home state. We each are supposed to each write back one of the children. I like reading messages from children, both my own and others. When we were in Kuwait, there were pictures covering the wall of one of the dining halls. I spent a lot of time reading them. I guess it reminded me of my kids who love to make pictures. My wife sent me some of their artwork, which I love to look at.

Our first soldier got to go home on leave this week. You have to be in theater for 90 days before you're eligible. I hope to go in July and be there for my daughter's birthday.


Tuesday, April 20, 2004

I should be getting to sleep, the infernal early morning kickboxing is happening again tomorrow. I'm hoping things get back to a baseline where I'm allowed to go outside again sans my 25 pound carapace. Our PT test for the beginning of May was cancelled because we haven't been able to run for several weeks (unless you want to do it with a helmet and Body armor, I don't).

About an hour ago we had a 57mm rocket come right through the roof of one of the DFACs (Dining Facility). Because it was between meals, there was nobody in the dining area and no one was hurt.

Abu Gharib prison was mortared today. Over 20 prisoners were killed and almost 100 injured. Not exactly the desired effect.

The bad guys are losing momentum, the public outrage over Fallujah has been somewhat tempered by attempts at negotiation and delivering humanitarian supplies. People on the street are still furious over the civilian deaths in Fallujah and the Israeli killing of Rantisi. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail.

Splash Out

Monday, April 19, 2004

Other than a frenzy caused by a bat flying around in our TV room we had a slow day. The bat was safely captured with my insect net and released. Our Preventive Med doc came in yelling that no one should touch it or he was going to make them get rabies shots!! I'm pretty sure that almost all rabies in this part of the world is in dogs and foxes. Oh well.

I skipped going to the chow hall this evening because I needed a nap. Very Churchillian (the nap part). The 6AM kickboxing is getting the best of me.

The weather was cool today. We started out with overcast skies and got some light rain later in the day. Enough to make a thin layer of mud.
I don't think the temps got over 75 degrees. We can't expect many more days like this.

We've had a lull in the action for the past few days. There was only one potshot of a 57mm rocket that happened while I was at the movie theater a couple days ago. I was watching "50 first dates" with 500 of my closest friends when someone yelled "we're at red alert". We pulled on our helmets and ballistic vests and continued watching the movie. Half an hour later someone else called "all clear". The movie was pretty funny.

On the wider front the Spanish are pulling out. This is really sending the wrong message in my opinion. It's operant conditioning for the terrorists. "Let's see, if I apply force here, I get this result. Let's try it again". Sadr has ordered his militia to immediately cease targeting the Spanish in Diwaniyah and other places where they are operating. What a great guy...can't we all just get along!

I'm still hopeful about the final outcome here in Iraq, but it will be a tough slog as this month has shown.


Saturday, April 17, 2004

Sorry, I did little more than sleep and give a briefing yesterday recovering from CQ.

A quote from a guy in the last rotation was "the more I sleep, the less I'm here". I don't feel that negative about being here, but I do like sleeping.

I did do some reading of other people's blogs, mostly Iraqis. Here's a roundup.

Here's a link that has seen wide play in some circles but is worth seeing again. Its a pair of articles in LIFE from 6 months after the end of WWII full of the same short sightedness and handwringing as we hear today. True, Europe and Iraq are not exact parallels, however its worth thinking about how Americans would view post-war Europe if the aftermath of destruction was deconstructed into a steady stream of made for TV myopics. What if Deutsche Welle decided to focus on every negative aspect of American occupation in order to foment armed uprising against the Allies? Things might have been far messier on both sides of the Atlantic.

Today we don't have the luxury of the lag time inherent in 1940's media. Today Al Jazeerah and others follow a track that makes the "hearts and minds" campaign much more difficult. Al Jazeera is not going away, however we need to be more creative in our battle for the "information space".

We need wider play of moderate Iraqi voices like some of the blogs reviewed above. Militarily, hotspots can be dealt with, however as we saw in Fallujah, the same basic facts can be spun in different directions. We need to do a better job, both here and at home.

Friday, April 16, 2004

I'm up all night tonight. I have CQ duty (Charge of Quarters). I really should have taken a nap this afternoon, but I didn't. I get most of tomorrow to recover but I need to give a briefing tomorrow night.

