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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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.

Monday, January 14, 2008 Baghdad

I woke up Saturday morning to a most unusual, nay impossible, sight. There was snow in the air. Not a white out, but there were definetly flakes mixed into the raid drops. I wanted to scream, "How can this be?! But he is the Quizzat Haderact!" Yeah, no one'll get that.

Now, I lived in Upstate New York for many years, so I think nothing of 6-8 inches of snow on a daily basis. But in Baghdad, where the summers hit 130...not really expecting snow.

I strolled to work in absolute bliss. Seasons! A discernable season in Baghdad, a change from the broiling summer this country has suffered from for ever. Each time a snowflake melted on my face I thought of New York and how happy my life was when everyone was either Polish, Italian, me or Melanie.

New York has the world's best pizza, a fact anyone from Chicago or the City will dispute. It also has sits next to rather large lakes that generate lake effect snow, the bane of Saturday cartoon watching. Many a morning was ruined by fresh snow and a call from Mom telling me to shovel the driveway before she got home.

Back to Iraq; The Iraqis had no idea what was going on. No one in the city had ever seen such a thing as snow falling from the sky. I wonder if any of them sacrificed a goat in panic. My trusty translator Fatima, who's from a Gulf state, was bundled from head to toe like South Park's Kenny.

I wish it would snow again.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Iraqi Army Day

Iraqi Army Day has come and gone. The only press I saw on TV was Saddam’s empty parade grounds (the giant crossed swords) and the suicide bomber who killed 11 people in Baghdad. There’s more to Iraqi Army Day, at least from my experience.

When I first heard about Iraqi Army day, I was a bit worried. Ever see a clown car unload a bunch of painted weirdo’s at the circus? That’s the closest thing I can think of to describe Iraqis doing anything organized.

So we (I’m in an entourage) head to the Iraqi Army compound and there is a line of Iraqi vehicles, captured weapons and jundi standing at attention all over the place. Inside the spacious conference room are nearly a hundred sheiks, political and economic leaders from all over the Qada (a county or state is the closest American equivalent). My boss broke off to the Big Boy Couch and I sat in the back of the conference room with my trusty translator ‘Fatima.’
The official program began, with speeches from Iraqi generals, the mayor and my boss (he didn’t know he was speaking, but gave a great speech, Rakkasan!). The Iraqi speakers went on at length on what a special day this was for the Iraqi Army, and how great things are in the Qada thanks to the IA’s efforts. The Iraqi general for the Qada spoke against sectarianism and promised to ‘kill anyone who doesn’t follow the rules.’ Yes. Really.

Odd bit, none of the Iraqis mentioned Coalition Forces, even though we were there. And we’ve bent over backwards to train these bunch of cavemen into a decent army, and we’re spending 10 billion a month on this war, and the day before an IA soldier up in Mosul murdered two Soldiers. Perhaps they’re a bit bitter about having their collective clocks’ cleaned…twice. Assholes.

Then there was the poem. Yes a poem by an IA soldier. Fatima’s English needs a bit more work, and she couldn’t translate the high faluten Arabic into high faluten English. But I’m sure the poem was lovely.

Here’s what throws me, the IA Division commander then passed out gifts to the best IA soldiers and officers in the IA Brigade. Presents? There’s a cultural nuance that’ll never make its way into the American Army. Congress would spend 3 years and 37 million dollars on studies to determine the price range and economic impact of official gift giving.

The indoor portion ended with cake. I didn’t get a piece, I think the cake had goat filling. You never know with Iraqis.

Next we had a demonstration of Iraqi soldiers assaulting a bunker, complete with smoke grenades and blanks. Nobody said anything about the IA using blanks during IA day. Imagine my surprise when IA soldiers notorious for negligent discharges fired blanks in my direction. I moved.

There was media everywhere for IA Day. This smoking hot reporter from the London Times (nice teeth!) snuggled up next to me during the speeches so she could listen to Fatima translate. OK, she sat two feet from me, but she was leaning over to listen! Iraq is a sexually frustrating environment; I’ll take what I can get. Moving on. Media just everywhere, but CNN and FOX run the suicide bomber and an empty parade field. I guess those major news networks couldn’t send a reporter outside the Green Zone but some waifish Brit with huge blue eyes can!
The Iraqis will never be a Western military, but at least they’re progressing to the point where they can beat lightly armed sub-human thugs.

Sunday, January 6, 2008 Iraq

Laundry is a different experience in Iraq. Your options depend entirely on where you are. On little Forward Operating Bases, soldiers hand wash their laundry and hand them up to dry, the old fashioned way. Or they wait to cycle back to the larger bases and turn the laundry in.
KBR does a great job at cleaning the laundry, but the whole process is a bit embarrassing. We take our laundry in to the drop off point and dump everything on an inspection table. The smell is something else, as some sweaty socks spend up to a week fermenting in a dark damp place. No doubt someone has had to explain some curious undergarments, there’s no spot to annotate leopard print banana hammocks or sequined wonder bras.

The folks working the laundry facility are Malaysians, and they love 80’s pop music. I can’t explain it, somehow Prince and Michael Jackson dominate the Malaysian mind. Today one of the fellows sang along, perfectly, to Cindi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” I’m not entirely sure he understands the words. There was a moment where I wanted to tell him what he was singing, but why ruin that magic? I loved Ramstein until I read the German to English translation to half their songs.

There’s a 72 hour turn around, and the clothes come back plenty clean and folded. A danger for soldiers is if they leave thumb drives or jump drives in their clothes. If found, those go to CID (the cops), because SECRET information on a thumb drive out of positive US control is what we like to call a ‘bad thing.’ What’s even worse is if CID finds classified material and porn on the same thumb drive. Naughty naughty!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Pimp my AK-47!

I can tell we're winning the war. How? Iraqi TV. Yes, really!

You might think their channels are all incomprehensible dramas or music chanels featuring the same song sung over and over and over, but there is a new twist, reality shows. Survival Iraq was the first big hit. Elimination challenges like: Go to the market and buy bread, Abu Gharaib Naked Twister and Sectarian check point, Sunni or Shi'a? are big hits.

Here's the latest entry into Iraqi reality TV, Pimp My AK-47!
Our first contestant is local volunteer, who uses the family AK at his check point:
Look at that lame piece of crap, time to pimp that AK! Booya! Now he's packing the latest in fly gear! Silver plating and Washington state redwood inlays, phat!

Next we have a loyal Iraqi Army soldier who has to look like everyone else in his platoon.

That isn't hip or hop. Time to pimp that AK!
Woot woot! Pearl inlay with gold sequins, we'll put some spinners on this bad boy and our Iraqi soldier will schizzle that nizzle like a true pimp.

I don't get it either, who wants an aluminum plated gun for home defense? Iraqis, that's who. Every house has the family AK for home defense and celebrations. Weddings? Shoot it! Hired for a high paying 10 dollar a day job? Gat gat! Another awesome night of nookie with wife 3 of 4? Dakka dakka! Every night is New Years Eve. I will never understand these people.