Tuesday, December 23, 2008

That's All Folks!

Well, I'm back in the good old U S of A.

We handed over the mission to the new team, and they managed to burn down the mess hall within 3 hours of taking over. The quality of our food acutally improved after that. We trucked in meals instead of eating what our chemically mellowed cook would have made. Even Emeril can't cook on Prozac.

I left my unit, and am now en route to my new assignment; learning French. I'm not kidding.

I don't know what to make of this Iraq tour. Not yet, anyway.

One thing I will tell you, our days in Iraq are numbered. Yes, there's the SOFA status agreement through 2011. But, in July the Iraqi public will vote on the SOFA agreement. After 30 months in Iraq, I predict that Iraqis will NOT act in their own rational self interest, and vote against the SOFA. It is a matter of pride. The Iraqis are ashamed of the fact that Americans kicked the snot out of their army, occupied the country, and dictated everything for almost two years. Now they have the chance to kick us out! They couldn't do it militarily, but if they vote us out, their warped sense of perception will registered the event as an incredible victory over America. If that happens, all Soldiers should be home by the end of 2009. I never have to go back. Everyone wins!

Take Care!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Sons of Iraq

The most important issue of my fifteen month deployment was the Sons of Iraq. The Sons of Iraq had many names, to include Concerned Citizen Groups, Sahawa, Concerned Local Citizens and Citizens on Patrol (my personal favorite). Some Colonel somewhere earned himself a gold star when he decided to force everyone to call them the Sons of Iraq.

The Iraqi Army hates the name “Sons of Iraq.” Our local Iraqi Army Major General likes to say, “If those guys are sons of Iraq, then what are we [the Iraqi Army]? Sons of bitches?” Whenever I talk to the Iraqi Army about the Sons of Iraq, I refer to them as the “volunteers.”

To make it even more complicated, the Sons of Iraq will refer to themselves as “Sahawa,” which is Arabic for “awakening.” Any of the names are interchangeable in everyday Iraqi conversation.

I first heard about the Sons of Iraq while researching the unit I was supposed to replace. The area we were heading to was bad. Very bad. Bad enough that the terrorists could kidnap three Soldiers, send a dump trucks full of explosives to blow up a patrol base (it didn’t work), and kill over fifty Soldiers over the course of a year. The area was called The Triangle of Death, I am not making that up. So, I was a bit nervous about the deployment.

Then I started reading reports about the ‘Sahawa’ and their fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Apparently, some Sunni insurgents decided to turn on AQI, and there was a great deal of fighting between the two groups. The American Army decided to go along with this, and supported the Sahawa by paying them to man check points, giving them road guard vests (so the helicopters wouldn’t shoot them while they stood on check points with their weapons) and working closely with the Sahawa leaders to hunt down AQI.

The level of enemy activity….plumeted, for the most part. No more IEDs, mortar attacks, small arms attacks, just caches of enemy munitions turned over to the Coalition and enemy fighters captured or found floating in a canal.

Why did this happen? AQI’s brutality turned the Sunni tribes against AQI. If AQI had a problem with a Sheik (tribal leader), they would kill him and dump his body in the street, then forbid anyone from touching the body for three days (I major no-no in Islam). AQI extorted money and fighters from the tribes and proved to be a very poor guest. AQI leaders were often non-Iraqis, and liked to boss around the Iraqis. The Iraqis hate this. They hate all foreigners. Even worse, they forbade smoking. I know one Sahawa leader who killed an AQI guy who threatened him for smoking.

The final straw for all the Sunni tribes was AQI’s version of “prima nocte” (watch Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart.”) AQI would spot a young girl of marriage age (12-14 in rural Iraq), kidnap and rape her. This dishonored the entire tribe, and is the ultimate insult to an Iraqi man. To add insult to injury, the AQI guy wrote her a letter saying that while she wasn’t a virgin, she gave her virginity to a prince of AQI and is still worth marrying. After this happened a few times, the tribes revolted against AQI, and the fighting began.

Sahawa guys were rather adept at fighting AQI. Members of insurgent groups like the 1920’s Revolutionary Brigade, Islamic Army, etc worked hand in hand with AQI for a number of years as they fought the Coalition and Iraqi Army. Sahawa knew exactly who was AQI, where they slept, where they hid their weapons. So, once Sahawa decided to Order 66 AQI, it was over quickly.

The United States Government had to get a handle on this, so we offered to pay the Sahawa ten dollars a day to behave and guard a check point. We gave them reflective vests so we wouldn’t have a “He’s coming right for us!” moment and shoot up friendly people holding AK-47s.

The first time I met the Sahawa was my second or third day in Iraq. AQI tried to kill a critical Sahawa leader named Abu Maruf, and we were going out to check up on him. We were pleased with the attack. If AQI tried to kill him, then he definitely wasn’t working for AQI. Plus, they messed up the attack which just upset the Sahawa even more, like whacking a beehive.

We drove out to the club house where Abu Maruf lived and worked. The Sahawa were out in force after the attack, and there were plenty of Sahawa guards along the roads, around the house and on the roof. One of the guards had a machete on his belt. A machete! Why does anyone outside of jungle need a machete? Did I mention the guns? Everyone had a gun, not a single reflective vest anywhere.

Abu Maruf was rattled, and his hand was bandaged up. We had a nice conversation with this guy, who was the former number 3 AQI guy for most of Al Anbar province. During the conversation, I noticed a Sahawa guy walking around with a funny looking hat. I thought it was some sort of yamaka with a thick edge. Yamaka…probably not. I eventually got a good look at the ‘hat,’ turns out it was a rolled up ski mask. He must have just returned from a whacking. The guy’s name was Theeb, which is Arabic for wolf, neat guy.

As the day wore on, I took the time to look around and saw that we were surrounded by the Sahawa. Dozens and dozens of former insurgents who would have killed me six months ago. I would have dropped a bomb on that house six months ago. Now, we were enjoying tea and joking about nonsense.

Since this meeting, I’ve walked past the spot where the three Soldiers were kidnapped. I wasn’t wearing my helmet or flack vest, just waltzing along on our way to a Sheik’s house for a goat feast. Six months earlier and I would’ve been on the AQI YouTube channel.

Let’s go back to an important part. Most of the Sahawa fighters WERE FORMER INSURGENTS. They attacked American Soldiers. They killed American Soldiers. Now, we had the choice of rejecting them for their past, or incorporating them into the security plan for the area. Refusing to let them reconcile was a mistake. We had to bring them into the fold and use them against AQI. Sitting down and talking to these guys made me feel…dirty. There’s a quote, which I’m about to butcher, that goes “The only thing worse than defeat is to compromise with evil.” In order to win the fight, we had to work with these former insurgents.

But, it is was all worth it. In fifteen months, our Brigade lost only one Soldier to enemy action. Very few wounded. The last averaged losing one Soldier every single week, and many more wounded, until the Sahawa came on the scene. All the money paid to the Sahawa barely amounted to the cost of a single Apache helicopter. By not taking casualties or losing humvees to IEDs, the United States Government saved a great deal of money by paying the Sahawa. What a bargain! A bit heartless, but true.

With all the security, the Iraqi Army isn’t fighting for its life anymore, and has time to grow and become more professional. The Iraqi Government can repair infrastructure (no insurgents to blow it up) and provide essential services to the population. City markets are open, and the people aren’t afraid of being kidnapped and murdered. Great success! All we had to do was set aside our anger with these former terrorists, and be their friends.

In the end, we can say we’ve won this war because of our cooperation with the Sahawa. But it feels like a victory won by cheating.

There’s a great episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that encapsulates the Sons of Iraq problem. A little back ground, the Federation is losing a war against the Dominion, and the main character thinks up a plan to bring another ally into the war with the help of a former spy. If they can recruit the new ally, the Federation could win and it will preserve their way of life. How to recruit the new ally gets into a very moral dark area.



We can live with the Sons of Iraq.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Movies with the Iraqis

Building rapport with the Iraqis is always a good thing. Arabs value relationships, and will go to great lengths to build and support the friendships that come from good relationships. As an American in Iraq, I like building rapport as someday my Iraqi friends will tell me if I’m about to drive over an IED, or convince them to eat me last. Similar interests are great way to build rapport, and I try to work that angle through movies.

You’d think with Hollywood’s domination of global markets that Iraqis would have a working knowledge of classic movies like Star Wars, the Godfather and Ernest Goes to Camp. In all reality…not so much. Iraqis watch a lot of Egyptian movies, which I as an American can’t find at Blockbuster. I think Egypt stopped making movies after 1980, as nothing new looking is on the air.

A fellow officer polled some of our Sons of Iraq check points to see what the average Iraqi man’s favorite American movie was. Everyone he asked said they’d never seen an American movie. The area he polled was kind of a problem, as the area consisted of subsistence farmers with no electricity. After a few days and several hundred questions, the officer found an Iraqi answer.

He had to coax the answer out of the Iraqi, who was visibly nervous. The Iraqi said his favorite American movie of all time…Titanic! The officer started laughing, as this was hardly an answer that would make someone nervous. The Iraqi got upset, and said “What? Do you think that just because we’re Arabs we don’t have feelings and emotions that run deep?” The officer laughed even more, and all rapport was ruined.

That the highest grossing movie in human history is popular doesn’t surprise me. One Iraqi officer said it was “The most perfect movie” he’d ever seen. I, for the record, saw it once in the theaters. My girlfriend at the time drug me to see it (I think this was her fifth viewing, and she still cried at the end), and I admit it was an excellent movie. If I ever run into James Cameron, I’ll thank him for a conversation topic with the Iraqis.

Whenever I visit with my Iraqi counterpart, he usually has his TV tuned to an Arab satellite action movie station. Unfortunately, these aren’t good action movies. The movies are definitely in the “B” quality range and all star Dean Cain, oddly enough. Action movies and some dramas make their way to Arab satellite TV, never comedy.