The weather was a bit weird today, the wind was blowing and it was overcast. It looked like it was going to rain. I think we may have some sandstorms going on further south.

Two of our guys got back from a trip to an infamous prison in Baghdad. The trip there was crazy. They were engaged from both sides of the road with machinegun and RPG fire. Its not a drive that they want to repeat. Luckily they caught a chopper ride home instead of running the gauntlet again.

The things they saw at the prison were a chilling reminder of the savagery of Saddam's regime. They saw the torture chambers with messages scrawled on the walls, possibly in blood. In one room was a bloody handprint on the wall. One room had gallows built in. Hooks on the wall and ceiling held the hangman's rope. There were two trap doors in the floor where the prisoners stood on either side of a pair of levers that the executioner would operate. When the trap door was opened it made a tremendous bang, probably for the benefit of the other prisoners. There was a hook to hang bodies over a drain for the blood in another room. Uday Hussain was known to starve his Lions and other big cats and throw his enemies to them to be killed. I thought this was likely an exageration, but I've heard the story confirmed by several people. The level of terror generated by the regime must have been incredible. To live under it in fear is unimaginable to those of us used to living in the west.

It looks like things are getting a bit more under control. I'm not sure why SkyNews, CNN, NBC, etc.... keep referring to "the quickly deteriorating situation in Iraq". Is this wishful thinking? I hope not. That being said everything here is not sweetness and light and there is a fear that Sadr or the Sunni groups might try to stage a spectacular attack to try to regain lost momentum. Hopefully that will fail if it happens.

The problem here is the silence of Iraqi and Political leaders in regard to the recent violence. They don't want to be seen as supporting the Americans, even if they privately don't agree with the insurgents.

This afternoon I went to my weekly Arabic class with the Civil Affairs guys. We discussed some of the differences between the Shi'ia and the Sunni. The Sunni's pray 5 times a day, the Shi'ia pray 3 times a day, combining four of the prayer times into 2. It was funny because the translator explaining this was Shi'ia and the other translator in the back, who is Sunni, said that Shi'ia pray 3 times a day because they are lazy. At this point the Shi'ia guy jokingly said "Its time for you to go now, I'm going to teach these guys to be Shi'ias". He showed us some pictures of various Imams and Ayatollas that his mother gave him for good luck.

I asked him about Mahdi or the hidden Imam. The Shi'ia believe that the twelfth Imam, who became the Imam when he was 10 years old was taken up into heaven like Elijah and never died. They believe that the Mahdi or Messiah will return one day with Jesus to fight the final battle against evil. I hadn't heard this story before. Of course Jesus is a great prophet to them, not God incarnate.

We had a few young guys working in our building today. I chatted with them when they were having lunch. One of them had a cousin in Detroit. They gave me some of their food which consisted of meat and vegetables wrapped in sticky rice. I practiced my terrible Arabic and asked how old they were. They gave me the party line saying the small guys were 16 and the bigger guys 18. I wouldn't be surprised if they were 11 or 12 to 15 years old. One of them did smoke and they all wanted to know if I could give them some matches. All were also very entrepreneurial and wanted to know if I wanted to buy some Iraqi money. One of the guys guarding them, for some odd reason, gave them a large box of Christmas ornaments to bring home. They seemed to appreciate it but if I were them I'd be thinking "What the hell???".

One guy said that I was a good American soldier but the soldiers in Fallujah were bad. He asked if I knew that they had killed over 200 babies plus women and children. I told him he shouldn't listen to Al-Jazeera, that they were exaggerating things. I said that no American soldier would purposely kill a child. I saw the Al-Jazeera broadcast were they seemed to be claiming that marine snipers were shooting women and children to terrorize the Fallujans and teach them a lesson. These blatant lies had wide play. Something that has happened before is women carrying weapons and ammunition to resupply fighters. This can make one a legitimate military target.

On the home front, my family has acquired a dog. My absence may necessitate me roughing up the dog a bit when I get home to establish that I am the Alpha. Seriously though, It was only a matter of time before my children's, especially my daughter's pleadings would bear fruit. A trade in of the cats has previously been offered to no avail. My daughter wrote a little note in which she said that she needed to make a bargain with Mommy, she would clean the toilet for a week and maybe Mommy would get a dog. The dog sounds nice and not too crazy. The dog does need to remember that I have eaten dog before and wouldn't need much prodding to do so again. Just kidding (about eating our dog that is).

