Tuesday, December 28, 2004

We now have two units cramped into our building, ours and the incoming unit. I haven't been kicked out of my room yet but I now have the incoming unit's XO staying with me. I made a lot of noise this morning getting dressed at 3:15AM. I'm traveling to one of our outlying units today and had to be up early to catch the plane. It turns out now I'm not leaving until after 6. I thought my traveling days were over here, happily I was wrong . I'll get to see our Battalion Surgeon again. He volunteered for another rotation and was posted down south.

Depending on my schedule, I may get to visit an archeological site located next to the base. I'll post some pictures when I get back in a few days.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Christmas here was gray and rainy outside but we had our share of good cheer.

My Christmas present was unexpected. I logged on to Yahoo messenger and found my children were up early (before 6AM). My wife turned on the webcam and I was able to watch my children open all their presents and they could see me through my webcam. It was nice to be able to see them and chat over the computer with my wife giving the running commentary. One of the guys from my unit had a Santa Outfit and mugged for the camera and the kids.

Later in the day we had a party down at the clinic. It was good to get together with everyone and celebrate the holiday.

Thanks for all the good wishes from everyone back home. It means a lot to us here.

Merry Christmas from Iraq!

Friday, December 24, 2004

Christmas eve here in Iraq. We have somehow acquired real Christmas Trees from a nursery in New York. I think the Air Force flew in several hundred. One of our dentists who rotated home sent some nicely wrapped presents which went under the tree in our office.

On the computer network there was a lot of traffic joking around about Santa being cleared for transiting Iraqi airspace and needing an up-armored sleigh.

We expect a spike in attacks tomorrow. We got a report of a suicide attack near the Libyan Embassy in Baghdad a few hours ago. Many Iraqi Christians are keeping things low key this year because of threats against the Churches.

Everyone is thinking about their families back home. Last year we were still at our mobilization station at Fort Drum. We all had a pass to go home for Christmas. I was home for a week because our daughter was born on Dec 23rd. Next Christmas we'll be home.

I found out that 2 of the soldiers killed and 13 injured in Mosul were with a Maine National Guard unit. The Engineer unit was our next door neighbor at Fort Drum. You could tell a soldier was from the unit anywhere on base because they all had fur lined eskimo hoods for their gortex jackets. Being from Maine they were ready for the -20Fahrenheit weather.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

The attack on FOB Marez in Mosul has turned out to be caused by a suicide bomber. The details of the investigation will be released later today. Its now just after midnight on Thursday here. The Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs just had a news conference with the information.

I got my first indication this morning at a meeting. We were told that several people debriefed after the incident indicated that the explosion came from inside the chow hall not from an airburst rocket. Later I talked to one of our doctors who happened to be up in Mosul yesterday. He rushed to the hospital and helped triage and put in chest tubes. Being an experienced trauma doc it was good that he was there. While they were triaging outside the hospital, they got mortared, some landed only yards away. He said the injuries didn't look like the usual rocket or mortar injuries and it might have been a bomb carried in.

The initial reports said that a 122mm rocket was involved. I think the reason this was said was because small bb sized ball bearings were found. Certain Chinese, Russian and South African 122mm rockets have these packed inside.

This afternoon I sat down and talked to a couple of our Iraqi contractors. We talked about the security situation for them. Though it is much better for them, they still need to be very careful. One recently had a family member kidnapped in retaliation for him working with the Americans. He asked about where I live. If it was safe to go anywhere whenever I want. I told him my town was very safe, in fact we don't even have our own police. The State police cover our town. I was a little taken aback at how incredulous he was that I had absolute freedom of movement. It made me realize how lucky we are back at home. I told him that I pray for the same to be true in Iraq. He replied "inshalla" - God Willing.

I went to another civil affairs meeting. We talked about the village water treatment projects that are ongoing and plans for a regional water distribution district. The new units seem eager to get started on their projects in the surrounding communities.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

It was a black day for us today.

At lunchtime we had an attack at a FOB in Mosul hitting a dining facility. Unfortunately, there were large numbers of casualties, including over 20 killed and more than 50 injured. We mourn for our fallen comrades, pray for the recovery of the wounded and comfort for their families.

We heard about the incident soon after it happened medevac choppers scrambled from all over the area. All 4 US military hospitals got patients from Mosul. Soon we heard the choppers arriving, flying low over our building, the crew chiefs sticking their heads out to check the approach. Our hospital had choppers backed up waiting to land at the pad with some of the worst patients because we have a neurosurgeon. Several of our teams are up in the area so we anxiously waited for their sitreps. We later found out that they were not in the immediate area when the attack happened.