I don’t think many comedies can transcend the culture barrier. I recently saw “So I Married An Axe Murderer” in French. The angry Scottish father did not come across well in l’Francais. The best jokes depended on the inflection and word play of the English language, which I don’t think the French could appreciate or translate.

Movies are not the best way to get to know the Iraqis, so I went a different route:

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Ramadan

Ramadan! Once a year Muslims around the world spend a month fasting, reading the Koran and acting in a more pious manner.

The first time I encountered Ramadan was during my first Iraq tour, back in 2003. My chain of command put out a little pamphlet explaining Ramadan to all us infidels. The only thing that stood out was the section on killing. This isn’t verbatim, but it went something like this: “During Ramadan, Muslims are prohibited from killing other people. Now, were always supposed to avoid killing people, but during Ramadan we really mean it.” That was an early Iraq …what? moment.

For Ramadan, Muslims won’t eat, drink, smoke or partake in nookie during daylight hours. In an effort to respect Ramadan, Coalition Forces won’t do any of the above in front of practicing Muslims. It isn’t so much about respect, as it is an effort to not make them angry. Iraqis are rather high strung after five years of murder, VBIEDs, random explosions, etc. Especially the smokers. Ever been around someone who’s trying to quit the death sticks? They’ll blow up at someone for breathing too much. I don’t want to be the guy that lights up a cigarette and pops open a soda mid-afternoon.

A few weeks ago, our Iraqi Army brethren swore up and down that operations would be unaffected by Ramadan. Once Ramadan began…not so much. Nothing happens during the day. Ramadan means nap time every single afternoon. I can relate, whenever I’ve gone without food and water for any length of time I have no energy either. It is a little frustrating. If I want to go after a bad guy in the afternoon, my IA are a bunch of zombies.

I respect anyone who can stick to Ramadan for a whole month, it doesn’t sound easy.

At the end of the day, it’s time for chow. The meals are large and the family is supposed to spend it with their family, like a month worth of Thanksgiving, minus the football.

As a Soldier in Iraq, I must go without some things as well. It stems from General Order #1. General Order # 1 states military personnel will not drink, attempt to change anyone’s religion, or partake in nookie (amended if your spouse is stationed with you). Legend has it that General Swartzkopf (sp) issued General Order #1 during the Gulf War in an effort to appease the strict Islamic rules of Saudi Arabia. No one has rescinded the order since 1991.

Yes, I see the wisdom to General Order #1. Alcohol and firearms don’t mix, as YouTube redneck videos have taught us. If a Muslim renounces Islam, they could be killed.

But nookie…come on! I’m a patrol base with nothing but dudes, so the decision is made for me. I wonder if anyone would buy a “Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, sexually deprived for YOUR freedom” bumper sticker. I doubt it.

I will allow your imagination to explore the difficulties of romantic relationships on small patrol bases, in units where people work together 12-18 hours a day or what an average guy’s chances are with the 5% female population. It’s like High School divided by Days of Our Lives times Rambo II.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Detainee Release

One of my many extra duties is to supervise detainee release. For whatever reason, we release individuals from Coalition custody after they’re deemed “no longer a threat to the Coalition or Iraqi people.”

So, I get the call that around 50 detainees will land in my little slice of Iraqi heaven, and I need to be out there at fricking midnight to meet the helicopters. Why midnight? Because it’s inconvenient, nothing is ever easy in Iraq…and I hate helicopters.

My Iraqi Army partner, and a dozen of his soldiers, sat out by the helicopter landing zone and waited for the detainees. A little after midnight (of course they’re late) we hear the whoop-whoop-whoop of the helicopters, and we jump back into our vehicles. Helicopters kick up an absurd amount of dirt when they land, often accompanied by giggles from the pilots as they brown-out yet another unsuspecting group of spectators. We’d renovated the landing zone with giant steel mats to keep the dust down. The first helicopter landed and kicked up a fair amount of dirt, but nothing too bad.

I ran out to the helicopter, met the Soldier in charge of the detainees, waved the detainees towards the waiting and friendly Iraqi Army. As I counted detainee noses, it became blatantly obvious that I was standing behind one of the giant engines. Ladies and Gentlemen, the world’s largest hair dryer. The air was actually painful, and I wish I’d picked another spot, but then the detainees would run around all willy-nilly. A few more minutes and I would have turned into beef jerky.

The IA policed up the detainees, and they squatted in close quarters. Imagine a giant box off Peeps, but these Peeps are all in identical shirts, shoes, pants and smell terrible.

And then all common sense failed. The first helicopter could have taken off and made room for the second, instead the first stayed put, and the second landed in a dirt soccer field. I waited a minute for the dust to settle, but it didn’t. The second helicopter was surrounded by a THIS IS CETI ALPHA FIVE intensity sand storm.

I stumbled towards the helicopter, but could keep my eyes open for a moment or two. Yes, stumbling blindly towards the giant spinning blades of helicopter death. Once I got close enough that I could see the helicopter ramp, there went a long line of detainees off into the sand storm. They were definitely going the wrong way. What the hell…

I took off after the line, and found a Soldier at the head. Before I could tell him he was an artard and that he’s going the wrong way, he waved at me and took off for the helicopter. There I was, standing in the midst of nuclear winter with twenty-ish detainees who looked scared to death. It was essential that we head back to the waiting Iraqi Army, or I’d have a bunch of detainees running around an Iraqi Army base, at midnight, surrounded by armed guard towers. CNN would love that.

Thankfully, my interpreter is smarter than the average bear, and he waved a lit flash light at us, which we could make out through the haze of flying sand and very small rocks. I utilized my rudimentary Arabic and screamed “Yala!” as I waved towards the light. ‘Yala’ means “run great speed and courageous emotion’ or something like that.

I got the detainees to the Iraqi Army, who had quite the laugh at my expense. Can’t blame them, just look at me:



I look like ancient!

Then we had to screen all the detainees, make sure their name matches their picture, the names on the list, etc. No AQI/JAM would ever try to sneak out of prison by flubbing up his paperwork, never ever!

My Iraqi partner and I quizzed each detainee about why they were arrested (every single one was innocent, they don’t know why they were picked up in the first place) and how long they’d been in jail. One guy said he’d been in jail for a few days short of two years, we asked him if he wanted to stay in the IA jail a bit longer, but he would have none of that.

I get to do detainee release once a month. I’m so excited.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

...what?

Every so often I have these “…what?” moments with the Iraqi Army.

Case in point, I went to find an Iraqi officer who was supposed to meet me for dinner. I sat down in his office and used my rudimentary Arabic on one of his brother officers. Then an Iraqi lieutenant colonel walks in and they talk amongst themselves. The first officer proceeds to whip out a tazer, and turn it on for his boss. It sparked and made a series of unfriendly cracking noises. I’ve never had a normal conversation that ended with someone whipping out a tazer. So there’s my first “…what?” moment of the day.

I don’t speak that much Arabic, but I’m pretty sure the LTC said “Dude, that totally reeks of awesomeness, let me try.” The LTC grabs the tazer, turns it on and jokingly jabs the active tazer at his buddy. Ha ha! What fun.

Finally, the guy I’m waiting for shows up…and then he grabs the tazer and waves it around. There I am, a lone American officer in a room full of Iraqi officers who are PLAYING WITH A TAZER. The third officer took the tazer into the hallway…and chased some of the Iraqi Army soldiers up and down the hallway with the tazer “…what?”

I suppose I should have admonished the IA for playing with something that is definetly not a toy, but when a bunch of Iraqis are jabbing at each other with a tazer designed to incapacitate cattle, discretion is the better part of valor.

It would be easy to scoff at the Iraqi Army for this incident, but Coalition Forces aren’t any smarter.

A few weeks ago, some of the Soldiers assigned to my little slice of heaven decided to buy themselves a tazer. A big one, one that meant business. Thankfully, one of the senior non-commissioned officers heard the device crackling, investigated and confiscated the Mother of All Tazers. Why did they buy the tazer? One of the Soldiers wanted to zap his buddy with it, and his buddy was OK with the plan, so long as the zapping was filmed for YouTube…what?!

Ladies and Gentlemen, Coalition and Iraqi Army forces are winning the war. I leave you with that fact.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Donut of Misery

Soldiers speculate on their redeployment date. The day we get back to our families, flushing toilettes and beer is a happy one, so we want to know when it is! But, the date fluctuates (shifts to the left or right), much to our consternation. When will the new unit arrive? How long must we wait for a flight to Kuwait, then to the States? Will there be an…extension?

Extensions are bad. Very bad. Back in 2004, we’d handed over our mission to the new unit, sent an advanced team to Kuwait, had the vehicles packed and lined up ready to go. Then the phone rang. The redeployment stopped, and we went south to fight Muqtada al Sadr and his merry band of jerk offs throughout central Iraq. After the 365th day came and went, we lost hope of ever going home. We just drove from city to city, stomping Jaysh Al Mahdi into paste and waiting for the next phone call. We stomped them a little too hard, as JAM turned to Iran for training and equipment, but that’s a different matter.

After the 15th month of a 12 month tour, the phone rang and told us to head to Kuwait. Sheeah, right. We’ll get to Kuwait and promptly turn around for Mosul. But, we went to Kuwait, turned over our equipment and remained skeptical about ever going home. Then we got on the aircraft, still no guarantee! Folks made it to the US of A before the extension, and were called back to Iraq. Landed in Germany, marveled at the green grass but still didn’t think we were home free. Once the plane took off and we were sure it was heading West, we relaxed a bit more.

We landed in Maine. If they told us to get back on the plane and head for Iraq, we could make a break for the door. Canada was close by. Then we got home, and after a week or two we were sure we wouldn’t be called back to Iraq, and we finally relaxed.

Where was I…tracking the day we head home, yes. Now Soldiers have their very own “Donut of Misery.” A simple excel spreadsheet that computes the number of days, hours, minutes past and left in the tour. A pie graph of sorts monitors progress through the deployment as a percentage, and resembles a steadily shrinking donut.



