Thursday, May 31, 2007

A Different World

There are quite a number of problems working on an Iraqi FOB with mostly Iraqi Soldiers. At least once a day, there is a power outage somewhere, and once a week we'll go an entire day with no power. The generators that power this place have a few major problems, mostly notably a lack of available fuel and no maintenance parts - therefore no maintenance. The generator for our 2nd most important building, the one with the logistics automation and tracking, has no air filters and uses strictly water as a coolant. This is not good. The problem is a lack of money and no established maintenance program. Most of the Iraqi's still depend on us (U.S) to go find them repair parts or life support supplies. The major supplies, like weapons and vehicles, are somewhat easy to procure, since they are contracted out (with US dollars). Yet, things like fuel filters and repair parts are a rare commodity.

Many people will say Iraqi's are lazy, or don’t care, or are on Iraqi time (which usually means late!). Some are, but many of them do really care. To understand what they go through, however, you need to put yourself in their shoes. Imagine waking up in the middle of the night to go to work, kissing your wife and kids goodbye, and then sneaking out of the house to a car you hid a few blocks away. You cover your face as you drive to the US base that you work on, and once there you don’t leave for at least a month. If you do leave, to go on a patrol or convoy, your face is covered so no one can recognize you; because if you are recognized, you can expect that your family wont be there next time you go home.
I don't read much about the Iraqi's in the news. I sure don't hear much mention about the sacrifices THEY make, every day of every year, to make their country better. They literally risk their lives and the lives of their families by even associating with the democratic government of Iraq. It breaks my heart to listen to some of their stories; their lives are so different from mine I couldn't even pretend to relate. One such story came from one of the life support mechanics as we were working to fix a perpetually broken generator one day.

This mechanic is a very soft-spoken, humble, hard working guy. He is up early and goes to bed late trying to keep the life-support systems working here on the Iraqi base. As we drove around searching for repair parts in the junk yard he started talking about his family. His wife and three children currently live in Baghdad, where he gets to see them every 6 weeks or so. His vacation time is coming up, but there is some trepidation in voice as he talks about going home. He worries about the Madhi militia who swarm around his house, and hopes that no more of his family members are shot. His 9-year old son was shot last year in the head; miraculously, he lived, and according to his father, by God's grace he is doing well. He doesn’t hear or see to good anymore, but he still alive and that is a blessing. The best option for this man is to move his family to Syria where they will be safe, and he doesn’t have to have the constant fear hanging over his head that something will happen to his family.

You would think situations like this would prevent people from wanting to associate with the coalition, but it actually seems to strengthen their resolve. Granted, most of them will freely admit it will be a decade or more before Iraq becomes a peaceful nation, and many are helping the coalition because the money is good. Still, it's hard to feel bad for yourself when you hear so many situations like this. There are also some negative situations that come out of this constant state of terror though. The insurgents will use people's families against them - holding them hostage and threatening to kill them unless the person gives them info about the US. So we always have to be on our guard. Even when I think i can fully trust my Iraqi counterpart, I have no way of telling whether he might take any sensitive information he hears and give it to the insurgents. So while we work with them 24/7 and are building strong relationships, we still have to be vigilant not to let our guard down or say the wrong thing.

I have alot more to write about, so I will hopefully post again soon. I also have some new pictures I want to get up. I apologize for the long times in between posts; hopefully once I get into a better rhythm with my work/mission schedule I can write more often.

Friday, May 18, 2007


Rache and I were both laughing as we threw the ball to Chester outside and watched his little ears pin against his head when he sprinted to get it. It was springtime; I could feel the grass on my feet and smell our neighbors firing up their barbecues after winter hibernation. All of the sudden, the temperature plummeted, several Apache helicopters flew overhead and I really had to pee. Shivering underneath a thin nylon blanket, I cursed both my bladder and my roommate for being uncooperative. It was about 3:30am and I really had to use the bathroom, but the though of throwing on my flip-flops and trudging 300m through the mud to use it was keeping me in bed. My dream of home was rudely interrupted and two thoughts crossed my mind: Why does Nap need to set the air conditioner to 30 below zero, and What the hell am I doing here? This is actually a fairly typical night for me at this point in the deployment. I haven’t answered the first question yet, and oddly enough Nap (my current roommate) hasn’t really given a good answer either. The second question, though, gets answered not long after I finish my breakfast each day.

