Saturday, July 31, 2004

Its Saturday morning. Little baby woke up at 5:45. I gave her a bottle and she went back to bed. The other three kids have decided its time to start the day.

The baby is at a very fun age. She laughs and giggles a lot and also has a blood curdling scream which she sometimes does for fun. Being with her is so much better than pictures and the webcam. Seeing the children grow is what I miss most about home. Everyone is a little bigger but the baby has changed the most. The last time I saw her she was one month old. After I leave the next time she will be over a year old.

I haven't been able to watch much TV but I did see the news about the bombing in Baquba. Its strange watching footage from Iraq on my living room couch. It seems so remote and unreal. I saw a Fox news guys reporting from Baghdad in the Powell news conference who I remember from one of the civil affairs missions this spring. He and his crew drove up from Baghdad along with their 5000 dollar a day security crew of ex British SAS guys.

The rest of my leave will go quickly. Next week we have plans for the beach with my brother and sister in law from Texas and their 3 little girls.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

I'm currently on R+R back at home in the US.  The trip from my base in Iraq to home took 63 hours in total.

I started with a C-130 ride out of the country.  I positioned myself near a window so I could get a good view flying down to Kuwait.  We climbed to a safe altitude and headed south over the muddy Tigris river and the green checkerboard of farms in the valley, then out over the desert.  I saw a lone Apache helicopter slowly flying low over the water following the river.  It reminded me of a hunting shark.  

Coming into Kuwait the landscape is all flat sandy desert as far as you could see.  We passed over big junkyards in the middle of nowhere filled with thousands of rusting Iraqi tanks, trucks, and artillery pieces from the gulf war. 

We landed in Kuwait and processed through a base there.  Compared to anything in Iraq the place was like a resort.  The food court even had a Starbucks, in fact there were two on base!  We had a customs briefing on everything we couldn't bring home and then had a shakedown inspection just to make sure.  After the inspection you are put in a segregated area so you can't slip something back in your luggage.

Because of my connection arrangements I ended up flying down the east coast and then back up the same route after my plane change in Atlanta.  I had great views of the greater Philadelphia area including downtown on the way south and New York City on the way north.

My wife and kids were waiting for me at the airport.  It was great to see them. It felt like I never left, except the baby is now 7 months old and she's a lot bigger. 

The past few days have been spent catching up, playing with the kids, seeing family and relaxing.  The kids are very active, I definitely get more sleep in Iraq. 



Friday, July 23, 2004

This morning I helped some of our Preventive Med guys check the mosquito traps around post.  Two of us had never been before. Another guy was up all night and knew were all the traps were.   I told him he could sleep for a few hours so he could go with us in the morning.  When I came in the office he told me that he didn't sleep and he wasn't going.  He said that he'd show us where they were on a map and he was going to sleep.  A classic private move.  I said it was too damn bad that he didn't sleep and he was coming with us.  It turns out we would have never found half of the traps if he didn't come.  Some were under bushes or in the middle of nowhere.

The traps are mesh bags open at the top with a small lightbulb and a fan to blow them into the trap.  They are designed to catch mosquitos and sandflies.  Mosquitos spread vivax malaria here and the sandflies spread leishmaniasis.  The Prev. Med job is to keep track of the mosquito and sandfly populations and to test the sandflies for leishmaniasis.

Today we had 16 local workers filling sandbags for us.  One of the living trailers needs over 2000 sandbags to protect it from mortars and rockets.

Each morning hundreds of day laborers come to one of our gates looking for work.  This is in addition to the thousand plus local guys with contracts who come each day. One of our Sergeants has the system figured out.  He's the first one in line so he gets the people he needs and goes.  If you get to the gate late often all the laborers have jobs for the day and no one is left for you. Especially if KBR or the Department of Public Works has a big project. This morning, again, he was first in line.  He wanted the same crew as yesterday.  The gate guards summoned him up to the worker waiting area.  Already some guys were calling him by name.  He went over to get the guys he wanted and 50 workers jumped up crowded around him.  The guards freaked and three of them started yelling for everyone to sit down.  Guys continued calling out our sergeants name and crowding around him like he was a rock star.  Eventually everything settled down and he took the 16 guys and jumped in the 2 1/2 ton truck.

Filling sandbags all morning long is pretty heavy work but these guys got right to it and loaded up the entire truck.  At lunch time our sergeant crammed himself and 4 guys in the cab and the rest were hanging all over the back of the truck.  He drove down to our area so the crew could have lunch.

While our sergeant was having lunch I watched the crew.  Most of them come from the village just off base, many of them were in the military in Saddam's time.  I had a great time chatting with them.  Some of them could speak a little english and I exhausted my full arabic vocabulary.  Several guys asked me if it was possible for me to get them a permanent job on post instead of doing it day by day.  I said I couldn't.  Then I was offered a large selection of fake rolex watches to buy.  I declined.  Then I was asked if I would sell them my crappy Timex watch. From what I've been offered before I think I would get $3.00.  One guy wanted me to give him some boots to replace his worn out plastic shoes, then 5 of them wanted footwear.  I had none to give. 