This gave way to Happy Percentage Day! Every 3.65 days (assuming a 12 month tour) another percentage point ticks by, one percentage point closer to going home. So I wish people Happy Percentage Day to my fellow office drones once or twice a week. Don’t tell Hallmark, I might patent the idea.

Math is never that exciting, so Soldiers embellish their Donuts of Misery with photos of scantily clad, yet tasteful, photos of their favorite model/actress/women-of-thankfully-low-morals. There is some debate over who has the best Donut flair, but it is a personal choice.

My Donut transitioned from ‘depressing’ to ‘uplifting’ around the 33% mark. Soon it will be zero.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Arab Music

During my daily dealings with the Iraqi Army, we spend quality time watching TV. TV, especially satellite TV, is something of a miracle for the Iraqis, as Saddam forbade all satellite dishes. Before 2003, Iraqis could only watch government TV channels.

Back in 2002, an Iraqi took his broken TV to a repair man. The repair man wanted 200 dollars to fix it. That’s way too much. Iraqi went to a second repairman. 150 dollars, no way! But the third repairman wanted five dollars. Five dollars? Why so little. The repairman said he’d put a picture of Saddam on the screen, it would be the same as fixing the TV…That story is much funnier in Arabic.

We always watch Arabic music channels. Arabic music is monotonous. Every single song sounds exactly the same, and they’re always disgustingly sweet poetic love songs, like diabetic Backstreet Boys. Here’s the first thing that pops out about the singers, they’re not that good looking. In America, only rock stars can be ugly. Troglodyte Pop singers on American Idle? Hell no! Some of these Arab music stars would make babies cry.

So, every song just warbles along while the singer stares at his love interest, but they never actually touch. Some songs feature dancing. Groups of men and women will dance in circles, but never together. Every so often the women whip out knives, maybe that’s why the men won’t dance with them. Arab morality is at play here. In traditional Arab society, men and women of different families never mingle before marriage. Isn’t that ironic? All these songs about love, but no one meets their spouse until the day they’re married. I’ve never been married, but by all accounts the romance stops after the honeymoon.

The root of all this irony is virginity. Arab women are supposed to be virgins when married. When I admit to my Iraqi partners that American brides are typically not virgins, they’re stunned into silence. So, in Arab society women and men are never supposed to mingle, which definitely stops them from having sex. Those giant black table clothes the women wear? Keeps men from seeing their curvy bits.

Historically, an Iraqi couple gets married and promptly retires to a private location for consummation purposes. The man will put a white sheet on the bed to, um…collect proof that his bride was a virgin when they got married. He will proudly display this sheet outside of his house to let everyone know that his wife was a virgin, and the wife’s parents take great pride in this proof. I’m not making this up! Positively barbaric, and I guarantee it still happens today in more rural areas.

Where was I…music! So, I’ve tried to show some of our interpreters proper Western music videos through the magic of YouTube. It went something like this:
Me: This is a very famous band called Disturbed, watch this video called “Inside the Fire.”

Ali (terp): That girl…she’s dead? What is this song about?

Me: Suicide and selling your soul to the devil to be with the one you loved.

Ali: They’re just screaming at each other.

Me: That’s the melody.

Ali: That girl is practically naked!

Me: You’re damned right.

Ali: What’re they saying?

Me: I’m not really sure…Where are you going?

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Heat

I don’t know how to explain how hot Iraq is. There is just no equivalent that I’ve ever experienced in the United States. I’ve lived in Arizona and El Paso, Texas, so the desert is nothing new for me.

The temperature skyrockets from 90 to 125 every morning around 9 A.M. We spend the rest of the day avoiding sunlight and un-conditioned air. Riding around in humvees, walking, breathing and thinking are all undesirable activities in the Iraqi heat. The temperature will dip at night into the high 80s if we’re lucky.

Leaving any place air conditioned is a hard decision. Do I really have to go to the bathroom? The port-a-potties are stinky saunas. Nothing like doing one’s business in a cloud of poop steam and melting plastic walls.

The Iraqis deal with the heat in a truly Iraqi fashion. They do nothing. As if they ever need an excuse to do nothing. The heat hits and they just sit around in the shade, talking amongst them selves. They never sweat, which weirds me out. You’d figure that after thousands of years living next door to hell people would emigrate to cooler lands. The only people working during the day are Americans. We just can’t sit around for hours on end while there’s perfectly good brain boiling daylight!

Sandstorms are the only natural relief from the heat. A blanket of sand blocks out much of the sunlight, and keeps temperatures low. It is unusual to walk outside and the world has a Tatooine-like tan tinge to it. The downside is that the dust will clog air conditioners and cover everything with a fine layer or dirt.

Bad climate is the real reason countries establish empires. Ever been to England? Cold wet and miserable. It’s the ‘Blighted Isle’ for a reason. So what to the English people do? They run around, settle North America, conquer every tropical island and costal vacation spot they can. Going native in India sure beats sitting in freezing fog and eating Sheppard’s Pie.

We drink a lot of water. One of the best treats a Soldier can have is a frozen water bottle. Take out a liter of bottled ice and carry it around. After awhile, it’ll turn to slush, which is just what the doctor ordered when the sun is three inches from your face. The hard part is keeping the Iraqi workers away from the cold drinks. Iraqis will never bring their own water to anything. So, the workers do an hour or so of work when they first show up, spend the next six hours guzzling Gatorade, then work for another hour in the early evening. Ever wonder why this war costs 12 billion USD a month? Gatorade for the Iraqis.

Constantly oozing sweat is takes a toll on clothing. We don’t have ready access to washers and dryers, so we try to get as much wear out of a uniform as we can before sending it off to the cleaners. If a uniform has salt deposits from evaporated sweat, then it is time for that uniform to get washed.

If you want to replicate the Soldier’s experience in an Iraqi summer, I suggest you:
Turn a hair dryer up to eleven and hold it about three inches from your face…24/7.
Strap 60 pounds of metal to your body and do jumping jacks in a sauna for ten minutes. Rest for 2 minutes. Repeat.
Throw a blanket in the oven until it’s nice and scalding, then wrap that around your body.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

4th of July

Ah, the 4th of July. Back in the States everyone can celebrate with BBQ, fireworks and cold tasty beer.

We decorated our meager mess hall with a few patriotic plastic tablecloths and set up our own BBQ. If Bobby Flay could see it, his head would explode. Our lone cook started grilling chicken, steak…things and hot dogs early in the morning. The smell of carcinogens and evaporated beef fat teased me throughout the day.

In an effort to increase rapport with the Iraqi Army, we invited some of the senior officers over for dinner. It’s very rare that we ever get the Iraqis over to eat. They won’t eat food prepared by the Hindu Indian chefs at the larger mess halls (they’re an impure people according to the Koran) and out at the more austere patrol bases, the food is just terrible.

At my lovely patrol base, we rarely cook anything. Everything is pre-cooked in the States, vacuum sealed and shipped over to Iraq. Then we reheat and enjoy. TV dinners for dozens of people, Yum-o!

Iraqi fare is pretty fresh. Sometimes the goat is still alive when we show up for dinner. But, Iraqi food looks like road kill.

I’ve been eating Iraqi food for the entire deployment, so I’m pretty much immune to whatever evil spirits lurk in the kabobs and eggplant wraps. I took two of my soldiers to eat with our Iraqi counterparts, and they weren’t so lucky. They spent the next three days sweating to death, and puking all over the place. Me? Just fine. They’re a little gun shy about eating anything that has an expiration date before 2015.

So, what does inviting the Iraqis over for dinner mean for me? Sweet revenge! Now the Iraqis can ponder and smile politely as they eat our reheated-beef-substance. Ha ha! Keep me in Iraqi for 15 months will you? Enjoy some of that rubber chicken with BBQ sauce from the lowest bidder! The best part of any American meal is that we don’t need antibiotics as the dessert course.

The Iraqis were terrified by our 4th of July feast. They gently poked at the steak and picked at the chicken. They didn’t know what the corn on the cob was. Maybe if I said it was goat penis they would have tried it.

I tried to fool myself into having a good time with a near-beer. Beer with no alcohol, who came up with this idea? No one drinks beer for the taste! I told the Iraqis about the 4th of July in the States, why we celebrate, etc. The Iraqis had a period of English occupation that ended in the 1920s, so they could empathize a little bit.

No fireworks! Random explosions around people with guns is never a good idea. Iraq has forever ruined fireworks for me. The Iraqis celebrate by firing off the family AK-47 in the back yard, that may catch on in the States after recent Supreme Court rulings.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Leave

After much waiting and worrying, I went on leave. The Army sends all Soldiers away from Iraq for 15-18 days, depending on the length of their tour in Iraq. We can go just about anywhere, so long as we have a passport.

I left my lovely patrol base and waited at Baghdad International Air Port for a flight to Kuwait. There was a great deal of ‘manifesting,’ which means showing up for a roll call, and then learning that we have to show up for another roll call in three hours. I had numerous formations into the wee hours of the morning, ending with an early morning C-17 flight to Kuwait.

Kuwait is as I remember it. There’s nothing there but sand and prefabricated buildings. We’ve heard fairy tales about “Kuwaitis,” natives to the sandy country. I’ve seen plenty of Pakistanis and Americans, but never a “Kuwaiti.” The entire country is a giant sand dune with oil pipelines.

We landed in Kuwait and the Soldiers stationed there gave us many customs briefings, asked where we wanted to go for leave and cut us loose for a few hours. I decided to take a shower, and walked out into the brisk 120 degree Fahrenheit Kuwaiti morning. 120 degrees! That’s like turning a hair dryer up to eleven and blasting it an inch from your face. I took a shower, and needed a new shower after walking back to the holding tent.

The customs briefings were long and repetitive. It is NOT OK to bring hand grenades, smoke grenades, bullets, dead animals, Swedish porn, hashish, etc. back to the US of A. They wouldn’t tell us this unless Someone had tried to bring those sort of things onto the airplane. Yes really, they have pictures to prove it.