Since I work on the Iraqi side of Taji, I have about a 5-10 minute drive to duty. The drive is fairly depressing, since just about all of Taji looks like an enormous junkyard. There are tanks, artillery pieces, trucks, and unidentifiable pieces of scrap metal everywhere. Most, if not all, of this scrap is remnants of the old Iraqi Army under Sadaam. The tanks all some sort of unique graffiti on them, courtesy of US Soldiers. Phrases like “Hi, Mom!”, or “I Love you Mary” can be seen on any number of the rust-heaps that pervade the landscape. My favorite one, though, is the one that says in all capital letters “Suck my balls you unfaithful whore”. Seriously – I laugh every time I drive by it. I guess that’s just my 5th grade sense of humor coming through. I pass through two checkpoints but the soldiers aren’t concerned since I am leaving the coalition base and going to the Iraqi side. Coming home is a different story – my vehicle gets searched both times. I still haven’t answered the 2nd question I ask myself everyday, but I’m getting to it.

Once I pass through the second checkpoint I am at the Taji National Depot, which is where I will be working for the next year or so. My job is to advise the Iraqi Army on their logistical infrastructure so that they can build their Army and sustain it for extended periods of time. Specifically, I am in charge of the operations and engineering cells, which coordinate the procurement, contracting, and distribution of all logistics for the Iraqi’s. To be honest, right now it seems really overwhelming. They are establishing a 12 Division Army, and the entire infrastructure that goes with it, from scratch. Granted, we are the third rotation of advisors, and our predecessors brought the system to a level where we can at least see what the major problems are. For example, the maintenance program; there is none. But at least they have vehicles now so we can see that this is a problem!

So far, working with the Iraqi’s has been a really unique experience. My limited Arabic has progressed more in the past 4 days then it did in 4 months at Ft. Riley. The same can be said for my understanding of their culture. Iraqi’s are eternally polite, and I say that without exaggeration. Honor is probably one of the most important things to them, so they would never try to make someone feel ashamed. They are always saying hello mister, or thank you captain. In fact they usually say both of those things, even if they don’t apply at all (like when we say “goodbye”, they will say “thank you mister, hello”)! Many of the Iraqi’s here speak very limited English, and if there is no interpreter around conversations involve a lot of hand gestures and strained usage of limited vocabularies. Introductions are greetings are very important to them, though. I will usually spend at least a few minutes every time I meet a new Iraqi Soldier (Jundi) saying hello, how are you, what is your name, where are you from, etc. Luckily, I can say all of things in Arabic pretty well. However, on a base with hundreds of Iraqi’s, I have a lot of greetings to do. It’s important for us to do this for a few reasons. Often in America, we’ll say a quick hello and just exchange names before getting down to business, especially when we are busy or in a hurry. In Iraq, however, skipping a formal introduction is considered a pretty big slight. The problem is that they are so polite, they will never let on that they are insulted. They will still smile and talk business as normal, but you will have done nothing to foster their enthusiasm or trust.

So in short, the answer to that questions I ask myself every morning is that I am here to help people create something they’ve never had before. I know that sounds cheesier than a bag of Cheeto's, but every day I get a little bit of reinforcement toward that feeling. Yesterday, as I was driving around the fence line of the FOB, I saw a group of Iraqi’s walking on the side of the road. Being the good samaritan, we stooped and let them hop into our truck. The kid who got in the backseat of the truck spoke almost no English, but he gave it a heck of an effort. I did manage to get most of his story, though. He grew up and lives in Sadr City, which you might recognize from the news. His brother’s been killed by fighting, and he recently just got over a gunshot wound to his arm. Obviously, he’s been through a lot; but if you could have seen the pride and enthusiasm in his face when he was showing me his card that said he just graduated from Iraqi basic training and listen to him talk on and on about it . .. .it would give anyone a good feeling that there is a lot of hope in this country.

I should mention that I purposely not talking much about other things that occur daily around here. The media does a great job of reporting just about every negative thing going on in this country and right now I am trying to see the positive. There was some damage to the airfield here the other day, but it wasn’t catastrophic and operations continue as normal. I posted new pictures and more are on the way. Hopefully I can post more now that I have another computer, so until I post again, Fi-man Allah! (Good-bye in Arabic, translated roughly May God take care of you).