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Yesterday was quiet. The first day in over a week that we didn't have multiple rocket attacks. Could be something to do with a predator drone armed with hellfire missiles catching a group firing a mortar at the base. Their demise may have caused others to reconsider their extracurricular activities.

The human cost of the war hit home in the last week. Two lives lost that feel closer than the others.

The first was a soldier from my home town, killed in Baghdad. He was a lot younger than me but he went to the same elementary school as I did. My nieces and nephew go there now. He volunteered to come here and he believed in the mission. It made me realize that we work among people who are dedicated to the cause and are willing to put it on the line. True some people are dragged kicking and screaming over here, complaining that they never signed up for this or they were led astray by a recruiter. A greater number consider it their duty and honor to be here.

The second death has been played out in the media. We have strong links with the unit from Wisconsin with the medic whose twin sister was killed last week. It was incredibly sad to see her and her other sister all over the news. We all trained together in the states and Kuwait. Thankfully all three sisters did meet together in Baghdad in the last month. Our hearts and prayers go out to them.

I remain positive about the security situation. I know it looks like its going to hell, but much of that is the "talking head" effect keeping the bad things happening here at the forefront of our minds until we start thinking that's all that's going on. I haven't yet listened to Bush's speech but I will later today. Most Iraqis are in a wait and see attitude. Lots are being harrassed and large numbers of the ICDC (Iraqi Civil Defense Corps) have quit after being threatened. Some of the KBR workers have left and gone home. Being a truck driver in a KBR convoy became unbearably scary last week.

On a lighter note we have been doing PT indoors for the last week because of the frequent attacks. You don't want to be in shorts and a tee shirt a mile from your building when a rocket comes in. Monday morning we did Tae Bo and I still can hardly walk. Today we had someone else do "Kickboxing with an African Twist" where we threw punches and danced. At one point we were in a Conga Line! It was funny as hell.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Sorry for the lack of postings. We have had indirect fire (mortars and rockets) inside the wire for the last few days. Things usually shut down for a while and I get behind on things.

My job is sometimes less "hands on" than others in my unit. That fact is sometimes frustrating and I sometimes feel like I'm not contributing as much as other soldiers. The positive part of my job is that I have a much better big picture view than most of what is going on in our battalion and in the country as a whole.

I was fortunate to be able to talk to some of my family who were at my parents house for Easter. I heard them singing "happy birthday" to my niece over the phone.

I went to church this morning for the Easter service. Its the first easter service I've attended in body armor and carrying a weapon. I went to both the Protestant and Catholic services. The priest was wearing desert camoflage vestments and desert boots which I found amusing.

We have a satellite TV in the office - it is on all the time. The TV was malfunctioning for a day. All the english language stations blanked out except BBC world. Suddenly all I had was over 50 arabic stations and 1 French. These included Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and national stations from Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Algeria, Yemen, Mauritania, and Palestinian Authority. I annoyed people in the office by watching a Palestinian children's show, some Yemeni guys singing, and what I calll Arab MTV which has arabic videos as well as american, spanish and my favorite - crazy Indian videos.

Today I was watching Sky News which was running stories on a (cricket) test match beween West Indies and England. Brian Lara set a new record becoming the first batsman ever to score a quadruple century (400) in a test match. I really know very little about cricket, but it was a big deal to the West Indians in my unit. One guy wants to have a bat shipped over and start playing. I'll definitely play if he does.


Saturday, April 10, 2004

Its been a while since I last wrote. There has been lots of activity here in the last week. We are fairly remote from the worst fighting but we have had our share of pot shots from the enemy. Throughout the country the coalition is responding. From my vantage point things are not spinning wildly out of control as it may seem through the fisheye lens of TV. I was watching Al-Jazeera yesterday as well as other regional stations. Its easy to find a couple of disgruntled people and shove a camera in their face and lose all perspective of the actual situation. In some places in the south we took a hit. In my estimation this is a largely made-for-tv uprising. It is deadly and US and coalition troops are paying the cost to stem its spread. Far from being spontaneous outbursts of the frustrated masses, the butchery in Fallujah, the civilian hostages, the more coordinated attacks are engineered as a strategic attack on world opinion. The message "it's a lost cause, time to cut and run". I don't get the sense that more than a small minority of Iraqis want these idiots running things.

