Monday, May 31, 2004

Memorial Day 2004

At the chow hall tonight there was a single table with an empty helmet on the chair and boots underneath. It was a good reminder of those who have paid the price here and on other battlefields. I'm grateful to them, to their sacrifice and to their service. I hope people at home don't forget.


Sunday, May 30, 2004

We had a memorial day picnic and volleyball tournament at our building today with the whole company. It was a good change of pace and everyone seemed to enjoy just hanging out and having some fun.

One of the guys is a DJ and has somehow acquired all the sound equipment needed to reach 80+ decibels. He also has a huge CD collection. We had hot dogs and hamburgers in Memorial Day style.

I remember last year waiting, then marching in the pouring rain. It was a small parade in small New England town, the new leaves on the trees. I was amazed at all the people who stood by the side of the road with their umbrellas to see the parade. Next year we'll probably be marching again in the same place.

Back at home its the unofficial start of summer, here I think that happened in March. Its over 100 every day. When people have to walk any distance they come back inside completely soaked with sweat, both t-shirt and BDU top. It happens so many times in one day that many people have white rings of salt on their uniform in the outline of their body armor.

I met an interesting guy yesterday night. He was a translator who worked for one of our line companies. It was the end of his year long tour working for the coalition. He's an Iraqi Christian who left about 26 years ago and lives in San Diego.

We talked for over an hour about the situation in the country. He told me that Iraq was a lot better when he left and Saddam had ruined the place, taking all the country's wealth for an elite few who were loyal to him. He said that Saddam would take an uneducated guy put him in a suit and give him a Mercedes and the guy would do just about anything for him. He recounted how people used to take sunset cruises down the Tigris in Baghdad and how nice it was. After Saddam came to power it wasn't allowed for security reasons. He also said that Baghdad is nothing like Beirut during the civil war. Now the streets are full of people even until 11pm, which never happened before. People continue relatively uninterrupted even if a bomb goes off nearby. This obviously isn't normal, but it is adaptive. He called Moqtada a "little jerk with his band of thieves" he said most Iraqis on the street make fun of them.

Our line company was lucky to have this guy with them. Every weekend he would go and stay with his brother and his family in Baghdad. He would return to the company on Monday morning with a big tub of home-made hummus and 40 small flat loaves of bread they call samook.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Well, today was incredibly hot. 117 degrees. Going outside felt like standing infront of an oven door. The cradle of civilization should be named the crucible.

I had a conversation with another Iraqi contractor. He went to college in England and got a degree in electrical engineering in 1987. That year he came back to Iraq and hasn't left since. He became a Lt. Colonel in the Iraqi Air Force working as an engineer.

He said life was very hard during the wars and the embargo. Life is much better for him and his family now and he doesn't care if the Americans stay 100 years if it means that no one like Iran will attack them and no one like Saddam Hussein rules the country again.

Working with the Americans can be very dangerous. Many people working for the Coalition get harassed and some receive anonymous death threats, occasionally someone is murdered. When our contractors go to Baghdad to pick up supplies for us like cement people are very inquisitive about who its for. Not all of them have benign intent.

We rode to a project he's working on across the base. Most of our contractors need an armed escort. I felt a little bad that I had to walk around with the guy with a loaded weapon but that's life here and he understands. We drove in a vehicle with a radio. The DoD civilian we were riding with had an Iraqi music station on and the contractor identified the nationality of the singer Egyptian, Iraqi, Lebanese. The DoD guy asked what they were singing about. "About love, what else is there to sing about?" said the contractor. Some things are universal.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Its hard to communicate the magnitude of the disconnect between what I'm seeing on the TV, along with everyone back home, and what I'm experiencing on the ground. Every report seems to start with "things just seem to get worse and worse". The blood is in the water, the media feeding frenzy and self perpetuating news vortex goes on and on.

Not that bad things haven't been happening, like car bombing and assassinations but the myopic focus of the news misses the fact that there are clear signs of progress here. My fear is that public opinion, misguided by news and ideologues will undo what we've been working for. The danger of failure here rests not on the situation on the ground but instead on the situation in the public's heads.