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

quick update

After spending about 3 days touring Baghdad, we moved about 15 miles northwest of the city to the Forward Operating Base (FOB) of Taji. We moved by CH-47 Chinook helicopter, an old friend of mine from Afghanistan. This is the big, double rotor helicopter that does a great deal of troop and equipment moves for the military. Once we arrived at Taji we were herded into buses and driven to the Iraqi FOB nearby. Our accommodations were more of the same; open-bay barracks style living at its best.

The next week we spent going through more cultural awareness and language training, very similar to the training I've written about before. This past Sunday we completed that training and finally met the American Soldiers we are replacing. Another move, but this time to our final living arrangements! I have pictures, but the best way to describe where I am staying is to paint you a picture. Imagine the most rundown, seedy looking motel you've ever seen; the kind you look at and sort of laugh and grimace at the same time. That's where I am staying. It's not really that bad. It has a bed and a roof so I cant complain. I will post pictures soon.

I've been meaning to post a new entry for a couple weeks, but since arriving here I haven’t had much internet access. I have a great deal to write about, especially since I started my mission this week. I will be doing quite a few things this next year, and working with the Iraqi Army everyday. It's going to be tough and frustrating but I think ultimately it will be a truly fulfilling mission. I will write more about my initial impressions later this week - check back soon!

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Long Day

Our last day in Kuwait began around 3:45 am. There was no particularly good reason for it to start this early, especially since we didn’t have to stage our bags for movement until 11:30am. Still, about 15 people in our tent decided that they needed to start packing their one small bag 8 hours before it needed to be packed, so we all got up. I woke up, saw the lights and heard the racket and then looked at my watch, and then yelled loudly "Holy crap, I only have 8 hours to put my pillow in my bag!! Why didn’t someone wake me up sooner?"! Ah, the joys of sarcasm.

We staged our bags at around 10am, and soon after doing so a dust storm rolled in, coating everyone and everything in a fine layer of sand. Not long after the dust storm we loaded up our bags and hopped on a bus for an hour ride to the Kuwait airport. There we were herded into tents with rows of chairs, and told to stand fast and wait for word of our flight. 8 long, boring hours later, we finally received word that our flight was ready. Another bus ride to the airstrip and we packed on to a C-17 military aircraft for a short ride to BIAP (Baghdad International Airport). The flight was uneventful, but I forgot how fun the landings are in a combat zone. The pilot rolls hard and then dives, and alot of people on the plane who haven’t been through that before were pretty shocked. For such a steep descent, though, the landing was great.

Once we landed we quickly exited the tarmac and in-processed with the personnel office, collected our bags, and boarded another bus to the billeting (tent) area. By this time it was 2:30am local time, almost 22 hours after we woke up. The night was warm, as the temperature in Baghdad has been over 100 during the day already. Today we slept in a little and walked around the FOB (Forward Operating Base). I was happy to see that the 2nd Brigade from 10th Mountain Division is here! I feel at home with all the 10th Mountain patches walking around. I feel bad for those guys, too, since I know this is the 2nd or 3rd deployment for alot of them.

I'm not sure when our next travel day is, as we have one more stop to make. I have been pretty lucky finding internet access, though, so I will continue to update as I can. I will also continue to post new pictures, so check back! For now though, Greetings from Baghdad!

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

I've been through the desert . . .

... on a bus with no name, and I'll tell you, it wasn’t that fun! I'm currently in Kuwait going through some additional training before we head north to Iraq. Yesterday the temp was over 100 degrees and we had a pretty nasty dust storm that lasted all day; on top of that the showers broke so I was pretty filthy until late last night when the power came back on. It was long trip here - 15 hour plane ride that touched into Kuwait at around 12:30am, followed by a 2 and a half hour bus ride through the desert. The bus ride was pretty uncomfortable since we all crammed into every seat with our full body armor and carry on bags, weapons, etc. We finally got to the base that the Army erected in the middle of nowhere; literally, there is nothing but sand as far as the eye can see. It almost makes me long for Kansas! The feeling when I got off the bus was very familiar - the dusty air, sand everywhere, even the smell. It almost made me dizzy, and I instantly thought I'd been here before. I havent, of course; I was in Afghanistan, but the environment seemed very similar. The only difference is that here there are no mountains on the landscape. There are about 50 of us packed into a big tent-like structure, but this is only temporary until we head into Iraq. Everybody is in pretty good spirits though, since we are pretty excited to start our mission. We have some briefs, followed by a day where we re-confirm the sights on our rifles, and then we will be out of here. I will update again once I get to Iraq!