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.


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!


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.