Its not something that we dwell on but each one of us know deep down that this could happen anywhere. It was a random tragedy. We've had our share here, thankfully they are few and far between. Earlier this year we had 3 soldiers killed and 25 injured when we were hit by a 127mm rocket. We've had other deaths and quite a few more injuries. Since we've been here our base has had over 550 rounds of mortars and rockets shot at us (we keep count). Sometimes they hit their mark, mostly they don't. Mosul has been getting indirect fire all year. We had three of our guys injured up there this spring.

We reached an important milestone today. Most of our gear was loaded into a large steel shipping container. I am officially living out of a dufflebag which could last a while. We spread out plastic sheets on the ground and emptied every footlocker and dufflebag out for the customs people to inspect. There is a large list of banned items that we are not allowed to bring home including weapons, explosives, artifacts and even rocks for fear of contaminated soil. Save a playboy magazine or two (also banned) we were good to go. Two Coast Guard guys did the HAZMAT inspection. Other than the port security guys down in Um Qasr they are probably the only Coast Guard guys in the country. I know the CG has more people working the ports in Kuwait.

Tony Blair came to Baghdad today to try to boost the election effort. Any help is welcome.
The twin bombings in Najaf and Karbala were targeting the police and civilians. The Shi'a south has been relatively quiet for a while. There are a number of bad actors around who would love to stir things up among the Shi'a among them Zarqawi, the Baathists and even Moqtada Al Sadr, who would not mind undermining Sistani's authority.

The level of intimidation, especially of anyone related to the election will most likely get worse as we approach the end of January. After witnessing the violence of the election workers being dragged out of their car and shot on Haifa Street in Baghdad, people will need very strong spines to continue on. I am hopeful that they will. My prayers are with them.

For me it was a normal day. A few meetings and lots of busy work preparing for the new unit. We had two indirect fire attacks today, but as usual it was the junior varsity team who can't get it over the fence.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

The weather has really cooled off. A few mornings ago it was 18 degrees Fahrenheit in Mosul, here it got down in the 20's. This evening there was a large halo surrounding the moon caused by ice crystals in the air.

More and more new units are arriving, we'll be some of the last of our rotation to go. The new commanding unit on post have decided they own our parking lot and put a guard at the gate and won't let our trucks in.

I went to the gym this morning for the first time in a long time. Just after I finished, the alarm went off and we had to take shelter under a building. Some of the Filipino staff from the gym , were in there with me. One of the ladies opened a Christmas card that a soldier had given to her and was showing it to all her friends.

Walking back I saw some soldiers decorating a big wood and metal frame they had built in the shape of a tree. We have a giant inflatable Santa and a Christmas tree on our roof. This week we have received lots of boxes from friends and family as well as groups that want us to have something for the holidays. Its all very appreciated by us. I have gorged myself on cookies and chocolate today.

Last week we had the USO come through. Robin Williams and John Elway plus some others came and did a show and then a meet and greet. I think they continued on to Afghanistan. Throughout the year we've seen a steady stream of entertainers and stars come through to ours and other bases to support the troops. The most out of place one had to be the rapper 50 Cent giving a concert when it was 115 degrees. Everyone had to wear their helmet and body armor and carry their weapons. Not your usual rap concert. Personally, I have a lot of respect for anyone who takes time out of their schedule and visits the troops. Wayne Newton also came through with his variety show which was actually the best overall event. In our own twisted sort of thinking we almost wish for a mortar attack while they are on base, just so they can see how we live.

I continued my packing today and took a nap.

Monday, December 13, 2004

I took a nap after work this evening so I can stay up to watch the geminids meteor shower. As an added bonus a bright comet is also visible near Orion.

I'll be heading up to our roof for a few hours. My room mate is now down in Kuwait dealing with redeployment issues but he left me his 10X50 binoculars.

Another quiet day working with my replacement. We attended a weekly meeting which has been totally revamped by another incoming unit. Luckily all these guys have worked together back in the states and should have no growing pains.

The big thing we're waiting for on Wednesday is the publishing of the consolidated candidates list by the government. This is a necessary thing but will have some unfortunate side effects. For the bad guys it represents a high value target list and we are almost sure to see a surge in assassinations. You have to be a very brave person to run in this election, you are sure to make it on someone's hit list.

The Iraqi government has floated the idea of an election period instead of one discrete election day to try to increase the security of the election. Stretching things out a bit would cut down crowds and the attendant risk of a mass casualty attack. Intimidation and discrediting of the process is now highest on the insurgents agenda.

