Sunday, August 29, 2004

I'm back at my base after traveling around the country for the past 4 days.

Thursday night I was visiting one of our units at their base near Baghdad. One of the Company Commanders was going to give me a ride to my trailer. The truck we were going to leave in ended up having a dead battery.

As we were walking back into the clinic a white suburban and a Bobtail came tearing into the parking lot. A guy jumped out and said they'd been ambushed on a supply convoy and his buddy had been shot. A KBR truck driver was sitting in the front seat, his thigh and leg covered with blood. I helped the medics on duty carry the guy in and put him on a stretcher. He had been shot in the upper leg and had kept on driving far past the ambush. Everyone dropped their trailers by the side of the road and drove as fast as they could to the nearest base. Our doc cut off all the guys clothes and I got him some oxygen. His buddies were very worked up, very happy to be alive. Eventually one of them asked the guy who had been shot if he wanted some pictures taken. The injured guy said yes and was ready for his cameo. Luckily the bullet missed the major arteries. He later went to the Combat Support Hospital for definitive treatment.

Another guy with them couldn't catch his breath. He got oxygen and a breathing treatment. It turns out he had suffered from smoke inhalation the day before and was on the convoy so he could come up to get an X-ray. The excitement of the ambush plus his damaged lungs was not a good combination.

The next day I woke up early and took a 2 hour walk around the base before my meeting. The base is a system of palaces set on large lakes. The buildings were incredible with marble and carved wood doors. The main palace is set on an island in the middle of the main lake. Saddam had a boat house and several yachts which he used to sail around the lakes. There were lakeside apartments for his cronies and a hunting lodge.

After our meeting we convoyed south to another base near the ruins of Babylon. Its really a Polish base with some Americans. At my base we have two clothing options, our Desert camouflage Uniform (DCUs) or our PT gear. The off duty Polish guys were walking around in their Speedos and sandals! The place is lush and green, right next to the banks of the Euphrates. The soldiers throw bread into the river and big schools of fish come and devour them.

I was able to spend a few hours in the ruins and at a Presidential palace that Saddam had built on a large artificial hill overlooking the rebuilt Palace of Nebuchadnezzar. Saddam fancied himself a modern day Nebuchadnezzar the rebuilder of the glory of the Babylonian empire. He reportedly spent 750 million dollars rebuilding on top of the actual ruins. The palace and temples were partially rebuilt, placing new bricks right on top of those from the Babylonian period. Just like King Nebuchadnezzar who placed bricks in the wall with cuneiform inscriptions proclaiming his greatness as the builder of the city, Saddam had his own bricks written in Arabic saying how great he was for rebuilding the city.

I talked to a man who ran a small shop selling souvenirs and books about Babylon. He turned out to be a trained Archeologist and we spent some time discussing the layout of the city. I was interested in seeing where they think the prophet Daniel was thrown in the lions den. He pointed me to an area where archeologists found an underground area of large rooms with vaulted ceilings that are believed to be a prison in the administrative part of the palace. I walked around the area. Some parts were like a labyrinth leading to dead ends.

The most spectacular part of the ruins was the remains of the Ishtar gate. The glazed blue bricks of the actual gate were carted away to Germany in the late 19th century. On both sides of the entrance were bas-relief dragons and bulls representative of two of the Babylonian gods. Near the Ishtar gates were two long processional roads that the Babylonians paved with asphalt.
There were other parts of the ruins that Saddam didn't get a chance to ruin. I even found cuneiform tablets just lying around next to a sign in English and Polish "If everyone takes just one piece, what will be left of Babylon?" The archeologist told me that some excavation has been planned but there isn't any money now. Even with all the damage that Saddam did building on top of the ruins it was an incredible experience walking around the place where so many historical figures walked and the scene of many stories from the bible.

The last day of trip before I flew back to my base was spent at another palace complex in the greater Baghdad area. I spent most of it visiting some of our companies stationed in the area. I also got some birding done at both Babylon and at the palaces in my free time.

Palace of Nebuchadnezzar
The rebuilt Palace of Nebuchadnezzar

Processional Road
Processional Road paved with asphalt. Built in two parts they are over 1000 meters long.

Ishtar Gate
View of the Ishtar Gate

Dragon of Marduk
Closeup of the Dragon of Marduk

Cuneiform Tablet
Cuneiform tablet about 1 foot square just laying on the ground

Sign in Polish and English in the ruins. The stones in the background are from the time of Hammurabi.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

I'm traveling for the next few days. This morning I had a fantastic flight on a blackhawk helicopter cruising over farms, villages and desert on my way to a large base near Baghdad. The flight took about an hour. I'll post some pictures when I get back to my base.