After the litany of things we couldn’t bring, our bags were searched and then we were sent to the terminal…or so we thought. On the way to the terminal, the walkway is fenced in on all sides, was another inspection station! This place was complete with x-ray machines and rubber gloves. Criminy.

Me and my fellow travelers sat in another holding area, scrambled to get our tickets, and slowly lost confidence as some Air Force person would pop into the tent, tease us with a flight time then come back minutes later and tell us the flight was cancelled. Tee hee!

Eventually we got on a civilian airliner and we were off. This wasn’t Delta or something fancy like ATA, this was World Airways. No, you’ve probably never flown on World Airways. Apparently, they’re chartered only by the United States Government to bring Soldiers to and from Iraq. In all honesty, it wasn’t that bad.

We first landed in Leipzig, Germany. Leipzig’s claim to fame is that it’s the home of the German metal band Rammstein. Don’t Google that, you won’t like what you find. The little Rammstein shrine won’t draw many tourist families, I’ll tell you that much. While in Kuwait, the Soldiers there told us over and over again that alcohol is strictly forbidden until we reach our final destination. But in Leipzig, there was alcohol for sale everywhere. We’re not talking about Spaten beer, we’re talking Absinthe. The green stuff that’ll drive you out of your mind! Can’t buy any for later consumption, they’ll send you right back to Iraq, no leave for you!

I sense the Germans are still a little bitter about the bombings in WWII, and this is some sort of subtle vengeance. Torturing Soldiers with good booze.

Apparently, people used to drink on the way back from Iraq. No doubt, some jack ass got drunk in Germany and woke up in Ukraine missing a kidney and that ruined the fun for everyone.

We stopped in Atlanta and then off to Dallas. We stopped in Dallas on Memorial Day, of all days. There was a long and thick line of civilians there to greet Soldiers as we got off the plane. People shook our hands, thanked us for our service, and Girl Scouts passed out their signature cookies. Score! I was very impressed by the people in Dallas, nice to know folks care about us and are aware that there’s still a war going on.

The USO in Dallas is top notch. There’s free internet, free snacks, comfy chairs, showers, phones, cable, etc. Anyone in the military would do well to run by that USO and take a load off.

The power that be in Dallas passed out a paper informing us that if we get arrested by the Dallas Airport PD because of drunken stupidity, the time spent in jail will count against your leave dates. They wouldn’t tell us this unless Someone had gotten drunk and hijacked one of those terminal bus thingies.

I got on a flight to LAX, and spent the next 18 days with family and friends.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Chai Boys and the Iraqi Army

I spend much of my time with the Iraqi Army, and it is good. I learn about the culture, see how they do things and learn a bit of Arabic here and there.

But, there are some odd requests. One of the Iraqi officers learned I was on my way home in a few weeks, and asked me to look in on a medical issue for him. Sure, why not? He has ‘weak sperm’ issues.

Today on Things I Never Thought I’d Have to Deal With: weak Iraqi sperm.

No, I don’t know what to do with weak sperm. Eat an oyster? Would anyone trust seafood from the Persian Gulf?

At captain, Iraqi officer get all manner of perks. They must buy an office full of ostentatious and uncomfortable furniture. And, they get dedicated chai (tea) boys to answer their every whim. Most officers have a call button that will summon their chai boy at any moment. Push the button: Tea! Here comes some tea. Push the button: Dinner! A plate full of chicken, rice and goat balls.

These chai boys are uniformly…effeminate. Is this some sort of ancient Babylonian custom that strong men must be waited on by THIS GUY:



Yes, an actual chai boy. His name is Alicia (dead serious).

Here’s a custom the United States Army will NOT adopt. Every so often I sit in with the Iraqi colonel and there’s Alicia ready and able to provide tea and redecorate the office with something tasteful from Versace Dictator Furnishings.

FOB Dog

Americans love their pets. When the United States Army deploys to garden spots like Iraq, we adopt local mutts as ‘FOB dogs.’

A FOB dog’s life is simple; eat left-overs, bark at strange things, let Soldiers pet them. In return, we take good care of our little mascots. Iraqis, for some reason, hate dogs. They don’t keep them as pets, they don’t like to touch them, nothing. Despite the fact that Iraqis hate dogs, they’re everywhere.

The Afghanis take the cake in dog hating. The Russians left behind millions and millions of land mines, which are still active. To clear the land, the Afghans will fence off a mine field and then put a pack of dogs inside the fence. Fetch, Rover! BOOM! One less land mine.

Our FOB Dog is Daisy. She is a little unusual for a FOB Dog. She hates all Iraqis and other dogs, and enjoys swimming in the pond/cess-pool behind the base. A few days ago, I saw her gnawing away at a very long bone, which looked like a human femur. What was I supposed to do? My family had a little chiuahua/rat mix named Gizmo who’d put up a real fight if I tried to take away something he was eating. This dog is five times that size and was apparently Eating A Human Bone. Bad dog! Very bad!

Upon further investigation, it turns out the bone belonged to another dog. Whew! Wait…so our FOB dog is a cannibal. It’s a dog eat – No! No I can’t go through with that clichĂ©.

There are a number of things I did not anticipate about Iraq. Former terrorists who’re now my friends, eating sheep ass and cannibal FOB dogs. Why is everything in this country bat-shit insane?



There are some complications. The FOB Dogs do not appreciate the military working dog teams who visit the base, which results in an “Old Yeller” moment if the FOB dog attacks the working dog.

Some times Soldiers can ship FOB dogs back to the States, but the process is expensive and complicated. New units normally inherit FOB dogs…and their puppies. But, there are traveling vets who stop by for a little snip-snip to prevent that issue.

I can imagine that conversation:
FOB Dog: Yeah, the Soldiers let me sleep in peace, feed me and play with me.
Wild dog: Damn, that sounds awesome.
FOB Dog: It’s the life, but they cut my balls off.
Wild dog: @#@* that.

I do my best to stay away from the FOB dogs. Who knows when we’ll move elsewhere, and then who’ll take care of my dog? I have enough to worry about.

Here’s Daisy sleeping on a sun screen, her own improvised hammock.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Ready! Fire! Aim!

Last week I was at my desk, minding my own business, when the shop sergeant asks me “Hey, sir. You know you’re moving to a new unit in three days?” This was news to me! I immediately hunted down one of the many colonels I work for and confirmed that yes, I was moving in three days.

A number of questions came up:
Who am I replacing? Who’s replacing me? What will I be doing? Will this affect my leave? How do I get down there?

I got zero answers from anyone! No one had a clue why this was happening, or if they did they didn’t want to share. So, I cleaned out my desk and packed up my crap. I finagled my way onto a convoy of virgin MRAPs heading to the new base.

Moving is never a fun experience for me. I moved around a lot as a kid, and it always meant leaving friends. This time was no different. Plus, all the uncertainty in this move did not leave me confident at all.

I get down to the new base, and no one knows what the hell is going on. After a few days chilling out in a windowless trailer, I pushed out to my new assignment.

The base I’m at has got to be the FOB At The End Of The Universe. It looks like it was bombed yesterday. Literally. The gym is only surviving room in a building the USAF dropped a bomb on. I live in a plywood shack. The Iraqi Army compound is easy to find, just follow the smell of raw sewage (Yum-o!)

Still, this could be worse. At one point, during my first tour, I lived at a place called FOB Duke. FOB Duke was one of Saddam’s old arms depots. There was nothing there but sand and a few bunkers. Remember Tatooine from Star Wars? Looks just like that. We had a slit trench and three port-a-potties for several hundred soldiers. We all slept next to the vehicles with no protection from the elements.

No one knew what the purpose of the FOB was, until the first morning. Everything was perfectly normal until KA-BOOM, a huge explosion rocked everyone. I looked over in the direction of the blast, and saw a huge mushroom cloud. I kid you not. There were thousands of tons of munitions that a contractor was blowing up on a regular basis. No one bothered to tell me about that little fact until after the explosion. Doh.

Anyway, so long as I have walls, electricity and food that doesn’t come in a plastic bag, I’m doing all right.

The reason for the sudden officer shuffle is genitalia. Female soldiers are not allowed to fill certain positions in combat units. The battalion I moved to had a female officer in a position she shouldn’t have been in (but was doing a fine job). Someone somewhere raised a stink about a female soldier in a position she wasn’t supposed to be in. Once the dreaded words “15-6 Investigation” start circulating, suddenly every unit realizes they may have someone in a position they shouldn’t be, and there’s a race to fix everything. So, here I am.

Yeah, this is retarded and not the way to manage people. One more week until I make a break for Birkenstocks and facial hair.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Citizenship Ceremony




Two of my interpreters are now American citizens. I’ve never been to a citizenship ceremony, so I had to go.

Fatima, side-kicking interpreter, had to pass a test before she took the oath. The test shouldn’t be a challenge to any high school graduate, but I doubt most Americans can find Iraq on a map. She had some trouble understanding the Judicial branch, so I directed her to the world famous “How a Bill Becomes a Law” video, presented by YouTube. She didn’t get it. Anyway, she passed the test.

There were over 250 soldiers there to swear the citizenship oath. A big part of the oath is about ‘picking up arms’ to defend America. That part was kind of ‘Well…duh.” Non-American citizens who join the Army have their citizenship procedure accelerated; it only takes them a year.



After the oath and the ever motivational Lee Greenwood “Proud to be an American” video, each new American received a certificate. That part felt like a high school graduation, everyone had their name read off. I felt sorry for the MC, she had to pronounce names like “Juris Ghorstrofayabrokoffdais” and “Nak Clikclikbazoontiki.” God Bless America!