The level of proof that things are moving forward is apparently unattainable. The press seems to have a rigid view of what's going on here. Bush lied, we are oppressing the Iraqis with our mere presence, failure is imminent. Facts are not a problem with this paradigm. First it was "there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq" Oops we found some. The mantra now is "no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction have been found" Absence of evidence does not equal evidence of absence. The fact that large parts of the country are peaceful and functional is trumped by extrapolating localized events to the situation for the entire country.

What I see here is the majority of Iraqis living their lives. Working, starting businesses, running their farms, kids going to school, men and women attending university, getting married, planning for the future. Struggling, yes, but struggling toward a goal of a better existence.

I see Fallujah calm, Shiite leaders rejecting and actively working against Sadr's Militia. I see men proud to be in the new Iraqi Army and the Iraqi Police. They wouldn't take the risk of their positions if they didn't sense a new brighter future.

Apparently the Marines, Soldiers, Airmen and countless other Americans here who have willingly come and wholeheartedly support the goals of being in Iraq, lack the sophistication to recognize the folly and failure that the perfumed princes say our mission in Iraq has become. People at home need to hear from the front line troops, not from reporters who won't leave the safety of the green zone and willingly lap up videos from Al Jazeera's man on scene.

I listened to the President's speech. I was generally happy with what I heard. Iraq can be a catalyst for positive change, but we must resist the impulse of some to cut and run.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Today was a slow day.

I made it to the clinic in time for afternoon sick call. Just a couple of patients. Nothing serious: heat cramps, diarrhea, more orthopedic problems.

Back to the office tomorrow. A few more briefings and meetings in the next few days. Grease in the wheels of the machine.

Last night I used yahoo IM and talked with my family. I could see and hear everyone through the webcam. The baby is very cute. She lost most of her hair and now has peach fuzz on her head. She made me some faces and made baby noises for me while my wife held her up to the camera.

My older daughter showed me a few tricks the dog had learned.

Both boys goofed around for the camera. It was good to see everyone.

The communication back home is definitely a plus. During the Gulf War some people had no communication for months. Then again if this was the Gulf War I would be home already.


Tuesday, May 18, 2004

This morning, like Saturday, I was given an early wakeup from a rocket barrage attack. Luckily, they didn't hit anyone or anything. I prefer early evening Red Alerts...More convenient.

Yesterday I was visiting some Engineers when the building shook. Looking out the window we saw a big column of dust about 200 meters away. We went to red alert. I was already in all my gear so I just waited in the hall. A minute later two guys came in. One said "I am officially indestructible" He was driving when the rocket came in and exploded meters away from him. He was unhurt and his vehicle undamaged.

I had an interesting conversation with one of our contractors who supervises some of the local guys who work in our area.

He turns out to have a masters degree in Nuclear Physics and we spent half an hour discussing his thesis work on depleted Uranium contamination around tanks hit by DU rounds. He took soil samples, meat samples of goats grazing in the area and produced exposure estimates for people living in the area.

The guy is very friendly and seemed to enjoy discussing his work. Because the Iraqi Atomic Energy ministry was disbanded, he couldn't get a job in the field. He told me his dream is to study in the US and get his PhD in physics. He is taking the TOEFL and applying for a scholarship for 2005.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

The leave program has been curtailed until mid June. The 20,000 who have been extended have precedence for now.

My time in the clinic was enjoyable. I saw a handful of patients, then hung out with the PA's and our RN in their tent.

The work week starts tomorrow, actually the last one never ended. Some people are calling it Groundhog Day, like the movie where Bill Murray relives the same day over and over.

Last week several Filipino workers were wounded and one killed in a series of mortar attacks on our base. For the next several days the guys refused to work, they didn't feel safe.

I'm very behind writing thank you notes for everyone who has sent me boxes and cards and letters. Of those who have, I am very appreciative of your thoughtfulness as are the other soldiers with whom I share all the goodies. I have to admit that the Japanese snacks (almonds, dried sardines, and dried shrimp) sent by my co-workers have a very limited audience, but that means more for me!

Friday, May 14, 2004

Here, the murder of Nick Berg has eclipsed the crimes at Abu Gharib Prison. That is, among American Troops. The self-flagellation in some of the press is starting to sound disingenuous, especially when compared to the coverage given to the murder of Nick Berg. Could this be because this Berg's murder does not fit the "noble insurgent" image that has been propagated.