I saw some interesting things on my flight. In the desert areas I saw some large trenches some 20 or thirty feet deep. The trench turned out to be wells, with a long ramp leading down to the water at one end. This enabled people to bring their sheep and goats below ground level to the water.

Every so often we climbed in altitude so we could cross powerlines, then we would dive down sometimes 20 feet off the ground. Steering to avoid the flocks of cattle egrets and doves that we were scaring out of the flooded fields.

The door gunner did a test fire just as we were passing a mining operation, startling a few of my fellow passengers who had fallen asleep.

At the base that I'm now at I went to a 1st Cav chow hall. I give it 3 stars. I had stuffed bell pepper, barbecue ribs, avocado stuffed with chicken salad, and lots of fruit. On the way out they had milk shakes to go. I had strawberry.

Next we hit the PX and the Bazaar. Unlike our base, where only a few vendors come in, this base has a large permanent bazaar inside some large tents. People inside haggled over old coins, hammered copperware, rugs, silver, electronics, knives, musical get the picture.

Tomorrow I'll take a walk around the base early in the morning before my meetings.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Just a few meetings and running around base today on a couple missions. Tonight I have to clear out the digital camera because I'll soon be visiting a few other bases where our battalion is operating and I plan to take lots of pictures.

Even though I just got back here I'm looking forward to a change in scenery. I may even go fishing.

The dates have started ripening in our area. When they are ripe they turn from a hard yellow or orange fruit to a squishy brown, looking almost like they're starting to rot. At this point they are filled with sugar and very tasty. I've eaten a whole bag full in the last day and I plan on eating quite a bit more while they are in season.

I just heard that Al-Sistani has arrived back in Iraq unexpectedly. According to some reports his convoy has left Basrah and is already making its way to Najaf. He has called for a march on Najaf to save the Mosque. This will be interesting.
Back at home my kids are getting ready to start school soon. It will be a welcome break for my wife after a summer full of activities with our 3 older children plus the baby.

Another rude wakeup this morning. This time it was the sound of rockets swishing overhead followed by huge thuds as they detonated. Four in quick succession. People wasted no time getting in the bunkers. Most had been sleeping seconds before. These were the biggest rockets to hit in months, 127 mm. They landed about 500 meters from us. One of our guys had an up close and personal while out for his morning run and dove under a 5 ton truck. Thankfully no one was hurt. This effectively ruined my plans for the morning. We didn't get back to normal for about 2 hours then it was time to pick up our workers.

Our outdoor Olympic size pool, after a 5 week heyday has closed because of low chlorine and cloudy water. After it is drained we might see it open again. It will be in the 90's here well into October and even a few days in November. The pool seems so out of place but it was here before the war for Iraqi officers. It even has a 3 level platform for diving, the highest being 10 meters. It took months to refurbish.

The pool has been very popular because its a good escape. The entire pool is ringed with a fence and plastic sheeting. When you walk in, you forget you are in a combat zone. People tanning on patio chairs, others playing volleyball in the pool, and invariably someone doing something stupid off the 10 meter platform. There's even a pool shop where you can buy bathingsuits and snacks.

Compared to the privations of the Marines and Soldiers in the outlying FOBs (Forward Operating Bases), the amenities here are embarrassing. The plus side is that they get to use the facilities when they come through.

Far from the pool, in Najaf, things are still dragging out but the end seems near. The shrine is completely encircled and there are probably only a few hundred left inside. The guys inside have very little ammo left and except the fringe elements, probably have little will to fight. All the fuss over the handover last week may have been a ruse to allow Moqtada to escape. We'll see.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Our section had escort duty today. For the last month or so we've been getting day laborers to fill sandbags and put them around our living trailers. To say that this is a labor intensive project is an extreme understatement. Every sandbag gets a couple shovel fulls of sand and weights at least 20 pounds. It takes 16 guys a couple days to do a trailer. We have used countless dump truck loads already. Each trailer can take up to 2000 sandbags, stacked up an all four sides to give protection from mortar and rockets. We have lots of trailers.

All over base the sandbagging craziness is evident. Other units have contracted KBR to deliver sandbags already filled to their trailers and big piles of hundreds of sandbags are scattered throughout the living areas. They have over 100 workers filling sandbags everyday loading them into trucks and carting them all over the base. Some units fill sandbags for PT in the morning. I can't even begin the calculate the sheer number of sandbags the base is using. One contract, not even involving the housing areas called for 300,000. The problem with sandbags is that they are only a temporary solution. The canvas bags usually rot through after about a year and the plastic ones last about the same time broken down by the sun's UV rays. Before we sandbagged some of our tents we had to spend several days getting rid of all the split open ones from last year. This cycle will continue until everyone is living and working in hardened buildings.