The insurgents are far from a monolithic group. The craziest and most outrageous are Zarqawi's bunch of screwballs but the greatest long term threat may be the former regime elements who have the most experience with grass root intimidation and organization.
Some have argued that the insurgency must have grass root support because of ongoing violence. I reject that idea. A relatively small group of people can cause chaos and being intimidated is not the same as support. Another trend that the average Iraqi understands fundamentally is the merging of the insurgent and the criminal element. Now so much of the insurgent activities are funded by kidnapping, robbery and shakedowns that the ideal of the noble freedom fighter has gone right down the toilet. The insurgents may still be portrayed as such in some venues outside of Iraq but the fact is undeniable here that the insurgent ranks are populated with large numbers of criminals who are in it for personal enrichment.

The greatest heroes in this fight are the Iraqi Police. They are an imperfect bunch, however every day tens of thousands of men wake up and in an incredible act of bravery show up for work. These are the guys bearing the brunt of the insurgent's fury because they are the greatest threat along with their comrades in the Iraqi Security Force. When security can be achieved at the lowest level, the great pent up ambition of the Iraqi people will come into full flower. I think they deserve so much credit, they put their hope in the future on the line every day at great personal risk.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Its 2:30 AM and for some reason I'm still up. Today's highlight was that my replacement came today. I spent a little time with the guy who will be doing my job for the next rotation. Because my job is a bit more involved than some others, he has come ahead of his unit along with a couple others in headquarters. Tomorrow I start training him. I'll actually have quite a long time to do so compared with others.

I read an interesting article on Forward Surgical Teams in the New England Journal of Medicine. It talks about how innovations in battlefield medicine have kept the mortality rate among battlefield casualties to 10%. The lowest rates ever recorded. I printed out a copy for the commander of one of the FSTs that is staying with us as they get situated. Soon they'll move out to one of the remote FOBs. Over the last year we have had 4 teams stay with us. One relocated from Iraq to Afghanistan.

I've been procrastinating finishing packing my gear. I don't relish the idea of going back to living out of my dufflebag. The big metal shipping containers have to be packed far in advance of our leaving and we probably won't see them until late spring. Anything we might need in the next months has to go in a dufflebag so we can bring it with us on the plane.

We now have a new higher headquarters. They just came in less than 2 weeks ago and are currently driving us crazy with all their new rules and requirements. I think this is a common thing. We are used to doing thing one way and they have grand ideas of how things should be. I've seen the same thing with several new OIF3 commands coming in. The new guy thinks that now they will do things the RIGHT way. Soon enough we'll reach a new equilibrium, we will find that some things they do are better and they will come to understand that some things are done as a result of time tested trial and error and changing some things is unwise. Unfortunately, hard heads and large egos have a way of slowing down this process.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Today I went to a civil affairs meeting for the post. One unit was leaving and the new unit was taking over. It was a time for the units who have been here for the last year to take stock of what we've done during our time here.

The civil affairs officer who ran the meeting is a great guy we've worked with on a number of projects. He's typically outside the wire four or more times a week, coordinating dozens of projects benefiting the people who live around our camp. He meets with the town councils, sheiks, school headmasters, religious leaders, and medical personnel trying to prioritize the needs around us.

The Army budgeted 5 million dollars for civil affairs type projects in our area for last year. Units stationed here sponsor a project and with the help of civil affairs go through the contracting process and provide soldiers when necessary to carry out the project. We spent it all except 200 bucks. Next year the budget is another 5 million dollars.

Some of the projects done included building or repairing and furnishing 15 schools serving thousands of children, building 7 clinics, providing radio equipment for a local fire department and police department, providing renovations, a new ultrasound machine and an internet cafe to the local city hospital and providing water filtration plants for 24 villages. In addition people back home have sent school supplies and clothing for the children. Soldiers, Airmen and Marines have distributed thousands of backpacks filled with school supplies sent through Operation Iraqi Children. The medical units have also run clinics with our PAs, doctors, dentists and optometrists seeing hundreds of patients.

One of the best part of these projects was to get soldiers off the base and out to meet the people we are trying to help. My missions out to the villages for medical clinics or delivering school supplies were the most satisfying of my time here.

A colonel stood up at our meeting and emphasized how important these projects are both for the local communities and for the soldiers. He recounted how he had brought members of a combat unit out to a village to distribute school supplies. The only time these guys were outside the wire before this had been 7 months of combat patrols. He said its important for the soldiers to see the smiling faces of people who genuinely are happy you are there, which by the way is most people in our part of the country. He said it had a profound effect on the soldiers and allowed them to see the bigger picture and get a better sense of why we are here. It hard to care about the local people when you spend all your time ducking mortars and getting shot at.

