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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Feedback from readers: 1
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!