The laborers have been the same group of 16 for a while now. Usually they get picked up at the gate and its a smooth operation. We look for the supervisor who wears a black fedora and for some reason has been given the nickname "Peter Pan" by one of our Sergeants.

Today we had a little snag. We went up to the holding area where the laborers wait and didn't see the regular group. Hundreds of laborers sit in a big fenced off area and wait to be hired. We went out into the holding area and waited for a while, the guys sitting down tried to get your attention, sometimes jumping up. The guards kept things under control. We later found out that there was an IED near the gate and they stopped letting people in. We grabbed some of the last guys available and got them through the Iraqi Army security.

One young guy was our translator. He carried a plastic bag with a framed picture. It was a pencil drawing he had done for a soldier based on a photograph given to him. He was a little businessman, charging 20 dollars for a framed drawing. He even had a business card. I would say he was 15 at the most, though he told me he was 21 and someone else that he was 17.

He said because he was the supervisor he wouldn't work. He was also diabetic and carried insulin with him in a little bag made from a sandbag. This little guy sat in the shade and puffed away on cigarettes all day.

One guy told our soldiers that because he didn't have a job he couldn't afford a wife. The little supervisor piped up and said he didn't have a wife or want one. "If I had a madame I couldn't buy cigarettes, a woman is expensive. I would rather smoke"

I think the 7 to 12 dollars a day these guys make is only a secondary consideration for some. The fringe benefits for working on base can be worth far more. Everyone is an entrepreneur, selling watches, jewelry, and if they don't have something they can get it for you tomorrow "no problem". Also we often give them stuff to bring home. Sometimes our workers will cart away an old shower or lumber or sheet metal. When we tell a group the money for a certain project is running out they invariably say that they will work for free, at least for a while until more money becomes available.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

I decided to change the template. Note to self - don't start project like this at midnight again. I forgot all the little things that needed to be done like putting in the haloscan and sitemeter code. Well its almost done and yes the comments are at the bottom. I still have some cleaning up to do.

Off to bed. I need to get up early for Church.


Saturday, August 21, 2004

On my way to visit the clinic this morning I heard a distant thud and felt a barely perceptible pressure wave. This happens almost every day and usually means one of two things. First we just took a rocket or a mortar round in our area or alternatively EOD is conducting a "controlled blast".

A controlled blast is when the Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) guys have rigged some unexploded thing (bomb, bomblet, mortar, rocket....) with C4 to blow it in place. EOD is incredibly busy both on and off base. Many rounds come in that don't explode on impact (my favorite type). Sometimes the rocket or mortar round was buried in a weapons cache for over a year, sometimes under water. The motor might be good, allowing the rocket to fly, but the payload explosive might be bad or the fuse non-functional. Sometimes the guy firing at us doesn't know what he's doing and fires with the fuse not properly screwed in.

Usually we get a radio warning like "controlled blast in 5 minutes" then we get a grid. Sometimes people don't get the word and there's a big explosion, freaking people out.

The blast I heard turned out to be a mortar lobbed at us and a few seconds later the red alert siren started wailing. I ducked into the nearest building and spent the next 45minutes there.

The building happened to be where some of the Iraqi translators I know work. We caught up on what's been going on since I last saw them. One of the guys was telling me about his crazy commute to work. This guy lives about 40 minutes away from our base in a very dangerous area. He said that to prevent being targeted for working with the Americans he leaves at different times of the day and drives a different car each day, borrowed from friends and relatives. He carries a weapon which he checks in at our gate every day. His route often has IEDs and car bombs blowing up, but generally they target American convoys, civilians are advised to give them wide berth so they don't get caught up in an IED attack. The biggest danger these days is bandits. Sometimes contractors coming off of base are targeted because they have money from their dealings on base. The bandits may be common criminals or they may be insurgents simultaneously getting funds for their activities and terrorizing or killing people who work with us. Another of our contractors sometimes parks his car several miles from the base and walks to the gate so his car isn't identified. We once had a contractor kidnapped right out of the parking lot outside the main gate.

We talked about "toba", that's soccer in Iraqi Arabic. As in many countries it is by far the most popular sport. They asked me why it wasn't so popular in the US (as a major spectator sport). I told him if Americans can't dominate a sport they don't want to play. Too much competition.

The Iraqi Olympic soccer team has just won their game against Australia. If they win one more game they will be guaranteed at least a Bronze medal. Soon after the game ended there was tracer fire coming up from the villages near us in celebration. I heard that Baghdad was lit up with celebratory fire.