The case of the Japanese civilian hostages is telling. The kidnappers demand that Japan pull out all of their troops within 3 days. I've met these guys in Kuwait. They have no combat troops and are all medics and engineers rebuilding the infrastructure. The Japanese public are perceived as a point of leverage by the terrorists. They think if they can be outrageous enough or do something truly despicable, the Japanese will get out of Dodge.

Now is a time of testing. In the coming months we will be tested even more severely. I think it is worth it. Depending on the collective resolve of the coalition community we can press on through the pain and reap the long term benefits or be intimidated and manipulated and reap the whirlwind.


Monday, April 05, 2004

Its been cooler the past few days. The temps got down into the 30's last night and this morning felt like a cool, clear Autumn day in the Northeast. Today back at home they are getting winter's last hurrah.

In contrast to the turmoil is some areas of the country like Najaf and Fallujah in recent days, we had a very normal day. We had a bazaar set up in camp so we could buy local stuff like jewelry, copperwork, rugs and various souvenirs like Iraqi money and old Iraqi military medals. I looked but didn't get anything. There are some other guys who work on base who can get stuff cheaper. Also I have a long time to decide what I want.

One guy who has since left was on a buying spree when he was here buying up as many medals, Iraqi uniforms and assorted junk that he could get his hands on. I suppose it will show up on eBay soon.


Sunday, April 04, 2004

Well I seem to have made a quantum leap in communication. I tried out dialpad using a USB phone and it worked great. It allows you to call any phone through the computer for 2 cents a minute. Not bad and the sound quality was good. Currently we use either the ATT phone center (a royal pain) or we get to make a 15 minute morale call through the Defense Switched Network (DSN) line every few days. We have to call a military line in the states and get switched to an outside line. We have only one phone for several dozen folks so getting on is a pain.

Some other soldiers use yahoo messenger with or without a webcam to talk with friends and family back home.

I saw some pictures from one of the Docs who had to make some visits around Baghdad. I am jealous. One of our line companies is staying near one of Saddam's palaces with large lakes. The dudes are fishing all the time! I saw a picture of one of our guys with a good sized carp. I have also heard that large-mouthed bass have been introduced in some Iraqi waters. If its like other parts of the world where LM bass have been stocked, they ate all the native fish. I would not recommend eating any of these fish unless you plan to get immediate chelation therapy, but catching them would be fun (and a good diversion). When the doc was down near Baghdad he even ran in a 10k race around the lakes. He said it was one of the high points of his time here.

Back to work today. Yesterday we switched to daylight savings time a day ahead of the states. I'm not sure why. Quite a few Iraqis were confused too. Lots showed up an hour late for work.

I really didn't feel like doing anything yesterday other than catching up on sleep and doing some reading.

We had an unusual medical case where one of our soldiers woke up sweating and vomiting with a suspected bite on his foot. He developed a very high fever that was knocked down with meds but rebounded to over 106. I searched his sleep area for a long time hoping to find the culprit. He sleeps in a bunk near the rafters. I found a very messy web that looked very similar to black widow spider webs that I've seen in South Carolina. There are related Latrodectus species in this area and reading the literature his symptoms seem consistent with a Latrodectus envenomation. After 3 days in the hospital he is back with us.


Saturday, April 03, 2004

Tomorrow is my first "day off" since we got here. I use the term very loosely. I'll shift to a 10 hour duty day 6 days a week with Saturday "off". Something always comes up but I'll have a little more leeway on Saturdays to take care of personal business.

I stayed up until 2:30AM last night writing on the computer and sorting through my email. I woke up at 5:45 to do a PT test. Needless to say I was not in peak physical condition. I managed an acceptable performance. I do it again in a month and will have a better score.

I went to the chow hall with two other soldiers. They just installed big concrete bunkers outside to use when we get rocket attacks during mealtimes. I think its a good idea. The chow hall itself is just made of metal sheeting. In contrast our building where we sleep and work has cement walls 16 inches thick and a cement roof.