The ceremony was in the Al Faw palace. Saddam built the palace to celebrate his victory over Iran. The Iranians built a suicide bombing training course to celebrate their victory over Saddam. The palace looks impressive, check out the Mother of all Chandeliers:



But here’s the fun part. The chandeliers are all made of plastic. Dead serious. I spelunked around some of Saddam’s palaces we’d bombed, and more than one chandelier fell from the ceiling. Each of those little crystals is made of plastic, not crystal like you’d think.

The marble is all imported from Italy, and hideously expensive. Saddam dropped the big dinar on the marble but he couldn’t spend the cash for glass chandeliers? Cheap bastard! He also drove Rolls Royce cars with 8 track players and pleather seat covers.

It felt great to see so many people who want to be Americans, and will put their lives in danger to get their citizenship. Fatima had to give up her home country passport, and she can’t go back because they’d throw her in jail, possibly cut her head off. They’re crazy like that.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Man Kissing

The American military has a long history of sharing our culture with the countries we’ve…occupied. The Japanese picked up baseball. The Germans stopped invading countries for no good reason…wait, forget that one. So, you’d figure the Iraqis would learn something from us, and vice versa.

On the surface, the Iraqis don’t have much to offer. Women dressing in black sheets, mosques wailing to the RPG gods five times a day and a language that sounds like gargling. There is one social custom that the United States Army has begrudgingly accepted; the Man Kiss.

Iraqi men who barely know each other will kiss each other on the cheek during greetings. It is a little unusual to see, as men never kiss each other in America. First time I saw this, I was a bit surprised. Do I call the cops? Is it contagious?

Once two Iraqi men get to know each other well enough, the Man Kiss is expected. My boss sees enough important people around the area that he’s reached That Point with a number of Iraqis. They come up, shake hands, and lean in just enough to freak out my boss.

An American Soldier’s reaction to the Man Kiss is horror. The Army isn’t the most receptive organization to anything resembling homosexual conduct (but the current rule is Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Care). Now we’re surrounded by men who kiss each other and hold hands. Is their a power point presentation to explain this?

Ever had someone you weren’t too thrilled with try and kiss you? You can bob and weave, arm bar, fake a seizure, etc to avoid the unwelcome attention. Do this with an Iraqi and you’re incredibly rude. What do we do?

My boss has begrudgingly accepted the Man Kiss. I got a picture of his first Man Kiss, I’m saving it for a special occasion, like when he isn’t my boss anymore. Or right now.



What have the Iraqis learned from us? I tried to introduce them to the magic of bacon bits, but those are against their religion. Bacon bits aren’t technically food, shouldn’t be a problem.

They will show up for meetings on time. First tour, you tell an Iraqi to show up at 6, and he hears “Show up whenever you feel like.” It drove us nuts, we could never get a meeting going because the Iraqis wouldn’t show up. Now, they understand that Americans don’t do Iraqi time. Why? We have the money. They want to do business with us, they show up on time dadgummit.

What will the Army do with the Man Kiss once our Iraq misadventure ends? Pretend it never happened. Ask any Iraq vet if he was Man Kissed. The answer is no.

And now for fun: A wind chime made out of spent shell casings.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Celebrity Visit

Every so often, celebrities visit Iraq. There are always rumors of musicians and comedians touring about, but I rarely if ever see them. Some celebrities make regular visits. Kid Rock will occasionally emerge from his trailer to try and sing for troops, why can’t a mortar land on THAT guy? Harsh, yes. He volunteers his time to entertain troops, but he got the name ‘Kid Rock’ by selling crack cocaine. Drug dealer = scum bag. And I’ve got news for him; if you’re from Detroit you will never be a cowboy! But I digress.

My first tour, there was a rumor that Robin Williams was in town. So I grabbed his “Live on Broadway” CD and ran off to see him. We waited for a half hour, and guess who showed up? The Sergeant Major of the Army and his singing neice. Not what I was expecting. I wanted a hairy man doing a gay John Wayne impression and I got “Oh Holy Night” and a lecture. Joy!

A few days ago, I walked into the quad and there was a table with three absurdly hot civilian women. What’s this? Absurdly hot women always get my attention. An impromptu USO tour had landed itself in the brigade headquarters. They weren’t scheduled to be here, they normally push out to the smaller patrol bases to visit Soldiers. Bad weather for the win!

Next to the absurdly hot women was a very large man, Diamond Dallas Page! Yes, the professional wrestler. I watched him on many a Monday night. The man is huge, he had his championship belt with him, and was taking pictures with Soldiers. What do I do? Will he hit me with a steel chair if I ask him nicely enough? People always get hit with steel chairs in professional wrestling, why don’t more sports do this?

I stopped at the absurdlies’, and got their autographs. One of them asked what I do out here, and I said that I take notes. Damn it! If ever there was a time to fib, that was it! ‘I research Iraqi personalities.’ ‘I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.’ ‘I kick ass and chew bubble gum, but I’m all out of gum!’ Bah.

Then, Diamond Dallas Page. I hoisted the belt over my shoulder, and posed with him. We did the “Diamond Cutter” move. I had my fingers in to begin with, but he tightened his grip around my neck and grumbled “Fingers out.” When a 6’6 250lb man who makes his living crushing people says ‘fingers out,’ you listen and you obey.

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Also in line was a lieutenant who didn’t have a camera, so I got a picture of her. After the first photo, I told Diamond Dallas Page that she wanted a ‘head lock photo.’ Voila!

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Lieutenants must be abused at all times. Builds character.
I do appreciate these visits. That celebrities keep visiting five years into the war shows support for our efforts. They may not care for the war, but they care for the Soldiers. We were buzzing the whole rest of the week about the visit. Some folks have the pictures with DDP or the absurdly hot women as computer wallpaper or tacked up on a wall near their work station.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Learning Arabic

I’m in Iraq, an Arabic speaking country, why not learn Arabic? It certainly helps with the job and the Iraqis appreciate it. How hard can it be?

Before I deployed, I spent a pretty penny on Arabic language learning software. I was rather perplexed, as the company offered ‘Levantine’
Arabic, ‘Egyptian’ Arabic and ‘Modern Standard’ Arabic. How many versions of one language can there be? Is there really that much of a difference? Why don’t they offer Iraqi Arabic? There’s a market.

English isn’t all that different from region to region. Someone from England (unless it’s a London Eastender) can reasonably understand someone from Texas. Moroccans and Iraqis should be the same, yes? No! Turns out Arabic varies widely from country to country region to region, etc. Moroccan Arabic is incomprehensible to Iraqis. Arabic in Mosul is different from Arabic in Basra.

During my first tour, there was a protest down at the main gate. The protesters were rowdy, but not violent. The commander went down and addressed the crowd through his interpreter, and told them to protest away from the main gate and remain calm. After the interpreter finished speaking, the crowd went crazy. Quizzical glances all around, but the interpreter said he translated everything correctly. The commander repeated his message to the crowd, and the crowd went ballistic. So the commander asked where the interpreter was from. Kuwait. The Iraqis heard the Kuwaiti accent and assumed that it was a Kuwaiti ordering them around. There’s some history between the two countries. The Iraqis hates Kuwaitis. Everyone in the Middle East hates the Kuwaitis. Well, everyone in the Middle East hates everyone else in the Middle East, but that’s another discussion.

Nowadays, accent can get you killed in Iraq. If you talk like someone from Sunni Mosul at the wrong illegal check point, Death Squad. If you talk like a Shi’a from Basra at the wrong illegal check point, Death Squad.

So, accent matters. I’ve been working through the ‘Levantine (Syria and Lebanon)’ lessons, and then practicing with the interpreters we have in the building. Apparently, Iraqis can barely understand anyone from Syria. Doh. And, a Syrian accent in Iraq is like a French accent in America. Would you take Arnold Schwarzenegger seriously if he had a French accent a beret? Then, there are a few regional differences.

Such as, ‘He is over there’ in Syrian is something very rude in Iraqi. The accent is different (apparently the Iraqi accent is admired for ruggedness) and many words are different. Like ‘laben.’ In Syria, ‘laben’ is milk. Nice, cold and refreshing milk. We had lunch with the Iraqis a little while ago, and there were pitchers of what looked like milk. I asked, and the Iraqis said it was ‘laben.’ Milk? Not so much. In Iraq, ‘laben’ is watered down yogurt mixed with salt. Yes, really. It tastes like evil. Ho ho, cultural learning is fun!

I’ve never managed to learn any language other than English. Why should I? I’m an American, damn it. I dabbled in French, Spanish, Japanese, Latin and German but I know next to nothing. Americans are almost in awe of people who can speak another language, but its second nature to the rest of the world. Lack of interpreters is a huge hindrance to Army operations. If we go to war with Venezuela, we’re good. 5 years at war in Iraq and we’re still scraping by for interpreters. Hello! McFly!
The military has language training schools for Arabic, but that school teaches Modern Standard Arabic (newscaster and literary Arabic) which is nigh-incomprehensible to a Baghdad street urchin. Then the United States Government hires civilian interpreters from Morocco or Sudan, who are nigh-incomprehensible to every other Arabic speaker in the world. The government pays six figures for interpreters that are essentially useless. Why? Because American pencil pushers assume Arabic is Arabic is Arabic.

One exception is Egyptian. The Egyptians make most of the TV shows and movies, so Arabic speakers the world over can pretty much understand Egyptian. Can Egyptians understand Iraqis? No.

So, back to me learning Arabic, I learn some Syrian and try it out on my Iraqi interpreters. After they make the universal ‘What the hell did he just say?’ face, I repeat myself in English and they tell me what I meant to say in Iraqi.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

I never thought this would happen to me

During the flight back from yet another successful Entourage!, we had a most unusual experience. Our headquarters is on the Baghdad International Airport, the air is always full of Army helicopters and civilian aircraft.

We were on our final approach (why must they call it that?) to the landing zone, the helicopter stopped in mid air over the end of a runway. We often pause in the air for whatever reason, so I wasn’t especially concerned…Until!

I look out the window and see a giant civilian plane HEADING RIGHT FOR US.