Some of the guys had distinctly different opinions from some of the other Iraqis I talked to.  One guy said that Saddam, Bush, Alawi and every other leader was bad.  He said that he thought his life would be better by now.  Another guy told me he was not a Muslim, nor a Christian and it was just between him and God.  He upset the muslims when he said "Mohammed no good".  One of them told me not to listen to the old man because he is crazy from the sun.

Other news today, our third rotation of physicians and dentists came in tonight to start their 90 days.  We've depleted all the docs from our state so we currently have two from Montana, one from Hawaii and one from New Jersey.  Today we got docs from New Mexico, Wyoming, and Tennessee. 

Only one big boom today when a 120mm mortar round hit the softball field.  Luckily no games were scheduled for the middle of the day.   A few guys nearby got their bells rung but no more.

workers on truck

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

We've had lots of home improvements done on our building recently.  The building used to be officer quarter for the Iraqi Airforce.  We have no running water, though we have a shower and toilet in each bedroom.  One day, we've been promised, they will work.  The good thing about the building is that its very sturdy.  The walls are 16 inch thick cement and the roof is a slab over 20 inches thick.  It would take quite a hit to make a hole in it.  Bigger sized rockets are being shot at us lately, its a side effect of having to fire from further away.  Lots of the rockets are meant to fire from helicopters.  The insurgents usually rig up some ad hoc firing mechanism made out of things like PVC pipes and alarm clocks for timers.  Sometimes they're not too smart, the first rocket off will fry all the wires to the others.  Sometimes they are devilishly ingenious hiding their roadside bombs.  We've even had them in the carcasses of dead dogs by the side of the road.
On the home improvement front, the building has been networked for our two Internet systems plus the the Army secure network. In the past few weeks we had a flagpole put up, along with tiles in shape of a red cross around it.  We also had a staircase made up to the roof where I sometimes go for breakfast or at night watching the F-16s drop 2000 lb bombs.  We had a patio tiled and had the local workers cover the patio with a wooden roof.  There's always some improvement going on.  I'm a little afraid that it will be too nice and the big boys on post will want the building for themselves.
Tomorrow is cleaning day.  Instead of PT we'll spend some time in the early morning cleaning up.  One of our higher commands will be visiting this week.  Our section will be power washing the patios.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Just finished reading a well written and interesting blog from one of the guys in the Stryker brigade up in Mosul. He's riding around in an armored vehicle on missions every day doing infantry stuff. Made me feel like I'm doing very little in comparison. Same stuff every day here, it lacks the excitement and adrenaline of combat patrols. Its also less tangible, except when I occasionally work as a medic.

We've got some Strykers here too. During April, when all the convoys were getting hit they started accompanying the trucks. The PMO (Provost Marshall) - the sheriff on post had to get the guys to slow down while driving around base. They were tearing around the perimeter road and caused some accidents with other vehicles. The tanks sometimes have similar problems of not playing well with others. A few days ago one of the tanks broke down when out on patrol. The recovery vehicle went out and picked it up. On the way back somehow the towbar came undone. The loose tank rolled right over some poor guys car - a small opel. We will send the reimbursement team out and make restitution. Someone joked at one of my meetings that the army just bought a "new, mint condition 1989 Opel with a very rare Elvis music collection". Commenting on the fact that we will pay significantly more than the car was worth partly based on exagerations from the owner. Hey, he didn't ask for a car pancake!

This evening I washed one of our Humvees so it could be turned in to get air conditioning installed. I started seeing hummers with a two big external fans mounted on the roof about 3 weeks ago. I guess the kits must have just come in. We have a couple trucks now with AC and people tell me they work great. I've experienced the alternative and I think I'll take AC.

After the motor pool I went to dinner and had steak and shrimp. Lately I've been going to dinner around 8pm after I get off work. Another Sergeant and I usually take our time eating sometimes staying until 9:15pm. Its much less crowded than earlier. At 8:30 they stop serving. The Bangledeshi guys who work in the chow hall all have a meeting before they are allowed to eat. Usually there are only a few soldiers left. We call this the "Union Meeting", though its likely the exact opposite. One guy tells them things I imagine to be what they are doing wrong and what they will be doing. After the meeting there seems to be a hierarchy of who eats first. The first group leaps from the table and race each other to the food which is usually 1 to 2 plates of rice topped with some curry concoction. Some of the guys are very young, maybe 18 or less if they lied on their application. I often think about how the TCNs (Third Country Nationals) deal with working here. For some it must be very isolating. I know some of the Filipino guys have 3 year contracts to work here, away from family and friends.

I'm not sure what the effect of the Philippine withdrawl of troops will be on the Filipino workers here on base. We have well over 1000 of them. A few weeks ago a mortar round landed right in the middle of a cookout some of the guys were having. I think 15 or so were wounded, several very seriously. A few were evacuated to Germany for medical treatment.

