Medicine Soldier

A View from Iraq


Morale and Welfare

Highlights of my week have been interesting. I have been up since 4:30 again and it is close to midnight now. The battalion has been talking rumors about moving again. So much for being settled. The weather has also changed again. Last week was chilly after the rain storm and this week the temps are already pushing into the 90s. Just in time to celebrate the warmer temperature, we have received threats of coordinated attacks in our area. I am not surprised. The next two weeks are Muslim holy weeks marking another pilgrimage from our town going north. Also the Christian holidays of Palm Sunday and Easter are the same two week period. To celebrate, we have been given the opportunity to wear our chemical gear and gas masks around camp wherever we go. The definition of terrorism is to cause terror, not to necessarily achieve any physical damage, but to achieve psychological damage. Therefore, airing on the cautious side we are now dragging more gear around in 90 degree heat. It's not so bad, except the portapotties are now that much smaller and quite a bit warmer.

In an attempt to increase morale, someone decided to host a salsa night. One of my soldiers tried to talk me into going. I told him I heard about this in Kuwait. A salsa night in a camp like this will turn out to be more like sausage night. There should be a prerequisite number of females attending or it will just be a bunch of guys standing around staring at each other listening to the music. He came to me the next day and told me I was mistaken. So I agreed to go with him again on another night and see for myself.

Today I spent a few hours talking to some of the Iraqis in the marketplace where they do haircuts, sewing, and sell some various creature comforts. At great detail he told me that all the Iraqi people are happy to see the Americans here. Before the war the people were, "very desperate and afraid and poor." He said the children would go to school and sit on the floor with no books and be very discouraged. Saddam and the Ba'ath party would keep most of the money and not give it to the people. He (Saddam) would spend the money on weapons and not the communities. He said our town was not so dirty until the war because they stopped putting money into the cleaning and the community. He said people were scared but they knew what to expect. The police shot people for not following Saddam's way and he controlled many things from the schools to the hospitals. My new friend lost both of his parents because of poor medical care. His doctor did not know how to treat a stroke victim or a heart condition (blocked artery).

He said things have changed and the people are happy to have the Americans here. The kids have desks, books, blackboards. Things are being rebuilt. He says some people do not understand; they see the American gas trucks coming into the camps and wonder why they have to go without power or heat. He says they don't understand that although Iraq has oil they still need to make it useful (refine). He says the problem with Iraqis right now is they have so many beliefs and political parties that nothing can be done. Muslims, Christians, Sunni, Shi'a, the different tribes, they all want their way. The Iraqi people need unity.

I told him America is like this, with many beliefs and parties and states. He said yes, all the Americans he meets are very kind, sympathetic, and good people. I did agree that it took time for America to become unified as well. We declared independence in 1776 but we were not really unified until after our civil war in 1865. He said yes, many people wish the Americans to leave but he feels there will be civil war. He continued to explain how the Iraqi people were good people and welcome these freedoms, but they are scared of the changes and not used to having this freedom. He said the real problem is that the Syrians, Jordanians, and Iranians think they need to free the Iraqi people from the Americans, when in fact they are hurting things. They are the ones with suicide bombs, attacks, and doing things to make Iraqis fight other Iraqis.

I told him it was hard for us to understand how to react in the town, since we have always trained to fight aggressively. Once we relaxed a little and looked around more, we noticed that the people here are nice and grateful. I also spoke with his boss who told me about his son and how much the American army has impressed him. I gave him a toy to bring home to his son. I think this war will take time, but we will have to win it through the generations starting with the kids.

The adults however, we have a different mission. We have been training the Iraqi Army, National Guard, police, and border patrol. One of the problems is non-Iraqis are smuggling weapons and attackers across the borders. One way to help the people here is to stop the combatants from entering the country. We have been sending these groups to various training camps. Coordinating transportation has been a difficult chore. Ground transport for Iraqi trainees is difficult, since a few classes received a bullet in the head after being hijacked on graduation day. So air transport is requested. As usual things get delayed for weather or to prevent conflicts in airspace. The trainees we were working with one day had graduated and were waiting transport home. The transportation was hours late. They became upset and argued with the translator. We asked what was going on and it was explained they were upset and missing their families. My boss told them, "We are here to train you so that you can run your own country without our help. You all volunteered to come here and train for your country. It has only been a few days since you have seen your families, but now you know how all the American soldiers feel and most of them will be away from thier families for more than a year." They all sat quietly after that and were very proud to leave when the transportation came and eagerly shook our hands goodbye.