Why is that the media was saying the images from Abu Gharib had to be seen. It was their duty to expose them. However unless you dug into the netherworld of the internet, the only image you would see was a still of Nick berg in his orange jumpsuit. Not his screams, not terrorist holding up his just severed head. The paternal media feels no duty to show these images. Evan Maloney says it much better that me.

I watched the video,along with many of the soldiers I know. It was something you only watch once. This is the enemy. They didn't need the excuse of the prison abuses when the contractors were mutilated in Fallujah or when Daniel Pearl suffered a similar fate in Pakistan.

From another perspective, the murder has had another effect on the Iraqi street. I get the sense that most are disgusted, as they were with the murders in Fallujah. It delegitimizes arguments that these acts are simply acts of war in a legitimate insurgency. That these guys are fighting for the average Iraqi citizen. Not many people want to be associated with such blatant barbarism. Most Iraqis consider themselves both cultured and moral.

Yesterday I saw something laughable on Al-jazeera. In the face of the Berg video, they questioned its authenticity.



Wednesday, May 12, 2004

I'm up all night for the second day in a row. I have duty until 8 AM.

I'm looking forward to sleeping all day tomorrow.

Our new doctors are rotating in and we are in the process of sending them to their respective units in the battalion. Because physicians and dentists in the reserve and national guard can only stay for 90 days in theater, we are going to have 4 different groups of them.

Many of our first rotation docs have returned to the US and are in the process of demobilizing. The new batch can look forward to going home in 3 months. The reason the Army does this is because during the Gulf War many mobilized Doctors had significant financial problems or lost their practices while they were away. In order to avoid an exodus, they instituted the 90 day limit. Our Physician Assistants, Nurses and medics get to stay for 12 months.

We are approaching 6 months since we've been mobilized. I probably won't go home to stay until February or March of next year. Too long to think about.

I finally got outside to run on Monday. Though we still have to wear all our gear outside, we can run at the track without it if we have our body armor and helmet close at hand. This policy also goes for softball and volleyball.


Saturday, May 08, 2004

A nice change of pace for me today down at the clinic. Saturdays are pretty light so it was a good chance to ease my way back into it.

I had just a few patients to take care of. I helped bring someone to the CSH to rule out an MI, had a guy with orthopedic problems, removed some stitches and had a guy come in who smashed his finger in a door. It turned out to be an open compound fracture so he needed to be seen by the orthopedic surgeon. I got to see the new digital X-ray in action. The patient gets a CD of their x-rays to bring with them for any physicians that need to see them. The computer allows you to zoom in and to change contrast. Very cool.

I got to watch one of the KBR workers get an abcess packed that had been drained a few days ago.

When things got slow I hooked myself up to the pulse-ox and held my breath. I got my heart rate up to 120 and my sats down to 94%.

It was a productive day.

Friday, May 07, 2004

The bad boys were screwing around again. We received some more rocket fire in our neighborhood. The only casualty was a water buffalo (water trailer). It got some holes in it and a flat tire.

The weather is hot hot hot. Especially with all the gear on. I weighed myself today with my body armor, helmet and weapon and ammunition. In total it weighs 42 pounds. For the rest of the week the high temperature will be around 100 degrees here. In the far south it will be 104.

Tonight I went to a poetry slam down at our clinic with the medics and the other members of the battalion. It was very, very funny. It was good to decompress a little. The medics and the docs have been working very hard since we got here. Everything from minor complaints to removing shrapnel from soldiers overflowing from the CSH (Combat Support Hospital). With so many people on the ground there is an infinite variety of problems.

Tomorrow, I get to be a medic again, at least for a day. I don't have to be in the office so I'm going to help out in our clinic. I'm looking forward to it. Depending how it goes I may do it every week.

There also may be some opportunities to use my public health knowledge on some outside projects.

On another note I got yahoo messenger working yesterday with a webcam. I IM'd my wife and goofed around on the camera for my kids.

Here's a picture of our building viewed from the volleyball court.

our building

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

I got out of my cage today and got outside the wire on a mission with our preventive medicine officer. Things are quieter lately and hopefully will get better. I noticed that the supply trucks now have soldiers riding shotgun for security and that convoys now consist of Stryker armored vehicles as security instead of armored humvees. The increased firepower is an intimidation factor that seems to be working.