Down in Najaf things still haven't completely resolved. Some bickering over the keys and procedures for handover. Two nights ago Moqtadas boys took an incredible punishing. Yesterday reports started coming out that the Iraqi Police had taken over the shrine without a shot. At the same time we were getting reports from the Marines that the IP and the Iraqi National Guard were not in the compound. There's still some confusion what's going on. It could be that the IP are in the outer compound but not in the actual shrine itself. Several hundred of the dudes tried to run away with no weapons and blend into the population. It didn't work because they all looked like hell from two weeks of fighting (dirty, unshaven, looking like they hadn't slept in days) and were easily identified by the police and arrested. We won't know for sure exactly what's going on until the dust settles a bit but things are looking like a final resolution is coming. The people of Najaf are apparently very angry about the militia firing from the cemetery and the shrine. The more the militias are marginalized the better. I wouldn't be surprised if Al-Sadr himself ends up in Iran.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

I've been having trouble with the phones trying to get in touch with my wife since I got back. We get connected for a minute or so and then loose the connection. Very frustrating.

Last night a group of us watched Iraq play Morocco at the Olympics. It was a good game, both teams seemed pretty evenly matched. The penalty goal was bad luck. Iraq ended up losing 2-1. Despite this minor setback, Iraq advances to the final eight teams as the point leader in group D. I was disappointed that Iraq lost because Iraq can use all the reasons to celebrate they can get and I was planning to go to the roof and watch the celebratory fire going up from the nearby village if they won . Good luck to the team in the next round. At the half, the station we were watching had highlights of athletes from other Arab Countries. Swimming, boxing, and volleyball from the Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, and Egyptians.

In Najaf there are positive signs this morning. Apparently Moqtada al-Sadr blinked. The government told him that they were prepared to end the standoff with Iraqi Special Forces, most from a battalion made up of Shi'ia, ready to storm the compound. No American forces would enter the Shrine area. His gift for self-preservation seems to have trumped his other considerations. I'm not sure what was up with the government's former concessions to him, maybe it was just an attempt to make him show his true colors and discredit himself. He has willingly sent hundreds of his follower to their deaths by convincing them that they could stand up to regular Iraqi and American troops. He dared us to become barbarians by holing up in the Shrine. They were so brazenly confident that they didn't even fortify their mortar firing positions. His fighters were poorly trained and often lacked even rudimentary infantry skills. Its criminal that he allowed these guys to fight when they had several opportunities to express themselves in the political process. There's much more to fighting than pointing a weapon in the general direction of your enemy. Note also there have been no problems, as in April, when a few Iraqi Army units refused to fight.

There are still hot spots that need to be dealt with and the government will be doing just that in the coming weeks. We will continue to see some significant fighting with a mixed bag of former regime elements, foreign fighters and Moqtadas militia. I feel hopeful that these are pops and crackles of the dying embers of anti-Iraqi forces rather than the signs of a fire ready to spread. Slow, painful forward movement.

Monday, August 16, 2004

The security situation has degraded in the last few weeks. A bad sign is the Iranians being picked up in Najaf and other areas. If the Iranians are actively sending fighters, as both the Interim government and the US military are insinuating, this needs to be nipped in the bud quickly.

Other than an moderate increase in indirect fire attacks on us, we haven't seen many effects from the increased activity in Najaf and Baghdad. The potential for a serious uptick is there but hopefully upcoming operations will knock things down a bit.

On the local front the clinic that our Battalion contracted to build in a nearby village is nearing completion. Hopefully it will be staffed and operational soon.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

I had an interesting 1st day back. Minutes after getting back to my unit, one of the local Iraqi guys started having seizures and needed a medic. When I got there he was completely out of it as usually happens after a seizure. His friends were very concerned and where trying to get him to come to by shaking him. Someone had called the ambulance so we put him on a couch. I told his friends that it would take some time for him to feel better and they didn't have to shake him. No one spoke very good English so I managed to get a little info in Arabic, I ran into a wall when it came to asking if he had epilepsy or was taking medication. Eventually one of our contractors came and started translating. The guy went to the hospital but was released a few hours later. It turns out he was epileptic and this happened fairly often. He had some medication at home that he took.

An hour later we had our first rocket attack since my return (2 hours before). I've been back 36 hours now and we've had 4 red alerts with maybe 15 or so rockets and mortars. A little more than usual but probably just excitement caused by the goings on in Najaf and Samarra. I spent one alert alone in a bunker near the laundry facility, I expected it to be filled with Filipino workers but they all must have gone to the other bunkers.