Today was exeptionally exciting for me. One of my jobs is to keep the vehicles running and work with the maintenance shop. I stopped by in the morning after talking to my new friend. The maintenance shop told me they had all the parts in and we were trying to decide when a good day would be to work on our vehicles. We agreed on a few options and I went to pitch the idea to my boss. We agreed on taking tomorrow morning off, got permission from higher, and when the vehicles returned from patrol we were going to send them for maintenance. So I ran around and set everything up with all my gear on. Then a call came in and my commander had to go out on a short notice patrol. I had to run across the camp with all my crap and get to the mechanics before they took the vehicles apart, get the crews in their gear, and complete the passes. After all the running around I sent the patrol on their way and a call came over the radio that another class of Iraqi trainees were here. I had to run back across the camp and make arrangements for somewhere for them to stay until my commander returned and ended up seeing them off about an hour ago. I almost missed dinner again and then I had to get the guys and brief the training plans for the next couple of days.

Lent is almost over. I think I still have much more to give and give up in the months to come.

Here are a couple more pictures of my adventures this week.

posted by Scott | 00:49 Baghdad time | © 3.21.2005
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Since you haven't seen a comment in a while, I just wanted you to know that "someone out there" stops by almost every day to make sure you're ok. Thanks, in particular today, for the interesting insight into the hopeful Iraqi. Their patience is to be respected, as are their ultimate choices. I am glad that our government is not trying to arrange the outcome of the negotiations. At least they claim they are not. Hang in and stay safe.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous | 21/3/05 14:51  

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An Interesting Development

An interesting development unfolded over the weekend. One of the missions of this camp is to destroy enemy captured ammunition. A few days ago a lone camel had wandered into the impact area. Our quick reaction force and some of the staff went to check it out. They ended up wrestling it out of the area and bringing it inside the camp. Well it turns out not only was the camel pregnant and looking for some place to have its baby, but also it was the Sheik's "prize camel." He came by looking for it a day later. I was filled in on the story shortly after coming back from patrol. In the operations center there were huge plates of rice, pita bread, chicken, and fish. Everyone coming through the operations center had to eat some food and partake in the story. While I was eating I was counting the minutes since we had gone through the marketplace. As we saw a boy run out to wave to us, he had a live chicken in one hand and a bloody knife in the other hand. I wondered if this was the second time I was meeting the chicken.

In any event, the camel had its baby and I was on my way to collect the mail from the post office and deliver it to the guys, when the camel was being escorted off post. They put the baby in the back of a pickup truck and were using trucks and "golf carts" to herd the camel to the gate. The mother camel was doing her best to stay behind the pickup with her baby, but there were many distractions along the way. The Sheik was very happy and it was an interesting sight.

posted by Scott | 00:03 Baghdad time | © 3.16.2005
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Battlefield Visualization

See the terrain ... See the enemy ... See yourself.

The desert is not as most people expect. Last week the temperatures were pushing into the 90s; we thought this was it and we put our cold weather stuff away. Then we had a day of rain. It was not a cold rain but after walking outside 20 feet, we were soaked. The tents we sleep in have been battered by the sun and rain, so wherever the frame touches the tent fabric water seeps through. I found myself moving my little cot all night to find the spot where water did not drip on my face. Since it has rained, the temperatures have dropped and we are back to wearing cold weather gear. There is also a large number of pools of water in our camp after the rain. The animals are starting to come out too. We have seen ants and other beetles. Of course flies are making as frequent trips to the portajohns as we are. We have two people in our brigade being treated for Rabies after playing with the cute little wild puppies. I have still yet to see the big three: scorpions, snakes, and spiders. In fact, I had to keep reminding the guys when we stop on the side of the road in our travels: don't just look for bombs, mines, and booby traps, but also keep your eyes out for wildlife.

The thing that impresses me most about the desert is the moon and the stars. There were a few weeks when the sun set after dinner and the moon did not rise for three or four more hours. With no street lights or trees, the moon has a greater impact on the light conditions. When the sun went down after dinner, we were all stumbling around in the dark trying not to trip on the gravel or run into the concrete barriers. Later on when the moon rose, we could see clearly from one end of the camp to the other in the middle of the night. The stars here are amazing. I see many more than any other place I have been. With the horizon so open, flat, and no ambient light, the constellations are impressive. It's like those movie scenes where two people are looking up at the same star thousands of miles apart. It would almost be romantic, except I am in my helmet, sweaty uniform, and dusty face running around in the pitch black.

We have been getting briefed almost every night describing how fragile the political situation is and we expect the worst when we go on patrol. Since the elections there has been changes, even in local leadership. The police chief was fired a few times and the old government was asking for help getting rid of him. We decided to stay out of the middle of it and when the new governor took over, he reinstated the police chief. There are also some big political players in our area that have been keeping quiet or keeping things under control. Being out on patrol reminds me of being in high school after getting my license, not having a job yet and doing nothing but driving around looking for friends, girls, something to do, or some trouble to get in. We ride around not in any hurry to get anywhere, but to gauge the mood of the local people, look for any contraband items, or observe the interactions of the local authorities. I would not even speculate to say we are acting like police since it is not our responsibility to pull over or arrest anyone. If we see something out of place we call our higher headquarters and they try as much as possible to get the local law enforcement to take care of it while we hang out for back up.