I've been very fortunate to have been able to travel around the country and to participate in some of these projects. Every soldier I talk to who has done the same considers it time well spent.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

I'm up all night for CQ duty. I wasted some time going through our hundreds of satellite channels, most are in Arabic. A new one I found today was Al Jazeera Children's channel....great.

In the military we have a term called IO which stands for Information Operations. Yes, this can encompass propaganda or "spin", but at its core is getting out our story in a favorable light. Ideally this shouldn't be a big problem if we believe we are doing the right thing here.

I recall a Special Forces officer I met in the Green Zone who worked with the 36th Commando of the Iraqi Army. His comment to me was that we were categorically losing the IO war, largely courtesy of the international press. The 36th Commando is a small but highly significant success story in the Iraqi Army. A special operations group composed of Shi'ia, Sunnis and Kurds it is the most professional and effective force in the Iraqi Army along with their sister special operations group. The men of this unit have been incredibly brave and performed significant missions in Najaf, Samarra and Fallujah. His frustration was that in Samarra 36 CDO secured a main mosque being used as a operating base for insurgents, arresting a couple dozen and securing a large weapons cache, causing minimal damage and denying another repeat of the Najaf Mosque standoff. A CNN camera crew was with them during and after the operation. The crew was concerned only about finding civilian casualties and what violations of the laws of war had been committed not what good work 36 CDO had done.

Now the military is doing a little something about IO. Since their story has not passed through the main stream media filter, they are providing a site where members of the media and the general public can get stories and photos directly. I think its a fantastic idea that needs to be expanded. I think the average American who gets all their Iraq news from the TV and newspapers will have a dramatically different view after reading some of the stories from Iraq. The site has links to the various newspapers that are published on posts around the theater as well as pictures and stories from Combat Camera, our front line Public Affairs people.

DVIDS -Digital Video & Imagery Distribution System

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Incredibly, we've only had two mortar rounds fired at us in the last 10 days. The locals are feeling a bit more confident turning in the bad guys resulting in the capture of some very large fish and probably the cause of the current lull.

Most likely, some of the insurgent groups will try a large scale operation before the election and continue the harassment of the population to discourage voting. Hopefully we can head them off at the pass. No doubt, someone will be unhappy with the election so post election violence is also a distinct possibility.

Zarqawi seems to have come unglued, now everyone hates him (inside Iraq). He condemned Sunni clerics for not issuing Fatwas to support the fighters in Fallujah. His group is suspected of killing three prominent Sunni Clerics. He has always shown his contempt for the Shi'ia whom he considers heretics in addition to the Kurds and the Christians. Today his group bombed a Shi'ia mosque in Baghdad. So now we have the situation that he considers no group in Iraq worthy of living. His goal is simply chaos, which every Iraqi I have spoken to sees clearly. He can't be neutralized quickly enough.

The most excitement I've had was being electrocuted at physical therapy. To strengthen the muscle supporting my knee, they decided to do something called Russian E-stim. Basically they attach two electrodes to either end of the muscle and turn up the current until I can't tolerate the pain. It looks strange as the muscle contracts while all the other stay relaxed. I get to do this 3 times a week. I suspect if I was at home I would have stopped PT a while ago, but it can't hurt (that much) to continue for a little while more.

Some of the units around post are getting into the holiday spirit. Our office is decked out in Christmas lights, I saw a big glowing inflatable Santa and the trailer in front of our building has "Peace on Earth" spelled out in white Christmas lights. We are having a Christmas bazaar coming this weekend. I'm looking forward to a ride on a camel. Somehow the vets authorized one to come on post. We've been unsuccessful getting a goat for a goat roast.

I must have told 20 different Iraqi contractors in the past six months that if they could get a camel on base they would make a huge amount of money giving rides and charging people to pose for photos. Everyone would want a picture. Anyway, these rides are free but only for one day. I may camp out.

On December 15th, the government is supposed to publish a unified of candidates for the 30 January elections. Luckily a few of the groups that called for delay have backpedaled and are now saying the vote should go ahead. This includes the Interim president Ghazi Al-Yawar, a Sunni Sheik who will be meeting with President Bush in Washington on Monday.

The weather has been beautiful this past week. The skies are a brilliant
blue with some fair weather clouds. The temperature has been in the lower sixties during the day dropping to the upper thirties at night.

I spent the evening reading some blogs written by Iraqis. A list can be found at Iraq Blog Count.