We had another red alert when I went to dinner. We heard two rounds impacting fairly close to us so we rushed into the mess hall. Unfortunately the guys stop serving food when the alarms sound so I scrounged some noodles from the self-service bar and slopped some chili and melted cheese on top. I also grabbed some "Moroccan Parsley Salad". Pretty strong stuff - just parsley, onions, and tomatoes.

I'm back on duty in Iraq after a three week hiatus. The trip back took about 40 hours. I was awake more or less for two days straight. I got back here around 11am yesterday morning and didn't sleep until 6pm. I slept for 14 hours and now I'm pretty well recovered.

The highlights of my trip included seeing my first Segway in action. These are the two wheeled self balancing scooters that came out last year. A policeman rode one around the Atlanta Airport. He really hammed it up maneuvering through a dense crowd then doing a little spin and backing into the elevator. It was amazingly effortless. I want one.

As I usually like to do while flying I did a lot of sightseeing. Flying into Georgia I had fanastic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Southern Appalachians, all shrouded in blue morning haze.

Flying across Europe I saw the Bavarian and Austrian Alps. Even at 30,000 feet some of the mountains looked huge, the highest had snow at the tops and had their peaks sticking out above the cloud deck.

We flew across the Black Sea and over Turkey and into Iraq on our way to Kuwait. The sun had set but I saw the lights of Najaf and Nasiriyah as we flew over. Kuwait City was a sea of lights as we came in.

After a short stay in Kuwait I took a C-130 back to my base. I was next to the window again and since the sun had come up I enjoyed the views of the country as I headed north. The barren desert and few burning oilwells in the south gave way to the farmland of central Iraq.

As we started decending, the flight crew put on their body armor and helmets. Because its a combat zone we made a very steep descent and made some crazy maneuvers with the plane.

On the ground we waited a few minutes for the cargo to be unloaded. I heard the pilot say to one of the crew "I really like this girl who runs the flightline". I thought he meant he liked how smoothly things went. When I left the plane following 50 of my closest friends I saw he meant he really liked how she looked. It was a very discordant image with everything around being camoflage or olive drab. An attractive young woman in red running pants a white top with a multicolored silk scarf tied around her neck and wearing designer sunglasses approached with a clipboard and directed all the soldiers to waiting buses. She climbed on our bus and said in a thick Russian or Eastern European accent "welcome to Iraq". Someone should put the scene in a movie, it was that weird.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

I've been having a great time with my family. The time is passing too quickly. Soon I'll be back in Iraq.

My children and I have taken a few little trips around our home. On one we went geocaching, which is trying to find a cache set up by someone using a GPS to find the coordinates. My three oldest kids and I found a cache's coordinates on that was near our house. With coordinates in hand we followed a bike trail about a mile into the woods, then had to cross a small stream. When my GPS said we had arrived at the cache site we started searching around. My oldest son found a big mason jar covered in duct tape hidden under an old log. Inside was a notebook with entries going back to last August. There were also little toys and trinkets that people left behind. The kids left a polished rock and took a few toys. The outing was a fun treasure hunt for the kids. We'll have to try some more sites when I get home. Actually there are a few geocaches in Iraq I may try to find when I go back.

Last week we took a day trip to New York City. The first stop was the Pokemon Center in Rockerfeller Center, followed by the Circus Maximus - Times Square. We were treated to the Naked Cowboy playing his guitar in the middle of the place clad only in his fruit of the looms, boots, and a cowboy hat. His website proclaims that he aspires to be "the most beloved entertainer of all time".

Though we had a great time in the city I was reminded of the connections between why I'm in Iraq and what is going on at home. Walking by the NASDAQ offices we saw the place surrounded by police in response to the heightened terror alert. From the observation tower at the Empire State Building looking south, the familiar skyline seems so empty without the twin towers. A bronze plaque on the south side of the observation tower has the outlines of the buildings you can see from that point identifying the major ones. In the location where the towers stood there are dashed outlines with the words "World Trade Center - destroyed 2001"

Some of the Iraqi coverage has been comical. I'm not sure how many times I've seen a special update where the headline is "Explosions Rock Baghdad" only to find out it was a single mortar round that happened to land within a mile of some news organizations offices. That is simply a non-event and two blocks away, the average Baghdad resident goes about their business happy that it didn't hit near them, but undeterred from living their daily life.

The Sadr business is more serious but it appears that they are being pummeled. As I've said before, most of the Iraqis that I've talked to, admittedly not a random sample, consider Sadr's militia to be mostly street criminals who in other circumstances would be victimizing Iraqis.

When I get back I'll have a better sense of what's really going on.