Patrols also feel like being in a parade. We ride around waiving to everyone (mostly kids). In addition to our patrols, we run security for supplies in and out of our area. We pick up vehicles from one place and escort them to another. These right now are the more dangerous missions. We generally travel at high speeds over the desert and try not to stop. Going through built up areas are difficult with traffic control and security, as are rural or barren areas where the danger is improvised explosives.

I hope my analogies convey how it feels to be over here without making light of the situation. In my time in the army, we have always trained to be aggressive and assertive. This is a different type of conflict; winning the war means winning the kids, the parents, and the grandparents, not attriting our enemy through shock, firepower, and maneuver.

We have a decent rotation for the guys so they do not get bored or burnt out. We rotate them on missions as much as possible depending on the requirements. That allows them time for laundry, concurrent training, mail, and internet. I find that no matter what, I keep myself busy from the time I get up until I go to bed. I end up with most of the odd jobs and coordinating with the other units. I do manage to get out on the missions, and I like it. I have been frustrated occasionally, usually from a wild goose chase or a miscommunication that results in wasted time or effort. The few times I take a few minutes to relax and stay in one spot too long, someone finds me to do something else or something happens and I end up running around even more.

We have a good family and community here. We all have that common bond of being soldiers and in general help each other out. Unfortunately, it is not the same as being home. There are many freedoms we don't have and I have tried to keep things simple so I will appreciate them when I go home. I thought about getting more comfortable since we may be here over a year, but we could end up moving to a different camp on short notice if the powers that be decide it is a good idea. Being eight hours ahead of your friends and family with a busy schedule does not give much time for phone calls unless I get up early or stay up late. My evenings are filled with meetings and planning for the next few days. It also takes me two or three days to gather my thoughts and have time to write them down for my emails. Then when I do, the internet is not working or overly crowded.

posted by Scott | 23:49 Baghdad time | © 3.15.2005
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Between Iraq and a Hard Place

First, I would like to say I did not mean to scare or offend anyone by recent message indicating we had taken casualties. We are holding steady at three mice for the week. It was a tough choice, but I would rather not attract poisonous snakes or large flesh eating spiders. Weather reports and previous occupants indicate we are three weeks out from temperatures in the 100-120s. It was almost 80 today and the porta johns are becoming ovens already.

Let's talk about the political climate far to near. They have TVs in our chow halls, so we don't get completely disconnected from the outside world's current events. The news stories we are receiving indicate that North Korea and Iran are not happy or wanting attention. I'm hoping we don't get any missiles pointed in our general direction or get volunteered to be the spear head north or east. On the other side, Syria and Lebanon keep showing up in the news after the assassination of the former prime minister and talks of action over there. Meanwhile we are supporting a city here whose police chief has been fired twice but he is senile, will not leave his post, and has many supporters. The acting governor has instated a replacement and the local police are divided. The election results have been announced for their "congress," and there was big procession a few weeks ago of devout Muslims who will mutilate themselves in honor of Mohammad's grandson who was assassinated.

We have a group of guys from our company manning a detention center and I watched them process one of the guys a patrol brought in for questioning. The rest of the guys are on security and other details inside the camp when we are not patrolling. The way it works is much like a town or condo association. Although there are several companies here with different tactical missions and their own chain of command, we all have to work together to support the community by performing various duties. Soldiers get tasked out for everything from guarding a tower to watching the internet cafes.

We received our HMMWVs a little over a week ago. After having two days to do a good job on maintenance, we were thrown right into the mix. Our first convoy was supposed to be easy, although it was at night. All we had to do was drive out to another camp and secure mail for three camps and pick up some supplies. The first problem was the camp we went to was outside of "F-Town," which has been pretty popular in the news before we arrived here. I think it is still a very active spot. The second problem is during our map recon, we were told an explosive device was just detonated on the route we planned on taking that killed one soldier and injured two soldiers. There were some bypasses but we had to weigh the risks. We ended up taking the straighter route since it was our first time up there and we had another platoon that made the run a few times to help guide us. We were on our way and just beyond the spot where the explosive went off. We heard a big pop. One of the HMMWVs blew a tire and another truck was slowly leaking air out of its tire. We had to quickly change it and complete the trip to the camp.

Once we were there we finished loading the mail, supplies, and sent our tires down to be replaced or repaired. We left in the late afternoon for our camp. Everyone was excited because the mail had been waiting for a few weeks and we filled two 8ft by 50ft conexes full of mail. On the way back in the SAME spot as the explosion and the previous problems, we had a blow out on one of the trucks carrying mail. We had to secure the area and wait for the recovery truck. Two and a half hours later it arrived with the wrong lug wrenches, so we had to unload all the mail onto the other vehicles and head home. Once we came back, we unloaded all the mail which had to be sorted before we could have it, so we went to get some sleep after 22 hours on the road.