The mission I went on today involved collecting water samples from the Tigris River, a canal, and assorted ponds and wells on post. The river needs to be tested because we might start pulling water from there to service the camp. The ponds on post are an unknown quantity when it comes to possible contamination. Water from the ponds could be used for dust control and other non-drinking uses.

We met up with a group of marines who had some zodiac boats which we wanted to use. We needed to get out from the shore to get a good set of samples.

The trailer with the boats was hooked up to the humvee I was driving then we drove to the gate for a mission briefing. We met up with the QRF (Quick Reaction Force) team, who were going to provide security. We also had a few engineer officers who were going to look at the intake and the pump by the river. Originally a dive team was going to come with us and do an underwater inspection, but they had to go recover a body trapped in a vehicle at the bottom of a canal.

We had a short drive through our checkpoint manned by Iraqi soldiers and then through a small town with vineyards and citrus groves. We drove down a dirt road and found a place to launch the boat. The river itself was about 1/4 of a mile wide and fairly slow moving. The water was very brown and turbid. Reeds lined the banks and covered the small islands in the channel. As we pulled up the QRF took up security positions. A small fishing boat with three guys in it passed by us. They seemed nervous to see so many weapons and the moved to the other side of the river.

The marines unloaded the zodiac and hooked up a large outboard motor while we unloaded all the sample bottles and equipment. The samples will be sent for analysis for things like pesticides, herbicides, volatile organic compounds, carbamates, other measures of water quality. One measure that didn't need testing was a dead donkey floating in the river not far from the inlet pipes.

The marines took our PM officer out to get the samples then had fun zooming around after the samples were collected. This came to a sudden stop when they hit a sandbar and ran the motor into the bottom. A couple marines jumped out and pulled the boat off the sandbar. It was funny watching them walk around in ankle-deep water 100 meters from shore. Someone made some comment about Marines walking on water.

We loaded up and were back on post within 2 hours of leaving.

Later I got to ride around in the large pond on post in the zodiac. The marines helped me with the bottles, handing them to me to fill and then screwing the caps on. The water had so much disolved solids in it that as soon as the water evaporated off my gloves or the boat, there was a white residue left behind. I caught some brine shrimp in the lake so it couldn't be completely fouled.

All in all it was a good diversion from the regular routine.

On the River

Tigris Zodiac


Sunday, May 02, 2004

Good news today. The KBR workers who was shown being kidnapped three weeks ago, escaped today and was recovered by US troops in Balad. It was good to see interviews with his relieved family. Reportedly he wants to get back to work.

The other big news is reports of prisoner abuse at Abu Gharib prison near Baghdad and similar reports among some British troops.

Looking at the pictures there is no excuse for the behavior. It's a disgrace to everyone serving here and trying to make things better. These revelations caused widespread and understandable outrage on the street. The people responsible, lacked basic ethics and sense. Sure, the situation may have made it hard to act responsibly, as suggested by the Brigadier General who was relieved, but that's not an excuse. This is a danger of dehumanizing one's enemies. It's the fuel of atrocities. It was a problem endemic to Saddam's regime. If you loose the moorings of understanding the humanity of your enemies, anything is possible. People start to justify their actions by claiming special circumstances. Recent history is replete with examples of the "heart of darkness", Rwanda, Bosnia, Uganda, Cambodia. In all these cases a fundamental problem was that someone lost it, sometimes whole groups lost it. Some amount of detachment is necessary when dealing with your enemy, but not to the point that your responsibility to act ethically is abrogated.

Hopefully everything will come to light and be dealt with appropriately. Other than the Geneva Convention and morality there are practical reasons for treating prisoners well. If the enemy knows that they will be treated humanely they are more likely to surrender under duress. If they believe they will be tortured or otherwise mistreated they have more of an incentive to fight.

The damage done will be hard to undo.

On our front we had a convoy hit by an IED. Some of our guys were catching a ride with another unit. They heard a loud explosion behind them and felt the pressure wave. Four vehicles behind, a soldier from another unit got shrapnel in the arm and had to be taken to the Combat Support Hospital.

Take Care