Wow, not what I expected. I pointed at the rapidly approaching plane, and got the attention of my fellow passengers, who took turns pointing at the growing plane. Yes, that is a plane HEADING RIGHT FOR US. What do we do? Too high to jump for it, let’s keep pointing.

Let’s step back for a moment; this would be an embarrassing way to die. No one would ever forget it. For years, there people would whisper about the Great Helicopter Hit By a Flying Plane Debacle of ’08. The only way worse I can think of is to be hit by a mortar round while on a port-a-john.

Then the helicopter started moving…backwards…slowly. Giant plane HEADING RIGHT FOR US and we’re inching away. As the passenger, I have a sort of Zen peace about things. It’s not like I can jump in front and fly us out of danger. So I just sat there and watched the big McLarge huge plane and wondered if my life insurance would pay double for all of this.

At last, the plane banked off. I guess the air traffic controllers finished their tea and goat biscuit break.

Once clear of the helicopters, I asked my fellow passengers and confirmed that, yes, there was a plane HEADING RIGHT FOR US.

Just another day. Maybe next time flying monkeys will pelt me with crap. Nothing surprises me anymore.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Get to the Choppa!

Some times the Entourage! duty is an adventure.

One day, a general in charge of a committee somewhere in the bowels of Washington D.C decided to visit out little piece of Iraq. No problem, we’ll meet him whenever and wherever he wants. We would meet him at one of our smaller FOBs and let the general look at a real Iraqi, maybe drink some tea. But, the weather was bad that morning and the meeting was scrubbed.

Until! The Colonel’s schedule maven grabs me and says the meeting is back on and we’re leaving in like five minutes.

GET TO THE CHOPPA!

I throw my 50ish pounds of gear on and run out to the waiting helicopters. A quarter mile jog in full gear is no fun at all. Grab a 45 pound plate the next time you run on a tread mill, you’ll have a great work out or die. Most infantrymen carry more weight longer and further than I do, bless their hearts.

The helicopters zip us out to the base…and no general. Somehow the weather went bad again during our flight. So, we chat with the soldiers and head out to look at a cache site. The terrorist asshats buried explosives and munitions in the floor of a chicken farm. All the bits that go boom were gone by the time we got there, but we looked at the holes in the ground. No chickens were harmed during the course of the operation.

I got a few action photos of the holes and then we got a call from headquarters. The general is waiting for us back in our conference room back at the airport!

GET TO THE CHOPPA!

The only thing that can fluster a full bird colonel is if a general is waiting on him. My boss is shorter than I am, but I think he has bionic legs. He manages to speed walk at an Olympic pace. As such, I stay in eyeshot of him at all times, because if I lose sight of him he’ll warp to a waiting helicopter and I get to spend the night with Iraqis.

We load up the vehicles, race back to the base and run (again) to the helicopter. By this time, the weather was questionable, so the pilots decided to fly entirely too fast and entirely too low. During a normal flight, I look like this:

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On the day the pilots flew at warp factor 2 ten feet above the ground:

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Giggle! I guess they wanted to stay ahead of the weather, or the general told them to get the colonel to the meeting ASAP.

We made it back and I spent the rest of the day mumbling to myself and glaring at anyone in a flight suit.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Leap Years

Who came up with Leap Years? Let’s just tack on another day to February, maybe it has month length envy and the ACLU arranged same compensation. A complete revolution around the sun takes 365.25 days, so if we don’t do Leap Years then eventually we’ll celebrate the 4th of July in the middle of winter. Who wants that? I think the Romans finally put an end to that madness. Well, their perfect calendar has ruined my day. Thanks, Caesar!

February 29th is always a weird day for me. I look at the calendar and something strikes me as…odd. February has 28 days! Should this day really be happening? What if something anniversary worthy happens today? How can I celebrate it next year? Do people get married on February 29th? Does that save money on flowers?

The last time I was in Iraq was 2004, which was a Leap Year. I’m back for 2008 and yet another Leap Year with a day added to my time in Iraq. When you’re on a salary, an extra day does nothing for your bank account.

There is a very small benefit. Soldiers received $3.50 a day in per diem. The money is supposed to cover toiletries and such while deployed. But, we don’t get that money until after the deployment. Last tour, I kept a running total of how much money we made in per diem. It was a fun mind game that kept me busy. Day 215….that’s $725.50. So, this Leap Year day means an extra $3.50 when I get home. Huzzah! That might cover a gallon of gas.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Iraq Music (Warning! Long and un-funny)

We listen to a lot of music out here. My fellow office ground hogs plug in iPods or load their work computers with years’ worth of music. For the guys out on the FOBs (smaller bases) they won’t listen to music while on patrol, but headphones are a great way to snatch some personal time when you’re surrounded by Dudes 24/7.

Previous wars have sound tracks all their own. “Good Morning Vietnam” is full of songs synonymous with Vietnam. The Gulf War has that Lee Greenwood song and Whitney Houston singing the National Anthem. But what about this war? I don’t know if any song jumps out at people as “Iraq War” of “Afghan War.” But, here are the songs I think describe the deployments. I limited the selection to songs released from 9/11 onwards.

Disturbed: Sacred Lie
OK, there are no WMD in Iraq. We’ve looked. As such, the very rationale that drove us into Iraq is defunct, much to my chagrin.


My conviction is stronger today
As I fight to uncover your sacred lie
And the fear isn't going away
As the soldiers still die
Let your followers know their lives have been sold
For the good of your sacred lie
For the truth to be told
And the plan to unfold
We must start asking why

Don't you know the war is far from over now
What a stumbling block we've fallen over now
As our brothers die defending no one
The war is far from over now

Liberation, a moral charade
For the cause is a part of your sacred lie
Damnation a moment away in all the world's eyes
It's the doom of us all
We give in to control for the sake of your sacred lie
Complications abound
You'll get used to the sound of alarms in your life

Don't you know the war is far from over now
What a stumbling block we've fallen over now
As our brothers die defending no one
The war is far from over now

Give us a moment of peace in our lifetime [x7]
Give us a moment of peace right now

[x2]
Don't you know the war is far from over now
What a stumbling block we've fallen over now
As our brothers die defending no one
The war is far from over now

Disturbed: Overburdened
Guilt is a Soldier’s enemy.


Hell is still overburdened
I must stand and wait in line
I may never know for certain
When will be my time
How was I considered evil?
Pleasures taken in this life
Someone granted me reprieval
Decades spent in strife

Led to nothing
Repeated in my mind
Led to nothing
If only I was born another time

Hell is still overburdened
I must stand and wait in line
Hell is still overburdened
How have I been so determined malign?

It's the closing of the curtain
In the play that was my life
Countless chapters left unopened
Tragedies inside
I was fighting for a reason
Holy blessed homicide
Seems I have committed treason
All I've sacrificed

Led to nothing
Repeated in my mind
Led to nothing
If only I was born another time

Hell is still overburdened
I must stand and wait in line
Hell is still overburdened
How I have been so determined malign?
Hell is still overburdened
I must stand and wait in line
Hell is still overburdened
How I have been so determined malign?

Fate is so unkind
Now I should have known
Blind leading the blind
Reaping what I've sown
If it all amounts to nothing
Why, then, am I standing in this line?

Hell is still overburdened
I must stand and wait in line
Hell is still overburdened
How I have been so determined malign?
Hell is still overburdened
I must stand and wait in line
Hell is still overburdened
How I have been so determined malign?

3 Doors Down: Here Without You
I remember listening to this song Christmas ’03. An emotional kick in the nuts. For family members, but this is probably the best candidate for the “Iraq War” song.


A hundred days have made me older
Since the last time that I saw your pretty face
A thousand lies have made me colder
And I don't think I can look at this the same
But all the miles that separate
Disappear now when I'm dreaming of your face

I'm here without you baby
But you're still on my lonely mind
I think about you baby
And I dream about you all the time
I'm here without you baby
But you're still with me in my dreams
And tonight it's only you and me

The miles just keep rollin'
As the people leave their way to say hello
I've heard this life is overrated
But I hope that it gets better as we go

I'm here without you baby
But you're still on my lonely mind
I think about you baby
And I dream about you all the time
I'm here without you baby
But you're still with me in my dreams
And tonight girl its only you and me

Everything I know, and anywhere I go
It gets hard but it wont take away my love
And when the last one falls
When it's all said and done
It gets hard but it wont take away my love

I'm here without you baby
But you're still on my lonely mind
I think about you baby
And I dream about you all the time
I'm here without you baby
But you're still with me in my dreams
And tonight girl its only you and me

Bon Jovi: Undivided
Ah, a wonderful war anthem by everyone’s favorite Italian cowboy.


That was my brother lost in the rubble
That was my sister lost in the crush
That was our mothers, those were our children
That was our fathers, that was each one of us
A million prayers to God above
A million tears make an ocean of

[Chorus:]
One for love
One for truth
One for me, one for you

I found spirit, they couldn't ruin it
I found courage in the smoke and dust
I found faith in the songs you silenced
Deep down it's ringing out in each of us
Yeah... yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

[Chorus:]
One for love
One for truth
One for me, one for you

Where we once were divided, now we stand united
We stand as one... undivided.
How many hands? How many hearts?
How many dreams been torn apart?
Enough, enough... the time has come to rise back as

[Chorus:]
One for love
One for truth
One for me, one for you

Where we once were divided now we stand united
We stand as one... undivided.

Undivided.
Undivided.

One for love
One for truth
One for me, one for you
Where we once were divided, now we stand united
We stand as one... undivided.

Daughtry: It’s Not Over
Iraq continues, but it must end well. I am back for another tour, and if we do our job well this may be the last major deployment.


I was blown away.
What could I say?
It all seemed to make sense.
You've taken away everything,
And I can't deal with that.
I try to see the good in life,
But good things in life are hard to find.
We'll blow it away, blow it away.
Can we make this something good?
Well, I'll try to do it right this time around.