Politically, the withdrawal is another victory for the terrorists following that of Spain. The terrorist are drawing extremely dangerous conclusions. The threat to the US this summer and fall is very real. I think a terrorist attack for the purpose of throwing the election would backfire. Bush would be sure to win. Of course removing the current administration is just one of many goals. America is an ideological and moral enemy and any pain inflicted is seen as a plus. If they are thinking strategically they will not attack before the election to give voters a chance to kick out President Bush. I fear that they think Spain and US are more similar than they actually are.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Today was the 25th anniversary of Saddam coming to power. Some fools decided to mark the date by blowing up a car bomb in Baghdad, killing a dozen people and injuring 50. In a separate incident the governor of Mosul was killed.

Despite the violence, there have been some positive signs. Now people are starting to turn against the foreign fighters like Zaqawi in earnest. More people are willing to turn them in and some have reportedly left the country because conditions have deteriorated for them. Iraqis have decided that they won't tolerate the foreign fighter's and Al-Qaeda's willingness to inflict civilian casualties. This is good news.

Today we had a full bird colonel flying back to Baghdad she went early to the terminal to catch the chopper. A while later she gave us a call and said she had been bumped. Usually Colonels are the ones doing the bumping. When we went to the terminal we found that not only was she bumped but so was another colonel, a battalion commander and his XO who had a morning meeting. I turns out they all got kicked off because a band that had played here needed to go down to Baghdad for a show! The pilot wasn't happy.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

We got out of the "full battle rattle" at least temporarily because of a slackening in attacks. There is a cost-benefit equation at work. Wearing all that gear definitely degrades your performance, though it can also save your life avoiding the ultimate in performance degradation. Now I am enjoying being unencumbered. The attacks on us have decreased significantly in the last 5 days or so.

I had a relatively cool walk this morning because we had cloud cover. The clouds kept the temp in the 80's until after 9AM which is unusual these days.

Two days ago we broke our temperature record. Somewhere between 123 and 126. Our mercury thermometer only goes to 125 so when it gets really hot we'll use a digital. Stories about 150 degree temps are probably a result of uncalibrated thermometers. 136 degrees in Libya was the highest official temp ever recorded. I can tell you that our porto-potties definitely exceed 150 during the day. I'm expecting to find someone dead in one from heat stroke. Maybe I can submit that to Guinness book. Highest recorded porto-potty temperature (cooked an egg on the floor and threw it in the loo).

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Everyone is waiting for the interim government to announce its new security measures which may include a limited amnesty of some of the anti-coalition forces. Co-opting some of the insurgents is the sort of mildly distasteful pragmatic type of thing that the government will try to do to put down the insurgency. The announcement has been postponed twice in three days.

More distasteful to me is dealing with Moqtada Al-Sadr. There are reports of negotiations between the government and some of Sadr's lieutenants. Politically he is not viable, at least according to the Shi'ia I've talked to. Still him sticking around isn't a good thing for stability.

For us its been status quo more or less since the handover.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

I have CQ again. I'll be up all night. Tomorrow we have the first of two July 4th celebrations. Tomorrow we'll head down to the TMC (Troop Medical Clinic) for lots of food, volleyball, karaoke, and hanging out. On Sunday we've been invited to go up to the Medical Logistics Battalion for their party. The Medlog is an active duty unit out of Germany. They are responsible for getting all the medical supplies to everyone in the theater, including blood. Very busy people with lots of friends.

This will be my second 4th of July outside of the US. The first time, in 1990, was under better circumstances. I was scuba diving in Indonesia at the Nusantara Diving Center in Menado on the Island of Sulawesi. Very cool. Then I went to Tangkoko National Park and saw some rare critters only found on Sulawesi.

The last few years we've been going up to Boston to have a 4th of July Thai style. My sister, my Thai brother in law and the large extended family. The food is great, Shrimp, crab, and my favorite sweet and sour ribs. Some of the relatives call my youngest son by his Thai nickname - Pi Chang (big brother elephant). Many Thais have animal nicknames.

Today was a national day of rest and prayer for the Iraqis. Things remain relatively calm.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

The big news today was Saddam Hussein was informed of the charges against him and shown on TV. Only CNN and Al Jazeerah were allowed to film and people had to rely on pool reporters. This was the first public glimpse of Saddam since he was pulled out of a spider hole near Tikrit. The Iraqis I spoke with today are very pleased with the new government. They feel confident that things are going well. I'll have to get their reaction to Saddam's performance tomorrow. Several have told me they hope he is found guilty of a capital offense and is eventually executed. OK, tell me how you really feel...

Tonight we had our weekly bingo game out on the patio. This week we had people from 4 units. I actually won a folding chair. One of our sergeants got all the bingo stuff from the VFW back home including that little cage thingy that you spin with the balls in it. We also got punch cards from back home.

Things are definitely quieter across the country than we expected, that could change 10 minutes from now. Our local yahoos still are taking potshots but they have to worry more these days if they're going to make it home. Our increased firepower and surveillance is helping. Various operations are going on that are really putting the squeeze on the bad guys throughout the country. I think Zaqawi is worrying more about his own neck right now than his operations. We've dropped a couple 500 pounders on four separate occasions in the last 10 days on his safehouses. Also the bounty on his head has been doubled.