I had a leisurely breakfast of a cheese omlet, a breakfast burrito, mango juice and tea.

I received 4 carepackages this week with all sorts of goodies. My family sent me pictures and some of my neice's writing. I really enjoy the things like that from home. We have a pretty good supply of snacks now. I have a refrigerator that's well stocked with pudding. I got some very hot wasabi peas which I put out in my office. A few people went running out of the office with their mouths on fire.

We are going to be allowed 15 days leave for R&R. I put in for the summer because my kids are out of school and I can spend more time with them. Some people don't want to go home because they don't want to go through the goodbyes again.

Lights Out

Friday, April 02, 2004

Today was a great day. After more than a month cooped up behind the wire, they let me out. I had talked to a civil affairs unit about the possibility of going with them on some of their missions. They said they were always looking for more people to do security or support the missions in other ways.

Civil Affairs are the true "hearts and minds"people. They coordinate things like rebuilding schools, training the police, and generally trying to improve the lives of the population to which they are assigned.

Today the mission was to pass out about 400 backpacks with school supplies to children from two local schools. It was also a recon mission on behalf of the Battalion to see if these missions would be appropriate to send our people on.

We loaded the backpacks into our humvees and went out the gate where the car bomb went off. The charred front axel was still there, having been thrown 200 meters.

It was fantastic to be out in the green open fields checkered with little irrigation furrows. We turned off the main road and drove over a few canals. The convoy, complete with the requisite gun trucks, came rumbling unannounced into a small village and set up a perimeter around the school. Young men were standing around in their traditional dishdashas and some older men had the red checkered khefeya on. Most of the women wore the black dress head to toe and stayed away from the activity. After informing the headmaster of the purpose of our little visit, people started unloading the trucks. As we were coming in I was wondering if people were thinking we were there to arrest someone. Today my job was security. I stayed outside near the trucks on guard. Some teenage boys came and talked to me and lots of little children from toddlers to probably 10 years old came around. I had to stay focused on what was going on around the vehicles and the surrounding area. I couldn't take pictures or sightsee because if something happened like someone showing a weapon or a hostile crowd gathering, we needed to be able to react immediately. It turned out to be very benign. We did have a crazy cow that was running back and forth at full clip through the courtyard mooing.

Carrying a loaded weapon has become more familiar to me, but not routine. We always have our weapon with us no matter were we go,from the bathroom to chow to church. On base we are usually not locked and loaded but carry our magazines where we can load quickly if needed. Outside the wire we load up. Usually we are so safety conscious back in the states that you can hardly even touch your weapon on the range or someone freaks out. Here we walk around with it loaded and only a flip of the safety switch away from firing. We had some excellent training in Kuwait in close quarters marksmanship that gave us a lot more confidence. We even practiced firing out of moving vehicles. Doing security around lots of civilians, who you don't want to freak out, you keep your muzzle always pointed at the ground and away from people. This is called muzzle awareness. You never point at something you are not willing to shoot. You never shoot at anyone you are not willing to kill.

A little later some of the other soldiers came out and took over security. I got to talk to the children and handed out some starbursts. The kids were so cute, I didn't realize how much I miss being around children. Other than the few kids I see in the fields through the fence and the few I saw driving up from Kuwait, I haven't seen kids for almost 2 months. One little boy, maybe 8 years old said to me in broken english "I love American soldier" and gave me a couple of small pink roses. I have them in my office now. I must have smelled them 20 times today. Its a familiar smell of home. One of the adults came outside with a tray of sweet tea in small glass cups. There's so much sugar that it about 2 or 3 mm remains undisolved on the bottom. I readily accepted.

It was a very feel good experience. As we were leaving all the kids came outside to go home sporting their new black backpacks and big grins.

We repeated the scene at another school but this time I went inside. It was very crowded with simply a chalkboard and desks. Each kid had a little notebook for their studies. Again being with the kids was great. I ended up giving a little girl my flyswatter and I also gave away some pencils and pens and a bag of beef jerky that I had planned to eat myself.

I pray that these kids grow up in an Iraq where they can live up to their huge potential.Many things are not perfect, significant problems still exist. Even so, I wish people at home could see what I saw today. Iraqis living their normal lives, happy kids going to school. Eager young smiling faces. The future, God willing.

Salam from Iraq