Once we got up, we were informed we had another mission to escort food trucks from a "truck stop" to our camp. It was another mission that we end up doing during the night. This time we did not have the benefit of a guide so we relied on our own maps and GPS. We did get stuck on some construction areas and it was a long drive. The worst part was coming back our camp is out in the open. When we crested the plateau we could see the camp for miles, we thought we were almost there and could finally sleep. The camp never got any closer. It seemed like forever, but it was only 45 min when we finally made the turn to the front gate.

We finally had a day off the next day to work on the vehicles and get our mail. There was tons of it. I guess what happened is small convoys were going up and grabbing what they could and the mail was slowly making its way to our camp. Unfortunately, they were always taking the stuff in front so the old mail kept piling up.

The rest of the week we spent learning the city we will be patrolling for our tour of duty. The guys running the missions were having a hard time getting used to the tempo we are trying to operate. This phase of the "war" is difficult because there is no open aggression. We are here to maintain a positive presence, deter terrorists, and help the Iraqis gain control over their country. We always train for the worst, thinking everyone is trying to kill us, but that is not the case. Most people are friendly and the Iraqi national guard and Iraqi police are cooperating. We have to drive aggressively to protect ourselves but be one step below road rage so we don't hurt any civilians. It is very much like driving downtown Boston around Faneuil Hall and the Big Dig. Some days there are road blocks were there were not before. It could be Iraqi police doing their job or the locals throwing rocks and trash in the street because they don't feel like having us rush past them on patrol. We do have one advantage over our Mississippi sister companies: we know how rotaries/traffic circles work. This town has several and we have learned to squeeze our 7-ton HMMWVs down tight alleys. We ride around locked and loaded ready to kill, but we spend most of the time waiving to children and memorizing the terrain with both eyes wide open.

The terrain here is varied. The side of the city near the Euphrates reminds me of the Riverway on the Charles River in Boston near the Hatch Shell, although I do not think it is as wide as the Charles here. I keep looking for the "reverse curve" sign that has been altered to read "reverse the curse." I thought the Euphrates would be a little more impressive since it is "the cradle of civilization." Moving west from the Euphrates, there are markets and shops that I would liken to Haymarket or Chinatown in Boston. There are open-air markets that sell all sorts of odds and ends from TVs and satellite dishes to flea market items. There are also fresh fish, live chickens, and various fruits and vegetables for sale. On the other side of town, there is a cemetery that spans ten miles sitting on cliffs. We travel on a road just beyond the cemetery and it looks almost like the "well of souls" from Raiders of the Lost Ark should be out there somewhere. Most of the city is in various stages of development from little mud and thatch huts to homemade brick, three-story buildings. Unfortunately, a lot of the landscape reminds me of the landfill in Hull on the end of Nantasket Beach where my grandfather used to take me. There is a lot of garbage strewn around and it appears they just dig a burn pit every now and then burn the trash and then cover the burn pit.

On yesterday's patrol we found out just how serious things could get real quick. We received intel about a specific type of vehicle suicide bombers have been using and we spotted one and decided we should get the plate number as we drove by casually. Somehow things got confused with traffic and we ended up pulled over blocking this guy in. I managed to get a photo of the plates, but we were way too close when were passing and got stuck next to this guy. I was yelling over to the guy in the seat next to me, "Look in the car, look in the car!" He froze for a second and we were yelling to the lead vehicle to find a way to get out and move. I glanced over and saw the car was full of a family so things seemed OK. If it had been a bomber, perhaps he will use a different car now or perhaps he would have panicked and detonated.

Earlier in the day we were taking a security halt in the town to fix some minor issues like tie-down antennas before we take out the power lines like my uncle did in Boston. I think I may make the National Guard paper though. While we were stopped I figured I would set a good example for the guys so I hopped out of the HMMWV with the machine gun and secured our front right. My commander saw me through the windshield and snapped a picture. He said he would send it to the Public Affairs and try to get it printed in our local Guard magazine.

We are still relying on our laptops, DVDs, and the internet tent to take our minds off the situation. For just a few hours we can forget where we are and relax, but once we walk out our tent or leave our camp we have to be on point.

I keep thinking about a famous Greek vase we studied in college depicting Ajax and Achilles calmly playing chess inside a tent while the Trojan War rages around them. Sorry, ladies, I'm no Brad Pitt, but brief moments of peace are appreciated.

posted by Scott | 16:56 Baghdad time | © 3.05.2005
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Keep writing - observations from on the ground are extremely helpful to everyone at this point. Love your writing style and attention to detail. Hang in there!

Posted by Anonymous Heidi | 10/3/05 09:46  

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