Let's start over.
I'll try to do it right this time around.
It's not over.
'Cause a part of me is dead and in the ground.
This love is killing me,
But you're the only one.
It's not over.

Taken all I could take,
And I cannot wait.
We're wasting too much time
Being strong, holding on.
Can't let it bring us down.
My life with you means everything,
So I won't give up that easily.
I'll blow it away, blow it away.
Can we make this something good?
'Cause it's all misunderstood.
Well, I'll try to do it right this time around.

Let's start over.
I'll try to do it right this time around.
It's not over.
'Cause a part of me is dead and in the ground.
This love is killing me,
But you're the only one.
It's not over.

We can't let this get away.
Let it out, let it out.
Don't get caught up in yourself.
Let it out.

Let's start over.
I'll try to do it right this time around.
It's not over.
'Cause a part of me is dead and in the ground.
This love is killing me,
But you're the only one.
It's not over.

Let's start over.
It's not over, yeah...
This love is killing me,
But you're the only one.
It's not over.

Evanescence: Bring Me to Life
This was our favorite song in 2003. I saw Evanescence in concert a few weeks before we deployed, and they were most entertaining.


how can you see into my eyes like open doors
leading you down into my core
where I’ve become so numb without a soul my spirit sleeping somewhere cold
until you find it there and lead it back home

(Wake me up)
Wake me up inside
(I can’t wake up)
Wake me up inside
(Save me)
call my name and save me from the dark
(Wake me up)
bid my blood to run
(I can’t wake up)
before I come undone
(Save me)
save me from the nothing I’ve become

now that I know what I’m without
you can't just leave me
breathe into me and make me real
bring me to life

(Wake me up)
Wake me up inside
(I can’t wake up)
Wake me up inside
(Save me)
call my name and save me from the dark
(Wake me up)
bid my blood to run
(I can’t wake up)
before I come undone
(Save me)
save me from the nothing I’ve become

Bring me to life
(I've been living a lie, there's nothing inside)
Bring me to life

frozen inside without your touch without your love darling only you are the life among the dead

all this time I can't believe I couldn't see
kept in the dark but you were there in front of me
I’ve been sleeping a thousand years it seems
got to open my eyes to everything
without a thought without a voice without a soul
don't let me die here
there must be something more
bring me to life

(Wake me up)
Wake me up inside
(I can’t wake up)
Wake me up inside
(Save me)
call my name and save me from the dark
(Wake me up)
bid my blood to run
(I can’t wake up)
before I come undone
(Save me)
save me from the nothing I’ve become

(Bring me to life)
I’ve been living a lie, there’s nothing inside
(Bring me to life)


Live: What Are We Fighting For
I listen to this song during trips to the gym. I think of 9/11 and the terrorists responsible for the attack.


Battle flag in the bassinet
Oil and blood on the bayonet
Crowded downtown hit the floor
What are we fightin' for?

What are we fightin' for?
What are we fightin' for?

The world got smaller but the bombs got bigger
Holocaust on a hairpin trigger
Aint no game so forget the score
What are we fightin' for?

What are we fightin' for?
What are we fightin' for?
What are we fightin' for?

What will I tell my daughter?
What will you tell your son?
Where were all the doves?
That we were nothing but a shadow,
a faceless generation devoid of love?

The crucifix ain't no baseball bat
Tell me what kind of God is that?
Ain't nothing more godless than a war
So what are we fightin' for?

What are we fightin' for?
What are we fightin' for?
What are we fightin' for?

What will I tell my daughter?
What will you tell your son?
Where were all the doves?
That we were nothing but a shadow,
A faceless generation?

What are we fightin' for?

Metallica: The Unnamed Feeling
A song about PTSD. Psychic damage is unavoidable in any war, I don’t think this is much of a contender.


Been here before couldn't say i liked it
Do i start writing all this down?
Just let me plug you into my world
Can't you help me be uncrazy?

Name this for me, Heat the cold air
Take the chill off of my life
and if i could i'd turn my eyes
to look inside to see what's comin'

It comes alive, it comes alive
and i die a little more
It comes alive, it comes alive
Each minute i die a little more
ooh i die i die i die a little more

Then the unnamed feeling
it comes alive
Then the unnamed feeling
takes me away

I'm frantic in your soothing arms
i can not sleep in this down filled world
i've found safety in this loneliness
But i can not stand it anymore

Cross my heart hope not to die
swallow evil, ride the sky
lose my self in a crowded room
you fool you fool it will be here soon

It comes alive, it comes alive
and i die a little more
It comes alive, it comes alive
Each minute i die a little more

Then the unnamed feeling
it comes alive
then the unnamed feeling
treats me this way
and i wait for this train
toes over the line
and then the unnamed feeling
takes me away

Get the Fuck out of here
i just wanna get the fuck away from me
i rage i glaze i hurt i hate
I hate it all Why?Why?Why me?

I cannot sleep with a head like this
i wanna cry, i wanna scream
i rage i glaze i hurt i hate
i wanna hate it all away!

The Messenjah
I listened to this song just before my trips on Route Irish back in ’03-’04.


I message, written in rhyme, prophetic
Teachers amongst the skeptics and guiding the misdirected
Infected with their lies and their alibis
With their third eye blind, out of line, they try to prophesy
I and I unfold the mysteries told
From the futuristic realms to the days of old
Make straight through the path of the one voice calling
Truth shines, back again two times in the Second Coming

[b-section:]
I am the Messenjah [x 4]

[chorus:]
This I pledge, and I'll take it to my death
I'll lay my life down for you and die over again
I and I, I'm not ashamed of the Most High
Even if I die tonight, if I die tonight
This I pledge, and I'll take it to my death
You can bet your life on my words and everything I said
You can't take away my love for this sacrifice
Even if I die tonight, if I die tonight

True king descendant, master to the apprentice
Pleased to release and reveal in me His presence
Forever blessed, I believe if Jah said it
The word of life came alive in the scriptures ?C I read it
All hail, we prevail, the Tribes of Israel, flow through ya
We pursue the conquering lion of the Tribe of Judah
Don't let 'em fool ya, before this, the foolish get rushed
So don't slop, you never knew us

[b-section]

Powerman 5000: Free
The Army breeds frustration.


Let's go!
Everybody needs to start their own fire
Everybody needs a riot of their own
Everybody needs to be something that they are not
Everybody needs to go it alone

Because!
Living so free is a tragedy
When you can't be what you want to be
Living so free is a tragedy
When you can't see what you need to see

Okay!
All the time spent hanging on to anything
All the time spent knowing that they're wrong
All the time wasted, stolen back, innocent
You won't get a second more so move it along

Because!
Living so free is a tragedy
When you can't be what you want to be
Living so free is a tragedy
When you can't see what you need to see

Living so free is a tragedy
When you can't be what you want to be
Living so free is a tragedy
When you can't see what you need to see

Wishing and hoping and thinking it's you
That's got this all under control
Never a minute has passed you all by
When they haven’t invaded your soul

It’s not something you can hold
It’s not something you own
It's not something you can buy or steal
You've got it when you're alone

Being free is a tragedy
When you don't know yourself
Being free is a tragedy
When you don't know who you are

Living so free is a tragedy
When you can't be what you want to be
Living so free is a tragedy
When you can't see what you need to see

Living so free is a tragedy
When you can't be what you want to be
Living so free is a tragedy
When you can't see what you need to see

Let's go!
Hey, hey, hey!
Alright then
This is the story of your life man

(And in other places around the world,
It's growing clear that the americans are trigger happy)

Switchfoot: Meant To Live
Another song about frustration.


Fumbling his confidence
And wondering why the world has passed him by
Hoping that he's bent for more than arguments
And failed attempts to fly, fly

[Chorus]
We were meant to live for so much more
Have we lost ourselves?
Somewhere we live inside
Somewhere we live inside
We were meant to live for so much more
Have we lost ourselves?
Somewhere we live inside

Dreaming about Providence
And whether mice or men have second tries
Maybe we've been livin with our eyes half open
Maybe we're bent and broken, broken

[Chorus]

We want more than this world's got to offer
We want more than this world's got to offer
We want more than the wars of our fathers
And everything inside screams for second life, yeah

We were meant to live for so much more
Have we lost ourselves?
We were meant to live for so much more
Have we lost ourselves?
We were meant to live for so much more
Have we lost ourselves?
We were meant to live
We were meant to live

Three Days Grace: Time Of Dying
This song clicked for me, as it captured the relationship I envision for two characters in a book/comic I’ll write one day.


My unit lost a soldier on the first day we assumed control of our area. She was a support platoon leader, and her fiancée was her battalion S1 (Adjutant, personnel manager). He learned of her death when they read her battle roster number over the radio.

On the ground I lay
Motionless in pain
I can see my life flashing before my eyes
Dead I fall asleep
Is this all a dream
Wake me up, I'm living a nightmare

I will not die (I will not die)
I will survive

I will not die, I'll wait here for you
I feel alive, when you're beside me
I will not die, I'll wait here for you
In my time of dying

On this bed I lay
Losing everything
I can see my life passing me by
Was it all too much
Or just not enough
Wake me up, I'm living a nightmare

I will not die (I will not die)
I will survive

I will not die, I'll wait here for you
I feel alive, when you're beside me
I will not die, I'll wait here for you
In my time of dying

I will not die, I'll wait here for you
I feel alive, when you're beside me
I will not die, I'll wait here for you
In my time of dying
I will not die, I'll wait here for you
I feel alive, when you're beside me
I will not die, I'll wait here for you
In my time of dying

Friday, February 22, 2008

Yarr! Off to Ali Babba's DVD Emporium!

“Intellectual property” has no real meaning in the Middle East. While the West prizes copyrights, Iraqis pirate everything. Yarr!

This means cheap and current movies available for the low low price of three bucks a pop. If a movie is out more than a week, I can probably get it at the local pirate mart. Wow, how convenient! But there are risks.

Sometimes a DVD is of…dubious quality. How do you think they get most of these movies? For the most part, some guy records the movie on his trusty hand held camera and then loads the digits onto a few thousand DVDs. Every heard awesome sound from a home movie? Didn’t think so. I love it when the pirate eats popcorn, and we see his arm moving in front of the screen over and over again. Or a pair of jabbering nitwits sit behind the pirate and do their best Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot impression. What’s the pirate going to do? “Hey, keep it down! I’m violating international copyright laws!”

Every so often I can pick up a jewel of a copy, actual DVD quality…and then “For Your Consideration” pops up halfway through the movie. For events like the Academy Awards, film makers send the voters a copy of a nominated movie for their…yeah. Then those DVDs end up in the wrong hands, much to my enjoyment.

So, first run movies for three bucks, and I can keep the DVD. Score!

The best bit is for TV seasons. Pirates can squeeze every single episode of Seinfeld (ever!) onto a half dozen disks with decent quality. If you buy the entire Seinfeld collection at Wal-mart, it might run you 500 dollars. Iraq? 30! Want every Ben Affleck movie (ever!)? 25 bucks! Makes you wonder what kind of profit actual companies pull down for each DVD they sell.

When a movie is terrible by anyone’s standards, I tell myself that it was a three dollar gamble, no big loss. Plus, this is the only way I can stomach Uwe Boll films. Uwe Boll is the world’s worst director. I don’t know how he does it, but each film he makes is worse than his last. His abysmal “Bloodrayne” movie cost 40 million to make, and pulled in 2 million dollars at the theaters. I was one of the few who paid to see it in the theater. When Boll’s “In the Name of the King” and “Bloodrayne 2 (Why God? Why?)” blipped in the theaters, I spent all of six dollars on that rubbish. Uwe Boll will never see a penny of that money! Take that Herr Director!

Why watch movies I know are terrible? I write screenplays, and it helps to see people with no talent whatsoever making movies. If I have a shred of talent, then there’s hope for me.

Perhaps I should feel a manner of guilt over all this, but I’m in Iraq. We can’t bring these movies home, and I can’t watch the movies on the big screen as there are no theaters. So, does Hollywood lose any money when I buy Star Trek: Deep Space Nine for 40 dollars? Nah. I will buy many of these movies on Blu-Ray soon as I’m home.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Valentine's Day...yeah

Valentine's Day is upon us…again. Every year we have the opportunity to do something special for that someone special, or society kicks us for being single.

In Iraq, things are even more complicated. Last tour, back in '04, KBR decorated the mess hall for Valentine's Day. I walked in and there were hearts, rose petals and candles everywhere. Special cakes, soft music, Cupid, you name it. Here's the icky part, nothing but dudes in that mess hall. Seriously, all the Soldiers were dudes. We did out best to eat our meal quickly and without eye contact. The Indian (dot, not feathers) cooks slow dancing in the corner just was too much.

I'll do my best to call the female parental unit amid the misery that is the internet room. Now, I'm single, but I feel sorry for the married fellows. They have to call Household Six and whisper sweet nothings while a whole room of strangers over hears every word: "Baby, when I get home we're going to…um. You remember that time in Vegas where we...No, not the horse ride. The place with where we saw the jousting. Yeah, I'll use the-Hey buddy you mind? Baby I'll turn on that CD you-Ten more minutes!"

For the Iraqis, love is a little different. We work in a more rural area, where things like dating haven't caught on. Marriages are still arranged. From what I understand, once an Iraqi man has enough money, he tells his mother or female relatives that he wants to get married, and the women go to work. They ask around, and see who in the tribe has a daughter (12 is the youngest a girl can get married, I'm not kidding) ready for a life of field work and child rearing. Once they interview the possibilities, they tell the suitor his wife is ready, and they get married on a Thursday. Meet first? Date? Like each other? Irrelevant! Mom approves, start making grandkids!

Now, there's a twist to all this. The men almost always marry within the tribe, often to cousins. This keeps the dowry in the family. Can't have someone from the Kraplackastani tribe get a Durka Durka tribe dowry! Naturally, this leads to a shallow gene pool, which explains a great deal about this country.

Iraqi marriage can get a bit dicey if certain rules aren't followed. On certain occasions, a man will kill his uncle over a marriage. If a suitor wants to marry a girl, he must first ask not her, not her father, not his father, but the girl's oldest male cousin. Confused yet? The oldest male cousin has 'dibs' on the girl, and he must abdicate to the suitor. If the suitor skips the cousin and marries the girl, the cousin is honor bound to kill the girl's father for the insult. And I thought the bar scene was bad! Oh, Iraqis can have four wives.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Moments of Zen

Iraq is a different culture. I live in work in the cradle of government, learning and agriculture, surrounded by the sum total of nearly 6000 years of collective knowledge. That being the case, I can’t explain what happened to Iraq. It seems that each day I have this…”Wha-wha-what?!” moment.

Case in point: I Entouraged! out to a meeting with a pair of very senior Iraqi judges, a Ministry of Justice representative and Sheiks from my area. Let me explain “Sheiks,” because when I first got to Iraq in 2003 the only Sheik I knew of was the Iron Sheik of WWF fame. Sheiks are like Mafia godfathers. Everything you’ve seen on the Sopranos or Pesci movies is just like an Iraqi Sheik, minus the fugedabouti.

So, the judges spoke to the Sheiks about expanding the courts in their areas, and the practice of “fasil” came up. If an Iraqi kills someone from another tribe, the Sheiks from the affected tribes will get together and work out monetary compensation for the murdered family, and that will settle the matter. Maybe the offender has to die in the bargain, or is banished from the area. But, money can cure all ills. That is “fasil.” The judges were just fine with he Sheiks continuing to resolve murders in this manner, the courts will handle divorces and property cases.

Let’s go back to that. Representatives from the Iraqi government, heirs of Sargon the Great, Babylonian rulers, Alexander the Great, Mishaq the Eh, He’s OK and the Ottoman Empire abdicated murder trials to local Godfathers. Yes. Really.

Then there’s this Iraqi soldier. A ‘jundi,’ in the local parlance.



We met him on guard at a defunct water treatment facility. Sleep safely, Iraqi children. This man stands rough and ready to do violence on your behalf.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Iraqi Army, Standing Tall!

The Entourage! made it’s way to the Iraqi Army Compound to meet with the Iraqi Army commander. We do this all the time, nothing unusual…Until!

That there’s an Iraqi Army armored humvee with a heavy caliber weapon. The Iraqi Army is doing the right thing by putting a dust cover on that weapon….wait.

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Um….*cough*

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*Whistle*

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What the hell is wrong with these people?!

Why I Hate Helicopters

Most people you know who’ve been on a helicopter have done it as part of a touristy jaunt through the Grand Canyon or Hawaiian islands. Those kind of trips are brief, fun and end with great photos. The other likely option is an emergency medical evacuation, in which case there are happy drugs involved and no one remembers the trip. Either way, helicopters are a positive experience.

Unless you’re in the Army, and me. My current position (Entourage!) requires frequent Blackhawk helicopter flights all about our area of operations.

When I first joined the Army, I was excited to fly around in a helicopter and do ‘air assaults’ like Chuck Norris in Delta Force. My first flight was at night, and while I remember thinking “Are those tree tops at eye level?” it was over before I knew what was happening. The second trip was in Iraq, also at night.

My last helicopter flight from my first Iraq tour was during the day, and we flew low. Way too low. Low enough to smell the cow patties and wave at farmers. The only time we cleared 20 feet was for power lines, and we’d pop over those in a motion similar to the worst part of a roller coaster, then go back to mowing some guy’s lawn. We’d did the up and down motion over and over and over. When we landed, the landing zone was the size of a postage stamp and surrounded by giant barriers just begging to clip the rotor. I got out and swore to avoid helicopters for the rest of my days. So much for that.

A typical flight involves an early arrival at the helicopter landing zone (HLZ). Then we wait.

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We wait until the ‘bird’ arrives. It can take a while.

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Once the bird lands, we get the joy of rotor wash. The birds kick up a great deal of dust and wind, enough to push the unwary off balance. I swear the pilots giggle like school girls when they brown us out.

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Then we run onto the helicopter and pray there’s a free seat, as we never know who’s on the bird before us. Sometimes the coordination is right and we sit wherever, sometimes a crew member with a manifest from 2003 cock blocks everyone trying to get on board. Once seated, we fumble with the many straps for the seatbelt as the pilots and crewmembers giggle at us.

The crewmen know not everyone loves flying, yet I saw one crew member with a patch on his helmet that read “Gravity is a Harsh Mistress.” That is not the reinforcement I need as I fumble with three different latches for the Houdini-designed seatbelts.

Here are a few recent fun fun trips:

I got to sit in a Big Boy seat behind the pilots, which meant I got headphones to listen to the crew talk to each other. I also got to see out the front window.

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Cool, right? Wrong. The in-flight conversation between the pilots went something like this:
Pilot 1: Hey why is that gauge at zero?
Pilot 2: Oh it’s broken, just tap it with your finger.
Pilot 1: Nope, still at zero.
Pilot 2: Don’t worry about it, crossed wire somewhere.
Me (Inside Voice): Ahhhhhhhh!
Pilot 1: OK, hey any idea where we’re supposed to land?
Pilot 2: No not really….hey, there’s a yellow cone. Let’s land there.
Me (Inside Voice): Ahhhhhhhhh!

Were they giggling? Damn right they were.

Then we had one flight where we banked left and right to the point where we were perpendicular to the ground. When we went into a dive the co-pilot raised his hands like he was on a roller coaster. Yes. Really. Then they shot flares! For no reason! Giggle!

On my first flight as an Entourage! I sat on the outermost seat, and the doors were open the whole flight. Why, God? Why? In that seat, all the rotor wash is directed into my face. I could barely breathe, my helmet wanted to fly off and my eye balls dried out. By the time it was all over, I looked like Heath Leger’s Joker. That seat is called the “Hell Hole” for obvious reasons.